As I write this on the eve of the election, it feels particularly worth mentioning the amazing sincerity that Srdja Popovic exudes, unlike the politicians who have spent the last few weeks strutting around and patronising the electorate. Srdja, who started off as a student activist and rock bass guitarist and went on to form Otpor!, a group crucial to the 2000 revolution in Serbia, seemed to have a genuine belief not just in his own ideas, as so many in politics do, but more importantly in people and their potential. Srdja was an incredibly down-to-earth and approachable man, which is no mean feat for someone who was fundamentally important for removing a dictator. Srdja has gone on to form a group called CANVAS, which helps to teach activists around the world, including in Syria and Egypt, useful skills and technique needed for non-violent action.
I found him to be an incredibly funny man: he made us do our interview on miniature seats in the children’s section of Waterstones, something I secretly suspect he did to make the pictures that his publicist was taking of the interview look particularly absurd. This sense of humour should have been no surprise from a man whose primary weapon is, in his own words, “laughtivism.” He stated multiple times that a modern revolution should be fun, and the best overview I can give of this style of activism is probably the tagline of his book Blueprint for Revolution, which reads “How to use rice pudding, Lego men, and other non-violent techniques to galvanise communities, overthrow dictators, or simply change the world.”
Srdja’s main philosophy is that non-violent revolution should be activists’ main tool for social change. He backed this up with the statistic that 52% of national non-violent campaigns are successful, with 42% ending in democracy. He argued that engaging the government by violent means just leads to unnecessary and drawn-out civil wars such as the one in Syria. Also, having personally spent a fair amount of time with radical activists from across Britain, I think they probably make a better pub quiz team than an armed workers militia.
Whether you agree or disagree with his non-violent methods, Srdja had some very interesting and useful advice for any aspiring revolutionaries. The first was to “not copy and paste [campaigning methods] without considering societal context”. The example he gave for this was FEMEN, who write feminist slogans on their naked torsos in France and Russia. In these countries this is a powerful statement against the objectification of women. However, try this in a country such as Saudi Arabia, and the act would be considered so shocking that it wouldn’t benefit the cause. It would just get you arrested without doing any good.
Another interesting piece of advice he gave in his talk was how to maintain the change won through revolutionary action. He stated that you must “build change around values rather than individuals, then you have a better chance of creating enduring change”. Again, this is a very powerful idea: it is far easier to get people to rally around a charismatic individual than it is to get them to explore and change their social and political beliefs. However, if this change doesn’t take place, a society is doomed to a cyclical political motion rather than progressing forward. Here, he gave the example of Egypt, where the work of the revolutionaries has been swiftly destroyed by a military-led government.
Overall, the take home message of Srdja’s talk was that “everyone thinks it can’t happen here”. This belief seems particularly entrenched in the British political system where we as an electorate are made so scared by the politicians and the media that even voting for the Green party becomes too risky and subversive an act. I heard someone say the other day that we are the only country in the world that celebrates the failure of a revolution: every 5th November. It does seem that for a nation as proud of its status as a global superpower, we are in many ways a fairly spineless people. However, if Srdja Popovic, a young rocker from Belgrade, can help lead the charge against a dictator like Slobodan Milošević and win, then imagine what could be done if enough of us put our minds to it.
Listen to Isaac’s interview with Srdja: