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Book Review: Civil Resistance

17 August 2021
Cover for Civil Resistance

Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know

By Erica Chenoweth

New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2021, 256pp.

Reviewed by MAJ Andrew Maher

During the 2014-2017 war against the Islamic State, everyday citizens in Iraq and Syria non-violently resisted the imposition of strict Sharia law and Islamic State control. Such resistance was most poignantly brought to global attention by the citizen journalism group, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, (RBSS) which continues its work today. This group was awarded the International Press Freedom Award in 2015 and was immortalised by the documentary, City of Ghosts. In Mosul, citizens likewise resisted the Islamic State. A survey by researchers from the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University found that 83% of respondents engaged in some form of resistance; 62% undertook active noncooperation; and 22% engaged in acts of open, high-risk activism. The familiar scenes of Islamic State repression amplify the courage demonstrated by these predominantly Sunni citizens undertaking such acts.

Why do civilians assume such significant risks in conflict? What makes these people feel so aggrieved that they are willing to risk their lives to contest the ruling regime? What impact does nonviolent resistance have upon broader conflict?

These questions are answered by Professor Erica Chenoweth from Harvard University; a leading expert in the field of nonviolence. In short, her answer is that ‘it works’. While intuitively, the idea of non-violence can be challenging, Chenowith presents its utility very clearly when she observes that, ‘over 50% of the nonviolent revolutions from 1900 to 2019 have succeeded outright – while only about 26% of the violent ones did.’ (p. 13). Furthermore, she provides compelling statistics showing that the frequency of civil resistance as a method of conflict is increasing at an accelerating rate. Specifically, she notes that ‘since the 1970s, violent insurgencies have declined in incidence, while nonviolent resistance campaigns have increased rapidly …[F]rom 2010 to 2019 … of ninety-six nonviolent revolutions… fifteen of these began in 2019 alone, and twenty-three others were continuing as 2019 came to a close.’ (pp. 222-3). She also notes that 96 nonviolent revolutions is almost double the number of the previous decade (2000-2009: 58 instances).

Chenowith defines the idea of civil resistance as ‘a form of collective action that seeks to affect the political, social, or economic status quo without using violence or the threat of violence against people to do so.’ (p. 1) Resistance works through the denial of consent to be governed. This is a powerful idea. In democracies, disillusionment with the government can be reconciled by the population at the ballot box. By contrast, in autocracies there is no such recourse. But an autocracy is not an omnipotent single person. An autocracy relies on police, military, intelligence services and others, who are vulnerable to being convinced that the autocratic leader is no longer legitimately serving in the interests of the state. Civil resistance is therefore ‘a method of conflict – an active, confrontational technique that people or movements use to assert political, social, economic, or moral claims.’ (p. 2) 

While reinforcing the utility of non-violent resistance, Chenowith focusses a significant component of her analysis toward the most common argument against the logic of civil resistance; that being its utility against autocratic regimes. As might be expected of autocratic rulers: 

‘Of the nonviolent revolutions between 1900 and 2019, [autocratic] regimes responded with lethal repression 88% of the time (and 94% of the time against violent revolutions). When a civil resistance campaign is trying to overturn the government, unseat an authoritarian regime, or declare territorial independence, their adversaries almost universally respond with human rights abuses: disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture, and extrajudicial killing.’ (p. 185)

Chenowith thus notes a moral quandary; how can an external party support a civil resistance movement, when statistically speaking, it is almost certain to result in violence from the governing authority against civilians? To answer this question, she posits that legitimacy is key. She contends that the quandary is resolved when people from ‘different parts of society [believe] that the government’s behaviour is so illegitimate and threatening that they have no other choice but to act … For some people, nonviolent resistance is no riskier that going along with the status quo, because they already feel endangered by the regime.’ (pp. 184-195)

The efficacy of civil resistance against autocratic governments is well evidenced in history. Under the Third Reich, for example, Norwegian schoolteachers successfully rebelled again a Nazi-imposed curriculum; French and Belgian civilians successfully applied a form of social ostracizing (a German soldier walks into a café, the entire café empties); and ‘go-slow’ practices were applied across Eastern European industries in an effort to undermine the Nazi war effort. Of note, the Office of Strategic Services sought to amplify such behaviour as a component of Allied strategy.

During the Cold War, the concept of non-violent resistance dominated so-called ‘grey zone’ tactics employed by the West against the Russian military establishment.  Through his advocacy of nonviolence, Professor Gene Sharp (regarded by some as the ‘Clausewitz of nonviolent resistance,’)  became the “hidden hand” behind the Colour Revolutions; non-violent population uprisings that precipitated the 1989-90 fragmentation of the Warsaw Pact. Indeed, at the Third Moscow Conference on International Security in 2014, General Gerasimov recognised the emergence of a new US method of warfare, ‘that utilises non-military tactics to change opposing governments through colour revolutions [i.e. nonviolent resistance].’

Chenowith’s book makes a valuable contribution to the study of non-violent civil resistance by providing quantitative evidence of its efficacy. The format of Chenowith’s book uses a question and answer style, which means that the reader can easily zero-in on a specific question pertaining to civil resistance by scanning the table of contents. This characteristic makes the book particularly valuable as a reference. It does, however, mean that there is some inevitable repetition within the text that may be distracting for some readers. In her analysis, Chenowith emphasises the importance of popular participation in the conduct of civil resistance, but there is perhaps insufficient attention given to the contemporary role that a globalised media plays as a critical determinant of the success of non-violent action. 

So, why do civilians resist authoritarian regimes? Chenowith’s simple assertion that people take such mortal risks to resist oppression ‘because it works’ sheds much needed light on the driving force behind the phenomenon of civil resistance; a phenomenon that continues to play out on the world stage in countries as geographically dispersed and culturally diverse as Iraq, Syria, Belarus, Hong Kong and Myanmar.  As the author recognises, ‘[n]o movements have failed after getting 10% of the nation’s population to be actively involved in their peak event [and]... most succeed after mobilising 3.5%.’ (pp. 83-94) In conducting planning for wars amongst the people, military planners would do well to heed Chenowith’s findings as evidence of the sheer potential of civilian populations to alter the course of history when faced with an existential threat.  

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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