Lester Kurtz’s Duty
By Stephen Gowans
This is the continuation of an exchange between me and Lester Kurtz, a sociology professor and exponent of nonviolent resistance who sits on the academic advisory board of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.
Kurtz’s reply to my “Leftist overthrow advisor Lester Kurtz: ‘I talked with the CIA’” is below, followed by my reply to him.
Stephen Gowans’ commitment to justice and opposition to imperialism is admirable and I wish to thank him for his contribution to that ongoing struggle. I am not convinced, however, that his approach will help him achieve his goals, and would like to offer some friendly suggestions and a gentle critique regarding his approach to what I consider our common endeavor. I welcome a dialogue with him, as well as with anyone wishing to address these vital issues that he raises.
First, I am flattered by his inaccurate headline calling me a “Leftist overthrow advisor,” but that is not me – I am a sociology professor at George Mason University who educates people in the strategies of nonviolent civil resistance. What I teach and write about is not a recipe for taking “power from foreign governments” as Mr. Gowans suggests, but frameworks to understand better a complex phenomenon known as nonviolent conflict and a set of tools that have proved – across various historical cases – effective in resisting different types of oppression. It is a matter of educating and therefore empowering people to stand up to injustice no matter what the source – leftist, right-wing, domestic, or foreign governments, as well as tyranny within the workplace, the home, or the neighborhood.
Mahatma Gandhi, my professor in these matters and the subject of years of research on my part, in addition to being an extraordinary strategist was the genius of anti-imperialism in his day, who set in motion the forces that toppled the colonial system. He wanted everyone to be trained as a Satyagrahi, a nonviolent civil resister who would oppose any kind of injustice in any sphere or at any level, from the micro level (e.g., domestic violence) to the global (e.g., international imperialism).
What is disturbing about Mr. Gowans’ comments is that many of his facts are simply inaccurate. I have never collaborated with the CIA, nor has the ICNC on whose academic advisory board I sit. I spoke as an independent academic and in no way as a representative of the ICNC, when my government asked me to dialogue with members of its intelligence community. I feel that it is my duty as a citizen to educate others when requested, and I was glad to give my modest input, among others, into a greater understanding of nonviolent processes that I think are often so badly misguided and– as Mr. Gowans’ article proves – misinterpreted.
To be completely transparent so Mr. Gowans understands clearly that there are no hidden conspiracies, at the first event, at the Rand office in Washington, I served on a panel with distinguished scholars (including Juan Cole) and spoke about religion and violence (one area of my expertise). Later I was asked to respond to a presentation by UCLA professor David Rapoport about terrorism and then at the National Intelligence Council’s request I gave a presentation on nonviolent movements, which I had mentioned as playing a more significant role than violent ones when examining religious movements. At no time did I provide any information that I did not already present in my publications and courses.
More broadly, Mr. Gowans has a serious misunderstanding of what is being taught by me (and by ICNC), and to whom it is being taught. It would be helpful if he would peruse ICNC’s website or obtain and read its extensive materials on civil resistance before making assumptions about its content. He might also sample my writings and books. Quite the opposite of providing tools for U.S. imperialism, we are offering content much of which is based on struggles that were conducted against regimes supported by the U.S., such as the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the movement against Pinochet in Chile, the people power movement against Marcos in the Philippines, and the first Intifada against Israel in occupied Palestine. Moreover, ICNC’s educational materials have been used, and workshops that it supported have been attended, by organizers and participants in the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation, in the Maldivians’ successful campaign for democracy, in the West Papuans’ struggle for independence from Indonesia, in the Sahrawis’ struggle for independence from Morocco, in the Egyptian and Ethiopian resistance to dictators in those countries, and in the struggle of Hondurans against the coup regime in that country. All of these nonviolent struggles have been waged against governments supported or assisted by the U.S. government.
