Gene Sharp, Nonviolent Warrior

Gene Sharp, Nonviolent Warrior

The world’s top scholar of peaceful protest is helping a generation of young activists in the Middle East find their voice.


Gene Sharp has labored in obscurity for much of his life. In the past few weeks, however, he has been propelled into the media spotlight—hailed in news reports as the world’s top theorist of nonviolent strategy and cited as an inspiration by leaders of the campaign that brought the Mubarak regime down. He has been called a “nonviolent Clausewitz,” in reference to the grand military strategist of the early nineteenth century. And in some ways he could also be seen as a nonviolent equivalent of Leon Trotsky—another brilliant strategist, with a penchant for pithy aphorisms, whose ideas (albeit framed in dramatically different ways) offered up the possibility of rolling, and transformational, global revolutions.

Sharp admits that bold claims about his impact on events in the Middle East make him slightly uneasy; he doesn’t think he can substantiate them. It is true, though, that his early works—including, most notably, his three-volume treatise The Politics of Nonviolent Action—established his reputation as a leader in the small field of nonviolence studies. And in recent years, From Dictatorship to Democracy, an enormously influential handbook published in 1993 that synthesized and condensed his major findings, has been translated into more than thirty languages. For nonviolent protest organizers, the book has become something akin to Saul Alinsky’s famed Rules for Radicals.

Sharp is also the founder and head of the Albert Einstein Institution, a bare-bones, privately funded operation that has been spreading the word about nonviolence for nearly three decades. The organization argues that it reacts to events rather than pushing people in specific countries to embark on specific actions. But despite the modesty of the institution and the man at its helm, there’s no doubt that Sharp’s ideas have greatly influenced opposition groups from Burma to the Balkans and, most recently, the Middle East.

Robert Helvey, who met Sharp while completing an Army fellowship at Harvard and who subsequently joined the Albert Einstein Institution’s board, describes his friend as “obsessed with the need to share his insights into power to stop or reduce the killing of people, especially civilians, in war.”

The force of Sharp’s emancipatory thinking was on full view in Egypt last month, as a population long thought to be too passive to throw off the yoke of tyranny finally found its voice. “I was surprised by the Tunisian and Egyptian developments,” Sharp says. “It was never thought that Arabs could do this, that Muslims could do this. Now the Muslims are doing it. In some cases it’s not very disciplined, but in other cases it’s very disciplined. In Egypt, it’s unbelievable. The stereotypes are all gone.”

From now on, he adds, no American president can claim that US intervention is necessary to free an oppressed Muslim population from dictatorship. “These people are capable of freeing themselves,” he says. “No outside messiah was needed. It’s a great realization.”

Despite the fever for democracy that seems to be spreading across the region, though, Sharp does not assume that Egypt’s neighbors will necessarily enjoy the same success. “Egypt is bound to inspire people,” he explains, “but inspiration alone doesn’t do much.” Nor does Sharp put much stock in historical determinism. “I don’t think it’s inevitable, or that there’s a force sweeping the world that’s sort of mystical. I don’t think on those terms,” he says.

Nonviolent uprisings are, at their essence, political campaigns. According to the complex analysis of power that Sharp has painstakingly developed over the years, the success or failure of any peaceful revolt largely depends on the campaign’s ability to weaken the allegiance of civil servants, police and soldiers to the regime; to persuade fence-sitters to join the opposition; and to prevent tyrannical and violent responses to civilian protest from being implemented—or, if implemented, from undermining the nonviolent movement’s strategic game plan. “As that know-how becomes available,” he explains, “it’s more likely that people will use it skillfully and not just in terms of inspiration and a surprise victory here and there. And that will contribute to profound change—not because of a sense of inevitability but because people have made new possibilities possible.”

Of course, one could argue that the limits to such thinking are on display in Libya, where the ruthless (some would say maniacal) dictator Col. Muammar Qaddafi has shown no compunction in unleashing maximum force against his opponents. In such a situation, say critics—and even some of Sharp’s friends—strict adherence to nonviolence demands that the protesters pay too steep a price. Imagine, for example, calling on Jews to remain nonviolent during the Warsaw ghetto uprising. There might be, says Sir Adam Roberts, president of the British Academy and a longtime friend of Sharp’s, limited instances in which violence is both legitimate and required to stop fast-evolving atrocities.

Sharp disagrees. Although he doesn’t claim to be a pure pacifist, he’s also unwilling to delineate specific situations in which violent resistance might be appropriate. “The power relationships exist only when completed by the subordinates’ obedience to the ruler’s commands and compliance with his wishes,” he opined in volume one of The Politics of Nonviolent Action. “Even where subjects wish to alter the established order, they may remain submissive because they lack confidence in bringing about the desired changes. As long as people lack self-confidence they are unlikely to do anything other than obey, cooperate with, and submit to their rulers.”

