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How Empires Fall: An Interview With Jonathan Schell
Posted on Mar 3, 2012
By Andy Kroll, TomDispatch
I began to think about the fortunes of empire more broadly. Of course, the British Empire had already gone under the waves of history, as had all the other European empires. And when you stopped to think about it, you saw that all the empires, with the possible exception of the American one, were disintegrating or had disintegrated. It seemed there was something in this world that did not love an empire. I began to wonder what exactly that was. Specifically, why were nations and empires that wielded overwhelmingly superior force unable to defeat powers that were incomparably weaker in a military sense?
Whatever that something was, it had to do with the superiority of political power over military power. I saw that superiority in action on the ground as a reporter for the New Yorker in Vietnam starting way back in 1966, 1967. Actually, the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese understood this, and if you read their documents, they were incessantly saying “politics” was primary, that war was only the continuation of politics.
AK: As you say in the book, they sounded eerily like Carl von Clausewitz, the famed Prussian war philosopher of the eighteenth century.
JS: Yes exactly, because they knew that the heart of their strength was their victory in the department of hearts and minds. Eventually, the U.S. military learned that as well. I remember a Marine commandant, “Brute” Krulak, who said the United States could win every battle until kingdom come—and it was winning almost every battle—and still lose the war. And it did lose the war. That was what I saw in Vietnam: the United States winning and winning and winning until it lost. It won its way to defeat.
Then there was the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland. I had friends, Irena and Jan Gross, who had been kicked out of Poland in 1968 for being dissidents and for being Jewish (thanks to an anti-Semitic campaign of that moment). Even if there were sparks of rebellion in Poland, it seemed the definition of noble futility: to be up against a government backed by the Polish secret police, and the whole repressive apparatus of the Soviet Union—the Red Army, the KGB, a nuclear arsenal. What did the rebels have to work with? They weren’t even using guns. They were just writing fliers and demonstrating in the street and sometimes occupying a factory. It looked like the very definition of a lost cause.
Yet, as the years went by, I began see some of the names of people Irena and Jan had been contacting in the papers. They’d been sending packages of crackers and cheese and contraband literature to someone called Adam Michnik and someone called Jacek KuroÅ„—who turned out to be kingpins in the precursor movement to Solidarity and then in Solidarity itself.
And when Solidarity bloomed, being entirely nonviolent, it shed new light on the question I’d been asking myself: What was this something that overmatched superior violence?
Solidarity exhibited another version of political power, an entirely nonviolent kind. From there, I was led to see that there were forms of nonviolent action that could unravel and topple the most violent forms of government ever conceived—namely, the totalitarian. This went entirely against the conventional wisdom of political science, which taught that force is the ultima ratio, the final arbiter; that if you had superior weaponry and superior military power you were the winner. Really that was the consensus from left to right with very few exceptions.
So I asked myself what exactly is nonviolent action? What is popular protest? How does it work?
The Einstein of Nonviolence
AK: You pinpoint the birth of this force at a single event on September 11, 1906.
JS: Precisely, a peaceful protest led by Mohandas Gandhi at the Empire Theater in Johannesburg, South Africa, on September 11, 1906. It’s rare that you can date a social invention to a particular day and meeting, but I think you can in this case. Gandhi called himself an experimenter in truth. He’s really the Einstein of nonviolence.
Soon enough, I began to ask myself about other nonviolent movements and that, of course, very much involved the civil rights movement in the United States.
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