|English | Español||August 31, 2015 | Issue #67|
The Measure of a Movement: Stephen Zunes on Nonviolent Resistance
The Perpetual Writing Machine Comes to the 2011 School of Authentic Journalism
By Tyler Stringfellow
Stephen Zunes at the 2011 Narco News School of Authentic Journalism. DR 2011 Tyler Stringfellow.
Most of us at the Narco News 2011 School of Authentic Journalism found various opportunities for relaxation.
But Zunes can often be found sitting quietly at a patio table or in some corner of the room working on his laptop, poring over news stories from the Arab world or steadily pounding away at his keyboard producing endless streams of commentaries and articles.
Zunes has a long history of engagement with the political affairs of the Middle East, receiving a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship on Middle Eastern and Central Asian Studies from Dartmouth College as well as founding the Institute for a New Middle East Policy. He has also traveled with a group of American intellectuals and religious leaders to meet with Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2007.
He has much to say about the current situation in the Middle East.
In Libya, as Zunes has pointed out, the adoption of the armed struggle over the tactic of nonviolent resistance has led to a bloody stalemate, while in Egypt the resistance succeeded in ousting President Hosni Mubarak without a shot fired.
In addition to his deep understanding of Middle Eastern societies and politics, Zunes has devoted much of his life to the study of nonviolent political action, working with the Movement for a New Society in the late 1970s, as well ICNC, up to the present.
Zunes’ work covers a number of issues ranging from Libya to Latin America, but the theme that unites them all is his reliance on the tactical value of nonviolent resistance.
The social uprisings in the Middle East known as the “Arab Spring” continue to rage across the Middle East and North Africa, while here in Mexico unprecedented numbers of people have taken to the streets in opposition to the War on Drugs.
Zunes’ lifetime of commitment to both the practice and the study of nonviolent political action has much to offer in terms of understanding and support for these struggles.
“I grew up in a radical Christian pacifist family in the south,” Zunes said. “My parents were both involved in the civil rights struggle, so at a very early age I saw the power of nonviolent action and the importance of challenging injustice.”
Zunes, with roots in the Deep South and a pacifist Christian tradition, was thrust into a world of political action at a very early age.
In 1964, when he was just 8 years old his parents took him to one of the first anti-Vietnam War marches in Washington D.C. where, as he says, “We could barely fill the sidewalk.”
In addition to opposing the war, his family was involved in a number of the progressive causes of the day, such as the civil rights movement and the anti-nuclear proliferation movement.
From an early age, Zunes shared the political sentiments of his parents.
“I was always interested in other countries,” Zunes said. “I used to get these picture books of, you know, children in other lands, that sort of thing. So the idea of my government napalming kids my age in Vietnam was something that was always upsetting.”
As Zunes entered his teen years, his analysis of capitalism and imperialism began to develop. He began searching for a way to move beyond the liberal pacifism of his parents while maintaining his skepticism of the romanticized view of the armed revolution held by many of his peers.
It was the discovery of the works of Gene Sharp that provided him with the theoretical foundation that he would build upon for the rest of his academic career.
Zunes follows civil resistance struggles during the school. DR 2011 Tyler Stringfellow.
The teachings of Sharpe have informed nonviolent revolutions throughout the world, most notably in Serbia as well as the Color Revolutions in Eastern Europe.
In the late 1970s, Zunes founded the Oberlin Coalition for the Liberation of South Africa at his alma matter, Oberlin College. When a “hard line Leninist element” became active within the coalition, Zunes was, as he calls it, “purged” from the organization after refusing to put the armed struggle over civil resistance.
“I thought it was pretty presumptuous for these white, upper middle-class college students to say that armed struggle was the only way towards liberation, and I was particularly incensed when they said that you cannot be a part of the movement to divest unless you agree with our line.”
The debate over the use of arms in anti-imperialist movements has followed Zunes throughout his career. Though he rejects a moralist analysis of the use of violence, he is quick to point out that even successful armed struggles have high costs.
“There are times,” Zunes said, “when guerilla war could win, but at what cost?
