Small acts of resistance

Individuals and small groups can act as powerful catalysts for major social and political changes. This essay was inspired by The Power of the Powerless, a book written by the Czech dissident Václav Havel.

Man with peace demo obscuring face


It usually takes a mass movement to create a revolution, but amazing changes can be initiated by small groups, or even individuals. Systems that outwardly appear monolithic and invulnerable can be threatened by seemingly insignificant acts. A case in point is the Eastern European dissidents who terrified their communist overlords in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Charter 77

Charter 77 was a petition drawn up by a few Czechoslovakian writers and intellectuals. It demanded that the communist government of Czechoslovakia recognize some basic human rights. Charter 77 was hardly a radical document. Most of the rights it sought were already guaranteed by the Czechoslovakian Constitution and the Helsinki Accords, which the Czechoslovakian government had signed.

Few people had the courage to sign Charter 77. In a country of 15 million, less than two thousand Czechoslovakian citizens signed it, and most of them signed in 1989 when the communist regime was nearing collapse. Many of the Charter signers were apolitical. Many acted alone and were not members of any dissident groups. Some still believed in Socialism. Most were just ordinary people with no agendas, no axes to grind, no motivation other than to live their lives with integrity.

Yet the government expended enormous resources harassing the Charter signers. They were isolated and ostracized. Their meetings were banned. Some were followed, interrogated, forced to work at menial jobs, or put in jail.

The dissidents discovered their lives were their most powerful weapons. Living as if they were free had enormous consequences.

With a simple act of defiance like signing a petition, a dissident was able to invoke an extreme response from the regime. This over-reaction revealed the government’s fear and exposed its vulnerability.

The Fall

When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union, he saw the inevitability of certain reforms within his communist empire. These small policy shifts inadvertently triggered strong reactions in Russia and the Communist Bloc countries of Eastern Europe, as the seeds planted by the dissidents during long years of struggle and oppression began to germinate. People began to stand up and deny the legitimacy of their communist governments—one by one at first, then by the hundreds, then by the hundreds of thousands.

In the space of a few months, as the tacit public support that propped up the power structure evaporated, communist governments across Eastern Europe that had been firmly in control for over forty years suddenly began to fall like dominoes.

In December 1989 it was Czechoslovakia’s turn. Shortly after the overthrow of communism in East Germany and Bulgaria, demonstrations and increasing unrest forced the resignation of Czech president Gustav Husák. A non-communist coalition government took over.

The Power of Truth

Power craves order. Chaos is the enemy of Power. Any act, no matter how innocuous it may seem on the surface, that disturbs the smooth-running social engine, is a threat to Power.

To survive, Power must create its own consciousness, its own system of beliefs. Truth is the enemy of Power. Any act that challenges the false premises that Power’s world is constructed upon, is a threat to Power.

The committed resistance of one person, whether acknowledged or not by official historians, has the potential to set off seismic waves that can echo down throughout history. Click To Tweet

Those in power are frightened by the rebel, the non-conformist. They know that even small acts of resistance can have unforeseen consequences. Power’s Palace of Illusion is built on shaky ground that is always subject to the destabilizing forces of courage and truth.

May 2001

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Text and graphics on this page by James L. VanHise licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Attribution: James L. VanHise –
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