This is a two-part blog post. The first is basically a long quotation from Jonathan Schell on non-violent protest. That material, which is indented, is followed by my own reflections.
Over at TomDispatch, the long-running anti-imperial blog, Andy Kroll has posted an interview with Jonathan Schell, who, Kroll says, has been consistently right in his critiques of imperialism ever since the Vietnam War era, and who is therefore ignored by the policy-oriented media.
Schell has some interesting things to say about how non-violent protest, which he sees as invented by Gandhi "at the Empire Theater in Johannesburg, South Africa, on September 11, 1906," has changed politics and frustrated empires. He argues that even classic revolutions began with little violence:
AK: You point to four key moments in history -- the French, American, Glorious, and Bolshevik revolutions -- and describe how the real revolution, the nonviolent one, took place in the hearts and minds of the people in those countries. And that the bloody fighting that, in some cases, ensued was not the true revolution, but an extension of it. It's a revelatory part of the book. Did you already have this idea when you began Unconquerable World, or was it an Aha! moment along the way?
JS: It was really the latter. Gandhi's movement landed the most powerful blow against the entire British Empire, and the Solidarity movement and the revolution in Czechoslovakia and other popular activities in those places were in my opinion the real undoing of the Soviet Union. That's not the small change of history. Those were arguably the two greatest empires of their time. So, having seen that there was such power in nonviolence, I began to wonder: How did things work in other revolutions?
I was startled to discover that even in revolutions which, in the end, turned out to be supremely violent, the revolutionaries -- some of whom, like the Bolsheviks, didn’t even believe at all in nonviolence -- nonetheless proceeded largely without violence. Somebody quipped that more people were killed in the filming of Sergey Eisenstein's storming of the Winter Palace [in his Ten Days That Shook the World] than were killed in the actual storming. That was true because the Bolsheviks were really unopposed.
How could that be? Well, because they had won over the garrison of Saint Petersburg; they had, that is, won the “hearts and minds” of the military and the police.
AK: The Bastille was like that as well.
JS: The Bastille was absolutely like that. In that first stage of the French Revolution there was almost no violence at all. Some people were beheaded in the aftermath of the action, but the victory was not won through violence, but through the defection of the government’s minions. It didn't mean the revolutionaries loved nonviolence. On the contrary, what followed was the Terror, in the case of the French, and the Red Terror in the case of the Bolsheviks, who went on to shed far more blood as rulers than they had shed on their way to power.
JS: There is a conventional assumption that superior violence is always decisive. In other words, whatever you do, at the end of the day whoever has the biggest army is going to win. They're going to cross the border, impose their ideology or religion, they're going to kill the women and children, they're going to get the oil.
And honestly, you have to say that, through most of history, there was overwhelming evidence for the accuracy of that observation. I very much see the birth of nonviolence as something that, although not exactly missing from the pages of history previously, was fundamentally new in 1906. I think of it as a discovery, an invention.
The fundamental critique of it was that it doesn't work. The belief, more an unspoken premise than a conviction, was that if you want to act effectively in defense of your deepest beliefs or worst cravings, you have to pick up the gun, and as Mao Zedong said, power will flow from the barrel of that gun.
It took protracted demonstrations of the kind that we've been talking about to put nonviolence on the map. Now, by the way, states have come to understand this power and its dangers much better. Certainly, those who govern Egypt understand it. And what about the apparatchiks of the Soviet Union? They saw it firsthand -- the whole thing going down almost without a shot being fired.
Take, for instance, the government of Iran. They're very worried foreign activists or certain books might show up in their country, because they're afraid that a soft or velvet revolution will take place in Iran. And they're right to worry. They've had two big waves of protest already, most recently the Green Revolution of 2009-2010.
It hasn't succeeded there yet. And to be clear, there's nothing magical about nonviolence. It's a human thing. It's not a magic wand that you wave over empires and totalitarian regimes and they simply melt away, though sometimes it’s seemed that way. There can, of course, be failure. Look at what the people in Syria face right now. And look at the staggering raw courage they've displayed in going out into the streets again and again in the face of so many slaughtered in their country. It's anyone's guess who's going to emerge as the victor there.
AK: It can fail.
