The Unconquerable World Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People

Jonathan Schell

Holt Paperbacks



Trade Paperback

448 Pages



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At times of global crisis, Jonathan Schell's writings have presented influential alternatives to conventional, dead-end thinking. His classic bestseller, The Fate of the Earth, was hailed by the New York Times as "an event of profound historical moment." Now, as the world stands once more on the brink of upheaval, Schell reenters the fray with a lucid, impassioned, provocative book that points the way out of the unparalleled devastation that marked the twentieth century toward another, more peaceful path.

Tracing the unlimited expansion of violence to its culmination in nuclear stalemate, Schell uncovers a simultaneous but little-noted history of nonviolent action at every level of political life. His historical journey turns up seeds of nonviolence even in the bloody revolutions of America, France, and Russia, as well as in the people's wars of China and Vietnam. And his investigations into familiar history—from Gandhi's independence movement in India to the explosion of civic activity that brought about the unpredicted collapse of the Soviet Union—suggest foundations of an entirely new kind on which to construct an enduring peace.

At a time when all-out war, with its risk of human extinction, must cease to play the role of final arbiter, The Unconquerable World, a bold book of global significance, offers the only realistic hope of safety.


Praise for The Unconquerable World

"Undoubtedly The Unconquerable World is Mr. Schell's most ambitious, and over time will be regarded as his most significant, work. Although it can be read as a timely and provocative commentary on the militarization of American foreign policy during the Bush presidency, its concerns run far deeper, challenging the strong linkage between national security and war that has dominated both political consciousness and international relations for centuries. . . The book mounts perhaps the most impressive argument ever made that there exists a viable and desirable alternative to a continued reliance on war and that the failure to seize this opportunity will bring catastrophic results to America and the world . . . The most fascinating portions of the book present Mr. Schell's evidence for rethinking history from a nonviolent perspective, arguing that dramatic and unpredictable changes have often been managed without a violent challenge to the established order . . . Mr. Schell brilliantly depicts some of the great revolutionary upheavals, including the Glorious Revolution in England, as well as the French and Russian Revolutions from this angle, showing that these revolutions were themselves mainly nonviolent and that it was only their aftermaths that turned out to be bloody."—Richard Falk, The New York Times

"[Schell] argues that what we are witnessing today is nothing less than the end of armed conflict as we know it. The 'war system' that long pitted nations against one another is dying, undone by politics and the development of ever more potent weapons. A new, nonviolent approach to politics is about to take its place . . . The vision he paints of his imagined future is a glorious one."—Jonathan D. Tepperman, The New York Times Book Review

"Jonathan Schell has long since established himself as a source of courageous thinking, eloquently articulated, on the most dangerous and important of subjects. Every decade or so he produces a masterpiece, and The Unconquerable World is one for the new century. This book makes the case that the ancient dream of the obsolescence of war could finally become achievable, thanks to the evolution of national and international politics. That vision of the future is rooted in a disciplined yet bold reading of history and of current trends. The book is not so much a prediction as a prescription—and a challenge—to today's leaders, and tomorrow's."—Strobe Talbott, President of the Brookings Institute

"In The Unconquerable World, Schell leads us through his argument (not an analysis, which is passive, but an argument, loaded with energy) using an impressive backing of political theory and history . . . The huge task that Schell undertakes in this book is to convince us that the era of massive violence can be brought to an end . . . Violence by its nature is instigated by elites. Nonviolence requires the commitment and cooperation of masses of people. It is by its nature democratic. Schell, in this profoundly important book, wants us to begin thinking about how we can use democracy—the actions of people, rather than governments—to bring about a peaceful world."—Howard Zinn, The Boston Globe

"A lucid survey of alternatives to warfare . . . Building a case for civil noncooperation, Schell writes with discipline and urgency."—The New Yorker

