writer: Erica Chenoweth
A common misconception is that nonviolent resistance is only possible in a few situations: 1. When the opponent is very weak, or powerless to prevent or defeat the movement; 2. When the campaign explicitly advocates for reforms; and 3. When the campaign proposes an open and free political system.
But this assumption is incorrect. Civil resistance campaigns have been effective against both weak and strong opponents. Civil resistance campaigns have been successful in achieving reformist and radical demands, even in highly closed political environments where any clear display of opposition seemed nearly impossible.
In fact, the effectiveness of a nonviolent revolution depends more on its political power than its moral righteousness. When we examine the histories of such movements, four key factors emerge in explaining their success or failure.
1.Wide participation from all sectors of society
The most influential factor in the success of civil resistance campaigns is the scale and scope of their public participation. The larger and more diverse the campaign’s participant base, the more likely it is to succeed. Wide-scale participation would seriously disrupt the status quo and make continued repression impossible. It causes the supporters of the system (especially most of the security forces) to escape from the institutions; And it also limits the options of the power holder. A large-scale campaign is politically impossible to ignore. Even for the most ruthless opponents, suppressing a large number of peaceful people who work together to refuse cooperation with the regime and disrupt daily life is challenging, especially when the campaign employs different methods and approaches.
People who participate in civil resistance campaigns can come from any social stratum and class. In fact, the inclusive nature of civil resistance is the main reason for the success of nonviolent actions. Nonviolent action provides a method of confronting injustice that does not require intense physical training, long-term separation from home and family, or an unconditional willingness to use violence against opponents.
Therefore, nonviolence campaigns are more likely to include women, minorities, children, the elderly, people with disabilities, individuals with a moral commitment to nonviolence, parents of young children, marginalized groups, and others who would not necessarily volunteer for armed struggle. As a result, nonviolent resistance movements are likely to attract a larger number of individuals compared to armed struggles.
The concept of how a movement can attract mass participation from all social strata is what sociologist Doug McAdam refers to as “cognitive liberation.” It is a process in which a significant number of people collectively come to the conclusion that a great injustice has occurred and that they must take action to change the situation and confront it. The collective reason for instigating change is that they can no longer go back to a time when they were unaware of injustice or were willing to tolerate it instead of taking risks.
2.Changing the loyalty of regime supporters
Civil resistance operates by mobilizing sufficient power from below so that grassroots civil society can seriously disrupt the work of those responsible for implementing and enforcing the programs and policies of those in power. This leads us to the second key factor: The capacity of a movement to alter people’s loyalties within enemy support columns.
The wider the range of supporter groups, the more likely the movement will represent a more comprehensive spectrum of society with diverse spheres of influence, which means more ways to reach people in the opposition’s support columns.
It is very important not to underestimate the social power that can dramatically impact the current situation. Even individuals who feel powerless to influence the political system have social power.
Everyone has at least some relationships through which they can challenge or influence the behavior of others. Social approval and disapproval have a powerful effect on human behavior. The desire to maintain approval or easy relationships with family members, friends, peers, and neighbors can even convince those in a regime that they can no longer support the system. People at any level of society can influence the social environment and the attitudes of key sectors within the regime, whether they are frontline soldiers, generals who design strategy, government employees like diplomats, or those working in the electrical power distribution system.
Movements that succeed in attracting key figures of the regime and its loyalists are more likely to succeed compared to movements that fail to do so. Changing these loyalties does not necessarily require appealing to the hearts of opponents or relying on ethics. but Ooften, it involves damaging the financial interests of key economic or business elites, threatening commercial or professional interests of important military or security officials, or simply marginalizing powerful opponents within the regime by reformist elites who begin to understand the shift in collective political positions.
However, each campaign has its own unique characteristics. For example, in highly racist or ethnically divided societies, it may be impossible to convince security forces — who often represent a privileged ethnic or racial group. Additionally, many regimes employ foreigners or mercenaries to protect themselves from the risk of police, army, or others turning against them to provide security. However, the loyalty of other key groups, such as economic and business elites, can often be weakened if people’s power imposes sufficient costs on them.
