Thursday, April 29, 2021

The Lockean Evolution of Nonviolent Revolution

Myanmar Protesters Recently Using the Three-Finger Salute from "The Hunger Games."  The Military Dictatorship Has Banned This Salute.

Over the past three months, we have seen in Burma (Myanmar) what could have happened in the United States if Donald Trump had overturned the presidential election of 2020 and declared his right to rule under martial law.  In November, Burma's National League for Democracy led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi won by a landslide the elections for Parliament.  On February 1, only a few hours before the new Parliament was to meet, the Burmese military (the Tatmadaw)--under the commander in chief, General Min Aung Hiaing--announced that because the elections had been fraudulent, the Parliament would be abolished, and the military would take power over the country under a one-year declaration of emergency.  Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of Parliament were arrested.  Almost immediately, protesters marched across the country, launching a nonviolent resistance campaign to overthrow the military dictatorship and restore parliamentary democracy.

Many Americans have feared that something like this could have happened in the United States.  Before the election of 2020, Trump indicated that he might refuse to accept the outcome of the election if he lost.  After he lost the election, he insisted that the election had been rigged against him, and so he might refuse to leave office.  Some of Trump's supporters--including Michael Flynn, speaking after he was pardoned by Trump--said that Trump should declare martial law and suspend the Constitution so that he could rule as a military dictator.  On January 6, Trump ordered his supporters to march to the Capitol to stop the Senate from authorizing the stealing of the election, which led to insurrectionary violence in the Capitol Building.

Before the election, thousands of Americans had agreed to an elaborate plan of action for a nonviolent resistance movement to stop any such military coup by Trump.  This plan--"Hold the Line: A Guide to Defending Democracy"--was based on the theory and practice of nonviolent civil resistance to overthrow dictatorships, particularly as studied by scholars like Gene Sharp and Erica Chenoweth (Marantz 2020; Merriman et al. 2020).  

The fundamental idea behind this plan is Lockean--that governmental power depends on popular consent and that the people have the natural right to overthrow an oppressive government by withdrawing their consent.  This revolutionary overthrow of government can be either violent or nonviolent.  The proponents of nonviolent resistance argue that the nonviolent methods of revolution are more likely to succeed and cause less suffering than are the violent methods, and there is some historical evidence to confirm this.  

Over the past 120 years, this history shows a Darwinian cultural evolution of nonviolent revolution, in which there has been an evolutionary process of variation and selective retention, so that methods of nonviolence that have succeeded in one country are transmitted by imitation in other countries.  In this evolutionary diffusion of ideas, scholars like Sharp and Chenoweth have provided instruction through the collection and analysis of the historical data for comparing violent and nonviolent revolutions.  (I have written some posts on this process of Darwinian cultural group selection.)


One historical example of how nonviolent resistance can overthrow a dictator who is trying to overturn an election is Serbia in 2000.  Slobodan Milosevic had been President of Serbia since 1989, whose authoritarian power was based on electoral fraud, suppressing freedom of the press, police brutality against his opponents, and political assassinations.  University students had formed an organization named Otpor (Serbian for "resistance") in 1998 devoted to overthrowing Milosevic through nonviolent resistance.  Their resistance movement was guided by the writings of Gene Sharp--particularly his book From Dictatorship to Democracy (2012)--which presented 198 methods of nonviolent revolutionary struggle  to overturn a dictatorship and establish a democracy in its place.  Sharp's book was translated into Serbian, and thousands of copies were distributed to political activists around Serbia (Arrow 2020, 176-92).  This book was an abbreviated version of his long magnum opus--The Politics of Nonviolent Action (1973), which originally was his dissertation at Oxford University.  (I have written some previous posts on nonviolent resistance here and here.)

Sharp taught them that every dictatorship--like every government--depends on "pillars of support" or key institutions that sustain the power of the dictatorship.  They might include the police, the military, governmental bureaucrats, businessmen, and religious organizations.  If enough people in those groups can be persuaded to defect--to withdraw their support--the dictatorship will collapse.  This could be explained by the idea of "minimal winning coalitions": no ruler can rule alone, because even an absolute dictator needs the loyal support of a coalition of powerful people, and when those people withdraw their consent to the government, the rulers become powerless.  (I have written about this in another post.)

Sharp thought that this dependence of rulers on popular consent was recognized by Niccolo Machiavelli when he said that the prince "who has the public as a whole for his enemy can never make himself secure; and the greater his cruelty, the weaker does his regime become" (The Discourses, I.16.5).  Sharp has been called "the Machiavelli of nonviolence," because of his Machiavellian toughness in explaining the strategy and tactics of nonviolent resistance as a form of revolutionary warfare.

