From Dictatorship to Democracy by Gene Sharp

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From Dictatorship to Democracy by Gene Sharp

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: Created in response to a request from Burmese dissenters in the early 1990's, but in a generic format applicable to any country, Sharp's original booklet has enjoyed an extraordinary career and been credited with helping non-violent revolutions in numerous countries. Unless you are an activist leader or want to own such an iconic text, you'd be better buying something more comprehensive or more readable, or both.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 160 Date: January 2012
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
ISBN: 978-1846688393

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Gene Sharp is an American politologist and a veritable (and venerable) guru of non-violent struggle. The story behind the From Dictatorship to Democracy is a fascinating one. The book, or a booklet really as it consists of 160 small pages, was apparently created in response to a request from Burmese dissenters in the early 1990's. Sharp responded to this request by producing a generic text, a manual for the subversive that lies out the theory and practical advice for those engaged in a struggle to bring down a dictatorship.

The generic character of Sharp's text resulted in the booklet making its way to numerous other countries. Since its creation From Dictatorship to Democracy has been translated into over thirty languages and has been used by subversives in countries ranging from Serbia (Otpor) to Georgia, Ukraine and Belarus to – more recently – Egypt and other locations of the Arab Spring of 2011.

The book consists, essentially, of two parts: the descriptive section that presents the issues important for those engaged in a non-violent anti-dictatorship struggle and a long but sparse list of specific techniques of waging such a struggle.

I cannot comment on the usefulness of Sharp's title as a genuine manual for bringing down a dictatorship. I am not part of such a struggle, and have never been, although I did know people who were thus engaged and I witnessed first hand a transition of my native country (Poland) from a totalitarian government to an approximately democratic one. Thus, mine is a reading rather than using of From Dictatorship to Democracy.

There are two ways to approach such a reading. One is as a document of a political reality, a window into the workings of revolutions (non-violent ones, obviously) and the minds who wage them. It was interesting for me to compare Sharp's advice with what went on in Poland in the 1980s, though this was probably quite easy as Sharp's text, although extremely general, relates closely to the activities of the anti-communist opposition in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. The other possible reading is as a short – and very practical in the intention - treaty on the non-violent struggle.

The notions of democracy and dictatorship are not straightforward and ostensibly democratic systems might suffer from serious curtailment of liberties. This issue is somewhat passed over by Sharp, and apart from presenting a count of free, partially free and not free countries he devotes very little space to discussing the features of democracies and dictatorships. This is perhaps where the age of the book shows most: although it appears as a book on the wave of interest most likely created by the Arab Spring uprisings, the text we are presented with is around twenty years old and the totalitarian streak that became so apparent since then in even the most democratic governments gets no mention. The few examples relate to the Eastern European changes. The whole text is permeated with an implicit assumption that the 'free' countries will support the efforts to overthrow totalitarian systems in the 'unfree' ones and although the issue of outside help is discussed honestly (with numerous disadvantages as well advantages covered), the possibility of outside hindrance is somewhat glossed over, including the undoubted fact that democratic states might have an interest – and take an active part – in maintaining dictatorships elsewhere.

The most interesting, although by no means taking the most space, is the argument for the non-violent struggle as opposed to the armed struggle. The other chapters, concerned with detailed consideration of various aspects of non-violent struggle, are filled with the information and advice that would undoubtedly be helpful for those actively engaged in or planning such struggle. For a lay reader like your reviewer, however, From Dictatorship to Democracyis rather heavy going while strangely lacking . This is partially due to the generic formula that only rarely refers to any particular examples, and partially to the voice and style of the text. The third-person voice that is standard in academic writing leads to a convoluted, dry and stilted wording. I confess I struggled to finish the descriptive part of From Dictatorship to Democracy.

And thus I am left with a quandary as to how to treat Sharp's book. Unless you are a member of anti-dictatorship movement organising the resistance, it will be probably more informative – and quite possibly easier – to read other Sharp's works, for example Sharp's Dictionary of Power and Struggle: Language of Civil Resistance in Conflicts or Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice And 21st Century Potential. On the other hand, if you want to own a somewhat iconic text associated with major political upheavals of the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st, then From Dictatorship to Democracy is as good a token volume as they come. Shelve next to In the Name of the People: Pseudo-Democracy and the Spoiling of Our World by Ivo Mosley.

Those interested in political change and dissent might enjoy (or find interesting) Armed Madhouse by Greg Palast, The New Rulers Of The World by John Pilger, Interventions by Noam Chomsky or even Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell.

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