3 and 4 February 2012
The wave of revolutions that swept the Arab world in 2011 has reawakened interest in the theory and practice of nonviolent resistance. None of the uprisings were entirely nonviolent, and in some cases, of course, they have ushered in bloody crackdowns or even civil war. Yet, in Egypt and Tunisia, nonviolent methods of protest and resistance played a crucial part in the downfall of authoritarian regimes. In both cases, a small number of activists acted as initial organizers, coaching others in methods that had been tested in other countries and described in widely circulating texts. The part played by Gene Sharp and the Einstein Institution in inspiring the Arab Spring has received much attention, as has the role of model organizations such as Serbia’s Otpor and Canvas.
The workshop considered the scope and limits of nonviolent resistance in broader historical perspective. We discussed questions such as: Is nonviolent protest better suited for regime change or to affect more local and circumscribed change? If the former, can or should it help protesters obtain lasting political power, or is it bound to be exploited by less scrupulous elites? Is there any connection at all between nonviolent resistance and pacifism, or is nonviolence always part of a broader toolbox of methods, and pacifism simply a distraction? Is nonviolent resistance always a force for good? Do attempts to describe, theorize, and codify the »best practice« of nonviolent protest, from Henry David Thoreau and Leo Tolstoy to Gandhi and Gene Sharp, have any identifiable practical impact, or does nonviolent protest develop spontaneously and regardless of such intellectual baggage? What conditions need to be in place for nonviolent protest to be effective, and can these conditions be described in terms that are not specific to each time and place?
To discuss these questions from a plurality of perspectives, we assembled a group of political scientists, sociologists, historians, and activists from countries and regions as diverse as the United States, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe, as well as veteran participants of both West and East German protest movements.
Conference language was English.