ICYMI: The Dissident’s Toolkit

30 Oct

[UPDATE: A reader noted that the Sun Tzu quote at the end of the article may be apocryphal, citing a claim made on WikiQuotes. I did look through my translation of The Art of War looking for the quote and did not find it, although it may appear in other versions. If this is true, my apologies for the error.]


In case you missed it, I had a short piece in Foreign Policy last week about the importance of tactical choice in understanding why some nonviolent campaigns succeed while others fail. Here’s the gist:

Of course, demonstrations — and people power movements in general — tend to fail as often as they succeed. But when we look at outright failures — such as Tiananmen Square, the 1956 Hungarian uprising, or the 2007 Saffron Revolution in Burma — a few patterns become evident. The failed campaigns never spread to include vast proportions of the population, and failed to shift between highly risky tactics and safer ones. But they also failed to establish a long-term strategy to make the campaigns sustainable, which was especially important given the brutality of state repression. The average duration of a nonviolent campaign was between two-and-a-half and three years, but few of these campaigns had a long-term strategy, besides the wishful hope that tactical victories might make the regime comply with their demands.

Campaigns of civil resistance are underway in many countries around the world, from Bahrain to Maldives, from Turkey to Bulgaria. In all of these cases, movement planners must carefully analyze the political effects that tactics like demonstrations have. If these tactics fail to increase sympathy for the campaign at home or abroad, diversify the base of participants, and encourage defections among regime elites, then they are not helping the movement’s chances of succeeding. But rather than abandoning the struggle because demonstrations stop working, movement leaders would do well to appreciate the many other nonviolent methods of protest and noncooperation they can bring to bear against their opponents. The campaigns that ultimately succeed will be the ones that fully embrace Sun Tzu’s warning that “tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

They also put up a nice slideshow of kitchenware in people power movements.

The full article is here.

2 Responses to “ICYMI: The Dissident’s Toolkit”

  1. samldiener October 31, 2013 at 7:02 am #

    Hi Erica,
    I’m enjoying these posts, and greatly appreciate your work evaluating patterns of successful and less than successful nonviolent campaigns.
    One quibble regarding the Sun Tzu quotation. It didn’t sound right to me, though it is similar to what Sun Tzu says in the book. Wikiquote calls this particular quotation a misattribution originating perhaps in 2002: http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Sun_Tzu#Misattributed.

    • rationalinsurgent October 31, 2013 at 9:02 am #

      Sam, thanks for pointing out that link. I’ll make the correction.

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