Among the catalogue of films screening at this month’s Raindance Festival is How To Start A Revolution, a documentary by Ruaridh Arrow, a former producer of Channel 4’s Dispatches. It’s about the American academic Gene Sharp: a political science professor who has redefined the global politics of the last three decades, yet who remains all but unknown.
Sharp is a kind of ultra-politicised Miss Marple. Mild mannered and softly spoken, the 83-year-old academic’s routine involves tending to his orchid collection and walking in the park, usually with the support of a young colleague. Like Agatha Christie’s spinster detective, Sharp’s appearance conceals a startling intelligence.
A leading authority on nonviolent revolution, Sharp has proved a menace over the years to oppressive regimes worldwide. Working from the Albert Einstein Institution and a small pad in east Boston, Sharp has dedicated his life to undermining autocrats and helping to establish democracies. He is best known for his short pamphlet, From Dictatorship to Democracy (1993), which he describes as “a technique of combat, a substitute for war.” His approach is pragmatic and highly successful, earning him the title the “Machiavelli of nonviolence” in some circles. Oppressive regimes, he argues, nearly always have greater military might than dissenters, so taking up arms against the regime tends to make matters worse.
Instead, the hallmarks of a Sharp revolution are the employment of colours and symbols, signs written in English to maximise western media coverage, women and children strategically positioned at the front of the protest—all now familiar to us now from uprisings in Bosnia, Burma, Zimbabwe, Estonia, Syria and Egypt.
It is not surprising, then, that From Dictatorship to Democracy has been translated into more than 30 languages. How To Start A Revolution charts the spread of Sharp’s ideas and looks at their impact on uprisings across the world. His description of 198 nonviolent means of destabilising dictatorships, for instance, has taken root in oppressed countries around the world, gaining advocates most recently among the protestors of the Arab Spring.
A notable acolyte is Srdja Popovic, one of the young revolutionaries who rose up against Slobodan Milosevic in the late 1990s. For Popovic and other members of the revolutionary group Otpor, Sharp’s ideas of united resistance and withdrawal…