How to Start a Revolution: A Review

By Patrick Olden

Gene Sharp, the subject of documentary How to Start a Revolution is the ‘world’s leading expert on nonviolent revolution’.  Now an aging man living in a run-down Boston suburb, he is the author of the handbook for overthrowing governments: ‘From Dictatorship to Democracy (FDTD); A Conceptual Framework for Liberation’.  The book has been translated into more than 30 languages and is credited with having been a widely used resource in revolutions from Burma to Serbia, Ukraine, Guatemala and recently the Arab Spring (the Muslim Brotherhood for example posted copies of FDTD on their website during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution).

How to Start a Revolution is Scottish Filmmaker Ruaridh Arrow’s cinematic study of both Gene Sharp the man, and his work and influence. The former is outlined to the audience via a meander through Sharp’s history (he was a conscientious objector during the Korean war and professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth).  The latter is covered by interviews with prominent leaders of past nonviolent struggles – notably Ahmed Maher of the Egyptian April 6th Movement, and Srdjan Popovic of the Serbian youth group Optor! who according to the BBC used FDTD ‘practically as a textbook’.  Alongside this is stock footage of the Arab Spring, brutal police repression, and recurrent interviews with two of Sharp’s close associates, one an ex-army Colonel and the other Jamila Raqib – the Executive Director of Gene Sharp’s think-tank, the Albert Einstein Institution (AEI).

The film itself is good.  The temptation to milk the inspiring scenes of the Egyptian Revolution with an over-zealous orchestral backing track is resisted; the interviews are mainly illuminating (although Jamila Raqib who is portrayed as almost a surrogate daughter of Gene Sharp is at times quite annoying); the main aspects of Sharp’s work are effectively communicated and not overly distilled for ease of communication; and there are even some beautiful shots of the man himself watering his plants!

If you’re anything like me, however, the film’s brief appraisal of the nonviolent revolutionary techniques themselves is not enough.  There is mention of only a handful of the 198 techniques described in FDTD.  Prominent are those suited to film, for example the idea of endowing the revolutionary movement with a symbol and a colour – think Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, Georgia’s Rose Revolution, and the iconic Green Movement in Iran.  Also the notion of organising acts of, at times, quite minor civil disobedience to galvanize support from unsure revolutionary participants (an example of which was the Serbian housewives who obstinately banged pots to symbolically drown out the noise of Milosevic’s state news).

Encouraged by the film I bought a copy of FDTD to learn more of the 198 techniques.  In order to fit both the arguments in favour of a nonviolent movement and also the nonviolent techniques themselves into just 100 pages, Sharp writes the way he speaks: in an extremely deliberate style.  The content of the book is not actually focused on an outlining of the nonviolent techniques in detail, but rather it is an argument in favour of nonviolence and a description of the revolutionary process.  Despite being contrary to my expectations – and if truth be told the description offered in How to Start a Revolution – I nevertheless found FDTD to be very convincing.  The central point is simple; waging a military struggle amounts to fighting the regime on what is likely to be its strongest front and the opposition’s weakest.  Preferable is a campaign of disobedience targeting the regime’s weakest points, which are the various areas in which it relies on the goodwill of the population to operate the institutions of the state.  Although the internal dynamics of every country are very different, this general fact would seem to be true in the vast majority of modern revolutionary situations.

The other arguments in favour of nonviolence are subsidiary to the above, but reference some of the specifically nonviolent revolutionary techniques.  Take for example the staging of mock elections.  Although considered in isolation they are unlikely to topple a government, mock elections do involve the whole opposition (who symbolically vote) including those that could never wage a violent revolution – the elderly, the young and those that care for these vulnerable groups.  A violent revolution could risk alienating the support of these sectors of society, who might end up favouring the ‘stability’ of the dictator if the struggle becomes bloody and protracted, as well as the support of non-indigenous groups who ‘get the job done’ – a case in point is Jabat al Nusra in Syria.  The necessarily inclusive dimension of the nonviolent struggle serves to limit the likelihood of this scenario.

In short FDTD – with a context provided by How to Start a Revolution – has, for the time being, convinced me of the merits of the nonviolent method.  It wouldn’t be right to say that I was formerly in favour of violent revolutions, but rather that I presumed that the nonviolent method entailed a trade off of the necessary horrors of armed resistance for a less horrible, but also ultimately less efficacious alternative.  This is however incorrect.  Gene Sharp’s contention is that nonviolence is ‘… a technique of combat… a substitute for war and other violence’.  It is not preferential as a consequence of any pacifistic ideal, but rather because it’s simply more effective than violence.

For students in Scotland today, From Dictatorship to Democracy might have even more to offer.  We could use this book.  We might not be overthrowing a government, but the ideas in FDTD could be of relevance for student campaigns.  It offers discussions of strategic planning (grand strategies and localised tactics), analyses of power bases and how to threaten them, and of course the 198 nonviolent methods.  We can neglect the sections on blocking coups and concentrate on those that explain how to engage those that are apathetic or unsure of the movement.  In another of Gene Sharp’s books, ‘The Politics of Nonviolent Action’ the 198 techniques are described in detail.  Occupations are, for example (like many of the techniques) sometimes optimal and sometimes not.  We should take advantage of the fact that someone has studied these ideas: they could help the student movement develop in the areas in which it is weak; consolidate in the areas that it is strong; and most importantly win as often as it should.

For students in Scotland today, From Dictatorship to Democracy might have even more to offer.  We could use this book.  We might not be overthrowing a government, but the ideas in FDTD could be of relevance for student campaigns.  It offers discussions of strategic planning (grand strategies and localised tactics), analyses of power bases and how to threaten them, and of course the 198 nonviolent methods.  We can neglect the sections on blocking coups and concentrate on those that explain how to engage those that are apathetic or unsure of the movement.  In another of Gene Sharp’s books, ‘The Politics of Nonviolent Action’ the 198 techniques are described in detail.  Occupations are, for example (like many of the techniques) sometimes optimal and sometimes not.  We should take advantage of the fact that someone has studied these ideas: they could help the student movement develop in the areas in which it is weak; consolidate in the areas that it is strong; and most importantly win as often as it should.

Footnote:

The film also addresses a ‘controversy’, which should be mentioned here.  Gene Sharp has been accused of having links with another group that have a history and interest in overthrowing governments (dictatorships or not): the CIA.  The charge has been led by French Marxist Thierry Meyssan who contends in his article ‘The Albert Einstein Institution: non-violence according to the CIA’ that Gene Sharp has personally organized a host of revolutions at the behest of the CIA.  Elsewhere the Iranian, Venezuelan and Zimbabwean governments have accused Gene Sharp of being linked to the CIA.  The reader should of course consider the arguments for him or her self, but the author has looked through a host of these claims and found absolutely no evidence whatsoever to substantiate the Sharp/CIA link.  A well-referenced demystification of the debate is an article by Stephen Zunes in Foreign Policy in Focus, entitled ‘Sharp Attack Unwarranted’.

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