Review: The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence and the Will of the People

Jonathan Schell, Metropolitan Books, New York, 2003

By John Bacher and Metta Spencer (reviewers) | 2003-10-01 12:00:00

In The Unconquerable World, author Jonathan Schell deconstructs the conventional notions of military power and explores the complex relationships between democracy and peace. He describes "the long march of liberal democracy" itself as a "peace movement" - possibly the most successful of them all, for nonviolence has become the basis for its progress.

Schell argues that our world is undergoing dangerous changes that, at the same time, present unprecedented opportunities for peace. He traces the history of two particular long-term changes. The first is the ever-expanding technology of warfare and the second is the growth of an alternative kind of power, based on political will.

The means of violence have advanced steadily, culminating in nuclear weaponry, which for the first time renders warfare absurd by eliminating the possibility of victory in a nuclear war. The only utility of such weaponry is for deterrence - the prevention of its own use by guaranteeing mutual destruction for combatants. It makes warfare bankrupt on its own terms, since it cannot bring the victory that was previously the rationale for its use.

Yet, however "useless" nuclear weapons may be logically, the countries that own them are reluctant to give them up, so that the annihilation of humankind remains a real possibility. But there is also another remarkable possibility now - that people will recognize the bankruptcy of warfare and take the alternative course.

This latter possibility exists because of the second change that Schell identifies: the growth of people-power. Though rich countries have developed sophisticated, costly arsenals, they actually have lost, time after time, the wars that they have waged against poorer countries. Consistently, we have been witnessing the defeat of superior military powers in what Schell calls "people's wars." Vietnam is but one obvious case. Schell points out that every empire of the twentieth century (except the American one) has vanished, succumbing to the political pressure of its subjects. As Mao and Ho Chi Minh insisted, what counts is the support of the people, who in the end will prevail, even against the military power of imperialists. On this point, at least, they were right.

But how far can this principle extend? If in a people's war military superiority is less important than winning the hearts and minds of the people, might it be possible to be victorious without even resorting to violence at all? Indeed, we know now that this is possible - though people often cannot believe it when they witness it. Victory without violence simply does not fit received theories and is considered an inexplicable anomaly when it occurs.

Schell mentions the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 as an example. William of Orange landed in England, where everyone expected him to fight against King James II, but no battle took place. Within a week, James retreated and then ordered his army to disband. The contest was won by defection, since popular allegiance was overwhelmingly on the side of William.

Despite these events, most political theorists nevertheless continued to say that tyrannical rulers could be overthrown only by violence. More than two hundred years would pass before that conclusion would be disproved by the nonviolent resistance of Indians in South Africa.

Yet the same ideological blinders have misled people about subsequent nonviolent conflicts too - including the Russian Revolution, which was actually won nonviolently in St. Petersburg, where the Bolsheviks were highly popular. The revolutionaries could not see what they had done, for it violated Marx's predictions. Once in power, however, they ruled the czarist empire with violence, since they did not enjoy mass popularity throughout the realm.

Totalitarianism seemed to refute any conviction that human freedom could survive in repressive conditions. Yet time after time, the power of the people was proved - as in East Germany in 1954, Poland and Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968 - events that Schell sees as stages on the way to the Soviet collapse. Finally, in 1989, such movements in Eastern Europe succeeded. Their source of power was what Gandhi had called satyagraha and Vaclav Havel called "living in truth."

After Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he accepted the victories of the Poles' Solidarity and the Czechoslovaks' Charter 77. This encouraged others, such as the Lithuanians, to emulate such nonviolent strategies. By 1989, even Russia was the scene of mass protest, and the Soviet Union itself came apart, almost without violence. Even so, political theorists still consider these events impossible.

Hannah Arendt was unique in asserting that power and violence are not the same, but rather are opposites. Power is the human ability to act in concert. It is not located in government but in society - in the people themselves, who may however vest their power in a particular government for a period. True, violence can crush power, at least in the short run, but "it can never become a substitute for it." As they say, you can't mine coal with bayonets. And Bush can't fix the Baghdad water system with tanks.

But then, with what? Schell searches in vain for a more suitable word to denote the type of power that Arendt, Havel, and Gandhi had in mind. He settles for the anemic expression, "cooperative power," which he contrasts to "coercive power." Cooperative power is the basis for the successes both of democracy and of nonviolent popular resistance.

But despite the expanding array of such successes, there also remain, of course, an abundance of wars in the world. However, Schell reminds us that, apart from the current "War on Terrorism," almost all of them are within, rather than between, states. Consider the wars in Sudan, Sri Lanka, and Rwanda - struggles over self-determination by groups within a given country - wars mainly prompted by belief in a mistaken theory of "sovereignty."

Schell focuses attention on demands for "collective rights" by minority groups who accept the doctrine that "sovereignty" must be unitary. This notion evokes conflict whenever it is applied. Fortunately, federalism finally proved that sovereignty can be divided and shared. "The American Constitution deliberately shuns the establishment of any single, indivisible organ of power," Schell notes approvingly.

And a darn good idea that was too, for federalism's checks and balances also make global governance possible. We do not need one unitary, all-powerful world state, with its ineluctable totalitarian potential. Sovereignty can be disaggregated and pluralistic.

Yes, democracy is possible. And federal republics are possible. But there are dangers too. Schell warns that republics tend to become empires, just as Rome did, partly because citizen soldiers make such good fighters that they can, too easily, dominate others. He worries that the American republic is becoming imperial.

But this is not inevitable. There is still hope. He writes, "Just as violent revolution creates the conditions for dictatorship, nonviolent revolution paves the way for democracy. Just as dictatorships incline toward war, democracies, if they can resist imperial temptations, incline toward peace with one another."

The sweep of The Unconquerable World is truly awe-inspiring. What makes Schell's contribution all the more encouraging is that debate over this book is not restricted to small audiences already converted to the cause of peace, but is provoking disputes with those who believe in invasions and armed insurrections. May cooperative power prevail!

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2003

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2003, page 29. Some rights reserved.

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