Gene Sharp is not a typical pacifist. “When I used to lecture, I would always get complaints from the pacifists,” says the academic, who turns 85 this month. “They would say I wasn’t pure. They said that what I was proposing was ‘still conflict’.” Military people often understood him better. A retired US army colonel, Robert Helvey, heard Sharp lecture 20 years ago and persuaded him to visit Burma, where rebels asked Sharp to give them advice.
He wrote a pamphlet. “I didn’t know Burma well,” he recalls. “So I had to write generically: if a movement wanted to bring a dictatorship to an end, how would they do it?” That pamphlet, From Dictatorship to Democracy (1993), contained the idea for which Sharp is now known all over the world – that power is held only by the consent of the people over whom it is exercised, and that consent can be withdrawn. All regimes depend on certain pillars of support and, with a proper strategy, resisters can remove those pillars non-violently.
The book was originally published in English and Burmese. “And I thought that was it,” Sharp says. But it went on display in a bookshop in Bangkok. From there, nobody knows exactly how it spread. But it did – everywhere. “I’m still amazed. It didn’t spread because of propaganda or some sales pitch but because people found it usable, and important.”
“I had no idea how useful it would be,” confirms Srdja Popovic, a leader of Otpor, the movement that toppled Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia in 2000. Others have described the effect of reading Sharp’s work as “mind-blowing”, because it showed that what had seemed impossible might not be impossible after all.
For nearly 20 years, From Dictatorship to Democracy circulated clandestinely in as many as 40 countries. It was being printed in Moscow when the FSB (the successor to the KGB) raided the printer. It later went on sale at two independent Russian bookshops – both of which, remarkably, soon caught fire.