Posts Tagged ‘From Dictatorship to Democracy’

Nonviolent resistance to Hitler?

April 29, 2012

On this web log, I favorably reviewed two of Gene Sharp’s manuals for nonviolent resistant to despots.  A friend asked if I think nonviolent resistance would have worked against Hitler.

His ideas rest on the truth that the power of a tyrant is the power to command the obedience of the people he rules.  To the extent that they cease to obey, his power disappears.  Gene Sharp cited examples of successful nonviolent resistance to Hitler, including Norwegian school teachers who successfully resisted demands that they teach Nazi doctrines, and German women married to Jewish men whose protests caused the German government to rescind orders to deport their husbands to death camps.

But nonviolent resistance would not work for peoples marked for extermination or ethnic cleansing.  this would not work for the Jews, gypsies and others marked for extermination.  Hitler did not wish to rule the Jews, gypsies and others marked for extermination.   He wished to eliminate them.  Nonviolent resistance would not have been an obstacle to that goal.

I am not a pacifist.  I understand that war is sometimes the least bad option.  I do not think that the line between nonviolent and violent resistance is always clear.  Many campaigns of mass defiance involve both.   A nonviolent struggle has the merit of being inherently democratic, in the way that many seizures of power in the name of liberation did not.  M.K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. had power that rested on the voluntary compliance of their followers.  Unlike the leaders of many supposed liberation movements, they didn’t kill people to keep their followers in line.

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

Click on Gene Sharp’s revolution handbook for my review of his From Dictatorship to Democracy.

Click on Gene Sharp: A dictator’s worst nightmare for a good profile by CNN.  [Added 6/27/12]

Gene Sharp’s revolution handbook

April 14, 2012

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.

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