Stirring up A Revolution Non-violently

Revolutions, throughout history have been the catalysts for change. Every time the world has seen oppression, tyranny, or even unfair rules – social, political or dictatorial – people have come together, started a social movement and fought for real change. 

While revolutions have been bloody, devastating and inhumane, there are many examples of non-violent revolutions, such as Gandhi’s non-violent fight for independence from British rule, the overthrowing of Slobodan Milošević’s dictatorship, or even political activist Srdja Popovic’s non-violent strategies, speckled through history that prove that change can be brought about peacefully.

Blueprint for Revolution (2015) by Srdja Popovic and Matthew Miller outlines certain non-violent methods for a successful revolution and change.

Pick A Winning Battle

One of the most effective strategy for a successful battle is to pick small, winnable battles. Moreover,  revolutions need a following. In infancy, any revolution is unknown to the public. It, therefore, needs a name before it can build that following.

Blueprint for Revolution by Srdja Popovic - Book Summary & Review
Blueprint for Revolution by Srdja Popovic – Book Summary & Review

Consider Gandhi’s call for non-violent movement. It began in 1930 as a month-long march to the sea, opposing the salt tax placed by the British Empire in colonial India. Dubbed the Salt March, Gandhi had about 12,000 people joining him towards the end. Caught off-guard, the British had to drop the imposed tax. Gandhi’s non-violent march got his movement momentum and fame. It helped him win bigger revolutions later.

In another example, Harvey Milk was the first openly gay American politician to be elected to public office. While at the outset of his career, he believed that giving inspirational speeches about things that mattered to him would garner followers. However, when this didn’t work as well, he decided to change his strategy. He campaigned about something that the people in San Francisco cared about too – dog poop that desecrated the city’s parks. His campaign was widely successful and in 1977, he got elected to the local government.

Using Inspiring Visions Of The Future

Inspiring people is easier said than done. People need to be able to envision the future they are fighting for. 

When communist Yugoslavia fell, Slobodan Milošević, rose to power installing an authoritarian rule in Serbia. Starting a propagandist campaign against all of Serbia’s neighbours, he banned foreign music. Thus the revolution Otpor! was born. It focussed on openness to the world, and the ability to enjoy other cultures as they had earlier. The group helped overthrow Slobodan Milošević in 2000.

Similarly, in the Maldives, a South Asian island, was preparing for its first democratic election after thirty years in 2008. The party opposing the dictatorship of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was looking for a vision to get voters together.

A member of the party, Imran Zahir, took a trip around the island to get an idea of the vision that would motivate people. He saw that many of the islands were populated with elderly people, who had no jobs and were completely dependent. He realised that they needed financial independence and healthcare. He then mounted a campaign that called for a public welfare system with pensions and healthcare. The opposing party won the election when they presented the public with this vision and a free serving of rice pudding!

Overthrowing Dictatorship

A theory called the ‘pillars of power’ was introduced in 1973 by political science professor Gene Sharp. His theory stated that every regime stands firm due to a handful of supports called the ‘pillars of power’, and if even one of them has sufficient pressure applied to it, the regime will topple.

This theory can be applied to any institution. For example, a small African tribal village could consider the tribal elders as the pillars of power.  Political parties will have favoured leaders or friendly news sources, whereas corporations would stand firm supported by the power of shareholders, or the media that influence stock pricing via reporting.

Dictatorships however are different. Dictatorships have a single important pillar of power – the economy. Finance is needed by the dictator for everything ranging from spreading propaganda to creating armies. If the source of finance is cut off, a dictator is unable to defend the regime and thus vulnerable.

Any movement that wishes to overthrow a dictator should hence, look for the dictator’s financial support and neutralize it. For instance, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad leaned on foreign investments for money. If these foreign firms were to close operations in the country, Assad’s regime would be vulnerable.

In fact, a few nonviolent activist groups did try to expose these businesses and their ties with the regime, hoping that the negative press would affect their profits and the firms would consider stopping their business in Syria. However, the effort was thwarted by the civil war that broke out.

The Power Of Humour

Humour and comedy are powerful tools that activists can help build resistance. When cleverly deployed, humour can counteract the fear of the people by ridiculing the regime.

The Otpor! Activists pulled a famous stunt by painting Milošević’s face on an oil barrel and a baseball bat in the middle of the street with “Smash his face for a dinar” written on a display beside it. As people lined up to take a swing, the police arrived.

Though the members of the group had vanished, the police had 2 choices – arrest the public waiting to take a swing at the barrel, or arrest the barrel itself! Funnily enough, they chose the latter and the very next day, Belgrade had pictures of 2 policemen arresting an oil barrel plastered around every street. They took the fear right out of Milošević’s policemen.

Humour works well as it is difficult for a regime to respond to it.

In October 1987, the Polish opposition group Solidarity decided to join the celebrations the communist Polish government had planned to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Solidarity decided to hold a rally by displaying their ‘love’ of communism. People adorning red clothes appeared on streets with banners painted with bombastic communist language.

While the authorities were upset, they couldn’t arrest people for celebrating communism.

Why Oppressive Measures Backfire

History has shown that when authoritarian regimes force subjects to comply by intimidation, punishments, or shows of brute force, it can backfire.

The Saffron Revolution in Burma started after the Burmese military regime committed a brutal act of repression against 400 Burmese monks on 19th September 2007. Considered the highest moral authority in the country, no one thought that the army would open fire at them. They killed a dozen monks, and arrested and sentenced countless others in court.

Though the Burmese military was known for their violence, this act crossed the line. The people of the country then started the Saffron Revolution in protest. This protest too, was violently suppressed, but it did pave the way for open elections 8 years later.

Similarly, when Milošević was at his peak, a small Serbian town called Subotica was ruled by a sadistic officer called Ivan. Ivan was huge, built like a wrestler, and was famous for beating any Otpor! member he found. One day, the activists put up posters of Ivan all around the town which read, “This man is a bully! Call this man and ask him why he is beating our kids.” The outcome?

The people in town, including Ivan’s closest, started avoiding Ivan, his wife and his children. They were essentially outcasted by the people of the town. Eventually, the beatings stopped, and Ivan’s terrorizing was thwarted by a few homemade posters.

The Effectiveness Of Non-violent Movements

Revolutions, by virtue of history, bring up images of bloodbaths and violence. However, history also shows that non-violent revolutions are far more effective than violent ones at eliciting positive change.

A 2011 study by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, considered 323 revolutions between 1900 and 2006. The study showed that non-violent revolutions during these years had double the chances of success than violent ones. Moreover, not only were peaceful revolutions more likely to bring about the creation of vibrant democracies, they had a 40% higher chance that the democracies would prevail five years after the peaceful resistance.

The statistics dropped to just 5% for violent revolutions.

Non-violent revolutions are open to all, men, women, children and the elderly, while in violent revolutions only healthy, strong and fit people can participate. Furthermore, non-violence is more desirable as it inspires action amongst the people, whereas violence, armed rebels and thugs hardly evoke feelings of trust. People are also more likely to join ordinary people fighting for their rights peacefully, than an armed militant group.


Non-violent revolutions derive strong power from mass support, far more than violent revolutions do. In order to bring about a real positive change in the world, one can protest without violence. All one needs is creativity, a compelling vision of the future, and peaceful means that will appeal to the masses.