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Gene Sharp & the History of Nonviolent Action

Written by Gandhi-King Community member Mary King. The original article can be found at Waging Nonviolence.


The following is adapted from the author’s introduction of Gene Sharp, who was recognized as the El-Hibri Peace Education Prize Laureate on October 1, 2011 in Washington, D.C.

Six years ago, Brian Martin (Professor of Social Science, University of Wollongong, Australia) wrote in the journal Peace and Change, “Whereas Gandhi was unsystematic in his observations and analyses, [Gene] Sharp is relentlessly thorough, most distinctively so in his epic book, The Politics of Nonviolent Action. … Sharp has had more influence on social activists than any other living theorist.”

I would go further. Gene has in my opinion done more for the building of peace than any person alive. This is because I consider the knowledge of how to fight for justice and social change without a resort to violence to be the most critical and essential component of building peace.

 The history of nonviolent action is rich, diverse, and often overlooked. Despite historically significant, at times revolutionary, accomplishments over centuries and across continents, it is regrettably true that universities, social scientists, journalists and news media, diplomats, and policy makers often neglect to place a high priority on the study of the power and dynamics of nonviolent action. In many societies, including the United States, the history of their wars is taught, while the achievements of their nonviolent struggles are scarcely mentioned. Gene has done more to correct this deficit than any other single scholar or theoretician.

In 1973, Gene produced a landmark three volumes, The Politics of Nonviolent Action (known as the Politics, or the Trilogy), the most important and influential work in the spread of ideas about fighting with collective nonviolent action in the latter half of the 20th century. It represented both a quantitative and qualitative leap worldwide in the spread of knowledge on nonviolent struggle. This is where his famous 198 nonviolent methods first appeared.

The Politics shows power as the basis of nonviolent civil resistance, a means of engaging in conflicts. Perhaps most revealing is Gene’s dissection of how systems and governments must ensure for themselves a steady supply of political power and why the stock of power that sustains state authority is not possessed by its leaders—it is granted by the people, who can withdraw that power and cooperation. The Politics shows that nonviolent strategic action achieves its political objectives by altering the power configurations among groups or persons, allowing for social and political change.

His work cumulatively demonstrates that nonviolent struggle can lead to stable, long-term results, sometimes benefiting all the parties to a conflict—without bloodshed. Yet he makes clear that nonviolent action is not necessarily a choice based on principled nonviolence, idealism, or pacifism. By the 1970s, he had discredited the designation of nonviolent action as pacifism, when he found that he could count on two hands the number of cases out of 85 he had then studied in which the leadership of a nonviolent movement had been pacifist. This is important because movements need numbers, including people who reflect diverse creeds and backgrounds.

I cannot possibly mention all of Gene’s extraordinary contributions to our understanding of social and political power, and the nature and history of civil resistance. In some ways my favorite is his 1958 study that resulted from his time at the Institute of Philosophy and the History of Ideas in Oslo, Tyranny Could Not Quell Them. One can see in it his early and lasting quest for real-life experience as the essential basis for understanding how nonviolent action works and the building of its theory, which became his life’s work. It describes the details of the Norwegian teachers’ resistance under the Nazi occupation. Gene describes how Norwegians wore paper clips on their lapels as a sign of “keeping together”; in the classroom students began wearing necklaces and bracelets of linked paper clips. One teacher noticed his pupils wearing tiny potatoes on matchsticks in their lapels. The potatoes became larger with each passing day as a symbol that the anti-Nazi forces were on the rise.

We now have abundant documentation—from anecdotal reports, oral testimony, and news accounts—that Gene’s works have been influential and generative in many contemporary civil resistance struggles. In general, activist intellectuals and scholar organizers study his works and digest them; they then share the insights with participants and grassroots organizers.

From Dictatorship to Democracy, in 78 pages, was studied by the galvanizing group Otpor! that led the successful nonviolent revolution in Serbia in 2000 against Slobodan Milošević. After a Serbian NGO, the Center for Civic Initiatives, translated it into Serbian and distributed it, Otpor! members in 42 Serbian cities trained more than 1,000 activists in civil resistance in 1999 and 2000. The trainees may not have read Gene, but the people leading the workshops had. Otpor! went on to work with the leaders of Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003 and Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, interpreting from Gene’s publications.

2011 has been a breakthrough year with the Arab Awakening. Accounts have been trickling out from Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen, and elsewhere of how the organizers and bloggers of these major democracy movements have turned to Gene’s works, some of which have been accessible in Arabic, Farsi, and Kurdish since 2003.

His writings are available, often downloadable, on the website of The Albert Einstein Institution. You’ll find Dictatorship to Democracy in 34 languages. The BBC has interviewed Gene four times this year. In September, the BBC released a feature-length film on him, How to Start a Revolution. Next month Oxford University Press will release Sharp’s Dictionary of Power and Struggle: Language of Civil Resistance in Conflicts, on which he has worked for decades. This is indeed the year for him to win the El-Hibri Peace Education Prize.

A word about Gene’s remarkable personal attributes, which are many, including his generosity of spirit, plain-spoken accessibility, and readiness to help leaders across the world. I want to mention two traits that are especially endearing: Gene is never in a hurry and is always patient.

Let me close by emphasizing what I believe to be the most alluring aspect of Gene’s lifelong body of work. He has been the most significant theoretician to analyze and advance nonviolent struggle as a credible and powerful means of engagement in conflicts. He has within the body of his work offered this viewpoint with intellectual integrity and credibility. It is based on years of immersion with the major thinkers in political theory, deep studies of dictatorships and totalitarian regimes, and analyses of actual cases of historic nonviolent struggles. Albert Einstein described Gene as a “born historian, in whose hands the various threads are held together and woven into a pattern from which a complete picture emerges.”

Gene has raised for humanity the important possibility that nonviolent action is a practical and effective method that might gradually and incrementally be substituted for violence and deadly conflict. Even while acknowledging the validity of armed force in policing and other defense needs, and recognizing that nonviolent action often interacts with other forms of power, in reading his works we can discern that civil resistance may be able to replace reliance on force in different issues and areas. It must, however, be organized around precise requirements and specific purposes, and embarked upon with serious study, preparation, planning, and strategic analysis. In his 1980 work, Social Power and Political Freedom, he shows us that replacing violent sanctions with nonviolent sanctions gradually, in a series of particular substitutions, is not utopian. To an extent not usually recognized, this is already taking place by degrees in various conflicts, sometimes affecting domestic policies and international relations. Nonviolent methods are built upon exact encounters in past and present actuality.


Last updated by Shara Lili Esbenshade Dec 31, 2011.


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