How Empires Fall: An Interview With Jonathan Schell
Posted on Mar 3, 2012
By Andy Kroll, TomDispatch
AK: You point to four key moments in history—the French, American, Glorious, and Bolshevik revolutions—and describe how the real revolution, the nonviolent one, took place in the hearts and minds of the people in those countries. And that the bloody fighting that, in some cases, ensued was not the true revolution, but an extension of it. It’s a revelatory part of the book. Did you already have this idea when you began Unconquerable World, or was it an Aha! moment along the way?
JS: It was really the latter. Gandhi’s movement landed the most powerful blow against the entire British Empire, and the Solidarity movement and the revolution in Czechoslovakia and other popular activities in those places were in my opinion the real undoing of the Soviet Union. That’s not the small change of history. Those were arguably the two greatest empires of their time. So, having seen that there was such power in nonviolence, I began to wonder: How did things work in other revolutions?
I was startled to discover that even in revolutions which, in the end, turned out to be supremely violent, the revolutionaries—some of whom, like the Bolsheviks, didn’t even believe at all in nonviolence—nonetheless proceeded largely without violence. Somebody quipped that more people were killed in the filming of Sergey Eisenstein’s storming of the Winter Palace [in his Ten Days That Shook the World] than were killed in the actual storming. That was true because the Bolsheviks were really unopposed.
How could that be? Well, because they had won over the garrison of Saint Petersburg; they had, that is, won the “hearts and minds” of the military and the police.
Square, Site wide
JS: The Bastille was absolutely like that. In that first stage of the French Revolution there was almost no violence at all. Some people were beheaded in the aftermath of the action, but the victory was not won through violence, but through the defection of the government’s minions. It didn’t mean the revolutionaries loved nonviolence. On the contrary, what followed was the Terror, in the case of the French, and the Red Terror in the case of the Bolsheviks, who went on to shed far more blood as rulers than they had shed on their way to power.
Usually the cliché is that the stage of overthrow is the violent part, and the stage of consolidation or of setting up a new government is post-violent or nonviolent. I discovered it to be just the other way around.
AK: On this subject, as your book makes clear, some re-teaching is in order. We’re so conditioned to think of overthrow as a physical act: knocking down the gates, storming the castle, killing the king, declaring the country yours.
JS: In a certain sense, overthrow is the wrong word. If you overthrow something, you pick it up and smash it down. In these cases, however, the government has lost legitimacy with the people and is spontaneously disintegrating from within.
AK: As you note, the Hungarian writer György Konrád used the image of an iceberg melting from the inside to describe the process.
JS: He and actually the whole Solidarity movement had already noticed how Franco’s cryptofascist regime in Spain sort of melted away from within and finally handed over power in a formal process to democratic forces. That was one of their models.
AK: Reading The Unconquerable World feels like swimming against the tide of conventional wisdom, of conventional history. Why do you think antiquated ideas about power and its uses still grip us so tightly?
JS: There is a conventional assumption that superior violence is always decisive. In other words, whatever you do, at the end of the day whoever has the biggest army is going to win. They’re going to cross the border, impose their ideology or religion, they’re going to kill the women and children, they’re going to get the oil.
And honestly, you have to say that, through most of history, there was overwhelming evidence for the accuracy of that observation. I very much see the birth of nonviolence as something that, although not exactly missing from the pages of history previously, was fundamentally new in 1906. I think of it as a discovery, an invention.
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