The question of state power is one that inevitably brings with it the question of force

A critical look at a landmark book that Extinction Rebellion have placed in central importance in their theory on non-violence.
I think there are a few issues that arise from the book. Firstly the question of violence itself. Often campaigns and movements adopt non-violent strategies for moral reasons. But the violence that Chenoweth and Stephan talk about is usually terrorist or guerrilla warfare. They aren’t really considering situations where a few windows get broken as part of a much bigger demonstration, or where during a mass, non-violent protest strike or stay-away, a group of protesters might injure or kill a policeman. In fact, in many cases, the authors note that these sort of incidents did occur but class the movements as non-violent.
The problem is that most contemporary movements that argue for these strategies are not arguing against terrorism as a strategy, but arguing that no sort of violence is permitted – which can lead to problems when, for instance, understanding the role of the police, or considering whether to resist arrest. This isn’t a criticism of this book, but of some of those who claim to follow it’s teachings.
Secondly we have the question of aims. The book has four major case studies that it examines to understand the authors’ thesis practically – the First Intifada (1987), the Iranian Revolution (1979), the Burmese Uprising (1988) and the Philippine People Power Movement (1983-186). The case studies are themselves quite interesting. But they are limited. For instance, despite the close arguments of the authors I struggle to see the First Intifada as a non-violent movement, though I appreciate they are more than stone-throwing. Secondly the discussion of the Iranian Revolution focuses on the movement that ousted the Shah, but neglects the role of mass workers movements in almost reaching a point when the question of workers’ state power was on the cards.
In fact, when it comes to aims, the authors really judge success through the lens of bourgeois democracy. So the First Intifada is considered a partial success because it led to the recognition of the Palestinian Authority, despite the fact that the Israeli occupation still continues today and that Palestinians are still violently oppressed. The Iranian Revolution was a success because it brought down the Shah, but what came afterwards was hardly a victory for the oppressed masses. Other classic non-violent movements such as the American Civil Rights movement and the anti-Apartheid movement are considered successful, despite the ongoing existence of state racism in the United States and the extremely unequal reality of contemporary South Africa (indeed their active violence against workers).
The case study of the Iranian Revolution is also of interest because the authors make clear that it was the very possibility of the use of violence against the old order that helped the new regime to victory. As they themselves note the Ayatollah almost issued a declaration of Holy War, but stopped short.
Thirdly I think the approach of the authors that “the way a transition occurs predicts the way that the new regime will rule”. Here the obvious example is the Russian Revolution, which they decry as a violent movement whose violence originated with the revolutionaries. They note the civil war that followed, but this was, of course, caused by the intervention of the old bourgeois order and the imperial armies of the capitalist nations who wanted to crush socialism as quickly as possible.
The problem is that the authors are not considering the sort of movement that can end capitalism. In order for that to take place, the capitalist state must be defeated. While it is certainly true that powerful mass movements and strikes can lead a movement to the point when the question of state power is in the balance, these are not enough to actually seize state power. That will require the use of force (though we should note that this is not the same as violence).
An attitude of non-violence on the part of the movements can help to encourage participation, but fetishising it can undermine the movement when violence is deployed against it. If the question of state power is to be considered, then non-violence will not be enough.
In conclusion then, I found this book stimulating in its discussion of social movements, but limited because its authors saw change solely through the prism of bourgeois democracy.
When considering the battle to stop environmental destruction today, the question of state power is very pertinent. Everywhere fossil capitalism survives with the support of the capitalist state. Getting to zero-carbon by 2025 means challenging the state. But the question of state power is one that inevitably brings with it the question of force.


  1. Chenoweth’s study can’t truly take into account the wider political structures. There is no real analysis of the nature of regime change. The few events that caused the magic 3.5% figure to be plucked out mean you could as well say it is movements backed by the US that are successful.

    Even more importantly the study can’t take into account cycles of contention. How one movement is the product of earlier movements.

    All this leads to XR coming with this idea that they have ‘the’ non-violent solution, and it lives outside the rest of the existing movements.

    More analysis:

  2. Reblogged this on Wessex Solidarity and commented:
    This reblog leaves out the author’s quote from Leon Trotsky which preceded the last sentence here. Trotsky was wedded to violence, not as a means to an end, but like so many others, because he had proclivities related to killing people, which power enabled him to indulge.

    It’s true that the existance of the state makes violence inevitable, as its modus operandi.

    However there’s a world of difference between not massacring your political rivals or callously leaving non-combatants to die, and topping the occasional politician/cop/fascist.

    Non violence in the face of violent oppression is a weird fetish, of metaphysical origin.

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