Book Review: Understanding Nonviolence

by Tristan K. Husby

Dustwrapper art courtesy Polity Press;

The phrase “Those who can’t do, teach” is so well ingrained in the English vernacular that there is a range of variations, such as “Those who can’t teach, go into administration” or “Those who can’t teach, teach gym.” Knowledge of this phrase is so widespread that a current sit-com about incompetent teachers is simply titled “Those Who Can’t”. Less well known is that the Irish intellectual, playwright, and wit George Bernard Shaw coined this phrase. His original rendition, “He who can, does. He who can’t, teaches”, was one of the aphorisms in his Maxims for Revolutionists. Another axiom from the same book is “Activity is the only road to knowledge.”

That last sums up a great deal of the history of nonviolence. For to a great degree the history of nonviolence is a history of organizers, activists, and leaders first teaching others why nonviolence is an effective method and then working together with those people for change. The recent anthology, Understanding Nonviolence, edited by Maia Carter Hallward and Julie M. Norman (Malden, MA: Polity, 2015) aims to help aid in the discussion; it is explicitly pedagogical, with discussion questions and suggestions for further reading included in each chapter. Furthermore, jargon is kept to a minimum and the authors use endnotes sparingly. However, labeling this book as pedagogical does not mean that it is contains exercises for training nonviolent actions or flowcharts for planning strategies. Rather, this book is pedagogical in that it aims to help students study nonviolence.

Understanding Nonviolence is a primer for the subfield of nonviolence studies, a subfield related to, but as the editors are eager to point out, increasingly distinct from either the study of conflict resolution or peace studies. Nonviolence studies examine social movements, that is, how people organize outside of governmental and military organizations in order to achieve political and economic goals. Indeed, one thing that the book emphasizes quite well is that people from all around the world have engaged in and continue to engage in nonviolence, not only using individual tactics but also multi-year campaigns. The writers also do not simply revisit well-known events, such as the struggle for South African independence. Instead, Understanding Nonviolence introduces readers to movements such as the one for independence in Western Sahara and organizations such as the international movement La Via Campensia, a network of peasants and farmers now based in Harare, Zimbabwe.

This diversity of examples is matched by the book’s diversity of methodologies. The chapter “Civil Rights and Domestic Policy” (by Amanda D. Clark and Patrick G. Coy) is essentially a history of anti-segregation activism in Nashville, Tennessee. In contrast, the chapter “Spiritual and Religious Approaches to Nonviolence” (by Mohammed Abu-Nimer) first examines the connections and similarities of leaders such as Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Thich Nhat Hanh, then closely analyzes the multifaceted relationship of nonviolence, religion and social movements in the Arab Spring. This is especially valuable as an antidote to Islamophobia, as it reveals how, for many years, Muslims have used nonviolence when organizing against dictators. It also highlights Jawdat Said, whose theological writings on nonviolence deserve wide recognition, as noted in an article previously posted on this site.

For most of the contributions, the writers use a methodology from one of the social sciences, whether political science or sociology. Chapters such as “Revolutions and Democratic Transitions” (by Maciej J. Bartkowski) and “Questions of Strategy” (by Stephen Zunes), consist of brief case studies as part of a larger argument. As a result, readers learn about Basque worker cooperatives and how the Polish Solidarity movement consisted of more than just Lech Walesa. Through careful editing, there is also minimal repetition of examples or even definition of terms, hard work that pays off in making it very easy to read the essays sequentially. However, it is clear two works in particular greatly influenced many of the authors, Gene Sharp’s The Politics of Nonviolent Action and Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan’s Why Civil Resistance Works. While these two works were written by academics, they nonetheless diverge on how to write about nonviolence.

The first volume of Sharp’s three volume The Politics of Nonviolent Action was published in 1973. The trilogy is famous for explaining the value of nonviolence in thoroughly practical terms and also for providing an exhaustive list of possible nonviolent actions that organizations can perform. Sharp is also known for founding the Albert Einstein Institution, which publishes and distributes materials on nonviolence for activists around the world.

Why Civil Resistance Works was published in 2011 but, as testified by being cited so frequently, has already had a large impact within nonviolence studies. Chenoweth and Stephan surveyed hundreds of campaigns for political independence conducted throughout the twentieth century and concluded that nonviolent campaigns were more likely to succeed and that these campaigns were more likely to transition to democracies. On the one hand, both books are academic in the sense that the authors make an extended argument based on carefully researched evidence. On the other hand, they pursue different purposes: Chenoweth and Stephan want to convince their readers of the particular reasons why nonviolence works while Sharp wants to do that and provide tactics for practicing it. In other words, while Chenoweth and Stephan are concerned with proving the efficacy of nonviolence, Sharp intends to guide his readers into action.

In the volume under review, there is a similar close relationship between writing and action in Srdja Popovic and Marcella Alvarez’s contribution, “New Media and Advocacy”. This is not surprising as Popovic was a leader in Otpor!, the nonviolent movement that overthrew the dictator Slobodan Milosevic. Since then, he has worked at the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, along with his co-author Alvarez. This experience provides the material for their chapter, in which they combine reflection on Otpor!’s use of text messages with a level-headed discussion of just how regimes have adapted in order to prevent Facebook, Twitter and other internet platforms from becoming tools for nonviolent revolution. The chapter is an excellent combination of practical wisdom gained from experience as well as a thoughtful analysis of the possibilities and limitations of digital media.

The book also demonstrates how various contemporary thinkers are now moving beyond some of the traditional weaknesses within nonviolent thinking and scholarship. While thinkers such as Sharp, Chenoweth and Stephan have articulated how people throughout history have worked together to make political change, articulating how to use that political power to create a more equitable and just economy has proved more elusive. Indeed, Sharp is honest that his work does not address economic problems; he even asserts that it is for younger thinkers and activists to answer such questions.

It was heartening, therefore, to find in Understanding Nonviolence the chapter “Rural Movements and Economic Policy”(by Kurt Schock), which includes a close analysis of the Assembly of the Poor’s work in Thailand and the Landless Rural Workers Movement in Brazil, both of which are current and active organizations. Indeed, the book frequently points to contemporary campaigns or actions when providing examples, and further concludes with a chapter that looks ahead for both the future of nonviolence and nonviolence studies. Since this book aims to educate college students, hopefully the future of nonviolence studies will include thinkers who take up Sharp’s challenge on economics.

Hopefully such students will also follow George Bernard Shaw’s maxim on knowledge and activity cited above, and therefore work to make their economic plans reality. However, there is another Shaw maxim that deserves our attention: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Humans around the world continue to resort to violence in part because it appears to be the most reasonable way to solve their problems. Understanding Nonviolence provides many examples that point to the contrary, suggesting that those who appear to be unreasonable in their demands for nonviolence are instead being the most reasonable people of all.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Tristan K. Husby is a sixth year PhD student at Graduate Center, City University New York writing his dissertation on Greek and Roman slavery. His website has an overview of his career and interests.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi