Originally published in The Politic. By Yifu Dong.
AFTER RECEIVING A copy of Blueprint for Revolution, my top concern was bringing the book home. If the customs officials at the Beijing airport chanced to order my luggage into the X-ray machine, they would surely ask what books I was carrying. Last December, I told them, “textbooks,” smiling a little, looking confident, a Beijing kid pretending his best. This time, I knew I would say, “novels,” and I rehearsed the line in my mind every day. But as a necessary precautionary measure, I decided to put the book in a plastic bag with clothes, leaving some harmless English novels and Spanish dictionaries on the surface for inspection. Any book named Blueprint for Revolution would definitely not be welcome in Mainland China today, unless the author was Godfather Marx, Comrade Lenin or Dear Leader Mao. Fortunately, my luggage was not inspected this time.
The author of Blueprint, Srdja Popovic, is not particularly well-known, but when I heard him speak at Yale’s College Freedom Forum last semester, I knew I had to read his Blueprint for Revolution: How to use rice pudding, Lego men, and other nonviolent techniques to galvanize communities, overthrow dictators, or simply change the world. (There goes the best subtitle of the year.) Unlike scholars or dissidents, Popovic is first and foremost a victor. In 2000, a movement he helped found, Otpor! (Resistance!), successfully overthrew one of the most notorious dictators in recent memory––Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic––who was later tried at The Hague in 2006 for genocide. Moreover, Otpor! achieved its goal through nonviolent means. In this book, Popovic explains how Otpor! succeeded and lists the necessary elements of successful and peaceful social revolutions.
Listening to Mr. Popovic at the Freedom Forum, I was somewhat glad that “revolution” was finally not a US-centric or Euro-centric topic. Even if those living in free societies care deeply about the plight of those under dictatorships around the world, many experiences of the oppressed are not easily relatable.
However, oddly enough, the book is written in English and sold in the “free world.” What seems quite strange to me, but perhaps encouraging to Popovic’s intended audience, is that the book tries to ignore the differences between revolutions in democratic and undemocratic societies. Popovic assuages his readers whose countries allow this book to appear in bookstores: “[You] don’t have to be groaning under a dictatorship to apply the principles of people power; they are universal, and they apply no matter who you are and what your problem may be.” In the last chapter, Popovic provided the fictional example of “Kathy,” who lobbied persistently and peacefully to achieve her goal. He notes that he has met many Kathys during his travels in the United States.
Unfortunately, while Popovic emphasizes that the principles are the same, there are not many Kathys elsewhere. The book, after all, pertains more to revolutions against dictators than lobbying in American towns; it covers movements from Tahrir Square to Tiananmen Square, from Burma to Belarus, from Moscow to the Maldives, from Kyiv to Kenya, from Serbia to Syria, just to name a few. Despite the excitement and energy Popovic brings to the pages, few revolutions mentioned in the book ended up successful. Popovic sums up the painful lessons of these failed revolutions, reminders of the continuing hemorrhage in undemocratic regimes.
The style of the book, however, is a wonderful break from the droning tone of some academics. As insincere and random as Popovic sometimes sounds, his messages are clear and his points sharp. This approach diffuses the tension surrounding the mere thought of revolutions, convincing more people to believe that they, too, can use nonviolent revolutions to change the world.
The book walks the readers through many tactics of organizing social movements. Popovic suggests that revolutionaries start with winning small victories, always have a vision in mind, understand the opponent’s support network, employ humor to absorb force, make oppression backfire, unite different kinds of people, plan every small step, avoid falling into the trap of violence and, finally, declare themselves winners at the right time. (The book’s website includes a more thorough summary of each chapter, a treat few other books offer.)
Besides listing tactics, Popovic provides in-depth analysis on why the underlying principles are universal. For example, some Syrian activists, who received training from Popovic and his Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), never thought humor could be part of the Syrian revolution. Popovic told them about how Serbian activists once put out a barrel with Milosevic’s picture on it and instructed innocent passers-by to smack the barrel while activists retreated to a nearby café to watch the spectacle. Ultimately, the police could arrest no one but the barrel, an act showing the foolishness of the authorities. The Syrians could not have possibly used a barrel, for anyone smacking at it might be arrested. So instead, the activists inscribed anti-regime slogans such as “Freedom” and “Enough” on thousands of ping-pong balls and rolled them down the hilly avenues of Damascus, forcing the police to chase after the balls.
Although these tactics seem useful and even fun, what the book doesn’t mention (though Popovic emphasized it during the College Freedom Forum at Yale), is that many regimes around the world seemed to have studied the revolutionaries’ blueprint, and in turn strengthened oppression and devised countermeasures.
Take China for example. When I read about nonviolence and unity, I thought about a moderate Uighur scholar and professor, Ilham Tohti, whose calls for ethnic unity and creating blogs were enough to land him a life sentence. While reading about starting with small victories, I thought about China’s famous “Feminist Five,” who planned to distribute leaflets against sexual harassment on public transportation on International Women’s Day. But two days before their planned action, they were detained and released on parole more than a month later. (Chinese law allows the police to detain people up to one month without pressing charges.) Someone must have brought a copy of Blueprint into Beijing without putting it in a bag of clothes.
After reading the book, I realized that Blueprint for Revolution may first and foremost be a guide for dictators, providing them with all the wisdom of successful revolutionaries so that they could in turn deliver more delicate, better-targeted oppression. Furthermore, Popovic reminds readers that “luck matters,” meaning that the revolutionaries will have to put principle into practice and possibly learn from trial and error.
Above all, practice is the essence of Blueprint for Revolution, and the methods covered in the book will only come in handy with it. Anyone seeking inspiration from the book should not be deterred from trying out the feasible methods Blueprint introduces toward shaping a better world. Although dictators may first capitalize upon the advice of the book and gain even more advantage over dissidents, activists and revolutionaries are more creative, more resourceful, and more resilient. With the guide of Blueprint and sufficient practice, the oppressed might hope to prevail in the long run.