Illustration: Heath Robinson
It is one of the most recurrent themes of history: the oppressed, faced with enormous inequalities of power and overwhelming odds, feel they have no option but to use brute force to overthrow their oppressors. But not only can this increase the numbers of civilian deaths in the ensuing repression, but in victory the revolutionaries all too often – like the pigs in George Orwell’s fable Animal Farm – take on the characteristics of their oppressors and dominate others in turn. This happened in the French Revolution in 1789, in the Russian Revolution early in the 20th century and indeed in almost every ‘successful’ armed revolt since. So how do you deal with a Saddam Hussein or a George Bush, or even a playground bully, without the use of force? How do you build a people-power base that can overcome domination, without becoming what it opposes?
These are the great questions of our time. They bothered leaders such as Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi and Martin Luther King so much that they risked their lives many times to test their answers. And the answers are not for the faint-hearted. In combat you are risking your life to kill others; if you choose nonviolence you are risking your life so that no-one else will be killed. This requires rigorous training and deep conviction; the effect it has on violent, cruel or angry people can be more powerful than violence. It affects them at a profound level.
It is the force of Gandhi’s satyagraha (from sat, truth, and agraha, struggle), who used it to drive the British out of India. The practitioner renounces the use of force, voluntarily and on principle, and replaces it with determination combined with compassion and courage. Nonviolence is not passive resistance: it is active. And those who practise nonviolence need to be moving towards being free of hatred and free of fear: this is what gives it power. But to achieve this requires discipline, training and imagination.
Professor Michael Nagler, founder of the University of California Peace and Conflict Studies programme, estimates that nearly a third of the world’s people have practised some form of nonviolence, or ‘life force’, for the redress of grievances. ‘This is the concept of “people power”. The idea is that the power of an aroused populace is greater than the power of the state, since the state depends on the consent and the co-operation of its citizens. And when citizens rise up, as they notoriously did in the Philippines twice in recent memory, the state is powerless to stop them.’
He is referring to the uprising of vast crowds in the Philippines which succeeded in overthrowing the dictator President Marcos in 1986. Gandhi’s satyagraha in India, where tens of thousands of villagers defied the British Raj’s tax on salt by drying seawater in the 1940s, is another well-known example.
But there are innumerable others less well known, as Nonviolent Peaceforce trainer George Lakey points out: ‘How many know that Kwame Nkrumah led a successful nonviolent campaign for Ghana’s independence in the 1950s? Or that Kenneth Kaunda led another in Zambia in the 1960s?’
He cites other examples. The successful struggle of the Nepalese students for greater democracy in the early 1990s. The prolonged struggle for democracy in Taiwan which withstood torture, killings, and widespread suffering before success came in the 1990s. The strategic shift of the ANC to major reliance on nonviolent action in the early 1980s, which led to the end of the apartheid government.
Ju-jitsu for beginners
Strategic ways to undermine aggressive powers
The élite’s support: identify key social groups that support the élite, and open dialogue with them.
Their economy: Malaysia, for example, is encouraging the mass transfer of capital from dollars into euros in opposition to US policy in Iraq.
The will of their troops to attack: massive opposition within the US military was a key factor in ending the Vietnam War.
Their coffers: make the gains from aggression less than the cost of maintaining it; compare military spending with what voters really want such as hospitals and schools.
When a powerful force – a transnational corporation, a government department, the military – threatens your community’s interests, think laterally. In the martial art of ju-jitsu, the less powerful uses the strength of the aggressor to immobilize them. The art lies not in brute force but in psychology, knowledge of anatomy and skill. A fundamental principle of martial arts is that if I resist or struggle with my opponent, I risk injury or death. The best strategy is therefore to know my opponent, anticipate their moves and let them defeat themselves by denying them a target. The essential power of ju-jitsu is that nobody gets hurt, yet the aggressor’s action is rendered harmless in a quick and indisputable way.
Ju-jitsu techniques involve finding the weak places of your opponent. These might be public opinion, military overspend, a badly paid police force. Base resistance on these areas.
It requires imagination to find the right move with which to meet the aggressor. You need to be highly alert, always one step ahead. Koichi Tohei, the Zen aikido master, says that in defending against an attack, you must ‘move when [your opponent’s] mind moves’. And often the Gulliver-like oppressor can best be dealt with by Lilliputian hordes.
What if there were not just hundreds or thousands of people trained in these techniques but hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions? They could be training others, ready for crises all over the world. The military might even respect them, learn from them, co-operate with them.
This is not as implausible as you might think. A Nonviolent Peaceforce of 2,000 paid professionals, along with 4,000 reservists, 5,000 volunteers and a research division, is currently being trained ready to respond wherever there is conflict around the globe. They will do so only at the invitation of local groups. Peaceforce has been endorsed by world and local leaders in peace and conflict resolution, including seven Nobel Peace Laureates. In three years the project has established bases in Europe and Asia and built up a network of international participants, particularly from the global South. If successful, it will become a worldwide peace service capable of intervening in a conflict or incipient conflict more quickly than the UN peacekeeping division and – more importantly – with a different kind of power from that of national militaries.
Methods will include protective accompaniment of vulnerable leaders and negotiators in conflict zones, and ensuring that large numbers of Peaceforce workers are present in vulnerable villages, borders and other areas of conflict. They will monitor and report all violent abuses; and if necessary place themselves between opposing groups in an attempt to prevent violence.
The Peaceforce’s pilot project in late 2003 is a response to requests from grassroots organizations in Sri Lanka to assist them in making the tough transition from years of civil war to a stable peace.
As Michael Nagler explains: ‘While the US Government insists there is no alternative to endless war, the Nonviolent Peaceforce is quietly attempting to institutionalize a proven alternative. If it succeeds, the world will have two kinds of standing army to choose from.’
But how could such a strategy have worked, say, as an alternative to the recent conflict in Iraq?
The Iraqi people were terrorized by Saddam Hussein for 22 years. Western governments attempted to dislodge him from within by supporting and arming opposition groups. The result was that these groups fought each other rather than the regime.
A systematic non-military route was not tried. It would have taken time and commitment. With sufficient support from foreign governments and independent media, a ‘people power’ campaign of civilian resistance would have been possible, including funding satellite television and radio stations to break Saddam Hussein’s control of the media and give the Iraqi opposition a means to mobilize resistance and the deployment of a substantial intergovernmental force of violence monitors. The UN could have brought in not just weapons inspectors but large numbers of inspectors to monitor restoration of civil and political rights. Sanctions and the Oil-for-Food programme would have been removed, enabling ordinary Iraqis to get enough to eat and build up their infrastructure, especially medical services. The Iraqi diaspora, essential for successful opposition, could have returned to Iraq with guarantees for their safety provided by an agreement whereby any violations of their security would have entailed the arrest of Saddam and the immediate sequestering of oil revenues.
Such an agreement would not have included the establishment of US military bases in Iraq, nor US control of Iraq’s oil. It would have taken longer than military invasion. But it would have enabled Iraqi citizens to build the kind of society and government they wanted, gradually and steadily. It would have implied the final dismantling of any remaining chemical or biological weapons in Iraq, a residual UN inspection force and a UN resolution making clear that any return to the development or deployment of weapons of mass destruction was prohibited and that this prohibition would be enforced.
Dealing with a bully without becoming a thug yourself is not wimpish, negative passivity. Active alternatives to violence require a blend of physical courage, emotional maturity, spiritual determination and mental calm which add up to a wholeness of person. Those who have developed it manifest an unusual, quiet, formidable strength that the US Civil Rights movement called soul-force. It may well be the new power of the 21st century – perhaps the only power which will make us safe and save our lives.