Can nonviolence move the next century?

I just returned to New York after visiting Belgrade, where I interviewed (among others) Srdja Popovic, a leader of the nonviolent Otpor movement that overthrew Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, and now a lively, witty, imaginative advocate for nonviolent struggle against dictatorships everywhere. There’s a fine narrative of Otpor’s progress, and Srdja’s approach to spunky nonviolence, in Tina Rosenberg’s new bookJoin the Club:  How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World. Excerpts from my interview will be up soon on a soon-to-be-launched global upstart news site that I’m thrilled to be connected to,

But for now, I want to ring a bell (thank you, ex-governor Palin!) and call some domestic attention to the remarkable site that Srdja and four other activists run out of Belgrade, CANVAS stands for Centre for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies. They circulate a DVD detailing the movement that overthrew the Serbian dictator. They circulate step-by-step manuals in many languages on how to organize nonviolent movements–step by step, counterstep by counterstep. They launched a graduate program at the Faculty of Political Science of the University of Belgrade. They conduct training sessions with nonviolent activists from many countries.

I’m willing to take the risk of hype and say that CANVAS’s work—along with the movements they help on request (to name only one, Egypt)—amounts to something huge and fresh afoot in the world, a phenomenon that, for all the continuing wars—always hideous, almost always futile—may well prove to be the planet’s greatest outpouring of creative force, the one that will mark the coming century as total war stamped the last. It’s nonviolent struggle.

On top of Tunisia and Egypt, it now looks as though—fingers crossed—a critical mass of Palestinians may, at last, be getting the point. When they blow people up, they manufacture panic and hatred, and lock themselves up. They forfeit the initiative. When they act en masse with what Gandhi called satyagraha, soul force, they seize the initiative. If the Palestinian national movement had begun with disciplined nonviolence, it would have achieved statehood by now.

That said, much better late than never. From current reports, it would seem that something worthy of being called a third intifada may have begun on the West Bank and on the other side of the Syrian border. As the Israeli-American writer Joseph Dana wrote the other day in response to Thomas Friedman’s call for Palestinian nonviolence,

Palestinians have been holding unarmed and largely non-violent demonstrations in towns across the West Bank  for the past nine years.

With inspiration from Tunisia and Egypt, and fueled by the contemptuous obduracy of the Israeli government, amid the build-up to a UN vote on Palestinian statehood in September, nonviolence is making new friends in the West Bank. This is only one place where the balance of forces is changing and imagination is soaring.

Nonviolent campaigns do not guarantee victory or the ultimate reign of justice. Neither do wars. But human ingenuity is in the game and the human prospect opens more than a crack. International Relations ought to heed. Attention must be paid.


Todd Gitlin is an American writer, sociologist, communications scholar, novelist, poet, and not very private intellectual. He is the author of fourteen books, including, most recently (with Liel Leibovitz), The Chosen Peoples:  America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election and a novel, Undying.

This post originally appeared on the website of the Chronicle of Higher Education and is re-posted here with the permission of the author and Chronicle.