A Short History of People Power

A Short History of People Power : "Civil Resistance" by Michael Randle, Fontana, 1994

Does power come out of the barrel of a gun, as Mao Tse-Tung is reported to have said? And if so, why does a book on non-military struggle open with such a quote - to provoke thought or peddle in stereotypes? Fortunately, Michael Randle has written an excellent book on civil resistance and nonviolence in general, one that a beginner and the more experienced can both appreciate.

Randle counters Mao's assertion with nonviolence's understanding of power in societies; namely, that the ultimate source of power is the group acting in concert. In developing this theme, Randle gives "Realpolitik" a whole new meaning, one quite the opposite of its usual right-wing bias.

Randle then spends nearly 200 pages outlining the development of civil resistance; resistance by ordinary people against oppression foisted upon them. He notes early examples (Rome, 494 BC) and outlines some similarities and differences between citizens' actions over the centuries, as the notion of the people taking government into their own hands has developed.

Why do people act against oppression, risking life, limb and livelihood? The answer is at the heart of nonviolence. Firstly, because people believe they have the right to order their lives as they see best, without undue limitation. And so, when faced with frustration or worse, people will act. Such action has been said to be based only on self interest. Randle contends, however, that nonviolence rests upon the right of individuals and the community to order their lives as they see best as a fundamental human right.

Secondly, people act against oppression because they know that governments (and, it might be added, corporations) need people more than people need them. Democracies and dictatorships alike need the cooperation of the populace to survive. Even the organs of state coercion - police and military units - cannot be fully insulated from any discontent the populace is feeling, and which might cause the withdrawal of support and cooperation. And it is that withdrawal which is at the heart of civil resistance.

This is a fascinating and inspiring book, replete with argument and examples, neither didactic nor patronising, and is available in the PND library. Highly recommended.

Cameron Edwards