Freedom is not free: From Dictatorship to Democracy

Freedom is not free: Extraction from “From Dictatorship to Democracy – A Conceptual Framework for Liberation”. Author: Gene Sharp.

Jaalataa Nagaroo, July 17, 2020


Several dictatorships, often seen as firmly entrenched and impregnable proved unable to withstand the concerted political, economic, and social defiance of the people and have collapsed or stumbled when confronted by defiant and mobilized people.

The problem of dictatorships is deep, as dictators will repeatedly seek to impose their will upon the oppressed people.  In extreme cases, the social, political, economic, and even religious institutions of the society are deliberately weakened, subordinated, or even replaced by new regimented institutions used by the dictator to control the society. The population will often be atomized (turned into a mass of isolated individuals) unable to work together to achieve freedom, to confide in each other, or even to do much of anything at their own initiative.

The result is predictable: the population becomes weak, lacks self-confidence, and is incapable of resistance. People are often too frightened to share their hatred of the dictatorship and their hunger for freedom even with family and friends. People are often too terrified to think seriously of public resistance.

Simple acts of passive resistance may become insufficient to overcome the people’s fear to destroy the dictatorship. Constitutional and legal barriers, judicial decisions, and public opinion are normally ignored by dictators. Angry victims have sometimes organized to fight the brutal dictators with whatever capacity they could muster, despite the odds being against them.

When people become desperate, they tend to seek the intervention of foreign saviors. However, foreign saviors probably should not be trusted. A few harsh realities concerning reliance on foreign intervention need to be emphasized here:

  • Frequently, foreign states will tolerate or even positively assist, a dictatorship in order to advance their own economic or political interests.
  • Foreign states also may be willing to sell out an oppressed people instead of keeping pledges to assist their liberation at the cost of another objective.
  • Some foreign states will act against a dictatorship only to gain their own economic, political, or military control over the country.
  • The foreign states may become actively involved for positive purposes only if and when the internal resistance movement has already begun shaking the dictatorship, having thereby focused international attention on the brutal nature of the regime.

When one wants to bring down a dictatorship most effectively and with the least cost, then one has four immediate tasks:

  • One must strengthen the oppressed population themselves in their determination, self-confidence, and resistance skills;
  • One must strengthen the independent social groups and institutions of the oppressed people;
  • One must create a powerful internal resistance force and
  • One must develop a wise grand strategic plan for liberation and implement it skillfully.

Charles Stewart Parnell called out during the Irish strike campaign in 1879 and 1880:

“You must only rely upon your own determination . . . . [H]elp yourselves by standing together . . . strengthen those amongst yourselves who are weak . . . , band yourselves together, organize yourselves . . . and you must win . . .”.

Against a strong self-reliant force, given wise strategy, disciplined and courageous action, and genuine strength, the dictatorship will eventually crumble.

There are three major conclusions to the ideas sketched here:

  • Liberation from dictatorships is possible;
  • Very careful thought and strategic planning will be required to achieve it; and
  • Vigilance, hard work, and disciplined struggle, often at great cost, will be needed.

The oft quoted phrase “Freedom is not free” is true. No outside force is coming to give oppressed people the freedom they so much want. People will have to learn how to take that freedom themselves.


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