Monday, January 25, 2010

On the anthology Civil Resistance and Power Politics

In the last half-century, what has united African-American civil rights campaigners in the American South in the 1960s, anti-apartheid demonstrators in South Africa in the eighties, anti-communist agitators in Czechoslovakia in 1989, discontented citizens and student groups at Tiananmen in China in the same year, and striking monks in Burma in 2007 and Tibet in 2008? The answer is civil resistance – a mass program of deliberate, purposive action committed to non-violence, and intended to alter the balance of political power so as to bring about what some commentators have called “a revolution without revolution”.

A hundred years ago, civil resistance as a political force was not much more than a minor curiosity. Although it had theoretical roots in the ideas of Thoreau, Tolstoy and Ruskin, in the realm of worldly application Mohandas Gandhi’s work for the rights of Indians in South Africa was about the only feather in its cap. Today, that is no longer so. The idea of civil resistance today has a history, a dignity, an allure, a vocabulary (agitations in the Philippines in the eighties gave rise to the term “people power”; the Czech writer Vaclav Havel produced a famous essay called “The Power of the Powerless”; the peaceful transfer of power in Prague in 1989 threw up the term "velvet revolution"). “Civil resistance” brings to mind strikes, fasts, boycotts, demonstrations, the use of potent symbols and messages, a sense of active community, solidarity, and discipline among discontented people. Civil resistance grasps that there are forces other than brute force (even as it accepts that violence and armed resistance may be justified in certain extreme situations). It is directed at the individual conscience of both the demonstrator and the adversary, and therefore runs deeper than matters of ideology. At the same time, it is nothing without mass support, and constructively channels the power of the crowd as a force for change.

Insofar as one of the reasons for studying history is to avoid repeating its mistakes, civil resistance offers a sharp, self-conscious break with many centuries of bloodshed and suffering over political, social and religious disputes. Thus, even when it fails, or is stamped out by violent reprisals, it is still on one plane a success, for having neutralised through responsible action the instinct to meet blow for blow. Yet, as recent history shows, civil resistance, while not evenly and universally effective, does not need any charitable definitions of success. As Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash, the editors of this volume of case studies of modern civil resistance campaigns around the world, argue, the idea of civil resistance has helped redefine revolution since the 1960s. Although violence remains endemic in human affairs, civil resistance “has assisted at the birth of a new genre of revolution, one that involves force but not the violence always associated with that word.”

One of the key emphases of Civil Resistance & Power Politics is that it understands civil resistance not as an ideal of moral action and non-violent “conversion” of the adversary through “truth-force” as Gandhi saw it, but simply as a strategy of practical politics. Moral transformation of the adversary is not essential to successful civil resistance. As the second half of the book’s title indicates, civil resistance is often a response to “power politics” – the negligence, manipulation, and active oppression demonstrated by those in power. But it seeks to counter that with a power politics of its own. Its morality is restricted to non-violence; beyond that it may legitimately be all calculation and pragmatism. We should neither romanticise the idea of civil resistance, nor believe, despite some of the more stirring stories around it, that it infallibly reaches its projected ends.

Indeed, as the scholar Judith M.Brown argues in a clear-eyed review of Gandhi’s civil resistance campaigns, mass action strategised by the most celebrated practitioner of the method, even though it significantly changed the terms of imperial engagement with the colonised, could not really be said to have brought an end to empire, as some hold. Other political and economic circumstances, such as the Second World War and Britain's own faltering interest in the idea of empire, were just as influential in tilting the balance of history in favour of Indian independence.

Gandhi certainly radically enlarged the terms of protest and negotiation available to the disenfranchised, and laid down a frame where any person, even a child, could join the movement as a political actor. Yet even here, Brown shows, his local campaigns directed towards a specific end, such as the farmers’ agitations in Champaran and Bardoli, were much more successful than his pan-Indian campaigns, where it became harder to exercise discipline all the way down the line. Among the lessons we learn from Gandhi’s example is that civil resistance does not usually yield instant results: it shifts the balance of power step by step. We learn also that much depends on the timing of civil protest, and on the adversary’s willingness to engage. During the Quit India campaign of 1942, for instance, the Raj’s attention was directed towards the World War, and Congress leaders engaged in programs of civil resistance were summarily rounded up and thrown into jail. The movement was not a success. So, as the career of even the most successful exponent of civil resistance shows, skilful strategy (and not just moral rigour) can immeasurably help improve the efficacy of civil resistance.

What factors improve the probability of civil resistance campaigns succeeding? The case studies offered here show that, since civil resistance is really a form of political theatre, widespread local and international publicity is certainly a factor. (The rise of the Internet and the availablity of cheap video technology are therefore good omens for civil resistance in the 21st century.) Astute leadership and discipline are very significant, as passions can often get out of hand in mass movements; "the crowd" is often only a step away from turning into "the mob". International support and the pressure of neighbouring powers, including the threat of economic sanctions, can often decisively influence the way domestic power holders perceive their options in dealing with civil resistance. So, as Christina Fink writes in her essay on the demonstrations by the monks in Burma in September 2007, the refusal by India and China, the two biggest powers in the region, to exert any pressure on the Burmese military regime to negotiate with the dissidents made it easier for the generals to crack down on the protests without fear of reprisal.

