Review: Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict

By Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan. Columbia University Press, 2011. 320 pages. $29.50/hardback, $22/paperback.

Why Civil Resistance works..

Asked a question about whether meaningful change comes from nonviolent or violent actions, most Friends would unhesitatingly choose nonviolent action. This commitment is challenging to maintain, however, in a world where most people are highly skeptical of the effectiveness of nonviolence.

The skeptics argue that while nonviolence is great for Quakers and pacifists, violent methods get results more quickly. Nonviolent resistance may succeed in democratic societies, they say, but not in countries with an oppressive government that will use brutal repression to crush any sign of resistance. We hear arguments like this being voiced today in debates about whether or not social justice movements like “Occupy” or “Decarcerate” should adopt a nonviolent discipline. Isn’t it more effective, more “revolutionary” to break some windows, throw rocks at the police or blow up a bridge?

Like most people, Erica Chenoweth, professor of government at Wesleyan University, believed that violence was often necessary to achieve social change. Her doctorate is in terrorism studies, and she has taught courses on terrorism, international security, civil war and contemporary warfare. However, the scholarly studies that led her to co-author Why Civil Resistance Works convinced her otherwise.

Chenoweth and co-author Maria Stephan analyzed 323 popular movements (both violent and nonviolent) by disaffected citizens wanting to change their governments between 1900 and 2006. The 323 struggles took place in countries as diverse as Albania, Bulgaria, China, Croatia, Denmark, Egypt, El Salvador, Germany, Iran, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Mongolia, Madagascar, Nepal, Poland, Philippines, and Tibet. Tens of millions of people were involved in these efforts to bring down repressive governments and build better societies. To their great surprise, the authors found that nonviolent methods were more than twice as effective in achieving their goals as movements that used guerrilla warfare or other forms of revolutionary violence.

When you look at the actual historical record, say Chenweth and Stephan, violent movements succeed only 26 percent of the time, whereas nonviolent movements’ success record is 53 percent. Furthermore, their study shows that nonviolent campaigns are much more likely to produce democratic governments at the end of the conflict and much less likely to plunge societies into civil war. Just comparing effectiveness and results, nonviolent movements win, hands down.

When challenged to give examples of the power of nonviolence, many of us can only come up with the campaigns of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. With this book, we can now give examples of successful nonviolent movements in over 50 countries throughout the world, many of them successful against the world’s most brutal dictatorships.

The book is well-written, engaging, and often exciting. The reader should be warned, however, that this is a very scholarly work. Its approach is rigorously scientific. The disadvantage of reading such an academic work is that some people will get stalled in the statistics and inter-political-science debates and not get to the gems. The great advantage of such a carefully researched book, however, is that it provides solid, factual grounds for arguing that nonviolent strategies work for social change.

Friends have always used ethical, moral and spiritual reasons to support nonviolence in the face of those contending for violent approaches. As millions of American citizens descend deeper and deeper into poverty, as the gap between the rich and the poor grows to gargantuan size, as corporate greed creates more economic crises and wealth becomes even more influential in politics, even movements in favor of a fair and truly democratic society may be tempted to turn to violence as the most practical way to change the system. Why Civil Resistance Works gives Friends and all peacemakers new, practical and powerful grounds for advocating nonviolent movement-building.

This review appeared in the March 2013 Books column.

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3 thoughts on “Review: Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict

  1. I just finished reading this on Kindle. Took me a long time. It reads like a graduate degree thesis.
    But it pretty much proves, by statistics, that civil resistance is likely to be more effective than violent resistance. In part because civil resistance attracts a wide swath of the population to participate, whereas violent resistance usually only attracts young, military age males. A wide swath of the population is nearly impossible for the government to suppress. And violent suppression against nonviolent demonstrators is a public relation disaster for the regime. OTOH: Violent resistance is often easier for the regime to suppress (because it’s a few people) and the violence is a public relations problem for the resistance movement.
    Nonviolent resistance can attract a wide swath of the population to participate. All you have to do is call in sick, and refuse to work for a week. Or maybe march and carry a sign. If the government tries to force you to work, you can do as little work as possible. The regime collapses if a wide swath of the population refuses to cooperate. Nonviolent resistance may also attract police & military to participate, since they are not threatened. Violent resistance will encourage the police & military to fight the resisters, who threaten them.

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