Book Review: The Failure of Nonviolence: From the Arab Spring to Occupy, Peter Gelderloos, Left Bank Books, 2013


November 4, 2013 by Tariq Khan


Peter Gelderloos has written a handful of books and several essays, though he is probably best known for his provocative How Nonviolence Protects the State, first published in 2005, and republished in 2007.  Whatever faults it may have had, How Nonviolence Protects the State was a thoughtful, sincere book rooted not in abstract theory, but in actually existing anti-capitalist/anti-authoritarian struggle.  Gelderloos’ newest book, The Failure of Nonviolence: from the Arab Spring to Occupy, is not a mere restating of the first book in a newer context.  Rather, in The Failure of Nonviolence one can see a noticeable progression of Gelderloos as a writer, theorist, and revolutionary.  His book is a departure from the tiresome debate within the radical Left about violence vs. nonviolence.  It is something beyond that, deeper than that, and more urgent than that.

Gelderloos does not argue that people’s movements need to replace non-violence with violence.  Rather, he argues that the definitions and limits of both of these categories are constructed within the framework of bourgeois morality and thereby serve the status quo.  He writes:

“By criticizing nonviolence, I am not advocating violence.  Many of us believe that the phrase ‘advocating violence’ has no inherent meaning, it is just a form of demagoguery and fear-mongering.  Nonviolence requires a strategic usage of the concept of “violence”, which is moralistic, imprecise, incoherent, and tends towards hypocrisy.  We reject nonviolence because it is pacifying, and because it is incoherent.  The category of violence is a tool of the State.  In using it uncritically, nonviolent activists also become tools.” (p. 29)

Gelderloos sees “diversity of tactics” as a more useful approach than one based on ideas of violence or nonviolence.  He recognizes that in some rare instances, unthoughtful activists have used the excuse of “diversity of tactics” as a justification to do “whatever they wanted without thinking about the consequences for anyone else,” and he challenges the notion of diversity of tactics as an “anything goes” philosophy. (p. 29)  For Gelderloos, diversity of tactics means thinking in terms of what will be effective rather than thinking in terms of nonviolence, violence, “good protesters,” and “bad protesters.”  It is the recognition that a successful movement is a broad-based movement, and a broad-based movement must have the space and flexibility to include a broad range of points of view, experiences, and tactics.  A vanguard, even a pacifist vanguard, that imposes its morality, its “one true path,” on the movement contains within it the seeds of authoritarianism.

He also recognizes that more combative “bad protester” tactics – such as sabotage, riots, black-blocs, and armed struggle – in and of themselves are also not enough.  “…those who support a diversity of tactics are not generally satisfied with our struggle, many are self-critical, and many want to be more inclusive.” (p. 30)

“A diversity of methods is necessary in our struggle because none of us have the answer regarding the one true strategy for revolution; because there is no one size fits all and each of us must develop a unique form of struggle for our respective situation; and because in fact our movements are harder to repress when we replace a party-line unity with a broad solidarity, when we attack as a swarm and not as an opposing army.  Whether that army is pacifist or combative, the discipline required to coerce or intimidate everyone into following one set of pre-approved tactics, and to exclude all who fall out of line, is authoritarian.  In such a contest, whichever army won – the army of the government or the army of the movement – the State would triumph.” (p. 31)

Nonviolence (actually existing nonviolence that is to say) can weaken movements and play into the hands of the bourgeois elite.  For example, Occupy Wall Street suffered a lot of repression at the hands of the State.  Some “good protesters,” represented by people like Chris Hedges, blamed this repression on the misbehavior of a few unruly masked anarchists, rather than blaming it on Capitalism and the State.  Any movement that effectively challenges corporate/state power will suffer repression, whether it is unruly or not.  Blaming the repression on “bad protesters” instead of blaming it on Capitalism and the State plays right into the hands of the well-heeled elite and it divides and weakens the movement.  Our enemies are not some black-bloc anarchists.  Our enemies are high level politicians, businessmen, generals, and law enforcement; the people who are destroying our world for their own personal gain and the systems that uphold their power and privilege. (Many thoughtful people responded to Chris Hedges’ othering of anarchists.  The best response, I believe, is this one from David Graeber:

Nonviolence, as it exists within movements today, is a philosophy that is full of holes.  It is inconsistent and in some cases even childish.  For example, there is the commonly expressed idea that if someone uses violence to defend herself from a bully, she is “just as bad as” that bully.  This is utter nonsense.  A woman who stabs a man who is assaulting her is not “just as bad as” the assaulter.  A community that uses combative tactics to defend themselves from police or soldiers who are attacking them is not “just as bad” as the cops.  This type of thinking needs to die.