As Mr. Gowans essentially concedes, nonviolent civil resistance is empirically proven to be more effective than any other method for bringing about change. The best study demonstrating that is Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict.” International Security, Vol. 33, No. 1(Summer2008), pp. 7–44. In disseminating information about this phenomenon, the ICNC is merely one of many organizations internationally working to develop nonviolent civil resistance and encouraging its exploration. Training for Change, Nonviolent International, Voices in the Wilderness, the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, and Peaceworkers in the U.S., War Resisters International based in the U.K., and Nova/Center for Social Innovation in Spain, are just a few of the other international organizations that are shouldering the work of global education in nonviolent struggle (and with all of whom ICNC has cooperated).
I wish Mr. Gowans – who I want to believe is as ardent supporter of strategic nonviolent action as I am – would join me and others in creatively developing nonviolent strategies and actions for fighting imperialism and injustice rather than attacking people who are actually providing education for oppressed peoples in hope of helping them mount effective nonviolent resistance.
It is presumptuous of Lester Kurtz to equate his opposition to imperialism to my own. Kurtz’s commitment is not to anti-imperialism but to nonviolent resistance and the thought of Mahatma Gandhi. The two, notwithstanding the efforts of Kurtz, Stephen Zunes, and others to suggest they are the same, are very different.
Embracing nonviolent resistance does not make one an anti-imperialist, anymore than embracing violence does. With equal illogic, we could say that those who take up arms are anti-imperialists, because the use of violence has been central to many past anti-imperialist struggles. But that would imply that the Nazis were anti-imperialists, because they too relied on the use of violence to achieve their political goals. The means used to achieve a goal bear no necessary relationship to the goal to be achieved. The idea that all applications of Gandhian nonviolent resistance are anti-imperialist, because Gandhi led a struggle against British imperialism, is based on the same logical blunder. We can conceive of violence to achieve anti-imperialist ends and nonviolence to do the same. Equally, we can conceive of violence used to strengthen and defend imperialism, and nonviolence used for the same ends.
To be sure, Kurtz’s commitment to nonviolent resistance does not rule out the possibility that he is a committed anti-imperialist. But it would indeed be a strange anti-imperialist who feels that when his government (whose imperialist credentials are beyond dispute) calls upon him to dialogue with members of its intelligence community (who have a lead role in defending and promoting imperialism), that it he is duty-bound to comply. Had he been a German citizen in 1939, would he have felt it his duty to dialogue with members of the SS had he been asked? Apparently, in his felt obligation to meet with the CIA, and in his willingness to provide information on nonviolent struggle to groups with pro-imperialist aims, Kurtz sees himself as having a duty to an imperialist government which is higher than his duty to those struggling against it.
Kurtz takes another logical misstep when he argues: “Quite the opposite of providing tools for U.S. imperialism, we (the ICNC) are offering content much of which is based on struggles that were conducted against regimes supported by the U.S.” It does not follow that the tools the ICNC disseminates are not being used for US imperialism simply because they are based on previous struggles against US imperialism. Logically, Kurtz’s statement is equivalent to saying ICBMs are not weapons of mass destruction because the underlying rocket technology has been used for peaceful space exploration. Or that because guerrilla warfare was central to many anti-imperialist struggles, that the Contras, Mujahedeen, and Kosovo Liberation Army were anti-imperialist.
Kurtz, Zunes and their ICNC colleagues borrow the anti-imperialist prestige of previous nonviolent anti-imperialist struggles, and the progressive prestige of the nonviolent civil rights struggles in the US, to suggest the application of similar techniques is always anti-imperialist and progressive, and to whitewash the applications that aren’t. This is no different, in its political aim, from efforts in the 1980s to marshal support among left-leaning people for the Contras and Afghan Mujahedeen, or in the late 1990s to drum up support for the Kosovo Liberation Army. In doing so, the practitioners of the deception that these guerrilla movements were anti-imperialist used the public relations technique of exploiting a previous association (between guerrilla warfare and anti-imperialism) to suggest that the association is enduring and invariable (and that the Contra, Mujahedeen, and KLA struggles were therefore anti-imperialist.) The reasoning—illogical—follows this form: They must have been anti-imperialist; after all, the tools they used were based on struggles against U.S. imperialism. This anticipates Kurtz’s : “Quite the opposite of providing tools for U.S. imperialism, we are offering content much of which is based on struggles that were conducted against regimes supported by the U.S.”
