Recovering Nonviolent History: Civil Resistance in Liberation Struggles

by Maciej Bartkowski. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner 2013, 436 pages. Reviewed by Ron Shirtliff.

Many modern countries describe their national origins in terms of a struggle against forces such as colonial domination, foreign conquest, or fragmentation. If you look at the statues and monuments in the capital city parks you are likely to see exalted heroes or martyrs who have played a dramatic, usually violent, role in bringing the nation into existence. It is frequently true that these persons, usually men, played a part in the process.

What is not portrayed in the monuments or popular history are the nation building actions, many not dramatic, that prepared the ground that national consciousness could grow in. These nonviolent civil actions were almost always an essential, though frequently ignored, part of modern nation building.

This collection of essays, put together by Maciej J. Bartkowski, show in considerable detail the varied roles played by civil resistance in fifteen liberation struggles in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas.

Why do states emphasize the violent rather than the frequently more important nonviolent civil liberation struggles that led to nationhood? Partially because it is easier to portray an armed man on a horse than a thoughtful, committed, shifting group of courageous activists finding and promoting the stubborn persuasions and protests, the noncooperation and nonviolent interventions that take years to grow into a force that finally makes a change of government inevitable. More likely, post revolutionary state elites or dictators which control government know at some level that they may be vulnerable to the same public forces that overthrew the unpopular regimes that they replaced.

As Hannah Arendt has said, “Revolution reveals in a flash how civil obedience—to laws, to rulers, to institutions—is but the outward manifestation of [people’s] support and consent.” There is no denying that refusal of civil obedience is the ultimate weapon, a democratic force more basic than the ballot box or the gun.

Probably there is another reason for the emphasis nations place on the violent origins of the current status quo. The state claims a monopoly on the use of violence, knowing that it can usually contain internal violent attacks with its own forces and still be seen to be morally upright. The same state may well be less confident that it can control nonviolent resistance against unpopular policies and practices. Therefore, it is strategically wiser for the elites to emphasize state origins in violence rather than in people power. Hence the statues of the armed man on a horse. The unstated message: if you want change, fight for it and lose, but please don’t get the idea that you can gain it by nonviolent tactics.

Bartkowski’s collection of essays, Recovering Nonviolent History sets out to rescue the basic historic truth that social forces are mightier than the gun when it comes to achieving progressive change.

Bartkowski, the editor, writes a clear introduction and conclusion as an overview of insights into nonviolent liberation struggles. Eighteen other authors provide essays dealing with particular struggles in particular nations, most set in the nineteenth or early twentieth century. The origins of fifteen modern nations in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Europe and Americas are analyzed by historians with an eye to determining the social, political and armed forces at play in their independence struggles. Collectively they reveal that one size does not fit all; each independence struggle grows uniquely out of an indigenous culture, and not infrequently, the process of achieving revolution impacts strongly on the nature of the resulting nation. Strikingly, processes that get hijacked by violence frequently impact negatively on the culture of the new nation, sometimes destroying the crucial civic values that made the revolution possible in the first place.

There are some common threads that run through most of the essays. A national fabric, a national consciousness is needed as a prerequisite for collective action to be effective in civil resistance. Identity can grow in different ways; Ghana had a culture of consensus and collective decision making on the tribal level which led logically to the organization of a collective resistance to top-down decision making inherent in the British colonial system, even when it was exercised through local subalterns. In contrast, part of the Algerian response to French domination was social withdrawal, to home, family and religion, maintaining a cultural identity, emphasizing the otherness of the occupiers through self-isolation. The development of trade unions, withdrawal of labor, student strikes, general strikes, boycotts of imperial products, demonstrations centred on funerals or critical cultural anniversaries played a major role in many struggles. Some effective actions had mostly symbolic content: the Burmese, working in parallel with the Gandhian anti-colonial struggle, created the Thakin movement which encouraged people to address each other as Thakin, or Lord. This was the title demanded by British civil servants when addressed by locals. When everyone became “Lord,” servants of the colonial power lost critical status, were weakened in their own eyes and in the eyes of the general populace. Songs, also hard to ban effectively, played a part in many struggles, communicating nationalist identity to the literate and unlettered as well.

Another common thread; before a new order can assert itself it must have not only a national consciousness but some nascent institutions of state and experienced people to run them. Part of the process of liberation is creating, despite official hostility, the organizations that can function after the old state has withered. Educational structures, trade unions, social, legal and political organizations are needed to fill this need and they provide experience and training spaces for leaders. It takes time, intelligence and discipline to develop these institutions in a hostile official environment. Not infrequently there is another faction in suppressed nations that wants to take more immediate, violent action. When, despite the better judgement of civic leaders, they do resort to arms and fail they set back the cause. When successful they usually fail to acknowledge the groundwork that the nonviolent activists prepared in advance.

These violent interventions can have long-term consequences for the new nation. A military that intervenes after the outcome of the conflict has been effectively won by nonviolent action often takes all the credit for the victory. In Burma, in a situation complicated by the Japanese conquest, the relatively insignificant armed rebels claimed the liberation credits and subsequently forced military dictatorships on the nation, a situation that is still being resolved more than a half century later.

In the ten years prior to 1776 the American colonies had effectively established an independent union government with legislatures, courts, and community enforcement that controlled courts and commerce. It can be argued that independence was de facto complete before the first shot was fired. John Adams wrote in 1818: “A history of military operations…is not a history of the American Revolution. The revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people… substantially effected before hostilities commenced.”

One might argue that the US would be a different nation today if it could celebrate its own liberation as a nonviolent event.

Cuba also, in the late nineteenth century, saw the fruits of years of civil action which had weakened Spain’s resolve hijacked by internal and external military factions that set the stage for a crippled democracy and a series of dictatorships.

A third common theme in these essays is the demanding nature of nonviolent activity. The accounts are full of prosecutions, persecutions, exiling, detentions, arbitrary executions and even assassinations of determined activists. Developing effective nonviolent force is not a an occupation for the faint of heart; there is no space for passivity as the dis-empowered take on the powerful while maintaining the moral high ground.

A number of essayists emphasize the roles played by women. When Egypt was struggling to soften Ottoman rule in 1805 women joined street protests, sieges, and mass funerals for ‘martyrs’ putting mud on their hands and hair to express their distress. The tradition of nonviolent resistance against foreign domination came into play again in 1881, 1914 and 1919. Before their final liberation from British control in 1922 the people of Egypt had comprehensive organizations of students, workers and peasants, even taxi drivers, ready to respond to calls to actions and boycotts. So strong was their commitment to unarmed struggle that they even formed a National Police force to support nonviolent discipline. This same self-control and the participation of women was evident in the successful 2011 peoples’ revolution, showing that a nonviolent tradition can flourish and have an enduring impact on a nation.

Ron Shirtliff is an editor of Peace.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2013

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2013, page 29. Some rights reserved.

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