Gene Sharp, Nonviolent Warrior

| November 28, 2011 | 0 Comments

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.

March 16, 2011         Sasha Abramsky writes regularly for The Nation. He is currently receiving additional support from the Poverty…

Click Here to Download “From Dictatorship to Democracy” -

Gene Sharp runs the Albert Einstein Institute

The Albert Einstein Institutionis a nonprofit organization advancing the study and use of strategic nonviolent action in conflicts throughout the world.

We are committed to the defense of freedom, democracy, and the reduction of political violence through the use of nonviolent action.

Our goals are to understand the dynamics of nonviolent action in conflicts, to explore its policy potential, and to communicate this through print and other media, translations, conferences, consultations, and workshops.

From Wikipedia: Wikipedia – Open Source Encyclopedia

Gene Sharp (born January 21, 1928) is Professor Emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.[2] He is known for his extensive writings on nonviolent struggle, which have influenced numerous anti-government resistance movements around the world.


gene sharp

gene sharp


Sharp was born in Ohio,[1] the son of an itinerant Protestant minister.[3] He received a Bachelor of Arts in Social Sciences in 1949 from Ohio State University, where he also received his Master of Arts in Sociology in 1951.[4] In 1953-54, Sharp was jailed for nine months after protesting the conscription of soldiers for the Korean War.[1] In 1968, he received a Doctor of Philosophy in political theory from Oxford University.[4]

Sharp has been a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth since 1972. He simultaneously held research appointments at Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs since 1965.[1] In 1983 he founded the Albert Einstein Institution, a non-profit organization devoted to studies and promotion of the use of nonviolent action in conflicts worldwide.[5]

Sharp’s contributions to the theory of nonviolent resistance

This section needs additional citations for verification. Please help improve this article by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed. (February 2011)

Gene Sharp described the sources of his ideas as in-depth studies of Mohandas K. Gandhi, Henry David Thoreau to a minor degree, and other sources footnoted in his 1973 book “The Politics of Nonviolent Action”, which was based on his 1968 PhD thesis.[6] In the book, a “three-volume classic on civil disobedience,”[7] he provides a pragmatic political analysis of nonviolent action as a method for applying power in a conflict.

Sharp’s key theme is that power is not monolithic; that is, it does not derive from some intrinsic quality of those who are in power. For Sharp, political power, the power of any state – regardless of its particular structural organization – ultimately derives from the subjects of the state. His fundamental belief is that any power structure relies upon the subjects’ obedience to the orders of the ruler(s). If subjects do not obey, leaders have no power.

In Sharp’s view all effective power structures have systems by which they encourage or extract obedience from their subjects. States have particularly complex systems for keeping subjects obedient. These systems include specific institutions (police, courts, regulatory bodies) but may also involve cultural dimensions that inspire obedience by implying that power is monolithic (the god cult of the Egyptian pharaohs, the dignity of the office of the President, moral or ethical norms and taboos). Through these systems, subjects are presented with a system of sanctions (imprisonment, fines, ostracism) and rewards (titles, wealth, fame) which influence the extent of their obedience.

Sharp identifies this hidden structure as providing a window of opportunity for a population to cause significant change in a state. Sharp cites the insight of Étienne de La Boétie, that if the subjects of a particular state recognize that they are the source of the state’s power they can refuse their obedience and their leader(s) will be left without power.

Sharp published Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential in 2005. It builds on his earlier written works by documenting case studies where nonviolent action has been applied, and the lessons learned from those applications, and contains information on planning nonviolent struggle to make it more effective.

For his lifelong commitment to the defense of freedom, democracy, and the reduction of political violence through scholarly analysis of the power of nonviolent action, The Peace Abbey of Sherborn, MA awarded him the Courage of Conscience award April 4, 2008.[8]

A feature documentary by Scottish director, Ruaridh Arrow, “How to Start a Revolution” about the global influence of Gene Sharp’s work was released in September 2011. The film won “Best Documentary” and “The Mass Impact Award” at the Boston Film Festival in September 2011.[9] The European premiere was held at London’s Raindance Film Festival on October 2nd 2011 where it also won Best Documentary.[10]

 Sharp’s influence on struggles worldwide

Sharp has been called both the “Machiavelli of nonviolence” and the “Clausewitz of nonviolent warfare.”[11] It is claimed by some that Sharp’s scholarship has influenced resistance organizations around the world. Most recently, it is claimed that the protest movement that toppled President Mubarak of Egypt drew extensively on his ideas, as well as the youth movement in Tunisia and the earlier ones in the Eastern European color revolutions that had previously been inspired by Sharp’s work, although some have claimed Sharp’s influence has been exaggerated by Westerners looking for a Lawrence of Arabia figure.[12][13]

Sharp’s handbook From Dictatorship to Democracy served as a basis for the campaigns of Serbia‘s Otpor (who were also directly trained by the Albert Einstein Institute), Georgia‘s Kmara, Ukraine‘s Pora, Kyrgyzstan‘s KelKel and BelarusZubr. Pora‘s Oleh Kyriyenko said in a 2004 interview with Radio Netherlands,

“The bible of Pora has been the book of Gene Sharp, also used by Otpor, it’s called: From Dictatorship to Democracy. Pora activists have translated it by themselves. We have written to Mr Sharp and to the Albert Einstein Institute in the United States, and he became very sympathetic towards our initiative, and the Institution provided funding to print over 12,000 copies of this book for free.”[14]

Sharp’s writings on “Civilian-Based Defense”[15] were used by the Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian governments during their separation from the Soviet Union in 1991.

