Gene Sharp 101

Gene Sharp probably knows more about nonviolent resistance than anybody else on the planet. He chatted with our editor in May by phone from his office at the Albert Einstein Institution in Boston

By Metta Spencer (interviewer) | 2003-07-01 12:00:00

METTA SPENCER: How did you come to do your original research?

GENE SHARP:Well, from high school age, I was aware of the world's problems.The Second World War was just finishing, nuclear weapons were new, Stalin was in control of the Soviet Union, colonialism was strong, and war was a problem because we knew a little about nuclear weapons. I wanted to see what could be done about all of that. At Ohio State I did a masters thesis in sociology on nonviolence, covering both belief systems and action.

There was a tremendous problem with lack of clear terminology about the technique of nonviolent action. In my thesis I was still confusing the two, putting belief and action in the same general category. Years later I realized that they were different phenomena. They might overlap on occasion but often did not. Some believers in pacifism objected to certain kinds of nonviolent resistance because they didn't believe in conflict at all. Later I distinguished between different types of principled nonviolence. The technique of nonviolent action sometimes had religious pacifists participating, but often did not.

It was a revelation to realize that most of the people in India who were participating in nonviolent struggles against the British did not believe in nonviolence as an ethic. On one occasion down in the basement of the library of Ohio State University. I was looking at an old newspaper for materials on Gandhi's 1930 campaign. I wondered: Should I put that down? Better just leave it out!

But I put it down. And later it dawned on me that, rather than that being a threat, it was a great opportunity, because it meant that large numbers of people who would never believe in ethical or religious nonviolence could use nonviolent struggle for pragmatic reasons. This could happen decades or centuries before their descendants accepted the principle of nonviolence. Then I found references on nonviolent resistance in Samoa, Korea, and American colonies before Lexington and Concord -- as well as general strikes. I went into some of the literature on labor strikes and boycotts. There was a heritage here.

And there was a theory that Gandhi was propounding -- that all governments depend on the obedience of the population -- which was an interesting idea, but it certainly wasn't classical. I tried tracing that to different people. Was it found in Thoreau, for example, where it was sometimes credited? Clearly, it was in Tolstoy. Gandhi had got this idea from Tolstoy -- not the ethics, but the idea that governments depend on the obedience of the population.

In Norway I met people who had participated in the anti-Quisling and anti-fascist resistance. I began drawing some of those threads together from studies on strikes and boycotts.

I came up with a list. I think I had 18 methods of nonviolent action. The largest list I had come across previously was 12. When I was in Norway, I drew up a list which I think went up to 65 and took it to a conference in Accra, Ghana.

People there were absolutely fascinated by this list. Someone asked: How does this technique work? I had to give a talk on that. My notes were later expanded and became Part Three of The Politics of Nonviolent Action whereas the list in Part Two grew to 198 methods. The power discussion became the basis of Part One of that book.

At one stage I had called myself a pacifist, but pacifists, even today, still concentrate on what they are going to refuse to do and are often weak on what they are going to do, except for reconciliation, forgiveness and relieving human suffering. The notion that you couldn't get rid of the violence for nothing, this was an amazing revelation.

SPENCER: Pardon? "You couldn't get rid of the violence for nothing?"

SHARP: Yes. You can't say, "We renounce violence" and expect that to be applied socially, politically, and internationally. Violence is not just aggression. It's not just evil. It's a way to wage a conflict. Not all conflicts are equal. The issues in them vary widely. Some issues you can compromise on. They're not very important -- you know, which color do we paint a wall? Or what kind of food can we have tonight? You can even compromise on salary increases. But when it's whether you're going to be taken over by a foreign aggressor, whether some of your people are going to be exterminated, whether you are going to accept a dictatorship, or they are going to prohibit your religion, whether they are going to violate your human rights and impose serious oppressions -- those are not issues in which, morally and politically, you can compromise. So what do you do, if renouncing the violence doesn't get rid of it? And then I realized that, in some of these other cases, they did not use violence. They did something else.

Some sociological theorists described the function of different kinds of social institutions. They said, "You can't just get rid of an institution. You have to have some way of fulfilling the function that the institution was supposed to do. And if you don't have a substitute way to do that job, to fulfill that function, it's going to stay."

That would explain why war has not been abolished, because people always believe that military means were the only means they had to prevent aggression and fight off attackers. One needed a substitute. Many of my later studies were on these other cases where nonviolent struggle actually had been used, not because people thought it was morally superior (except relatively, perhaps) but because it was there and so they took it.

They didn't always do it very effectively, but they did it more effectively they most people might have predicted. Only much later did I realize (and this is a major point in the new book I'm working on) that you could by conscious effort take this primitive technique, which has usually been improvised -- often by people who didn't know what they were doing, but who had guts and determination. You could learn how to wage that type of conflict more effectively in the future than it has been done in the past.

