Book review.- "From dictatorship to democracy" is a seminal essay written by Gene Sharp, an American academic. In recent times, it has become the revolutionary handbook of activists wishing to topple dictators around the world. Gene Sharp founded the Albert Einstein institution in 1983, an NGO promoting research as well as education on nonviolent struggle against dictatorships. Many of Dr. Sharp’s works are dedicated to strategic and defense policies aimed at tackling oppression.
‘From dictatorship to democracy’ is a “conceptual framework for liberation” requested by a Burmese democrat in exile, U Tin Maung Win. It is “based over forty years of research and writing on nonviolent struggle, dictatorships, totalitarian systems, resistance movements, political theory, sociological analysis, and other fields.” At the outset, the booklet was published in Bangkok in 1993 in its English and Burmese version. It then circulated in Burma thanks to the Burmese Restoration of Democracy Committee. The revolutionary handbook was also influential in the opposition movement Otpor! of the Milosevic regime. Color revolutions in the post-Soviet space were later led by activists who were familiar with Gene Sharp’s writings: Kmara in Georgia, Pora in Ukraine, KelKel in Kyrgyzstan's and Zubr in Belarus. In 2009, the Iranian government held Dr. Sharp’s guide of nonviolent disobedience responsible for the Green movement which campaigned during the Iranian election protests. Further, Gene Sharp has been accused by some foreign states as Iran of being a key actor in what was perceived to be the US administration’s plot to overthrow undemocratic regimes.
Although nothing seems to confirm this assumption, Dr. Sharp’s booklet has certainly acted as an essential instrument in geostrategic areas for Washington such as the post-Soviet space and the Middle East. Conspiratorial theories should however not overshadow the authenticity of activism in the framework of contemporary revolts against dictatorships nor should they make of Gene Sharp’s work a pure tool of imperialism.
‘From dictatorship to democracy’is available in 34 languages in print or on website. Its great success and global appeal came as a surprise to the American academic who couldn’t have imagined, in 1993, the extent to which his essay would have contributed to nonviolent protest around the world. It should however not be forgotten that many other sources of influence, some of which were much stronger than Dr. Sharp’s teachings, can be identified in the national context of contemporary uprisings. According to Hossam el-Hamalawy cited by Simon Guy, such is the case of the Egyptian revolutionary socialists who have learned much from their Palestinian brothers than from Gene Sharp.
The main ideas put forward in‘From dictatorship to democracy’ by its American author shall be summarized in the following paragraphs.
1- Revolutionary means doomed to failure
In order to win freedom, Dr. Sharp argues that violent rebellions are not the solution. This is because violence is the path of struggle “with which oppressors nearly always have superiority”. As for the outcome of military “coups d’état”, they fail to reshuffle the distribution of power between the population, the government and its military forces. Elections are also an uncertain way out of dictatorship as fair elections simply do not exist under undemocratic rule. Indeed, as stated by Gene Sharp “dictators are not in the business of allowing elections that could remove them from their thrones”. Quite interestingly enough, the author is rather skeptical vis-à-vis the support of external actors to prodemocracy movements. Should they intervene, Dr. Sharp argues that they are not to be trusted for the following reason: they will assist or act against dictatorships only to defend their economic and political interests or to gain military control over the country. Moreover, the active involvement of foreign states does not come into play when powerful national opposition movements have not yet been formed. International pressures such as sanctions against dictators can however be useful according to the American strategist. Conversely, negotiations with dictators will not guarantee the success of liberation: even if democratic movements are robust, seeking compromises with dictatorships will inevitably lead to the safeguard of dictators’ interests and goals. What is more, dictators who are open to negotiations might even gain domestic and international legitimacy for their compromise position, thereby creating a further obstacle to democratic change in the country.
2- The key to a successful revolutionary struggle
The “four immediate tasks” underlined by the American academic which give rise when implemented to the ability of an oppressed population to liberate itself are:
- The strengthening of popular determination, self-confidence and resistance skills;
- The reinforcement of civil independent groups and institutions;
- The creation of a “powerful internal resistance force”;
- The development of a “wise grand strategic plan” for freedom without misjudging its skillful implementation;
3-Enlightened people are aware of ruthless tricks
To draw a parallel between undemocratic regimes and their inherent need for assistance provided by the oppressed population, Gene Sharp presents the example of the “Monkey Master” fable. An old man ordered monkeys to gather fruits in the mountains. One day, the animals understood that they did not need the Monkey Master’s permission to gather fruits that had grown naturally. This revolutionary awareness prompted the departure of the monkeys and their destroying the old man’s stockade. What the Dr. Sharp endeavors to demonstrate is that, as in the case of the Monkey Master, dictators use tricks to rule their people ensuring the acceptance of their authority. This “make-believe” strategy translates into giving dictators legitimacy through obedience. Hence, it primarily refers to the belief of authority among the oppressed people. Among other elements which are essential for dictators to rule are human resources as well as skills and knowledge. Such vital components reflect the degree of obedience and of assistance to ruling elites.
Understanding the importance of the population’s behavior in nourishing dictatorships helps to draw the following conclusion: “withdrawal of popular and institutional cooperation with aggressors and dictators diminishes, and may sever, the availability of the sources of power on which all rulers depend.” Accordingly, it has been noticed that all authoritarian regimes are dependent on the people they rule. This also means that dictatorships are highly vulnerable. Gene Sharp couldn’t stress enough that all authoritarian rulers have an Achilles’ heel which should be identified with the view of liberation. Among the dictatorships’ possible weaknesses one can single out: the great amount of people needed to operate the system, a routine-driven ruling with limited capacity to adjust rapidly to new situations, ineffective bureaucracy, a changing and unstable power hierarchy with the quick removal and replacement of personnel, etc.
