Road to Revolution

Road to Revolution is a promotional short by British filmmaker Ruaridh Arrow, telling the story of the making of his documentary How to Start a Revolution.

How to Start a Revolution is about the influence of social theorist and nonviolent activist Gene Sharp on recent nonviolent movements against dictatorships around the world, including those of the Arab Spring.

I have not seen How to Start a Revolution. Not yet that is, but it’s on my list of films I hope to see eventually. (It’s one of hundreds of such films—mostly indie films and documentaries—so who knows if and when I’ll get to it.)

In Road to Revolution, Arrow explains how, as a very low level journalist with no money, no contacts, no job where he had the freedom to pursue the kind of stories he craved to cover, he bootstrapped his way into an award winning documentary through commitment, dogged persistence, Kickstarter crowd funding, and frankly probably his being too naïve to realize how hopeless his quest was.

He was able to secure the by now quite elderly Sharp’s cooperation with the project, but it took a year of persuasion. (There’s that dogged persistence.) In one of the most striking sequences in this film, he talks about getting footage for his documentary in Egypt during the uprising against Hosni Mubarak, where he was explicitly told by a member of the security forces that he would be murdered by them if he did not leave the area. He didn’t—leave or get murdered—but that’s pretty impressive to risk martyrdom for his film project.

I know a decent amount about Gene Sharp’s work, but only from decades ago. I’ll make only brief comments about it now, and presumably say considerably more if I do indeed see How to Start a Revolution in the future.

It’s probably an exaggeration to say that Sharp was one of my heroes when I was younger, but he was one of the people I read the most when I was researching and writing about Gandhi and Gandhian ethics in an academic context.

Surprisingly, I didn’t know until I saw this short film that Sharp was such an important figure to contemporary revolutionary movements around the world. I assumed his heyday was back in the ’60s and ’70s during the Vietnam era when the antiwar movement was booming and there was briefly some interest in Gandhi and nonviolence. I didn’t even know he was still alive.

What I recall from my reading of decades ago is that Sharp had a very pragmatic approach to nonviolence. He was all about examining what nonviolent tactics worked in what circumstances. I don’t know if he was an out-and-out pacifist himself, but he advocated being willing to work with non-pacifists in a nonviolent movement. That is, don’t insist on purity; if people aren’t nonviolent in principle but are only sticking to nonviolence temporarily because they believe it will be effective in given circumstances, accept that and accept them.

Gandhi himself had mixed feelings at best about that. Sharp, in at least one book or essay that I read, argued that Gandhi never insisted on having only “nonviolence as a principle” people in his movements but was willing to accept “nonviolence as a policy” people as well. My reaction was, “Well, sort of.”

Gandhi ended up quite disillusioned and self-blaming over the results of the movement he led to gain India’s independence from the British, and he explicitly attributed his disappointment to the fact that—as he now saw—the bulk of the participants in his movement never properly accepted nonviolence in their hearts the way he wanted, and that that made it quite understandable why things fell apart so badly (terrible bloodletting upon the Partition of India and Pakistan) when independence was achieved.

Did he ever take the position that therefore he wished the movement had never happened, or that he wished it had been openly and honestly violent all along? No. So in that sense Sharp is right. Gandhi never repudiated working with people who only used nonviolence as a temporary policy because they lacked the opportunity to impose their will successfully through conventional violent means. But he strongly criticized them (or at least strongly criticized himself for failing to convert them to his philosophy).

I suppose his position was that that kind of impure nonviolent movement was better than nothing, but that it wasn’t remotely what he had in mind and thus would never have the kind of long term positive impact he believed his type of principled nonviolence would.

I think that’s why I haven’t followed these more recent nonviolent movements around the globe more closely. My impression is that they consistently are the kind of nonviolence that saddened Gandhi, and I have never had high hopes for them. I think they’re mostly using nonviolence because they’re greatly outgunned and don’t see violence as a viable option, but I have every expectation in each case that if and when they achieve state power, they’ll use all the usual tools of state violence. And I don’t think there have yet been any cases that have proved that assumption wrong.

I mean, sure, I’d rather they do what they’re calling nonviolence than become violent terrorists or whatever, but Gandhi has come to mean a great deal to me because I am convinced that without the kind of earth-shattering, paradigm-shifting, moral revolution that he advocated (or something like it; I’m not saying his specific version is the be-all and end-all), then we are firmly on the road to human self-extinction. These contemporary political movements that people call nonviolent just aren’t that kind of massive shift in moral worldview—maybe at best they’re a tiny, tiny step in that direction—so I’ve never much gotten caught up in them.

Anyway, I ended up going into this stuff more than I had intended. Like I say, I’ll save any further remarks for if I see and write about How to Start a Revolution.

There’s not much to say about Road to Revolution. It’s interesting to hear from the filmmaker and to learn about all he went through, but of course it’s no substitute for seeing How to Start a Revolution itself. It’s more like a bonus feature that might be packaged with the DVD.

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