In his public lectures, Sharp would often employ aggressive language.  He would begin by saying: "My name is Gene Sharp, and we're here today to discuss how to seize political power and deny it to others.  I say nonviolent struggle is armed struggle!  And we have to take back that term from those advocates of violence who try to justify with pretty words that kind of combat.  With this kind of struggle, one fights with psychological weapons, social weapons, economic weapons, and political weapons.  This is ultimately more powerful against oppression, injustice, and tyranny than is violence."

                                                A Clenched Fist Was the Symbol of Otpor

The Otpor leadership identified the police and the army as the most important pillars of support for Milosevic, and they began infiltrating these organizations through personal contacts.  Otpor members wrote letters to every police station in Serbia.  The letters warned them that they should think about their life after the end of the Milosevic regime.  They also said: "You are our friend.  Your kids are in Otpor.  If you hurt them, your fellow citizens will shun you."

Otpor organized massive protest marches across Serbia.  To keep the marches nonviolent, they had trained people as marshals who would direct the protests and isolate any individuals who became violent.  They anticipated that Milosevic's security forces would plant provocateurs in their marches to initiate violence, so that Milosevic could then identify Otpor as a terrorist organization.  The protesters would lose public approval, and the police would support the regime.

Over the summer of 2000, many members of Otpor were arrested by the police, beaten, and imprisoned.

An election was coming on September 24, 2000.  The opposition parties agreed to run a single candidate--Vojislav Kostunica--to maximize their chance of defeating Milosevic.

Anticipating that Milosevic would try to steal the election, the opposition organized an elaborate exit polling system for counting the votes.  When they reported that Kostunica had won the election, Milosevic's party announced that no party had won a majority, and so there would have to be a run-off election.  The opposition declared that this was a lie, and that the people should prepare for a general strike and mass protests against Milosevic.  Soon the entire country was shut down by the strike.

On the morning of October 5th, convoys of people from around Serbia began to move towards Belgrade, the capital, where they were to meet at 3 p.m. outside the parliament building.  The plan was to take control of the building.  Milosevic deployed his police around the edges of Belgrade to enforce roadblocks.  But when the convoys reached the roadblocks, the police stood aside, and the convoys moved through.  When the convoys reached the square outside the parliament building, the people were singing and chanting, "Gotov Je! Gotov Je!" ("He's finished!").

The police and the army were ordered to clear the square and to fire into the crowd of protesters.  But that order was not carried out.  Later, it was reported that those in command refused the order to fire because they knew members of their own families were in the crowd.

But at this point, by the evening of October 5th, the disciplined nonviolent movement began to lose control of the crowd.  The parliament building was on fire, and word got out that some people were breaking into Milosevic's Socialist Party Building, planning to burn it down.  When the leaders at the Otpor office heard about this, they gathered volunteers and rushed to the building to drag the provocateurs out.  They surrounded the building to protect it and to prevent any outbreak of violence.

Late that night of October 5, Milosevic announced he was resigning.  All across Serbia, and even elsewhere around the world, crowds of people celebrated.

One of the leaders of Otpor--Srdja Popovic--has said that one of the most important lessons taught to them by Gene Sharp was the need to maintain nonviolence, because if protestors had turned to violence, this would have provided an excuse for the military to launch a coup to restore order, and thus a new dictatorship would have taken control.

The other important lesson from Sharp illustrated in this successful nonviolent movement in Serbia was that mass protest marches are not enough to succeed.  Watching the CNN coverage of the crowds around the Parliament Building, it was easy to conclude that such a movement needs only to attract mobs of people to flood the streets, and then the government collapses over night.

That's not true, because Otpor had been training their people and organizing their movement for years, and mass public protests were only one of many methods they used.  That's the point of Sharp's 198 methods of nonviolence--that to succeed, nonviolence must flexibly employ many techniques over a long time.  

The failure of the Tiananmen Square protests in China in 1989 illustrates this point.  The Chinese students in this movement had not read Sharp's books.  Nor had they studied any of the history of nonviolent resistance.  They were not organized or trained.  They relied on only one method--occupy the Square in Beijing.  It was easy then for the Chinese military to end the movement by sweeping into the Square and firing in the crowds.

By 2000 in Serbia, the cultural evolution of nonviolence had spread knowledge of nonviolent methods around the world; and the leaders of Otpor had deliberately studied Sharp's books to learn how best to organize their movement.  In subsequent years, those who had led Otpor could spread the knowledge of their practical experience and transmit Sharp's books to other countries engaged in nonviolent struggles to overthrow authoritarian regimes--such as the "Rose Revolution" in Georgia (a former Soviet state) and the "Orange Revolution" in the Ukraine.


In 2011, the revolutionary uprisings of what came to be called the "Arab Spring" began in January and February.  Mass public protests in Tunisia forced President Zine Abdine Ben Ali to flee the country after 23 years in power.  Similar protests in Egypt forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign after 30 years in power.  In Libya, a revolution began the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, who had ruled for 34 years.