You could also take this technique and adapt it for particular purposes -- as in the American Civil Rights movement, the Montgomery bus boycott, the Winnipeg General Strike. People weren't improvising on the basis of what they knew about nonviolence generally. They were trying to figure out how to act in this particular situation and they knew something about particular methods, such as strikes. We could adapt this technique against a take-over, a coup d'etat. We could adapt it and prepare it for use against foreign aggression, invasions and occupations with specific types of planning. We could use it for whatever purposes people thought they had to use violence because they presumed there was no alternative.

This meant a very different way of getting rid of violence and war, because it was not going to be renounced. That hasn't happened. It's not going to happen. But it could be replaced -- not all of a sudden, but incrementally, for specific purposes and specific needs. Gradually there would be less "need" to resort to violence at all.

You could ask whether it could be used against imperialist domination and to get the English out of India, for example. That choice was pragmatic in India. It wasn't because Gandhi was a Mahatma or any such nonsense. It was a very concrete, pragmatic decision by major Indian leaders, including Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister, who had been an advocate of violent revolution until 1928. Then he recognized: Aha! This thing Gandhi been using can be used to get our independence! Not all Indians went along with this, but many other people did, in many other countries. It happened on every continent, I think, except Antarctica. There has never been a penguin liberation movement.

This kind of struggle kept recurring, sometimes with disastrous results, sometimes with remarkable successes, but it kept recurring, so it is possible. Kenneth Boulding had something called Boulding's First Law, which I think he stole from one of the Greek philosophers: "That which is, is possible."

SPENCER: (Laughs). Wonderful! And the reverse of this little aphorism also accounts for a lot. Sometimes, because people don't believe something is possible, they can't even see that it is happening right around them.

SHARP: Yes! Of course!

SPENCER: They can't recognize what actually takes place because their ideas do not have room for it to exist.

SHARP: Yes, and there's the opposite of that too. When violence fails, people don't say, "Violence doesn't work." They keep the belief that violence is the most powerful thing they can do. Even though it has proved to be a disaster.

SPENCER: And if nonviolent action doesn't work in two minutes, they say it doesn't work, so let's go back to what works.

SHARP: Even though it didn't work! So adherence to violence is a doctrine, because "we know that's true."

You know, there was a time when there was Soviet domination, direct and indirect, in all Eastern Europe. At that time we were spending billions on military capacity against the Soviet Union, which did nothing to wipe out dictatorial Communist regimes. The people mostly did it themselves, by nonviolent struggle. Who would have thought that the Poles would become supreme practitioners of nonviolent struggle, when they had risen up in violent rebellion against the Russian Empire time after time, with disastrous results? They had charged out on horses against the Nazi tanks. But they became practitioners of nonviolent struggle! Unthinkable!

Or who would have thought that little Estonia with a population of about 1.5 million could get independence from the intact Soviet Union? Or the people of Latvia or Lithuania? It would have been laughed off, you know, but they did. And now, nobody thinks much about that in those countries. They want into NATO.

SPENCER: Recently we showed the film about Otpor and the overthrow of Milosevic, Bringing Down a Dictator. Lots of pro-Milosevic people were present. The real issue for them is, here is the evil US (and most of us do think US policies often are pretty evil) funding this nonviolent resistance. To them that's a cardinal sin. A government cannot fund or sponsor the overthrow of another government!

SHARP: Why not?

SPENCER: Because the US has interests and it's supposedly immoral to have interests. Nobody is surprised that the US gives guns to people, but the idea that they assisted the Serbs to get rid of Milosevic seems somehow especially evil. To my mind, it is particularly the US, of all countries, that I want to see supporting nonviolence. It would be the greatest thing in the world for the US adopt nonviolence.

SHARP: What do they prefer that the US spend the money on?

SPENCER: They just shouldn't interfere. No country should interfere in the affairs of another country.

SHARP: Like Nazi Germany? That's a clear example. No country should have been upset with the Nazi regime? Whoever is in control of the state apparatus, no matter what they do, should be untouchable? That is gross! I think any superpower has a responsibility to explore other kinds of struggles that might be developed so that frustrated people seeking democracy don't kill thousands of people. Superpowers should devote one or two percent of their military budgets to exploring these other possibilities. That's the least that one could ask for.

SPENCER: What about nonviolent action in Tibet? When I interviewed Samdhong Rinpoche he mentioned some contact with you and hoped you would help them do something.

SHARP: I have been waiting for a report on recent developments since we were with them in India. We don't yet have it yet. There is a clear case, I think, where nonviolent struggle is the only option they have of their own accord. When the US was funding guerrilla activity in Tibet against the Chinese, it was disastrous. And just meditating on nonviolence and reaching higher levels of spiritual achievement doesn't exactly remove an aggressive Chinese occupation. This is about all they have. Whether they all see that, and what they choose to do about it, that's another question.

