How to crush oppression without killing justice

'A Force More Powerful" challenges a longstanding myth that lies at the heart of much of the turmoil of the 20th century: that power comes from the barrel of a gun. Beginning with Lenin - whose successful coup d'tat in Russia became the standard model for would-be revolutionaries - through Mao in China, Franz Fanon in Algeria, and Fidel Castro in Cuba, an idea was increasingly glorified that violent revolution was not only effective and legitimate, but would also prove to be psychologically liberating for the oppressed.

"A Force More Powerful" makes clear that revolutionary violence undermines chances to create a genuine, workable democracy, while nonviolent movements can confront oppression more effectively and lead to more democratic results.

Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall examine two dozen episodes of "political struggle, social upheaval, and military action" on five continents.

Their most vivid accounts cover Gandhi's movement in India, the struggle to integrate lunch counters in Nashville, Tenn., the behavior of Danish citizens during the German occupation, and the rise and eventual triumph of Solidarity in Poland.

At each moment in the history of these struggles, activists had to make difficult choices - how to organize reluctant and wary citizens, what to demand, and how far to go before retreating or accepting a compromise.

Gandhi's campaign of satiyagraha (a combination of the Hindu words for "truth" and "holding firmly") has long been regarded as the model for nonviolent resistance. His fundamental realization was that the British could not rule India "without the cooperation of the ruled."

Once masses of Indians refused to obey unjust laws, like the tax on salt, or to serve as civil servants, they compelled the British to invest more resources in controlling the colony, making the entire investment so costly that it could not be sustained.

The Danes faced a more brutal enemy. Armed struggle in Denmark during the German occupation would only have insured a harsh military response. But non-cooperation and selected acts of sabotage deprived the Germans of the full economic benefits they wanted without provoking overwhelming violence. At the same time, the decision to rescue the country's Jews by smuggling thousands to safety in neutral Sweden was made possible by this broader movement of resistance, which included King Christian himself.

In Poland, Solidarity activists had studied the failure of earlier protests. When they took over shipyards and factories in 1980 and 1981, their leaders insisted on restraint, lending their struggle greater dignity and depriving the regime of the excuse it needed to respond with force.

It was only after Soviet leaders insisted on a crackdown that the Polish military declared martial law and interned thousands of people.

Even then, the workers' movement soon responded by organizing "flying universities" and an underground press, creating an alternative civic culture that could not be suppressed. Within a few years, in the wake of Gorbachev's reforms in Moscow, Solidarity was ready to openly contest for power against General Jaruzelski.

The lessons of nonviolent resistance can be applied in different cultures and against a broad range of repressive regimes. It is important to recall that Gandhi developed a correspondence with the great Russian novelist (and pacifist) Leo Tolstoy, who had himself studied the writings of Henry David Thoreau.

Once Gandhi became famous, African-American leaders visited India in the 1930s and brought back ideas that later shaped the civil rights movement.

This American struggle inspired activists in Eastern Europe who were determined to reform communist regimes. But they also knew Lenin's handiwork. As the Polish dissident Adam Michnik once observed, "By using force to storm the existing Bastilles we shall unwittingly build new ones."

Based on convincing detail, Ackerman and Duvall dare to claim that nonviolent movements lead to more secure democracies. You only have to think about the 20th century to know they are right.

Joshua Rubenstein is the Northeast regional director of Amnesty International USA and the author of 'Tangled Loyalties: The Life and Times of Ilya Ehrenburg' (University of Alabama Press).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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