Data points on tactics and revolution

An article by George Lakey is circulating around the Internet* under the headline, “The More Violence, The Less Revolution.” While title is a quotation from 1930s radical Bart de Ligt, the thrust of the piece is to read Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s large-scale study Why Civil Resistance Works (website) under this headline. Chenoweth and Stephan do make a serious and wide-ranging attempt to measure the outcomes of tactical choices made by movements, and both their data and conclusions should be read widely among people interested in changing their societies. Chenoweth and Stephan’s expansive category of civil resistance is actually one that spans across existing internal debates in the Occupy Movement (and earlier generations of tactical debates in the global justice movement and elsewhere). Vitally, their analysis of what conditions make civil resistance successful can help us focus our tactical conversations in a very productive direction.**

George Lakey, while an opponent of both violent tactics and property destruction, issued a strong rejoinder to Chris Hedges’ The Cancer in Occupy, arguing: “The issue of the appropriateness of property destruction and/or violence is, like any other aspect of community organizing, not settled by blanket statements or posturing but by getting in there and dialoguing, over and over again.  Advocates of nonviolent action need to learn from the Civil Rights movement and the field of community organizing in this way—there really aren’t any shortcuts.” Lakey has developed a nuanced, historically informed position on nonviolence. His strategic approach to thinking about nonviolence that has been surprisingly contagious internationally. And Lakey is willing to have difficult conversations with people who profoundly disagree with him, to his credit.

However, Lakey’s headline and overall argument are a misreading of Chenoweth and Stephan. This rankles me both as a social scientist (quibble ahead) and as a student of/participant in freedom struggles. First, the quibble: Why Civil Resistance Works and related studies divide all struggles into “nonviolent” (like the first Intifada, Lavalas against the Duvaliers in Haiti, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, and the Defiance Campaign in South Africa) and “violent” (like the Mexican, Chinese, Algerian, and Iranian Revolutions). 0 for “nonviolent,” 1 for “violent.” (Incidentally, I think my four examples on each side of the “nonviolent”/”violent” categorization is a fairly good representation of successful cases, biased towards things anyone reading this blog would probably recognize. A complete list is in the Methodological Appendix [pdf] they posted online.) A dichotomous variable (definition) cannot be used to produce the more x, the less y statements. Ever.

Okay, so the real problem here is the made plain by the wide, wide variety of things crammed into the nonviolent category, including nearly all of the tactical patterns Lakey and those citing this study through him are most likely to rail against inside of movements: confronting police with bricks and stones (Intifada), building burning barricades in the streets (Defiance campaign), yielding the moral high ground by defending against violence rather than showcasing differences in suffering. Both such militant, but ultimately civil revolutions and nearly pacifist mobilizations like Solidarity in Poland or the Velvet Revolution have much to teach us about how to resist.

Fundamentally, the question that the Chenoweth/Stephan analysis asks is quite different. Their method (regardless of how they talk about it) asks, “Should movements militarize their revolts?,” and the answer they provide is a fairly resounding no. Their argument includes both likelihood of success measures (across their sample, fewer violent revolutions succeeded) and after-the-revolution questions about what happens next. One feature of this argument is the democracy five years after question: is there a multiparty democracy in place five years after the overthrow of the prior regime?  No successful violent insurgency succeeds on that score (although we can mourn the Spanish Republic not making it that long). As WCRW puts it:

In the larger picture, however, we cannot readily dismiss roughly half of the overcoming of colonialism. Nor do statistical comparisons of “overall effectiveness” help us invent nonviolent alternatives for people facing imperial wars like France’s in Algeria or the United States’ in Vietnam. (For a reflection why people supporting justice should have supported Vietnamese resistance during the war, even in light of the country’s next thirty years, it’s worth the trouble of reading the conclusion of Gabriel Kolko’s Vietnam: Anatomy of a Peace.)

In an attempt to work through a best case scenario, Lakey puts forward a gold standard of revolutionary success:

  • [overthrew the regime]
  • “established democracy afterward
  • and curbed the dominant power of the 1 percent [economic elites]”

In social science studies, this is not just a revolution, but a democratic revolution and a social revolution. What kinds of action could achieve this? is really the crucial question. Taking Power, John Foran’s wide-ranging study of  Third World Revolutions finds just ten major social revolutions (the third criterion) that were successful in the long-term, all of them violent but none of them democratic. He also finds seven social revolutions that were reversed, two by electoral defeat (including Nicaragua, where a decade-long insurgency came first) and five by externally-backed coups. Four of these were civilian efforts: led by Arbenz in Guatemala, Allende in Chile, Bishop in Grenada, and Manley in Jamaica. Elsewhere, some of the brightest lights among the political revolutions have failed to really break up elite economic power in any meaningful way: South Africa, Eastern Europe, the Philippines.

