home Commentary, Current Affairs, Politics, Society Which is more effective: Violent or nonviolent resistance?

Which is more effective: Violent or nonviolent resistance?

Discussions of violent versus nonviolent resistance usually revolve around morality. This framing leads to further demonization of marginalized people while remaining generally unhelpful. Violence is usually considered wrong. However, allowing people to be harmed is also wrong. Violence and nonviolence can both be moral choices. If you see someone in the process of hurting an innocent victim, is it wrong to use violence to stop them? What if you see a state in the process of committing genocide? Most people would not argue that confronted with the evils of Hitler, the Allies should have maintained nonviolent methods.

Most people don’t truly believe that violence is always wrong. All except for the most committed pacifists accept that violence can sometimes be the moral choice when used to prevent further or greater harm. It is not moral to demand of marginalized people that they must die in order to stay virtuous. So let’s move away from a discussion of morality that doesn’t serve us and instead discuss the efficacy of violent versus nonviolent resistance. In this article I will mainly be examining the efficacy of resistance movements on effecting regime change, deposing a leader, or achieving territorial independence. Over the past decade, 30 percent of nonviolent regime change campaigns have succeeded, along with 12 percent of violent campaigns. So while neither type of resistance movement is likely to succeed, nonviolent campaigns are almost three times as effective — though success may depend on certain factors.

Not all resistance is equal, and different circumstances may require different tactics. Resistance movements need to take into account their goals, their opponents, and their timeframe. For example, a resistance movement may involve protecting innocent civilians from hate crimes. If a resister sees a hate crime in the process of taking place, they have a limited number of opponents and a short timeframe. If it’s possible to stop the hate crime through direct interference, that may necessitate violence in order to stop or prevent greater violence. Many resistance movements have the goal of effecting regime change, which is a long game with many well-armed opponents. Tactics that work to stop hate crimes may not work to effect regime change.

Nonviolent resistance movements tend to attract a wider base of support than movements that use violence. Nonviolent movements have, on average, 11 times as many participants as armed uprisings.  Research indicates that a government cannot withstand 3.5 percent of its population rising up in sustained resistance over time. In the United States, that’s over 11 million people. 3.5 percent of the population may not sound like a lot, but it’s almost four times the global turnout for the Women’s Marches, which were massive and unprecedented. The Women’s Marches already brought together a wide variety of people, but that movement will need to quadruple in size until it could conceivably make demands such as impeachment.

Nonviolent movements are more effective at building a broad base of support because violence can turn off less-committed allies. Violence frequently causes outside observers to feel empathy for the victim, even if the victim is themselves responsible for causing harm. Of course it’s wrong that when a Nazi gets punched in the face, people have empathy for him instead of empathy for his victims. But humans misplace their empathy all the time. We are terrible at matters of scale and we feel less empathy for acts we don’t witness than ones we do. You can know that a Nazi wants to commit genocide, but if you don’t see it happen, it remains abstract. When you see the Nazi get punched, a part of you may feel empathy because you are seeing an individual person get hurt.

There’s no sense in saying that people shouldn’t be that way. They are. So that means resistance movements that sometimes use violence in self-defense need to constantly reframe the conversation onto the true victims. The public must be reminded, for example, what Nazis do, what they want to do, and who they hurt.

Nonviolence can come at a price. Insistence on nonviolence can start to sound like an expectation for marginalized people to accept being killed and oppressed. An obsession with public opinion can lead to stasis. The “right time” for change never comes. In 1965, Pew research showed that 42 percent of Americans believed civil rights were moving too fast, while only 25 percent thought it wasn’t moving fast enough. Most Americans now approve of Martin Luther King, Jr., because his actions took place 50 years ago and he is deceased. White Americans in his day felt quite differently. In 1966, according to Gallup, 63 percent of Americans had a negative perception of MLK, as opposed to the 32 percent who viewed him positively. So if a resistance movement is trying to build a broad base of support by slowing down and trying to stay as respectable as possible, that may be a losing game.

Nonviolent resistance is effective for regime change because the state’s monopoly on violence is insurmountable. Rag-tag militias with muskets are never going to be able to overthrow a state that can kill its enemies with drones. Nonviolent movements are twice as effective as violent movements in campaigns seeking to remove leaders or gain territorial independence. In order to succeed, nonviolent movements need to encourage defection of security forces from loyalty to the regime to loyalty to the new government. That’s easier in nonviolent movements, because the security forces are less afraid of violent reprisals. Security forces are also less likely to use deadly force on nonviolent protesters, especially if those protesters have made an effort to forge connections with them.

Nonviolent resistance is not about embracing oppressors or finding common ground. It must be just as tactical as violent resistance. Protests are only one part of nonviolent resistance. Boycotts aimed at changing corporate policies can be highly effective, as was seen in the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins, or more recently, in the #DeleteUber campaign that resulted in Uber’s CEO resigning from Trump’s advisory board. General strikes can be used to great effect, as in the #RenunciaYa campaign that forced the President of Guatemala to step down.

Some activists argue that nonviolent movements are best served by the addition of a radical, violent flank. Research does not bear out the conclusion that a violent wing helps a nonviolent movement succeed. Violent groups’ presence increases the “likelihood and degree of repression from the state,” and is “most significantly linked with decreased mobilization post-repression,” according to a study in the journal Research in Social Movements, Conflicts, and Change. The presence of a violent flank does not make a nonviolent movement less likely to succeed, nor does it make it more likely; it only increases the brutality of the repression.

There is one situation in which nonviolent movements may not be more successful than armed insurgencies — in situations of genocide. Nonviolent movements can withstand brutal repression, and even blossom because of it. Many nonviolent movements grow exponentially after state brutality turns undecided parties to favor the resisters. Genocide is an exception. Genocide does not cause resistance to blossom, it extinguishes it.

Research indicates that nonviolent movements aren’t particularly effective against genocide. Nonviolent resistance failed when Assad’s forces slaughtered nonviolent protesters in Daraa in 2011. Nonviolence similarly failed to stop the genocide of the Jews in Nazi Germany, though it did save thousands of lives over the course of the war.

More research needs to be done on the efficacy of nonviolent resistance. Nonviolence is still misunderstood, underestimated, and under-studied, despite multiple case studies with incredible results. Nonviolence advanced the cause of civil rights in the United States, helped win Indian independence, and deposed a kleptocratic president in Guatemala. Nonviolent movements help create a broad base of support, encourage security force defections, and result in more peaceful, democratic governments post-revolution. But in cases of genocide, the research is less clear. Resistance movements cannot allow marginalized people to be harmed and they must act quickly. In situations of genocide, some violence may prevent more. Resisters must take into careful consideration their goals, their opponents, and their timeframe, and leave tired moralizing discussions of punching Nazis in the past.

Photo: AndresAZP/Creative Commons


One thought on “Which is more effective: Violent or nonviolent resistance?

  1. “Nonviolence similarly failed to stop the genocide of the Jews in Nazi Germany…”

    I can see why you might think that. However, nonviolence worked on the Nazis almost everywhere it was organized, even though the participants were untrained in nonviolence, and had never heard of it before.

    Examples: Raoul Wallenberg saved 100,000 in Hungary through passports and safe houses, Bulgarian citizens saved 48,000 by blocking railroad tracks, people in Denmark ferried 7,000 to safety in Sweden, women forced Gestapo to release 1,700 prisoners from Rosenstrasse detention center, etc.

    Organized nonviolence has increasingly overturned dictators with even deadlier weapons than the Nazis had.

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