Opinion

Hugo Dixon

The revolution will be organized

By Hugo Dixon
June 29, 2012

This piece first appeared in Reuters Magazine.

Is it possible that rebel leaders are overrated? In the wake of the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and other populist uprisings around the world against autocracy and corruption, geopolitical analysts are asking fundamental questions about what leadership means in such struggles. What sort of leadership is needed in nonviolent uprisings? And in this digital age, do rebellions even need leaders?

The romanticized answer is that nonviolent struggles no longer require a charismatic leader – they can emerge spontaneously as oppressed people rise up and communicate through Facebook and Twitter. This lack of organization or hierarchy is said to be well suited to the goals of such movements. Where insurgents are fighting for democratic rule, it is appropriate that nobody is bossing anybody around. What’s more, this alleged lack of leadership has a side benefit in that it precludes the authorities from destroying a movement by rounding up the ringleaders. You can’t lop off the head if there is no head.

A year ago, in the stirring aftermath of the Egyptian revolution, that paradigm had resonance. But the Arab Spring has run into trouble. It took a long and bloody struggle in Libya to depose Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, and Syria is being inexorably sucked into a civil war. Even Egypt no longer looks like a clear victory for the Facebook revolutionaries: The Muslim Brotherhood, which has a more traditional hierarchy and respect for authority, is poised to scoop up the fruits of the populist occupation of Tahrir Square.

GETTING BEYOND OUTRAGE

“This is a war by other means,” says Robert Helvey, a former U.S. army colonel who has devoted himself to studying nonviolent combat and trains activists in its methods. “If you are going to wage a struggle, everybody needs to be on the same sheet of paper.” The savviest analysts of the recent nonviolent movements never believed they had much chance unless they had leadership, unity, and strategy.

Start with the most basic tenet: No movement is likely to topple an entrenched regime unless it has a strategy. This involves systematically analyzing the opponent’s weaknesses, devising a plan for undermining them, and anticipating how the struggle is likely to unfold. To forge such a strategy, a movement needs leadership. And to follow such a strategy through the hard times ahead – during which nonviolent protests may be met with violence – it will need unity. Srdja Popovic, a leader of Otpor, the Serbian student group that helped bring down Slobodan Milosevic’s dictatorship in 2000, now advises activists on how to organize similar movements. He stresses the importance of unity, and tells them one of the main reasons Otpor succeeded against Milosevic was because it banged together the heads of a bickering group of politicians and got them all to support one candidate.

Leadership is required to plan the different stages of a conflict. Helvey says there are usually three: removing a regime; installing a democratic government, maybe a transitional one; and then defending that new government against coups. He points out that while the Egyptian students brought down Hosni Mubarak, they didn’t have a follow-up plan, which allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to step in and take control. They won an important battle, but had their prize snatched from their hands.

The problem in Egypt was getting beyond regime change, but most movements struggle to get even that far. Again, that’s usually due to a lack of effective leadership. Gene Sharp, a Boston-based academic who has studied nonviolent struggle for over 60 years, says it’s foolhardy to think you don’t need leaders. History supports this argument; few, if any, leaderless nonviolent struggles have been successful, according to Adam Roberts, emeritus professor of international relations at Oxford University. The Occupy Wall Street movement may be a case in point. It was a public relations sensation early on, but the participants didn’t appear to have any strategy beyond pitching tents in public spaces, and public interest fizzled. The ongoing Syrian revolution is another example of the perils of revolt without sound strategy. The activists there didn’t seem to have any plan for what to do when President Bashar al-Assad’s regime fought back with torture, detention, and mass killings – even though that brutal response was predictable.

The Syrian activists made another strategic error: They initially placed too much emphasis on demonstrations against the regime, and while public protests are crucial in revolutionary movements, they expose the participants to brutality. Alternative tactics, such as boycotts and strikes, can be a better way to challenge the regime while keeping your casualties low. It takes leadership to coordinate that kind of strategy. To be fair, the activists in Syria can’t organize or even communicate effectively with anything larger than small cells because as soon as they put their heads above the parapet, they are arrested, tortured or killed. After months of being bludgeoned by the regime, the Syrian activists have increasingly turned to violence themselves.

