“Political Defiance, like military struggle, is both an art and a science. To be effective, it must be studied and carried out with skill and discipline.” Colonel Robert Helvey - President of the Albert Einstein Institution as of 2006.
By Mike Smith
14th of August 2015
A 2011 study of 323 civil resistance campaigns around the world between 1900 and 2006 by two US researchers, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J Stephan, found that nonviolent campaigns were successful in 53% of cases, and violent ones in only 26%. Moreover, only 4% of violent regime changes ended up in a functioning democracy, compared with 42% of non-violent regime changes.
Meet Dr Gene Sharp
In 1993, Dr. Gene Sharp, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, was approached by an exiled Burmese journalist to help bring the world’s longest running Civil War to an end by deposing their Military junta and installing a democracy.
At the time the rebels have been fighting in the jungles of Burma for decades and have lost thousands of soldiers. They were desperate for an alternative way to violence and war.
Gene Sharp did not know the Burmese and their conflict very well, but 20 years earlier in 1973 he wrote a book (in three volumes) called The politics of non-violent action based on his 1968 doctoral thesis at Oxford University which he decided to condense for the Burmese.
The result was a little booklet of about 80 pages called From dictatorship to democracy which can be freely downloaded from his organization’s website.
This little book has since been translated into 30 languages and is found on all the continents. It has inspired revolutions from Serbia and Iceland to the Arab spring. It is the equivalent of an atomic bomb and feared by dictators the world over. It is a recipe, a blueprint of how to overthrow a dictator by using peaceful means.
Gene Sharp has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times.
As you are reading this, the principles in Gene Sharp’s book is being used against dictatorships in Syria, in Russia, in Turkey, in Zimbabwe, in the Maldives, etc…
It explains how people can overcome their fear of a dictatorship and unite.
It explains the sources of power and the pillars of support a dictator relies on to stay in power and how to undermine these pillars to bring the dictator to a fall.
And then it gives guidelines on how to install a democracy.
See, people always think that political power is monolithic with a pyramid structure that cannot be toppled over, only the capstone (the leader) can be changed every now and again.
However, this is false. Political power is based on four major pillars of support,
1) Control of bureaucracy (the civil service)
2) Control of the group mind (media, schools, universities, etc)
3) Control of the economy (business, commercial institutions, taxation)
4) Control of the means of violence ( army, police, etc)
Without the obedience and support of the people in these pillars the dictator cannot stay in power. If you take these pillars of support away, the dictator falls.
Gene Sharp mentions 198 methods of how to do this, but there are many more and every revolution invents new ones.
Basically the idea is not to push the pillars over or even destroy them. You want to pull these pillars out from underneath the dictator to your side, supporting the democracy. How do you do it? You co-opt them.
For instance. Take the police. You assure them that you do not want to fight them, because the people and the police are both victims of the same dictatorship. There is no point in two victims fighting each other. On set of victims wears blue uniforms the other wears blue jeans.
The police are human too. They also have wives, children, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and friends who are part of the people suffering under the dictator. They cannot fight their own people.
You get old women to bake cookies and dish it out to the police. You get pretty young girls to deliver flowers to the police. You get young men to offer them cigarettes…You don’t throw stones at the police…ever.
You do this with all the pillars of support and the dictator is in trouble. You don’t even have to worry about forcing him into a corner where he is forced to resign. You take his pillars of support away, he simply falls and disintegrates. He doesn’t even have the power to resign.
Dictators always appear strong, until the last ten minutes.
Don’t think that this is easy and there is no guarantee that the dictator is going to accept this peacefully. He WILL fight back and probably use violence. He might even kill people.
Even if he kills a hundred or two hundred people, it is still a lot less dead people than in a guerilla war.
When the dictator is faced with civil disobedience he is faced with a dilemma. If he cracks down and uses violence, he will lose more support. If he does nothing, he also loses more support.
Political Ju Jitsu
When people are being slaughtered and beaten it causes a process of “political Ju jitsu”. The opponent’s strength is used against him to undermine the opponent. It alienates more people from the regime and strengthens and mobilizes people into the active resistance. Violence has a backlash effect. The regime is so brutal that instead of intimidating people like the regime intends, it causes other population groups and institutions to withdraw their co-operation, support and obedience to the regime which leads to the regimes loss of control and more people joining the resistance.
