“Dictators are never as strong as they tell you they are. People are never as weak as they think they are.”
Those hopeful words, which introduce the documentary “How to Start a Revolution,” come from the writings of Gene Sharp, one of the world’s least recognized intellectual movers and shakers.
Mr. Sharp, now a frail 84 and living in a modest working-class neighborhood of Boston, is the quiet, self-effacing subject of this admiring film from the British director Ruaridh Arrow. Mr. Arrow reported for the BBC from Tahrir Square in Cairo, and this film, his first, includes footage of the mass rallies there last year.
In 1983 Mr. Sharp founded the nonprofit Albert Einstein Institution, whose stated mission is to advance “the study and use of strategic nonviolent action in conflicts throughout the world.” As a conscientious objector to military service in 1953, he spent nine months in jail. For the past decade he has been assisted by his protégée, Jamila Raqib, a former Afghan refugee who is the institution’s executive director. In his spare time Mr. Sharp cultivates orchids.
In 1993 he published “From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation,” a 93-page handbook for the nonviolent overthrow of dictatorships by the people they oppress. Translated into 40 languages, it is credited as an instrumental tool in spurring popular uprisings in Eastern Europe, Egypt, Libya and Syria.
Mr. Sharp has been accused of being a C.I.A. operative by Iranian authorities and denounced by Hugo Chávez as an evil partner of George W. Bush, although he has no connection with the C.I.A. and has never been to the White House. When the book became available in Russia, the two shops carrying it mysteriously caught fire.
The book lists 198 nonviolent weapons for overthrowing dictators. It teaches seven basic lessons, the first of which is to plan a strategy. A major reason for the fizzling of the 1989 rebellion in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, he asserts, is that it was improvised. The book, which can be downloaded free at aeinstein.org, is a crisp, practical instruction manual devoid of inspirational rhetoric.
Dictatorships, he writes, depend on the consent of the people. Once their vulnerability is exposed, their power can be systemically eroded. One of the film’s most enthusiastic talking heads, Srdja Popovic, organized the nonviolent student movement that helped bring down the dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. Serbian activists influenced by Mr. Sharp went on to help train rebel leaders in Ukraine and Georgia. Another commentator is the retired United States Army Col. Robert Helvey, a Vietnam War veteran who teaches potential revolutionaries Mr. Sharp’s methods.
Mr. Sharp doesn’t pretend to know the specific social conditions of this or that dictatorship. When people visit to ask for advice, he is reluctant to give it. He professes amazement at how far-reaching his book’s influence has been and gives full credit to the role of technology and the social media in recent years in fomenting and spreading resistance movements.
“How to Start a Revolution” would be a stronger movie if its historical perspective matched its global sweep. There is virtually no history of nonviolent activism and no comparison of Mr. Sharp’s theories with those of Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Nor is there any outside analysis or criticism of Mr. Sharp’s ideas. There is much more to be explored than this noble documentary, made on a tiny budget, has the resources to examine.
First published in the New York Times February 23rd 2012 on page C15