PROPAGANDISTS AND STRATEGISTS

What sort of leadership is required to sustain a nonviolent revolution? Since headless social-media revolutions appear to be doomed, the temptation is to flip to the opposite extreme – a powerful, charismatic leader. History seems to have smiled upon this tactic: India’s independence movement had Mohandas Gandhi; the U.S. civil rights movement had Martin Luther King; the anti-apartheid movement had Nelson Mandela. More recently, Aung San Suu Kyi has been the face of Burma’s struggle against dictatorship, and Anna Hazare the leader of India’s anti-corruption crusade. Inspirational leaders, all.

“Charismatic leadership makes all the difference in the world when you are running a revolution,” says Helvey. It’s good to have a strong leader who can knock heads together and get everybody to stick to a plan. “You can’t have a democracy to run a war,” he explains. “Once a decision has been made, everybody has to get on with it.”

Still, it would be wrong to jump to the conclusion that successful leadership has to come from a dominant figure. A leadership team has multiple advantages: It will survive if any single leader is captured or killed; it can stop a leader from getting too egotistical or even turning into a new dictator; and it may lead to more innovation, because having an excessively powerful leader can prevent new ideas from percolating.

What’s more, not all of those movements we think of as fronted by charismatic leaders were one-man (or one-woman) bands. Often there were several inspirational leaders. Think of the combination of Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandhi in India; or Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004-2005. Even when there is a single strong leader, that person is unlikely to possess all the qualities required to bring a struggle to a successful conclusion. Movements require both brilliant propagandists and shrewd strategists. In very few cases – such as that of Gandhi, who was both a messianic leader and an intuitive strategist – are both qualities found in one person.

The opposite is more typical. For example, Martin Luther King’s brilliant oratory was married to Bayard Rustin’s tactical genius, according to Roberts. Rustin, who had traveled to India in 1948 to learn the lessons of Gandhi’s campaign, taught King a lot of what he knew about nonviolent struggle. (One of his mottos: Never do the same thing twice.)

AN MBA IN NONVIOLENT REVOLUTION?

Is it possible to teach people how to run a nonviolent revolution? For traditional warfare, there are military academies – such as West Point in the United States and Sandhurst in Britain – dedicated to teaching the strategies of engagement. After training at such a college, young officers then get an apprenticeship working on military campaigns for senior leaders. There is no nonviolent equivalent of Sandhurst, but there have been attempts to train leaders for nonviolent struggles. During the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, young leaders were trained at Gandhi’s old Phoenix Settlement near Durban. Sharp’s Albert Einstein Institution has run workshops for some resistance struggles, as has Popovic – his new Centre for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) has trained activists in several countries, including Egypt, Ukraine, and Georgia.

There are also a few academic courses. One is a graduate program on the strategies and methods of nonviolent social change started by CANVAS at the University of Belgrade. Another is the Fletcher Summer Institute for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict, held at Tufts University in Boston.

More and more academics are also studying the field. Their books and articles are filtering down to activists on the ground, and what those books are telling them is this: To win a nonviolent struggle you must have leadership and solid strategy. Over time, such initiatives will get the relevant know-how to more and more emerging leaders and make them better nonviolent fighters. And that sharing of knowledge makes it more likely that the next nonviolent uprising will not just overthrow a dictator, but will replace him with a viable democratic government.

PHOTO: People gather during the funeral of people whom protesters say were killed by shelling by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad,  in Dael, near Deraa, June 28, 2012.

Comments
9 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

They need know what they want in the end and force their own leader to give it. They need have a plan turn functions over to people who know how to run those functions, not revolutionaries, once the war is over. A saw or speaker factory has to be run by some one good at that not someone good at war of revolutionary politics or even worst a dynasty builder.

Most revolutions beget absolute kings with a different title.

Posted by SamuelReich | Report as abusive
 

“Nonviolent combat”?? Isn’t that a bit like promiscuous chastity?? Nonviolent revolutions are supposed to be secret ballot free elections, are they not? But then, if you give them a free vote, the hoi polloi sometimes do not seem to understand which side of your bread is buttered. Perhaps political theater does work better. For a while. At least it has here, so far.

Sounds a lot like continued American political meddling in countries we do not understand.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive
 

This was one of the most interesting op-eds I’ve read in quite some time. Thank you, Hugo Dixon, for an excellent run through of a topic that needs much more discussion and understanding.

I think the vast majority of Americans will agree that our country is in a bad place, politically speaking. The trouble is that we can’t seem to reach a consensus on what needs to be done. In fact, the country is roughly split down the middle with each of the two sides having nearly antipodal views on how to go about fixing things, and one side in particular has grown increasingly unwilling to compromise. You can’t have a working democracy without compromise.

