The sweeping changes of the Arab Spring demonstrated to the world how “the people without the guns are winning.” So declares the new documentary, How to Start a Revolution, a film that profiles the ideas and impact of Gene Sharp, a Nobel Peace Prize-nominated academic who can be described as the intellectual architect of non-violent, people-powered revolutions that have swept the globe over the past generation.
Nearly 30 years ago, I read Sharp’s rather obscure but classic three-volume series on civil disobedience in college. While being inspired by the success of Gandhian nonviolence in rolling back the British empire, I wondered how such theories could be applied against iron-fisted regimes in the present age. In the fall of 1989, I was fortunate to witness first-hand how unarmed civic revolutions swept away authoritarian governments on the streets of Budapest, Prague and Warsaw.
How to Start a Revolution documents how Gene Sharp’s ideas and tactics have inspired and guided democratic activists, notably contained in his book From Dictatorship to Democracy, originally written in 1993 for Burma’s freedom movement. The free downloadable book — which offers 198 steps for overthrowing dictators — has been translated into over 30 languages.
The documentary, by first-time Scottish director and journalist Ruaridh Arrow, introduces us to the soft-spoken, 83-year-old Sharp in his modest Boston brick row house carefully tending to his orchids. This constant gardener plants the seeds of resistance and revolution, not knowing when and where they will sprout, and cultivates a world where the oppressed liberate themselves through peaceful means.
The film demonstrates that nonviolent resistance is anything but passive, and when properly planned and deployed, it utilizes a strategic mix of political social, psychological and economic weapons to destabilize illegitimate regimes.
Sharp’s theories, and the seven lessons of nonviolent struggle highlighted in the documentary, are based on the core belief that all states depend upon the obedience and consent of the people. This popular cooperation and legitimacy can be withdrawn to undermine and expose the fragile facade of power. In the end, dictators can only cling to their monopoly of violence for so long.
How to Start a Revolution tells often overlooked stories and case studies of successful civil disobedience over the past two decades. Especially instructive is the Serbian example, which spotlights how a youth-led civic movement led to the toppling of Slobodan Milošević’s regime in 2000 after it had tried to steal an election won by the opposition coalition. Serbian activists trained and influenced by Sharp in that struggle went on to train leaders of the civic revolts in the Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and other parts of the world.
The film makes clear that the world’s dictators seriously fear nonviolent handbooks and practical civic tools spreading within their societies. We see rather humorous attacks on Sharp by Iran’s leaders, who aired an animated propaganda film on state TV depicting the mild octogenarian as a CIA mastermind in the White House coldly plotting the demise of Tehran’s reign. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez lumps Sharp and Bush together as evil twins trying to pull the rug out from his rule.
It’s all rather pitiful after viewing the modest two-room office of the Albert Einstein Institution, the nonprofit based on the ground floor of Sharp’s home (Einstein wrote the forward to Sharp’s first book). The Institute has trouble getting foundation funding, even though it has probably contributed more to support positive “regime change” than the billions of U.S. tax dollars spent on countless weapon systems and failed military adventures.
The film also features retired U.S. Army Colonel Bob Helvey, who has applied Sharp’s principles and trained leaders in other countries. We are also moved by the personal story of a former Afghan refugee, Jamila Raqib, who was inspired by the message of nonviolent change and joined Sharp as his dedicated assistant 10 years ago.
Of course, Gene Sharp is no singular messiah of nonviolent revolution. As the film makes clear, Sharp does not presume to know the local contexts where civil disobedience is being applied, or seek to take credit for its success. He simply offers a powerful set of principles and tools for local activists to adapt and apply to their own circumstances. It is the brave souls on the ground demanding change who make history.
How to Start a Revolution could have been strengthened by more historical context, pointing out the history of nonviolent resistance from the underground railroad to Gandhi’s Salt March to the civil rights movement. It could have also demonstrated how violent revolution and change throughout history has often served to reproduce undemocratic and authoritarian regimes.
However, the film was made on a shoestring, tapping small-dollar online donations on Kickstarter to complete its production. It is a vital conversation starter and educational tool for a world awash in violence and driven by an outmoded mindset that power only comes through the barrel of a gun.
The film ends on an upbeat note, as we watch a Syrian freedom activist make a sojourn to Boston to get advice from Gene Sharp. We see how leaders today have advanced nonviolent change strategies utilizing social media tools and digital cameras to document and expose government repression and tyranny.
The release of How to Start a Revolution this fall is even more relevant and timely as the Occupy movement peacefully seeks democratic change and economic reform here in the United States. Those marching across America, and throughout the world today, are better equipped to create the world they want because of the long, quiet march of Gene Sharp, a man aptly called the Machiavelli of nonviolence.
This review was first published on the Huffington Post here