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.
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.
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.
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.