Excerpt from From Dictatorship to Democracy by Gene Sharp
Facing Dictatorships Realistically
IN RECENT YEARS VARIOUS DICTATORSHIPS – of both internal and external origin – have collapsed or stumbled when confronted by defiant, mobilized people. Often seen as firmly entrenched and impregnable, some of these dictatorships proved unable to withstand the concerted political, economic, and social defiance of the people.
Since 1980 dictatorships have collapsed before the predominantly nonviolent defiance of people in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Slovenia, Madagascar, Mali, Bolivia, and the Philippines. Nonviolent resistance has furthered the movement toward democratization in Nepal, Zambia, South Korea, Chile, Argentina, Haiti, Brazil, Uruguay, Malawi, Thailand, Bulgaria, Hungary, Nigeria, and various parts of the former Soviet Union (playing a significant role in the defeat of the August 1991 attempted hard-line coup d’état).
In addition, mass political defiance1 has occurred in China, Burma, and Tibet in recent years. Although those struggles have not brought an end to the ruling dictatorships or occupations, they have exposed the brutal nature of those repressive regimes to the world community and have provided the populations with valuable experience with this form of struggle.
The collapse of dictatorships in the above named countries certainly has not erased all other problems in those societies: poverty, crime, bureaucratic inefficiency, and environmental destruction are often the legacy of brutal regimes. However, the downfall of these dictatorships has minimally lifted much of the suffering of the victims of oppression, and has opened the way for the rebuilding of these societies with greater political democracy, personal liberties, and social justice.
A continuing problem
There has indeed been a trend towards greater democratization and freedom in the world in the past decades. According to Freedom House, which compiles a yearly international survey of the status of political rights and civil liberties, the number of countries around the world classified as “Free” has grown significantly in recent years:2
However, this positive trend is tempered by the large numbers of people still living under conditions of tyranny. As of 2008, 34 per cent of the world’s 6.68 billion population lived in countries designated as “Not Free,”3 that is, areas with extremely restricted political rights and civil liberties. The 42 countries in the “Not Free” category are ruled by a range of military dictatorships (as in Burma), traditional repressive monarchies (as in Saudi Arabia and Bhutan), dominant political parties (as in China and North Korea), foreign occupiers (as in Tibet and Western Sahara), or are in a state of transition.
Many countries today are in a state of rapid economic, political, and social change. Although the number of “Free” countries has increased in recent years, there is a great risk that many nations, in the face of such rapid fundamental changes, will move in the opposite direction and experience new forms of dictatorship. Military cliques, ambitious individuals, elected officials, and doctrinal political parties will repeatedly seek to impose their will. Coups d’état are and will remain a common occurrence. Basic human and political rights will continue to be denied to vast numbers of peoples.
Unfortunately, the past is still with us. The problem of dictatorships is deep. People in many countries have experienced decades or even centuries of oppression, whether of domestic or foreign origin.
Frequently, unquestioning submission to authority figures and rulers has been long inculcated. In extreme cases, the social, political, economic, and even religious institutions of the society – outside of state control – have been deliberately weakened, subordinated, or even replaced by new regimented institutions used by the state or ruling party to control the society. The population has often been atomized (turned into a mass of isolated individuals) unable to work together to achieve freedom, to confide in each other, or even to do much of anything at their own initiative.
The result is predictable: the population becomes weak, lacks self-confidence, and is incapable of resistance. People are often too frightened to share their hatred of the dictatorship and their hunger for freedom even with family and friends. People are often too terrified to think seriously of public resistance. In any case, what would be the use? Instead, they face suffering without purpose and a future without hope.
Current conditions in today’s dictatorships may be much worse than earlier. In the past, some people may have attempted resistance. Short-lived mass protests and demonstrations may have occurred. Perhaps spirits soared temporarily. At other times, individuals and small groups may have conducted brave but impotent gestures, asserting some principle or simply their defiance. However noble the motives, such past acts of resistance have often been insufficient to overcome the people’s fear and habit of obedience, a necessary prerequisite to destroy the dictatorship. Sadly, those acts may have brought instead only increased suffering and death, not victories or even hope.
Freedom through violence?
What is to be done in such circumstances? The obvious possibilities seem useless. Constitutional and legal barriers, judicial decisions, and public opinion are normally ignored by dictators.
