Nonviolent vs. violent revolutions: Studies diverge

August 7, 2011

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IN “A Call to Arms’’ (Ideas, July 31), Thanassis Cambanis suggests that revolutions cannot succeed without violence, and cites my research with Maria J. Stephan as well as studies by Ivan Arreguín-Toft and Robert Pape.

But our study is the only one that compares the success rates of nonviolent and violent revolutions. Stephan and I examined 323 major nonviolent and violent insurrections from 1900 to 2006, finding that nonviolent resistance campaigns were more than twice as likely to succeed as violent resistance campaigns.

Contrary to what some readers of Cambanis’s piece may have concluded, neither Pape nor Arreguín-Toft compares the effectiveness of violence with “peaceful means.’’ They compare which types of violence - suicide terrorism, guerrilla warfare, strategic bombings, indiscriminate repression, etc. - are more effective compared with other types of violence - such as non-suicidal terrorism, conventional warfare, or selective repression.

Egyptians need only look to other recent cases, such as Libya or Yemen, to see the risks of adopting violence. More concretely, our research indicates that if they resort to violence, their chances of success will drop by more than 50 percent, the risk of prolonged civil war will steeply rise, and the chances of achieving democracy will virtually disappear.

Erica Chenoweth
Middletown, Conn.
The writer, an assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University, is a visiting scholar at University of California, Berkeley. She is the co-author, with Stephan, of “Why Civil Resistance Works.’’