“You think of the millions of Vietnamese that died, the millions of acres of rainforest that was destroyed by defoliants, 6 million internal refugees, the total destruction of Vietnamese society,” he added. “Also the martial values and that elite vanguard mentality in armed struggle tend to lead to authoritarian regimes afterward.”
He says he is “glad the Communist-led forces won in Vietnam.”
“But the system that’s ruled Vietnam since then is not my kind of socialism or my idea of a just society,” Zunes said. “And I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that these people were hardened by years of armed struggle and war.”
Given his decades of history working with Arab and Islamic issues as well as his interest in nonviolent political movements, a discussion of his life and work seems especially pertinent at this juncture in history. As Narco News founder Al Giordano said, “He spends more time on these issues than probably any person on the planet”.
Zunes has been quick to use the situation in Libya as an example of his ideas on the use of arms in civil resistance struggles. He points out that the rebels managed to take over half of the country as well as encouraged various administration officials to defect in the first week of the rebellion before the adoption of the armed struggle.
Once the rebels took up arms and confronted Gaddafi “at his strongest point,” the situation degenerated to a bloody stalemate, a NATO intervention and a protracted civil war, Zunes said.
Zunes believes that employing a diversity of tactics could have been far more useful than armed conflict. He points to tactical examples such as strikes, sit-in’s, blockades, small unit actions and non-cooperation as better examples of a path to liberation. But most importantly he stresses that before any kind of “final offensive,” a resistance group must ensure that it has support from diverse sectors of civil society.
For Zunes, the abandonment of the nonviolent struggle in Libya does not show a failure of nonviolent strategy any more than a failed guerilla war shows the failure of armed rebellion. Instead it shows the need to diversify your tactics.
He makes a similar point when discussing China’s Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
Rather than a failure of nonviolent strategy, Zunes sees it as a tactical mistake. When confronting a ruthless state with both the means and will to massacre thousands of nonviolent protestors, Zunes says that “perhaps it wasn’t a good idea to mass in a central location, especially without the support of workers or peasants.”
He also points out that the Chinese people, while facing an incredibly violent state, are engaging in various sorts of nonviolent resistance throughout the country. Pointing to the extremely alienated urban working class, lack of political participation, skewed ratios of males to females, Zunes calls the Chinese a “potentially revolutionary populace”.
But Zunes is quick to point out that political struggle is not about moralizing or whipping up anger over a particular. It is about calmly assessing your chances of victory and acting on that logic.
If, as he says, that means adopting the armed struggle then that is a choice the people on the ground have to make.
“I am not a pacifist and make no moral judgments on any population who feels that they need to take up arms against their oppressors.”
However, for Zunes, the tactics of nonviolent civil resistance are not only less painful, they’re more effective and more perplexing to those who hold state power.
Zunes’ colleague Jack Duvall takes this idea slightly farther by agreeing with Gandhi that a violent movement would never have the discipline to rule nonviolently.
Above all else, diversity of tactics must be employed.
In Egypt’s recent anti-Mubarak uprising a number of nontraditional tactics were employed as well.
In a recent interview with Narco News’ Al Giordano, Egyptian blogger Noha Atef said that “untraditional tactics were used for resisting the police, such as throwing garlic from balconies on the policemen when they beat protestors, also pouring water on them when they were in front of a building, raining them with small items when the beating starts.”
Zunes is also conscious of the fact that nonviolent struggle is not without its risks. As the 2011 Nakba shootings on the Israeli/Syrian border showed, even a nonviolent action such as breaching a disputed border can be met with deadly force.
Still he is optimistic about the potential for revolutionary nonviolence.
“In theory I can see nonviolent action working in just about any case given certain levels of repression, disempowerment of the population, etcetera. On a more realistic level I can see some cases where armed struggle might be justified but the vast majority of cases I really see nonviolent tactics as most effective. The main thing of course is to think strategically as in any movement.”
As Zunes’ time wound down at this May’s Narco News School of Authentic Journalism he continued in the same fashion that he began, meticulously scouring the Internet for news of the world’s social movements and transmitting them through various outlets. Passionate, engaged and thoughtful, he truly is a perpetual writing machine.
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism