Does nonviolent resistance work? What Chenoweth and Stephan get right (Part 1c)

Third in a series by guest author Ian Hansen

This is a continuation of Part 1 of a four-part series: Does nonviolent resistance work?

  • Part 1: What Chenoweth and Stephan get right (also see Parts 1a1b2a2b and 2c)
Iran 1979 Revolution

Iran 1979 Revolution. Photo from Wikimedia Commons; in public domain.

In her comment on my original post, Dr. Dahlia Wasfi pointed out that Maria Stephan works for the State Department. That does not necessarily mean she personally supports U.S. empire. Historical figures like Mikhail Gorbechev and Zhao Ziyang (former Premier of the People’s Republic of China, who supported the Tiananmen Square protestors and thus fell from power) are reminders that participants in systems and even leaders of systems can facilitate or try to facilitate major humanity-respecting changes in those systems.

Not all servants of a state are enthusiastic supporters of that state’s wars, atrocities, and acts of oppression.

Dr. Wasfi also noted that it is strange for Chenoweth and Stephan to treat the Iranian Revolution as an example of successful nonviolent revolution given the prominent violent elements to that revolution. I have a different reason for discomfort with describing the Iranian Revolution as a “successful” nonviolent uprising. The state that emerged in the aftermath of that revolution treated many of the participants in it with a murderous brutality that recalled the purges of much more violent revolutions. (See Marjane Sartapi’s Persepolis for a firsthand account of a leftist family struggling in the aftermath of the anti-Shah movement they helped support.)

Chenoweth and Stephan admit that violent revolutionary activities co-occurred with the nonviolent civil resistance in Iran and that the post-Shah government was as brutal or more brutal in many ways. Still, they make a good case that nonviolence, while not used by all parties, was the most effective tactic employed in the Iranian revolution. Those who relied more exclusively on nonviolence gained the most power in the subsequent regime. The irony is that this faction then used the power they gained from nonviolence very violently. Chenoweth and Stephan argue—and offer data-based evidence—that this kind of state violence is less likely and less extensive after nonviolent than violent revolutions.

The take-home, then, is that as a matter of probabilities (rather than money-back guarantees), the victorious leaders of relatively nonviolent revolutions (and coups) are less likely to enact purges and genocidal-scope mass killings than are the victorious leaders of relatively violent upsets in relations of power.

Nonviolent revolutions get betrayed, too (as with Iran, and more recently Egypt), but usually the betrayal is gentler and has a lower body count compared to the betrayals enacted by leaders who take power after ultra-violent transformations.

Ian Hansen, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences at York College, City University of New York. His research focuses in part on how witness for human rights and peace can transcend explicit political ideology. He is also on the Steering Committee for Psychologists for Social Responsibility.

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7 Responses to Does nonviolent resistance work? What Chenoweth and Stephan get right (Part 1c)

  1. Pingback: Does nonviolent resistance work? What Chenoweth and Stephan get right (Part 1a) | Engaging Peace

  2. Dahlia Wasfi says:

    Ian writes, “Dr. Dahlia Wasfi pointed out that Maria Stephan works for the State Department. That does not necessarily mean she personally supports U.S. [E]mpire.” True, it only means that she supports it professionally, for which she receives a generous salary and an amazing health insurance plan. I know I have quite the cynical outlook on those individuals directing US foreign policy (and domestic, for that matter), but with good reason. They are making us complicit in war crimes, including the supreme crime against humanity, aggression on a sovereign state that poses no threat (Iraq).

    If Stephan truly supports democracy and the right to self-determination, then she is demonstrating significant moral disengagement at the office (a topic frequently discussed on this blog). In a previous comment, I noted that Stephan has worked for the Department of Defense—the Death Star, if you will, of our Empire. I also listed the warmongering of current and previous State Department officials, though I did forget to mention the anti-diplomacy of Victoria “F— the EU” Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs (

