Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experiments of Non-Violent Action from Gandhi to the Present

By MacLeod, Jason | Social Alternatives, First Quarter 2010 | Go to article overview

Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experiments of Non-Violent Action from Gandhi to the Present


MacLeod, Jason, Social Alternatives


Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experiments of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present edited by Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash 2009. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-955201-6.

Civil resistance - nonviolent action for democracy, equal rights and liberation from foreign military occupation - has shaped the political landscape we live in. However, there has been a paucity of research into the dynamics of this form of unarmed collective civilian power. The authors, all area specialists and/or scholars of civil resistance, analyse 19 case studies, covering prominent historical people power movements as well as struggles that have been less examined through the lens of civil resistance. Eschewing universalism, Roberts and Garton Ash illustrate that civil resistance is neither a 'panacea' nor a 'foreign plot'. However, civil resistance does not occur solely within the confines of particular states, disconnected from other events and other struggles. Learning, and the exchange of ideas and strategies, takes place across time and place.

Case studies are 'book-ended' by an introduction by Adam Roberts, a conclusion by Timothy Garton Ash and a comprehensive review of the literature on civil resistance by April Carter. Roberts and Garton Ash avoid the term 'nonviolence', arguing that is associated with moral or religious values. In contrast, in all the movements covered by the book- with the exceptions of India, the civil rights struggle in the U. S and the unarmed insurrection led by monks in Burma in 2007, the choice to use nonviolent action was a pragmatic one.

It is the investigation of the complex relationship between civil resistance and other forms of power politics - armed struggle and conventional political process revolving around the state and the international community, including negotiations and military action that makes this study so interesting. For example, civil rights activists in the United States sometimes depended on armed protection from federal police. King also used nonviolent confrontation to provoke a violent backlash. Repression by Southern police, politicians and the Klan aided the movement because it contrasted with the nonviolent discipline of civil rights activists and played out as kind of moral drama. When these events were communicated, particularly via television, to national and international authences they functioned to galvanise third party support and compelled the U. S federal government to take action on the side of civil rights. Other case studies, such as Serbia, show that civil resistance prevailed where force (seventy-eight days of NATO bombing) failed. However, even notions of success and failure are not always what they seem. The apparent failure of the Prague Spring in 1968 helped lay the foundations for the Velvet Revolution some twenty years later. …

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