6+1 Questions

29 February 2024, 1030 EST

What is the name of the book?

Ches Thurber. 2021. Between Mao and Gandhi: The Social Roots of Civil Resistance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

What’s the argument?

Variation in their social ties helps explain why some dissident organizations embrace the “nonviolent” strategy of civil resistance while others reject it, often turning instead to guns.

The logic of civil resistance is predicated on the idea that by using primarily nonviolent tactics, dissident groups can generate higher levels of mobilization, win over loyalty shifts from regime elites, and weaken security forces’ will to engage in repression. But each of these is only likely when the protesting group has social ties that connect its members to the broader society as well as to the regime.

When groups do, they are likely to attempt civil resistance. But if they don’t, they won’t. They will be forced instead to find an alternative strategy. This could mean just giving up and going home, or it could mean taking up arms.

Why should we care?

Since the Arab Spring, we have seen a surge in popular uprisings around the world. This has been accompanied by a parallel scholarly interest. That scholarship has produced remarkable findings about the effectiveness of civil resistance. But with the all the focus on effectiveness, there’s been less analysis of how and why groups come to embrace or reject civil resistance in the first place.

My book examines this question. The answer helps us to better understand when and where civil resistance campaigns are more likely to occur. It also helps us understand the origins of political violence, specifically which groups are likely to feel that nonviolent tactics simply will not work for them.

Why should we believe you?

I provide case studies from Nepal, Syria, India, and South Africa, drawing on interviews, memoirs, and secondary scholarship to map the social underpinnings of challenger organizations and reconstruct their deliberations over strategy and tactics

I find that even disciples of Gandhi were willing to abandon their commitment to nonviolence when their lack of social ties forced them to conclude that a strategy of civil resistance would be ineffective.

And I show how after developing a national network of connections, Maoist guerrillas were willing to put down their guns and transition to a strategy of unarmed protest. I supplement these case studies with cross-national analysis that presents a finding consistent with my argument: excluded ethnic groups are particularly unlikely to attempt civil resistance.

Why’d you decide to write the book in the first place?

I’ve always been fascinated by rebel group’s thinking about when and how to use violence, and how they see that as part of a broader political strategy. In the real world, I was intrigued by the behavior of Muqtada al-Sadr and his political party cum militia in Iraq.

I was also influenced by Jeremy Weinstein’s book Inside Rebellion. The events of the Arab Spring combined with the publication of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s book, Why Civil Resistance Works, got me thinking about when and why a dissident group chooses to abstain from violence altogether.

If you could go back and change something about the book, what would it be?

In the process of writing the book, the dynamics of protest have continued to change. The book already needs an update! In particular, social media technologies appear to have lowered the barriers to initiating civil resistance campaigns, perhaps reducing the necessity of the kind of direct, real-world social ties that I highlight in the book.

My hunch is that while it may now be easier to get a lot of people out into the street even without pre-existing social ties, campaigns built on “virtual” connections are likely to be a lot weaker and to fizzle-out more quickly.

Recent research by Zeynep Tufekci suggests this is exactly what’s happening. And it seems to be consistent with a recent trend of more frequent, but less effective campaigns over the past decade (See, for example, Erica Chenoweth’s 2020 article, “The Future of Nonviolent Resistance,” in the Journal of Democracy). 

The +1: How difficult was it to get the book published?

There was absolutely a time after I had sent proposals out to multiple editors that I wasn’t sure the book was going to happen. Acquisition editors are so inundated with proposals. It can be really hard, especially for first-time authors, to get their attention.

Publishing an early version of the core argument as a journal article, holding a book workshop, and having a complete manuscript ready to review were helpful in demonstrating my credibility to editors. I always thought that Cambridge’s Contentious Politics Series was the best fit for the book, and I was lucky that John Haslam at Cambridge felt similarly.  I am heavily indebted to Erica Chenoweth, Paul Staniland, Christian Davenport, Sharon Nepstad, and Reyko Huang for their counsel on both the substance of the book as well as the book publishing process.