Surveying across the data, I would say: The shortage of nonviolent social revolutions places the burden on advocates of nonviolence to explain the methods by which large amounts of property can be redistributed to the poor without violence. And even more difficult, to explain how ownership relations in factories and agriculture can change—transferring control from owners to workers—without violence. On the other hand, the shortage of violent democratic revolutions places the burden on advocates of a military conflict to explain how their methods will allow for a participatory democracy to emerge. No one can look at the history of the past century and point to consistent success of their method at achieving revolutionary transformations.

(Looking across this panorama, the heavy weight of external intervention, often by the United States, becomes a crucial factor. Unless we can stop the next Clinton from strong-arming or overthrowing the next Aristide, the conversation about how to start transformative revolutions is irrelevant for important parts of the world. From the positive side, movements seeking social transformation have the challenge of creating enduring new orders that can resist that kind of external pressure, something that has historically happened through limits on democratic freedom. Civil resistance as the defense against such coups, which succeeded in 2002 in Venezuela and 2008 in Bolivia, could alter this balance.)

Having delved heavily into Bolivia, one of Foran’s reversed cases, I can point out a thing or two. First, it was only through the disruptive phase of the 1952 Revolution that peasants living in servitude took over the land of the feudal landlords. They did so violently, and through widespread initiative. Their continued organization and militancy secured this gain of the Revolution as essentially the only that was still recognized during even the dictatorships of the 1970s. Something similar, though less violent, happened in Chilean factories in the early 1970s and a small sector of Argentine factories early in this decade; and on latifundio lands of Brazil under the MST and of Chiapas under the Zapatistas. Direct action and temporary cessation of the rule of law—which can be achieved more or less combatively—in an area seem to help the process of social revolution. Again, the burden of proof seems to be on those who propose that property can change change hands without taking it by force or grabbing hold of it and defending it.

Second, I think Bolivia has briefly met Lakey’s criteria, twice: in 1952 and in 2005. Neither revolution created a utopian society, but both upended political exclusions (allowing both the indigenous majority and women to vote for the first time; creating the first indigenous and working-class party in government) and some class concentrations in land and distribution of state wealth. The first time involved guns, the second time fighting in the streets. Sssh!

Third, the Bolivia’s combative political culture illustrates two things. First, that new levels of political conflict can become part of a political culture. Ten years ago, large-scale blockades were controversial tactics subject to attack by the media and large-scale deployment of military force. Today, they are a regular part of political negotiation in the country. If a tactic redistributes power to the public and allows the achievement of political goals, we should think about how to make it palatable or acceptable, rather than be led to believe that when the press is talking about our tactics, it means our message isn’t being heard. Second, tactical choices are embedded in historical traditions; they can’t just be copied, but instead must be understood for what they mean where they are practiced. When they succeed, they are contagious. But until they become contagious, they will seem strange to a lot of people and require a great deal of explanation. This is true for bike-locking your neck to a door, building a barricade in the street, or occupying a university building.

Now go through these 323 cases, and learn what worked!

* Having entered into the subject of tactics, I may find it difficult to stay out of the more reflective parts of this ongoing discussion. This will include parsing through more of Why Civil Resistance Works, including some celebratory highlights of its findings and some critiques of the underlying data.

Ultimately, I think Chenoweth and Stephan are complicit in making this part of their research confusing, especially since their language in the book is more ambiguous and less in line with their methodological material.

** One smart example: “Our central contention is that nonviolent campaigns have a participation advantage over violent insurgencies, which is an important factor in determining campaign outcomes. The moral, physical, informational, and commitment
barriers to participation are much lower for nonviolent resistance than for violent insurgency. Higher levels of participation contribute to a number of mechanisms necessary for success, including enhanced resilience, higher probabilities of tactical innovation, expanded civic disruption (thereby raising the costs to the regime of maintaining the status quo), and loyalty shifts involving the opponent’s erstwhile supporters, including members of the security forces.”

2 thoughts on “Data points on tactics and revolution

  1. “The shortage of nonviolent social revolutions places the burden on advocates of nonviolence to explain the methods by which large amounts of property without violence to explain how this will happen.” <– Huh? The grammar gets derailed midway into this clause…


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