By Stephen Gowans
I confess that when Michael Barker sent me a link to nonviolence advocate Brian Martin’s Gandhi Marg article “Dilemmas in promoting nonviolence” I wasn’t too keen on reading it.  With a pile of unread books threatening to bury me under an avalanche, I thought my time could be better spent on avalanche control. Plus, I was hoping to get around to mowing the tufts of hair that advancing age have brought to my ears.
It was, therefore, with scant enthusiasm that I flipped desultorily through Martin’s article. Undecided as to whether to plunge in, I skipped to the conclusion. If anything there grabbed my attention I would read the article in full. Otherwise, I would toss “Dilemmas in promoting nonviolence” on my not-worth-the-time pile, along with the stack of Stephen Zunes articles I had accumulated.
The first sentence of Martin’s conclusion read: “Proponents of nonviolence have come under attack for supporting bad causes, in particular US imperialism.”
My attention shifted more firmly to the article, away from a precariously balanced book teetering atop my book pile.
The next sentence brought me fully awake. “[F]ew of the claims of the critics stand up to scrutiny and many lack evidence.”
I was immediately interested. Which claims lack evidence? Which don’t? Which stand up to scrutiny? Which wither under Martin’s analysis?
Laying a brace against the tottering mountain of books beside me, I dove into Martin’s article, anxious to discover how the claims of nonviolence critics fell apart under careful examination.
Hmmm. Nothing on page 1. Oh well, he’s just getting started. Page 5 – Still nothing, but there are 15 pages of text to go. It’s early. Page 10 – A bus rumbles by and shakes the Himalaya of books beside me. A book hurtles to the floor. I move quickly to avoid it. Nothing yet. Page 15 – Still nothing. Did I read the conclusion correctly? I skip ahead to check. Proponents of nonviolence…under attack…supporting US imperialism…lack evidence. No mistake. Page 16. Nothing. Pages 17 and 18. Still nothing. Page 19. Ah, there it is. In the final paragraph before the conclusion. A single sentence: “the stance of the anti-imperialist critics is seriously flawed, including by the absence of any proof that nonviolent movements are pawns of the US government.”
What? I just cancelled a much needed date with my ear-hair scissors to learn that “[F]ew of the claims of the critics stand up to scrutiny and many lack evidence” because “the stance of the anti-imperialist critics is seriously flawed”?
This is like being told that the secret to getting rich is to accumulate a lot of money. Or that when people lose their jobs, unemployment happens. I should have trusted my instincts and tossed Brian Martin on the not-worth-the-time pile.
Problems with Martin’s Case
Here are the problems, if they’re not already evident.
First, the ICNC (International Center on Nonviolent Conflict), one of the proponents of nonviolence that has come under attack for supporting bad causes, has been criticized for its connections to ruling class organizations and for aiding groups whose aim is to bring down foreign governments whose policies are not conducive to the interests of Western economic elites. Of this there is considerable evidence and documentation. Michael Barker has catalogued a lot of it. Click here.
Rather than dealing with the criticism above and the evidence that supports it, Martin deflects attention. Those who criticize the ICNC for its ruling class connections are deemed champions of the idea that “nonviolent movements are pawns of the US government.” This has demagogic potential. No one wants to be called a dupe, and accusing the ICNC’s critics of branding grassroots activists as victims of a swindle serves two purposes: it turns grassroots activists against the critics and takes attention away from the central issue: the ICNC’s ties to the US foreign policy establishment.
The second problem is that Martin fails to show that the critic’s case falters under close examination and lacks evidence. In fact, he doesn’t examine it at all. Instead, he simply asserts that the case lacks substance, footnoting the conclusion with a reference to a personal communication from “Hardy Merriman – of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.” Merriman told Martin that “the burden of proof should be on those making the assertion that recent nonviolent movements are fronts for Western powers. They never provide such proof.”
Just to make this clear: Martin’s careful examination of the critics’ case boils down to an assurance from good old Hardy Merriman, of the ICNC, that the ICNC’s critics haven’t got a case. This is like a George W. Bush supporter declaring that few of the claims of Bush’s critics stand up to scrutiny, because Dick Cheney told him so in a personal communication. No wonder Martin buried this in a footnote.
