Adam Roberts on Civil Resistance

From Tunisia to Tahrir, Moscow to Manhattan, civil resistance is back. The British Academy president, and eminent student of people power, tells us how modern non-violent action began, and where it’s most likely to succeed.

To begin our conversation about civil resistance, what is your reaction to the most recent news out of Tahrir Square?

The news from Egypt about the new, deeper hostility between the demonstrators in Tahrir Square and the army is very worrying. During the revolution earlier this year the benevolent neutrality of the army was a necessary condition for the success of the movement in Tahrir Square. They needed to have some confidence that they would be able to continue demonstrating and not be subject to mass slaughter by the army.

To me one of the most interesting pictures of that movement was of a demonstrator fast asleep in the tracks of a tank. Had that tank moved even a yard he would have been mincemeat, and yet he was sleeping in this position. So the evidence now of a harsh antagonism between the demonstrators and the army is worrying. One of the slogans that many of the demonstrators used earlier this year was “The army and the people are one”. Well the army and the people are not one, and one has to worry about that.

Where did non-violent struggle, as we think of it today, begin? Many would say Gandhi and the Indian independence movement.

It goes back even further. There was, for example, the very interesting movement of what they called “legal resistance” in Hungary under the Habsburg monarchy in the 19th century, where the Hungarians campaigned for more autonomy and national rights within Austria-Hungary. Eventually they had some limited success in 1867, and they saw that as having been more successful than the attempt at armed rebellion in 1848-49.

But it was Gandhi who brought civil resistance to wider attention. He was an absolute genius at symbolism and publicity. He brilliantly conveyed the sense that here was a new form of struggle which could claim a degree of superiority over other forms of struggle. When you think about the problem that he faced – conveying that sense to Indian followers who were widely dispersed and many of whom could not read or didn’t have access to modern media – his symbolic role was critically important.

More than anyone else, he forged the link between civil resistance and outcomes such as the independence and democracy for which he struggled. At the same time he left a legacy which is slightly awkward, because it’s not easy to sell Gandhi to a European public. They just don’t believe in ahimsa – complete harmlessness – nor in the total simplicity of living that Gandhi advocated.

You entered this field in the 1960s. What first piqued your interest, and did the political environment of the time influence you?

Human memory is always very dodgy, but I think that my first real encounter with this subject was when as a student at Oxford I went to a meeting about the Soviet Union at which Robert Conquest was speaking. I met there a graduate student called Gene Sharp, who is the author of the first of the books I am looking at today.

At the time [the early 1960s], I was involved in the UK Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Gene was writing a thesis about non-violent action under totalitarian regimes. He impressed me with his seriousness – some might even accuse him of being intense. At our very first meeting he gave me a reading list of things I absolutely had to read, and I thought there’s a subject here.

Please follow the link at the bottom for the entire interview. It strikes me that this material has great relevance for any number of African countries.

Adam Roberts’ Recommended books:

Sharp’s Dictionary of Power and Struggle, by Gene Sharp

Defeating Authoritarian Leaders in Post Communist Societies, by Valerie Bunce and Sharon Wolchik

Why Civil Resistance Works, by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan

People, Power and Political Change, by April Carter

The Lady and the Peacock, by Peter Popham


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