Guest Editorial: Ethical and/or Strategic Nonviolence

by Sean Chabot

Editor’s Preface: An article by Nathan Schneider, which we posted 9 January, drew attention to a controversial essay by Sean Chabot and Majid Sharifi, which we also posted on the same day. Nathan’s article drew a flurry of comments, which bear consulting at this link, and to which Sean Chabot responded. Sean was also kind enough to answer some of our own questions and all of his comments have been edited into the following Guest Editorial. JG

First of all, I want to say that I am grateful to all those who have commented on the article I co-authored with Majid Sharifi, thus initiating a dialogue with critics as well as supporters. It is by sharing our relative (and therefore inherently flawed) glimpses of truth that we improve our individual and collective experiments with truth. I will try to reference the main disagreements and agreements in the hope of providing further clarity.

Ethical (principled) versus strategic (pragmatic) nonviolence

In his preface to The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Gene Sharp states that his project is scientific and that he will, therefore, not address ethics or cultural belief systems. I disagree with separating ethics/culture from strategy/politics and would agree with Howard Zinn’s remark that “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.” (1) Although I appreciate Robert Burrowes’ distinctions between pragmatic/principled and reformist/revolutionary forms of nonviolence, I feel it sets up a false dichotomy. (2) I prefer Gandhi’s focus on “value-rational strategy” and find Sharp’s strict focus on “instrumental-rational strategy” problematic.

External forces imposing Gandhi or Sharp on civil resisters

Our article does not argue that people should adopt a fixed set of Gandhian strategies and principles determined and imported by outsiders. It problematizes the mass media’s presentation of Sharp as “the guru of nonviolent revolution” and the popular impression that Sharp’s westernized scientific model of nonviolent action was the basic source of inspiration for people-power struggles around the world. In my view, civil resistance scholars have generally perpetuated the “Sharp as hero” frame rather than highlighting its dangers and proposing other frames. I don’t dispute Sharp’s academic contributions. I find them useful as an overview of techniques and case studies but also find them seriously limited theoretically (especially on the subjects of power, oppression, and transformation) and practically, in focusing primarily on “bringing down dictators” rather than on what Marina Sitrin calls “everyday revolutions”. (3) I don’t agree that nonviolent struggles are mostly about shifting political power from “the regime” to “the people” in the hopes of forming another (liberal-democratic) regime. As Gandhi famously noted in Hind Swaraj (and confirmed throughout his life), such approaches merely replace “the tiger” (from one tyranny to another tyranny) without seriously confronting and creating alternatives to “the tiger’s nature”, what Audre Lorde refers to as the oppressor deeply planted within each of us. (4)

Faulting the Iranian and Egyptian people for not achieving Gandhian utopias

Our article does not blame Iranians (in fact, co-author Majid Sharifi is Iranian) or Egyptians for neo-liberal agendas or political failures, but points to the tragedy of winning the war against oppressive leaders without significantly improving the plight of “the most oppressed in society,” which according to Gandhi (and many other decolonizing revolutionaries, including Fanon) was the main test for personal as well as collective struggle. Like Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine, for example, we are concerned about the trend wherein neo-liberalism seems to emerge as the dominant logic and discourse in the wake of every crisis, like the proverbial Trojan Horse. Klein and others show that this happened in the Czech Republic, South Africa, and other countries, but I feel something similar applies to Iran’s Green movement, Egypt’s uprising, and other apparently revolutionary movements in recent years. Unfortunately, I think that history is proving that “political liberation” gained through nonviolent resistance does not necessarily enable “socio-economic liberation,” especially if political liberation implies adopting the dominant neo-liberal capitalist model of representative democracy that has prevailed in Euro-American parts of the world.

Sharp as facilitator of capitalism and neo-liberalism

Our article explicitly states that we are not attacking Sharp personally or making accusations about his political views. We are problematizing his arguments and texts, which say little about the connections between neo-liberal capitalism and nonviolence, while defining violence and nonviolence in overly simplistic terms. As described by his grandson Arun Gandhi, Gandhi gave him a list near the end of his life of seven blunders causing a continuum of passive and active violence: wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, worship without sacrifice, and politics without principle. Capitalism in general and neo-liberalism in particular are obviously closely connected to each of these seven blunders. In addition, nonviolent action that does not confront and create alternative ways of life to these seven blunders is inadequate, if not counter-productive. But rethinking the concepts of violence and nonviolence, and relationships between them, would entail a more comprehensive article than a Guest Editorial. Suffice it to say that Sharp’s lack of attention to capitalism and neo-liberalism in relation to civil resistance is a serious oversight that needs to be addressed.

