History is filled with examples of violent revolutions accomplishing what non-violent revolutions likely never would have accomplished. Whether it is the French Revolution from 1789 to 1799, the Nazi party’s goal for worldwide dominion, or the struggle in South Africa to shake off the chains of apartheid, violent revolutions have led to profound changes where non-violent civil disobedience probably would have failed.
While proponents of non-violent revolutions often cite the likes of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi as examples of freedom fighters who chose brains over brawn, it can be argued that whatever success they may have achieved could have been accomplished more expediently had they been willing to meet their foes with force. Furthermore, in the case of King, it might be argued that his pacifist approach might have been a function of the reality of the times rather than a true preference for non-violence.
For instance, King, in one quote, clearly suggests that his choice on non-violent protest was simply the most realistic choice available to African Americans who would not have fared well in armed conflict with the majority ruling class. Specifically, he was quoted as saying the following in 1964 ("Selected Quotes," n.d.):
In the event of a violent revolution, we would be sorely outnumbered. And when it was all over, the Negro would face the same unchanged conditions, the same squalor and deprivation—the only difference being that his bitterness would be even more intense, his disenchantment even more abject. Thus, in purely practical as well as moral terms, the American Negro has no rational alternative to non-violence.
With this in mind, it can be argued that violent revolutions throughout history have showcased the superiority of armed struggle over peaceful protests for effecting widespread social and political change. Over the course of this essay, this will be explored by considering revolutions in France, Germany, and South Africa.
While the infamous Reign of Terror is one of the events mostly associated with the French Revolution, what sometimes gets overlooked is the fact that the violent uprising that convulsed France ultimately played a role in setting up precedents for representative government, constitutions, and elections, which are some of the concepts associated with a functioning democracy ("French Revolution: Effects of the Revolution," n.d.).
During the French Revolution, citizens of France joined forces to overturn institutions such as the feudal system, absolute monarchy, and even the then-quite-powerful Christian church. Guided by ideals such as inalienable rights, the people fought for their freedoms rather than resort to peaceful forms of civil disobedience.
During The Reign of Terror, a 10-month affair, suspected foes of the revolution were killed. In fact, north of "17,000 people were officially tried and executed during the Reign of Terror, and an unknown number of others died in prison or without trial" ("French Revolution," n.d.). Although the French Revolution was not without its excesses, the point is that violent revolution effected meaningful change, the effects of which continue in France, Europe, and elsewhere in the world. Put another way, the French Revolution played a key "role in shaping modern nations by showing the world the power inherent in the will of the people" (“French Revolution”).
One question that needs to be considered is whether or not the people of France could have reasonably achieved their objectives any other way than violent uprising. While a response is admittedly in the realm of speculation, it can be reasonably argued that peaceful civil disobedience against absolute rule would likely not have resulted in sort of changes that the French Revolution had not only for the people living in France and Europe, but also for people living elsewhere in the world—even to the present day.
Peaceful resistance, such as what Gandhi, born on October 2, 1869 in India, taught and practiced is admirable but arguably not as effective as violent measures in certain situations. While studying law, Gandhi spoke out against the mistreatment of Indians in India and in South Africa. He has been regarded, and rightly so, as an icon for "peaceful forms of civil disobedience" ("Mahatma Gandhi." n.d.) as he took on British institutions as one of the leaders of the independence movement in India.
But Gandhi’s belief in non-violence in any and all situations—even when opposing forces used deadly force—was a function of flawed logic since it makes little sense to counter armed tyranny with peaceful civil disobedience. Anderson (2008) explains Gandhi’s unbending belief that there is never a justification to meet violence with violence:
While ahimsa translates to non-injury or non-violence, Gandhi, as most Hindus in the early 20th century, applied a much broader meaning to the word. They used ahimsa to mean entire abstinence from causing harm to any living creature by thought, word or action. Gandhi also used it to mean love toward all people, true sacrifice, forgiveness and suffering for the sake of another.
While Gandhi’s ahimsa beliefs are admirable, it can be argued that the people who banded together to wage war against a repressive regime during the French Revolution would not have gotten very far had they taken the option of violent resistance off of the table. In fact, peaceful disobedience would have spelled the doom of their efforts to effect widespread change, and the world as it exists today would probably have been a much different—and worse off—place.
Another example that shows that violent revolutions are more successful than non-violent revolutions is the rise and rapid advances of the Nazi movement under Adolf Hitler.