Understandably, reacting to the brutalities, torture, disappearances, and killings, people often have concluded that only violence can end a dictatorship. Angry victims have sometimes organized to fight the brutal dictators with whatever violent and military capacity they could muster, despite the odds being against them. These people have often fought bravely, at great cost in suffering and lives. Their accomplishments have sometimes been remarkable, but they rarely have won freedom. Violent rebellions can trigger brutal repression that frequently leaves the populace more helpless than before.
Whatever the merits of the violent option, however, one point is clear. By placing confidence in violent means, one has chosen the very type of struggle with which the oppressors nearly always have superiority. The dictators are equipped to apply violence overwhelmingly. However long or briefly these democrats can continue, eventually the harsh military realities usually become inescapable. The dictators almost always have superiority in military hardware, ammunition, transportation, and the size of military forces. Despite bravery, the democrats are (almost always) no match.
When conventional military rebellion is recognized as unrealistic, some dissidents then favor guerrilla warfare. However, guerrilla warfare rarely, if ever, benefits the oppressed population or ushers in a democracy. Guerrilla warfare is no obvious solution, particularly given the very strong tendency toward immense casualties among one’s own people. The technique is no guarantor against failure, despite supporting theory and strategic analyses, and sometimes international backing. Guerrilla struggles often last a very long time. Civilian populations are often displaced by the ruling government, with immense human suffering and social dislocation.
Even when successful, guerrilla struggles often have significant long-term negative structural consequences. Immediately, the attacked regime becomes more dictatorial as a result of its countermeasures. If the guerrillas should finally succeed, the resulting new regime is often more dictatorial than its predecessor due to the centralizing impact of the expanded military forces and the weakening or destruction of the society’s independent groups and institutions during the struggle – bodies that are vital in establishing and maintaining a democratic society. Persons hostile to dictatorships should look for another option.
Coups, elections, foreign saviors?
A military coup d’état against a dictatorship might appear to be relatively one of the easiest and quickest ways to remove a particularly repugnant regime. However, there are very serious problems with that technique. Most importantly, it leaves in place the existing maldistribution of power between the population and the elite in control of the government and its military forces. The removal of particular persons and cliques from the governing positions most likely will merely make it possible for another group to take their place. Theoretically, this group might be milder in its behavior and be open in limited ways to democratic reforms. However, the opposite is as likely to be the case.
After consolidating its position, the new clique may turn out to be more ruthless and more ambitious than the old one. Consequently, the new clique – in which hopes may have been placed – will be able to do whatever it wants without concern for democracy or human rights. That is not an acceptable answer to the problem of dictatorship.
Elections are not available under dictatorships as an instrument of significant political change. Some dictatorial regimes, such as those of the former Soviet-dominated Eastern bloc, went through the motions in order to appear democratic. Those elections, however, were merely rigidly controlled plebiscites to get public endorsement of candidates already handpicked by the dictators. Dictators under pressure may at times agree to new elections, but then rig them to place civilian puppets in government offices. If opposition candidates have been allowed to run and were actually elected, as occurred in Burma in 1990 and Nigeria in 1993, results may simply be ignored and the “victors” subjected to intimidation, arrest, or even execution. Dictators are not in the business of allowing elections that could remove them from their thrones.
Many people now suffering under a brutal dictatorship, or who have gone into exile to escape its immediate grasp, do not believe that the oppressed can liberate themselves. They expect that their people can only be saved by the actions of others. These people place their confidence in external forces. They believe that only international help can be strong enough to bring down the dictators.
The view that the oppressed are unable to act effectively is sometimes accurate for a certain time period. As noted, often oppressed people are unwilling and temporarily unable to struggle because they have no confidence in their ability to face the ruthless dictatorship, and no known way to save themselves. It is therefore understandable that many people place their hope for liberation in others. This outside force may be “public opinion,” the United Nations, a particular country, or international economic and political sanctions.
Such a scenario may sound comforting, but there are grave problems with this reliance on an outside savior. Such confidence may be totally misplaced. Usually no foreign saviors are coming, and if a foreign state does intervene, it probably should not be trusted.
