Larry Bassett's Reviews > The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People

The Unconquerable World by Jonathan Schell
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Jun 07, 2011

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bookshelves: political, social-action
Read from June 07 to 17, 2012 — I own a copy

When Jonathan Schell’s “The Unconquerable World,” a meditation on the history and power of nonviolent action, was published in 2003, the timing could not have been worse. Americans were at war — and success was in the air. U.S. troops had invaded Iraq and taken Baghdad (“mission accomplished”) only months earlier, and had already spent more than a year fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Schell’s book earned a handful of glowing reviews, and then vanished from the public debate as the bombs scorched Iraq and the body count began to mount.

Now, “The Unconquerable World’s” animating message — that, in the age of nuclear weaponry, nonviolent action is the mightiest of forces, one capable of toppling even the greatest of empires — has undergone a renaissance of sorts. In December 2010, the self-immolation of a young Tunisian street vendor triggered a wave of popular and, in many cases, nonviolent uprisings across the Middle East, felling such autocrats as Tunisia’s Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in mere weeks. Occupations, marches and protests of all sorts spread like brushfire across Europe, from England to Spain to Greece, and later Moscow, and even as far as Madison, Wis. And then, of course, there were the artists, students and activists who, last September, heard the call to “occupy Wall Street” and ignited a national movement with little more than tents, signs and voices on a strip of stone and earth in lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park.
This link is to a March 2012 interview with Jonathan Schell.

Jonathan Schell summarizes the war theory of Clausewitz and the nonviolence practiced by Gandhi. He does this in a way that is understandable to the student and still interesting to the more experienced activist. He reviews history and takes lessons from it. The concept of violence is covered in one hundred readable pages. Nonviolence is reviewed for the second hundred.

War cannot be waged without guns, tanks, and planes. Nonviolent resistance cannot be waged without active, steadfast, committed masses of unarmed people. The civil-rights movement led by Martin Luther King in the United States provides an illustration. The courageous campaign of a minority, mostly black, touched the conscience of an inactive majority, mostly white, who provided the political support necessary for the movement’s historic judicial, legislative, and social victories.

Schell asserts that the number of democracies in the world increased substantially in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

The Washington think tank Freedom House keeps a record of countries it considers to be democracies. In 1971, it counted thirty; in 2001, after a quarter century of the liberal revival, it counted one hundred and twenty-one.

The same source ( counts 117 democracies in 2011, down from a high of 123 in 2006.

Schell further asserts that the conversion of many of the countries to democracies happened nonviolently. This seems to contradict the many violent international events that we see in the media but Schell is very thorough with his examples. Schell tells the stories of the nonviolent aspects of revolutions in India, France, Russia, Eastern Europe and South America. International political history is not something I know very much about and I found myself with eyes glazing over during some of those pages.

The claim that nonviolence has played a major role in political changes in recent history was encouraging but not convincing. I would like to say that this section of the book is a page turner, but, for me, that was not the case. Schell tried to cover this information in depth but I found it difficult to follow. The thesis of the entire book is that nonviolence can play an increasing role in the future.

Books that are about topics that are in transition often find that a changing reality leaves the books out of date rather quickly. The Unconquerable World is one of those books that does a reasonably good job of outlining the history of world events, but dynamic current events quickly overwhelm a bold effort to outline a trend and make a forecast of continuing progress.

… I have sought to trace, alongside the awful history of modern violence, a less-noticed, parallel history of nonviolent power. The chronicle has been a hopeful one of violence disrupted or in retreat – of great-power war immobilized by the nuclear stalemate, of brutal empires defeated by local peoples fighting for their self-determination, of revolutions succeeding without violence, of democracy supplanting authoritarian or totalitarian repression, of national sovereignty yielding to systems of mixed and balanced powers. These developments, I shall argue, have provided the world with the strongest new foundations for the creation of a durable peace that have ever existed.

I found the first third and the last third of The Unconquerable World readable and compelling. (And gets four stars.) Regrettably, the middle third contains the heart of the book and is seriously disappointing. (It gets two stars.) This is where Schell attempts to prove his point that there are many examples where nonviolence has been successful in recent history and that this can lead to more use of nonviolence over violence in the future. Would it were so! But the decade of violence following the publication of this book does not lead me to be optimistic. Arab Spring and the Occupy movement have given this book some legs.

Averaging out the two and four star segments, the book as a whole deserves three stars and my thanks for an optimistic message.
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Reading Progress

06/10 page 10
2.0% "Arms and man have both changed in ways that, even as they imperil the world as never before, have created a chance for peace that is greater than ever before. To describe those changes is the business of this book."
06/15 page 128
29.0% "Here we touch bedrock in Gandhi's political thinking. All government, he steadily believed, depends for its existence on the cooperation of the governed. If that cooperation is withdrawn, the government will be helpless. Government is composed of civil servants, soldiers, and citizens. Each of these people has a will. If enough of them withdraw their support from the government, it will fall."
06/16 page 299
67.0% "Far from endowing any single authority with the power to make all decisions, the framers of the Constitution required the concurrence of many authorities in order to make almost any decision. They created a veritable maze through which power had to travel in order to achieve its appointed ends."
06/16 page 313
70.0% "In assessing nuclear proliferation, it is important to distinguish between the capacity to construct a nuclear arsenal and the deed of actually constructing one. By the count of the State Department, forty-four nations have the capacity, which is to say there are forty-four nations that, if they choose to build nuclear weapons, can be reasonably certain of success."
10/10 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Anna (new)

Anna If you recommend this I would like to read it after you are finished!

Larry Bassett Anna wrote: "If you recommend this I would like to read it after you are finished!"

You are welcome to look through it when you are here. It may be a bit ponderous like a text book! From reading some of the reviews, it seems like selective reading might be in order.

Larry Bassett This link is to a March 2012 interview with Jonathan Schell.It has some very good summaries of the message of The Unconquerable World and is worth reading.

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