Skip navigation

I just had the extraordinary luck and privilege to go to a Q & A with the almost mythical Gene Sharp at Curzon Cinema to celebrate a new film made about his work; Gene Sharp is the author of ‘From Dictatorship to Democracy’ that has just been reprinted by Serpents Tail. His life’s work, and he is in his mid eighties, has been researching the methods with which people have carried out successful non-violent mass actions in order to end to ‘dictatorships’. Here is a man after my heart and its been amazingly difficult, first for me to hear about him at all in my life, which I did only a couple of years ago, and then to have contact with him or his writings.

He has written several books which very methodically put together the existing knowledge on these methods quite against the grain of received knowledge. He is a Thomas Paine of the later C20th in my view.  ‘From Dictatorship to Democracy’ (1993) is the pamphlet  that is famous for being translated into many languages and having an appendix list of his 198 methods of Nonviolent action that have been used successfully at some time or other in the world. I see Agit Disco as part of my broad strategy of class liberation (re)using music and culture. I was intrigued as to how his methods related to my own thinking. Was music one of the 198 methods?   see:

11. Records, radio and television.

36. Performance of plays and music

37. Singing

178. Guerilla theatre

179. Alternative social institutions

180 Alternative Communication systems

190 Alternative markets

These at least cross-over with aspects of Agit Disco. Of course each of the 198 methods could be a book in itself and Agit Disco might hope to be just a chapter in one of those books. In fact Sharp gave historical examples of each type in his main book; ‘The Politics of Non-violent Action: #2 The Methods of Non-violent Action’ that was first published way back in 1973.

Sharps list of 198 methods are based on research of people fighting against dictatorships to gain basic democratic rights. He’s not a wimp here. Not mouthpiece of USA liberalism – he envisages complete takeover and democratisation of all the pillars that hold up the establishment. He criticises the Egyptian rebels for having the resignation of Mubarak as a goal. He warns that this is always a mistake. It allowed the rest of his power apparatus to reform.

Often these overthrows of dictators do not sufficiently democratise the ruling apparatus. The dictator is removed but the ruling class that had quietly benefited under the dictatorship now  uses their wealth to arrange an ostensible democratic system of elections. But by their control of media (mainly) channels public opinion to achieve elections results and elected officials that continue to maintain the interests of this ruling class. As this continues the media control actual creates a mind set on which people acquiese to something far less than full liberty and equality. In fact to my way of thinking it becomes an unseen mind cage. Agit Disco is meant to be an instrument to surgically reconfigure the hegemonic locks on this collective mind cage.

In the Q & A Gene and his assistant Jamila Raqib agreed that resistance to non-democratic corporate power was work that had not (yet) been done by them.  Oddly there seemed to be no-one at the Curzon (tickets £12) from Occupy and little discussion of the tactics of this global movement.

I think there is much I can learn from Gene Sharp. One thing he mentioned is that he and Jamila have been working on a lexicon of terminology primarily with the multiple translation of his work in mind. An example would be his use of defiance.  He is quite precise in his writing. At the end of the day what he is promoting is flexible and creative live thinking about non-violent tactics that is simply informed by objective study of the global practices of liberation. He does not promote his work as a programme to be followed. Just because it is flexible and creative does not mean that he does not think that it also needs to be disciplined and based on study.

I guess I’m still a little uneasy with Sharp’s Harvard and Oxford connections. He seemed to baulk visibly when I mentioned that I was attempting similar work to him with Agit Disco – but this time liberation from class oppression. A slight grimace… I don’t think he liked that. Then again his Institute is just in his house, which is in a working class district of Boston. So…as Sharp says think for yourselves, people.

Certainly, one the of the greatest men I’ve met.

‘How to Start a Revolution’ is the film by Ruaridh Arrow. Appropriately, it was crowd funded by 687 backers. Sharp comes across as one of the key intellects of the C20th and his assistant Ramila looks a more than able person to take the work into the future. Especially good is the footage of Serbian leader Srdja Popovic one of the founders of OTPOR. On the critical side: the music is very conventional and cheap mood stuff and its padded out to feature length with too many whimsical shots of Sharp growing orchids (what does that symbolise exactly?).

Its available now on Amazon. An essential introduction to Gene Sharp’s work.

PS One of Gene Sharp’s key banner ideas is ‘Political Jiu-Jitsu’ which  means the effect that increased repression or creation of matyrs often has in bringing about the downfall of tyrants. Now I thought I’d ‘invented’ the idea of ‘Revolutionary Jiu-Jitsu’ sometime before 1974, when it was mentioned in my ‘Survival Scrapbook: Energy’. I must have been picking up on a counter culture strand or even coming across GS at an early stage (he first published his version of this idea in 1973). I meant a gesture or action that could have effects that are much greater than the energy invested. Its about finding the pressure points, the Achille’s heel of power.

I do have an iPhone recording of the Q&A so I might put that up later.

‘How to Start a Revolution” has won best Documentary at Raindance.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: