How to Start a Revolution: documentary gives too much credit to DIY revolution manual

Ruaridh Arrow, “How to Start a Revolution” (2011)

Here’s an interesting one-hour documentary about Gene Sharp, a modest political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose writings have influenced liberation movements around the globe for nearly 20 years. With a mix of voice-over narration, newsreels and interviews with Sharp and his trusty side-kick Jamila Raqib, who is as much the daughter he needs as assistant, at their modest non-profit Albert Einstein Institute offices, Arrow’s “How to Start a Revolution” shows the methodology Sharp developed to guide wannabe DIY revolutionaries in undermining repressive governments with the aim of winning over police and armed forces to their side. The methodology emphasises a non-violent approach to revolution by encouraging wannabe DIY revolutionaries to study the systems and institutions that underpin their repressive governments’ grip over the general population, and to see how they can undermine public support for those systems and institutions. The armed forces and police in particular are targeted as institutions that revolutionaries should try to win over to their side. A key theme that underlines Sharp’s methodology, detailed in works like “From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation” which can be downloaded, is that governments, whatever their ideology or structure, only have as much power as the general public is willing to surrender to them and that if subject populations refuse to obey their rulers, those rulers lose power and can be toppled.

The structure of the film follows to some extent the structure of “From Dictatorship to Democracy …” and is also chronological, crossing various continents as it progresses from the past (some time in the late 1980s) to the present day. Revolutionaries and would-be revolutionaries in Serbia, Ukraine, Egypt and Syria plus a grizzled Vietnam war veteran are interviewed and failed uprisings such as the Tiananmen Square student protest in China, 1989, and the one that followed the Iranian presidential elections in 2009 are covered. Triumphal and overwrought musical melodrama accompanies sections of the documentary in a way that suggests Sharp’s path to liberation and freedom is more or less the right path. Reactions of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the Iranian government, the latter in a computer-animated propaganda film clip, suggest that repressive governments are wary of his influence.

Would that I could be so sanguine about Sharp’s influence and value to the world! – but my feeling throughout this doco is that Arrow gives Sharp and his work more credit than they deserve. If it were true that using a non-violent approach to insurrection gets results nearly 100% of the time, then Tibet would be an independent state by now; instead that region continues to be undermined itself by Chinese industrial development with an accompanying influx of Han Chinese settlers into Lhasa and other urban centres there. The Dalai Lama himself has given up hope that Tibet will achieve independence and seeks accommodation with the Beijing government. One problem I have with the idea of trying to win over the armed forces to one’s side, however noble that is, is that such institutions may have their own agenda which they may try to impose on revolutionaries, forcing them into compromises they cannot later amend or break. Certainly in some horrible countries where religion, particularly Roman Catholicism, is banned or severely circumscribed, the Roman Catholic Church may be a willing partner and sponsor of revolution but would you really want it on your side after the despots are overthrown and you need to hammer out a constitution enshrining religious freedoms, the separation of religion and politics, and equal rights for women, homosexuals and religious minorities?

In addition, how do we define a repressive or tyrannical government? Revolutionaries are often drawn from a comfortable middle-class layer in society and if a government follows policies and spends its money in a way that privileges the lower-class majority while leaving the upper-class minority feeling badly treated in certain areas such as freedom to travel anywhere it likes or free university education at the expense of general and technical education for the majority, can it then be said that such a government is “tyrannical”? The government appears tyrannical to the wannabe rebels but not so for most people who often have a “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know” attitude towards politics. Indeed a big part of why the rebels failed in Iran in 2009 is that the general Iranian population actually preferred incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: a pre-election poll by the Washington Post newspaper done across Iran three weeks before the election indicated that Ahmadinejad had two-thirds of the voters’ support. There may have been some fraud in districts where officials believed he might lose support but generally Ahmadinejad, who is a savvy politician who campaigned widely and tirelessly during election period (while Moussavi barely ventured outside the cities), won the vote fair and square. 

Repressive governments themselves (especially if they are staffed by people with technical, scientific and engineering qualifications) can often be very sophisticated, progressive and forward-thinking, and achieve results that benefit people materially. Countries like South Korea, Taiwan and Japan might not be the technological powerhouses they are without leaders like Park Chunghee (Sth Korea) and the Guomindang (Taiwan) who often ruled with an iron fist but spent money on planned industrial development, education and necessary infrastructure. True, farmers were often thrown off their lands and forced to go into cities to work in factories in dreadful conditions for measly pay, and the countries may still have massive social problems arising from the dislocations caused by rapid development; but would many Koreans, Taiwanese and others in east and southeast Asia want to go back to the pre-industrial days of poverty and colonial domination? Likewise, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin is reviled by the West, rightly for his purges of the intelligentsia and armed forces, and for deportations of ethnic groups like the Chechens and Ingush to Kazakhstan that amount to genocide, but most Russians have been and still are happy with what they believe he did for the Soviet Union from the 1920s until his death in 1953. It is significant that China has studied the example of its near neighbours and is emulating them diligently. 

Ultimately the contention that a government’s source of power is the loyalty and support that its citizens give it could well be the Sharp methodology’s weak point. How can revolutionaries undermine the public’s support for a repressive government and win people over to their side if such a government pursues policies that provide material benefits and establish structures of a welfare state? Over time the people’s loyalty and obedience to their government become so strong that it can relax its grip and assume the guise of a benevolent “soft authoritarian” nanny state that knows what’s best for its citizens and invests in their future with appropriate policies and actions that press all the right warm buttons from a social / economic / environmental / technological point of view. This is the kind of state that exists in Japan and many other Asian countries; such countries stay more or less successful or at least acceptable to their publics until a major disaster like the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown of March 2011 occurs. Until October 2011, Libya also followed a similar state model under Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. If people are unhappy about living in such a country because of restrictions on their freedoms, the country can simply relax its emigration rules and encourage such people to leave.

I have a sneaking feeling that Sharp missed out on infiltration, an art form that the FBI, CIA and the British government’s MI5 and MI6 are very good at. How might revolutionaries know whether one of their number is actually working for the enemy? Might not the enemy itself use Sharp’s methodology to undermine the revolutionaries? Additionally foreign governments and intelligence agencies like the CIA can co-opt Sharp’s tactics for their own use against a country whose leader they don’t like. They can and will manipulate earnest young idealists through social media networks like Facebook and Twitter and feed them information that’s not in the idealists’ interests. Above all, how effective would Sharp’s methods of running revolutions be against a government that is backed by US, NATO or other major power with the weapons and firepower to steamroll totally any opposition to their pet dictators?

In short, aspiring revolutionaries should not have any faith in Sharp’s document and the people promoting it but must develop their own methods and strategies for achieving the overthrow of hated governments, else they will find themselves unwitting shock troops for a new tyranny backed by their country’s enemies. Indeed, the fact that Gene Sharp’s document and/or the tools and methods it espouses are used by the West and the “rebels” and “revolutionaries” it sponsors across many countries to try to overthrow governments, irrespective of local conditions, is an indication that a one-size-fits-all style of DIY revolution and the concept itself are empty and best forgotten. 

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