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Bookish with Bodie

author: bodie robinson a&c writer

Books, books, and more books. Credit: Ella Mikkola

Freedom Ain’t Free: From Dictatorship to Democracy

This week, I read a book written by a man who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize four times. The author, Gene Sharp, is a retired political science professor who has spent nearly forty years researching totalitarian societies: their inceptions, their rises to power, their methods of control, and their downfalls. Sharp is the founder of the Albert Einstein Institution, where he has been writing about nonviolent resistance to totalitarian regimes throughout his long career as an activist and political scientist. As you’ve probably already guessed, Sharp is a pacifist. Unsurprisingly, he cites Gandhi as one of his main influences.

The book, From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation (1994), is meant to be a generic handbook for nonviolent resistance against dictatorships. The book was penned by Sharp at the behest of a Burmese activist named Tin Maung Win, who resisted the military dictatorship in that country and fought for the installment of democratic elections. Since its publication it has been translated into over thirty languages. The book has been smuggled into many countries with dictatorial governments, and many people have been imprisoned merely for owning a copy of it. Many activists involved with the Arab Spring have openly stated that Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy (FDTD) was largely influential on their political awakening and praxis. For these reasons, among many others, Sharp has been called the “Machiavelli of nonviolence.” No doubt, his book has proven itself to be profoundly influential the world over among oppressed peoples still living with the suffocating effects of dictatorial governments. But why, then, was I so disappointed by it?

Maybe I felt underwhelmed by Sharp’s book because I have never been in a position to properly appreciate its rebellious contents. I am among the top five percent of the global population in terms of wealth and civil freedoms. I can say and do just about anything I want and feel little fear that my government will harass, intimidate, or imprison me. So, no doubt, it is an alien concept to me that some people in the world are so afraid of their governments that they can’t even speak ill of them to their parents, siblings, or lovers. I only know that kind of paranoia and repression through books, movies, plays, etc. For me, the Orwellian nightmare is safely enclosed between the covers of my copy of 1984. But for some people in the world, the Orwellian nightmare is a reality—a nightmare from which they cannot awake.

I will admit that my disappointment with the book, in part, is due to my position of privilege. When Sharp writes about strategies for negotiating with dictators, formulating a “grand strategy” for pursuing different and pertinent methods of nonviolent resistance, or identifying the “Achilles’ heel of a dictator,” I cannot relate. Thankfully, these concepts are foreign to me because I have never needed them.

On the other hand, I didn’t find any blatant incongruities or errors in Sharp’s nonviolent program either. He has been researching and writing on this topic for over forty years, so of course his analysis and strategies are thorough, clear, and sound. At times the text seemed too vague and generic. But Sharp explicitly states at the beginning of the book that it is meant to be generic. Firstly, because it would be impossible to specifically address every totalitarian state in the world and explicate some nonviolent strategy on how to topple their respective tyrants. Secondly, because the book is meant to be a general “framework” for nonviolent resistance. In this way, the book becomes more useful because it can be applied to various forms of dictatorships. There are as many nonviolent methods of resistance as there are dictators.

Clearly, Sharp is not naive in the same way most other pacifists are. Sharp understands that nonviolent resistance is more complex than marching in the streets armed with picket signs, slogans, and vague demands. Sharp knows that even with a nonviolent political program, there is no doubt that many resisters will still die as they engage in political defiance. My issue with Sharp’s book, then, is not in the analysis or conclusion. My issue with FDTD is the foundation it rests upon: namely, pacifism as a belief and a strategy in itself. My problem with Sharp is not that he is too naive. My problem with Sharp is that he is too religious.

We all know that adage: “the ends don’t justify means.” It is a central rallying cry for pacifism as an ideology. But when we analyze this platitude for any length of time, we see that it rests on a metaphysical assertion. That is, that there is some kind of spiritual force in the universe, perhaps some kind of deity, that records how people act. Take it a bit further: the assertion is that if you achieve some kind of feat (e.g., political stability and freedom) but you arrived there through some “nefarious” method (i.e., violence), then that political stability is not morally justified and probably won’t last for very long. Why? Well, because karma. Because, for some reason unknowable to human understanding, the ends just can’t justify the means. Let me put it bluntly, then: this idea, that political ends can only be justifiably achieved through nonviolent methods, is nothing more than spiritual woo-woo.

Moreover, nobody actually believes in pacifism without reservation. There are few exceptions, like with religious neurotics such as Leo Tolstoy or Mohandas Gandhi. But these cases are rare and extreme, and their pacifism is more indicative of a mental pathology than it is a political program. As I said earlier, I am among the top five percent of the global population with regard to wealth and political freedoms. This position of privilege I enjoy was not achieved through nonviolent strategies—far from it. But should you or I try to destroy this society we live in because the means our forefathers used weren’t pacifist enough? I didn’t think so.

My problem with Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy is that it rules out violence as a political tool on principle. The analysis he builds from this principle is sound, however, and I can’t find any problem in it. The fundamental assumption of this book is that pacifism can be used to topple dictators. But my question is: Should pacifism be used in toppling dictators? Well, the answer should depend on the conditions and circumstances within a certain country, not on the spiritual principle of pacifism. It seems to me perfectly reasonable that instead of relying on the metaphysics of pacifist ideology, revolutionaries should instead rely on the most practical and efficient methods of achieving their political ends. Pacifism is theoretically pleasing, but it is not always practical nor the most effective method against dictators. FDTD’s Achilles’ heel, therefore, is Sharp’s own moral infatuation with nonviolence onto, which detracts from the supposed level-headedness and pragmatism that the text claims to have.

About Danielle Corson