But that’s just the start of the problems with this dishonest piece of scholarship. ICNC critics have never said that nonviolent movements are fronts for Western powers (at least, the ones I know haven’t.) What they’ve said is that the ICNC (and Western powers) are fronts for the US ruling class, of which ICNC supremo Peter Ackerman, is a charter member. You can find out more about the ex-leveraged buyout specialist, former head of the CIA-interlocked Freedom House, and now Council on Foreign Relations board member, here. When Ackerman isn’t teaching foreign activists how to use nonviolent civil disobedience to overthrow Third World governments, he’s running Rockport Capital Inc., a private investment firm. Just the kind of guy you would expect to be assisting progressive causes.
Nor do the critics of the ICNC criticize the organization for promoting nonviolence, though Martin would have you believe that nonviolence is the burr under their saddles. The truth is that what bothers the ICNC’s critics is the organization’s integration into the US foreign policy estblishment. It’s not the tactics the ICNC promotes, but the reasons it promotes them, and on whose behalf, that galvanizes the center’s critics. Martin misses this, whether deliberately or not, is unclear.
The Case Against the ICNC
Martin doesn’t name me in his article, and he may never have had me in mind. But all the same, let me summarize my own objections to the ICNC, and its siblings, the AEI (Albert Einstein Institution) and CANVAS (Center for Applied Nonviolent Actions and Strategies), and more broadly, “democracy” promoting organizations like the NED (National Endowment for Democracy, established to take up the former CIA function of meddling in foreign countries’ elections.)
The ICNC and NED are fronts for Western ruling class interests.
These organizations engage with movements abroad to influence them and use them to achieve Western foreign policy goals.
Nonviolent civil disobedience movements can be effective in bringing down governments that have been demoralized or weakened by war, threats of war, sanctions, economic crisis or outside propaganda (delivered via Radio Liberty, Voice of America, NED-funded ‘independent’ media, the Western mass media, and so on) or some combination of the above. Nonviolent civil disobedience movements, by themselves, without outside intervention to disorganize and weaken the governments they seek to change, are usually ineffective. (I provide an example later on in this article.)
By promoting nonviolent civil disobedience the ICNC and CANVAS:
(A) provide tools for activists abroad to overthrow their governments. These tools become effective when Western powers first disorganize and weaken the foreign governments they have targeted for overthrow;
(B) encourage activists at home to adopt nonviolent civil disobedience, pointing to its successes abroad, but ignoring the role played by war, sanctions, economic crisis and propaganda as softening up interventions that help nonviolent civil disobedience to work. This channels domestic activists into a set of activities that, while they may often be successful when used in conjunction with intervention to weaken target governments, are likely to be far less successful otherwise, and may well be completely ineffective and inappropriate to the circumstances.
The problem with pragmatic nonviolence (the nonviolence based on strategic, not ethical considerations that Gene Sharp, the ICNC’s intellectual godfather champions) is not that it is always ineffective, but that it is not unconditionally more effective than violence, as its promoters claim. It is easy to conceive of circumstances in which nonviolence is the method of choice, but equally easy to conceive of other circumstances in which nonviolence will fail miserably. The position of the ICNC, AEI and Brian Martin is that nonviolence is always more effective than violence, a claim which, to throw Martin’s words back at him, withers under scrutiny and lacks evidence. The complaint against Martin and his fellow pragmatic nonviolence promoters, then, is that what they are promoting is a position that locks domestic activists into a nonviolence that is not always the best tactic for the circumstances at hand.
To strengthen their case, Martin et al point to recent successes abroad, intimating that domestic activists can be equally effective if they use the same techniques. This, however, completely ignores the role Western intervention has played in these countries of weakening governments and providing funding to activists to organize civil disobedience and build media support. No Western government is going to sanction itself, threaten to bomb its own population, distribute anti-government propaganda calling for its overthrow, or pay local activists to agitate for its downfall. Absent these conditions, the chances of civil disobedience working in the United States, Britain, Canada and elsewhere in the Western world to achieve anything close to what has been achieved elsewhere, are slim at best. It’s kind of like saying building a roof will keep you safe from the elements, because, look, those people over there built a roof and now they’re warm and dry, ignoring all the preceding work in building a foundation, frame and walls.
Indeed, the efficacy of these techniques absent help from rich outside donors can be measured by what happened in Georgia, after the Rose Revolutionaries, using techniques of nonviolent civil disobedience, ousted Eduard Shevardnadze, clearing the way for Washington’s new man, Mikheil Saakashvili, to come to power.
A second nonviolence-based revolution should have happened when Saakashvili turned out to be little better than the man he replaced. Instead, nothing.
“Georgia is a semi-democracy,” explains Lincoln Mitchell, who worked for the National Democratic Institute in Georgia from 2002 to 2004. “We have traded one kind of semi-democratic system for another. There is a real need to understand that what happened is another one-party government emerged.” 
