Academic journal article Social Education

A Force More Powerful a Century of Nonviolent Conflict

Academic journal article Social Education

A Force More Powerful a Century of Nonviolent Conflict

Article excerpt



One Friday night in December 1981, Lech Walesa and other leaders of Solidarity were arrested after a meeting in Gdansk. For 16 months their free trade-union movement had shaken the foundation of the Communist Party's hold on Poland through factory occupations and strikes. Now martial law had been imposed, and Solidarity was looking down the gun barrel of defeat. When he was taken away, Walesa challenged his captors. "At this moment, you lost," he warned them. "We are arrested, but you have driven a nail into your communist coffin ... You'll come back to us on your knees."(1)

If only violence is power and if repression has no answer, Walesa's words were foolish. But he knew that Solidarity, by depriving the regime of the Polish people's support, had already defined the course of the conflict. When the state had run out of ways to coerce their compliance, it would have to come to terms. Seven years later Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the leader who had jailed Walesa, invited him and other Solidarity leaders to roundtable talks that led to a new government. In 1990 Walesa, a shipyard electrician only 10 years before, became president of Poland. He had never fired a shot, nor had anyone in Solidarity. But together they threw back the shroud of authoritarian power and gave freedom to every Pole.

A FORCE MORE POWERFUL is about popular movements battling entrenched regimes or military forces with weapons very different from guns and bullets. Strikes, boycotts or other disruptive actions were used as sanctions, as aggressive measures to constrain or punish opponents and to win concessions. Petitions, parades, walkouts and demonstrations roused public support for the resisters. Forms of noncooperation (such as boycotts, resignations and civil disobedience) helped subvert the operations of government. And direct intervention in the form of sit-ins, nonviolent sabotage and blockades frustrated many rulers' efforts to subjugate people.(2)

The historical results were massive: tyrants were toppled, governments were overthrown, occupying armies were impeded and political systems that withheld human rights were shattered. Entire societies were transformed, suddenly or gradually, by nonviolent resistance that destroyed opponents' ability to control events. How this happened, and the ideas underlying nonviolent action, are the focus of this documentary television series and its companion book.

In 1936 Mohandas Gandhi was visited by a well-known African American minister and his wife. They asked him whether nonviolent resistance was "a form of direct action." Gandhi replied vigorously, "It is not one form, it is the only form ... It is the greatest and the most activist force in the world ... It is a force which is more positive than electricity, and more powerful than even ether." For Gandhi, nonviolent resistance was more than belief. He conceived of it, as if it were a kind of science, with laws to be applied, yielding power that was predictable.(3)

Few who relied on nonviolent sanctions in the twentieth century did so because of a principled attachment to nonviolence. For some, arms were unavailable as a way to fight. Others had seen a violent insurrection fail, at devastating cost to life and property. But they had no desire to be passive: they wanted passionately to overturn the rulers or the laws that subjected them. Therefore, they chose to fight with a different form of weapon.

The leaders who opted for nonviolent weapons often learned from resistance movements of the past. Indian nationalist leader Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) was inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1905. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other African American leaders traveled to India to study Gandhi's tactics. When Chileans organized against the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet in the 1980s, and Filipinos organized against Ferdinand Marcos, the president of their country from 1965 to 1986, they were influenced by Richard Attenborough's motion picture Gandhi. …

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