Book Review - From Dictatorship to Democracy

The American academic Gene Sharp's seminal essay "From Dictatorship to Democracy" could be subtitled "the essential guide to peaceful resistance".

It was originally written in 1993 to support the opposition movement in Burma and was circulated among dissidents. The brutal Burmese regime recognised its importance by sentencing those found in possession of the booklet to seven-year prison terms. Since then, it has inspired opponents of oppression the world over. The work has travelled, as a photo-copied pamphlet, from Burma to Serbia and from Egypt to China, and contributed to numerous peaceful uprisings including the Arab Spring.

This updated version is drawn from more than 40 years of research and writing on peaceful methods of protest, totalitarian systems and political theory. One of the key tenets of Sharp's analysis is that non-violent struggle has a greater chance of success than violent resistance, because tyrannical regimes will, invariably, have the superior military power with which to suppress armed risings. The solution, Sharp contends, is "political defiance" – a term first coined by Robert Helvey, a retired US army colonel with whom Sharp worked in Burma.

In emphasising the need for strategic planning, Sharp puts forward four important stages: the first, Grand Strategy, directs the use of all available resources and offers a basic framework for the other three – strategies, tactics and methods. Sharp also offers suggestions to ensure a dictatorship is not merely replaced by another tyrannical regime. Alongside the resistance movement, he advocates the development of independent social, economic, cultural and political institutions which can contribute to changing the power relations within a society.

Sharp refers to his work as "a heavy analysis" and "not easy reading", but I found it hugely accessible. To support his arguments, he adroitly blends a 14th-century Chinese parable and the Classical Greek myth of Achilles into his formal analysis.

The book is a must read for all those interested in human rights and democracy, but those supporters of totalitarian regimes should also pay heed to it for, as Sharp points out: "All dictatorships have weaknesses, internal inefficiencies, personal rivalries, institutional inefficiencies and conflicts between organisations and departments."

As Sharp demonstrates, identifying these vulnerabilities is the first step towards liberation from tyranny.

Originally published in the Sunday Indpendent