Protest and non-violent action

A reading of From Dictatorship to Democracy by Gene Sharp 

The series 'protest and...' is a series of readings of articles, essays and books that elaborate on a form of protest.

   From Dictatorship to Democracy is a manual. A manual that at first glance does not seem to be made for us, 'democratic peoples'. It is a manual in which Gene Sharp, its author, after years of research into the rise and especially the fall of dictatorial regimes has composed the key interventions that caused the fall of their respective dictator. Yet, this manual is for a wider public than just the ones struggling against dictatorial regimes because a lot of problems people in non-dictatorial regimes encounter are very similar to how a dictator reigns: they are rigid, secure in place, and most importantly: they do not plan to change nor leave.

            When reading this book, one shall quickly encounter and reencounter a very important concept, the concept of ‘non-violent struggle’. This concept is key in this book, for what Sharp will argue, is that violence is nearly never effective for countering a regime that has the monopoly on violence and that has the means to execute it too. Therefore Sharp tries to educate his readers into strategists that are able to find 'smart' solutions for the problem they are facing. Sharp is a political philosopher and the founder of the Albert Einstein Institute, which researches and promotes non-violent action. Sharp has published numerously on non-violent struggle.

            In this essay, I will chronologically walk through From Dictatorship to Democracy and explain Sharp’s ideas.


The first steps:

In this book, Sharp offers a chronological and practical approach to replace dictatorship with democracy. The first and foremost thing to say is that the term dictatorship can be replaced by any hegemonic, rigid and power-backed problem. With democracy Sharp implies not just a governmental system but any grass-root, or people-based opposition to the hegemonic problem. This implies the first and most important notion: the problem is not going to resolve itself. Negotiation does not work[1]: hegemony does not imply an emphatic, self-solving problem. Besides, systems in power have as one of their sole goals to maintain their own position. Action therefore has to be undertaken. Action that subverts or intervenes on the problematic system (read dictator) that causes the issues at hand.

            Knowing what to do is often just as important as knowing what not to do: for sometimes, doing the thing that seems right, may lead to the opposite effect then that what was aimed for. Therefore, the significant first part of the book is focussed on the usual approaches of facing a hegemonic problem, which according to Sharp do not work. The first strategic element to be evaluated according to Sharp is therefore: what problem are we facing, and what is it better at than we are? Problems that are related to state power, are often problems that are backed by a lot of power. Not just physical power (police), but also the power of tradition, which might be as hard to subvert as real physical power. Aristotle did not without reason say that just like how ravines are carved out by ages of wear and tear by water, it becomes harder and harder to redirect the river. Tradition is water carved through rock and stone, leaving as sometimes very deep ravin behind. Yet, harsh violence, as you would use dynamite to redirect the river, is not in any way helpfull. Sharp argues that “placing confidence in violence means, one has chosen the very type of struggle with which the oppressors nearly always have superiority”.[2] If the oppressor wouldn’t have a monopoly on violence, it nearly never was an oppressor, for the simple reason that violence has just one goal: to suppress. Riots and any other form of physical violence, are thus an already excluded tactics.[3] Just as Sun Tzu said "the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting", Sharp will argue throughout this book that violence is not the method to win.

  Would the opposition have a monopoly on violence, such as by the use of a military coup, it has a strong chance of becoming the new oppressor after overthrowing the former oppressor.[4] Sharp argues violence almost always corrupts - just like it is said about money. This introduces a reoccurring theme throughout the book: the story of action, struggle and opposition does not end after overthrowing the former oppressor or problem, it merely starts there. When a problem is overcome, a period of uncertainty and instability often follows, which generally offers opportunity for a new rule of oppression to seize power. This is also why Sharp says foreign saviours are not favourable.[5] They often have their own agenda in assisting the opposition. Replacing an oppressive regime, only really works when it is done by the ones oppressed, by the motives of the oppressed. Aside, foreign powers do not share the sense of necessity the people in oppression do. According to Sharp, this ‘sphere’ of wanting change, is one of the most important powers the opposition has. Consequentially, in the period after seizing power, structural changes have to be made; governments have to be formed; laws have to be written. In a debunked state, this process can take a very long while.

