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In defense of civil resistance as people practice it; not as others imagine it

10 Dec

In their posts, Chabot and Lytwak conflate– as in the article that I critiqued– the theory, practice and history of civil resistance in a way that is contradictory and ahistorical.

“Sharp’s Westernized scientific model of nonviolent action was the basic source of inspiration for people power struggles around the world” writes Chabot and
together with Lytwak he brings up the examples of Poland, Czech Republic, Chile and South Africa that are somehow the incarnation of that model.

I studied these campaigns closely, in particular the movements in Central Europe and I found neither dissidents’ narratives nor any other empirical evidences that would suggest that people fought against communism, antiapartheid and Pinochet’s regimes while having been inspired by “Sharp’s Westernized scientific model.” The inspiration for the resistance in these countries– contrary to what Chabot claims- did not come from Sharp or his writings or trainings. In fact it came from the populations of these countries and, specifically, from their own histories, cultures, traditions, type of repressions they faced and the learning from their mistakes in the previous struggles.

Since Poland was brought up a couple of times in various posts, let me focus on this case to show the fallacy of Chabot and Lytwak’s main arguments. These arguments center around the use of the Sharpian rational-strategic model by nonviolent movements (adopted by the Polish anti-communist opposition) to the detriment of the constructive program that might have created an alternative system to neoliberalism (that Poland – like its southern neighbor Czech Republic – now suffers under).

In my edited book Recovering Nonviolent History I wrote in details about the nonviolent struggle that Poles waged against the partitioning powers in the second half of 19th century. This resistance took place well before Gandhi but was rooted in the extremely sophisticated nonviolent resistance initiatives known as ‘organic work’ – the equivalent of the Gandhian constructive program – combined with nonviolent direct actions.  Next to describing and evaluating the impact of the constructive, cultural and direct forms of nonviolent resistance I also observed that the inspiration for the Polish anti-communist opposition and the Solidarity movement in the 20th century – rather than originating from Sharp or his philosophy that Chabot and Lytwak implied – in fact came from their 19th century progenitors. Here is the relevant part:

Recovering Nonviolent History Bartkowski


“… the 19th century nonviolent resistance and its constructive program of creating and running parallel institutions served as an inspiration for future generations of Poles faced with oppression. The conspiratorial experience of organizing and running secret education became ingrained in the collective memory of the national resistance. It was recalled during traumatic events such as the German occupation of 1939-45 and during communist rule, particularly the 1970s and 1980s when widespread illegal education, including the re-establishment of the flying university, ensured the truthful reading of national history, culture and tradition. In fact, working at the base of society became the imperative nonviolent strategy of the anti-communist opposition. Solidarity leaders drew parallels between their nonviolent efforts to liberate the society from the control of the communist government and the 19th century organicists and their nonviolent strategies to undermine the authority of the partitioning powers.

One of the most influential exegeses of Polish history and past resistance during the communist period was undertaken by the historian Bohdan Cywinski who published his 1971 book under the revealing title, “Genealogy of the Defiant.” The book made parallels between their nonviolent defiant attitude and practice against the Tsarist government and the then-contemporary resistance against the communist regime.”

In another writing I describe the extent to which the Solidarity movement incorporated into its resistance repertoire the elements of the constructive program by building parallel legal, semi-legal and illegal political, social, economic and cultural institutions autonomous to and in opposition to the formal communist structures. In fact, the Polish anti-communist resistance that stretched over two decades provides one of the best examples of the effective incorporation of the constructive program that undergird other direct and cultural forms of nonviolent actions. Arguably, the constructive form of resistance under communism ensured the survival and development of the society despite repressive policies. The study also highlighted a longer term impact of this type of resistance that became apparent in the eruption of civil society organizations, including nonprofit foundations, independent media, women’s organizations, environmental groups, neighborhood associations that came from underground, were legalized and began operating freely very soon after the political change of 1989.