As we mention in our article, Sharp also explicitly relies on Freedom House to distinguish between democratic and non-democratic regimes in the world. (5) I don’t want to repeat what we say in the article, which was posted here on 9 January, but just want to emphasize that Freedom House explicitly aims at promoting U.S. leadership in the world, while its concepts of freedom and democracy are closely aligned with neo-liberalism and contemporary capitalism. Since Sharp’s approach to nonviolent action seeks to enable civil resisters around the world to achieve “freedom and democracy” according to Freedom House’s concepts and criteria, it reproduces neo-liberalism whether Sharp personally favors its policies and logic or not.

Sharp’s contribution to the field of civil resistance

I object to the assertion that Sharp’s innovative strategic model is the central reason that civil resistance has evolved as a major political force. (6) Saying that the scientific ideas of a white, male, American, former Harvard professor are the most important source for contemporary civil resistance struggles around the world (especially those outside of the West) sounds like a clear example of “intellectual colonialism”.

Civil resistance as malleable and used for various political ends.

This is exactly why our article warns against fetishizing nonviolence as good in itself and critically examines the content and repercussions of nonviolent struggles. It draws special attention to whether nonviolence benefits the dignity and capacity for self-rule among “the most oppressed in society,” not just to whether “the people” adopting strategic nonviolence win against “the regime” stifling their desire for freedom and democracy. Bringing down violent dictators or regimes does not necessarily reduce the multiple roots and tentacles of violence in society. To evaluate whether nonviolent struggles contribute to nonviolent societies in the long run requires critically examining the continuum of violence as well as nonviolence.

Pragmatic civil resistance

I might add some further, concluding remarks by referring to an article you posted by Mary Elizabeth King, and specifically to her following statements:

“Collective nonviolent action is not a creed and does not require religious belief or spirituality. An important and often misunderstood point is that the behavior of participants defines nonviolent action, not their convictions or adherence to a credo. It is a choice of pragmatism, not idealism. . . Nonviolent struggle is not a form of idealism and pacifism, although individual adherents may consider themselves philosophical idealists and others may personally be pacifists. The designation of nonviolent resistance as pacifism was discredited in the early 1970s in a sweeping study of nonviolent struggle by the scholar Gene Sharp . . .”

Mary King makes the typical modernist/positivist move of splitting reason from emotion, instrumental from moral, interests from values, and favoring the first part of these binaries. Like Sharp, this gives the appearance of enlightened, scientific, rationalist analysis in order to justify nonviolent action in generic terms and not have to worry about the complexities or contradictions of human psychology, relationships, interactions, and communities. Few social theorists dare to make such a straightforward case for positivism.

Gandhi as well as other decolonizing thinkers/practitioners recognized how positivist social science was actually an integral part of imperialist projects and colonizing forces, long before poststructuralists and post-colonialists started doing so. Ashis Nandy, whose article on Gandhi you have on your website, is one of my favorite authors on this subject. To use his terms, Mary King (along with most Sharpians) almost completely ignores “the intimate enemy” that is so crucial to avoid in order that violent or nonviolent resistance do not lead to one tyranny replacing another. The split of the political/instrumental-rational from the moral/value-rational is a way to promote nonviolent resistance that sounds progressive (even radical) while actually reinforcing the status quo in our colonial-capitalist world-system.

Endnotes: (JG)

(1) Howard Zinn (1922 –2010) was an American historian, author, playwright, and social activist. He was a professor of political science at Boston University and the author of more than 20 books. The title of his autobiography, to which Chabot is referring, is You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.

(2) Robert Burrowes is the author of The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense: A Gandhian Approach. His website has links to his publications and biographical information.

(3) Marina Sitrin is a writer, lawyer, teacher, organizer, and militant. She is the editor of Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina (2006) AK Press, Edinburgh & Oakland, CA, and more recently, Everyday Revolutions: Horizontalism and Autonomy in Argentina (2012) from which this distinction is drawn.

(4) Audre Lorde (1934 –1992) was a Caribbean-American writer and civil rights activist. Please consult her Wikipedia page for more information.

(5) Freedom House was co-founded in 1941 by Wendall Wilkie and Eleanor Roosevelt, and is an NGO. By its own statements it receives most of its funding from the US government. The FH Wikipedia article may be consulted, and their own website also gives an idea of their activities and research.

(6) It has been claimed that without Sharp having taken nonviolence “across the threshold of strategic insight, enabling many campaigns and movements eventually to apply it in novel and even historic ways, civil resistance is unlikely to have developed its present acceptance as a major political force.” The remark is by Jack DuVall, co-author with Peter Ackerman of the book and film A Force More Powerful. Ackerman is a former director of Freedom House.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sean Chabot is professor in the Sociology & Criminal Justice Department, Eastern Washington University, in Cheney, Washington. He is the author of Transnational Roots of the Civil Rights Movement: African American Explorations of the Gandhian Repertoire. New York: Lexington Books, 2013. He has served on the editorial board for Resistance Studies Magazine and the advisory board for Interface: A Journal For and About Social Movements.

“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