Cases on Nonviolence

Originally published in xxx 



Iran does not have long traditions of nonviolent movement, and few had predicted what should happen in 1979. A country where the secularisation had gone far beyond what was acceptable for the Shiite clergy the decline in clerical students, mosque attendance and donations to the mosques created a divided and weak and not revolutionaries {Parsa, 2000 #2698, page 133}. The socioeconomical context, with a Land Reform Program created a number of conflicts and is important to understand in order to explain what should follow {Hooglund, 1982 #2348, page 100-152}.

The many opposition movements had for decades been divided into too small unites and not been able to join their forces for a common cause {Foran, 1994 #2346}. A good description of the background from around 1800 and onwards can be found in Roots of Revolution {Keddie, 1981 #36} and Iran Between Two Revolutions {Abrahamian, 1982 #2341}.

When the shah of Iran was forced to leave the country in 1979 it was after a relatively short period of revolutionary uprising initiated by the religious leaders. Coalitions where build with liberal academics, trade unions, farmers, workers and armed resistance groups {Parsa, 2000 #2698, part II}, {Nima, 1983 #2347}, {Foran, 1994 #2346}. The most extraordinary about the process was not the extreme short period from the start to the old leadership gave up, but the means used by those who demanded a change. Against the modern army, the secret police (SAVAK) and the well equipped ordinary police-forces the opposition had tried for many years to challenge the secular state with armed resistance and guerrilla warfare. Around 1977 the opposition started to organise a resistance movement centred around Khomeini who lived in exile. Khomeini sent tapes of instructions from France; these were copied, distributed, and played in mosques around the country. He provided explicit instructions, calling for strikes, boycotts, demonstrations and noncooperations. All of them well-known nonviolent means used by other groups around the world, but not in a context like this and with such rapid results. In the Iranian revolution the overthrowing of the old regime happened relatively quick and with a result very close to the goals of those who demanded a change in the state-system. The majority wanted a theocracy, and that was what they got. The fact that they were met by violence and arms did not prevent the demonstrators from going on with their nonviolent actions . The number of persons killed by police and military units are not known but few estimates are below several thousands. This is therefore a somewhat special case of nonviolent revolution. The explanation is that my working-definition for nonviolent revolution is that those who want a change do not use weapons. And in the case of Iran in 1978-79 the overwhelming means used by those who wanted to get rid of the shah were nonarmed. A very pragmatic, but it turned out to be effective, use of nonviolent techniques. The few cases of armed struggle carried out by Marxist-Leninist guerrilla groups was not a major obstacle for the shah. Unarmed masses confronting soldiers and police, even when shot at, made it in the long run impossible to upheld the discipline in the army and massive desertion became the result. This undermined the powerbase for the shah and made it impossible to stay in power.


In many ways the Iranian revolution set a new trend for successful revolutions in the years to come. The next actor on the scene is Solidarity in Poland. After two centuries of armed upraising the polish workers in 1980 tried to fight the regime with non-armed means {Garton Ash, 1991 #2444}, {Karpinski, 1982 #43}.

After the turmoil 1956 in Poland as well as in Hungary the situation Poland was just waiting for an opportunity to emerge on the surface again. Jacek Kuroń’s “Open Letter to the Members of the Polish United Workers Party” from 1964 challenged the system and influenced the underground discussions {Weber, 1989 #2446, page 57-90}. Both in December 1970 and and June 1976 attempts were done, but without the necessary momentum. The Committee in Defence of Workers (KOR) was one important result of the discussion following the letter and the imprisonment of the authors {Blumsztajn, 1986 #1897, page 73-91}.What Jane Leftwich Curry calls “Poland’s Permanent Revolution {Curry, 1996 #2447} changed strategy in 1980. After many discussions a network of groups and organisations began to get some more structure. Maryjane Osa has described these networks and their organisational development in her book Solidarity and Contention. Networks of Polish Opposition {Osa, 2003 #2451}. The Catholic Church and the polish pope played a crucial role in inspiring and giving courage to individuals in the years ahead. The visit by the Pope to Poland in June 1979 mobilised some of the largest gatherings in Poland ever. None was in  doubt about the Popes view on communism. Rumours about a hidden agenda for the Catholic Church and activities behind the scene are still to be confirmed.

On the first of July 1980 localized strikes break out all over the country as a result of a government decree that raises meat prices by almost 100 percent. In August 1980 the Gdansk Strike Committee (MKS) is formed and twenty-one demands are presented. By early September agreements are signed in three cities giving the workers the right to form trade unions and to strike {Persky, 1981 #2442, page 248-253}.