I’ve come to believe that we’re facing the most serious threat to our Republic since the Civil War, and I don’t say that lightly. There are many overlapping layers to our problems, but I believe the core issue is that the American people are no longer being represented by our government, and as long as that’s true we won’t be able to work out our differences or solve our problems. Individuals and industries have evolved to a realization that they can, not only influence our government, but actually control our government, and do so in ways that are very lucrative. And they’ve done so with amazing and disturbing ease.

They can get our government to do most anything and factions of our government have found it rather easy to get the people to go along. The Iraq War is a perfect case in point. Never has the US been coaxed into a major military conflict with such ease. Vietnam to much longer before serious involvement and once the fighting began, it wasn’t long before an anti-war movement began. So many unanswered questions concerning the run-up to the Iraq war, and we’ve just moved on without learning anything from a war that should never have taken place. We don’t even appreciate just how big a deal that is.

The process of passing the Affordable Care Act is another example of a different sort. No rational person can say that the US healthcare system doesn’t need serious reform, and yet special interests in the healthcare and insurance industries are so powerful that they’ve made it nearly impossible to get something done for our country that needed to be done. Putting the pros and cons of the final legislation aside, the forces that don’t want change to a healthcare system that desperately needed changing are in a position to prevent any change. That’s big. It goes beyond political parties because the Affordable Care Act is built around a conservative idea. So here was a conservative idea designed by a man with the Heritage Foundation and first implemented by a Republican governor (who, ironically, is now running for President on the promise to repeal the ACA) and was being proposed by a Democratic President and backed by the Democratic Party. That’s the closest we can possibly come to a consensus on a major piece of legislation, and look what happened. It is nothing short of a miracle that it made it into law and survived a Supreme Court challenge. And Republicans are still promising that the fight isn’t over, that they will stop “Obamacare”. What more proof does any American need to realize that “our” government is no longer ours? This was the Republicans’ idea.

Yes, despite the quarter billion dollars spent combating the ACA and all the political opposition, it did pass. However, it’s still too early to say whether it will survive and, more importantly, the powers that have exerted so much influence in the fight against tampering with America’s healthcare status quo are only growing stronger. If they can take us to war whenever it suits them and prevent us for making improvements to something as important as our healthcare, then we no longer have a government that represents us. That being the case, we no longer have a democracy.

In my opinion, the weapon of choice being used, purchased with the enormous wealth of these plutocrats, is propaganda. As long as they can control the information, they can control just about everything. I already mentioned the quarter of a billion dollars effectively spent demonizing the ACA. We’ve reached a point where I believe people have more misinformation than they do the truth. Millions of Americans will cast votes in the upcoming election based on misinformation. I saw a poll six months into the Iraq War where 70% of the American people believe Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks. As a cousin of mine said to me, “Everyone knows that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11.” That should be unacceptable. What happened to the outrage? You know something’s not right when Americans show tremendous outrage over an attempt to improve their healthcare and show none at all when we’re cozened into fighting an unnecessary war.

So what do you do? How do we get past a multi-billion dollar propaganda campaign that few Americans even know exists? Any organizing that threatens those in power, the real power brokers, will be easily denigrated and neutered through bought members of our government and our news media. The news media problem is not so much what they tell us; it’s what they don’t inform us about, with the exception of FOX News. They are the closest thing we have to a direct propaganda channel.

It’s all going to get much worse. Once a snowball starts rolling, you’ve lost control over it and there’s no telling how big it’s going to get and have far it will roll.

Posted by flashrooster | Report as abusive
 

“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” The author and his academic sources don’t seem to notice the contradiction in what they’re saying. That is, that democratic movements can’t succeed unless they are undemocratically organized with a dictatorial head or junta to “knock heads together and get everybody to stick to a plan.” Karl Marx believed that there would be a “dictatorship of the proletariat” which would fade away to produce true communism. The Soviet Union’s dictatorship did indeed fade away, but it was followed by the pseudo-democratic autocracy of Vladimir Putin, not communism. The Romans tried electing their “dictator” who would voluntarily step down after the wars were over, but that didn’t last long, ending when Julius decided to call himself Caesar and become emperor rather than step down. It’s not yet politically or academically respectable to say that all forms of government evolve to become dictatorships or monarchies, so we end up with incoherent articles like this one.

