Figuring Out Exactly Why Nonviolence Works - Or Fails

Einstein Institution in Cambridge, Mass., sifts through the historical and current examples of peaceful tactics

THE Albert Einstein Institution, near Harvard Square here, has just completed a decade as a clearinghouse for information on nonviolent action. It is named for the scientist because of his strong interest in finding means other than war to resolve differences.

Historically, nonviolent action has ranged from German refusal to cooperate with the French and Belgian occupiers of the Ruhr region in the early 1920s to the ``people power'' revolution that toppled Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. Many conflicts, such as the Palestinian intifadah and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, have had both nonviolent and violent facets. Einstein Institution scholars comb historical examples, and current events, in hopes of piecing together principles and definitions to form a clearer understanding of why nonviolence works or fails.

``I use the term `people power' because it's an evocative term, but it's not very precise,'' says Christopher Kruegler, the institution's president. `` `Strategic nonviolent conflict' lends precision to what people mean when they say `people power.' '' He and co-author Peter Ackerman have just completed a book on the subject (see review, below).

``Strategic'' implies forethought, something often in short supply in a ``nonviolent struggle,'' says Gene Sharp, a founder of the institution. A central mission of the institution is to disseminate findings that can help people arrive at a strategy of nonviolence.

Messrs. Kruegler and Sharp recently scanned some of the world's points of friction and commented on the role nonviolence could, or should, play.

The former Yugosalvia

This situation brings to mind ``the most common question in our field,'' Kruegler says: ``What would you do about Hitler?'' What they really mean, he says, is what would you do about Hitler in 1938. Before that date, perhaps, nonviolent action might have accomplished something. Likewise in the Balkans, if all parties had assessed their options five years ago, they might have made better decisions. The absence of nonviolent options in the Balkans underscores the importance of inculcating the concepts and methods of nonviolence, says Sharp. When the end of communism came in Poland, for example, the people already had a decade of training in those methods.

The Baltic states

Sharp has spent considerable time in the Baltics talking to officials about nonviolence. More concerned than ever about resurgent Russian imperialism after the recent elections, Baltic defense officials are formalizing nonviolent tactics such as the mass mobilization of unarmed civilians, says Sharp.

Handbooks on nonviolence are being prepared for every household in Lithuania, he says. Police, broadcasters, and others are versed in what to do if an invasion occurs.

In Russia itself, adds Kruegler, there has also been strong interest in the institution's literature. The Middle East

Here, also, Sharp has done a good deal of field work, including discussing nonviolence with Palestinians. In the early days of the intifadah he had recommended reducing ``limited violence'' like stone throwing and concentrating on noncooperation and building indigenous Palestinian institutions. Those views didn't prevail, he says, and ``to my knowledge, there is nothing that is a coherent Palestinian strategy at this time.''

The Palestinian-Israeli negotiations add a new element and present Palestinians with the dilemma faced by many blacks in South Africa - whether to dismantle the sanctions they've used to further their goals, Kruegler says.

South Africa

The Einstein Institution has an ongoing program in South Africa. ``If elections happen on schedule in April, it won't be a magic wand,'' Kruegler says. ``All the legacies of colonialism and apartheid are still there.'' He anticipates that labor unions and civic organizations that have pushed the government toward change will use nonviolent strategies to continue that process under a new multiparty regime.


Sharp has traveled to the mountain headquarters of the Burmese (officially Myanmar) opposition to consult with them about nonviolent strategies to use against Burma's military regime. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is under house arrest in Rangoon, but her followers have formed a committee to spread ideas about nonviolent resistance in Burma, even though anyone found with such material could be executed, says Sharp.

Sharp adds that nonviolent movements don't have to hinge on the leadership of one charismatic figure if the ideas are effectively distributed and explained. Careful fostering of a ``strategic'' approach to nonviolent action has ``the potential to multiply the effectiveness of future nonviolent struggle at least 10 times over what it has been in the past,'' he concludes.

The institution's work is essentially educative, not activist. ``We see ourselves basically sharing knowledge that is the product of lots of research,'' says Kruegler. ``We're not choreographing the next wave of `people power' in the world.''

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