Understanding Nonviolence: Contours and Context

Edited by Maia Carter Hallward and Julie M. Norman. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2015

By Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan (reviewer) | 2015-10-01 12:00:00

As Jonathan Schell once wrote, “Violence is a method by which the ruthless few can subdue the passive many. Nonviolence is a means by which the active many can overcome the ruthless few.”

Understanding Nonviolence is a timely follow up to Erica Chenoweth’s and Maria Stephan’s ground-breaking research on this topic, Why Civil Resistance Works.

As a primer on strategy and tactics of nonviolent action, the book includes chapters on spiritual and religious approaches; new media and advocacy; civil rights; revolutions and democratic transitions; rural movements and economic policy; and transnational movements.

I was especially interested in the chapter on Rural Movements and Economic Policy. The author notes that, compared to urban-based struggle, where hundreds of thousands of people occupy public spaces, rural-based civil resistance typically does not have such dramatic climaxes. Protests, demonstrations, and marches do occur in the countryside, but typically within longer campaigns against structural violence or systemic oppression.

This point is exemplified with such rural movements as the Movement of the Landless Rural Workers in Brazil, the United Farm Workers in the United States, and the Assembly of the Poor in Thailand. All three movements achieved their successes over a relatively long period of time.

A key chapter of the book, “Tactical and Strategic Approaches to Nonviolence,” was by the late Howard Clark. He emphasized the process of popular empowerment with specific examples from nonviolent struggle in Chile and Kosovo. The next chapter on strategy by Stephen Zunes cites examples from the ongoing struggle for self-determination in Western Sahara.

Two activists from the Serbian Centre for Nonviolent Action and Strategy (CANVAS) contributed a chapter on New Media and Advocacy. They note that the new possibility of instantly sharing visual media over the Internet makes it hard for anyone to get away with acting violently, since citizen groups can spread information beyond traditional media outlets or state control. This technological innovation is reducing some forms of violence, especially when the adversaries know they are being watched.

Of course, even when adversaries are quite aware of this, few governments go as far as Egypt,which withdrew the entire country from the Internet in January 2011. In the end, their action only demonstrated their lack of control over the country.

Popular groups now benefit by the greater speed and lower cost of spreading their ideas. In Iran, for example, after the dubious elections in July 2009, Iranians downloaded tens of thousands of copies of nonviolence training manuals in Farsi from the CANVAS site. Nonviolent activists could not possibly have afforded to print and mail those documents throughout the country.

The chapter on Transnational Movements and Global Civil Society illustrates campaigns on a larger scale, using examples from the World Social Forum and La Via Campesina, an internationally networked movement of peasants, small farmers, and indigenous groups. Their global movement against neoliberalism is based on promoting “food sovereignty.”

The book emphasizes a broader range of effective nonviolent actions than just regime change, despite the current flurry of scholarship on Arab uprisings. The authors expect to see more movements for economic, social, and cultural rights, as well as climate change, and public health. They note that nonviolence is now emerging as an area distinct from peace studies for academics. I concur. We are going to see more and more studies of this type.

Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan is a board member of Nonviolence International Canada, and is a research coordinator on humanitarian disarmament for the Landmine & Cluster Munition Monitor.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2015

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2015, page 29. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan here

Peace Magazine homepage