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Civil Resistance Theory

Civil resistance is a technique for challenging injustice and oppression without taking up arms. It is also known as nonviolent resistance, civil disobedience, civic struggle, people power, popular protest, unarmed insurrection, contentious politics, collective action, and various combinations of these terms. Common methods include demonstrations, marches, boycotts, work strikes, tax strikes, hunger strikes, sit-ins, protest camps, occupying public spaces, social-media campaigns, building alternative social institutions, and many others. Contrary to common misperceptions, civil resistance is not passive; it does not require moral commitments to nonviolence or pacifism; and it can be effective even against military regimes. Some major examples include (to name a few):

•  U.S. civil rights movement, e.g. Montgomery bus boycott 1955-56, Selma march 1965
•  The Polish Solidarity movement against Communist rule, 1980s
•  The popular ouster of the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, 1986
•  The first Palestinian intifada, 1987-1991
•  Colour revolutions, 2000-2005 (Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, Lebanon)
•  Arab uprisings of 2011 (Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria)
•  Occupy Wall Street, 2011-2012
•  Indigenous resurgence, e.g. Idle No More, anti-pipeline camps (Unist’ot’en, Standing Rock)
•  Black Lives Matter since 2013
•  Anti-Trump protests, including the Women’s March and airport protests, 2017

While the idea of organized strategic civil resistance is indebted to M.K. Gandhi, the academic field today is more heavily influenced by the work of Gene Sharp, who emphasized pragmatic rather than principled approaches to nonviolent action. Sharp also devised a conceptual framework for analyzing social sources of power, identifying methods of nonviolent resistance, and understanding the dynamics of change. In brief, Sharp’s contribution can be summed up with the following insight: “all government is based on consent … and consent can be withdrawn” (Sharp, Politics of Nonviolent Action, 1973).

The research field is situated between, and sometimes overlaps with, peace and conflict studies, social movement literature, the philosophy of nonviolence, and some strands of anarchism. However, civil resistance studies offers a distinct methodology that emphasizes collective practices of cooperation and noncooperation. The discipline seeks to promote alternatives to armed conflict and to empower individuals and communities with more effective ways to fight. The approach is ‘realist’ because it accepts that conflict is sometimes necessary and even desirable. The aim is not to eliminate conflict but to wage it more effectively.

Since Gandhi, advocates and practitioners have insisted that civil resistance is more effective than armed struggle. Increasingly, empirical research supports this claim. The most influential study today is Chenoweth and Stephan, “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict,” which documents more than 300 cases of armed and unarmed struggles and finds the former about twice as likely to succeed as the latter (see journal article or book). The logic is quite straightforward. Social-justice struggles depend on popular support — the power of numbers — and nonviolent strategies maximize opportunities for participation, whereas violent and armed strategies raise barriers to participation, such as ethical, logistical, and physical barriers (Chenoweth and Stephan). Additionally, violent methods carry an increased risk of alienating potential supporters across all parties to a conflict, whereas nonviolent methods are more likely to win sympathy and support for a movement (Sharp 1973; Brian Martin, “Justice ignited: The Dynamics of Backfire” 2006). Studies have also shown a strong correlation between nonviolent movements and peaceful/democratic outcomes (Freedom House, How Freedom is Won: From Civic Resistance to Durable Democracy, 2005). However, outside of the field, the dynamics of unarmed conflict remain poorly understood, often obscured behind a persistent mythology of violence in Western and modern political thought.

My work shows that the category of ‘nonviolent’ should be dissociated from civil resistance. For example, Palestinian popular struggle in the occupied territories is widely regarded as unarmed, or non-militarized, but the movement has also often incorporated relatively low levels of violence, such as stone throwing at occupation soldiers and military vehicles. By refraining from armed attacks, contemporary Palestinian movements are strengthening global networks of solidarity. Similarly, in Egypt during the political revolution of 2011, protestors used limited violence in self-defence, including street clashes with police forces, but these remained unarmed, or non-militarized, which proved to be a decisive factor in the successful ouster of President-for-life Hosni Mubarak. Antifa in the United States is another example, incorporating some elements of violence into its program but drawing the line at militarized struggle. In these cases, neither ‘violence’ nor ‘nonviolence’ accurately captures the dynamics of the movements. Worse, the labels distort public perceptions and render movements vulnerable to perennial charges of ‘violence.’ While some scholars have used the term ‘unarmed’ to clarify the idea of nonviolent struggle (e.g., Stephen Zunes, “Unarmed Insurrections” 1994, Kurt Schock, Unarmed Insurrections, 2004), my work rejects the association with ‘nonviolent’ altogether. I offer a distinct way of thinking about civil resistance, challenging the orthodoxy of the field. This position is shared by few other researchers (Robin Celikates, “Learning from the Streets” 2015 is an exception). ‘Civil’, ‘civic’, and ‘unarmed’ each seem suitable terms for replacing ‘nonviolent.’ I adopt the term ‘popular struggle,’ which is advanced by Palestinian activists in the West Bank and becoming increasingly prevalent in Western discourses.