On September 21 the first Sunday Mass was on national radio for the first time since WWII. The whole autumn strikes and court cases are mixed with dialogs. A one-hour warning strike is done nation-wide on the 3 of October. The Supreme Court officially registers Solidarity on November 10. On December 5 Warsaw Pact meet for a summit in Moscow and four days later Soviet initiate military exercises all around Poland and a fear of invasion like in Hungary 1956 or Prague 1968 is coming closer. A week later leading cultural, religious, governmental and Solidarity figures attend a dedication of a memorial in Gdansk commemorating workers martyred in the strike 1970. By early February next year General Jaruzelski is named prime minister and he asks for a three months “ceasefire”. Industrial and general strikes occurred in several part of the country. Starting in the shipyards in Gdansk the strikes spread to many sectors and cities in the country. The scope of the protests and the lack of violence created a situation where the government was forced to start negotiations with the newly formed free Trade Unions. By the end of the fall close to 10 million people in a total population of 35 million joined the protests. The unions created a multitude of diverse forums for free expression of opinions. An Independent Student Union also gets recognition and farmers starts to organise in independent organisations. The whole of 1981 continues with strikes and recognition of more organisations. The peak comes on December 13 when general Jaruzelski declares “state of war” and a number of Solidarity leaders and activist are arrested. The coming spring Solidarity starts to organise underground and form Temporary Co-ordinating Commission (TKK). The following twelve months a number of demonstrations take pace but not with large number of participants. In October a new law dissolves independent self-governing Trades Unions, and by New Year the martial law is suspended. Next year the visit by the Pope in June results in the lifting of the martial law and in October Lech Wales are awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The struggle continues and Solidarity asks people to boycott the local government elections 1984. The year after a major shift starts in Soviet with the election Gorbachev as the General Secretary of the Communist Part of the Soviet Union. In 1989 Solidarity gets 35 precent of the seats in Sejm  and 99 out of 100 seats in the new upper house, the Senate .

This is not the place to write an extended history of the  Solidarity Movement; those who want to read more can easily find good literature on the subject {Sweezy, 1980 #1261;MacShane, 1981 #2441;Brumberg, 1983 #2449;Reiquam, 1988 #2445;Weber, 1989 #2446;Kubik, 1994 #2443;Cirtautas, 1997 #2448}.


One of the other early examples is from Bolivia. After five general strikes with increasing participation the generals had to step down in 1982 and give the governmental power to those who won the elections 1980. The nonviolent mobilisation started 1977 with three women from the mining-districts started a hungerstrike in the capital La Paz. The well known women Domitila Barrios de Chungra joined them and soon many activities around the country followed {Viezzer, 1980 #2094}. Bolivia is not well known for nonviolent resistance, but there is a lot of interesting parallels to Poland. When Lech Walesa got the Nobel Peace Price he invited representatives from the Bolivian trade union Central Obrera Boliviana (COB). There where obvious good links between Solidarity and COB. To what degree the cooperated and inspired each other is not known. In both cases the workers organisations cooperated with the farmers unions and generated a strong coalition which decided to use nonviolent means. The armed tradition from Che Guevara turned out to be less effective and popular than the strikes, demonstrations and boycotts.

Philippines People Power

In February 1986 popular uprisings took place at military camps in Quezon City, the capital of Philippines.  Manilla. President Ferdinand Marcos met serious opposition after thirteen years of martial law. Marcos felt confident that he would win and announced presidential elections. Corazon Aquino, wife of the late Benigo Aquino ran against him under the banner LABAN, an acronym for Lakas ng Bayan (“Power of the People”). Marcos used fraud to win and several  of the government’s tabulators walked out in protest. The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines issued a document that was read from pulpits throughout the nation. They declared that the people had a duty to resist, non-violently {Mercado, 1986 #2479}. Later parts of the armed forces declared that Mrs. Aquino was the true winner of the elections. Massive demonstrations in yellow t-shirts started to run around in the capital to support Mrs. Aquino. By the end of February Marcos fled the country and Corazon Aquino took her place as the Philippines’ legally elected president {Schirmer, 1987 #321}.

Eastern Europe

By the year 1989 the Communist regimes in six Eastern and Central Europe countries met nonviolent movements which undermined their one-party system. That is Hungary, East Germany{Urich, 2001 #2352}, {Bahrmann, 1994 #187}, {Bleiker, 1993 #221}, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia {Wheaton, 1992 #38}, {Cipkowski, 1991 #2654}, and Romania. During the year to come free multiparty elections were held. Many similarities can be seen in these events. Popular movements used nonviolent means to put pressure on their political leadership and Soviet Union hesitated to come to the aid of the Communist establishments. All countries found themselves in a difficult situation and were not able to cope with the situations. The lack of violence from the protesters seems to have been something they had serious difficulties in handling. They had trained their police and military troops to handle violent uprisings, but had not much preparation for non-armed demonstrators. The “CNN-effect” had a great impact on their restrictions in considering the use of brute force. With international television cameras following almost every step the demonstrators took the political cost of hard repression became much higher than they could afford.

I want to emphasis that there will be a great misinterpretation of what happened to only focus on the civil resistance and nonviolent means. These aspects are some of the important and necessary elements, but they are not sufficient to explain what happened. Although I would like to say that the means used had an important impact on the process as well as the outcome of the revolutions in East and Central Europe. To what degree and in what way the means influenced the outcome and the way the revolutions took place is still to be investigated. In what way would the result have been different if the people had used more violent means? For me this is a very important job to be done in the coming years.

In 1991 and the collapse of Soviet Union the three Baltic States Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania got their independence through nonviolent struggles. The “singing revolution” of Estonia got its name when a million people stood hand in hand from the Baltic coast to the Russian border and song {Ignats, 1989 #2478}.

South Africa

The struggle for a democratic South Africa was carried out with a number of political tools. The majority of them were nonviolent and as elements in a well organised political strategy. The armed actions by a branch of  African National Congress (ANC) does not change the fact that the struggle was dominated by nonviolent means and the use civil resistance. Some people will today argue that the violent elements was more of a problem than a benefit for the fight against apartheid and served in the hands of the white regime.

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Posted in In English, Nonviolence

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