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MONKEY MASTERS AND POLITICAL POWER
Part three in a series by Dr. Gene Sharp
EDITOR'S NOTE: This the third of a special series of articles by Gene Sharp
on the general problems and possibilities of achieving liberation from
dictatorships being published in Khit Pyiang in ten installments, initially
in English and later in Burmese.
Achieving freedom with peace is of course no simple task. It will require
great strategic skill, organization, and planning. Above all, it will
require power. Democrats cannot hope to bring down a dictatorship and
establish political freedom without the ability to apply their own power
But how is this possible? What kind of power can the democratic opposition
mobilize that will be sufficient to destroy the dictatorship and its vast
military and police networks? The answers lie in an oft ignored
understanding of political power. Learning this insight is not really so
difficult a task. Some basic truths are quite simple.
The "Monkey Master" fable
A Fourteenth Century Chinese parable by Liu-Ji, for example, outlines this
neglected understanding of political power quite well:
In the feudal state of Chu an old man survived by keeping monkeys in his
service. The people of Chu called him "ju gong" (monkey master).
Each morning, the old man would assemble the monkeys in his courtyard,
and order the eldest one to lead the others to the mountains to gather
fruits from bushes and trees. It was the rule that each monkey had to
give one tenth of his collection to the old man. Those who failed to do
so would be ruthlessly flogged. All the monkeys suffered bitterly, but
dared not complain.
One day, a small monkey asked the other monkeys: "Did the old man
plant all the fruit trees and bushes?" The others said: "No, they grew
naturally." The small monkey further asked: "Can't we take the fruits
without the old man's permission?" The others replied: "Yes, we all
can." The small monkey continued: "Then, why should we depend on the
old man; why must we all serve him?"
Before the small monkey was able to finish his statement, all the
monkeys suddenly became enlightened and awakened.
On the same night, watching that the old man had fallen asleep, the
monkeys tore down all the barricades of the stockade in which they
were confined, and destroyed the stockade entirely. They also took the
fruits the old man had in storage, brought all with them to the woods,
and never returned. The old man finally died of starvation.
Yu-li-zi says, "Some men in the world rule their people by tricks and not by
righteous principles. Aren't they just like the monkey master? They are not
aware of their muddleheadedness. As soon as their people become enlightened,
their tricks no longer work."
Necessary sources of political power
The principle is simple. Dictators require the assistance of the people they
rule, without which they cannot secure and maintain the sources of political
power. These sources of political power include:
* Authority, the belief among the people that the regime is legitimate,
and that they have a moral duty to obey it;
* Human resources, the number and importance of the persons and groups
which are obeying, cooperating, or providing assistance to the rulers;
* Skills and knowledge, needed by the regime to perform specific actions
and supplied by the cooperating persons and groups;
* Intangible factors, psychological and ideological factors which may
induce people to obey and assist the rulers;
* Material resources, the degree to which the rulers control or have
access to property, natural resources, financial resources, the economic
system, and means of communication and transportation; and
* Sanctions, punishments, threatened or applied, against the disobedient
and noncooperative to ensure the submission and cooperation
which are needed for the regime to exist and carry out its policies.
All of these sources, however, depend on acceptance of the regime, on the
submission and obedience of the population, and on the cooperation of
innumerable people and the many institutions of the society. These are not
Full cooperation, obedience, and support will increase the availability of
the needed sources of power and, consequently expand the power capacity of
On the other hand, withdrawal of popular and institutional cooperation with
aggressors and dictators diminishes, and may sever, the availability of the
sources of power on which all rulers depend. Without availability of those
sources, the rulers' power weakens and finally dissolves.
Naturally, dictators are sensitive to actions and ideas that threaten their
capacity to do as they like. Dictators are therefore likely to threaten and
punish those who disobey, strike, or fail to cooperate. However, that is not
the end of the story. Repression, even brutalities, do not always produce a
resumption of the necessary degree of submission and cooperation for the
regime to function.
If, despite repression, the sources of power can be restricted or severed for
enough time, the initial results may be uncertainty and confusion within the
dictatorship. That is likely to be followed by a clear weakening of the
power of the dictatorship. Over time, the withholding of the sources of
power can produce the paralysis and impotence of the regime, and in severe
cases, its disintegration. The dictators' power will die, slowly or rapidly,
from political starvation.
The degree of liberty or tyranny in any government is, it follows, in large
degree a reflection of the relative determination of the subjects to be free
and their willingness and ability to resist efforts to enslave them.
Contrary to popular opinion, even totalitarian dictatorships are dependent on
the population and the societies they rule. As the political scientist Karl
W. Deutsch noted in 1953:
Totalitarian power is strong only if it does not have to be used too often.
If totalitarian power must be used at all times against the entire
population, it is unlikely to remain powerful for long. Since totalitarian
regimes require more power for dealing with their subjects than do other
types of government, such regimes stand in greater need of widespread and
dependable compliance habits among their people; more than that they have to
be able to count on the active support of at least significant parts of the
population in case of need.
The English Nineteenth Century legal theorist John Austin described the
situation of a dictatorship confronting a disaffected people. Austin argued
that if most of the population were determined to destroy the government and
were willing to endure repression to do so, then the might of the government,
including those who supported it, could not preserve the hated government,
even if it received foreign assistance. The defiant people could not be
forced back into permanent obedience and subjection, Austin concluded.
