From Dictatorship to Democracy — summary

TL; DR: Competent strategic planning of political defiance is necessary in order to take down a dictatorship. To be as effective as possible, this strategy must target the dictators’ most important sources of power at their weakest points.

Why strategy is essential:

You are more likely to end up where you want to go

Need to maximize resources since the dictatorship has so much more

Ensures that the current dictator isn’t just replaced by a new one

Keeps you on the offenses instead of just responding to whatever the dictatorship does

Otherwise may just be wasting energy; just doing whatever you feel like doing isn’t likely to be enough to take down the dictatorship. It may even increase the dictatorship’s strength.


The movement must be nonviolent.

By using violence, you attack the dictatorship at its strongest point (i.e. military).

Don’t worry about infiltration.

Since it’s bound to happen whether you strive to maintain secrecy or not, you gain more from including as many people as possible than being closed off and allowing paranoia to destroy the resistance group.

Can’t plan just to dismantle the dictatorship; have to also plan the democratic system that will replace it or else another dictator will.

The dictatorship’s power lies in:

Authority: the belief among the people that the regime is legitimate and that they have a moral duty to obey it.

The assistance of the people

Material resources (incl. financial)

Punishment of those who are disobedient

How to dismantle these bases of power:

Delegitimize the regime’s authority (e.g. through symbolic acts)

Overcome the people’s fear and habit of obedience; increase their desire and ability to withdraw cooperation by disseminating stories that illustrate this process

Strengthen social groups independent from dictatorship (isolated individuals not members of groups usually are unable to make a significant impact)

Use strikes, boycotts, economic autonomy, etc. to restrict dictators’ material resources

First plan grand strategy, then strategies for selected resistance on particular issues, then tactics for each strategy and the methods you will use.

Grand strategy: the basic framework for coordinating resources to attain objectives.

Strategy: how best to achieve particular objectives within the grand strategy (and how to measure success).

Tactic: a limited action employed to achieve a specific objective.

Method: specific means of action (from small-scale dissent, e.g. stalling or dressing a certain way, to large-scale protests)


How to figure out grand strategy:

Figure out the weaknesses of the dictatorship and how to exploit them.

Sketch out the broad strokes of the entire conflict

Make the grand strategy widely known (more people will be willing to participate when they see that taking down the dictatorship is actually possible and how to do it)

Once you’ve decided on a grand strategy, do not deviate from it to emotions of the moment or minor moves by the dictatorship.

How to plan campaign strategies:

Acquire a thorough understanding of the workings of nonviolent struggle.

Decide which campaigns will best move the grand strategy forward.

Each campaign should involve different segments of the population to avoid burnout.

Determine how to preserve order and meet the needs of the people during the conflict.

Reevaluate and develop alternative courses of action as needed.

While implementing campaigns:

Disseminate guidelines to participants on when and how to withhold cooperation.

Warn participants what the risks of various actions are

Maintain nonviolence through pledges, leaflets; boycott pro-violent people

Keeping reporting strictly factual. Exaggerations will undermine credibility.

Determine how to withstand countermeasures by the dictatorship

Celebrate ALL successes, including small ones, to keep up morale.

Campaigns in the beginning of the struggle differ from those towards the end

In the beginning, choose attainable objectives since victories raise morale.

Weaken the people’s support of the dictatorship (e.g. reveal brutalities of the regime and

disastrous economic consequences from their policies)

In more advanced stages, restrict dictators’ power with mass popular noncooperation, then sever power completely to disintegrate dictatorship.

HIGH PRIORITY: It will be exceptionally difficult, or impossible, to disintegrate the dictatorship if the police, bureaucrats, and military forces remain fully supportive of the dictatorship and obedient in carrying out its commands. (However, the goal is NOT a coup d’état.)

Assess loyalty of military. What factors might make them vulnerable to democratic subversion?

Military can help through safe forms of disobedience: being inefficient, ignoring orders, offering safe passage.

Must concurrently build independent society/parallel government

Will take over once dictatorship falls.

Determine which aspects of the government need to be abolished and which just need to be revised.

Make sure it preserves civil liberties.

Plan ahead what to do with the former dictators (avoid a bloodbath!)

After fall of dictatorship:

Celebrate, but do not reduce vigilance. Utopia will not just suddenly appear. This is only the beginning point for long-term efforts to improve society.

Block attempted coups the same way you took down the dictatorship (deny legitimacy, withhold cooperation)

The formerly oppressed will now have more self-confidence in dealing with future problems.



If you would like to know more, I also have summaries of Gene Sharp’s other, more detailed works:

Self-Liberation: an expansion on From Dictatorship to Democracy, focusing more on general social struggle than dictatorships specifically, making it much more applicable to the situation in the United States (as well as other countries).

