The Power of Nonviolence

MY local news vendor in East Boston commented recently that he and another friend had been discussing the state of the world. ``You know,'' he said, ``something funny is going on. The people without guns are winning.'' The recognition is significant, but of course the statement is exaggerated. In nonviolent struggle, as in wars, there are no guarantees of victory. But we should not be surprised at the increasing power wielded by nonviolent struggle. Indeed, it is that great power that frightens autocratic rulers. The brutality of the killings in Tiananmen Square are a reflection of how much China's rulers saw their power threatened.

In 1981, after martial law was declared in Poland, news commentators pronounced the death of Solidarity. They were wrong. Similarly, it is too early to pronounce the end of nonviolent struggle in China.

The old popular view that nonviolent struggle is a thing of the past, as typified by the Gandhi-led movements in India and the civil rights struggles in the American South, is clearly a misconception.

Since World War II, and especially in the past five years, nonviolent struggle has been practiced on a politically significant scale in such diverse countries as: Poland, Burma, Bangladesh Yugoslavia, Romania, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, the Sudan, Morocco, South Africa, the West Bank and Gaza, Chile, the Philippines, China, South Korea, the United States, Brazil, Thailand, India, Pakistan, Panama, Argentina, Iran, Tibet, and Russia.

In addition, nonviolent struggle is prominent throughout much of the Soviet Union, where many people assumed it would be impossible. Solidarity has taken 10 years to get this far.

Most of the preconceptions about nonviolent struggle are erroneous. It is active, not passive. It strikes at the heart of political power: It undermines a government by withdrawing the consent, obedience, and cooperation of the citizenry. It rests on the very human capacity to be at times stubborn, cussed, and even obnoxious, collectively applied. It does not require belief in pacifism or ethical nonviolence, but instead has been used overwhelmingly by ordinary people who still believe in violence under other circumstances. It can apply great pressure, coerce, and even disintegrate hostile regimes, as various historical cases show.

A way of dismissing nonviolent struggle as irrelevant was to say, ``It could never have worked against Hitler.'' But, amazingly, nonviolent struggle was used against the Nazis, especially in Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands. It contributed to saving the Bulgarian Jews. Even in Berlin in 1943, an around-the-clock, nine-day demonstration by non-Jewish wives and friends of arrested Jewish men saved about 1,500 from the gas chambers. That case is now being researched.

We have forgotten Aristotle's insight that tyrannies are among the shortest-lived of all political systems because of their internal weaknesses. Nonviolent struggle strikes directly at those weaknesses.

One of the Chinese students is reported to have said that from every dead martyr there would arise 100,000 new heroes struggling in the future for democracy. The numbers may be exaggerated, but the record of the consequences of mass killings of nonviolent protesters should bring no comfort to those rulers who believe in the omnipotence of violence.

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