4- Political defiance
The expression “political defiance” was introduced by Robert Helvey, a retired US army colonel with whom Gene Sharp worked in Burma. It denotes nonviolent struggle “applied defiantly and actively for political purposes”. The use of “political defiance”, in which “defiance” relates to the political meaning of disobedience, helps to distinguish nonviolent struggle from pacifism and moral or religious nonviolence. The advantages of this type of struggle underlined by Dr. Sharp are numerous. A few can be listed: political defiance aggravates the weaknesses of dictatorships and leads it to commit errors of judgment and of action; it involves society as a whole and is efficient in spreading the “distribution of effective power” among the population. The weapons of political defiance are economic, political, social and psychological. More than two hundred methods of nonviolent disobedience have been spotted throughout history. Gene Sharp chose to classify these peaceful tactics under three broad categories: protest and persuasion, social and economic noncooperation, intervention. As opposed to violent rebellion, people who protest in a nonviolent fashion are not held to perform acts which are deeply and radically unrelated to their normal lives. Further, casualties in political defiance are always fewer than in violent unrest.
5- Strategic planning
To bring down dictatorships a careful and skillful strategic planning is required. Such a planning must include:
- A grand strategy or conception of objectives to be reached;
- A strategy determining “whether, when and how to fight”;
- Tactics to implement the strategy, i.e. limited actions aimed at restricted objectives;
- A method involving the choice of “specific weapons or means of action”.
The aforementioned elements must be carefully selected and formulated in the aim of establishing democracy. During the planning phase, Gene Sharp presents a SWOT-like political analysis: opponents must identify their own strengths and weaknesses as well as those of dictatorships. Further, prodemocracy movements must prudently forward stage by stage and always avoid provocations leading to violence. As Dr. Sharp warns, the immediate downfall of the authoritarian regime cannot be the chosen strategy but rather a long-term nonviolent struggle based on selective resistance as well as on an issue that cannot widely be rejected. Symbolic acts and creativity are also encouraged by the author. Additionally, the important role of sympathetic officers and military forces is emphasized as they can “offer various modes of positive nonviolent assistance to the democracy movement, including safe passage, information, food, medical supplies, and the like”. In an advanced phase of regime change, the disintegration of dictatorship can be speeded up by the organization of a parallel “democratic government” and by the building of independent institutions. These will increase the visibility of prodemocracy movements and are also likely to produce widespread international attention.
6- Durable democracy
An error which should not be committed is to allow the rise of a new authoritarian regime in the aftermath of nonviolent action. According to Dr. Sharp, the drafting of a constitution can limit this risk but active noncooperation and defiance are also necessary to form an efficient anti-coup defense. In this context, the empowerment of the oppressed is, together with ending dictatorships, the main objective of political defiance. This also explains why nonviolent protest is less vulnerable to future authoritarian regimes: it can count on a population having gained self-confidence through struggle. Moreover, the experience of political defiance provides “ways to defend democracy, civil liberties, minority rights, and prerogatives of regional, state, and local governments and nongovernmental institutions”. As a final remark, Gene Sharp reminds that “Freedom is not free”. People must learn to set themselves free and this task is far from being easy.
The nonviolent American strategist enlightens the reader with a structured and step-by-step analysis of political defiance. He gives precious advice as to how to efficiently topple a dictator without falling into traps of violence, fruitless negotiations or poor coordinated action. His teachings on revolutionary grand strategies are sharp and detailed. However, some questions remain unanswered. Given that revolutions are mostly unplanned and spontaneous, how could opposition movements quickly refine grand strategies? Moreover, where should prodemocracy movements get investments from to operate and what could be the means of attracting capital without having to strictly follow the agenda of donors? Dr. Sharp focuses on the transition from dictatorship to democracy, but wouldn’t there be other political systems which could be established through nonviolent disobedience? How could we, for instance, tackle radical movements using similar methods of nonviolent action? Further, would political defiance also be useful to perfect democracy when social guarantees in free countries are lacking?
Many more questions on this topic could be raised due to its significance and importance for current affairs. The success of Arab springs is far from being complete and the same can be said for color revolutions. Syria is a striking example of an endless bloodbath following a failed revolution. Nevertheless, Gene Sharp’s revolutionary guide remains a chief contribution to the theory of nonviolent struggle. In short, ‘From dictatorship to democracy’ is a useful tool for contemporary opposition movements seeking regime change as well as a key for those specializing in human rights and political affairs to analyze them.
- Stephen ZUNES, Leading Nonviolent Strategist, Gene Sharp & the CIA, Popular Resistance, 2014, <https://www.popularresistance.org/leading-nonviolent-strategist-gene-sharp-the-cia/>
- Simon GUY, From Dictatorship to Democracy, Socialist Review, 2012, <http://socialistreview.org.uk/367/dictatorship-democracy>
- Lucy POPESCU, From Dictatorship to Democracy, By Gene Sharp, No fool, this child of the revolution, The independent, 2012, <http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/from-dictatorship-to-democracy-by-gene-sharp-6286451.html>
- The Socialist Party of Great Britain, Book Reviews: ‘Life without Money’, ‘From Dictatorship to Democracy', 2012, <http://www.worldsocialism.org/spgb/socialist-standard/2010s/2012/no-1291-march-2012/book-reviews>
- Gene SHARP, From Dictatorship to Democracy, A conceptual Framework for Liberation, London: Serpent’s tail, 2011.