Revolution University

Foreign Policy has a beautiful article called “Revolution U” on the Center for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS). The group grew out of The Serbian resistance – Otpor, which means Resistance. The tactics they teach and have taught in over 50 countries) are a distillation of clear nonviolent revolution of the sort which was successful in Tunisia and Egypt.

I have long thought that there was in nonviolent action a lack of the essential strategic thinking. In the work of CANVAS it is clear that they stress grassroots organizing, planning, and strategic thinking. One of the keys, which I always associate with Trotsky’s writing on the Russian Revolution, is the necessity of understanding how to shift power relationships within the society. The article talks about a course for students from Burma (my emphasis):

Some of the students said they had thought nonviolence meant passivity — morally superior, perhaps, but naive. Popovic framed the task in terms of Sun Tzu: “I want you to see nonviolent conflict as a form of warfare — the only difference is you don’t use arms,” he told them. This was new. He argued that whether nonviolence was moral or not was irrelevant: It was strategically necessary. Violence, of course, is every dictator’s home court. The Otpor founders also knew they could never win wide support with violence — every democracy struggle eventually needs to capture the middle class and at least neutralize the security forces.Over and over again, Djinovic and Popovic hammered at another myth: that nonviolent struggle is synonymous with amassing large concentrations of people. The Serbs cautioned that marches and demonstrations should be saved for when you finally have majority support. Marches are risky — if your turnout is poor, the movement’s credibility is destroyed. And at marches, people get arrested, beaten, and shot. The authorities will try to provoke violence. One bad march can destroy a movement. Here was a point that had people nodding. “Any gathering in Rangoon is lunacy,” Djinovic said.

But if not marches, then what? The Serbs showed the participants excerpts from A Force More Powerful, a documentary series about nonviolent struggles: Gandhi’s Salt March, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and the lunch-counter sit-ins and bus boycotts of the American civil rights movement. Popovic pointed out the planning involved in these actions, and made the group list the tactics they saw: leaflets, banners, sit-ins, boycotts, picketing, music. “South Africa and Burma have a similarity: zero free media,” he said. “So how do you spread the message?”

This is very good, logical strategic and tactical thinking.

He explained [Gene] Sharp’s  idea [from his book From Dictatorship to Democracy – dp] that a regime stays in power through the obedience of the people it governs. The goal of a democracy movement should be to persuade people to withdraw their obedience. A government is like a building held up by pillars, Sharp explained. Otpor needed to pull Milosevic’s pillars into the opposition camp.In fact, Otpor was already doing well with two important Milosevic pillars. One was old people: They had always been Milosevic’s base of support, but the constant arrests of Otpor’s 16-year-olds — and the government’s hysterical accusations that the students were terrorists — were getting grandma angry. The other pillar was the police. From the beginning, Otpor had treated the police as allies-in-waiting. Otpor members delivered cookies and flowers to police stations (sometimes with a TV camera in tow). Instead of howling at police during confrontations, Otpor members would cheer them.

The Serbs recounted this to the Burmese, and added another step: the power graph, a Djinovic invention. He asked the students to list various groups with influence in society, and then chart each group’s level of loyalty to the regime over time. The idea was to see which groups had fluctuated — and what events in Burma’s recent history provoked the change. From that they could glean clues about whom it was most profitable to woo.

The students put themselves in the shoes of Burma’s police, workers, women, and other groupswhat did they all want? The lists they compiled were predictable in their self-interest: Students wanted private schools, businesspeople wanted a reliable banking system, farmers wanted crop subsidies. What was interesting was what the lists didn’t include. “Where is democracy? Human rights?” Popovic said, pointing to the lists tacked to the wall. “People don’t give a shit about these things. Normally your politicians talk about things that don’t matter to people. Remember Gandhi’s Salt March? The issue was not ‘You Brits get out!’ — not officially. The issue was: ‘We want to make salt.'”

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