If Poland is now seen as the neoliberal project that was somehow forged in the fire of the Sharpian instrumental resistance this means that either someone has little knowledge about the nature of the anti-communist resistance in Poland (and for that matter neighboring states) or in fact that the constructive program and neoliberalism might in some aspects go hand in hand. It was the constructive way of organizing and running parallel underground and above-the-ground institutions that instilled in Poles individual entrepreneurship and civic initiative (that the communist government so desperately wanted to deprive people of) while combining it with self-empowerment and economic survival skills (particularly at the time of shortages of basic produce which I so vividly remember from my teenage years).

It might be then less surprising that throughout the transition years of 1989-1992 when the economic hardship of reforms was the greatest (25% unemployment combined with hyperinflation) Poles overwhelmingly – more than 70% – supported the direction of both political and economic reforms.

If now Poland is living through its neoliberal age it is not because the anti-communist opposition did not develop or implement- as part of their resistance – a genuinely impressive and effective constructive program. They did.  Or because the resistance was driven by the invisible Sharpian hand. It did not. Poles live through the neoliberal order because they chose to.

I used Poland’s example to illustrate the contradiction in Chabot and Lytwak argumentation but one can as easily consider the cases of Chile, South Africa or Czech Republic to the same effect.

If we adopt the arguments presented by Chabot then what Ukrainians are doing on their ‘euromaidans’ today will be criticized tomorrow because of the EU neoliberal order that Ukrainians want to join. But in fact, the struggle is for something much greater than the economic order – it is about the core identity that Ukrainians fight for and the civilizational choices that the society is presented with: closer integration with undemocratic and nationalistic Russia or pursuing democratic, pluralistic and liberal Europe. Millions of Ukrainians that came out on the streets of numerous Ukrainian cities already made their choice.

Finally, the arguments of my interlocutors remind me of the far-left Western ideologues that defended communism in the Soviet Union and Central Europe for its egalitarian ideals as well as a creative practice of societal transformation. This was to bring us closer to some kind of collective (utopian) good even though individual freedoms and political rights were trampled. However, winning political freedom – even if one relies only on direct nonviolent actions (which in fact happens rarely if ever)- is an indispensable element of building just and open society that we all strive for.


Unhelpful critique of civil resistance

3 Dec

I have recently read the article published in Sociologists Without Borders vol. 8, no.2, 2013 by Chabot and Sharifi, “The Violence of Nonviolence: Problematizing Nonviolent Resistance in Iran and Egypt.”  I have serious qualms about the arguments made in the article.

The authors divide the practice of nonviolent resistance into two camps: the Gandhian struggle based on ethical and value-based principles, on the one hand, and the Sharpian nonviolent resistance based … well… on unethical or less ethical principles – an “instrumental” or “political technique”, on the other hand. The authors side, no wonder given their language of absolutes, with the former – I call it – principalist view. And they admonished the latter –  pragmatic approach – for promoting “global neoliberal capitalism” that ends up  “reproducing various structures and forms of violence.”

I found these arguments counterproductive for the field of civil resistance as well as anti-factual.

1. The authors ignore entirely the fact that Sharp published his seminal work in the field of nonviolent conflict in 1973 when, in the age of the bipolar world and a nuclear rivalry, civil resistance was hardly recognizable as a force to reckon with not to mention an effective political means for defeating brutal regimes.  The intellectual and political context in which Sharp was writing was dominated by the view that the states and the military not people and nonviolent methods were the source of ‘real’ power. Even now, the practitioners of civil resistance face the same skepticism with dire consequences- it was, for example, an ill-informed perception that the Syrian nonviolent resistance was too weak to challenge the Assad regime that led to its hijacking by the armed insurgency.

The authors move the intellectual conversation beyond the question of whether civil resistance can be effective against authoritarianism by focusing on how deeply civil resistance transforms the societies. By itself, this intellectual shift is a positive development and a sign of progress in understanding civil resistance and acknowledging its prowess. But this is hardly recognized in the article, which lacks a historical perspective on the development of the field.

