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?
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.