It also seems that the most common reason for the failure of movements is their inability to defeat key groups supportive of the system and compel them to change. This is usually because regime supporters never lose faith in its ability to endure or cannot imagine the blossoming of a society that the movement seeks to create. Additionally, supporters of a regime may remain loyal due to strong international alliances that support the regime.
3.Using a wide range of tactics
Movements that employ various tactics are more likely to succeed than movements that overly rely on a single method, such as protests or demonstrations. Nonviolent campaigns that leverage their immense human capital to develop new and unpredictable tactics tend to maintain better momentum than stagnant movements that are predictable in their tactical approaches. In general, it seems that among different tactics, lack of economic cooperation is highly effective, because it imposes immediate and direct costs on the regime.
4.Discipline and resistance to repression
Movements succeed when they develop standing power. It means fostering resilience, maintaining order, and sustaining collective participation — even when the government violently represses them.The most important thing is that the movement can remain organized in any circumstances, apart from the actions of the regime. Movements that succeed in achieving this goal usually have a clear organizational structure. They have plans for succession in the event of imprisonment, death, or sidelining of leaders, as well as contingency plans for responding to intensified repression. These plans include keeping a wide spectrum of people engaged, in large numbers, even under fire, because suppressing a very diverse movement is likely to backfire on the regime.
It is more difficult (though not impossible) for regimes to deal with targeting civilians who are considered mainstream or even close to the regime’s social circles than smaller-scale populations that are not perceived as representative of society as a whole. Moreover, police and military forces are rarely called upon to use violence against individuals, which may include their children, cousins, accountants, and priests or imams.
Due to the potential for backlash from repression, nonviolent campaigns can be much more successful than violent campaigns, even when the regime actively attacks and kills nonviolent participants. In fact, from 1900 to 2019, inclusive nonviolence campaigns that faced violent repression were successful in 45 percent of cases, while violent campaigns were successful in only 22 percent of cases.
Each of these four factors — large-scale participation, shifting loyalties, tactical innovation, and resilience to repression — are more easily managed when a movement is well-organized and prepared for a long struggle. Never be fooled into thinking that when many regimes face a mass nonviolent revolution, they quickly collapse. Neat and organized campaigns often follow months or even years of planning and organization before mass mobilization takes place.
The Formation Grounds of Successful Civil Resistance Campaigns
Successful nonviolent campaigns are rarely spontaneous. They require time, effort, and planning. In fact, on average, a successful mass nonviolent campaign, excluding the pre-action stages of planning, training, and strategizing, before mass action begins, lasts about sixteen months. But this duration is significantly shorter than the average successful violent campaign, which lasts more than five years.
To achieve successful civil resistance, campaigns need to be extensive, inventive, and enduring. They must demonstrate to regime-supporting communities that political biases have irreversibly changed and that switching factions is in their long-term interest. Size, unity, creative tactical innovation, and leverage through separation are what make nonviolent resistance campaigns successful.
Furthermore, It is not true that nonviolent resistance is effective only in democratic societies, developed countries, or more liberal cultures, because historically civil resistance has been formed as an approach in completely non-democratic contexts. Although individual protests may be more common in democracies that support the right to peaceful assembly, protests are not the same as movements, and mass movements are no more effective in democracies than in autocratic regimes. The primary reason for this is that in democracies, people already have a political pressure window called elections, which provides them with an opportunity to exert pressure on the government and its policies. Whereas in authoritarian regimes, where elections are absent or fraudulent, mass mobilization is often the only way people can express their opposition.
Second, movements often grow under authoritarian regimes when those regimes have slowly lost their legitimacy over time. The longer a dictator lasts, the easier it is for citizens to identify with that dictator (or dictatorial system). And they collectively agree that he should. In democracies, however, movements tend to focus less on individuals and more on the policies and systems they seek to change. However, these movements have difficulty agreeing on which reforms are most necessary among the economic, social, and political policies being discussed. As a result, democracies often have different interest groups that often compete with each other.
