Why Nonviolent Civil Resistance Doesn’t Work (Unless You Have Lots of Bombs)

A little over a week ago, Peace Studies Professor Tom T. Hastings wrote an execrable article in CounterPunch entitled “Assertive Yes, Aggressive No.” While it is common to catch pacifists in historical distortions—both Michael Neumann in CounterPunch, and Francis Fox Piven in her book Challenging Authority, have remarked on this—it’s extraordinary to catch one in the type of outright deception Hastings serves up. I was compelled to step up and correct the record, not only because this nutty professor is misrepresenting the historical consensus about the Philippines and other countries, but to prevent him from doing any more damage to the public’s understanding of how social movements and direct action actually function.

“If I had predicted publicly in 1985,” Hastings writes, “that the Philippines would see Marcos deposed without a single fired shot…that Nelson Mandela would be liberated and apartheid would end without a widely predicted bloodbath…and that Slobodan Milosevic would create horrific wars in the Balkans but would be deposed by nonviolence, I might have been diagnosed as delusional.”

Yes, Hastings would probably have been called out for delusions in 1985, just as he should be called out for illusions today. For you see, Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos was actually toppled by what Routledge’s Dictionary of the Modern Politics of Southeast Asia calls “a civilian-supported military revolt.” Defense Minister Juan Enrile and Army Chief Fidel Ramos plotted a coup involving hundreds of troops, and when it went ran up against regime resistance, Ramos requested assistance from Manila’s influential Cardinal Jaime Sin to call for “human barricades” around their compound. But as thousands, and then millions, of unarmed people came out, the coup plotters did not lay down their own weapons—instead they brandished them alongside the masses and discharged them in a gun battle to seize a regime broadcaster. Then they launched rocket attacks on Villamore air force base, as well as Marcos’ home. “Deposed without a single fired shot,” Tom? Really??

His distortion of South Africa’s transition is only slightly less egregious. In the 1980s, the period during which apartheid collapsed, Winnie Mandela—then Nelson Mandela’s wife, and now known as the Mother of the Nation—publicly declared that “Together, hand-in-hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country.” “Necklaces” refers to a gruesomely incendiary assassination technique that African National Congress (ANC) supporters sometimes used against government collaborators. Amnesty International refused to classify Nelson Mandela a Prisoner of Conscience because he refused to renounce violence until after his release from prison. Political scientist Stuart J. Kaufman, in his acclaimed book Nationalist Passions, demonstrated that over 15,000 people were killed in civil war in the final years of apartheid. None of this is very pretty, but it happened, and if Hastings had lived in South Africa through those years I doubt that he’d consider it to be anything but a “bloodbath.”

Then there is Serbia. The civil resistance group in Serbia, Otpor, was founded in 1998, but didn’t attract many people until fall of 1999—after NATO had bombed the country for 78 days, destroyed vital infrastructure, and killed hundreds of Serbs. NATO then implied that it would likely bomb the country again in support of ethnic Albanian ultra-militants, the UÇPMB, who were continuing to attack Serbia near the border with Kosovo. There was one thing that Serbians could do to appease NATO, however: depose President Milosevic and hand him over to the International Court Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. By a fortunate coincidence, this was also the immediate demand of Otpor—Just kidding! This wasn’t a coincidence at all because, as The New York Times Magazine later acknowledged, Otpor “was backed by several million dollars from the United States,” much of it secretly approved by Madeline Albright, who helped organize the NATO bombing campaign.

Even aside from this context, the Serbian movement abandoned nonviolence when the moment came to topple Milosevic. Two days before his resignation, mass rioting ensued and numerous government building were devastated. Otpor leader Srdja Popovic was strangely laissez-faire about the outcome: “Well, breaking [a] few windows and, and Parliament in flames, it’s just nothing…dozen[s] of cars were destroyed but…that was like a children’s game.” One has to wonder if Popovic would take this same attitude towards, say, an anti-capitalist black bloc action in the US, or does he only approve of chaos when its unleashed on foreign elites? The fact that Popovic is known to have been cozy with Stratfor, the Texas-based corporate espionage group, gives us a clue.

If these showcase histories of “successful civil resistance” were actually violent, it seems clear that the Peace Studies surveys that Hastings promotes—including the Chenoweth-Stephens “Why Civil Resistance Works” survey and the Swarthmore College database—are fatally distorted as well. “Wake up and smell the flowers, not the cordite,” Hastings sneers, yet cordite played a role in every movement victory he cited, whether it was the rockets launched against Marcos’ forces, the hundreds of bombs planted by Mandela’s ANC, or the B-2’s over Belgrade.

“Predominantly nonviolent” is a phrase which appears over and over again in the movement case studies put forward by nonviolent theorists. But it’s obvious on inspection that “predominantly nonviolent” is just another way of saying partly violent—a part that’s usually indispensable.  From the Philippines, to South Africa, to Serbia, to the anti-capitalist protests rocking France today, any movement that hopes to overturn overthrow entrenched authority must manifest a diversity of tactics.


M Neumann, “Nonviolence: Its Histories and Myths”



FF Piven, Challenging Authority, pg. 24-25


Routledge’s Dictionary of the Modern Politics of Southeast Asia, pg 151, on overthrow of Marcos –


Philippine Inquirer Timeline of People Power 1986-


NYT on People Power military skirmishes –


A Philippine government history which notes rebel rockets on Feb 24-25, 1986 –



Winnie Mandela’s contribution to the struggle



Winnie Mandela and Necklacing




N Mandela and Violence



15,000 casualties in final years of anti-apartheid struggle –


Otpor’s growth –


NATO bombing led to official defections from Milosevic – Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action, By Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash, pg. 311


NATO contemplates intervening on behalf of UÇPMB in 2000-


NYT Magazine on Albright, US, and Otpor Funding –


Srdja Popovic acknowledges the rioting against Milosevic


ANC’s use of bombs in 1980s


Recurring clashes with police in French labor protests, 2016 –



Diversity of tactics at Wikipedia –


More articles by:

Lorenzo Raymond is an independent historian and educator whose work has appeared in The New Inquiry and Truthout.  He lives in New York City and blogs at Diversityoftactics.org.

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