Small Wars Journal

Small Wars Journal Book Review: From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation by Gene Sharp

Sun, 12/13/2020 - 8:45pm


Small Wars Journal Book Review: From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation by Gene Sharp


Reviewed by Major Alex Plotkin


Sharp, Gene. From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation. New York : [Jackson, Tenn.]: New Press ; Distributed by Perseus, 2012.




This is one of the books every new Special Operations soldier should read when they start their journey into the world of Unconventional Warfare. Gene Sharp could have titled this book the “Doctrine of (Nonviolent) Unconventional Warfare” to Free the Oppressed, or Create Order from Chaos, or even to Persuade, Change, or Influence (the three mottos of the US Army’s Special Operations Branches).

 Gene Sharp’s 1993 handbook From Dictator to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation was first printed by the Committee for the Restoration of Democracy in Burma. It was later circulated and was republished in over 31 languages, and the 4th and final edition was published in 2012. At just over 130 pages, the book lays out the problems and reality of challenging a dictatorship from within, the strength and weaknesses of these governments, up through the use and techniques of nonviolence to dissolve the government and establish a democracy.

This handbook provides the advantages and disadvantages of using nonviolence over or in response to violence as a means to resist a ruling authoritarian regime. Sharp does not, however, negate the use of violence and mentions it as a course of action that must be considered in planning. Although, he argues that nonviolence is a more powerful and enduring method. The concepts within this framework apply to all warfare and can be informative when planning for a large-scale military offensive or training an underground organization to disrupt a potential occupying conventional army. The framework provides the lens through which to see the problem and may even convince some military practitioners to pursue nonviolent means.

The handbook provides three methods using nonviolent action: protest and persuasion, noncooperation, and nonviolent intervention. Sharp can be quite explicit about these methods and even provides a 12-page annex that lists 198 methods of tangible activities and events to execute this strategy. However, the two most valuable components of the military practitioner framework are not in the execution but the planning and transition.

In the chapter Planning Strategy, Sharp emphasizes the importance of strategic planning by providing prompts to ensure the movement clearly understands the environment and, most importantly, how they frame the end-state. Sharp argues that the end-state is not the destruction of the dictatorship, but instead the establishment of a democratic government. The strategies one would develop to reach those two end-states would differ considerably. That simple change in perspective would arguably have changed the 2003 US strategy in Iraq.  Additoinally, In the chapters Disintegrating the Dictatorship and Groundwork for Durable Democracy, Sharp discusses the challenges and dangers of transition and considerations for preventing failure, as well as the components of a nascent democracy that are required to see enduring results. Sharp emphasizes the development of a “parallel government,” which is analogous to what Special Operations Doctrine refers to it as a “Shadow government.”

        The book, like was stated earlier, is akin to military doctrine, which—as many military practitioners will say—is just the start. It requires a significant amount of training and on the ground experience to make it applicable. In contrast to the strengths of the book, the framework provided oversimplifies the complexity and challenges a resistance movement will face, whether violent or nonviolent, and often seemed dangerously overconfident in how useful this framework may be. The potential for failure and an extremely heavy handed response from the government is very possible and more can be discussed on the topic of creating a resilient organization and the potential for catastrophic failure. However, in Sharp’s defense, From Dictatorship to Democracy, was first developed as a pamphlet for a democratic resistance movement, and over confidence in the cause may be what Sharp was trying to instill in the original readers to maintain their motivation to act.

        From Dictator to Democracy, is a must read for academics or practitioners in the art of Unconventional Warfare. This framework and way of addressing authoritarianism should be part of ever strategic military planners tool kit.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Government, or the Naval Postgraduate School.




Categories: democracy

About the Author(s)

Major Alex Plotkin, U.S. Army Civil Affairs Officer, and graduate student at the Naval Postgraduate School pursuing a Master of Science in Defense Analysis. Alex is a graduate of Lehigh University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering, Bachelor of Arts degree in Architecture and Graduate Certificate in Peace and Conflict Studies from University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Alex is a 2019 Institute for Defense and Business Strategic Studies Fellow. 



Thu, 09/23/2021 - 8:30am

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