Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship To Democracy Part 9


Disintegrating the Dictatorship

The cumulative effect of well-conducted and successful political defiance campaigns is to strengthen the resistance and to establish and expand areas of the society where the dictatorship faces limits on its effective control. These campaigns also provide important experience in how to refuse cooperation and how to offer political defiance. That experience will be of great assistance when the time comes for noncooperation and defiance on a mass scale.

As was discussed in Chapter Three, obedience, cooperation, and submission are essential if dictators are to be powerful. Without access to the sources of political power, the dictators’ power weakens and finally dissolves. Withdrawal of support is therefore the major required action to disintegrate a dictatorship. It may be useful to review how the sources of power can be affected by political defiance.

Acts of symbolic repudiation and defiance are among the available means to undermine the regime’s moral and political authority — its legitimacy. The greater the regime’s authority, the greater and more reliable is the obedience and cooperation which it will receive. Moral disapproval needs to be expressed in action in order to seriously threaten the existence of the dictatorship. Withdrawal of cooperation and obedience are needed to sever the availability of other sources of the regime’s power.

A second important such source of power is human resources, the number and importance of the persons and groups that obey, cooperate with, or assist the rulers. If noncooperation is practiced by large parts of the population, the regime will be in serious trouble. For example, if the civil servants no longer function with their normal efficiency or even stay at home, the administrative apparatus will be gravely affected.

Similarly, if the noncooperating persons and groups include those that have previously supplied specialized skills and knowledge, then the dictators will see their capacity to implement their will gravely weakened. Even their ability to make well-informed decisions and develop effective policies may be seriously reduced.

If psychological and ideological influences — called intangible factors — that usually induce people to obey and assist the rulers are weakened or reversed, the population will be more inclined to disobey and to noncooperate.

The dictators’ access to material resources also directly affects their power. With control of financial resources, the economic system, property, natural resources, transportation, and means of communication in the hands of actual or potential opponents of the regime, another major source of their power is vulnerable or removed. Strikes, boycotts, and increasing autonomy in the economy, communications, and transportation will weaken the regime.

As previously discussed, the dictators’ ability to threaten or apply sanctions — punishments against the restive, disobedient, and noncooperative sections of the population — is a central source of the power of dictators. This source of power can be weakened in two ways. First, if the population is prepared, as in a war, to risk serious consequences as the price of defiance, the effectiveness of the available sanctions will be drastically reduced (that is, the dictators’ repression will not secure the desired submission). Second, if the police and the military forces themselves become disaffected, they may on an individual or mass basis evade or outright defy orders to arrest, beat, or shoot resisters. If the dictators can no longer rely on the police and military forces to carry out repression, the dictatorship is gravely threatened.

In summary, success against an entrenched dictatorship requires that noncooperation and defiance reduce and remove the sources of the regime’s power. Without constant replenishment of the necessary sources of power the dictatorship will weaken and finally disintegrate. Competent strategic planning of political defiance against dictatorships therefore needs to target the dictators’ most important sources of power.

Escalating Freedom

Combined with political defiance during the phase of selective resistance, the growth of autonomous social, economic, cultural, and political institutions progressively expands the “democratic space” of the society and shrinks the control of the dictatorship. As the civil institutions of the society become stronger vis-à-vis the dictatorship, then, whatever the dictators may wish, the population is incrementally building an independent society outside of their control. If and when the dictatorship intervenes to halt this “escalating freedom,” nonviolent struggle can be applied in defense of this newly won space and the dictatorship will be faced with yet another “front” in the struggle.

In time, this combination of resistance and institution building can lead to de facto freedom, making the collapse of the dictatorship and the formal installation of a democratic system undeniable because the power relationships within the society have been fundamentally altered.

Poland in the 1970s and 1980s provides a clear example of the progressive reclaiming of a society’s functions and institutions by the resistance. The Catholic church had been persecuted but never brought under full Communist control. In 1976 certain intellectuals and workers formed small groups such as K.O.R. (Workers Defense Committee) to advance their political ideas. The organization of the Solidarity trade union with its power to wield effective strikes forced its own legalization in 1980. Peasants, students, and many other groups also formed their own independent organizations. When the Communists realized that these groups had changed the power realities, Solidarity was again banned and the Communists resorted to military rule.

Even under martial law, with many imprisonments and harsh persecution, the new independent institutions of the society con- tinued to function. For example, dozens of illegal newspapers and magazines continued to be published. Illegal publishing houses annually issued hundreds of books, while well-known writers boycotted Communist publications and government publishing houses.