A second major area of my research, also explored in my dissertation, is participatory organization. This refers to modes of decision-making, mobilization, and coordination that are predominantly open, voluntary, inclusive, community based, and directly democratic. Participatory organization can be contrasted with more statist models that tend toward larger size, formal institutions, and top-down command and control. An example of participatory organization, though short-lived, was the people’s assembly that formed at the nucleus of each Occupy encampment in 2011. These were deliberative, consensus based, and open to all. Another example of participatory organizing is the ‘affinity group,’ a unit of organizing associated with anarchist movements, in which loose affiliations of friends or peers come together to plan and undertake action. These are sometimes secretive and closed to outsiders, in order to protect resistance operations, but generally founded on principles of equality and the rejection of all forms of hierarchy and domination. Perhaps the most common form of participatory resistance organization is based on the local committee or council system, often associated with land and workers’ movements.

In the literature on civil resistance, the question of movement organization is under-explored. Some studies highlight the practical benefits of participatory struggle, and others warn against it. Others studies take a more agnostic approach, indicating that the merits of organizational form (democratic or not) are determined by context. Most civil resistance studies, however, do not raise the question, and those that do are generally not in dialogue or debate with each other. My dissertation compares and contrasts differing models and concludes that democratic organization is generally more conducive to civil resistance than undemocratic organization. This is because civil resistance depends on the power of numbers, and participatory organization maximizes opportunities for participation. Additionally, participatory organization increases self-reliance and reduces external dependencies, empowering movements to challenge injustice and withstand repression.

However, drawing on Palestinian experience and the ideas of Hannah Arendt and Elinor Ostrom, I show that participatory organization is not limited to ‘horizontal’ forms. Rather, it can include, and sometimes requires, ‘vertical’ elements, such as layered or tiered levels of delegated authority. These make coordination and collective decision making possible, especially at large scales. In other words, not all hierarchies are undemocratic or inimical to participatory organizing, so long as they are bottom up rather than top down. This model of participatory organizing is more nuanced and more robust than standard accounts in contemporary discourses of social movements and radical politics, which tend to over-construe purely horizontal modes to the exclusion of all verticality or hierarchy. In the 1980s, Palestinian popular struggle exemplified this model of organization. From the grassroots up, networked and tiered popular organizations managed all aspects of social life and steered the mass unarmed uprising known as the first intifada.

My dissertation concludes that there is a symmetry between action and organization. Just as unarmed action is more conducive to popular struggle than armed action, so too is participatory organization more conducive to popular struggle than non-participatory. And just as unarmed action does not necessarily mean perfectly nonviolent, neither does participatory mean perfectly horizontal. Unarmed action can include some forms of (relatively minor) violence, and participatory organization can include some forms of (bottom-up) hierarchy. That is why the dissertation is called “Unarmed and Participatory: Palestinian Popular Struggle and Civil Resistance Theory.”

For more, see Home and Palestinian Popular Struggle.

An emerging research area in the field today is intersectionality, the coming together of social-justice movements across spatial and social distances. Palestinians have tweeted teargas-coping tips to besieged Occupy Wall Street assemblies; Black Lives Matter delegations have visited Palestine; radical feminists have linked their concerns for gender justice to justice in Palestine; Palestinian activists have stood in solidarity with Standing Rock.

For general introductions and overviews of civil-resistance studies, see:

Waging Nonviolent Struggle , by Gene Sharp, 2005     Why Civil Resistance Works, by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, 2011     April Carter, People Power and Political Change (2013)     Kurt Schock (ed.) Civil Resistance: Comparative Perspectives on Nonviolent Struggle (2015)     Adam Roberts, Timothy Garton Ash, Civil Resistance and Power Politics (2009)

For web-based resources, see:

  Global Nonviolent Action Database – structured encyclopedic entries for 1000s of cases

 A Guide to Civil Resistance Literature – encyclopedia of the academic research

  International Center on Nonviolent Conflict – leading research institute, not the easiest website

– A select bibliography of major studies in civil resistance

– An annotated bibliography of major studies in civil resistance

favicon  Albert Einstein Institution – Gene Sharp’s organization

  Waging Nonviolence – current news stories with a civil resistance perspective

And here is classic Gene Sharp speaking about “The Power and Potential of Nonviolent Struggle” (1990):

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To learn more about civil resistance in the Arab and Muslim world, see:

Civil Resistance in the Arab Spring: Triumphs and Disasters Edited by Adam Roberts, Michael J. Willis, Rory McCarthy, and Timothy Garton Ash (Oxford University Press, 2016).


Civilian Jihad

Civilian Jihad, edited by Maria Stephan

See also:

My unpublished book review: “2009 Book Prefaces Arab Spring”


In Middle East time, 2009 seems like a distant era. Yet, as the title of this volume from that year suggests, the contributors of Civilian Jihad; Nonviolent Struggle, Democratization, and Governance in the Middle East (edited by Maria Stephan) are speaking to the present. With this timely and pre-emptive text, the startling Arab revolts of 2011 are unwittingly demystified and realigned within a larger context of continuity. The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ …

See also my page on Palestinian popular resistance.