A few harsh realities concerning reliance on foreign intervention need to be emphasized here:
•Frequently foreign states will tolerate, or even positively assist, a dictatorship in order to advance their own economic or political interests.
•Foreign states also may be willing to sell out an oppressed people instead of keeping pledges to assist their liberation at the cost of another objective.
•Some foreign states will act against a dictatorship only to gain their own economic, political, or military control over the country.
•The foreign states may become actively involved for positive purposes only if and when the internal resistance movement has already begun shaking the dictatorship, having thereby focused international attention on the brutal nature of the regime.
Dictatorships usually exist primarily because of the internal power distribution in the home country. The population and society are too weak to cause the dictatorship serious problems; wealth and power are concentrated in too few hands. Although dictatorships may benefit from or be somewhat weakened by international actions, their continuation is dependent primarily on internal factors.
International pressures can be very useful, however, when they are supporting a powerful internal resistance movement. Then, for example, international economic boycotts, embargoes, the breaking of diplomatic relations, expulsion from international organizations, condemnation by United Nations bodies, and the like can assist greatly. However, in the absence of a strong internal resistance movement such actions by others are unlikely to happen.
Facing the hard truth
The conclusion is a hard one. When one wants to bring down a dictatorship most effectively and with the least cost then one has four immediate tasks:
•One must strengthen the oppressed population themselves in their determination, self-confidence, and resistance skills;
•One must strengthen the independent social groups and institutions of the oppressed people;
•One must create a powerful internal resistance force;
•One must develop a wise grand strategic plan for liberation and implement it skillfully.
A liberation struggle is a time for self-reliance and internal strengthening of the struggle group. As Charles Stewart Parnell called out during the Irish rent strike campaign in 1879 and 1880:
It is no use relying on the Government … You must only rely upon your own determination … Help yourselves by standing together … strengthen those amongst yourselves who are weak … band yourselves together, organize yourselves … and you must win … When you have made this question ripe for settlement, then and not till then will it be settled.4
Against a strong self-reliant force, given wise strategy, disciplined and courageous action, and genuine strength, the dictatorship will eventually crumble. Minimally, however, the above four requirements must be fulfilled.
As the above discussion indicates, liberation from dictatorships ultimately depends on the people’s ability to liberate themselves. The cases of successful political defiance – or nonviolent struggle for political ends – cited above indicate that the means do exist for populations to free themselves, but that option has remained undeveloped. We will examine this option in detail in the following chapters. However, we should first look at the issue of negotiations as a means of dismantling dictatorships.
The Dangers of Negotiations
WHEN FACED WITH THE SEVERE PROBLEMS of confronting a dictatorship (as surveyed in Chapter One), some people may lapse back into passive submission. Others, seeing no prospect of achieving democracy, may conclude they must come to terms with the apparently permanent dictatorship, hoping that through “conciliation,” “compromise,” and “negotiations” they might be able to salvage some positive elements and to end the brutalities. On the surface, lacking realistic options, there is appeal in that line of thinking.
Serious struggle against brutal dictatorships is not a pleasant prospect. Why is it necessary to go that route? Can’t everyone just be reasonable and find ways to talk, to negotiate the way to a gradual end to the dictatorship? Can’t the democrats appeal to the dictators’ sense of common humanity and convince them to reduce their domination bit by bit, and perhaps finally to give way completely to the establishment of a democracy?
It is sometimes argued that the truth is not all on one side. Perhaps the democrats have misunderstood the dictators, who may have acted from good motives in difficult circumstances? Or perhaps, some may think, the dictators would gladly remove themselves from the difficult situation facing the country if only given some encouragement and enticements. It may be argued that the dictators could be offered a “win-win” solution, in which everyone gains something. The risks and pain of further struggle could be unnecessary, it may be argued, if the democratic opposition is only willing to settle the conflict peacefully by negotiations (which may even perhaps be assisted by some skilled individuals or even another government). Would that not be preferable to a difficult struggle, even if it is one conducted by nonviolent struggle rather than by military war?
Merits and limitations of negotiations
Negotiations are a very useful tool in resolving certain types of issues in conflicts and should not be neglected or rejected when they are appropriate.