            The thing Sharp tries to tell us through this chapter is that the bare truth is that if we want something to change, we have to do it ourselves, and there is no easy way of doing it. Sharp warns his readers for the fact that (non-violent) struggle is never without casualties. Besides, choosing a non-violent struggle, does not mean other people will respect that. It is very assumable that ones in power will still use violence, though they might think twice about it - especially with international media watching. This means that when opposing a hegemonic problem, one will encounter very strong repulsions and setbacks. After learning that it does not work to fight the problem with the same means as the problem itself, and that no outside saviour will genuinely resolve the problem, the opposition has to become David, and find Goliaths weakness. The rest of the book is essentially about this process.


Becoming David & finding Goliath’s weakness.

We thus know that David is weaker than Goliath, and that there’s no external element that will fight David’s battle. He has to do it himself. A first advantage David has, is that he is quick and flexible (guerilla-like), instead of the big Goliath who’s restricted to bureaucracy. (An often made misconception is that dictators rule completely on their own. They also depend on a number, though a small number, of people, resources and public backers such as institutions.) David therefore has to be strategic: he will have to organise, plan and “above all, [it] will require power”.[6] What kind of power will this be? Sharp illustrates this with the powerful metaphor of the “Monkey Master”[7].

“In the feudal state of Chu an old man survived by keeping monkeys in his service. The people of Chu called him ‘ju gong’ (monkey master). 

Each morning, the old man would assemble the monkeys in his courtyard, and order the eldest one to lead the others to the mountains to gather fruits from bushes and trees. It was the rule that each monkey had to give one-tenth of his collection to the old man. Those who failed to do so would be ruthlessly flogged. All the monkers suffered bitterly, but dared not complain.

One day, a small monkey asked the old mokeys: ‘Did the old man plant all the fruit trees and bushes?’ The others said: ‘No, they grew naturally.’ The small monkey further asked: ‘Can’t we take the fruits without the old man’s permission?’ The Others replied: ‘Yes, we all can.’ The small monkey continued: ‘Then, why should we depend on the old man; why must we all serve him?’[…]”[8] 

   Before soon the monkeys had destroyed the barricades that confined them, went to the woods and never returned. Of course, the moral of this story is that one does not rely on the problem that is faced, that oppresses, to be able to live – it only threatens life. It also says, 'it is always possible'. The first step in removing a problem is thus to stop supporting it: to take away is legitimacy, and therefore take away it's power. It is not the problem that keeps itself in place, but the people.[9] Sharp refers to Machiavelli, who said: “who has the public as a whole for his enemy…and the greater his cruelty, the weaker does his regime become.”[10] A regime that has widespread support, does not have to rely on suppression – violence therefore is a sign of weakness. Everything that has to be kept in restraints, has to be kept in restraints because it wants to break free.

            Exactly at this intersection of interest, is where opposition starts. Important is that the problem has a certain urgency, and that people recognise that it is urgent. If a problem does not have this widely supported urgency, the struggle may become very hard.[11] Support can be that of the people, institutions and foreign powers, in many different forms such as coverage and civil disobedience. Great support does also increase much needed resources to support and maintain an oppositional struggle. People not only will be open to sacrifice some of their comforts (resources, food), but will also invest time.

   We thus know that the first step in countering Goliath – the hegemonic problem – is to take away his strengt which he finds in support of many different kinds. This will make him start crumbling on his own weight. The next step is to locate what makes the problem a problem, for there one often also finds its solution. According to Sharp there are many solutions to problems, but all of those are essentially contingent to the problem, meaning that every problem has its own solution - there is no confined way of dealing with it. Finding a solution to a problem, takes a lot of deductive action, which means that through different practices one has to trace back the lines that have lead to a problem. For example, has a dictatorial regime been caused by illegitimate elections, it will need other questions to be asked than when it has been caused by foreign invasions. If you "know your enemy and yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles" Sun Tzu the famous Chinese general argued already more than 500 years before day-count. Finding the cause of the problem and a probable solution to a problem are important for two motives. The first we expressed in this paragraph: to be able to make resistance and opposition a widely supported necessity. Secondly, to be able to attack the problem at its weakest point. 