2. The authors give way too much credit to the role of external forces or a foreign agency in influencing and determining trajectories of indigenous nonviolent struggles. In practice, when people wage nonviolent resistance they tend not to differentiate between any of the two exogenous models – ‘principled’- Gandhian and ‘instrumental’ – Sharpian as described by Chabot and Sharifi. People follow what they feel is the most appropriate and suitable means given prevailing adversarial conditions and devise their nonviolent strategies and tactics accordingly.  The overemphasis on external forces that seemingly imprint either Gandhian or Sharpian philosophies into an indigenous struggle takes away agency from the ordinary people. And this, in turn, contradicts the reality on the ground where genuinely grassroots and voluntary mobilization of millions of Iranians and Egyptians – described in the article- challenged oppressive regimes and did that despite rather than because of the external actors.

3. In practical, struggle-related, terms, Chabot and Sharifi link the Gandhian ethical approach with long-term organizing based on a constructive program of building alternative institutions. The Sharpian “instrumental” approach is associated with short-term planning and execution of direct nonviolent actions. Historically, no successful nonviolent struggle relied merely on direct actions or, alternatively, limited itself to alternative institutions/constructive programs. For example, all nonviolent resistance campaigns and struggles between the 18th and 20th centuries, described in my edited volume Recovering Nonviolent History, which were waged under different geographies, in different cultural settings and historical periods, and against different regime types, were driven both by direct nonviolent actions as well as constructive methods of alternative institution-building. In other words, it is not beween Gandhian or Sharpian resistance that people choose but rather how indigenous groups deploy strategically a rich repertoire of nonviolent methods to wrest control away from the entrenched elites while ingraining political power in the population.

4. The authors blame nonviolent activists in Iran and Egypt for promoting a neo-liberal capitalist agenda and for having failed to address the root causes of structural violence.  This criticism displays a degree of shortsightedness, to say the least. Gandhi’s India with its poverty, inequality and everyday violence had never seen the egalitarian and violence-free ideal, or perhaps utopia, that Chabot and Sharifi fault other civil resistance struggles for failing to advance. At the same time it is disingenuous to criticize nonviolent movements in Egypt and Iran for not reaching such goals that eluded even Gandhi and not recognizing and assessing the strategic gains made by civil resisters in both countries. Achieving the political liberation that both Egyptian and Iranian movements aimed for must be applauded rather than criticized for some unspecified nefarious neo-liberal goals. In fact, political liberation is the first sine-qua-non step to advance, longer-term, and arguably the more elusive goal of a violence-free society.

The Iranian Green movement that seemingly failed to reach its immediate objective of nullifying fraudulent presidential elections in 2009 has in fact had an enduring impact and created a legacy that four years later deterred hardliners and conservatives from rigging yet another presidential election, which ensured the victory of the moderate candidate Hassan Rouhani. This bodes well for the likelihood of easing international sanctions that are – next to the regime’s reactionary policies – the main culprit behind economic deprivation and structural violence in Iran for which the authors, paradoxically, blame the Green movement and its alleged ‘Sharpian’ leaning.

The 2011 Egyptian revolution criticized by the authors on the grounds that it was not Gandhian enough awakened politically millions of Egyptians and reclaimed for citizens a political space captured by Mubarak and its repressive regime. It was because of this revolution – criticized by Chabot and Sharifi for its supposedly neoliberal agenda – that the Egyptians remained nonviolently rebellious and pushed back the authoritarianism of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces and, later, that of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Where the Egyptian rebellious communities made a strategic mistake was to ally itself with the army against MB. However, at this moment, it is way too premature to offer a sound judgment about the outcome of the still ongoing political struggle and transition in Egypt. In Poland, the effects of the nonviolent resistance and the economic and social changes that followed could only be assessed with some degree of accuracy 10-15 years after the 1989 transition.  In contrast to Poland, however, Egyptians still need to complete their political liberation – via both direct actions as well as constructive mobilization in the form of self-governed professional syndicates, workers’ councils, civic associations, autonomous universities, students’ unions, and independent social media. The struggle with socio-economic inequalities, illiteracy or poverty can be part of the renewed quest for political liberation but without that liberation little progress is possible.