In some situations where no fundamental issues are at stake, and therefore a compromise is acceptable, negotiations can be an important means to settle a conflict. A labor strike for higher wages is a good example of the appropriate role of negotiations in a conflict: a negotiated settlement may provide an increase somewhere between the sums originally proposed by each of the contending sides. Labor conflicts with legal trade unions are, however, quite different than the conflicts in which the continued existence of a cruel dictatorship or the establishment of political freedom are at stake.
When the issues at stake are fundamental, affecting religious principles, issues of human freedom, or the whole future development of the society, negotiations do not provide a way of reaching a mutually satisfactory solution. On some basic issues there should be no compromise. Only a shift in power relations in favor of the democrats can adequately safeguard the basic issues at stake. Such a shift will occur through struggle, not negotiations. This is not to say that negotiations ought never to be used. The point here is that negotiations are not a realistic way to remove a strong dictatorship in the absence of a powerful democratic opposition.
Negotiations, of course, may not be an option at all. Firmly entrenched dictators who feel secure in their position may refuse to negotiate with their democratic opponents. Or, when negotiations have been initiated, the democratic negotiators may disappear and never be heard from again.
Individuals and groups who oppose dictatorship and favor negotiations will often have good motives.
Especially when a military struggle has continued for years against a brutal dictatorship without final victory, it is understandable that all the people of whatever political persuasion would want peace. Negotiations are especially likely to become an issue among democrats where the dictators have clear military superiority and the destruction and casualties among one’s own people are no longer bearable. There will then be a strong temptation to explore any other route that might salvage some of the democrats’ objectives while bringing an end to the cycle of violence and counter-violence.
The offer by a dictatorship of “peace” through negotiations with the democratic opposition is, of course, rather disingenuous. The violence could be ended immediately by the dictators themselves, if only they would stop waging war on their own people. They could at their own initiative without any bargaining restore respect for human dignity and rights, free political prisoners, end torture, halt military operations, withdraw from the government, and apologize to the people.
When the dictatorship is strong but an irritating resistance exists, the dictators may wish to negotiate the opposition into surrender under the guise of making “peace.” The call to negotiate can sound appealing, but grave dangers can be lurking within the negotiating room.
On the other hand, when the opposition is exceptionally strong and the dictatorship is genuinely threatened, the dictators may seek negotiations in order to salvage as much of their control or wealth as possible. In neither case should the democrats help the dictators achieve their goals.
Democrats should be wary of the traps that may be deliberately built into a negotiation process by the dictators. The call for negotiations when basic issues of political liberties are involved may be an effort by the dictators to induce the democrats to surrender peacefully while the violence of the dictatorship continues. In those types of conflicts the only proper role of negotiations may occur at the end of a decisive struggle in which the power of the dictators has been effectively destroyed and they seek personal safe passage to an international airport.
Power and justice in negotiations
If this judgment sounds too harsh a commentary on negotiations, perhaps some of the romanticism associated with them needs to be moderated. Clear thinking is required as to how negotiations operate.
“Negotiation” does not mean that the two sides sit down together on a basis of equality and talk through and resolve the differences that produced the conflict between them. Two facts must be remembered. First, in negotiations it is not the relative justice of the conflicting views and objectives that determines the content of a negotiated agreement. Second, the content of a negotiated agreement is largely determined by the power capacity of each side.
Several difficult questions must be considered. What can each side do at a later date to gain its objectives if the other side fails to come to an agreement at the negotiating table? What can each side do after an agreement is reached if the other side breaks its word and uses its available forces to seize its objectives despite the agreement?
A settlement is not reached in negotiations through an assessment of the rights and wrongs of the issues at stake. While those may be much discussed, the real results in negotiations come from an assessment of the absolute and relative power situations of the contending groups. What can the democrats do to ensure that their minimum claims cannot be denied? What can the dictators do to stay in control and neutralize the democrats? In other words, if an agreement comes, it is more likely the result of each side estimating how the power capacities of the two sides compare, and then calculating how an open struggle might end.
Attention must also be given to what each side is willing to give up in order to reach agreement. In successful negotiations there is compromise, a splitting of differences. Each side gets part of what it wants and gives up part of its objectives.
In the case of extreme dictatorships what are the pro-democracy forces to give up to the dictators? What objectives of the dictators are the pro-democracy forces to accept? Are the democrats to give to the dictators (whether a political party or a military cabal) a constitutionally established permanent role in the future government? Where is the democracy in that?
