Oliver Kamm has a couple of posts about Mark Kurlansky's new book, Non-violence: The History of a Dangerous Idea. It is full of Kamm's trademark forensic dissection of faulty source material. There is a lot in these posts that I agree with, some defences of non-violence verge on the embarrassing. Pride of place goes to Michael Moore's dire book, Stupid White Men, associating Nelson Mandela with non-violence, when it was Mandela who broke with Luthuli's Gandhian pacifism to organise armed resistance to the Apartheid regime. I haven't read Kurlansky's book, and don't think that I will, but I am currently ploughing my way through Jonathan Schell's The Unconquerable World. It has the same faults, huge unverifiable sweeping statements that would make any historian cringe and exaggerated claims for the potency of non-violence. I am finding it deeply disappointing, even as a polemic.
All of which is a shame, as non-violence is much more interesting, both in its practicality, and in the ideological counter it provides to the eschatological and murderous concept of the utility of violence, which is the underpinning of terrorism. This is where books that make hyperbolic claims for non-violence do a real disservice. By doing so, they are replicating simplistic discourses, only swapping the myth of violence with that of non-violence. They also engage in cringe-making exercises in wishful thinking, "if non-violence had been used instead …" "Well it wasn't, so we don't know", is the only real answer to such pointless speculation.
The standard criticism of non-violence is Orwell's that it would fail if used against a ruthless dictator. This is true. However, as, for example, the rebellions against Saddam showed, violent uprisings also fail in most of those situations, but with a higher cost. Any rebellion has to choose its moment as well as its opponents. Success is down to timing as much as tactics and the nature of the regime.
Where non-violent action is most useful is when it is small-scale and ameliorative; it can be effective in conflict resolution and community building and it is often better at testing the loyalty of the military to a regime (who are less likely to be sympathetic to those who are trying to kill them!). It can undermine the consent on which any regime rests, implicitly recognising the State's monopoly of violence but exposing its lack of legitimacy, and, above all, it can make a nuisance of itself in a way that is not as easy to suppress as an armed rebellion. Perhaps its greatest function is that it is a viable way of keeping hope alive. Charter 77 did not bring down Communism, but it always offered the prospect of its defeat, as did samizdat publications and a myriad of other small acts of dissent. The Burmese junta certainly do not share the moral values of their opponents, nor do they seem to be the on the point of collapse, but they have at least felt unable to murder Aung San Suu Kyi, and she remains as a symbol of the possibility of change. None of this suggests in any way that it is a potent tool in international affairs or a replacement for concerted international action, especially against totalitarianism, nor that it could have defeated Nazi Germany if it had been but tried. The flaw in Schell's and, presumably, Kurlansky's argument is that they have a heroic vision of non-violence as a universal panacea and twist their evidence accordingly.
Oliver Kamm's marvellous demolition of Kurlansky's pretensions to scholarship still leaves me with a sense of unease about him being overly negative about a tactic and philosophy that should be a part of the toolbox of the left. A more eclectic and less romanticised picture of the use of non-violence emerges from a new publication, People Power and Protest Since 1945: A Bibliography of Nonviolent Action. It too has some dubious entries, for instance the Ulster Worker's Strike was notorious for its use of violence and intimidation. However, it does give a wider picture of the use of non-violence in a number of conflict situations and contains hundreds of references. Many of these protests failed, as Islamism will undoubtedly do, however, none of them left the shattered remains of human beings on city streets. For that reason alone, we should be grateful that there are those who are willing to resist using the methods of non-violence and view it more generously.