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Monday, January 28, 2008

Why Are They Calling These Nonviolent Revolutionaries Imperialists?

Throughout history, far more lasting, positive social change has been accomplished through nonviolent (though often massive) organizing than through coups, violence, military dictatorships of the left or the right.

Need examples? Just in my own lifetime, there are many. A few to tickle your memory:

• The US Civil Rights movement
• Abolition of apartheid in South Africa
• The Solidarity movement and the dismantling of the entire Soviet empire
• Getting the US out of Vietnam

The skills involved in this kind of organizing are not necessarily intuitive, and if you only look at traditional history sources, they aren’t well documented. However, plenty of people’s history exists, and numerous courageous individuals have spent their lives studying these skills, and building them in others.

I didn’t know Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, or Dorothy Day–but I have been fortunate to know personally some of the leaders of this movement. The late Dave Dellinger was a personal friend for a few years. And I knew George Lakey and Stephen Zunes when I lived in a nonviolent study and action community in Philadelphia. Stephen and I even collaborated as the principal authors of a paper on future directions for the peace movement.

I bring this up not to name-drop but to be able to speak from personal experience that these are people of very high integrity.

So I was a bit shocked to get an e-mail from Stephen calling attention to criticism he and Gene Sharp (author of the definitive analysis of nonviolent social change, The Politics of Nonviolent Action), and others. Apparently, they are being targeted by certain elements of the left who sees them as tools of imperialism–including Hugo chavez of Venezuela.

Stephen has posted a long rebuttal to this absurd claim on the Foreign Policy in Focus website.

Stephen points out that the consulting he and other nonviolent activists do focuses on helping democratic opposition to totalitarian groups favored by US government interests, and not on destabilizing governments the US doesn’t like. In fact,

…The only visit to Venezuela that has taken place on behalf of any of these non-profit groups engaged in educational efforts on strategic nonviolence was in early 2006 when I – along with David Hartsough, the radical pacifist director of Peaceworkers – led a series of workshops at the World Social Forum in Caracas. There we lectured and led discussions on the power of nonviolent resistance as well as offered a series of screenings of a film ICNC helped develop on the pro-democracy movement in Chile against the former U.S.-backed dictator Augusto Pinochet. The only reference to Venezuela during those workshops was how massive nonviolent action could be used to resist a possible coup against Chavez, not foment one. In fact, Hartsough and I met with some Venezuelan officials regarding proposals that the government train the population in various methods of nonviolent civil defense to resist any possible future attempts to overthrow Chavez.

I very much like Stephen’s analogy of nonviolence training and the appropriate technology/green development movement:

Just as sustainable agricultural technologies and methods are more effective in meeting human needs and preserving the planet than the conventional development strategies promoted by Western governments, nonviolent action has been shown to be more effective in advancing democratic change than threats of foreign military intervention, backing coup plotters, imposing punitive sanctions, supporting armed rebel groups, and other methods traditionally instigated by the United States and its allies. And just as the application of appropriate technologies can also be a means of countering the damage caused by unsustainable neo-liberal economic models pushed by Western governments and international financial institutions, the use of massive nonviolent action can counter some of the damage resulting from the arms trade, military intervention, and other harmful manifestations of Western militarism.

Apparently, there will be some kind of action campaign in support of Gene Sharp and others. I Not in the article but in the letter, Zunes writes,

I’ve recently posted an article which critically examines these claims that popular indigenous pro-democracy struggles and Western nonviolent activists who support them are somehow collaborators with U.S. imperialism… Among the things I address is the irony that so many on the authoritarian left ˆ after years of romanticizing armed struggle as the only way to defeat dictatorships, disparaging the potential of nonviolent action to overthrow repressive governments, and dismissing the notion of a nonviolent revolution — are now expressing their alarm at how successful popular nonviolent insurrections can be, even to the point of naively thinking that they are so easy to pull off that it could somehow be organized from foreign capitals. (One would think that Marxists would recognize that revolutions grow out of objective social conditions…)

Anyway, I will shortly be sending all of you an open letter in support of Gene Sharp and other folks who do this kind of work I hope you will consider signing on to.

When I get the link, I’ll post it here.


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