This is a Book Review. It’s part of a new series on this website, and I hope you find it useful.
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Sometimes books are enormous and exhaustive and exhausting to read. Sometimes they are sturdy scaffolding. Gene Sharp’s magnum opus is a short volume outlining how societies move from being totalitarian states to being thriving democracies. It’s not an easy process, by any means. There are pitfalls and dangers outlined along the way.
The book is divided into ten chapters, with three appendices — the three appendix sections provide a list of the methods of nonviolent action, a brief history of the four editions of the text, and the guidelines for reprinting the text in languages other than English (translation). Yet the meat of the book is in its ten short chapters:
- Facing Dictators Realistically
- The Dangers of Negotiation
- Whence The Power Comes?
- Dictatorships Have Weaknesses
- Exercising Power
- The Need for Strategic Planning
- Planning Strategy
- Applying Political Defiance
- Disintegrating the Dictatorship
- Groundwork for Durable Democracy
At the core of Sharp’s work is a recognition that the work of dismantling a dictatorship is inherently dangerous. It’s easy to ask why dictatorships last for decades at a time, for example, from outside the dictatorship; but the lived experience of the citizens is that they are often wholly captive to the lived realities of surveillance, midnight knocks at the door by security forces, and radical damage to the institutions and social norms of government. Many totalitarian states are run under the surface of institutional and constitutional realities that create the illusion of normalcy, while the general state of affairs is in fact quite dangerous.
Moreover, negotiation with a dictator creates the illusion of legitimacy — for an opposition movement to negotiate with an authoritarian leader and his supporters, there is usually an intention to negotiate in good faith; but dictators want their authority to be recognized as legitimate, and will change the negotiations’ objectives or cut off the negotiations once their legitimacy is recognized. Negotiation carries the risk of giving the dictatorship greater legitimacy. At the same time, refusal to negotiate can result in the opposition being labeled a terrorist movement, forced into imprisonment, exile or worse.
Defiance thus comes in many forms, and some are more effective than others. Yet Sharp argues for an overall, defining strategy — the establishment of both principles and goals, and the defining of limitations and boundaries for negotiation with and submission to the totalitarian state’s official apparatus. He argues (effectively, I think) that the opposition must be transparent about what these goals and principles are. On the one hand, these goals and principles are then subject to attack by the forces of the dictatorship; on the other hand, the opposition is then giving notice to the wider society of what their aims are, and providing opportunities for the citizenry to recognize where their own political, economic and social interest lies. It also means that the opposition movement is capable of defining its means, and recognizing acceptable solutions when they appear — as well as identifying agents provacateur when they appear, since they will appear.
One of the key elements of the book is the recognition that every dictatorship has weaknesses. Some will have the absolute loyalty of the security services. Some will have the loyalty of the spy network, the intelligence systems. Others will have the loyalty of the military, or a political party. Yet few dictators command the loyalty of all the branches of their nation’s government; and fewer still command the loyalty of the entire citizenry. The exercise of power within a dictatorship requires negotiation and compromise, and Gene Sharp identifies seventeen different points of weakness within a dictatorial command structure which can be identified and exploited by an opposition, not least of which is that the value of the nation’s traditional symbolism may be separated from the dictatorship’s use of those symbols; and that sectors of the military and paramilitary agencies of the government often have objectives that can be at odds with the dictatorship’s particular focuses and blind spots.
At the same time, Sharp notes that any opposition movement must have clarity about the nature of its opposition. A palace coup, which replaces one dictatorial dynasty or command structure with another, such as the replacement of a civilian ruler with a military one, or the replacement of one tribe or social group with another, is not a democracy. Nor is it a democracy when all the leaders of the opposition simply establish themselves in the same positions occupied by the dictator’s henchmen. Irresponsible success is not the same thing as responsible success; and a successful opposition has to be careful not to fall into the same mindset as the dictatorship it replaces.
Overall, Gene Sharp’s book is the best thing I’ve ever read on the subject of regime change. I’m able to see a number of elements from the ‘color revolutions’ and the ‘Arab spring’ of the last dozen years, as various societies have tried to make the transition from dictatorship to democracy. I can also see the failures of such efforts, and the pitfalls that were not avoided as Gene recommended. But Sharp, who wrote this book at the request of a prominent Burmese exile for the resistance movement in Burma, notes again and again that this is by no means an easy row to hoe — overall, though, he emphasizes the importance of local and transparent decision-making, the recognition of a dictatorship’s weaknesses and strengths, and the points of transformation. Reading it has helped me understand international news and history more effectively, and I look forward to reading other books and pamphlets by this author.