Gene Sharp’s revolution handbook

I just finished reading From Dictatorship to Democracy by Gene Sharp, the great strategist of nonviolent struggle.  Like the great Prussian military strategist, Carl von Clausewitz, his strategy and tactics are directed against the mind of the enemy.  An enemy is defeated when they are no longer willing to fight.  A government is defeated when people are no longer willing to obey it, and this can be accomplished, Sharp claims, without having to kill people in large numbers.

When I was a student at the University of Wisconsin in the 1950s, there was a story that at some point in the Russian history course taught by Professor Petrovich, he would throw a chair to the side of the room.   Supposedly he was making a point about revolution.   I took the course, and the chair-throwing apparently was an urban legend, but the point he made was an important one.

GeneSharp51aSjpXTx1L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200DictatroshiptoDemocracy_Revolution does not come, he said, when you have a privileged aristocracy, dancing to Strauss waltzes, who are suddenly overthrown by Jacobins or Bolsheviks, and here is where he would have tossed the chair to one side.  No, he said, revolution comes when a society is on the verge of collapse, and here he would have balanced a chair on one leg with one finger, and it loses its last support – here he would have let the chair fall.

That is surely true.  Governments can govern only because people obey them.  They fall when their people cease to obey them.  That is what happened to the King of France in 1789, the Tsar of Russia in 1917 and the Shah of Iran in 1989.   Gene Sharp says that the way to overthrow a despotic government is to undermine the public’s habits of fear and obedience, and to deprive it of the resources it needs to govern.

In From Dictatorship to Democracy, originally published in 1990, and The Politics of Nonviolent Action, published in 1973, he listed 198 different tactics by which this could be accomplished, including public protests, strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience and creation of parallel institutions.  Here are his broad principles.

Develop a strategy for winning freedom and a vision of the society you want.

Overcome fear by small acts of resistance.

Use colors and symbols to demonstrate unity of resistance.

Learn from historical examples of the successes of non-violent movements.

Use non-violent “weapons.”

Identify the dictatorship’s pillars of support and develop a strategy for undermining each.

Use oppressive or brutal acts by the regime as a recruiting tool for your movement.

Isolate or remove from the movement people who use or advocate violence.

via BBC News.

Back in the 1950s, I never would have thought these tactics would work against a ruthless totalitarian government such as the Soviet Union, which had the power to sniff out and suppress the slightest dissent.  I had to change my mind after the Soviet government did fall, simply because it lost the authority and power to compel obedience.   On the whole, nonviolent fighters have a better record of success than the advocates of terrorism and guerrilla warfare.

Sharp argued nonviolent struggle requires as much strategic planning and tactical discipline as military action.  Superior ethics and morality will not in themselves bring victory.  You need to be as tough-minded as the community organizer Saul Alinsky, who in his way was a master of nonviolent struggle.  But while there are many academies where you can learn military science, there are few academies where you can learn the strategy and tactics of nonviolent struggle.  I used to think proposals to establish a national Peace Academy or Department of Peace were naive, but I know think such proposals might be more than mere sentimental gestures.

The moment of greatest danger for a nonviolent democratic movement is at the moment of apparent victory, Sharp wrote.   That’s when the Jacobins, Bolsheviks or ayatollahs move in.   He said the movement has to be alert and not relax until actual democracy is established.

Nonviolent struggle does have limitations and problems.   Gene Sharp wrote From Dictatorship to Democracy in 1993 as a generic handbook for Burmese fighting against a military dictatorship that ruled their country.   That struggle is still going on nearly 20 years later, although the dictatorship there has relented enough to allow limited free elections.   Victory is not guaranteed in nonviolent struggle, any more than in military struggle.

Sharp actually had reservations about the term “non-violent struggle” because it has a negative and passive connotation.  “Political defiance” might be a better word, he thought.  I think that’s true.   It also is true that the boundary between violent and non-violent struggle is often blurred.   The Arab Spring demonstrators who brought down President Mubarak of Egypt are called non-violent, but some of them burned down police stations, and others fought back with stones and bricks.  The important thing about the Arab Spring demonstrators was that they were a mass movement, not a tiny band of professional revolutionaries, and what leaders they had were accountable to the masses.  I am not a pacifist myself, but I recognize the effectiveness of nonviolent action, and I believe war is rarely the best option.

I have linked to two videos, both of which begin with trailers for a documentary on Gene Sharp entitled “How to Start a Revolution.”  The first one, at the top of this post, shows a brief presentation made by Sharp last year; the second, below, shows a longer lecture he made in 1990.

Click on The realism of nonviolent action for my earlier post reviewing Gene Sharp’s The Politics of Nonviolent Action.

Click on Gene Sharp: Author of the nonviolent revolution handbook for a good BBC article on Gene Sharp.

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