Extinction Rebellion places non-violent resistance at the heart of its strategy, and looks to claims made by US academics Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephen that just 3.5 percent of a population can topple a dictator. Sue Caldwell applauds XR’s actions, but questions the conclusions its claims can lead to.
In just over a year, Extinction Rebellion (XR), alongside Greta Thunberg and the school student climate strikes, has forced the climate emergency onto the front pages. Last month’s International Rebellion against climate change inspired activists around the world. The aggressive police response, from the use of water cannon in Brussels to effectively banning protests in central London, shocked many supporters and fed into debates about strategy and tactics.
The principle of “non-violent civil disobedience” is central to the philosophy of XR, which draws its inspiration from several sources including Martin Luther King and Gandhi. Less well known, but frequently quoted, is the work of US academic Erica Chenoweth, in particular a book she co-authored with Maria Stephan called Why Civil Resistance Works.
The book was published at the end of 2011, but for several years little was known about their research outside academia. In 2017 the Guardian published an opinion piece by Chenoweth in response to the election of Donald Trump and the huge Women’s March on Washington. The headline was “It may only take 3.5% of the population to topple a dictator — with civil resistance”. This figure has since been widely quoted at XR events and by journalists reporting on them.
Following the April International Rebellion the BBC ran a feature headed “The 3.5% rule: how a small minority can change the world”, claiming that Chenoweth had shown “it takes around 3.5% of the population actively participating in the protests to ensure serious political change”. At number two in the list of principles and values on the XR website is “We set our vision on what is necessary — mobilising 3.5% of the population to achieve system change.”
This is an ambitious aim; it would mean actively engaging over 2 million people in the UK for an extended period of time. But the most astonishing thing about the 3.5 percent figure is the lack of published evidence for it. It does not appear in Why Civil Resistance Works, although Chenoweth claims in a 2013 TED talk — without providing any further reference — that the data in the book justifies the claim. This will presumably be expanded on in her new book due out next June, but the popularising of the figure is representative of the way that Chenoweth’s research has been taken up in a sometimes misleading form by supporters and detractors alike.
Perhaps more important than pinpointing an exact figure is understanding the strategies that can most effectively mobilise large numbers. Here there is much of interest in the book — though often for what it does not say as much as for what it does.
Chenoweth and Stephan collected data on 323 mass actions between 1900 and 2006, dividing them into “violent” and “non-violent” categories. They concluded that non-violent civil resistance campaigns were around twice as likely to succeed as violent ones. XR co-founder Roger Hallam is explicit about the influence of this research on the group. In May 2019 he wrote, “Drawing on the groundbreaking research of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan…we came to the conclusion that the only way to overcome entrenched political power is through extensive campaigns of large-scale nonviolent direct action.”
Such references appear repeatedly in interviews involving key figures in XR, as well as from individual activists on the ground during many of the wonderful actions that have been taking place in major cities around the world. So how applicable is the research to these sorts of actions?
First, it is important to say that for Chenoweth and Stephan violence means literally taking up arms against a regime. It does not mean breaking a few windows, lashing out in self-defence, resisting arrest, shouting and swearing or even occasional violent acts of revenge. In fact, they surprisingly characterise the first Palestinian Intifada of 1987-8 as non-violent because, even though it involved some stone throwing, its primary methods were demonstrations, strikes and boycotts.
Second, only three types of resistance campaigns were considered: those whose aims were to resist occupation, to achieve secession or to overthrow a regime. In the latter case this does not necessarily entail any fundamental change in the economic system — the colour revolutions in Eastern Europe and the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines are held up as successful examples. There are no studies of single-issue campaigns within parliamentary democracies, although Chenoweth has subsequently hinted that some aspects of her research may be transferable.
Chenoweth and Stephan identify some key features of non-violent campaigns that make them more likely to succeed. First, they enable a larger and more diverse section of the population to participate. Second, they are more likely to elicit “loyalty shifts” within the regime and its supporters, particularly the security forces. Third, a wider participation means a wider variety of tactics; and finally that they tend to be more resilient when faced with repression or periods of inactivity.
