Nonviolent Revolutions: Civil Resistance in the Late 20th Century

Nonviolent Revolutions: Civil Resistance in the Late 20th Century

Nonviolent Revolutions: Civil Resistance in the Late 20th Century

Nonviolent Revolutions: Civil Resistance in the Late 20th Century


In the spring of 1989, Chinese workers and students captured global attention as they occupied Tiananmen Square, demanded political change, and were tragically suppressed by the Chinese army. Months later, East German civilians rose up nonviolently, brought down the Berlin Wall, and dismantled their regime. Although both movements used tactics of civil resistance, their outcomes were different. Why?

In Nonviolent Revolutions, Sharon Erickson Nepstad examines these and other uprisings in Panama, Chile, Kenya, and the Philippines. Taking a comparative approach that includes both successful and failed cases of nonviolent resistance, Nepstad analyzes the effects of movements' strategies along with the counter-strategies regimes developed to retain power. She shows that a significant influence on revolutionary outcomes is security force defections, and explores the reasons why soldiers defect or remain loyal and the conditions that increase the likelihood of mutiny. She then examines the impact of international sanctions, finding that they can at times harm movements by generating new allies for authoritarian leaders or by shifting the locus of power from local civil resisters to international actors.

Nonviolent Revolutionsoffers essential insights into the challenges that civil resisters face and elucidates why some of these movements failed. With a recent surge of popular uprisings across the Middle East, this book provides a valuable new understanding of the dynamics and potency of civil resistance and nonviolent revolt.


Although it is seldom stated, scholars’ interests are often rooted in their biographical experiences. This is certainly true for me, as my interest in the revolutionary potential of nonviolence dates back to when, as an undergraduate, I first read about Gandhi. I was intrigued with his ability to transform morally principled pacifism into a strategic form of civil resistance that enabled him to defeat one of the strongest militaries of his era. The movement to liberate India demonstrated that nonviolence was a pragmatic alternative to war. Yet in the 1980s, as civil wars erupted throughout the world, I wondered how well we could adapt his strategies to repressive regimes in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe. Then, with utter awe, I watched the Philippines’ “bloodless revolution” unfold in the winter of 1986. Within days, Filipinos ousted a dictator who had been in power for 20 years and had established a reputation for brutality, corruption, and repression.

Shortly after the Philippine revolt, I began working for a peace organization in West Germany that, among other things, supported churches in East Germany that were promoting disarmament, human rights, and democracy. Their work was always accompanied by concerns over the omnipresent surveillance of the Stasi, the East German secret police, and the repressive consequences of activism. Yet they continued on, despite the fact that their organizing efforts appeared to have no direct influence on the government. But in the summer and fall of 1989, an unanticipated citizen uprising shook the East German state. Those of us in West Germany watched the news each night, amazed at the rapid change we were witnessing. Within a few short months, the Berlin Wall was gone, and the East German state disintegrated.

My experience in Germany convinced me that nonviolent action could be tremendously powerful, even in highly repressive regimes—a belief that was further reinforced as a wave of nonviolent revolts subsequently transformed numerous Eastern Europe regimes. But how did it happen? Could . . .

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