It seemed that Syria might follow a similar revolutionary path in March when a civil uprising began to challenge the rule of Bashar al-Assad, who had governed as a dictatorial president for 11 years, preceded by 30 years of rule by his father Hafez al-Assad.  This uprising began as a nonviolent resistance movement led by some Syrians who were following Gene Sharp's teaching.  But by the middle of the summer, the opponents of the regime turned to armed warfare, and from that point to the present, Syria has been in a civil war.  Today, nearing the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the civil war, large parts of Syria are under the control of rebel factions or foreign powers, but al-Assad seems to have largely won the war.

Authoritarian dictators can point to this example of Syria as showing the foolishness of nonviolent resistance to tyranny, because it soon becomes violent, which leads to a destructive civil war that is worse than any tyrannical government.  But, actually, Sharp himself warned his Syrian followers to remain nonviolent, and he accurately predicted that if the Syrian protesters became violent, this would provoke a civil war that they were unlikely to win (Arrow 2020, 267-286).

Some of the Syrians who were leading the revolution in Syria early in 2011--such as Ausama Monajed and Mohammed Alaa Ghanem--had studied Sharp's books, and they developed a strategy for nonviolent resistance derived from his teaching.  They launched a campaign to attack Assad's "pillars of support" by selecting slogans that challenged Assad's legitimacy to rule, by persuading those in the military to defect, and by calling on Syrians to boycott the products of those in the business community supporting Assad.  All of this was directed to demanding Assad's resignation and the establishment of a truly democratic regime.  In April, in an interview in London, Ausama Monajed said: "Gene Sharp's tactics and theories are being practiced on the streets of Syria as we speak now."

By late April, it appeared that the nonviolent movement against Assad was winning.  Assad ordered his soldiers to arrest, torture, and kill the protesters.  But the atrocities committed against civilians was provoking popular disgust with the regime.  Soldiers were starting to defect because they did not want to shoot into crowds of people that might include members of their own families.

Far from stopping the atrocities, however, Assad increased them.  He had learned from his father the lesson that it was better to be feared than loved--that princes can secure their power against opponents through "cruelty well-used."  The most infamous example of this from his father, Hafez al-Assad, was the massacre in 1982 in the town of Hama.  For 6 years, the Muslim Brotherhood had led an Islamist violent insurgency against al-Assad, which included attempts to assassinate him.  Then, in response to an uprising in Hama, al-Assad ordered that over 12,000 troops surround the town and then destroy it.  The fight continued for over three weeks.  The town was virtually leveled.  The rebels were killed.  And thousands of civilians were massacred, perhaps as many as 20,000 to 40,000.  It has been described as the deadliest attack by an Arab government against its own people.  This ended the Islamist rebellion against al-Assad and secured his rule and the rule of his son for another 30 years.

Imitating his father's cruelty, Bashar al-Assad ordered his soldiers to shoot the protesters, and those who refused the orders or who defected were shot by snipers placed behind the regular soldiers.  He recruited violent criminals and others to move through the country without uniforms to murder and rape the protesters.  They posed as Alawite Muslims killing Sunni Muslims, or as Sunnis killing Alawites.  He wanted to sow sectarian hatred.  He also wanted to provoke the nonviolent protesters into becoming armed insurgents, because then he could identify them as terrorists, and his soldiers would be motivated to fight against them rather than defecting.

He succeeded.  On July 29, 2011, seven officers who had left the Syrian Armed Forces to join the resistance announced the formation of the Free Syrian Army.  Later, other armies and militias to fight against Assad were formed.  These rebel soldiers said that they would protect the nonviolent protesters from the violence of Assad's troops.

When Gene Sharp was told about this, he warned that this was a mistake that would destroy the nonviolent movement and favor the triumph of Assad, because he would always have military superiority.  He was asked about this in an email from Mohammed Ghanem, who signed off as "The Sleepless Syrian."  Sharp wrote back in a letter called "Letter to a Sleepless Syrian" (Arrow 2020, 283-84):
"The present unease of the troops in obeying orders is clear.  Otherwise he regime would have no need to order immediate killing of disobeying soldiers.  That is strong evidence that the reliability of the army is very shaky and possibly on the verge of collapse.  That means that wise resistance actions are crucial to take the army away from the regime. . . . The regime clearly is desperate.  They may intend for their brutalities to enrage protesters so much that they resort to violence.  The protesters should not be tricked into that.  Significant protest violence would guarantee the army's loyalty and the defeat of the revolution."

Sharp warned against the offer of armed protection for the protesters from the army defectors:

"This supposed major help can dramatically change the conflict so that the regime's still overwhelming superior military capacity will shape the course of the continuing conflict.  Then, without major external military intervention, the dictatorship is likely to triumph.  Inevitable major casualties are likely to vastly exceed even exceptionally high casualties in a nonviolent struggle conflict.  The nonviolent resisters are likely to become irrelevant to shaping the future of their country."