Niccolo Machiavelli had much earlier argued that the prince ". . . who has
the public as a whole for his enemy can never make himself secure; and the
greater his cruelty, the weaker does his regime become."
The practical political application of these insights was demonstrated by the
heroic Norwegian resisters against the Nazi occupation, and as cited in
Chapter One, by the brave Poles, Germans, Czechs, Slovaks, and many others
who resisted Communist aggression and dictatorship, and finally helped
produce the collapse of Communist rule in Europe. This, of course, is no new
phenomenon: cases of nonviolent resistance go back at least to 494 B.C. when
plebeians withdrew cooperation from their Roman patrician masters.
Nonviolent struggle has been employed at various times by peoples throughout
Asia, Africa, the Americas, Australasia, and the Pacific islands, as well as
Three of the most important factors in determining to what degree a
government's power will be controlled or uncontrolled therefore are: (1) the
relative desire of the populace to impose limits on the government's power;
(2) the relative strength of the subjects' independent organizations and
institutions to withdraw collectively the sources of power; and (3) the
population's relative ability to withhold their consent and assistance.
Centers of democratic power
One characteristic of a democratic society is that there exist independent of
the state a multitude of nongovernmental groups and institutions. These
include, for example, families, religious organizations, cultural
associations, sports clubs, economic institutions, trade unions, student
associations, political parties, villages, neighborhood associations,
gardening clubs, human rights organizations, musical groups, literary
societies, and others. These bodies are important in serving their own
objectives and also in helping to meet social needs.
Additionally, these bodies have great political significance. They provide
group and institutional bases by which people can exert influence over the
direction of their society and resist other groups or the government when
they are seen to impinge unjustly on their interests, activities, or
purposes. Isolated individuals, not members of such groups, usually are
unable to make a significant impact on the rest of the society, much less a
government, and certainly not a dictatorship.
Consequently, if the autonomy and freedom of such bodies can be taken away by
the dictators, the population will be relatively helpless. Also, if these
institutions can themselves be dictatorially controlled by the central regime
or replaced by new controlled ones, they can be used to dominate both the
individual members and also those areas of the society.
However, if the autonomy and freedom of these independent civil institutions
(outside of government control) can be maintained or regained they are highly
important for the application of political defiance. The common feature of
the cited examples in which dictatorships have been disintegrated or weakened
has been the courageous mass application of political defiance by the
population and its institutions.
As stated, these centers of power provide the institutional bases from which
the population can exert pressure or can resist dictatorial controls. In the
future, they will be part of the indispensable structural base for a free
society. Their continued independence and growth therefore is often a
prerequisite for the success of the liberation struggle.
If the dictatorship has been largely successful in destroying or controlling
the society's independent bodies, it will be important for the resisters to
create new independent social groups and institutions, or to reassert
democratic control over surviving or partially controlled bodies. During the
Hungarian Revolution of 1956-1957 a multitude of direct democracy councils
emerged, even joining together to establish for some weeks a whole federated
system of institutions and governance. In Poland during the late 1980s
workers maintained illegal Solidarity unions and, in some cases, took over
control of the official, Communist dominated, trade unions. Such
institutional developments can have very important political consequences.
Of course, none of this means that weakening and destroying dictatorships is
easy, nor that every attempt will succeed. It certainly does not mean that
the struggle will be free of casualties, for those still serving the
dictators are likely to fight back in an effort to force the populace to
resume cooperation and obedience.
The above insight into power does mean, however, that the deliberate
disintegration of dictatorships is possible. Dictatorships in particular
have specific characteristics that render them highly vulnerable to
skillfully implemented political defiance. Let us examine these
characteristics in more detail.
Chapter Four of this series will be published in the next issue of Khit
Pyiang (New Era).
c copyright by Gene Sharp, 1993. All rights reserved including translation
rights. All requests should be addressed in writing to Gene Sharp, Albert
Einstein Institution, 1430 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, Massachusetts
02138, USA, FAX USA + 617-876-7954. They will be sympathetically considered.
Reproductions of the individual articles, as by photocopying, by Burmese
democrats are permitted provided the author is notified. In order to ensure
the quality of translations and to avoid duplication of work, these articles
should not be translated without written permission.
This story, originally titled "Rule by Tricks" from Yu-li-zi written by Liu
Ji (1311-1375), has been translated by Sidney Tai, all rights reserved.
Yu-li-zi is also the pseudonym for Liu Ji. The translation was originally
published in Nonviolent Sanctions: News from the Albert Einstein Institution
(Cambridge, Mass.), Vol. IV, No. 3 (Winter 1992-1993), p. 3.
Karl W. Deutsch, "Cracks in the Monolith," in Carl J. Friedrich, ed.,
Totalitarianism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1954), pp.
John Austin, Lectures on Jurisprudence or the Philosophy of Positive Law
(Fifth edition, revised and edited by Robert Campbell, 2 volumes). London:
John Murray, 1911 , Vol. I, p. 296.
Niccolo Machiavelli, "The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy," in The
Discourses of Niccolo Machiavelli (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1950),
vol. I, p. 254.
See Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action (Boston: Porter Sargent,
1973), p. 75 and passim for other historical examples.
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