Make no mistake. We are preparing for a war here. A war against a totalitarian dictatorship. An “armed” struggle for a true democracy. Just because you choose “Non-violence” as a method of war does not mean that you are not fighting hard. You just fight with different weapons. In this kind of struggle you fight with psychological weapons, social weapons, economic weapons and political weapons and this is ultimately more powerful against oppression, injustice and tyranny than violence.
You can watch the full Bafta award winning documentary on Gene Sharp here.
How to start a revolution
The Serbian Revolution of 2000.
In 1998, Srđa Popović, a Serbian university student and a few friends discussed the government’s controversial university law and the banning of three daily newspapers that were critical of the genocidal and dictatorial Milosevic regime.
They knew that the opposition parties were in disarray and all too busy fighting each other to have any impact against the dictatorship, but how could they, a bunch of kids with no money, do anything against the mighty Milosovic regime? They got hold of Gene Sharp’s book 2From dictatorship to democracy.
Despite how dark the future looked, they started an organization called Otpor! meaning “Resistance!” in Serbian.
”Otpor! Was just a bunch of kids tired of a dictatorship and wanted to do something about it” …As Srđa Popović said:
“Looking around the room at one of our meetings, we realized that we were a bunch of Serbian kids, and rather than focus on what we had going for us, we began obsessing about everything we didn’t have. We didn’t have an army. We didn’t have a lot of money (about $50). We had no access to media, which was virtually all state-run. The dictator, we realized, had both a vision and the means to make it come true; his means involved instilling fear. We had a much better vision, but we thought on that grim evening, no way of turning it into a reality. It was then that we came up with the smiling barrel.”
The smiling barrel
They took an empty oil barrel, stuck a picture of the dictator on it and parked it off in the middle of the CBD of Belgrade. Next to it they left a baseball bat and invited people to hit the face of the dictator for one Dinar. Then they sat back drinking coffee and watched how the police came and arrested the barrel filming everything.
They went on a campaign of fun, humour and rock concerts and made the government look like idiots. People lost their fear of the dictatorship and united.
Within two years “Otpor!” Had 70,000 members. In October 2000 after waging a well planned, non-violent struggle, they overthrew Slobodan Milosevic by peaceful means.
You can watch the brilliant documentary here:
Bringing down a dictator
Today, Srđa Popović, runs the follow up of “Otpor!” named Canvas (Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies) together with his friend Slobodan Đinović.
Srdja Popovic is also the author of “Blueprint for Revolution” and Slobodan Đinović is the main funder of Canvas currently funding about 50% of Canvas. CANVAS does not accept funding from individual governments.
The clenched fist symbol of Otpor! , designed by Nenad "Duda" Petrović, is not patented and CANVAS has, in fact, welcomed the reuse of the symbol by resistance movements in any nonviolent struggle, including those with whom the organization has had no direct contact. It depicts the hand of Saruman the White (from Lord of the Rings) clenched around his scepter.
CANVAS has worked with pro-democracy activists from more than 50 countries, promoting the use of non-violent resistance in achieving political and social goals. Their workshops are free and their material can be freely downloaded from their website
The repressive governments of Belarus and Iran, as well as former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, have accused CANVAS of being a "revolution-exporter". CANVAS has been listed as a terrorist organization by United Arab Emirates.
Point is, people living under dictatorships need not remain weak, and dictators need not be allowed to remain powerful indefinitely. Aristotle noted long ago, “. . . Oligarchy and tyranny are shorter-lived than any other constitution. . . . “
Whereas ten years — 1980-1990 — were required to bring down the Communist Dictatorship in Poland, in East Germany and Czechoslovakia in 1989 it occurred within weeks.
In El Salvador and Guatemala in 1944 the struggles against the entrenched brutal military dictators required approximately two weeks each.
The militarily powerful regime of the Shah in Iran was undermined in a few months.
The Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines fell before people power within weeks in 1986 and amazingly even with a very strong ally, the United States government quickly abandoned President Marcos when the strength of the opposition became apparent.
The attempted hard-line coup in the Soviet Union in August 1991 was blocked in days. Thereafter, many of its long dominated constituent nations in only days, weeks, and months regained their independence.