May 20, 2013
How Empires Fall: An Interview With Jonathan Schell
Posted on Mar 3, 2012
By Andy Kroll, TomDispatch
The fundamental critique of it was that it doesn’t work. The belief, more an unspoken premise than a conviction, was that if you want to act effectively in defense of your deepest beliefs or worst cravings, you have to pick up the gun, and as Mao Zedong said, power will flow from the barrel of that gun.
It took protracted demonstrations of the kind that we’ve been talking about to put nonviolence on the map. Now, by the way, states have come to understand this power and its dangers much better. Certainly, those who govern Egypt understand it. And what about the apparatchiks of the Soviet Union? They saw it firsthand—the whole thing going down almost without a shot being fired.
Take, for instance, the government of Iran. They’re very worried foreign activists or certain books might show up in their country, because they’re afraid that a soft or velvet revolution will take place in Iran. And they’re right to worry. They’ve had two big waves of protest already, most recently the Green Revolution of 2009-2010.
It hasn’t succeeded there yet. And to be clear, there’s nothing magical about nonviolence. It’s a human thing. It’s not a magic wand that you wave over empires and totalitarian regimes and they simply melt away, though sometimes it’s seemed that way. There can, of course, be failure. Look at what the people in Syria face right now. And look at the staggering raw courage they’ve displayed in going out into the streets again and again in the face of so many slaughtered in their country. It’s anyone’s guess who’s going to emerge as the victor there.
JS: It does fail. But the fact that it can succeed suggests something new historically. People, I think, are only beginning to understand this and notice it. Certainly, governments have noticed it. As soon as they see a few people getting out in the streets now, they start to get very nervous. For instance, Russia’s Vladimir Putin is obviously feeling this nervousness right now in the wake of the sub-zero activists in the streets of Moscow.
The Hidden Sphere of the Human Heart and Mind
AK: Unconquerable World was published in the run-up to the Iraq war, when the drum beat of invasion mania reached a deafening roar. How did that affect the book’s reception?
JS: At the moment it came out, in this country certainly, the believers in violence reigned supreme. Here I was saying all empires are going under the waves, and here under George W. Bush was the U.S. styling itself as the last world-straddling imperial superpower about to administer an unstoppable, shock-and-awe demonstration of its might. So it was a particularly unpropitious moment for a message about the power of nonviolence. There were some favorable reactions, but at that point the book didn’t really enter the broader discussion.
I honestly wondered myself whether this history of successful nonviolent movements hadn’t… [he hesitates] if not ended, at least come to a pause. Eight years later, I was as surprised as anyone by the Arab Spring. And while I’d certainly hoped for something like the Occupy movement in the United States, I hadn’t foreseen that either. I was happily surprised by these movements, which gave new life to the whole tradition of nonviolent action and revolution.
The reason I had wondered whether we weren’t at some sort of pause was that so much of the nonviolent action of the twentieth century had been tied to the anti-imperial and anti-colonial movements. Certainly that was true with Gandhi and the Soviet Union. Even the civil rights movement in the United States was, in a certain sense, a response to a crime that had really begun under imperial auspices—namely, the slave raids in Africa, which were distinctly an imperial enterprise. If I was right that a certain kind of territorial imperialism imposed by force had run its course, then maybe so had the movements generated in opposition to it. There were a few examples where that wasn’t the case. Myanmar, for example.
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