JS: It does fail. But the fact that it can succeed suggests something new historically.
This is very interesting material (say I, Steve Muhlberger), quite worthy of prolonged contemplation, but it has this weakness: it ignores the problem of consolidating the gains that people power can sometimes win. When the crowds go home, after having won significant concessions, perhaps a new Constitution, perhaps a popular government, what will prevent all that progress from being eroded, from being stolen by the men who will shoot down the women and children, arrest the inconvenient writers musicians and academics, or just bit by bit steal public property and privatize public power for the benefit of themselves, their children and their allies?
We have got techniques that have shown some success in preventing these outcomes. But many of us have ceased to understand how important these techniques are and how exactly these techniques are supposed to work. We, the not so rich and not so important, have gotten lazy.
The chief of these techniques, but not the only one, is honest elections that select, authorize and legitimize our public officials. No electoral system is perfect, but there are certain obvious methods that serve to rein in the less worthy tendencies of any group of people who have been granted power. The basic elements are rules that make it easy for people who legitimately hold the franchise to exercise it, and rules and institutions that assure that the votes cast by those people are accurately counted. (You, reader, can think of more.) The rules don't implement themselves. Without the habit and the determination of ordinary people to supervise the supervisors, elections become corrupt amazingly fast.
Examples of how such corruption establishes itself are almost too numerous to mention, except that nobody does mention them. Note the recent history of that that long established democracy, the United States of America. Anyone who believes that the presidential election of 2000 constituted a democratic and honest election is either partisan or a fool. I see no reason to grant legitimacy to the 2004 presidential election, either. Recent polls in the state of Wisconsin, where a radical agenda is being imposed by the state government, have to arouse deep suspicion, simply because in classic manner votes mysteriously materialize exactly when and where they are needed, and no one can explain where the votes came from. Add to this the effort by American conservatives to disenfranchise as many poor and otherwise disadvantaged people as they can, and the Supreme Court's decisions that allows the rich to set up corporate bodies that can spend unlimited amounts of money on elections, and you have a Constitution that is in serious trouble.
Canadians are fond of saying that things aren't nearly as bad here as they are in the United States, and that is usually true. Nevertheless the Canadian Constitution is in serious trouble, too. It is finally coming out that there was an organized effort to discourage people from voting in the last federal election by calling them and telling them that their polling place had been relocated, on the guise of passing on official information from Elections Canada. I say "it is finally coming out" because the election was all the way back in May. Elections Canada has an honorable history – see my review of an interesting book on the history of the vote in Canada – but it has been negligent up to now. (One wonders if the federal government has been starving it of funding and personnel.) We are now coming to a crucial moment in our history. Will the public get angry and demand a thorough investigation and the prosecution of wrongdoers? And if the current governing party is found to have used such tactics, will the public demand that it step down?
The corrosive element in both the United States and in Canada is the attitude that politics is so uninspiring and basically dirty that good people like us should stay as far away from it as possible. Maybe we should not even vote, after all, "they are all the same." The Occupy movement, for all its positive aspects, is a perfect manifestation of that attitude, of the ideas that elections don't really matter. At the same time people who are deeply dissatisfied with the politics of our times never seem to make a connection between the results of elections and the noxious policies they disapprove of, which are put in place by people who won the last election. People who contribute to political parties, people who serve as officers in political parties, people who volunteer their labor to their political party, heck, people who join political parties: they make the laws. The people who only vote, or don't even bother to do that, they merely suffer under the laws, which are designed to serve the interests of the people who take politics seriously. And most of them are considerably better off than you are, and understand very well how power works.
The same politically active people have more influence over what the media says about politics than the apathetic majority. Is it any wonder that one message that consistently comes from the media is that you and I should stay apathetic about politics? That it's basically a spectator sport -- if you are cool enough to sit back and laugh at the fools who take it seriously?
There is such a thing as being too cool – maybe too cool to live.
If democracy is going to survive in places where it has been established in the past, ordinary citizens are going to have to take the kind of interest in the workings of the franchise and the structure of the Constitution that serious people took in the 19th century. They will have to work elections, and not merely participate at a minimal level, or just sit back and watch. The theory and practice of nonviolent action are great inventions for sure, but even nonviolence has its limits.