According to this logic, the ineffectiveness of nonviolent protest in Libya right now does not stem from Qaddafi’s aggressive use of force but from the rebels’ inability to plan ahead and to identify and exploit the regime’s vulnerabilities. Events in Libya simply unfolded too fast for a sophisticated nonviolent strategy to take root. The key, he says, is “to maximize the areas where nonviolent struggle can be powerful and effective” and “to narrow the area in which violence appears to be the only effective option.”

All regimes have fundamental weaknesses, Sharp explains. Nonviolent struggle “concentrates on weakening them further and cutting off their sources of power” until the regime dissolves. “That’s the ultimate goal. But it won’t happen easily, or quickly, or always.”

* * *

Gene Sharp grew up in a conservative Republican family in the American Midwest. His formative years were dominated by stories of World War II, images of the horrors of death camps, the onset of the cold war, the atomic bomb. As the images sank in, he developed an abhorrence of violence and totalitarianism; during the Korean War he went to prison rather than allow the Army to conscript him.

Shortly after Sharp was released, he wrote a book about Mahatma Gandhi, who had recently been assassinated and who, Sharp concluded, was misunderstood. Maybe he was a saint, as he was widely being portrayed; maybe he wasn’t. To Sharp the question was beside the point. For him, Gandhi was one of the century’s great political strategists. He realized that Indians couldn’t successfully fight the British Empire militarily and instead carefully crafted a nonviolent strategy that ultimately destroyed the Raj. When Sharp completed the book, he sent a note to Albert Einstein, asking whether he would write an introduction; to his delight, the legendary physicist cum peace activist agreed. Sharp’s course was set.

Over the next several decades, Sharp worked on the mammoth Politics of Nonviolent Action while living in England, where he worked as a visiting scholar at Oxford; in Oslo; and in Boston, where he lectured at Harvard and later headed the Albert Einstein Institution. Sharp’s opus was followed by a number of texts and policy papers on strategy and resistance, along with a large volume titled Waging Nonviolent Struggle.

Part historian, part sociologist, part psychologist, Sharp became interested in historical examples of nonviolent resistance early in his career—from Gandhi’s famous Salt March against the Raj to Norwegian teachers resisting the imposition of Fascist curriculums during World War II, from US civil rights campaigners to antiapartheid struggles in South Africa. He was also interested in theories of power: how rulers rule and how the ruled, in some ways, agree to be ruled; how obedience is inculcated in populations and how nonviolent movements can, by embracing specific nonviolent tactics and carefully targeting the support pillars upon which administrations rest, break the bonds of unthinking obedience and emancipate populations.

“Dictatorships in particular have specific characteristics that render them highly vulnerable to skillfully implemented political defiance,” he informed his readers. They have Achilles’ heels such as dependence on the population’s cooperation and ongoing submissiveness; inflexible command-and-control structures; leaders who are surrounded by yes-men predisposed to tell the leader what he wants to hear rather than what is really going on; the likelihood of rivalries between elites, which can be exploited by savvy on-the-ground opponents; and a predisposition to regionalism, whereby power brokers lay claim to their slice of the ill-gotten pie.

Once enough people and organizations within a society (trade unions, religious groups, sports clubs, civil servants, even the police and military) withhold their cooperation from a regime, Sharp wrote, “The dictators’ power will die, slowly or rapidly, from political starvation.” If protesters hue closely to nonviolence, this process will “lead to de facto freedom, making the collapse of the dictatorship and the formal installation of a democratic system undeniable.”

For Sharp, violence, by contrast, isn’t just morally problematic; it is also a peculiarly ineffective way to take on despots. After all, governments have access to more, and more sophisticated, weapons. Their armies are better trained in using those weapons. And they generally control the infrastructure that allows them to deploy those weapons and armies. To fight dictators with violence, Sharp argues, is to cede to them the choice of weaponry. Nonviolence forces the regime to fight on unfamiliar terrain. It is, in many ways, akin to fabled organizer Marshall Ganz’s idea that David beat Goliath not by outfighting him so much as outfoxing him [see Abramsky, "A Conversation With Marshall Ganz," February 21].

The worse the regime gets, the more steadfast ought the opposition to be in its commitment to nonviolence. The result will be a “severing of power,” a process of political jiujitsu in which the ruler’s actions turn against him and he becomes progressively isolated from the people and institutions whose complicity he needs to keep the administration functioning. Take that complicity away, and the ruler will be exposed as naked, a Wizard of Oz character with the curtains pulled back. At the same time, the more the populace resists, the more they will realize their own innate power and, like Dorothy, discover that they had possessed the means of shaping their own destiny all along.

When Sharp first began publishing his theories, the ideas all made sense. But they were so counterintuitive that Sharp’s work remained largely ignored for decades. He was like a boutique wine: cherished by a select few, hidden from the broader public. Even his friends and colleagues believed that he was, to a degree, tilting at windmills.

These days, however, with the Egyptian revolution upending longstanding assumptions about the interplay between dictatorships and the people they oppress, Sharp’s ideas don’t seem so quixotic. Those windmills, says his friend Helvey, might just be morphing into giants.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy