In the emerging field of resistance studies, Stellan Vinthagen draws on the knowledge and experiences of “professors of the street.”
Stellan Vinthagen is no ordinary professor. Dividing his time between the intellectual hub of UMass Amherst and dozens of radical resistance camps around the world, Vinthagen is one of the world’s leading thinkers and practitioners of nonviolent resistance. He can be found teaching classes on land occupation, coaching students leading on-campus resistance campaigns, supervising PhD candidates, writing books or embedding with movements. And, in his spare time, he edits a peer-reviewed academic journal which draws together the experiences of activists and the analysis of academics.
I first met Vinthagen in the Swedish forest, where he spends part of each year writing and researching at a secluded hub for nonviolent resisters called the Irene writer’s residence. Several years later, Vinthagen called me from Brazil, where he was meeting with members of the landless workers’ movement (MST) along with fellow scholar-activist Kurt Schock. The group, consisting of 600 families who have spent 14 months in a nonviolent land occupation, has been living on unused corporate land.
But the MST go further than simply opposing the corporation with their presence. They are deeply engaged in a practice of constructive resistance, building a new society on the land itself. MST has created health clinics, an educational system and even organized an activism university, Vinthagen reports. It is through this school that he has held trainings and consultations to facilitate nonviolent actions against the repressive Bolsonaro regime in Brazil.
In this interview, Vinthagen describes how groups like MST integrate resistance with the construction of a better society, two important themes in the emerging field of resistance studies. Vinthagen has played a leading role in pioneering this new field of social science, from holding the first ever position as the Endowed Chair in the Study of Nonviolent Direct Action and Civil Disobedience at UMass, to serving as Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Resistance Studies.
In our conversation, Vinthagen described the role resistance studies can play in developing a greater understanding of how people-powered resistance transforms societies, and how we can learn from scholars and activists alike to strengthen resistance movements in the future.
What are some of the aims of the Resistance Studies Initiative, and what is the value of developing a new field of resistance studies instead of studying nonviolent resistance within other disciplines?
The idea behind the Resistance Studies Initiative is to build a bridge between the knowledge at universities and the knowledge acquired by activists on the ground. In doing this, we’re building collaborations with what I call the Professors of the Street – experienced activists who help to develop strategies and ideas for improving resistance.
Originally this idea developed because there was a group of us at Gothenburg University who thought of ourselves as “refugees” from Peace Studies. We came together from different disciplines to develop resistance studies because we felt that Peace Studies had been caught up in the liberal paradigm in which power and oppression was not at the center of understanding peace and justice.
Instead, the focus was on negotiation and mediation, with the assumption that people in conflict were equal. Our starting point was the belief that conflict in society entails the influence of power, and you need to figure out how to resist that power to build peace and justice.
In my role now as the Endowed Chair, I spend a lot of my time throughout the year doing fieldwork to understand, for example, how people are working in the landless workers movement here in Brazil. But I also want to contribute. The landless workers here have developed their own free activist university outside of São Paulo, and we’re talking with them about the possibility of teaching at this university. So I try to research and to understand, while also building relationships and developing collaborations of different kinds.
In your early days as an activist, what are the nonviolent struggles that started shaping your interest in studying resistance?
I was born into a hippie new-age family [in Sweden]. We talked about Gandhi. We were vegetarians. My father refused conscription and my mother gave sanctuary to refugees. I started off as a teenager in struggles against nuclear power in Sweden, especially a 1980 referendum. From there, I got involved with environmental activism and peace activism against Swedish export of weapons. And I was part of a group that created a resistance community modeled on the Jonah House in Baltimore and Ploughshares from 1988-1989.
My first civil disobedience action was in 1986, when we blockaded the Energy Department in Stockholm in a protest against lack of policies to develop alternative energy to nuclear power. My mentor and inspiration Kerstin Ekblom, a Quaker woman who was like 75 years old at the time – white haired and fragile – sat in the blockade together with us. I was struck not only by her firm commitment, but how afraid the police were to arrest her. Her commitment and resolve showed me the power of nonviolence.
Over time, I saw the power of nonviolent movements to build broad alliances and to transform society. At university, I started to study historical examples and movements in other parts of the world to improve our strategies and organizing. I began graduate studies at University of Gothenburg to study what makes mass civil disobedience possible, but I realized the theories on nonviolent activism were underdeveloped. So I ended up working to develop a theoretical framework, and that became my dissertation in 2005.
Throughout the years, I increasingly came into contact with – and was deeply influenced by – activists in the Global South. I started traveling more; I spent time in South Africa, India, Colombia, and so on. And these activists made a big impression on me. With time, my understanding of nonviolence became more theoretically deep and also more global, seen from the perspective of people in the Global South.