The recent climate rebellions and school strikes have seen an explosion of inventive methods for capturing attention, from humorous placards to pink boats in the middle of streets to the gluing and “locking on” of people to buildings and vehicles. These can be seen as examples of what Chenoweth and Stephan call the “strategic creativity and innovations” that flow from mass non-violent protests. It would be completely wrong for socialists to counterpose more traditional forms of struggle such as demonstrations and strikes. However, it is equally wrong to claim, as some do, that the research shows that “old” methods don’t work.
Chenoweth recognises that general strikes are an effective way of mobilising large numbers of people. Elsewhere she refers to strikes in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011 as “critical”. One of the most successful events at the recent London Rebellion was an “A to B” march — the Grief March that saw tens of thousands mobilised at very short notice.
XR is particularly good at thinking about the resilience of the movement. Food and entertainment are a key part of its actions, and the “regenerative culture” of its groups allows time for rebels to reflect and engage in lower level activities before preparing for the next big event. This resonates with what Chenoweth and Stephan call “community-based mobilising structures” that sustain campaigns over the long haul.
In periods of revolutionary upheaval, workers’ councils often play a similar role, in a way that can lead to a direct challenge for power. Unfortunately, in their case study of the Iranian Revolution that toppled the Shah in 1979, the authors refer to the network of mosques that helped Khomeini come to power, but not to the elected strike committees or shoras that took over the factories and could have provided the basis for an alternative outcome.
This example highlights a fundamental flaw in the book for anyone looking to bring about genuine and lasting system change. The measure of success is the extent to which a stable parliamentary democracy has been established. Alternative forms of government, such as that established after the Russian Revolution in 1917, are written off as authoritarian and dictatorial. There is little understanding of the political battle for leadership that takes place during revolutionary upheavals. This is not a battle between violent and non-violent methods, but between those whose aim is to reform capitalism on the one hand, and revolutionaries on the other.
Both methods will inevitably use some form of violence at some point, as the Hong Kong protests for seemingly minor reforms are demonstrating. Revolutionaries have to be prepared to confront the forces of the state through the disciplined use of force where necessary, in order to replace the organs of class rule with democratic workers’ organisations. This is only possible with the mass participation of workers, which is why socialists spend their time building solidarity with all forms of struggle against the system, not in armed training camps. This approach is not compatible with the liberal reformism that characterises the analysis in the book.
The research in Why Civil Resistance Works was supported in large part by the International Centre for Non-Violent Conflict (ICNC), for whom Stephan worked before going on to the US Department of State. The ICNC was co-founded by Jack DuVall, an officer in the US Air Force who has worked within US federal administration and written speeches for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. The other ICNC co-founder is Peter Ackerman, a wealthy investment banker who has been involved in various tax scandals involving millions of dollars, and has “advised pro-democracy activists on how to topple dictators”. DuVall and Ackerman are top of the list of thanks by both authors. None of this negates the validity of the research, but it should make us wary of some of the interpretations.
For example, Chenoweth credits the participation of a diverse range of “ages, classes, occupations and ideologies” with making splits within the ruling regime more likely. Her vision is of a cross-class alliance that can herald a softer capitalism. But all classes do not have the same interests in society; it is workers and the poor who suffer most and their struggles must never be subordinated to keeping sections of the elite onside, which is often what discussions about violence come down to.
To avert a climate catastrophe, we need a bigger vision than a softer capitalism. We need to challenge the profit motive of capitalism and its reliance on fossil fuels. In the XR handbook This Is Not A Drill, Hallam says, “labour strikes are so effective against companies and…closing down a capital city is so effective against governments”. But it is wrong to make such a distinction — political and economic strikes by workers will be at the heart of any direct challenge to the system, alongside mass protests.
That will involve finding ways to connect the verve and inventiveness of the rebellions and school strikes to the power that workers have when they mobilise on a mass scale. The climate strike on 20 September and the involvement of trade unionists in the International Rebellion are good starts. It will be interesting to see whether Chenoweth’s next book engages more directly with these types of struggles. In any case socialists should throw themselves into the new movements and engage in the important debates taking place.