"Mr. Schell's 20th-century corollary to Clausewitz, multiply illustrated, is that a population totally mobilized is invincible even when unarmed. In the long run, a people that will not be ruled cannot be ruled. The recalcitrant need not militarize their recalcitrance; they need only, massively, to do what they want rather than what their oppressor wants, and keep doing it . . . At a time of political prostration, when millions of Americans sense that their country is on the eve of a precipitous and irreversible decline, Mr. Schell has offered—and not for the first time—what may be needed most: a hunch, a lever, a mental starting point for a long and difficult journey."—Jack Miles, The New York Observer

"Wise, passionate, eloquent, and infused with a historical vision rare in these dark times, Jonathan Schell's new book makes a powerful case for the realism of idealism in breaking the cycles of violence that threaten to destroy us all."—John Dower, Elting E. Morison Professor of History at MIT and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of chEmbracing Defeat

"As he has before, the indispensable Jonathan Schell has written a book that will change thinking and prompt action on the most urgent question of all. The old dichotomies—idealism vs. realism, morality vs. politics, dream vs. possibility—are transformed by Schell's brilliant unity of purpose. A definitive reading of the last century, The Unconquerable World is sure to be one of the most important books of the century unfolding."—James Carroll, author of An American Dream and Constantine's Sword

"[A] scholarly new work . . . As Schell carefully documents in this exhaustive tome (which took 12 years to research and write), non-violent resistance always sews the seeds of positive change, eventually creating openings that may not be apparent in the fury and emotion of the moment . . . It's one of Schell's feats in The Unconquerable World to reintroduce readers to people like [Hannah] Arendt and to unearth the philosophies of John Adams, Nelson Mandela, Wilson, Gandhi, and others, who have stressed that war is an exaggerated option that people mistake as a most important benchmark of change."—Jonathan Curiel, San Francisco Chronicle

"Partly a history of how we came to be so dependent on war, partly an unmasking of the role peaceful conflict resolution has played in shaping the world, and, of course, a prescription for putting war to rest . . . Schell examines revolutions from the English restoration to South Africa and lays out the separate roles that peaceful force and violence played. In each case, non-violent strategies played a larger role than they are given credit for, suggesting that if people had just a little more faith and restraint, peaceful power by itself might suffice."—Jerry Large, The Seattle Times

"In the shadow of the nuclear menace, Jonathan Schell's wise and insightful book provides answers you won't find anywhere else to humankind's greatest challenge."—Stephen Schlesinger, Director of the World Policy Institute

"A liberating counterpoint to the current celebration of all things military . . . Schell makes a pragmatic and unassailable case for the power of nonviolence."—Boston Herald

"The definitive history—and future potential—of nonviolent people power . . . In his concise and lucid prose, Schell lays out where both approaches, martial and peaceful, could lead us."—Seattle Weekly

"With The Unconquerable World, Schell proffers what may be a way out: a compelling argument against war as progress, and one molded not by peace but by war itself . . . The overriding message is as urgent as it is inarguable."—New York Press

"In high-concept arguments about contemporary international relations, Schell asks if the modern history of violence, revolution, democracy, and nuclear war has any insights to offer the antiwar cause. In addition to selecting evidence from history's record, Schell paraphrases the views on force set forth by Clausewitz, Gandhi, Mao, Hannah Arendt, and others. This work is decidedly not rah-rah writing for peace activists but, rather, intellectual scaffolding for them. Schell has a twofold premise: the historical escalation of war's lethality makes the 'war system' obsolete, which provides the chance, due to the revival of democracy in many countries in the 1990s, to replace it with a new and improved liberal internationalism. Prescriptively, this means Schell wants to ban the bomb and construct a 'democratic league'—something like the E.U. on a global scale. Is this woolly-headed thought or practical-minded optimism? However one responds to Schell's presentation, his liberal views will be sought in this time of intensified awareness of world politics."—Gilbert Taylor, Booklist

"Schell's radical rethinking of the relationship between war and political power offers a fresh and hopeful perspective."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Jonathan Schell

  • Jonathan Schell, the author of several works, including The Time of Illusion, The Fate of the Earth, and The Village of Ben Suc, has been a contributor to The Nation, The New Yorker, Harper's, and Foreign Affairs, and has taught at Wesleyan, Princeton, and Emory, among other universities. He lives in New York.