How did your experiences in the Global South shape the courses you teach now at UMass Amherst, many of which are centrally focused on these movements?
During my first visit to South Africa in 1994, I spent two months learning about the Anti-Apartheid struggle. When I met with people from both the armed struggle and unarmed struggle against Apartheid, it became clear to me that people were not just doing actions, they were living a life of resistance. The conditions were very difficult, but the kind of organizing they were building impressed me. Going in and out of prison; building up something that took years or decades; the kind of risks they were taking – for me, it was an encounter with the seriousness of resistance.
That was new to me. In Scandinavia, activism tends to be something you do for a couple of years in your youth, and you do it over weekends or in your free time. But the Anti-Apartheid Movement defeated one of the most fascist regimes in the world, mainly with unarmed struggle. And when I interviewed people who were part of the armed struggle in South Africa, they agreed it was the unarmed struggle that brought the regime to its knees.
Why is the concept of “everyday resistance” so crucial in developing a broader understanding of resistance studies?
The concept of ‘everyday resistance’ is a very different thing than what we talk about in terms of civil resistance or nonviolent action; it’s people engaging in resistance without being organized or declaring they’re doing resistance at all. It kind of fascinates me to see how ordinary people in their everyday lives are actually doing resistance in the workplace, in their neighborhood, their families – all the time – without being a member of a movement.
Although people in land occupations or slum areas in Bombay, where I’ve been researching everyday resistance, they might not call it resistance — but they are well aware that they are in relationships of domination where they are trying to win smaller gains. It’s like an everyday class war. We see so much creativity and innovation of people in their everyday lives, trying to find ways of improving their situation, although it might be very small or symbolic acts. But when thousands of people are doing it, these acts can have a very important impact.
This is an important contribution of resistance studies, to expand our idea of what resistance is, and the creativity it entails. We have a tendency to believe that resistance only occurs when we have mass mobilizations on the streets, and very often we ignore the importance of everyday resistance, or the more creative cultural forms it might take. So I think we need to expand our view and not be so focused on only the large mass mobilizations, although they are also needed.
To give an example, Asef Bayat is an urban researcher from Iran who works now in the US. His research has explored the informal settlements of the urban poor in places like Tehran and Cairo. He has shown that through their illegal land occupations, these people have actually shaped the urban area much more than city planners or the state. If you look on maps over the decades, despite the authorities’ attempts to use bulldozers and riot police to control the people, the growth of these cities are ultimately decided by the urban poor. When you have thousands of people trying to find a place to live and sell goods on the street, you have an incredible impact on the larger city. And that is just one example of how the accumulated effect of many small actions by individuals can transform a city and a society.
What can resistance studies contribute to our understanding of the political instability and rise of authoritarianism in the world today?
When it comes to the importance of resistance studies right now, let me put it like this: you cannot overstate its importance. We have the combined threat of growing authoritarianism in the world, where Trump is just a symptom of what we’re seeing elsewhere, from anti-immigration sentiment and growing fascism in Europe, to Modi in India, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Putin in Russia.
In addition, we are suffering from a problem within the left or liberal progressive movement. We are very good at criticizing injustice and problems in the world, but we are not as good at coming up with our vision for a different society and strategies for how to collaborate in making that transformation. We are facing the threat of the climate crisis, environmental destruction and growing inequalities in the world, and we need to improve the ways we approach our work for social transformation. Resistance is an important part of that.
And although research has proven that unarmed movements are much more successful than armed resistance, we have this problem: if we take South Africa as an example, injustice still exists today, just like in Apartheid times. Some things improved tremendously, but the economic injustice has not changed. We need to find ways that nonviolent resistance can address not just political violence in the repression from states, but also structural violence of a global capitalist system that is exploiting people.
So I’m a strong believer in combining resistance with the development of alternatives. This is what Naomi Klein would call the “yes” and “no” of the struggle, or what Michael Nagler calls the “obstructive program” and the “constructive program” in our work, where we try to hinder something and we try to build something up. The MST landless workers in Brazil are uniquely integrating this by occupying land and, on that land, building what they call the New Brazil.
So I think that with the help of resistance studies, particularly if we have more collaboration between activism and academia, we can increase the creativity and quality of our work. Then in mass mobilizations, we would have more skilled movements that are not so easily co-opted, and transformations of societies that would make a greater difference.
Sarah Freeman-Woolpert is a writer, researcher and organizer focused on nonviolent social movements and creative action. She lived for two years in the Balkans, studying and supporting youth activist movements. Now, she trains and organizes a national grassroots network of peace advocates with the Friends Committee on National Legislation.