Disarming Goliath:

According to Sharp, as we have put out above already, there are many different ways of dealing with a problem. A single thing all of those ways need, is that they are non-violent. Non-violent struggle can be employed for a variety of purposes. Although violence and non-violent struggle are means to wage struggle, they do so with very different means. Instead of violence non-violent struggle operates on the level of psychological, artistic, social, economic and political weapons.[12] An image can often be way more powerful than an attack, for it motivates people and causes momentum under a common denominator. Underneath I will set out a few of Sharps' advices to execute non-violent struggles.

            Sharp identified more than two hundred different methods of non-violent struggle, which are classified under three categories: 1. Protest and persuasion. 2. Non-cooperation and 3. Interventions.[13] All are typified by the fact that they can be applied very specific and localised, meaning that how they exactly look is contingent to the problem that’s being faced. Protest and persuasion are important for visualising the problem, and therefore to generate consciousness and support about the problem at hand. Protest is an important step because it takes away fear: the fear to face Goliath. Fear is one of the most important factors to overcome in the process of non-violent struggle.[14] Yet, protest is a reactive measure. Protest thus often is seen as a first step in non-violent struggle: to make known that there is a public problem, and to pin-point it. Non-cooperation, the second category, is the act of saying ‘no, we are not going to do this anymore’. This takes away legitimacy of the problem that’s being faced. This causes Goliath to lose strengt in his powerful legs. This could range from boycotts, non-obedience to legislature or policies and obstruction of the infrastructure of the problem – such as blocking government officials from entering parliament. This is still a reactive method, it mostly responds to the effects of the problem then charging its cause. Therefore, the third, interventions, are the most effective. Yet, interventions do rely on the work that has been done through the first and second category. The third category, interventions, are proactive methods of taking ‘power’ into one’s own hands. They are a sign that the initial fear is overcome. Interventions are an evolution of non-cooperation, for what is denied to cooperate in, will through interventions be taken into one’s own account. Examples are interventions, obstructions, establishment of new social patters, creating one’s own parliament and so on.[15] Interventions are thus about taking control.

            One may have noticed, that all these methods within the different categories are very visible. One who applies these methods shows her or himself to the problem. Sharp argues that this is important because “secrecy is not only rooted in fear but contributes to fear”.[16] This does not imply radical openness, because for strategic plans and tactics its often important that they are not publically know. But when these plans are executed, visibility, will contribute, at least psychologically and socially, to countering the hegemonic problem. It generates support, both within the community as internationally.[17]


David, plan your attack on Goliath!

Planning is key in countering the problem. Especially when the problem is more powerful than the opposition to the problem. Regardless of the positive sides of spontaneity, change nearly never occurs without a plan according to Sharp. Even more importantly, is realistic planning. The plan has to be doable, it has to correspond to the situation as it is and it should not idealise. This does not mean long-term plans (and dreams) are out of place: non-violent struggle, according to Sharp, may take a very long time. He therefore introduces four important concepts in planning.

   The first is the grand strategy, which is the long-term goal that is to be reached.[18] All other concepts rely on and are measured to the grand strategy, which is as a point on the horizon to which to aim. The grand strategy does not imply explicit actions, though it does imply all strengths, chances for the opposition but also all issues and possible setbacks it faces. The grand strategy, you could say, is the 'face' of the opposition. Its public goals. The second is strategy, which is “the conception of how to best achieve particular objectives […] within the scope of the chosen grand strategy”.[19] Strategy is concerned with one specific objective of the grand strategies – with one specific battleground so to say. It thus is about whether, what, when and how to fight a specific battle. Grand strategy “has been compared with the artist’s concept, while a strategic plan is the architect’s blueprint”.[20] The objective is to start with the grand strategy, and end with a strategic plan. Strategic plans, because of this reason should remain secret as long as possible; they reveal how the problem is to be acted upon. "All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved" Sun Tzu said, which brings us to tactics. Tactics “relates to the skilful use of one’s forces to the best advantage in a limited situation”[21]. A chess champion, Max Euwe once said that "Strategy requires thought, tactics require observation." Tactics, so to say, relates to the explicit coordination of the battlefield itself; and the overview one has over the battlefield. It is thus linked to a limited course of action, and this can be understood as a part of the strategy and are often linked to a specific geographical location.[22] Method, means the specific technique or means of action that are executed ore used within tactics. These are, so to say, the weapons that will be used and the specific organised actions that will be undertaken. These tactics are for example boycotts, protests, non-cooperation and so on.[23]

   Sharp stresses that it is of importance to form a grand strategy and the others accordingly. This gives the opposition control. It makes it possible to deduce, from every step, whether it corresponds with the grand objective at hand and all the problems it faces.