There is also a severe lack of history on the part of dogmatic nonviolence advocates who argue that nonviolence “worked” in India, and violence “failed” in Russia.  Gelderloos provides a reality check, to remind us that the only winners in the world right now are capitalism and the State.  The U.S. is still a patriarchal, white supremacist, capitalist, imperialist nation.  India is still controlled by oligarchs, and its independence struggle, in fact, included a diversity of tactics, including violence.  The Russian Revolution did not turn authoritarian because of violence, it turned authoritarian because setting up a one party dictatorship was the goal of the Bolsheviks from the start.  On the left we have many myths about various different historical movements.  That such and such movement won because it was nonviolent, and that this other movement failed because it was violent.  Gelderloos reminds us that as of yet, we are all still losing.  Part of why we are still losing is because we are allowing Capitalist ethics and the State to define the boundaries of resistance.  We are playing by their rules and their morality.  “The question of whether our tactics are violent is a waste of time.  Assigning such labels is the job of moralists, journalists, or cops, and frankly we should not care how they decide to categorize us.  It is time to start asking a new question of the tactics we use in the struggle for a better world: are they liberating?” (p. 215)

As worthwhile as I find this book, I do take issue with one section.  The section titled “Movement Musicians” is too sweeping and it generalizes an entire category based on few examples that I do not believe accurately represent what the author claims they do.  He argues that in the U.S. in particular, movement musicians play a pacifying role, romanticizing struggle more than they take part in struggle. He accuses U.S. movement musicians of being parasites on the movement.  This is true in some cases, but in many cases it is not true.  Many of the most serious and even combative activists I personally know are what can be termed “movement musicians,” especially from the radical punk and hip-hop communities.  I was particularly troubled by Gelderloos’ characterization of the radical folk musician Ryan Harvey as a “pacifist” who pacifies the movement.  I personally know both Gelderloos and Harvey, and they are both two of the most dedicated revolutionaries I’ve ever met.  I have worked with Ryan Harvey on projects in the past, and from my experience, he is someone who does exactly what Gelderloos is arguing for; think in terms of effectiveness rather than in moralistic terms of violence/nonviolence.  While Harvey is not violent, he certainly is not a dogmatic pacifist or a parasite on the movement.

All criticism aside, this book is useful and relevant.  It is a step toward transcending the debilitating debate about violence vs. nonviolence.  “Rejecting nonviolence does not mean running to the opposite extreme of building a revolutionary practice around the concept of violence…. Opposites tend to reproduce the same logic; in order to function as opposites they must exist within the same paradigm.” (p. 236)  The point of The Failure of Nonviolence is to reject that paradigm outright, to stop thinking in terms of middle-class morality, and start thinking in terms of what it takes.  What means are necessary and effective to seize and protect space in which to practice new social relations, to spread awareness of new ideas (awareness that inspires others to fight), and to achieve concrete gains that improve people’s lives in ways that lead toward liberation?





2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Failure of Nonviolence: From the Arab Spring to Occupy, Peter Gelderloos, Left Bank Books, 2013

  1. outside the corridor says:

    this is going to take some time to get through–

    but I appreciate the posting; I’ll need to read it in ‘bytes’–

  2. An intriguing review. Being one who has an academic and spiritual commitment to nonviolence I think that it certainly is essential that we interrogate our strategy and goals in implementing this tool and deep commitment.

    Does the author consider recent work by Maria Stephan and Erica Chenowerth? Their empirical findings and qualitative conclusions about the power of nonviolence are quite convincing. There is probably room for further study and discussion here on the merits of their findings in the Occupy movement and the current state of the Arab Spring.

    It does seem, at least from the review, that the author does not take into full account the long-term nature of any such struggle and the mass of variables that are involved in the current struggles he analyses.

    Regardless, this book is now on my list to read!

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