How to Start a Revolution – the power of nonviolence
After living for nearly seven years in London, for the first time ever I was inside the grandiloquent Houses of Parliament - which I have seen from the outside so many times during my daily cycle commute. The occasion was the presentation of a new documentary entitled: "How to Start a Revolution" by Ruaridh Arrow, with Gene Sharp and Jamila Raquib of the Albert Einstein Institute as guest visitors for the Q&A session. The event was organised by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Conflict Issues. I often get invitations from the Parliamentary Group and don't remember another including the word "revolution" – I guess it's not a word used much in Parliament. This caught my attention, so I opened the email and saw that actually the event sounded quite promising. The fact that Gene Sharp himself was going to be present made me finally decide to attend.
What a place to premier "How to Start a Revolution"! Not only a mythic seat of power, but also the centre of a circle with a radius of 1 km where - under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA) of 2005 - we can commit a "serious crime" if we demonstrate, no matter how peacefully, without prior notification.. In the Houses of Parliament, police carrying machine guns greet you, although on this occasion the officer giving out string for the passes loosened things up nicely by greeting everyone, "are you here for the revolution?" I have to say that the building inside is impressive. In William Morris's utopia "News from Nowhere", they are converted into a secondary market and manure store, but a friend of mine at this premier hoped one day they might serve as a community centre.
The film is about the work and life of Gene Sharp, the 84-year-old scholar who has dedicated his life to the study of nonviolent action. Through speaking with Sharp and interviewing activists influenced by Sharp's ideas, the director tries to explain how is it that people power works. "Revolution" might make a catchier title, but the term people power - coined in the Philippines in 1986 when the people brought down President Marcos - seems more accurate. The documentary focuses on getting rid of a dictator or dictatorship, whereas the idea of a nonviolent revolution is more far-reaching, not just removing an oppressor but transforming the social system and the values on which it is based. During the Q&A session a Ukrainian woman asked Sharp about how to complete a revolution, referring to her disappointment that, in Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" of 2005-2005, a mass movement succeeded in stopping electoral fraud, only for the coalition installed to fall apart in mutual recriminations and charges of corruption. Gene Sharp's response was that getting rid of a dictatorship is step one, which needs to be followed by a movement that deals with the structural oppression in society. Perhaps that suggests a sequel to this film: "How to complete a revolution".
When talking of nonviolent revolution and as a member of War Resisters' International, I'm reminded of the ideas of the Dutch pacifist, Bart de Ligt, who already in 1937 in his book "The Conquest of Violence" said: "For the social revolution means nothing if it is not a battle for humanity against all that is inhuman and unworthy of (hu)man(ity). That is why we have always asserted that the more there is of real revolution, the less there is of violence: the more of violence, the less revolution." (My parentheses.) It seems that more and more groups are opting for nonviolent methods of resistance as they see them being more effective than violence. Does using this method open them to the challenge of constructing a society based in nonviolent principles?
The film describes Sharp's eureka moment which was when he realised that to achieve change and to move "From Dictatorship to Democracy" - the title of his best known booklet – then you need to "identify the source of a government's power, such as legitimacy, popular support, institutional support, then you know what the existence of the dictatorship depends on. And as all those sources of power depend on the cooperation of the people, your work is fairly simple, that you just need to reduce the support, obedience, cooperation of the people to the government and its institutions and the regime will be weakened, and if you take away the sources of power, the regime will fall". This is what in training workshops on nonviolent action we call tackling the pillars of power. This idea was central to Gandhi's strategy, and Sharp's writing about Gandhi shows very clearly how Gandhi tried to teach Indians that they were colonised not because of Britain's strength but because they allowed this to happen. However, Sharp was determined to separate what can be learnt from Gandhi's strategic insights from Gandhi's value system, He has remained a staunch advocate of nonviolence, but as an effective technique to achieve democracy and justice - not as the putting into practice of certain values that might be associated with Gandhi or with pacifism.
The documentary is true to that. It doesn't look at what you and I might do at the beginning, when it seems preposterous that a movement can achieve change. And it doesn't look at the other elements that are necessary if a movement wants to go beyond changing who is in power - at the personal and collective transformation involved in setting forth another vision of the world you want to build, not just using nonviolent methods but constructing a society based on nonviolent principles.
Gene Sharp's legacy is that he has insisted on the political importance and power of the people, especially through nonviolent action. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan's 2011 book "Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict" offers statistical support. Reviewing more than 100 uprisings from the last century, they suggest that campaigns of nonviolent resistance were more than twice as effective as their violent counterparts in achieving their stated goals. Unfortunately, there is little discussion about what movements achieved that might fall short of "winning", what follows from their "success", and about what happens to the principles and social ideas of such movements. April Carter's new book "People Power and Political Change: Key Issues and Concepts" (Routledge 2012) discusses Sharp's work as well as reporting Chenoweth and Stephan's findings. It brilliantly illuminates the complexities of the issues involved in people power and concludes by recognising that movements of popular resistance only ever achieve part of their agenda."Once the formal institutions of national independence and parliament democracy are in place, new questions [arise] about the extent of popular ... control over economic and environmental forces that shape people's lives."
I can't wait for the film: How to Complete a Revolution to come out.
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