Must-Reads for Rational Insurgents

27 Aug

In my various travels, people have asked me outright how they can overthrow their respective governments (I’m not naming names). My answer is always the same: I have no idea how they might go about this, and I have some pretty strong ethical reasons for not wanting to make suggestions either. However, I’d be happy to recommend some readings.

Here is my current top-ten list of must-reads for those wanting to become rational insurgents:

On War, Carl von Clausewitz.

The quintessential guide to strategy, and origin of the famed dictum: “War is politics by other means.” Nonviolent resistance is politics by other means too, and, although Clausewitz doesn’t really go there, lots of the same principles apply.

From Dictatorship to Democracy, Gene Sharp.

This is the handbook for how to proceed with a nonviolent campaign. Sharp explains the fundamentals of power, strategy, and tactical choice; details the hundreds of methods of nonviolent action available to ordinary civilians; and describes lessons learned from previous conflicts.

A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict, Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall.

The authors explore how twelve historical campaigns  — from Nashville to the Ruhr Valley to Burma — have employed nonviolent methods to separate regimes from their main sources of power. Easy-to-read, and full of useful details, this book’s descriptions of the various conflicts are highly instructive. For those tired of reading, there is also a documentary film. See also Bringing Down a Dictator and Orange Revolution.

Unarmed Insurrections: People Power Movements in Nondemocracies, Kurt Schock.

An accessible primer on why some nonviolent uprisings succeed whereas others fail. Schock finds that successful campaigns are more resilient and tactically innovative, and he describes various case studies of how campaigns that shifted between concentrated and dispersed methods were able to avoid regime repression.

The Marketing of Rebellion: Insurgents, Media, and International Activism, Clifford Bob.

While not exactly a handbook for insurgents, this book explains the reasons by some rebels get international support while others don’t. Bottom line: framing and marketing are key.

The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, Evgeny Morozov.

A sobering account of the ways that authoritarian regimes can exploit the internet to crack down on pro-democracy uprisings. A must-read, given how generally optimistic people are about the potential for social media to be a “game-changer.”

Justice Ignited: The Dynamics of Backfire, Brian Martin.

Martin looks at why government repression sometimes backfires and other times doesn’t. Very instructive.

Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Resistance, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan.

I don’t care if it’s tacky to list my own book. Sometimes nonviolent campaigns need a little encouragement — and a good reason to avoid using violence. This book will give hope (and ammunition) to people relying on civil resistance to get what they want. We find that compelling evidence that while nonviolent resistance doesn’t always succeed, it has a much better chance at succeeding than violence.

“Spoiling Inside and Out: Internal Political Contestation and the Middle East Peace Process,” Wendy Pearlman.

In this article, Pearlman details one of the major shortcomings of many resistance campaigns: the failure to achieve unity. The article contains lessons from the Palestinian conflict on why social movement organizations should avoid fragmentation.

Why Terrorism Does Not Work, Max Abrahms.

A cautionary tale for why adopting terrorism as a strategy will be counterproductive. The main point: people misinterpret the violence. Instead of hearing you say “I want political change,” they hear “I want to kill you.” Not the best way to convince people you have an attractive vision for their future.

What are your favorite readings on strategy? Feel free to post below.


For more information, see Carter, Clark, and Randle’s online bibliography of nonviolent conflict. See also the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict’s website and the the online video game People Power, which helps activists plan, implement, and reflect on their strategic choices against hypothetical dictators. You know these sites are worth checking out, because they are blocked in China.

5 Responses to “Must-Reads for Rational Insurgents”

  1. Kurt Braddock August 28, 2011 at 5:29 am #

    Great list here, Erica. I would add On Killing by Dave Grossman as well. I don’t think it approaches political change by way of of violence vs. nonviolence in a macro-fashion as some of the readings on your list seem to, but I do think it serves as a good micro-level illustration of soldiers’ natural inclinations (to avoid killing) and what governments/militaries must do to break them of those inclinations to achieve political change. It’s a fascinating read.

    • rationalinsurgent August 28, 2011 at 12:39 pm #

      Hi Kurt. Yes, that is a really good book. I think that a common assumption is that violence comes easily to humans. Yet I haven’t really seen to much empirical support for that. As far as I can tell, a lot of evidence indicates that violent is learned, and that it’s not as natural a reaction as many seem to think. However, it’s much easier once it’s institutionalized. Sinisa Malesevic has a terrific book on this (The Sociology of War and Violence), but that’s a little too dense for the average reader, which is why I didn’t put it on the list.

  2. Catherine Wallace August 28, 2011 at 6:57 am #

    Wow! Thank you very much, both for the bibliography and for your thoughtful, real-voice annotations. I’m a cultural historian working on Jesus and nonviolent confrontation. Another way of putting that is I’m working on the interior-to-Christianity theological resources for discrediting and opposing Christianist-fundamentalist violence-mongering (whether that’s war or “God Hates Faggots” sign-waving). What are the creative, innovative ways of claiming and reclaiming the spiritual resources and inward transformations necessary to confront and oppose violence without hating our enemies or dehumanizing them or killing them? Gandhi talked about the interior change necessary for nonviolent confrontation, but he did so within Hindu traditions that are very sharply mind/body dualist. That can be used in Christian and Muslim cultures, but the theological resources thereby deployed will in the end backfire. The reasons why are theologically complicated, but there are (at least within Christianity, which is all I know well) other and very rich resources that are not mind/body dualist. At any rate: your bibliography is a godsend. I came here via today’s NY Times piece on pacifism. Blessings upon you…

    • rationalinsurgent August 28, 2011 at 12:40 pm #

      Thanks, Catherine, for stopping by (and for giving me the heads up about the NYT piece, which I hadn’t noticed yet). Glad you find the list helpful. Best of luck with your work.

      • Catherine Wallace August 28, 2011 at 6:50 pm #

        You asked for other books. There’s a trilogy by Walter Wink: Naming the Powers (1982), Unmasking the Powers (1986) and Engaging the Powers (1992). See also his When the powers Fall (1998), “The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man (2002) and Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way (2003). Alas, Wink assumes that his readers are all other Christian insiders: this might be tough to follow for ordinary humanists/ secularists, but if such folks are willing simply to ignore what doesn’t make sense and keep going there may be fascinating discoveries. (I’m a literary critic, professionally speaking, not a professional theologian/ religionist at all . . .) Wink is also a bit dated rhetorically: he sounds very 1960s-era antiwar. And of course there’s nothing here of the sociology of nonviolence. That’s my complaint: good work is happening within academic silos. We have incommensurate languages and assumptions–and yet, surely, a common need for a better world.

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