Similar activities continued in other parts of the society. Under the Jaruselski military regime, the military-Communist government was at one point described as bouncing around on the top of the society. The officials still occupied government offices and buildings. The regime could still strike down into the society, with punishments, arrests, imprisonment, seizure of printing presses, and the like. The dictatorship, however, could not control the society. From that point, it was only a matter of time until the society was able to bring down the regime completely. Even while a dictatorship still occupies government positions it is sometimes possible to organize a democratic “parallel government.” This would increasingly operate as a rival government to which loyalty, compliance, and cooperation are given by the population and the society’s institutions. The dictatorship would then consequently, on an increasing basis, be deprived of these characteristics of government. Eventually, the democratic parallel government may fully replace the dictatorial regime as part of the transition to a democratic system. In due course then a constitution would be adopted and elections held as part of the transition.

Disintegrating the Dictatorship

While the institutional transformation of the society is taking place, the defiance and noncooperation movement may escalate. Strategists of the democratic forces should contemplate early that there will come a time when the democratic forces can move beyond selective resistance and launch mass defiance. In most cases, time will be required for creating, building, or expanding resistance capacities, and the development of mass defiance may occur only after several years. During this interim period campaigns of selective resistance should be launched with increasingly important political objectives. Larger parts of the population at all levels of the society should be- come involved. Given determined and disciplined political defiance during this escalation of activities, the internal weaknesses of the dictatorship are likely to become increasingly obvious.

The combination of strong political defiance and the building of independent institutions is likely in time to produce widespread international attention favorable to the democratic forces. It may also produce international diplomatic condemnations, boycotts, and em- bargoes in support of the democratic forces (as it did for Poland).

Strategists should be aware that in some situations the collapse of the dictatorship may occur extremely rapidly, as in East Germany in 1989. This can happen when the sources of power are massively severed as a result of the whole population’s revulsion against the dictatorship. This pattern is not usual, however, and it is better to plan for a long-term struggle (but to be prepared for a short one).

During the course of the liberation struggle, victories, even on limited issues, should be celebrated. Those who have earned the victory should be recognized. Celebrations with vigilance should also help to keep up the morale needed for future stages of the struggle.

Handling Success Responsibly

Planners of the grand strategy should calculate in advance the possible and preferred ways in which a successful struggle might best be concluded in order to prevent the rise of a new dictatorship and to ensure the gradual establishment of a durable democratic system.

The democrats should calculate how the transition from the dictatorship to the interim government shall be handled at the end of the struggle. It is desirable at that time to establish quickly a new functioning government. However, it must not be merely the old one with new personnel. It is necessary to calculate what sections of the old governmental structure (as the political police) are to be completely abolished because of their inherent anti-democratic character and which sections retained to be subjected to later democratization efforts. A complete governmental void could open the way to chaos or a new dictatorship.

Thought should be given in advance to determine what is to be the policy toward high officials of the dictatorship when its power disintegrates. For example, are the dictators to be brought to trial in a court? Are they to be permitted to leave the country permanently? What other options may there be that are consistent with political defiance, the need for reconstructing the country, and building a democracy following the victory? A blood bath must be avoided which could have drastic consequences on the possibility of a future democratic system.

Specific plans for the transition to democracy should be ready for application when the dictatorship is weakening or collapses. Such plans will help to prevent another group from seizing state power through a coup d’état. Plans for the institution of democratic constitutional government with full political and personal liberties will also be required. The changes won at a great price should not be lost through lack of planning.

When confronted with the increasingly empowered population and the growth of independent democratic groups and institutions — both of which the dictatorship is unable to control — the dictators will find that their whole venture is unravelling. Massive shut-downs of the society, general strikes, mass stay-at-homes, defiant marches, or other activities will increasingly undermine the dictators’ own organization and related institutions. As a consequence of such defiance and noncooperation, executed wisely and with mass participation over time, the dictators would become powerless and the democratic defenders would, without violence, triumph. The dictatorship would disintegrate before the defiant population.

Not every such effort will succeed, especially not easily, and rarely quickly. It should be remembered that as many military wars are lost as are won. However, political defiance offers a real possibility of victory. As stated earlier, that possibility can be greatly increased through the development of a wise grand strategy, careful strategic planning, hard work, and disciplined courageous struggle.

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