Liberation Struggles

A columnist from a newspaper as reputable as The Guardian who, in defense of his argument that independence comes on the eve of important political rather than legal developments, stated that “In 1776, American independence came at the muzzle of a musket, not in the form of a lawsuit against George III.” Providentially, Chapter 16 on the United States addresses this common misconception by showing that, in reality, most of the American colonies gained their de facto independence before the war began through reliance on and use of nonmilitary actions of resistance. These actions were not lawsuits—the British Crown in fact considered them illegal—but neither were they shoot-outs or violent battles: they involved effective mass nonviolent noncooperation with British laws and customs and the establishment of new associations and institutions.

This book offers insights into the historical study of liberation and independence movements by discussing the relationship between armed and unarmed struggle during the fight for statehood. Armed struggle and civil resistance have had different relationships in different contexts and in different phases of conflict. In some cases, both types of resistance coexisted such as in Algeria after 1952 and Mozambique after 1960. In cases of Cuba, Iran, and Egypt, civil resistance was interrupted intermittently by outbursts of violent insurrection. In Hungary, Poland, and West Papua, armed struggle was replaced by civil resistance while in the United States, Burma, Kosovo, and Algeria civil resistance preceded and was overtaken by violent rebellion. Thus, far from decontextualizing nonviolent forms of contention from violent resistance, this book offers a more nuanced and realistic perspective on nationalist movements and liberation struggles. These movements and struggles relied on an impressive repertoire of civil resistance campaigns that were sometimes interspersed temporally or spatially with violence but, in other cases, were in competition with or opposed to armed insurrection. This book challenges a common, often exaggerated and glorified perception about the role of arms in winning a country’s freedom—one borne of the influence of military historians on the nationalist imagination, the enduring legacy of Homeric literature on Western-educated political establishments, and the classism of elite refusal to acknowledge the influence of ordinary people on pivotal events in national histories.

 

Often, once statehood has been achieved, martyrology of violent struggle has served victorious military and political forces to amplify their own role in bringing about independence and to justify their ascent and tenure in power. However, even if martyrology has been closely linked with armed struggle, the past and present reality is more complex since the eulogization of life sacrifice may also be part of civil resistance. For example, as Chapter on Bangladesh shows, the unarmed activists of the nonviolent Bangla language movement who were killed while defending their right to use Bangla became immortalized in national annals as martyrs. Nowadays, Palestinians, Egyptians, Syrians, Bahrainis, and Yemenis want to recognize their fallen nonviolent activists as martyrs. Martyrology can be seen both as a strategy to mobilize supporters and as a human, emotional response to recognize and value the courage of ordinary people who fought—whether with arms or nonviolently—against a more powerful and ruthless foe and, thereby, inspired others to rise up.

 

Many chapters in this book suggest that national historical narratives, discourse, and commemorations fail to acknowledge the role of civil resistance in movements for self-determination. Struggles for independence against occupation or foreign control have been inextricably linked with the rise of nationalism-fueled violence, venerated military heroes, and mythologized chronicles of victimhood and glorified martyrs who fought against brutal and usually more powerful foes. This, in turn, has reinforced the rarely questioned popular assumption that armed force must have been the dominant or decisive means of waging independence struggles. In addition, the tendencies to use the term revolution as a synonym for independence struggles and to identify revolution with violence (even some popular academic encyclopedias define “revolution” as a “fundamental and violent change”) suggest a revolutionary hegemonic heritage that leads to a willful amnesia of the existence and denial of the legitimacy and viability of an alternative means of struggle other than violence. Where and when civil resistance has emerged during nationalist struggles, it often has been viewed as a somehow less manly, less consequential, and less patriotic endeavor than armed insurrection. This deprecating view of civil resistance has by no means been limited to violent revolutionaries. A prominent political theorist, Michael Walzer, for example, openly criticizes and devalues nonviolent resistance as “a disguised form of surrender” and “a minimalist way of upholding communal values after a military defeat.”

 

Therefore, it should not be surprising that mainstream media unintentionally or otherwise often propagate violence-focused interpretations of independence. For example, a columnist from a newspaper as reputable as The Guardian who, in defense of his argument that independence comes on the eve of important political rather than legal developments, stated that “In 1776, American independence came at the muzzle of a musket, not in the form of a lawsuit against George III.” Providentially, Chapter 16 on the United States addresses this common misconception by showing that, in reality, most of the American colonies gained their de facto independence before the war began through reliance on and use of nonmilitary actions of resistance. These actions were not lawsuits—the British Crown in fact considered them illegal—but neither were they shoot-outs or violent battles: they involved effective mass nonviolent noncooperation with British laws and customs and the establishment of new associations and institutions. The conventional wisdom is that, in the struggle for statehood, there is much at stake for the local indigenous population as well as for a foreign occupier or hegemon. The former fights for its own country while the latter wants to maintain its territorial integrity and imperial dominance. An independence struggle is thus a maximalist or existential conflict for the occupied people who are fighting for their own survival against potential cultural or political, if not physical, annihilation. Conversely, a foreign power historically has invested so much of its own political capital, economic resources, and human lives in occupying or indirectly controlling a country that it perceives possible withdrawal or loss of influence over the territory as an intolerable national humiliation and a threat to global or regional hegemony that could encourage others under its colonial control to rebel. With such intense and vested interest, violence instigated and perpetrated by both sides is expected; it is common and inevitable. Because independence movements encompass such an enormous capacity for militancy, and because violence is often viewed as the strongest expression of that militancy, it is difficult for some to shift their intellectual and ontological paradigm away from violence toward the presence of nonviolent resistance and its potential historical impact.

 

Moreover, the cases included in this volume point to the conscious application and strategic use of nonviolent resistance, which long preceded its use by Gandhi. Many natural civil resisters before the twentieth century demonstrably understood—through their choice of nonviolent means of struggle—the futility or dire consequences of armed uprisings while also sensing the benefits of relying on nonviolent methods of struggle at a specific time of their nation’s history.

 

Some of the case studies point to the possibility that civil resistance was also used instrumentally—at times instinctively and at other times deliberately— as a prelude (as in Poland and Kosovo) or complement (as in Mozambique and Algeria) to armed resistance. Even in such circumstances, however, the impact of civil resistance should be recognized. In some cases, civil resistance had a direct role in forcing foreign authorities to grant these countries formal independence (Ghana, Zambia, and Egypt) or equal political status within an empire (Hungary). More often, it accelerated the gradual process of liberation from foreign domination relative to the outside imposed subjugation that the populations endured earlier (as in almost all cases included in this book). The point of these histories is not to suggest that the countries could not have gained independence without nonviolent struggle or that civil resistance alone was responsible. Rather, independence came as soon as it did—and often the societies and nascent civic and state institutions had been developed and thus were better prepared for independence— partly because of reliance on civil resistance, which had a profound effect on nation and state building.

 

 

 

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