So here, as he had often done, Sharp claimed that nonviolent revolutionary movements are better than violent revolutionary movement in at least two respects:  nonviolent movements have a lower death rate and a higher success rate than violent movements.  In his writings, he cited many historical cases to support this claim (Sharp 1973).  But he never did a systematic quantitative analysis of the historical data that would conclusively demonstrate this. 


In recent years, Erica Chenoweth and her colleagues have collected the historical data for over 627 nonviolent and violent revolutionary campaigns from 1900 to 2019, and they done a quantitative analysis of that data to compare the outcomes (success or failure) of these movements.  They have found that Sharp is right about the superiority of nonviolent movements over violent movements (Chenoweth 2021).  (I have written about Chenoweth's research here and here.)

If we define the success of a revolutionary campaign as the overthrow of a government or territorial independence achieved because of the campaign, then over 50% of the nonviolent revolutions from 1900 to 2019 have succeeded, while only about 26% of the violent revolutions have succeeded.  So nonviolent revolutions do not always succeed.  They do not even succeed most of the time.  But at least they succeed about half of the time, which is to say they succeed as often as they fail.  Or if you see that the glass is half empty, they fail as often as they succeed. That makes nonviolent revolutions almost twice as successful as violent revolutions.

Nonviolent resistance is risky, in that governments can respond to a nonviolent resistance movement by killing unarmed civilians.  But nonviolent resistance is less risky than violent resistance.  If "mass killings" are defined as state violence in which at least one thousand unarmed civilians are killed, about 23% of nonviolent revolutions have suffered mass killings.  By comparison, about 70% of violent revolutions have had mass killings, in which governments kill civilians suspected of supporting the armed insurgents.

We might say that nonviolent resistance is more risky than obedience.  But even obedience is risky if it means obeying a brutal government.  Chenoweth has found that the strongest predictor of nonviolent revolution is a government's violations of human rights: when a government is arbitrarily imprisoning, torturing, and killing people, then people can decide that they have no choice but to rebel.  This was Locke's point: people will suffer a bad government while its evils are sufferable, but they are inclined to revolt when governmental cruelty becomes unbearable.

We might wonder, however, whether it is reasonable to compare violent and nonviolent movements given the fact that nonviolent resistance is often combined with some violence.  And we might suspect that the success of nonviolent resistance movements often depends on the movement becoming violent or at least threatening violence.

How we answer this question will depend on how we define violence.  Chenoweth defines it as "an action or practice that physically harms or threatens to physically harm another person" (Chenoweth 2021, 145).  Even when a resistance movement is predominantly nonviolent, it can have "violent flanks"--some people in the movement who use violence along with the mostly nonviolent campaign.  These violent flanks can be either armed (people taking up arms such as guns) or unarmed  (people fighting in the streets or throwing rocks and other projectiles or destroying property).

In her database of nonviolent revolutionary campaigns, Chenoweth found that over 60% had no armed factions.  But she also found that over 80% of the nonviolent revolutionary movements had some unarmed violence such as street fighting and destroying property.

She noted, however, that authoritarian rulers threatened by nonviolent resistance want to provoke nonviolent protesters into becoming violent, because this allows the rulers to justify the violent repression of the resisters as the proper punishment of violent criminals.  When nonviolent protests become violent, this reduces public support for the protest movement, while at the same time the police and the military are less likely to defect.  Her historical data confirm this: while 65% of the nonviolent revolutions that had no fringe violence were successful, only 35% of the nonviolent revolutions that had some fringe violence were successful.

So why then do nonviolent resistance movements so often turn to violence?  The answer from Sharp and Chenoweth is that when nonviolent resisters rely exclusively on concentrated street protests, they expose themselves to violent attacks from the government; and this will often provoke many of them to defend themselves with violence.  Their mistake is in failing to see that there are many methods of nonviolent resistance that are less risky than visible street protests--such as stay-at-home strikes, boycotts, and other forms of noncooperation--that are effective in weakening a dictatorship.

So how does this apply to the current situation in Burma?  Can the nonviolent resistance against the military dictatorship remain nonviolent?  Or will the movement be provoked by the government into violence?  I will turn to those questions in my next post.


Arrow, Ruaridh. 2020. Gene Sharp: How to Start a Revolution. London: Big Indy Books.

Chenoweth, Erica. 2021. Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know. New York: Oxford University Press.

Marantz, Andrew. 2020. "How to Stop a Power Grab." The New Yorker. November 16.

Merriman, Hardy, Ankur Asthana, Marium Navid, and Kifah Shah. 2020. Hold the Line: A Guide to Defending Democracy.  Washington, DC: International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

Sharp, Gene. 1973. The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers.

Sharp, Gene. 2012. From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation. New York: The New Press.

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