According to Mitchell, “under Shevardnadze, there was freedom of assembly and the press, and the government was too weak to crack down on dissent. But the state was rife with corruption, and elections were poorly run. Under Saakashvili, the central government is stronger and official corruption has been reduced, but the media have far fewer freedoms and there are fewer civil organizations. Elections still don’t function well.” What’s more, “parliament has been weakened through constitutional changes mandated by Saakashvili, making it difficult for the legislative branch to restrain executive power.” 
So why don’t the Rose Revolutionaries dust off their nonviolence skills, and oust Saakashvili, the way they did Shevardnadze?
One reason is that many Rose Revolutionaries have moved on to do Uncle Sam’s work in other countries whose governments Washington has slated for regime change.
“Every few months” explains the Los Angeles Times’ Borzou Daragahi, Nini Gogiberidze, a Rose Revolutionary employed by the nonviolence promoter CANVAS, “is deployed abroad to teach democracy activists how to agitate for change against their autocratic governments, going everywhere from Eastern Europe to train Belarusians to Turkey to coach Iranians.”  Apparently, with their fires of indignation burning against the autocracies of Victor Lukashenko and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Gogiberidze and her CANVAS colleagues have failed to notice that Saakashvili is also an autocrat.
Another reason is that the Rose Revolutionaries’ rich donors have withdrawn their funding, and diverted it to the whole point of the Rose Revolution – Saakashvili. As the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler reported in 2008, “the Bush administration scaled back funding for voluntary civil and social organizations” (i.e., the Rose Revolutionaries) “in order to devote resources to building up the central government.”  Saakashvili got more help from Washington to consolidate his position, while the nonviolence movement sputtered to a halt, starved of the funding that once fueled it. Money helps in organizing, and organization is critically important in both strengthening governments and overthrowing them.
As I finished Martin’s article I reflected on its title: Dilemmas in promoting nonviolence. One of the dilemmas Martin failed to address is that of defending the ICNC, an organization that is bound up with US ruling class interests and at the same time promotes nonviolent civil disobedience (mainly in Third World countries), and which is condemned not for its promotion of nonviolent activism but for its integration into the US foreign policy establishment and its assistance to the pursuit of US foreign policy goals. As Franklin Foer reported in The New Republic, “When some of State’s desk officers don’t want to create international incidents by advising activists on how to overthrow governments, they gently suggest visiting [ICNC chief] Ackerman, who has fewer qualms about lending a helping hand.”  Nonviolence promoters have found themselves springing to the defense of this dodgy organization (which does what the CIA used to do but tries to make it appear progressive) because they’ve misinterpreted attacks on the ICNC as attacks on nonviolence.
The real dilemma for independent nonviolence promoters is to figure out how to build a firewall between the Western ruling class interests that lurk behind seemingly neutral organizations like the ICNC, fronted by the soi-disant progressive and anti-imperialist Stephen Zunes, and genuine grassroots movements. The solution is summed up clearly in the epigram: the revolution will not be funded (or selflessly assisted by ultrawealthy members of the Council on Foreign Relations.) Genuine grassroots revolutions and movements will only achieve genuine grassroots goals if they reject engagement with fronts for Western ruling class interests. Otherwise, activists abroad may find themselves helping to bring another Saakashvili to power. Another US client, eager to transform his country into a profit center for US investors, may be congenial to the interests of investment firms, like Rockport Capital Inc., but will hardly be congenial to the interests of the bulk of grassroots activist who clear the way for his ascension to power. As for activists at home, they may find themselves straitjacketed into a mode of achieving social change that is not always well suited to the circumstances at hand, and which succeeds only when backed by the massive intervention of Western states, an intervention that clearly won’t be happening at home. The warning, beware of ultra-rich establishment figures bearing gifts, and even more so their progressive lieutenants, scarcely needs justification.
In March 2010 the ICNC revealed on its website who its board of academic advisors is. Among the names was Brian Martin.
1. Brian Martin,” Dilemmas in Promoting Nonviolence,” Gandhi Marg, October-December, 2009.
2. Glenn Kessler, “Georgian Democracy A Complex Evolution,” The Washington Post, August 24, 2008. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/08/23/AR2008082301817_pf.html
4. Borzou Daragahi, “A Georgian soldier of the Velvet Revolution”, The Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2008.
6. Foer, Franklin, “Regime Change Inc. Peter Ackerman’s quest to topple tyranny,” The New Republic, April 16, 2005.