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It was exciting to see a WRI-related piece titled “Effective nonviolence in the 21st Century.” The mass mobilizations of 2011 offer unprecedented openings for revolutionary nonviolent social change—so long as we know how to build upon them. Javier Garate is to be applauded for pulling into one article many of the challenges currently facing us. Two points, however, are in need of some review.
From a U.S. perspective at least, it is not at all clear, as Garate claims, that “practical nonviolence is the dominant scholarly approach in the Western world.” Though a fairly well-funded and efficiently-run ICNC might lead one to this conclusion, it is—in fact—more true to say that within peace studies circles at least, the so-called “principled” position carries quite a bit more weight and takes up more academic space. Indeed, far too often those without a philosophical commitment to nonviolence (and sometimes even those of us with “merely” a secular political, rather than a religious/spiritual approach) are chided for somehow being “less than.” For many of us within the secular War Resisters League, revolutionary nonviolence is a seamless connection between the principled and the strategic. Given the above realities, the work of ICNC does not “reduce” anything to strategies and planning, but rather spotlights an all-too-often lack of focus on the tactically effective reasons why nonviolence should be embraced (and why it has been for so many in the Global South, who cannot afford to dichotomize struggles as we do in the north). No one can predict who will “win”—or, as we see in Egypt today, what winning even means in the long run. But a sharp (or Sharp) understanding of campaign-building, strategies, and tactics—like a keen sense of chess—can only enhance all of our work. Furthermore, such an understanding will help us all to determine something Garate speaks favorably of later in his piece: the need to be sensitive to when “the time is ripe” in a given situation.
Secondly, from an Africanist perspective (and as a founding convener of the WRI Africa Working Group), there is much alluded to in the piece about Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt which really requires more discussion. It is beyond the scope of this note to detail some of the concerns we should all address regarding the so-called Arab Spring (poorly named due to the incorrect limitations which the phrase ascribes to both the geography and the season of the uprisings). I will characterize my concerns with an Indian analogy, which also struck me while reading the article. Between Gandhi, Vinoba, and our contemporary movements came another thinker, without whom one can hardly understand revolutionary nonviolence as it has been developed in so much of the Global South. Jayakapresh Narayan’s strident analysis of the need for “total revolution” viewed the world in critical strategic, political terms—taking some of the devotional character out of Vinoba’s organizing style. It is just this mix of principled democratic action coupled with practical well thought-out organizing—which so many in both WRI and ICNC embody—that will make us truly effective.