The Iranian government charged protesters against alleged fraud in the 2009 elections with following Gene Sharp’s tactics. The Tehran Times reported: “According to the indictment, a number of the accused confessed that the post-election unrest was preplanned and the plan was following the timetable of the velvet revolution to the extent that over 100 stages of the 198 steps of Gene Sharp were implemented in the foiled velvet revolution.”[16]

This coverage produced a backlash from some Egyptians bloggers including US based journalist Hossam el-Hamalawy:

“Not only was Mubarak’s foreign policy hated and despised by the Egyptian people, but parallels were always drawn between the situation of the Egyptian people and their Palestinian brothers and sisters. The latter have been the major source of inspiration, not Gene Sharp, whose name I first heard in my life only in February after we toppled Mubarak already and whom the clueless NYT moronically gives credit for our uprising.”[17]

However the Associated Press had reported as early as September 2010 more than 4 months before the revolution that Gene Sharp’s work was being used by activists in Egypt close to political leader Mohammed El Baradei. The New York Times along with several other international publications reported that Sharp’s book, From Dictatorship to Democracy was available for download from The Muslim Brotherhood’s website throughout the revolution.


  • Sharp’s Dictionary of Power and Struggle. Oxford University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0199829880
  • Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential with Joshua Paulson, Extending Horizons Books, 2005. ISBN 978-0875581620
  • From dictatorship to democracy: A conceptual framework for liberation The Albert Einstein Institution, 2003. ISBN 978-1880813096
  • Gandhi as a Political Strategist, with Essays on Ethics and Politics. Indian edition with a new Introduction by Dr. Federico Mayor. Original Introduction by Coretta Scott King, New Delhi: Gandhi Media Centre, 1999. (See 1979 edition below.)
  • Nonviolent Action: A Research Guide, with Ronald McCarthy, New York: Garland Publishers, 1997.
  • Civilian-Based Defense: A Post-Military Weapons System, with the assistance of Bruce Jenkins, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990. ISBN 978-0691078090
  • Resistance, Politics, and the American Struggle for Independence, 1765-1775, Co-editors Walter Conser, Jr., Ronald M. McCarthy, and David J. Toscano, Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1986.
  • Making Europe Unconquerable: The Potential of Civilian-based Deterrence and Defense (see article), London: Taylor & Francis, 1985. ISBN 978-0850663365 Second Edition with a Foreword by George F. Kennan. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger, 1986.
  • National Security Through Civilian-based Defense, Omaha: Association for Transarmament Studies, 1985. ISBN 978-0961425609
  • Social Power and Political Freedom, Introduction by Senator Mark O. Hatfield. Boston: Porter Sargent, 1980. ISBN 978-0875580913
  • Gandhi as a Political Strategist, with Essays on Ethics and Politics, Introduction by Coretta Scott King. Boston: Porter Sargent, 1979. ISBN 978-0875580920
  • The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Introduction by Thomas C. Schelling. Prepared under the auspices of Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs. Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973. ISBN 978-0875580685
  • Exploring Nonviolent Alternatives, Introduction by David Riesman. Boston: Porter Sargent, 1970.
  • Civilian Defense: An Introduction, co-editors Adam Roberts and T.K. Mahadevan. Introductory statement by President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, and New Delhi: Gandhi Peace Foundation, 1967.
  • Gandhi Wields the Weapon of Moral Power: Three Case Histories, Foreword by Albert Einstein. Introduction by Bharatan Kumarappa. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1960.

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ a b c d e Ruaridh, Arrow (21 February 2011). “Gene Sharp: Author of the nonviolent revolution rulebook”. BBC. Retrieved 22 February 2011.
  2. ^ “Gene Sharp: Author of the nonviolent revolution rulebook”. BBC News. February 21, 2011.
  3. ^ Philip Shishkin (2008, Sep. 13), “American Revolutionary: Quiet Boston Scholar Inspires Rebels Around the World”. Wall Street Journal, p. A1.
  4. ^ a b “GENE SHARP A Biographical Profile”. Canadian Centres for Teaching Peace. Retrieved 22 February 2011.
  5. ^ Gene Sharp biography at Albert Einstein Institution web site.
  6. ^ Sharp, Gene (2007-06-12). “Corrections – an open letter from Gene Sharp”. Voltaire Network. Archived from the original on 2010-10-12. Retrieved 2010-10-12.
  7. ^ Walker, Jesse (May 1, 2010). “Protect & Serve”. The American Conservative.
  8. ^ The Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Recipients List
  9. ^ 2011 Boston Film Festival (schedule) (accessed 8 Sep 2011)
  10. ^ [1] (accessed 8 Sep 2011)
  11. ^ Weber, Thomas (2004). Gandhi as Disciple and Mentor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 232. ISBN 9780521842303.
  12. ^ KIRKPATRICK, DAVID and SANGER, DAVID (2011-02-13). “A Tunisian-Egyptian Link That Shook Arab History”. New York Times. pp. 1. Retrieved 2011-02-13.
  13. ^ Walker, Jesse (2011-02-25) Teaching People Power, Reason
  14. ^ “Radio Netherlands”. 2011-02-13. Retrieved 2011-02-13.
  15. ^ [See, for example, Sharp, Gene] Civilian-based Defense
  16. ^ [Tehran Times, August 2, 2009,]
  17. ^ “Nabil Fahmy: ‘This revolution actually serves Israel as well’”. 2011-04-17. Retrieved 2011-04-28.

[edit] External links

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