Most importantly, mass commitment, as Gandhi realised, makes for campaigns that cannot be crushed easily and without loss of face and authority, and provides a kind of safety in numbers. On the subject of the crowd in civil resistance movements, Garton Ash, one of the chroniclers of the people's movements of Eastern Europe that brought down communism in the late eighties, writes in his essay "A Century of Civil Resistance":
Peaceful revolutions, like the violent ones of old, are distinguished by the eruption of very large numbers of people – call them, according to taste, the masses, the people, the crowd, or the citizens – into public spaces, and hence onto history's stage.. They are the exceptional moments when, to adapt Karl Marx, the people make their own history; or at least, they feel they do. [...] There is strength in these numbers, and there is safety. Such mass gatherings break through the barrier of fear which, as Gandhi saw, is the essential bulwark of non-democratic regimes. [...] In the early twenty-first century, we need new studies of the crowd in these new-style revolutions. Their sociology cries out to be understood better, as do their group dynamics. This is, let is be said at once, difficult to do. You cannot interview 500,000 people. Even if you could, memory rewrites history.

I have spent many hours of my life standing in revolutionary crowds, on freezing squares from Warsaw in 1980 to Prague in 1989 to Kiev in 2004, and they remain gloriously mysterious. What is it that sways them one way or another? Who is it that comes up with the chants that erupt, apparently spontaneously, as the crowd speaks back to the speaker as if it were itself one person? Who, as we stood on Wencelas Square in Prague in 1989, had the idea of taking his or her ring out of his or her pocket, holding it up and rattling the keys like a Chinese bell? (Within minutes, some 300,000 people were doing the same, producing a sound that I shall never forget.) Perhaps even the person who really started it does not know.

[...] Freedom of expression – recovered, or fully enjoyed for the first time – is of the essence in such moments. As Alexander Solzenitsyn and Vaclav Havel both argued, the freedom to say what you want, to challenge a regime of organized lying with "one word of truth", is both a symptom and a cause of political change. When people "speak truth to power" they are themselves empowered. They shift the power balance simply by saying words in public.
The merit of this anthology is in the way it takes the reader forward from civil resistance as a beautiful and moving idea to civil resistance as, if you will, prosaic practice. Even as it seeks to reshape history itself, civil resistance has much to learn from its own history, and, as this book demonstrates, much history today to learn from.

Here is a good recent essay by Garton Ash: "Velvet Revolution: The Prospects" ("The prospects for an attempted velvet revolution depend not just on the nature of the state and society it happens in, but also on the place of that state and society in a wider international setting. Painting...with a very broad brush, one might suggest that the best chances are to be found in semiauthoritarian states that depend to a significant degree, politically, economically, and, so to speak, psychologically, on more democratic ones—and most especially when the foreign states with the most passive influence or active leverage on them are Western democracies. Thus, attempts have failed in large, independent, self-referential states such as China but also in small, isolated, peripheral ones such as Burma, sandwiched as it is between China and India.")

And here are two old posts: "On the Autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi" and "On Vaclav Havel's To The Castle And Back".

[A shorter version of this essay appeared last weekend in Mint Lounge]

1 comment:

Hari Batti said...

I haven't read this book but I enjoyed your review of it.

I don't think I'd agree, however, that "A hundred years ago, civil resistance as a political force was not much more than a minor curiosity." The major--and important-- exception to this, I would argue, was the abolitionist movement (especially, but not only, in the English speaking world).

The current consensus among many historians of slavery in the Americas is that it was not outlawed in the end because of economic forces; in fact, slavery was profitable. It took a massive, morally motivated movement to abolish slavery. You see the success of the British abolitionists in abolishing the Trans Atlantic slave trade and slavery in (most of) the colonies by 1833. That cost the Crown revenue.

When we think about the US, we sometimes assume that slavery was simply abolished by the Civil War--not a very civil movement! But that war (according to a review I read recently in the New York Review of Books) would have been unimaginable had it not been for a long, long civil movement against slavery. Interestingly, this movement was led, in many cases, by pacifists.

The abolitionist struggle influenced the suffragette movement--and Gandhi himself took ideas from that movement. Interestingly, Marcus Garvey was big in South Africa, though after Gandhi left. Still, I think it safe to assume that the world was better connected by ideas in those days than we might guess--they didn't have twitter, but they did have newspapers and sailors who talked a lot. (I haven't said anything about the labor movement, but I think you'd have to see that as a kind of civil resistance and it had one many victories by the turn of the 20th century.)

Your points about the Indian freedom movement, the need for strategic thinking (and luck!) are all well taken. Certainly, there were big forces in the world pushing toward independence after WWII. The British were tired and needed to spend resources on other things. But I think India's freedom movement (perhaps unlike the American abolitionist movement) was successful in part because it controlled the STORY of what happened.

I'd write this more carefully, but I have to do my day job!