From Dictatorship to Democracy: a manual for revolution?

From Dictatorship to Democracy: a conceptual framework for liberation, by Gene Sharp, reviewed by Alex Nunns

December 23, 2011
2 min read


Alex NunnsAlex Nunns is Red Pepper's political correspondent. He tweets at @alexnunns

If you paid too much attention to some media commentators you might think the Arab uprisings were caused by Gene Sharp, an elderly American professor who writes books about nonviolent political defiance. A former assistant editor of Peace News, Sharp has been propelled into the limelight by events in north Africa, his ideas now credited with inspiring movements from Indonesia to Serbia to Egypt.

It makes sense, then, for Merlin Press to reprint Sharp’s classic text: his 1993 treatise From Dictatorship to Democracy, a generic guide on how to bring down a dictatorship. It is a short and simple book with two key arguments. First, dictatorships cannot survive without ‘the assistance of the people they rule’. Second, violence must be avoided because it is ‘the very type of struggle with which the oppressors nearly always have superiority’. The book ends with a now famous list of 198 methods of nonviolent action.

All dictatorships are taken to be the same. The only relevant factors are the determination of a dictator to rule and the willingness of a people to acquiesce. Revolution can happen any time the people wake up. Economic power relations within society are not mentioned. Freedom is a federal, liberal state.

The approach is conspiratorial. ‘Planners’ must have a ‘grand strategy’. But in real life revolutions are most often spontaneous and feature violence and nonviolence simultaneously. This was true of Egypt, exemplified in the brave defence of Tahrir Square with Molotovs and rocks.

Some Egyptians, particularly the publicity-savvy April 6 Movement, did cite Sharp. But as prominent activist Hossam el-Hamalawy says, most activists’ inspiration was ‘not Gene Sharp, whose name I first heard in my life only in February after we toppled Mubarak’. Egyptians even started a sarcastic hashtag on Twitter, #GeneSharpTaughtMe, to mock the notion.

Sharp is not responsible for some journalists exaggerating his influence. But as the complex reality in Egypt shows, there is no simple how-to manual for revolution.


Alex NunnsAlex Nunns is Red Pepper's political correspondent. He tweets at @alexnunns


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank

The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank


7