A paean to peace

The Unconquerable World: power, non-violence, and the will of the people

Jonathan Schell <em>Allen

Non-violence was much in vogue in my youth, in reaction to the official strategy of nuclear deterrence, but the enthusiasm did not last long. While the spectre of Tolstoy and Gandhi hovered over the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the early 1960s, non-violence was soon replaced by support from the sidelines for liberation struggles and people's war. Mao, Ho and Che took precedence over Martin Luther King. More recently, after the "velvet revolutions" in eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s, non-violence has enjoyed a mild revival. It was "non-violent popular resistance", argues Jonathan Schell, that led to the collapse of communism and of the old Russian empire, events as historically consequential as the two world wars of the 20th century, yet achieved without war. He invites us to draw some conclusions from the re-emergence of this potentially powerful force in human affairs.

Schell originally made his name with a frightening evocation of the concept of nuclear winter. His book The Fate of the Earth struck a chord in the 1980s, when the two superpowers of the moment seemed ever more firmly locked in a mad race towards mutual destruction. The particular terrors of the cold war have for the moment evaporated, and Schell clearly started on his new book during the brief and hopeful interregnum between 1991 and 2001, when the nuclear threat appeared to recede. A compassionate and optimistic writer, he tries to make sense of the global situation in the final decade of the 20th century. Yet much of his argument has been overtaken by events, as 9/11 signalled the arrival of a fresh horror that is more amateur and more random.

The book is divided into three parts, dealing with violence, non-violence and civil society. Schell's text for the first section is A J P Taylor's comment that the Great Powers of the 19th century were "organisations for power, that is, in the last resort, for war". The symbols of their power in the 20th century were nuclear weapons, while the power of the people they oppressed lay in people's war. Schell argues that nuclear deterrence and people's war were two sides of the same coin of violence, though at different ends of the spectrum. Advanced countries knew they could not use nuclear weapons, but they brandished them all the same in attempts to get what they wanted. Poorer, colonial countries could use people's war to subvert the technical superiority of their oppressors, but they did so at huge cost. After a century of unprecedented bloodshed, what Schell calls "the war system" had disappeared into history, and he glimpses tectonic shifts in the world's attitude towards the use of force that deserve our attention.

In his second section, he counterposes non-violence and revolution, reflecting on how violent revolution has all too often led to totalitarian rule and worse. Somewhat surprisingly, he goes on to produce a wealth of fascinating evidence to suggest that, in their immediate aftermaths, England's Glorious Revolution of 1688, the French revolution of 1789 and even the Russian revolution of 1917 should really be seen as triumphant examples of popular non-violent resistance. Only at a later stage were waves of violence unleashed.

In his final section, Schell examines the experience of eastern Europe in the 1980s, extolling the thoughts and actions of Vaclav Havel, Adam Michnik and Gyorgy Konrad. Their aim was not to overthrow the system under which they lived, but to make space within it for the development of what came to be called civil society. Perhaps to their surprise, the system collapsed anyway, and they were forced to come to terms with state power that was assumed to be benevolent.

Schell begins his book by asking why the new world order after 1989 produced no great support for new institutions similar to the League of Nations after 1918 or the United Nations after 1945. The time has come, he concludes, for the formation of a new "democratic league", a kind of civil society on the global stage that would use the power of non-violence to impose a new form of liberal internationalism.

Doubtless we ought to be in favour of Schell, since his book is a paean of praise in favour of non-violence, yet I found it strangely irritating. With a ragbag of indiscriminate references to writers both wise and foolish, it degenerates into the kind of popular philosophy that has become an integral part of American intellectual culture but makes little impact on Europeans. Yet if you can stand the mushy thinking, the concrete discussion of specific historic events is often illuminating.

Richard Gott's new history of Cuba will be published by Yale University Press in the autumn

This article first appeared in the 10 May 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Torture: Simply the spoils of victory?