    Still, I don’t know Stephan personally, and perhaps she does seek to bring “humanity-respecting changes” to US policy. Ian, you cite the examples of Mikhail Gorbachev and Zhao Ziyang to support that possibility. But I will quote your reply to Ross that “[t]he problem with anecdotal cases is that you can find an anecdote to offer a plausible demonstration…” to make your argument. So I will cite another anecdotal historical figure who went against the grain of his government. From the Simon Wiesenthal Center Multimedia Learning Center:

    “The man who best symbolizes the dilemma of the conservative, old-line official serving a criminal regime is Ernst von Weizsdaker: naval officer during the Empire, ambassador during the Weimar Republic, and state secretary and ambassador in the Third Reich. Weizsdaker is a controversial figure because, at different times and on different issues, he both supported and opposed the Nazi regime. He believed, initially, that national socialism offered Germany the hope of an orderly future and renewed preeminence in central Europe. At the same time, however, Weizsdaker had a horror of war and civil disorder that often placed him at odds with the Nazi leadership. The historical controversy over Weizsdaker centers on his actions at two critical points in his career: in the months before the Munich crisis in 1938 and during the Polish crisis in 1939, when he used intermediaries to inform the British and Italian governments of Hitler’s war plans; and in 1942, when he initialed the orders that sent a group of French Jews to Auschwitz.” (“Cooperation, Compliance, Resistance: German Diplomats in the Third Reich”

    At the end of the day, Ernst von Weizdaker was an official in a system that militarily invaded and occupied sovereign lands, inflicted collective punishment, ran concentration camps, and practiced ethnic cleansing (just to name a few atrocities). At the end of the day, so is Maria J. Stephan. My point is that instead of asking how people can effectively resist our uber-violent oppression, we should ask how we can get our imperialist boots off of their necks.

  3. Gold Dust Twin says:

    It is sobering to read these accounts of heroes and villains and to realize there isn’t always a clear-cut difference between the two. For Weisdaker to let allied governments know. albeit indirectly, what Hitler was up to was surely a good act; and yet this same Weisdaker committed the Hitlerian crime of condemning French Jews to certain death in a concentration camp. How could this man who allegedly had a horror of war and violence be so cooperative with the Nazi’s sinister and oppressive goals?

  4. Ian Hansen says:

    Hi Dahlia,

    I can see the basis for morally condemning anyone who works for the U.S. State Department, but I can also see the basis for morally condemning anyone who continues to hold onto U.S. citizenship and pay U.S. taxes, or for morally condemning those who do not immediately devote every waking minute of their lives to overthrowing corrupt neoliberal capitalism. I think different individuals are more suited to operating at different levels of moral impurity in order to be vessels of good change (and good maintenance) occurring.

    People probably tend to misread the level of ambiguity or purity they’re called to–some are called to greater moral ambiguity and many (most I would imagine) are called to considerably greater purity. Perhaps Maria Stephan would be doing more for the good of the world if she quit the State Department, renounced her citizenship, signed up with a chapter of Greenpeace in Iceland and then continued her scholarship and advocacy for nonviolence from that position. That’s hard to say though, because chances are that if she did this she’d lose the connections that allowed her to get her book published and relatively widely read in the first place. Purity at the cost of efficacy. I don’t think that’s something that I can judge from the outside.

    People have to muddle along with their own callings as best they understand them. We have a moral vantage point from which to condemn certain actions by others that clearly lead to certain bad outcomes, but I’m not sure we have a moral vantage point from which to judge the kind of difficult existential decisions people make about how to handle doing good effectively in a world that seems to regularly sully goodness with the stain of ineffectuality (and regularly sully achievement with the stain of selfishness and injustice).

    Also, even to the extent we can comfortably condemn Maria Stephan from outside her shoes (and presumably anoint ourselves in the process as the “good” people who don’t do bad things like work for the State Department), we don’t help ourselves by dismissing all her evidence and arguments because they came from a font of apparent evil. Evil people (a) sometimes do good things, (b) sometimes say true things, and (c) sometimes gather empirical evidence in a matter that conforms to the best known standards of science and draw sound conclusions from the evidence they examine.

  5. Pingback: Does nonviolent resistance work? What Chenoweth and Stephan get right (Part 1b) | Engaging Peace

  6. Pingback: Does nonviolent resistance work? Part 2b | Engaging Peace

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