Epochal Moments




DEATH IS PROBABLE BUT RESISTANCE IS CERTAIN. When Franco’s fascists provoked the Spanish Civil War in 1936, the Republican cause became an inspirational magnet. Idealistic leftists from all over the world enlisted for the anti-fascist crusade. Here the Union of Proletarian Comrades (UHP) leave Barcelona for the front in August 1936. The painted message reads: ‘The UHP swear to accept death rather than the tyranny of Franco.’

THE PROPHET OF NON-VIOLENCE. The Mahatma, Mohandas Gandhi, en route to the mountain town of Simla to talk with the British Viceroy in 1931. India’s case for independence became irresistible largely thanks to Gandhi’s imaginative, morally unimpeachable resistance techniques – long marches rather than stone-throwing riots; hunger strikes in which the very frailty of his body became more powerful than an army. ‘In non-violence,’ he said, ‘the masses have a weapon which enables a child, a woman, or even a decrepit old man to resist the mightiest government successfully.’

LET MY PEOPLE GO. On 22 August 1968 Soviet tanks rolled in to end the Prague Spring, a period of liberalization in Communist Czechoslovakia. People blocked their path by sheer weight of numbers and pleaded with Russian soldiers as allies. But hardliners were installed and dissent was stifled. Five months later 21-year-old student Jan Palach committed the ultimate act of protest, setting himself on fire. ‘My act has fulfilled its purpose,’ he said, ‘but let nobody else do it’.

FLOWER POWER. US youth revolt in the late 1960s was not only about turning on, tuning in and dropping out. It was also a time of political rebellion rooted in opposition to the war in Vietnam, as at this Washington demonstration. At about the same time US belief in its divine right to military rule was sapped at the other end by North Vietnam’s 1968 Tet Offensive.

SANDINO SUNRISE. In 1979 Anastasio Somoza, dictator of Nicaragua, was ousted in a revolution. Named after Augusto Cesar Sandino, a rebel from the 1920s (below), the new Sandinista Government’s egalitarian programme inspired leftists the world over. In a non-violent echo of the Spanish Civil War internacionalistas flocked to pick coffee and build bridges to sustain the revolution against US aggression.

SISTERS ARE DOING IT FOR THEMSELVES. In the early 1980s a wave of protest against nuclear weapons swept the West. Among the most creative protesters were the women who camped outside the US air base in Greenham Common, England. Their co-operative, feminist ethos did as much to undermine the military agenda as direct actions like this one, when they invaded the base and danced upon a missile silo.

THE REVOLUTION WILL BE TELEVISED. In the seminal resistance image of the twentieth century, a lone figure stands firm, blocking the advance of tanks which had just crushed the heady mass protest for democracy in Tiananmen Square. It was May 1989. For days the world had been holding its breath as students got higher and higher on the prospect of freedom. The curtain came down but one day soon the spirit of Tiananmen will lift it again.

AND THE WALLS CAME TUMBLING DOWN. 1989 was a vintage year for resistance which saw popular passion dismantling a fortress that had seemed impregnable for a generation – the one the Soviet Union had built in Eastern Europe. Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia all had non-Communist governments by the year’s end; in Romania and Bulgaria hated leaders were deposed. Berliners symbolized the spirit of the year by demolishing the wall that had stood between East and West since 1961.

INTIFADA! Israel emerged from wars with neighbouring Arab countries in 1967 and 1974 both larger and stronger. And it dealt ruthlessly with the attacks of the Palestine Liberation Organization. But internal resistance achieved what external force could not. A mass campaign of civil disobedience in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza in the late 1980s and early 1990s finally forced the Israeli Government to concede to Palestinians a measure of self-rule.

FREE MANDELA. Nelson Mandela’s release in February 1990 after 26 years in prison was not just a triumph for the black people of South Africa. It was also a defining moment for sympathizers all over the world who had campaigned against the apartheid regime.

The 1990s began in hope. But sadly the new world order still needs challenging. The activists of today can draw inspiration from yesterday’s rich heritage of resistance.


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New Internationalist issue 279 magazine cover This article is from the May 1996 issue of New Internationalist.
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