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the week

A few months ago, I attended a huge demonstration in central London that had drawn people from all across the country to protest against the public-sector cuts imposed by the British government. Near Trafalgar Square, I saw a wee fellow, not quite four feet tall and dressed entirely in motorcycle leathers, berate a police officer: "How many working-class people have you oppressed today?" The cop smiled down at him and said nothing, but you could tell he was thinking: If you think I'm landed gentry, mate, you're as mad as a box of frogs.

A little later, I stumbled across Nigella Lawson and her wealthy art collector husband, Charles Saatchi, who watched the crowds in Hyde Park from across the street, a bit like Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI getting the first quiver on their danger antennae. It was that kind of day.

It was a wonderful day (if you could block out the drumming) but ultimately a depressing one because the energy of half a million ticked-off people did not lead to anything larger or more meaningful. It dissipated in the bright spring air instead of picking up steam over the next months. I fear the same fate hangs over the Occupy Wall Street movement, since its vast potential, at the moment, seems untethered to many real-world goals.

I was thinking about all this while watching How to Start a Revolution, an inspirational new documentary about Gene Sharp, the 83-year-old American academic whose writings on non-violent political struggle have helped topple dictators around the world.

Dr. Sharp, nominated for this year's Nobel Peace Prize, comes across in the documentary as an unlikely revolutionary (though he did serve nine months in jail rather than be conscripted into the army during the Korean War). Modest and plain-spoken, the professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts shuffles around his house in Boston seeming to care more for his beloved orchids than worldly glory. He's been accused of being a CIA agent by the government of Iran, perhaps a greater honour than the Nobel. When young activists make the pilgrimage to seek his advice on booting out tyrants in their countries, he tells them they must figure it out for themselves.

Or they can read one of his books, the most famous of which is From Dictatorship to Democracy – freely available on the Internet. Dr. Sharp wrote this book at the request of Burmese democrats in exile, and it was first published in Thailand in 1993; possessing a copy in Burma would get you seven years in jail. Until recently, Dr. Sharp has been largely overlooked, his teachings spread by his main allies, a young woman who was smuggled out of Afghanistan as a child and a retired U.S. Army colonel who fought in Vietnam. If you've marvelled at colour-co-ordinated protesters (as in Ukraine's Orange Revolution) or wondered why people in Iran carry placards in English, you've seen the influence of Dr. Sharp's thoughts.

His message reached the liberation movements in Serbia and Georgia, Iran and Egypt, and beyond: Dictatorships could be destroyed without violence if people, working together, removed the pillars of consensus and obedience that supported those regimes. But first, they needed to establish clear-cut goals and methods.

In the documentary (which will be screened at the One World Film Festival in Ottawa on Oct. 14 and at the University of Toronto on Oct. 15), Dr. Sharp talks about being in Beijing during the Tiananmen Square protests: "It became clear that the students in the square were operating with great commitment and bravery," he says, "but they really didn't know what the hell they were doing. The students had no plan." He goes on to say, "If you don't know what you're doing, you're likely to get into big trouble."

This bourgeois focus on actually achieving an outcome has, in some ways, oddly undermined his message. "The reason more people don't know about Gene Sharp is because both the right and left have rejected him," says Ruaridh Arrow, the Scottish journalist and filmmaker who spent two years making How to Start a Revolution. "On the left, there's a suspicion of the emphasis on goals and strategies."

Mr. Arrow, keeping an eye on non-violent action around the world, says Dr. Sharp's influence is quietly transmitted through protest movements from Lower Manhattan to the villages of Syria. There are many flavours of rebellion in the air this autumn, a nice change from decades of apathy. The Occupy Wall Street website insists that, at the moment, "there is NO official list of demands."

Obviously, there's a difference in overthrowing a tyrannical regime and protesting against the inequalities of an economic system. There's another difference – one has an endgame, and the other, so far, doesn't.