66. From Dictatorship to Democracy

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“Why is it that the people who have the vision of bringing political freedom to their people should so rarely prepare a comprehensive strategic plan to achieve that goal? Unfortunately, often most people in democratic opposition groups do not understand the need for strategic planning or are not accustomed or trained to think strategically. This is a difficult task. Constantly harassed by the dictatorship, and overwhelmed by immediate responsibilities, resistance leaders often do not have the safety or time to develop strategic thinking skills. Instead, it is a common pattern simply to react to the initiatives of the dictatorship. The opposition is then always on the defensive, seeking to maintain limited liberties or bastions of freedom, at best slowing the advance of the dictatorial controls or causing certain problems for the regime’s new policies.” (from “From Dictatorship to Democracy” by Gene Sharp, Matt Gaffney)

After the last election, I wrote a post about how the Democrats needed to do more and be more realistic in order to win elections instead of just posting on social media and proclaiming what they were against. That post generated a lot of debate on Facebook, with some “Hallelujahs,” some handwringing and a bit of defensiveness.  A few Facebook comments were angry; one guy started his response with, “PLEASE TAKE THIS DOWN” because he was convinced that the Democrats didn’t do anything wrong – they lost, but they’d been 100% right.  My original response was something like, “That’s fine: they still lost.”

I wish I’d read From Dictatorship to Democracy back then, just to pull this quote out:

“Some individuals and groups, of course, may not see the need for broad long-term planning of a liberation movement. Instead, they may naïvely think that if they simply espouse their goal strongly, firmly, and long enough, it will somehow come to pass. Others assume that if they simply live and witness according to their principles and ideals in face of difficulties, they are doing all they can to implement them. The espousal of humane goals and loyalty to ideals are admirable, but are grossly inadequate to end a dictatorship and to achieve freedom.

“Other opponents of dictatorship may naïvely think that only if they use enough violence, freedom will come. But, as noted earlier, violence is no guarantor of success. Instead of liberation, it can lead to defeat, massive tragedy, or both. In most situations the dictatorship is best equipped for violent struggle and the military realities rarely, if ever, favor the democrats.

“There are also activists who base their actions on what they “feel” they should do. These approaches are, however, not only egocentric, but also they offer no guidance for developing a grand strategy of liberation. Action based on a “bright idea” that someone has had is also limited. What is needed instead is action based on careful calculation of the “next steps” required to topple the dictatorship. Without strategic analysis, resistance leaders will often not know what that “next step” should be, for they have not thought carefully about the successive specific steps required to achieve victory.

“Creativity and bright ideas are very important, but they need to be utilized in order to advance the strategic situation of the democratic forces.”

In 2018, I absolutely still standby that post, and I think the dangers to American democracy are more pronounced now than they were back then.  And I think From Dictatorship to Democracy by Gene Sharp may be the most important book that anybody on the left can read today.

The main reason is that America is facing a weakening of the democratic institutions they have made it great, by a political system and operation that is looking increasingly like a dictatorship in its infancy.  This book offers practical, real life examples of how to move from a dictatorship back into democracy, and also how to prevent a dictatorship from taking hold in the first place.  Unlike Machiavelli’s The Prince, or Pfeffer’s Power, From Dictatorship to Democracy is only useful to those who are fighting for democracy as well, not just those who are looking for power.  Machiavelli, Pfeffer, Hoffer and Greene can be used by anyone running for office; this book is only useful to people committed to preserving democratic institutions.

Sharp’s text was apparently invaluable for opposition movements across Eastern Europe and the Middle-East over the last twenty years; unfortunately, it may also become invaluable in the West during the first half of the twenty-first century.  But plenty of countries have faced totalitarianism before, and plenty have overcome it.  I recommend it most to my friend James, who should be getting a letter from me shortly, and Eric Sandy, particularly after his post yesterday.  But for anyone who wants to do something to support democracy in America and anywhere else should pick up From Dictatorship to Democracy – and, more importantly, use it.

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