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Mark Kurlansky: On nonviolence

Like Gandhi before, Aung San Suu Kyi has stubbornly refused to take up arms against her oppressors, and her vow not to fight fire with fire has gained her a legion of admirers, from First Ladies to celebrities to world leaders. But after nearly 50 years of military rule in Burma, any tangible results are hard to find, and observers have said that  her cause may be lost against a military government that openly shuns repect for human rights.

Mark Kurlansky is the best-selling author of Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea, which charts more than 7,000 years of successful nonviolence movements. He tells DVB that it is precisely in the context of Burma where nonviolence will eventually win.

You’ve called Burma a classic example of where nonviolence will prevail

Yes. There’s this mistaken idea, voiced by George Orwell and others, that Gandhism and nonviolent activism is great against relatively benign opponents, but not against someone who’s ruthless and violent. But it’s the opposite of this; if you have a really ruthless opponent you have absolutely no option but nonviolence, because you’re not going to beat them at their own game. Orwell gave the Soviet Union as an example of where nonviolence wouldn’t work, but in fact it did. It is violence that would never have worked against Soviet Union, as we saw in Hungary in the 1950s – a popular movement going up against the Red Army was a pointless disaster.

The thing that people don’t understand about nonviolence is that it’s not a dreamy, moralistic argument, but a very pragmatic one. Gandhi was a pragmatic man, and despite having deeply religious convictions, he was doing this as a political activist. It’s the same as Martin Luther King, another pragmatic man who is now portrayed as a sort of holy dreamer. Nonviolence is based on very pragmatic thinking about what would work in political activism if you are unarmed people facing an armed repressive regime. History teaches that tyrants will fall sooner or later, so the question for political activists is how to make this sooner, and I think violence would cause just the opposite of that. Burma is a paranoid regime, and the one thing you don’t want to provide a paranoid regime with is enemies for them to fire at.

Despite successful nonviolence movements spanning thousands of year, it continues to be eyed with suspicion, both by its opponents and by the so-called pro-peace lobby

For people in power, the opponents they most fear are nonviolent. You can see this throughout history, that people in power understand the danger of nonviolence. The British understood – although [prime minister] Churchill tried to laugh it off – that Gandhi could cause a lot of trouble, and this was something they were not set up to deal with. This is why I call it a ‘dangerous idea’. The threat is establishing that the thing that people in power consider to be the heart of power is in fact nothing. That’s a very threatening concept. If someone is pointing a gun at you, and you say, ‘So what, it’s useless’, you’re a much more dangerous person than the one who says, ‘Alright, I’ll get one too’.

One of the reasons that nonviolence is not more popular is that it takes a tremendous amount of patience. We opposed the Vietnam War for 10 years, for example, while people were complaining after only a year about the lack of results from Iraq War protests. Therefore, in a place like Burma, it’s difficult to gauge the progress that is made. But the elections this year, as far as I know, are attempt by the junta to try and give them some legitimacy, and this tells us that they recognize they have none, so some progress has been made. They’ll have this election, and it’ll no doubt be a sham, and that will further mobilise people; the movement goes on.

In the context of Burma, what are you arguments against using violence?

My argument is that violence doesn’t work. There have been cases in history where rulers are overthrown by violence, but that violence leaves a legacy. World War Two got us the Cold War, and a series of other wars that came with the Cold War. The American Civil War did not free blacks in the south; it preceded a hundred more years of oppression, and it was the nonviolent civil rights movement that changed that. Violence doesn’t work simply because people do not respond well to violence; you want people to act well.

In Burma the problem seems intractable, but your book spans thousands of years where the most unexpected have been successful

Some of them came out of religion, but most came out of a realisation that violence wouldn’t work. A fascinating example is the American Revolution, where you had a great nonviolent movement that was working, and then they all got together and decided to have a war, not really to immobilize the British, but to consolidate political power. It’s interesting that the political establishment still doesn’t give nonviolence its due credit – nobody in the US talks about the nonviolent overthrow of the Soviet Union; the Republicans try to claim Reagan did it. How many monuments and statues are there to nonviolence as opposed to violence and war? Likewise how many books and films exist that celebrate nonviolence, as opposed to war? Avatar, for instance, tried to promote itself as an anti-war movie, but it glorifies war and says violence is the solution. Culture is just loaded with that message.

You often point the finger at religion as intrinsic to both war and peace

Religion is a great way of mobilizing people, so people use it to mobilize for nonviolence and violence. There’s also no reason why secular people can’t be nonviolent. But whenever you combine religion and state, you destroy all the best principals of religion – Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the Roman Empire is the worst thing that ever happened to Christianity. If you wanted to believe that religion was handed down from God, then you’d think it would be very consistent, but that doesn’t appear to be the case, and religious scriptures have created very conflicting responses.

What about the clear distinction you assert between nonviolence and pacifisim?

I want to be clear to the people of Burma that I’m not saying don’t resist. Gandhi, using a Hindu teaching, used to say that the greatest sin is not the use of violence, but not resisting at all. If you can’t figure out how to use nonviolence effectively, then use violence. So, it’s not enough to just say that you won’t be violent – which is pacifism – but that you will use not being violent to achieve your goals.

How does strict control over education, communication, freedom of movement – all vital building blocks for any movement – affect the growth of an opposition?

The most important component of nonviolence and political activism is non-cooperation: you can’t govern people who refuse to be governed. This is what happened in Czechoslovakia: after the 1968 Soviet invasion, the Czech’s realized they couldn’t fight and drive them out, so they found ways to refuse to participate. The terrible truth is that the worse things get, the better the chance of overthrowing the government is. You don’t want to make things work. The Burmese government is a tough force because they’re so paranoid, and having countries like the US boycott them is completely ineffective because they want to be boycotted.

What is your take on Obama’s shift in policy towards ‘rogue states’? Is it a recognition of the shortcomings of aggression?

The interesting thing about Obama is that, while he is pretty involved in warfare, he has a tendency to believe that the way to win people over is to not be aggressive with them, and this drives a lot of Democrats crazy. He seems to have the belief that if you corner people, rogue regimes, it’s not going to make them act well, and I think there’s truth to that. The whole problem with Israel, for example, is that they feel they don’t have friends in the world and no matter what they do they won’t, so to hell with it. When every other state gets to that way of thinking, then it’s a problem.

On the other hand, I’m not sure how I feel about Obama’s change in policy. Like I said before, the best thing to do is to let things fall apart – you don’t really want to do anything to help these regimes or make them appear legitimate. Some people believe that a boycott, such as the US imposed on Iraq, is a form of violence. Can you call it nonviolent if you have a policy of withholding food and letting people starve? It’s better than invading of course, but it’s a very tricky thing.

With Burma I don’t think the US opening up is necessarily the right answer, and it’s the same with North Korea. Their ‘me against the world’ mentality gets reinforced when you boycott, but it doesn’t get pierced if you try to befriend them. Particularly in the case of North Korea and Iran, these are regimes who base their legitimacy on opposing the US, which puts the US in a difficult position when deciding how to approach them.


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