The fall of Goliath

If these strategies, tactics and methods in accordance to the problem are applied well, Goliath will start crumbling under his own weight, because legitimacy and therefore power and authority have been taken in to the oppositions owns account. This takes away every mobility of Goliath. This process can be increased by taking away the human resources, skills and knowledge and material resources that still support the problem[24]. By doing this the opposition takes away the logistics that keep the problem in place and that are used by the problem to execute its power. This taking away might mean that the opposition starts organising aspects that the problem dictates themselves, such as the news, hospitals, social services or even a parallel government.[25]

            This is also the moment the opposition to the hegemonic problem have to start thinking about what will happen after the problem has been dealt with. This ‘interim period’ as Sharp calls it, after the fall of Goliath, is the most important step in really dealing with the problem – for now on the whole situation is the most unstable and therefore most prone to fault, failure, or worse, relapse. It is also at this moment that society can somewhat ‘shut-down’, and massive destabilisation of the social institution of society and its economy might occur. Sharp refers to Aristotle, who said “...tyranny can also change into tyranny…”.[26]  Sharp expresses that also here, the grand strategy is key, for it is the only guidance out of such a situation.[27] Therefore the whole structure that caused the problem and which made it possible has to be dismantled,[28] in order for it to not recur. The only solution to the hegemonic problem, is thus a solution that does not rhyme to the original problem and its causes.


What does this mean to protest?

According to Sharp, protest is the first and one of the most important parts of non-violent struggle. It is the way consciousness is raised about a problem, as a way to make know to the problem, that it is a problem. This is important because the problem has to be deprived of the structures that keep it in place, and all those structures are supported by human beings. Human beings are thus the aim of the category of protest within Sharp’s concept of non-violent struggle. As Sharp made known in his ‘Monkey Master’ metaphor, community and support is the only durable way to solve a problem because it deprives the problem of all its power. It is an act of reclaiming agency. 

Written and published bij Eef Veldkamp, 11-12-2017. Updated on 14-01-2018.

[1] Sharp, Gene. From Dictatorship to Democracy: a conceptual framework for liberation. New York: The Green Press, 2012. 18-19; 23.

[2] Sharp, Gene. From Dictatorship to Democracy: a conceptual framework for liberation. New York: The Green Press, 2012. 6.

[3] Ibid., 44.

[4] Ibid., 8-9.

[5] Ibid., 11-12.

[6] Ibid., 26.

[7] Sharp names the source of this story: “This story, originally titles “Rule by Tricks” is from Yu-li-zi by Liu Ji (1311-1375) and has been translated by Sidney Tali, all rights reserved. Yu-li-zi also the pseudonum of Liu Ji. This translation was originally published in Nonviolent Sanctions: News from the Albert Einstein Institution (Cambridge, Mass.), Vol. IV, No. 3 (Winter 1992-1993), p. 3”. 27-28; 137.

[8] Ibid., 27-28; 137.

[9] Ibid., 30.

[10] Ibid., 32.

[11] Ibid., 29.

[12] Ibid., 45.

[13] Ibid., 46.

[14] Ibid., 50.

[15] In the appendix, one can find a list of methods of nonviolent action. Ibid., 124-135.

[16] Ibid., 51.

[17] Ibid., 53.

[18] Ibid., 67-68.

[19] Ibid., 68.

[20] Ibid., 69.

[21] Ibid., 70.

[22] Ibid., 71.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 105-106.

[25] Ibid., 106-107.

[26] Ibid., 116.

[27] Ibid., 112-113.

[28] Ibid., 116.