September 19th, 2012
09:24 AM ET

Why civil resistance trumps violent uprisings

By Erica Chenoweth, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Erica Chenoweth is assistant professor in the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.  She is co-author, with Maria J. Stephan, of 'Why Civil Resistance Works: the Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict'. The views expressed are her own.

In ongoing struggles against oppressive governments, movements for change often confront a key strategic question. From Syria to Morocco to Bahrain to Occupy Wall Street, activists want to know: would unarmed resistance be enough?

Generally, yes. Nonviolent resistance is more than twice as successful as violent resistance, even in the face of brutal regime repression. That’s what Maria Stephan, a strategic planner in the U. S. State Department, and I found when we examined 323 social change campaigns from around the world between the years 1900 and 2006.

We believe that ours is the first study to try to answer in a systematic, empirical way whether nonviolent or violent resistance methods are better at producing short- and long-term political change.  We looked at the success rates of the toughest types of insurrections: anti-dictator, self-determination and anti-occupation movements. Our cases range from the famed Indian Independence movement in the 1930s and 1940s to the Serbian movement to overthrow Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, among many others.

The results are detailed in our book, Why Civil Resistance Works: the Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. The results were a surprise to me, a skeptical scholar of political violence. In our book we set aside the question of which method of resistance is right or wrong morally and assessed, instead, which was the superior strategic choice.

In addition to finding robust evidence that nonviolent campaigns succeeded far more often than the violent ones in the 20th and 21st centuries, we also found that countries experiencing nonviolent uprisings are much more likely to emerge from the conflicts democratic and with a lower risk of civil war relapse compared to places where insurgencies were violent.  And we suspect that in most cases where violent insurgency has succeeded, a well-executed nonviolent campaign may have been equally successful.

So why does nonviolent civil resistance appear to be the better choice in most instances?  One reason is that nonviolent movements have a major participation advantage over violent ones. In terms of active participants, nonviolent campaigns tend to be about four times larger than the average violent insurgency. Diversity is just as important as quantity.  Because of the diverse methods of resistance available to nonviolent movements – anything from high-risk protests, sit-ins, and occupations to lower-risk stay-at-home and go-slow demonstrations, boycotts, and strikes – they can attract a far more diverse following. The more segments of a society involved in a resistance movement, the more likely it is to succeed.  It may be dangerous, for example, to pin the hopes of a movement solely on the young. Revolutions tend to succeed when the elderly, too, are on board.

But how does nonviolent resistance work? After all, don’t dictators just repress these challengers?

Sometimes, yes. But many times, dictators find that they cannot repress all of the people all of the time, even when they want to. This is because all regimes – no matter how brutal and power-hungry – fundamentally rely on the obedience of various “pillars of support,” including business elites, security forces, civilian bureaucrats, and state media to maintain power. Many dictators, including Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Shah Reza Pahlavi in Iran, and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, have ordered their militaries to fire upon crowds of nonviolent protestors, only to find that those pillars no longer supported them. When the pillars crumble, the regime falls.

But imagine if those crowds of protestors had taken up arms. The security forces would have crushed them, exactly as they had crushed the Communist insurgency in the Philippines, leftist rebels in Iran, and Islamic fundamentalists in Egypt before nonviolent movements emerged, grew, created cracks in the pillars of support, and achieved the seemingly impossible.

Of course, not all nonviolent movements succeed. Tiananmen Square and the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar in the late 1980s come to mind as key failures (by the way, violent insurgencies in these countries fared no better). When nonviolent campaigns fail, it is usually because they do not achieve mass participation or they over-rely on a single method, such as protests or sit-ins. According to the influential theorist Gene Sharp, there are hundreds of different nonviolent tactics that movements can use to outmaneuver the opponent. But when they rely on the same tactic time after time, the movements become predictable and easy to repress. This was certainly the case in both China and Myanmar. Although the campaigns initially gained momentum, they primarily used protests and demonstrations. Successful campaigns tend to sequence their tactics in ways that maximize participation and pressure while minimizing exposure to repression.

John F. Kennedy famously said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Our research indicates, however, that nonviolent resistance of some sort is almost always possible, and armed uprisings are never inevitable. Instead, violence may be a method people choose because they don’t know there is a realistic alternative.

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Topics: China • Human Rights • Protests • United States

soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. 2012marandalaw

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    September 19, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Reply
  2. 2012marandalaw

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    September 19, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Reply
  3. JAL

    What about the question on everyones mind: Why delay the McRib?

    September 19, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    Indeed, in any resistance movement, the masses count. A mass participation poses a threat to the establishment – be it a regime or a society. That's why leaders resort to demagogic rhetoric, that evokes instinct and appeals to emotions.
    The protests in Syria began quite orderly. It was the regime brutal response that changed the momentum.

    September 20, 2012 at 5:21 am | Reply
    • Gene

      Please clarify if I have misunderstood you j. von
      The so-called protests in the muslim world were peaceful until the mean, nasty, "brutal" regime responded in a mean, nasty, "brutal" manner and from then on, all hell broke loose?
      Really?

      September 20, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Reply

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