The Success of Nonviolence

I just came across the work on nonviolence by the University of Denver’s Erica Chenoweth. In this TED talk, she says that she began as a skeptic about the ability of nonviolence to make meaningful change. Someone challenged her to look into the topic further, and she says she was shocked by the results. I am too, in a good way.

“From 1900 to 2006, nonviolent campaigns worldwide were twice as likely to succeed outright as violent insurgencies. And there’s more. This trend has been increasing over time, so that in the last 50 years nonviolent campaigns are becoming increasingly successful and common.”

Below is the key figure from Chenoweth’s presentation, illustrating the percent of violent and nonviolent movements that succeeded in overthrowing a government or liberating a territory. It’s clear that nonviolent movements are not a panacea to reducing violence in the world. They aren’t always successful, and sometimes violent movements may be necessary.



But the results aren’t what most people would expect (me included), which is why empirical data like these are so important — they run counter to the narrative that nonviolent movements are rarely successful. In fact, nonviolence may not be just pie-in-sky idealism; it may also be more effective. We can even marry the two. I remember reading a collective of Gandhi’s correspondence and writings, where he referred to his view of nonviolence as “practical idealism.”     

And there’s more, according to Chenoweth. The achievements gained in violent movements are more likely to be short-lived, creating enduring resentments that can backfire. In contrast, nonviolent movements can lay a more stable foundation for the future. She concludes optimistically:

“In both the short- and longer-term, civil resistance tends to leave behind societies in which people can live more freely and more peaceably together… I see it as our shared responsibility to spread the word so that future generations don’t fall for the myth that violence is their only way out.”

She put a hop in my step. 


3 thoughts on “The Success of Nonviolence

  1. Keep the spring in your step, Patrick, it helps you have a pleasant walk ~and is handy if you need to run. Erica gives a nice talk. The most convincing part for me is that children at US schools could be taught more about the non-violent movement for Independence in America (supported by many in England ~kith and kin~ but not by King George) rather than glorify the military victory with public holidays etc. The same could be said for most uprisings anywhere. But does this really come down to non-violent campaigns being twice as effective as violent ones? The simple reality is that there are always both violent and non-violent campaigns in any major ‘rebellion’. They complement each other and rarely if ever appear as a clear choice of one or the other. The US lost in Vietnam and the Viet Cong won by force of arms/military tactics (the celebrated facts) but also many self-immolations (violence against self rather than others) took place in VN and the anti-war movement in the West was largely non-violent. In a pragmatic sense, revolutionaries use diplomatic and non-violent means when available and possible, until violence comes in. All major violent events (and minor, like a household dispute) have a trajectory that moves from disagreement through condemnation to resolution by violence (if not resolved on the way). The advice might better be to study the art of diplomacy along with the art of war in the hope of reducing or avoiding violence. Reduce or remove violence as an option not because it is statistically less successful than a non-violent movement (the argument here) but because it is the right thing to do. Statistical presentations are always manipulations, this one is no different. Its corollary implication is perhaps that if violent protest was more successful in achieving its aims, people should engage in violence from the outset. I see non-violence as qualitatively superior to violence and I support it for that reason, not because I think it more effective. The most effective thing to do is always nothing.

    • I did wonder about methodology. *How* nonviolent does a movement have to be for it to be categorized that way. Dichotomous variables often dissolve upon closer inspection.

      And I like your point about emphasizing the superiority of non-violence, rather than its effectiveness. Ends and means.

      In the US, we do have Martin Luther King day, although some states fought to oppose making it a holiday, sadly. But it is a rather rare occasion to celebrate someone associated with nonviolence.

  2. Matthew Bradley, who often comments here, just pointed me to this piece by Chris Hedges:

    “When you ingest the poison of violence, even in a just cause, it corrupts, deforms and perverts you. Violence is a drug, indeed it is the most potent narcotic known to humankind. Those most addicted to violence are those who have access to weapons and a penchant for force. And these killers rise to the surface of any armed movement and contaminate it with the intoxicating and seductive power that comes with the ability to destroy. I have seen it in war after war. When you go down that road you end up pitting your monsters against their monsters. And the sensitive, the humane and the gentle, those who have a propensity to nurture and protect life, are marginalized and often killed.”

    There’s a lot more in the essay than just that, but this part seemed most relevant here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.