The principle is simple. Dictators require the assistance of the people they rule, without which they cannot secure and maintain their sources of political power.
All of these sources, however, depend on the acceptance of the regime, on the submission and obedience of the population, and on the cooperation of innumerable people and the many institutions of the society. These are not guaranteed.
From Dictatorship to Democracy, p. 18-19
Such is the thesis of Gene Sharp, the preeminent scholar of non-violent forms of struggle. While he’s created several exhaustive volumes analyzing case studies and going into the theory of violence versus non-violence in creating social and political change, his most well-known work is a 93-page pamphlet. From Dictatorship to Democracy was published in 1993 on the request of Karen rebels in Burma. When Sharp visited them, he saw a group who had tried violence to liberate their people, but had failed. They wanted to try new tactics, but did not have a guide to doing so.
The work is a generic strategy to overthrowing dictatorships, and includes a list of 198 forms of non-violent action. In the twenty years since, it has been translated into 31 additional languages, and has seen use by activists on every continent except Antarctica.
This post is not here to glamorize Sharp- who this year, for the third time, has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. But rather, it’s to delve a bit into what his statement means. About the nature of power.
There is an idea of fighting strength with strength- if you want to defeat a dictatorial regime, you need as many people, dollars, soldiers. Sharp is emphasizing that there is within a state only one source of power and strength. It flows between people, civil society, governments, and the military. But power is not an island, and authority depends on people accepting its legitimacy.
Even in the face of a terrible regime like the SED in East Germany, governments cannot intimidate a group of people who united and decide to put their fear aside. The feeling of fear is a source of control by authoritarian groups- and when fear fails to keep people in line the regime is thrown into crisis. The Peaceful Revolution, a movement that is virtually ignored in American history courses, is an example. The sheer volume of people in open defiance paralyzed the regime, and led to police and the army not using force against the protestors (who peaked at 500,000 in East Berlin alone). The dreaded Stasi attempted to provoke a violent activist response, but were unsuccessful. A commitment to non-violent ideals kept the Peaceful Revolution from being a violent massacre. While the Eastern Bloc was crumbling, the fall of the Berlin Wall did not spontaneously happen. It was created by a population that had castrated the Communist leadership. And they had done so without guns. It was psychological and social. Fear flowed from people back to the government.
When you look at revolutions that have produced long-lasting democratic states, straight-up violent takeover is not a common feature. The changes in Poland were preceded by years of action by Solidarity. The Gdańsk strikes led to a legal, independent trade union, that at its peak included 1/3 of the working population (for reference, that would be a union with 80,000,000 members in the US, about seven times that of the AFL-CIO). Non-violent action had created civil society where none had existed before. And over time, it led to a democratic Poland. Violent opposition legitimates violence. It splits social and political groups, and clouds the situation for outside groups who don’t want to support what is simply a different evil.
Watching the stalemate and bloodshed in Syria, and the second, worrying military coup play out in Egypt (and the deeply fragmented post-Gaddafi Libya) the need for strong non-violent tactics and the creation of a civilian and democratic power base becomes clear. It’s not easy, and it certainly isn’t always intuitive, but the more you study the issue the more benefits pop up.
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