Kurtz, then, seeks to portray collaboration with imperialism as anti-imperialist by drawing on instances where the use of nonviolent warfare and anti-imperialist struggles intersected. Attempts to breathe life into the false idea that nonviolent warriors are necessarily anti-imperialist can be seen in Kurtz’s attempts to frame his debate with me as one between two people who are committed to the same anti-imperialist goals but disagree on the means to achieve them. That we share very different goals is evident in the contrast between this by Kurtz, and this, by me.
I argued in an article on Peter Ackerman, the founder of the ICNC on whose academic advisory board Kurtz sits, that Ackerman does what the CIA used to do while working to make it seem progressive. In Kurtz’s reply, we can see that he, too, is engaged in the same project.
Finally, Kurtz argues that I essentially concede that nonviolent civil resistance is empirically proven to be more effective than any other method for bringing about change. If he could point out where I conceded this, essentially or otherwise, I would be grateful. I can’t recall ever being interested enough in the point to have either conceded or challenged it. However, now that Kurtz has drawn my attention to the question, let me offer two observations.
First, I shy away from absolutist statements of the kind that any one method is more effective than all others under all conditions, in all places, and at all times. That nonviolent resistance – or any other method of social change — is always the best method, everywhere, under all circumstances, seems highly unlikely to me.
Second, I can’t imagine how the superiority of nonviolent resistance could ever be empirically proven. There are far too many things going on in any struggle for change to disentangle the effects of one form of struggle from all the others that are likely to accompany it and from the effects of the different responses to the struggle that different governments may make.
For example, the Gandhian struggle against British control of India was not unaccompanied by a violent resistance. Moreover, Britain’s exhaustion and depletion following WWII likely figured prominently in the country’s willingness to loosen some control over its colonial possession.
Likewise, it is impossible to isolate the effects of the US-sponsored, aided- and organized-civil disobedience movement on the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic from the effects of NATO bombing; the US-sponsored and funded KLA insurgency; sanctions; and the differential withholding by NATO of heating oil from areas that supported Milosevic’s Socialist party. Isolating one element of the anti-Milosevic struggle from its many and diverse elements, and then attributing the outcome of the struggle to one element alone, seems to me to be as dishonest as it is methodologically untenable. And yet, this is exactly what the ICNC has done in its paean to nonviolent struggle, Bringing Down a Dictator.
That Kurtz could argue that a method of social change has been “empirically proven” should raise serious questions about his intellectual honesty. Sadly, he seems to be less a social scientist than a kind of salesman for nonviolent resistance who dishonestly exploits his academic credentials to peddle what any intelligent undergraduate would recognize as a conclusion based on methodological nonsense.
To be clear, my view on nonviolent warfare is that it can be effective, but not at all times, in all places, and under all circumstances. Some conditions seem likely to increase the likelihood of a campaign of nonviolent warfare succeeding. These include outside support in the form of funding, training, and organization (what the US government, imperialist foundations and ICNC provide); diplomatic and military pressure on the target government; the use of sanctions and economic warfare to destabilize the economy; and the cooperation of the media to undermine the legitimacy of the target government, as well outside support for so-called “independent” media to do the same. The aim is to weaken and disorganize a government to sap its will to rule. Other governments at other times have been weakened and disorganized by crises (economic catastrophe or the devastation of war, for example) that were not methodically engineered by an outside power. Some of these governments have also been brought down by opposition forces, sometimes violently, sometimes non-violently. The point is that recognizing that nonviolent warfare can be effective in some instances does not amount to essentially conceding that nonviolent civil resistance is empirically proven to be more effective than any other method for bringing about change.
But this is hardly the main concern. Even if I were to concede the point, as Kurtz erroneously claims I have, it wouldn’t erase the collaboration of Kurtz and other exponents of nonviolent warfare with imperialism. That’s the real strike against the ICNC and its agents.