Violent Versus Nonviolent Revolutions: Which Way Wins?

Why boycotts outperform bombs

Posted Apr 07, 2014

During her training as a political scientist, Erica Chenoweth was taught to assume that the most effective tool for achieving political goals is violence.  After all, no evil dictator is going to give up his autocratic power without a fight, and throughout history, there have been numerous examples of tyrannical governments viciously crushing their opposition. 

This weekend, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker brought Chenoweth to Arizona State University as part of a workshop on the “Origins of Violence.”  The speakers included an impressive array of scholars from around the world, including distinguished anthropologists Richard Wrangham and Rob Boyd, neuropsychologist Adrian Raine, and political scientist John Mueller.  Although Erica Chenoweth is substantially junior to those eminent gray-haired fellows, however, she stole the show with her talk on civil resistance.  Chenoweth presented not only an argument about why nonviolent revolutionary movements are more likely to succeed as violent revolutions, but also an impressive body of evidence to back up her claims.  And she laid out several additional findings to elucidate why nonviolence trumps nonviolence as a tactic.

Chenoweth and her colleague Maria Stephan painstakingly collected data on 323 violent and nonviolent political campaigns since 1900.  To qualify for the analysis, the movement had to be substantial in size, involving at least 1000 people active in the movement.  They counted a campaign as successful if the goal had been achieved within one year of the peak of the event (as when Corazon Aquino and the People Power Revolution peacefully ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos from the Philippines in 1986).  

When Chenoweth started out, she was fairly certain that the violent political campaigns would be more likely to accomplish their goals.  But she was wrong.

The startling results are depicted in the attached Figure.  As you can see, nonviolent campaigns have a 53% success rate and only about a 20% rate of complete failure.  Things are reversed for violent campaigns, which were only successful 23% of the time, and complete failures about 60% of the time.  Violent campaigns succeeded partially in about 10% of cases, again comparing unfavorably to nonviolent campaigns, which resulted in partial successes over 20% of the time.

FIGURE 1: Relative effectiveness of violent and nonviolent campaigns

All of this raises questions about the wisdom of government policies that involve sending arms to revolutionaries, who often replace the current violent and tyrannical government with another one (eliciting longstanding hatred for the governments that helped the current dictators take hold).

Douglas Kenrick is author of The rational animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think.  (with Vlad Griskevicius), and of Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life:A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity are revolutionizing our view of human nature.


Chenoweth, E., & Stephan, M. J. (2011). Why civil resistance works: The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict. Columbia University Press.

Stephan, M. J., & Chenoweth, E. (2008). Why civil resistance works: The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict. International Security, 33(1), 7-44.