Even assuming that all goes well in negotiations, it is necessary to ask: What kind of peace will be the result? Will life then be better or worse than it would be if the democrats began or continued to struggle?
Dictators may have a variety of motives and objectives underlying their domination: power, position, wealth, reshaping the society, and the like. One should remember that none of these will be served if they abandon their control positions. In the event of negotiations dictators will try to preserve their goals.
Whatever promises offered by dictators in any negotiated settlement, no one should ever forget that the dictators may promise anything to secure submission from their democratic opponents, and then brazenly violate those same agreements.
If the democrats agree to halt resistance in order to gain a reprieve from repression, they may be very disappointed. A halt to resistance rarely brings reduced repression. Once the restraining force of internal and international opposition has been removed, dictators may even make their oppression and violence more brutal than before. The collapse of popular resistance often removes the countervailing force that has limited the control and brutality of the dictatorship. The tyrants can then move ahead against whomever they wish. “For the tyrant has the power to inflict only that which we lack the strength to resist,” wrote Krishnalal Shridharani.5
Resistance, not negotiations, is essential for change in conflicts where fundamental issues are at stake. In nearly all cases, resistance must continue to drive dictators out of power. Success is most often determined not by negotiating a settlement but through the wise use of the most appropriate and powerful means of resistance available. It is our contention, to be explored later in more detail, that political defiance, or nonviolent struggle, is the most powerful means available to those struggling for freedom.
What kind of peace?
If dictators and democrats are to talk about peace at all, extremely clear thinking is needed because of the dangers involved. Not everyone who uses the word “peace” wants peace with freedom and justice. Submission to cruel oppression and passive acquiescence to ruthless dictators who have perpetrated atrocities on hundreds of thousands of people is no real peace. Hitler often called for peace, by which he meant submission to his will. A dictators’ peace is often no more than the peace of the prison or of the grave.
There are other dangers. Well-intended negotiators sometimes confuse the objectives of the negotiations and the negotiation process itself. Further, democratic negotiators, or foreign negotiation specialists accepted to assist in the negotiations, may in a single stroke provide the dictators with the domestic and international legitimacy that they had been previously denied because of their seizure of the state, human rights violations, and brutalities. Without that desperately needed legitimacy, the dictators cannot continue to rule indefinitely. Exponents of peace should not provide them legitimacy.
Reasons for hope
As stated earlier, opposition leaders may feel forced to pursue negotiations out of a sense of hopelessness of the democratic struggle. However, that sense of powerlessness can be changed. Dictatorships are not permanent. People living under dictatorships need not remain weak, and dictators need not be allowed to remain powerful indefinitely. Aristotle noted long ago, “… [O]ligarchy and tyranny are shorter-lived than any other constitution… [A]ll round, tyrannies have not lasted long.”6 Modern dictatorships are also vulnerable. Their weaknesses can be aggravated and the dictators’ power can be disintegrated. (In Chapter Four we will examine these weaknesses in more detail.)
Recent history shows the vulnerability of dictatorships, and reveals that they can crumble in a relatively short time span: whereas ten years – 1980–1990 – were required to bring down the Communist dictatorship in Poland, in East Germany and Czechoslovakia in 1989 it occurred within weeks. In El Salvador and Guatemala in 1944 the struggles against the entrenched brutal military dictators required approximately two weeks each. The militarily powerful regime of the Shah in Iran was undermined in a few months. The Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines fell before people power within weeks in 1986: the United States government quickly abandoned President Marcos when the strength of the opposition became apparent. The attempted hard-line coup in the Soviet Union in August 1991 was blocked in days by political defiance. Thereafter, many of its long dominated constituent nations in only days, weeks, and months regained their independence.
The old preconception that violent means always work quickly and nonviolent means always require vast time is clearly not valid. Although much time may be required for changes in the underlying situation and society, the actual fight against a dictatorship sometimes occurs relatively quickly by nonviolent struggle.
Negotiations are not the only alternative to a continuing war of annihilation on the one hand and capitulation on the other. The examples just cited, as well as those listed in Chapter One, illustrate that another option exists for those who want both peace and freedom: political defiance.