Third, movements often grow under authoritarian regimes when these regimes have gradually lost their legitimacy over time. The longer a dictator persists, the easier it becomes for citizens to identify the dictator (or the dictatorial system) and they collectively agree that change is needed.
However, in democracies, movements tend to be less focused on individuals and more on the policies and systems they seek to change. Nevertheless, these movements face challenges in reaching consensus on which reforms are most necessary among the range of economic, social and political policies being discussed. As a result, democracies often have diverse interest groups that often compete with each other.
Moreover, it does not seem that there is a specific culture in which civil resistance is more likely.
Civil resistance does not exclusively stem from Western liberal values or “Judeo-Christian” beliefs. All major religions in the world have texts and actions that provide sufficient justification for civil resistance, and there are examples of religious followers who have used it.
Also, many movements seek to repeat the successes of neighboring countries. However, when activists in one country — no matter how ethnically or religiously close they are to neighboring countries — think they can replicate their neighbors’ efforts, they often fail. This is because dictatorial regimes also learn from movements within those countries and make themselves more prepared.
Additionally, international support for separatist and anti-colonial movements — especially diplomatic recognition — is often crucial. Without global recognition of a government, separatist campaigns have not actually succeeded.
Is there a formula for effective civil resistance campaigns?
There is probably no universal formula. Every country, every citizen, every anger is unique. However, considerable patterns can be found that seem to be compatible with successful campaigns.
One of the important patterns needed is to create a critical mass to change national governments. No movement has ever failed after 10% of the country’s population actively participated in its peak event. Most movements succeed after mobilizing 3.5% of the population.
According to the “3.5 percent rule,” no revolution has failed when 3.5% of the population has actively participated in a visible peak event such as a battle, mass protests or other form of noncooperation. Mobilizing 3.5% of the population for a goal indicates that the majority of people support that goal. The entry of such a significant minority into the streets is probably the result, not the cause of the movement’s popular support. However, this rule is based on past observations, and is not a practical guarantee for future movements.
Organization of Successful Civil Resistance
There is still no general consensus on how to organize effective civil resistance. Some successful civil resistance movements have had acceptable leadership that has helped the movement overcome major challenges. These leaders define the collective vision, share expectations, enforce movement norms, coordinate public relations, make strategic decisions, and negotiate or bargain on behalf of the movement.
Tactically, if a movement does not have a clear leader, governments have a harder time eliminating the leader of the movement by arresting or overthrowing it through infiltration. Ideologically, leaderless movements can really be appealing to individuals who are fighting against oppressive structures, hierarchies, and corruption.
But, the leaderless resistance approach comes with some major long-term strategic challenges commitments, especially if movements don’t find a way to create and maintain an organizational form that can coordinate various groups and demands for effective action.
First, if tasks such as negotiation, public relations, coalition-building, or strategic planning are not divided among specific individuals, movements cannot negotiate with opponents who may be willing to make concessions.
Second, leaderless movements have a harder time managing public relations crises.
Third, leaderless movements have difficulty establishing working relationships with other institutions, which is essential if the movement wants to expand its supporters and eliminate the opposition, building a coalition is essential.
Fourth, movements typically require methods for evaluating strategic decisions, adapting to new paths and moving in new directions. Leaderless movements may improvise in the short term, but without some agreed-upon central authority with the power to change tactics and communicate new plans, movements will struggle to maintain the discipline, coherence, and necessary coordination for success.
Although leaderless resistance may be ideologically attractive to those who distrust authority, it carries serious strategic disadvantages for any civil resistance effort. This does not mean that all campaigns require strict hierarchies or singular leaders at the top. But they will need some kind of leadership, coordination, and organization to be effective.
Contemporary movements have moved away from individualistic leadership models and have instead adopted a federal and coalition structure that prioritizes active coordination with and accountability to front-line organizers and activists. It also seems that the consensus is that if a movement wants to attract a wide range of people, it is better not to rely too much on a single personality.