“I think you get rid of violence only if people see that you have a different way of acting, a different way of struggle”—Gene Sharp
I first read The Politics of Nonviolent Action in 1989 as the uprisings in China’s Tiananmen Square were unfolding. Sharp’s analysis highlighted both the power of the student’s actions and the false steps along the way that made the movement toward democracy vulnerable to the government’s crackdown. Sharp’s analysis helped me to turn unfolding history into a learning laboratory. Since then, I’ve used Sharp’s work in much of my teaching and have carried his resources, often in translated versions, into many countries.
Gene Sharp has been called the “Machiavelli of nonviolence” and the “Clausewitz of nonviolent warfare.” He has been the leading academic theoretician about nonviolent struggle with an activist heart. Unlike Gandhi or King who developed their theories in the middle of specific struggles, Sharp has steeped himself in the history of conflict and examined in great detail nonviolent methods of engagement. Then from the analysis he has become a counselor about the effective use of nonviolent strategies and methods.
Raised in Ohio, Sharp participated in early sit-ins to desegregate a lunch-counter in Columbus. He engaged in civil disobedience protesting military conscription during the Korean War and spent 9 months in prison as a result. Then he left the U.S. for ten years of work, study and teaching in England and Norway. Upon returning Sharp became a researcher at Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs and was later Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
In 1983 Sharp founded the Albert Einstein Institution to advance “the study and use of strategic nonviolent action in conflicts throughout the world.” The Institution was “committed to the defense of freedom, democracy, and the reduction of political violence through the use of nonviolent action.” The Albert Einstein Institution has given him a vehicle to move beyond classrooms and books to consult with leaders in various struggles around the world. The works of Sharp on nonviolent action have been translated into well over forty-five languages, primarily without the Institution’s initiative and financial aid. Many of these works are available for free by downloading from the Institution’s website. Books that used to be smuggled into various countries for freedom movements can now be accessed directly via the internet.
Perhaps Sharp’s deepest impact in regional struggles has been in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics. When the Soviet Union was breaking up, the Baltic nations knew they could never resist a Russian invasion through violent means. So Sharp and his assistant at the Albert Einstein Institution worked with the defense ministers of the governments of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to explore and put in place plans for “civilian-based defense.” Civilian-based defense applies coordinated and pre-planned strategies of non-cooperation to make a small occupied country ungovernable by a bigger power, the kind of resistance that had been used successfully by the Danes and Norwegians against Nazi occupiers in World War II. The three Baltic republics became independent nations with relatively little loss of life.
Young democracy activists also turned to Sharp for direction. His book From Democracy to Dictatorship became “the Bible” for Pora activists in Ukraine who led the Orange Revolution in 2004. The young Otpor activists in Serbia who brought down Slobodan Milosovic also had studied Sharp’s writings. The Albert Einstein Institution provided thousands of copies of his works for free to stimulate the conceptual shaping of these nonviolent democratic freedom movements. He also met with activists in many countries and offered them understanding of nonviolent struggle.
The centerpiece to Sharp’s understanding of nonviolence is that all power is derived from the consent of the governed. That consent may be gained through legitimate or illegitimate ways, but it is given nonetheless. This is an empowering insight, for if an oppressed people realize that they give their consent, they can then recognize that they have the power to withdraw that consent. They don’t have to obey. As Sharp says, “Nonviolent action is possible, and is capable of wielding great power even against ruthless rules and military regimes, because it attacks the most vulnerable characteristic of all hierarchical institutions and governments: Dependence on the governed.”
To give shape to the withdrawal of consent and resistance to oppression, Sharp outlined 198 different methods of nonviolent action with specific historical examples to illustrate. Power is not monolithic, so part of strategizing in a nonviolent struggle is to break power into its constituent parts: What are the pillars that hold up the power structure? If the supports for oppressive power are properly analyzed, then specific and varying strategies can be developed to undermine those pillars and even turn what were once parties or dynamics that supported the oppressive powers into allies for the movement for freedom and justice.
When Sharp first published his landmark three-volume The Politics of Nonviolent Action in 1973 the giant lights for nonviolent struggle were Gandhi and King. There had been various peace movements related to the nuclear arms race and the war in Vietnam. There were also historic struggles forgotten by most people, such as the nonviolent defense against a military coup in Germany in 1920 and the nonviolent overthrow of both the brutal Martinez dictatorship in El Salvador and the Ubico dictatorship in Guatemala in 1944. Sharp pulled all these lessons together in a coherent way, spelling out the dynamics of power and struggle as well as the tactics and methodologies that could be employed. With the explosion of the People Power movement in the Philippines, movements in Latin America, South Africa, Burma, China and Eastern Europe Sharp’s theories became a key for activists to interpret what was happening and plan further engagements.
For Sharp, commitment to nonviolent alternatives is not necessarily a moral or religious matter. Rather it can be very pragmatic. People who believe that violence is moral may still act nonviolently because nonviolent action provides the most effective form to act in conflict situations and reduces the horrendous damage resulting from violence. Nonviolent struggle offers a better option to oppressed people than does violence. “I don’t think you get rid of violence by protesting against it,” Sharp says. “I think you get rid of violence only if people see that you have a different way of acting, a different way of struggle…. Part of my analysis is that if you don’t like violence, you have to develop a substitute. Then people have a choice.” Sharp’s life work has been to give incredible depth, breadth, historical examples, strategic guidance and methodological specificity to that choice. People power movements around the world have been drawing extensively from his analysis and changing history in the process.
To access the Albert Einstein Institution’s resources click here.