Last fall, I took part in many Occupy protests. I spoke to college classes about income inequality, marched with 20,000 others in Oakland- the first general strike in America in sixty-five years. I also saw people become confused and frustrated. There were attempts at organization and strategy, but doing so after the fact was difficult. There was a dreadful inefficiency in how the anger and willpower of occupiers was used.
There had to be a better way to create a better society. Throwing rocks at cops and complaining at general assembles has no beneficial end result.
Recently, I got a package in the mail. It contained a pamphlet that I read online a few months ago- one that is not famous like Common Sense by Thomas Paine, but in the modern world is deeply relevant and useful. It is, simply, a road to revolution.
From Dictatorship to Democracy is the distilled wisdom of Gene Sharp, an 84-year old academic who lives in East Boston. His life has been quiet- he has written no best-selling books, held no prestigious professorships. However, he is the world's leading expert on nonviolent struggle. He believes that ideas and willpower are more powerful than guns. Through case studies, one learns that even in the face of the worst evil, nonviolence had been used and been used effectively. Fear is what keeps people in line, supporting their autocrats. But if you remove your support, your obedience, then dictatorships crumble before your eyes. Nonviolent struggle is a way to empower people, and give them a way forward, past fear.
His organization, the Albert Einstein Institution, consists of him and two other people. Its headquarters is the house where Sharp also lives. Sharp began correspondence with Einstein during his trial for refusing to serve in Korea, and subsequent imprisonment for ten months. His first book has a foreword written by Einstein, shortly before his death in 1955.
Decades of research has developed into a system that has more to do with military strategy than pacifism. It emphasizes that small-scale tactics must fit together with a larger grand strategy. One of Sharp's champions is Col. Robert Helvey, a U.S Marine who served in Vietnam. He understands that nonviolent struggle is every bit as serious as armed insurrection. Nonviolence involves taking the initiative, putting your opponent on the defensive, and using your willpower and resources in a precise and strategic manner. It is a military
Helvey convinced Sharp to come to Burma, where Helvey had previously been a US military attache. From Dictatorship to Democracy was a result of these meetings with pro-democracy groups. A large portion of Burmese dissidents wanted to end their violent struggle against the Burmese junta, but did not know of an alternative way to liberation. The 93 page pamphlet is exactly that- an alternative way to achieve freedom and end tyranny. The work is in such demand that it is now in thirty languages.
The student-led organization Otpor, who contributed to the overthrew Slobodon Milosevic, received advice from Sharp and used his writings to create an effective plan (Bringing Down a Dictator is a documentary about the Serbian revolution). Techniques like common colors (black in Serbia, orange in the Ukraine, rose in Georgia), general strikes, and signs written in English are all part of Sharp's 198 Means of Nonviolent Action. Otpor now outsources what they learned to other countries. They had contact with those that helped plan the uprising in Egypt, and a decade ago helped start the 'color revolution' phenomenon in Central Asia. Sharp does not make direct contact with most of the people that read his work- he lets his work spread as people see fit. His works, and their translations, are available free on download (From Dicatorship to Democracy, the shorter There Are Realistic Alternatives) (both PDFs). If you want to order copies like I did, they mail them to you, and you pay when or if you are able to.
I bring all this up because it is easy to become frustrated. The country you live in has so many problems, and progress seems stalled or moving backwards. However, there is a way to change things- whether it's workers securing better conditions, opposing an ill-conceived war, or working to undermine corporate oligarchy. Giving up is a disservice to both yourself and those around you- amazing things have been achieved through peaceful struggle.
The most dominant surveillance society in human history was East Germany. In 1988 it had total control under an iron-fisted Communist dictatorship. In 1990 it was gone. People learned that the only thing separating them and freedom was fear. And people have a knack for leaving fear behind, and walking into a better tomorrow.