Velvet Revolution: An interview with Gene Sharp

30 May 2005
Laura Secor has an interview in the Boston Globe Ideas section with Gene Sharp, the author of a pamphlet, From Dictatorship to Democracy, that has been used by pro democracy groups from Serbia to Ukraine, to learn the strategy and techniques for non violent toppling of dictatorships. Sharp's ideas are often misunderstood as being inspired from a pacifist sensibility, but what the nonviolent revolution strategy is really about is something else: it works and has been proven effective when more belligerent techniques have demonstrated worse outcomes. Here are some excerpts from the interview:

...IDEAS: In your book there is a chapter on something you call political jujitsu, in which a regime uses violence against nonviolent resistance, and this backfires, creating deeper and more widespread defiance.

SHARP: When I was starting out this study the belief was, oh, this is fine for the Indians, they're all Hindus, they all believe in reincarnation so it doesn't make any difference if they get killed. Literally! But if you look at the Russian 1905 revolution, it's the same thing.

Political jujitsu will not work if the people get scared, if they don't know what to do, or if they don't understand that it's necessary to hold their ground and risk some danger. Guerilla warfare has huge civilian casualty rates. Huge. And yet Che Guevara didn't abandon guerilla warfare because people were getting killed. The same is true in conventional war, of course. But then they say if you get killed in nonviolent struggle, then nonviolent struggle has failed. Some people don't understand what they're doing and they say oh, we have to go over to violence.

IDEAS: Of course, nonviolent movements don't necessarily produce democracies. The Iranian revolution of 1979 was by and large nonviolent.

SHARP: Yes, but they didn't plan for the transition, and so various people who had their own ideas of what the new regime should be took over. Now we have this other booklet on the anti-coup, or how to block seizures of power and executive usurpations. That time after a successful nonviolent struggle is very dangerous.

Our work has had major influence in Iran, except that it hasn't got a movement quite succeeding yet. ''From Dictatorship to Democracy" is in Farsi on our website. The translation was all done inside Iran. That's dangerous, and people were gutsy enough to do it. But the booklet has been declared illegal to circulate in Iran. Still, the knowledge is there, and it fits into Persian history, like in the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 and then more recently in the struggle against the shah.

Worth reading. More background here, here, and here.
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