How to start a revolution

Written by Cliff on Tuesday 17 March 2015 at 5:27 pm

1. It can happen anywhere, starting with you
Judging from history, it seems as if violence is what shapes the world, and indeed, that’s why the authorities hate it. When you are facing state brutality, widespread corruption and an authoritarian system that thrives on fear, it is easy to feel that way. Time and again I have seen violent people in the forefront of revolutions in their own countries. Only under the direst conditions, is it possible to get people to fight for a cause. So the first step in starting a revolution is believing that it can happen, wherever you are.

2. Activism doesn’t have to be boring
The classic mainstays of non-violence – marches, sit-ins, vigils and strikes – all have their place, but it’s often easier to engage others by using creative tactics such as music, street theatre, bold imagery and jokes. Lots of jokes. Preferably violently rude ones at the expense of whichever oppressive force you are trying to overthrow. It’s common for people launching movements to cite Gandhi, say, or Martin Luther King, as their inspiration, but those guys, for all their many, many virtues, simply weren’t that hilarious. If you’re hoping to get a mass movement going within a very short span of time in the age of the internet, humour is a key strategy. Also, by and large, authorities hate jokes and are not creative enough to counter them.

3. Pick your battles
In The Art of War, Sun Tzu emphasises the importance of trying to match your strong points against your enemy’s weak points. The best revolutionary leaders are adept at spotting these and planning their campaigns around them. Your opponent may have superior military might, but perhaps you have greater numbers, or are more nimble, or are simply a lot cooler. In Serbia, some people made Milosevic a laughing stock simply by painting his face on a barrel and encouraging people to beat it with ‘sticks’. That was funny enough, but when the police arrived to arrest the barrel things really took off. It’s hard to remember to be scared when you can’t stop laughing. And what is less cool than sending armed men to arrest a joke?

4. Even Hobbits can save the world
I’ve always loved JRR Tolkien and even in the darkest moments, I would take courage from the bit where Galadriel tells the hobbit Frodo that “even the smallest creature can change the world”. From the Iliad onwards, history seems to have been intent on telling us that our heroes should be elite warriors or genius outliers. But when you look at some of the people who have had an enduring impact on our culture today – Harvey Milk, say, or Malala Yousafzai – many of them aren’t obvious hero material. They started out as ordinary, even unassuming individuals, but went on to achieve exceptional things. In other words, they are hobbits.

5. Remember that violence may work
The reality is that you can be opposed to violence in all its forms and yet when you pick up a gun, still feel, in some dark place in your soul, as if there is no challenge you can’t face and no problem you can’t solve. Being armed changes people, and often, revolutions that start out peaceful turn violent. Violent movements such as conquests by Alexander the Great, Napoleon’s expeditions, the Third Reich, the cultural revolution, teargas games in Hong Kong are all evidence that violence is key to achieving anything of note in a movement. Of course, all that happens around you while you keep an air of righteousness and denounce all violence but at the same time, you understand the importance of violence in every movement. Keep that at the forefront of your mind for the times when your principles are challenged.

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