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How to have a revolution without pitchforks

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Blood, death, violence, risk: revolutions are rarely synonymous with peace. They are seen to be a matter of sharpening your pitchforks rather than sharpening your pencil. Yet non-violent political revolutions are very much a part of shaping global politics. Although many would rightly see a non-violent revolution as the obvious choice, it’s not necessarily the easy choice. Using physical force to overthrow a tyrant is often the clearest option whilst non-violent revolution is a drawn out, step by step process which may seem entirely untenable when feelings are running high.

Step 1-Spread the message quickly through grassroots support

Although this stage is not exclusive to non-violent revolution, generating grassroots support for your political cause is essential and is a step that has become easier as technological innovations allow greater access to instant communication. The effectiveness of using such technology to expand grassroots support can be seen in the Orange Revolution in Ukraine (2004) and ESDA 2 Revolution in the Philippines (2001), where both campaigns saw the use of text messaging and social media to promote their cause and whip up grassroots support.

Step 2-Be prepared for a long fight

Revolutions are not a hobby for the impatient, especially if you plan to undertake a peaceful one. The first attempt to spread the message of the revolution may not be successful. It may take several attempts and will require something original to capture the media’s attention and thereby garner mass support. The leader of the Orange Revolution, Viktor Yushchenko, managed this by convincing all of the participants to wear something orange. This vibrant six-day protest which was described as “a democracy festival” due to the atmosphere which was created drew in the media’s attention and gave Yushchenko the platform to overthrow the incumbent leader.

Step 3-Stay unified and attract other agents

Unification is an absolutely key element in non-violent revolution because, unlike with violent revolution, using guerilla splinter cell tactics is not very effective. This is exemplified in the Occupy movement, whose aim is to change the political and economic structure of the financial sector globally. They have suffered a complete lack of success not due to an absence of hard work or grassroots support, nor because they have lost the stomach for the fight, but rather because they have fractured as a movement. This failure in co-ordination was partly caused by the absence of a recognisable leader, resulting in an incoherent message regarding how to change the worldwide economic system. When peaceful revolutions have succeeded they have usually had a strong leader to keep them unified; consider Martin Luther King as a man recognised for his powerful leadership, and you can see the long term success this can generate.

Step 4-The aftermath

Gained grassroots support? Tick. Prepared yourself for a long fight? Tick. Stayed unified under a strong leader? Tick. Job done right? No. Only half the battle is won. Even when the initial revolution is complete and the tyrant has been overthrown or the desired political upheaval has been achieved it is still very easy to relapse into the old ways. This mistake was made in the Arab Spring when the importance of the aftermath of a revolution became a hard reality for nations such as Egypt, who believed that they had succeeded in their revolution yet “harsh repression remains the order of the day”. To prevent the cycle of tyranny to revolution and back to tyranny, the revolutionaries must fundamentally fix the problems of the past, and these problems have to stay fixed. However, this is far easier said than done. For example, although the Muslim Brotherhood promised change from the regime of Mubarak, they can only be judged to be just as authoritarian. For many revolutionaries the opportunities to make true and lasting change never truly arise.

Even for those nations with a brief opportunity to break the ‘tyranny to revolution and back again’ cycle it may seem like an impossible task. Although the ESDA 2 revolution did initially appear a success and the new regime did manage to increase “government effectiveness and rule of law”, not automatically reverting to the status quo, inequality still thrived and the nation still experienced huge problems with corruption and government accountability which have led to further attempts at revolution with violence and potential political upheaval.

Similarly in Ukraine with the Orange revolution the nation finds itself still stuck in a cycle of revolution, with continuing problems of political and financial corruption.

Although making a success of the aftermath of revolution is evidently very difficult, perhaps even impossible for some, it is undoubtedly achievable for others. Perhaps the prime example of this is the case of the Peaceful Revolution in East Germany, which managed to unite Germans through violence-free protests and end the rule of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany.

Where the Peaceful Revolution succeeded, unlike the Arab Spring or the Orange and ESDA 2 revolutions, is that it provided a real opportunity for change. They achieved this partly through lucky circumstances but also through the power of a resistance whose foundations were laid on strong grassroots support, the stamina for a long fight and an ability to stay unified.

The Peaceful Revolution is proof that we need to say that, although it may seem impossible, a revolution without pitchforks is indeed within our grasp when the necessary pieces of the puzzle are in place.

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