Face it, democracy is hard. It requires the people to elect representatives, not leaders. It requires the people to communicate thoughtfully with those representatives, and the representatives to reasonably and thoughtfully work with each other on common problems. When major political movements are based on the premise that negative campaign ads work better than constructive discussion, that cooperation is evil and that members of other political parties are traitors, democracy will continue to deteriorate.

Social media have the opportunity to bypass power-hungry leaders and allow the people to communicate directly with each other, making it possible for leaderless democratic movements to react and refocus more efficiently and rapidly than ever before, but their technical architecture with centralized software and servers makes them just as corruptible as the old fashioned political machines that used smoke-filled back rooms instead of giant server farms.

Posted by g3e | Report as abusive
 

Any true revolution of thought will have to be, by necessity, a leaderless revolt against tyranny of the kleptocracy. If one creates a leader and he his destroyed, through violence, corruption or slander, the whole movement dies. Why take the chance of that happening?
A top business man once said “I have marketing people run my company. I have accountants to make sure they are honest and I have lawyers watching the accountants.I watch the lawyers.” You have to have a technocratic management team running the show with checks and balances, to keep them honest.

Posted by Amack | Report as abusive
 

I am somewhat late to this discussion, but I think the topic is sufficiently interesting that I’d like to add my two-cents in the hopes that other will also stumble upon it like I did.

Thank you for posting this Hugo. Your argument is similar to the one made by Evgeny Morozov in his excellent The Net Delusion, which was released right before the beginning of the Arab Spring, and the Occupy Wall Street Movement, seemed to be discredited by both, but ultimately might have been a better guide to how these events would unfold then the techno-utopianism that seemed to infect the media when they first occurred.
I did a blog-post called “Would Kierkegaard Tweet?” on the existential side of Morozov’s argument, which if you are interested you can check out at:

http://utopiaordystopia.com/2012/06/03/w ould-kierkegaard-tweet/

In his article Hugo drove home for me the organizational issues faced by the deliberative democracy at the heart of at least the Occupy Wall Street Movement. What I find somewhat tragic is that the OWSM seemed to represent not just a new form of politics, but potentially a new form of governance. That seems lost now.

Are all movements that represent the transformation of a political system doomed to take the form of the system they hope to replace?

Posted by RickSearle | Report as abusive
 

I am somewhat late to this discussion, but I think the topic is sufficiently interesting that I’d like to add my two-cents in the hopes that other will also stumble upon it like I did.
Thank you for posting this Hugo. Your argument is similar to the one made by Evgeny Morozov in his excellent The Net Delusion, which was released right before the beginning of the Arab Spring, and the Occupy Wall Street Movement, seemed to be discredited by both, but ultimately might have been a better guide to how these events would unfold then the techno-utopianism that seemed to infect the media when they first occurred.
I did a blog-post called “Would Kierkegaard Tweet?” on the existential side of Morozov’s argument, which if you are interested you can check out at:
http://utopiaordystopia.com/2012/06/03/w ould-kierkegaard-tweet/
In his article Hugo drove home for me the organizational issues faced by the deliberative democracy at the heart of at least the Occupy Wall Street Movement. What I find somewhat tragic is that the OWSM seemed to represent not just a new form of politics, but potentially a new form of governance. That seems lost now. Are all movements that represent the transformation of a political system doomed to take the form of the system they replace?

Posted by RickSearle | Report as abusive
 

This column is simply a rehash of Dobson’s The Dictator’s Learning Curve – Hugo, whose writing I like, quotes the EXACT same folks Dobson does. And his example of the Tymoshenko-Yushchenko tandem does not buttress his argument, seeing how quickly it unraveled after the orange tents left Maidan. I’m not sure how relevant Otpor or its offspring is to the OWS or Tahrir Square folks engaging in non-violent protests. A better source might be political scientists like Erica Chenoweth at Wesleyan, or organizational theorists/management consultants who deal with bureaucratic organizations. I guess what I’m trying to say is: Earn your paycheck. Call around and speak to a few non-Gene Sharp acolytes and then let’s talk.

Posted by arlo2012 | Report as abusive
 

Dear Dixon, we have to stop old Zionist habit of hacking into everything, just to bring it where they want to, and the way they want. Respect people’s sentiments sometimes. Brotherhood has lost their precious lives for decades during the movement.Americans and Zionists have scooped up the fruits of various clans/regimes/governments and even countries for centuries now, and continue to do so. Lets do justice on earth, as it is called.

Posted by mubeenahs | Report as abusive
 

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