The Strategic Estimate: the first step an organization must take to lay the best possible grand strategy for a social movement.

The Grand Strategy: the second step in the organization in a social movement: determining the best ways to launch and continue the conflict.


The story behind this summary:

From Dictatorship to Democracy by Gene Sharp is known as THE how-to book on taking down a dictatorship. It’s been banned in many countries (so you KNOW it’s gotta be good 😉 ) and has guided multiple movements, including the Arab Spring. Since I think the 1% qualifies as a “dictatorship” at least enough for this book to be helpful, I recommended it constantly to the strategic national committee of Occupy.

Although I highly recommend reading the entire book (available in full online!), I made this summary so that anyone who hasn’t read it can easily check out its contents, as well as for quick reference for those who have already read it. It’s very helpful, for me, to see the sort of tightly organized blueprint of these points for a birds-eye-view on it–exactly what this sort of strategizing entails.

Even if you end up just thinking all this stuff through on your own rather than discussing it with anyone else, let alone using it to coordinate actions (although I think that would be ideal), I think that’s still of huge benefit. You’ll be able to pick activities with the confidence that they are the best use of your limited time and energy. To me, there’s nothing worse than taking a whole day out of your life to go to a march without knowing if you made any impact at all or even what impact you were supposed to be making, and what it was supposed to lead to.  Moreover, by not thinking this stuff through yourself, you’ll have left it up to the organizers of actions and just following along like sheep, which is exactly the sort of thinking that got us into this mess in the first place, or, perhaps worse, not even the organizers will have thought this stuff through and the event is completely useless or even counter-productive.



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11 responses to “From Dictatorship to Democracy — summary

  1. david dwyer

    thanks for your work on this, Jack. I will put it to use on Monday.

  2. Tony

    The book still doesn’t understand anything about the necessary alternative. It is not so much “From dictatorship to democracy” but “From democracy to dictatorship”. Gene Sharp does not seem to understand that what he sees as the replacement of the dictatorship, is the very thing that led to the dictatorship in the first place. A clearly defined constitution? Separation of powers? Democracy? And here i was thinking America already tried that.
    You are not EVER going to get liberty as a result of democracy because as long as you have political power and a monopoly of force, the wrong kind of people will be attracted to that power, influence and money. The government will once again spread out like a toxic oil slick, liberties and rights will once again be eroded over generations so that each new generation will experience just a tiny bit of the erosion while the total erosion will be massive (frog in boiling water).
    Besides, democracy *is* dictatorship. It doesn’t matter if it’s one guy, a cabal of money players, or a majority of people looking at democracy like a weapon to impose their values and/or needs on the rest. There is no more moral superiority to a numerically superior group to impose its will on the rest, than there is to a financially superior group to do it.

  3. jack

    Hi Tony,

    It sounds like you’re of the anarchist persuasion. If that’s the case, I suppose I know what you mean by hyperbolically referring to democracy as a dictatorship. However, I must say that this is very obviously not the case. Dictatorships are dictatorships; democracies are democracies. Their definitions are quite different, both in the dictionary and according to those who live under those systems. Gene Sharp wrote this guide specifically for people currently under serious dictatorships–I think specifically for Myanmar, where the book was secretly disseminated. This is not to say that there aren’t freedom-limiting components to democracies, which is what you seem to be alluding to, but I’m just saying call a spade a spade. You don’t gain much by going around calling everything a spade.

    Additionally, by posting this, I wasn’t even attempting to say that I thought the US was a dictatorship; it just so happens that the content of this book also seemed helpful with social organizing against a powerful force of any kind (although Self Liberation [which I also summarized: ] has even more of that general scope). So even if you disagree that democracy (or a republic) is a good system, you may find Sharp’s methods surprisingly helpful in working toward an anarchist utopia or whatever form of society you think is ideal.

    Then again, Sharp’s ideas necessitate central organizing and focus, which most anarchists are against.

  4. Anonymous

    thanks bro
    saved my ass on uni exam!

  5. Pingback: The Grand Strategy — the final piece of the Gene Sharp summaries | Jack Lindstrom

  6. Pingback: What could Libya, Egypt and Syria have benefitted from From Dictatorship to Democracy? | Jack Lindstrom

  7. Pingback: From Dictatorship To Democracy by Gene Sharp - A Critical ReviewFrom Dictatorship To Democracy by Gene Sharp - A Critical ReviewFrom Dictatorship To Democracy by Gene Sharp - A Critical Review - We Need To Talk...About Fighting For Human Rights

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