A brutal and ruthless dictator, Hitler, whose actions and motivations were to many people abhorrent and even barbaric, demonstrated conclusively that that violent revolutions can have in a relatively short period of time. On March 5, 1933, Hitler called a new election, which saw the Nazi party receive "44% of the general election vote" ("Nazi Germany Timeline," 2014). On April 26, 1933, he established the Gestapo, the secret police of the Nazi party, and on the same day the Nazi part "took over local government" ("Nazi Germany Timeline”). On May 2, 1933, the Nazis banned trade unions, and only eight days later, on May 10, 1933, the party authorized the burning of 25,000 books deemed to be "un-German" ("Nazi Germany Timeline"). On July 14, 1933, the Nazis banned all political parties except itself, and it followed up on this move in October of the same year by taking itself out of the League of Nations ("Nazi Germany Timeline"). The infamous Night of the Long Knives on June 30, 1934 involved the execution of "150 leaders of the Stormtroopers SA" ("Nazi Germany Timeline") who were mostly devout socialists who wanted the Nazis to adopt a socialist agenda that the party wanted no part of. The timeline of the Nazi party is one of precision, quick movements, iron-fisted resolve, bloodshed, and slaughter. And while the end did not in any way justify the means, the party showed just how effective violent revolutions can be at achieving goals.
One questions that arises is whether or not the Nazi party would have been able to gain power and push forward with its abhorrent agenda as decisively and as quickly as it did had it done so via non-violent, more democratic means. It is highly unlikely that Hitler, had he employed peaceful demonstrations and non-violent civil disobedience, would have been able to get away with his cruel agenda that included the murder of millions.
When comparing the violent revolution of the Nazis with the non-violent revolution championed by King, it can be reasonably stated that, from a human rights perspective, the latter more desirable than the former. However, in terms of immediacy of impact, it is clear that the ruthlessness with which the Nazis executed their game plan led to quick results. In fact, it is quite clear that the push for racial equality that King lived and quite literally died for has not yet been fully realized in U.S. society. Case in point: the racial divide is evident whenever there is a case when, for instance, a white police officer kills a black youth. Indeed, there is a long way to go before the U.S. can truly arrive at the sort of America that King called for in his famous I Have a Dream speech.
Another example of violent revolution besting non-violent revolution comes out of South Africa. Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years behind bars before being released in 1990 as a result of his opposition to the racist South African government, preferred peaceful civil disobedience to armed struggle. But he was also realistic and realized that there are times when violent civil disobedience is necessary.
In 1961, Mandela was one of the founders of Spear of the Nation, which became "a new armed wing of the" African National Congress ("Nelson Mandela," n.d.). A few years later, Mandela would get the opportunity, during a court trial that would ultimately result in a jail sentence, to explain the reason behind adding an armed wing component to the African National Congress ("Nelson Mandela”):
It would be wrong and unrealistic for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force. It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle.
What Mandela acknowledged is that non-violent revolutions are only possible if the opposing government is willing to play by the same rules. If not, then opposition forces, in this case the African National Congress, would be at a huge disadvantage if they failed to resort to violent revolution.
Violent revolutions are superior to non-violent revolutions particularly in cases where opposition forces seeking to effect needed change face the heavy hand of the powers that be. Whether it involves the French Revolution, Nazi Germany, or South Africa, it can be seen that violent uprisings can, for better or for worse, effect reform where peaceful civil disobedience simply would not have made an impact.
Selected Quotes. (n.d.). (n.p). Retrieved from http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/kingweb/popular_requests/quotes.htm
French Revolution: Effects of the Revolution. (n.d.). Pearson Education. Retrieved from http://www.infoplease.com/encyclopedia/history/french-revolution-effects-revolution.html
French Revolution. (n.d.). A&E Television Networks LLC. Retrieved from http://www.history.com/topics/french-revolution
Mahatma Gandhi. (n.d.) A&E Television Networks LLC. Retrieved from http://www.biography.com/people/mahatma-gandhi-9305898#related-video-gallery
Anderson, A. Profiles in Greatness - Gandhi. (November 3, 2008). Success Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.success.com/article/profiles-in-greatness-gandhi
Nazi Germany Timeline. July 8, 2014. History On The Net. Retrieved from http://www.historyonthenet.com/chronology/timelinenazigermany.htm
Nelson Mandela. (n.d.). A&E Television Networks LLC. Retrieved from http://www.history.com/topics/nelson-mandela