The Telegraph: How to use rice pudding, lego and laughter to overthrow dictators


June 21, 2017

Review published in the Telegraph. By Nicholas Blincoe.

Srdja Popovic’s manual on non-violent revolution can claim one significant victory; the prize for the most elaborate subtitle of the year: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Non-Violent Techniques to Galvanise Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World.

Popovic cut his teeth in Otpor! (Resistance!), an organisation that led street protests against Serbia’s President Slobodan Milosevic in the Nineties. The exclamation mark suggests they were aiming for Broadway rather than downtown Belgrade, which is not far from the truth. Popovi? is a frustrated rock star and Otpor! specialised in activism as street theatre. In an early action, Otpor! painted a smiling Miloševi? on a barrel with a sign inviting passers-by to pay to whack it with a baseball bat. The barrel became the focus of an impromptu demonstration, and when the police arrived and arrested the barrel, the resulting photographs raised an even bigger laugh.

Today, Popovic is the director of the Centre for Applied Non-Violent Actions and Strategies, or CANVAS. He has advised revolutionaries in Ukraine, Maldives, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere on effective non-violent techniques. He has a mixed record. Ukraine is fighting a war against Russian proxies while the weakened Kiev government has fallen back into the hands of oligarchs. Egypt has returned to military dictatorship. Syria, abandoned by the world, is a hell-hole.

Even the triumphs in Popovi?’s book title were short-lived. Rice pudding parties in the Maldives became the focal point of opposition to the dictatorship of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom; Lego figures appeared at Russian demonstrations after Putin’s police made it too dangerous for real people. Today, Gayoom’s brother is in power in the Maldives and the post-dictatorship president, Mohamed Nasheed, is in prison. Putin remains secure in Russia.

Popovi? and his co-writer have produced a knockabout book that favours terms such as “laughtivism” and cites the influence of Tolkein and Monty Python. I have a reason to be cynical about the effectiveness of non-violence; I was once an organiser of the International Solidarity Movement, which led non-violent protests against settlement building and home demolitions in Palestine. We were always shot at; indeed, the rate of death and serious injury among young Westerners, given the small total of volunteers involved, was worse than that suffered by the Palestinians.

Yet Popovic goes a long way to defusing my cynicism. Civil disobedience implies a bet on a shared political future. It may not be an appropriate strategy for every conflict, yet if a vision of an improved society can be offered, there is always a possibility of peeling supporters away from the dictatorship, whether that is businessmen, as in Ukraine and Syria, an older conservative generation, as in Serbia, or the security forces, as initially happened in Egypt. Popovi? believes in a minimal working democracy, and offers strategies for small winnable victories for the revolutionaries, and reasons to forego violence and negotiate on the part of the authorities.

Blueprint for Revolution frequently cites Gandhi’s Salt March, a protest against British taxation. Mary Elizabeth King, a doyenne of the Civil Rights movements in America, examines an earlier moment in Gandhi’s activism in Gandhian Nonviolent Struggle and Untouchability in South India (OUP, £32.99). In 1925, He brokered a deal which allowed Untouchables to use a highway restricted to higher castes (and, oddly, Christians and Muslims). King demythologises Gandhi’s victory. He arrived in Kerala more than a year into the protest, at the invitation of the Maharajah, and worked with the British police to find a messy compromise.

King shows the original campaign had failed. The leaders had courted arrest in the hope of winning the sympathy of the higher castes, a strategy which left their movement rudderless and close to chaos. Given this failure, Gandhi’s intervention at least provided a kind of solution.

Non-violent activism is often portrayed as a moral choice, and sacrifice as its inevitable corollary. The lesson is, martyrdom never wins friends from the oppressors. Popovi? and King each present a more hard-headed take on non-violence, aimed at incremental wins and long-term persuasion. Gandhi is credited with saying: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” It seems his grandson, Arun Gandhi, is the source of the quote, but the truth holds: the appeal of non-violent activism is that it imagines a working civil society, and uses tools which have the best chance of bringing it into reality.