on gene sharp’s ‘from dictatorship to democracy’

The common error of past improvised political defiance campaigns is the reliance on only one or two methods, such as strikes and mass demonstrations. In fact, a multitude of methods exist that allow resistance strategists to concentrate and disperse resistance as required.

About two hundred specific methods of nonviolent action have been identified, and there are certainly scores more. These methods are classified under three broad categories: protest and persuasion, noncooperation, and intervention. Methods of nonviolent protest and persuasion are largely symbolic demonstrations, including parades, marches, and vigils (54 methods). Noncooperation is divided into three sub-categories: (a) social noncooperation (16 methods), (b) economic noncooperation, including boycotts (26 methods) and strikes (23 methods), and (c) political noncooperation (38 methods). Nonviolent intervention, by psychological, physical, social, economic, or political means, such as the fast, nonviolent occupation, and parallel government (41 methods), is the final group. A list of 198 of these methods is included as the Appendix to this publication.

Reading Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy is experiencing a distillation of years of wisdom – the potency of this truth is intoxicating. Einstein once said, ‘Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.’ Sharp’s, as he calls it, conceptual framework for liberation is made as simple as simple can be. And yet, he doesn’t underestimate what he is up against. Almost in every other page, he emphasises that revolutions take time, and they cost. Sharp is the Professor Emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and wrote From Dictatorship to Democracy (FDTD) in 1993. It has since been translated into at least 31 languages and is available for free download at (coincidentally) the Albert Einstein Institution.

At just over 90 pages, including appendices, it is a dense but powerful read. The New York Times ran a story giving him credit for the uprisings in the Middle East – calling him the ‘shy intellectual’, the New Yorker  called him the ‘reluctant revolutionary’. The Arabs were plain pissed off (when they got the time to react to the stories!) claiming that ‘the West’ was trying to claim credit for what were people-led revolutions. Apparently, according to the Angry Arab, no one knows who Gene Sharp is.

As for Sharp himself, he says, “The people of Egypt did that—not me.”

I don’t take the anti-West idiom, nor do I praise Sharp. But I am impressed with the elegance of his work. There is no credible way of knowing in first person how many dictatorships/oppressive regimes were toppled by this piece of work. What one can know by reading it is that Sharp has given a lot of thought to making the work accessible and lucid. He has written quite a few books on the politics of nonviolent struggle and Gandhi seems to be a big influence in his writing. Here’s another sample:

The democratic forces should remember that disaffection and disobedience among the military forces and police can be highly dangerous for the members of those groups. Soldiers and police could expect severe penalties for any act of disobedience and execution for acts of mutiny. The democratic forces should not ask the soldiers and officers that they immediately mutiny. Instead, where communication is possible, it should be made clear that there are a multitude of relatively safe forms of ‘disguised disobedience’ that they can take initially. For example, police and troops can carry out instructions for repression inefficiently, fail to locate wanted persons, warn resistors of impending repression, arrests, or deportations, and fail to report important information to their superior officers. Disaffected officers in turn can neglect to relay commands for repression down the chain of command. Soldiers may shoot over the heads of demonstrators. Similarly, for their part, civil servants can lose files and instructions, work inefficiently, and become ‘ill’ so that they need to stay home until they ‘recover.’

Sharp takes all the emotion out of revolutionary writing. That he has never participated in a revolution is a valid criticism, but I think his crisp style owes a lot to his distance from the struggle, his cold analysis of many conflicts. As is often the case, I am too lazy to think of an appropriate way to end this. I’ll just stop.

2 thoughts on “on gene sharp’s ‘from dictatorship to democracy’

  1. Thank you very much for sharing the link, it makes for excellent reading. I do not however buy everything that is said in the write-up. I obviously can't contest the truth of his affiliations and friendships, but I can say a few things: As I understand it, the primary charges the article raises are: he is a capitalist puppet who equates nonviolence with democracy (with little regard to quality of democracy) and violence with communism, and that his ideas are a mere regurgitation of Marxism. Nowhere in the reading of From Dictatorship do I remember him claiming that these ideas were "original". Nonviolence can't be said to be original. It is no one's pet theory and it can't be. Nor can non-cooperation or civil disobedience. As for all the scholarly problems with his work (lack of citations and academic rigour), I can't comment on it since I've not read any of his academic work. But since FDTD is not meant to be academic, I think it pointless to raise such charges against it. Clearly in his writing, he has specified that merely doing away with dictatorships won't do. And he doesn't vouch for the quality of democracy that will follow a downfall of a dictator. He emphasises that there can be excesses in democracies too and one must be careful as to what kind of democracy one encourages. However, you can't blame him for not going into the details of democratic framework. The book isn't about that. As for the "bring democracy because it is good for neo-imperialist business argument", I think that is stretching it. Sharp warns about foreign intervention that is driven by ulterior motives. He warns about foreign powers coming in with subterfuge for resources or land grab or to establish a puppet democracy. I would've attempted a more detailed, better researched critique if I found the arguments in the link you gave me to be compelling, but I don't think they are. They partially quote his work to make him come across as an agent for capitalist interests. All the same, the link is very relevant to this post and interesting to read. Thanks again for sharing it!

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