I also have a book in Tibetan; it is not published in English.The English translation of the title is The Power and Practice of Nonviolent Struggle. The Dalai Lama wrote the introduction to it. Although his approach is not identical to mine, he was welcoming this examination of nonviolent action.

SPENCER: You once told me that military people understand you better than peace people do.

SHARP: Yes. That does not mean that no peace people can understand this. Some are very good at it. Some see nonviolent struggle on a pragmatic basis as a fulfilment of their principles. But there are many people in peace organizations who don't like conflict. A few years ago, I gave a talk about national defence by prepared nonviolent resistance. Someone in the audience was very shocked, and accused me: "All you are doing is taking the violence out of war!"

And someone else in another audience said, "Well, my goodness, what if the Nazis had learned to use this nonviolent resistance?"

SPENCER: What did you say?

SHARP: That there would have been six million Jews left and millions of other people would not have been killed. If the Nazis had expressed their racial theories through boycotts and so forth, it wouldn't have been wonderful, but it would have been a whole lot better.

SPENCER: How far would you go with that? Suppose some neo-Nazis came to you and said, "We want to learn how to do nonviolent action."

SHARP: I would say, "Here is a list of publications on nonviolent struggle. I think your world outlook and your racial theories are detestable. I will not advise you on how to conduct your struggle. If you want to learn how to use nonviolent methods, they are there. I would prefer that you change your outlook on the world and on other people. If you continue to be Anti-Semites, then it is better for you do this than to slaughter people."

This was reflected in the US South. I was in Europe during most of the Civil Rights struggles, but when the Civil Rights workers found the local gas station wouldn't sell them gasoline, or when the bank manager foreclosed on loans early, because they were campaigning for rights for African Americans, that was bad -- but it was much preferable to lynching, of which there were many cases.

SPENCER: The example of Iran confirms that. The opposition to the Shah was nonviolent. I know of no one who supported having the Ayatollahs take charge and create theocracy. Nevertheless, I'm glad they did it nonviolently.

SHARP: Yes. I don't think all the people participating in the Iranian situation of 1979 were in favor of theocracy. Some of them were just for more democracy. There is the phase of the struggle and then there is the phase of transition of the regimes. If you are not careful, you can be successful in undermining a regime that is oppressive and then leave yourself wide open to a new group taking over and installing themselves as dictators.That's what Lenin and the Bolsheviks did in 1917 and that's apparently what the Ayatollahs did in Iran. There are other cases of this, so you have to plan the transition carefully and have methods planned to block future takeovers or coups d'etat. One of my new publications is called The Anti-Coup. There have been many cases where a regime has been undermined but then a new group takes advantage of the confusion and the people passively submit instead of resisting tha outfit too.

SPENCER: My sense is that nonviolence needs to be coupled with an emphasis on democracy and what to do after you have destabilized dictatorship.

SHARP: That's right.

SPENCER: By itself, nonviolence is only half of the equation.

SHARP: I have a few pages on that point in the booklet From Dictatorship to Democracy, which was written for the Burmese democrats and published in Bangkok in 1993. There's a case where the 1988 uprising undermined the military dictatorship, which had been established by the coup d'etat long ago. They undermined three or four military governments. And then the democratic leaders started arguing among themselves over who was going to head the new democratic government. This gave the military a chance to carry out a new coup d'etat, and people collapsed in the face of massacres. Though they really undermined the military dictators in Burma, the democrats did not use that partial victory effectively and helped mess things up themselves.

SPENCER: Which is what also happened in Serbia, before and after Milosevic. The democratic parties couldn't get their act to gether.

SHARP: I don't know much about that. When was I there, I think it was in May of 2001, they certainly had a democratic government. They didn't have a perfect regime. You can't expect that, if you do one nonviolent struggle, then you've got a kingdom of God on earth. They held a democratic election, with different parties and they weren't aiming for a complete transformation of all the society or getting rid of all their problems. But it was infinitely better than what they had previously. It gave them a chance to make that society better. Whether they used this opportunity well or not, I can't judge.

SPENCER: Well, as I understand it, the murder of Djindjic finally woke some people up and made them realize they actually had to get rid of some of these Mafias that had been buddies with Milosevic. Yes, they are cleaning house now, but only because they had this assassination.

SHARP: I heard that too. There is a naivete among some advocates of nonviolent means. They think that if you've had one nonviolent struggle, you are not going to have any more serious problems. I have heard people say that all the nonviolent struggles for independence in India and all of Gandhi's work was a waste. They still have the caste system, they still have poverty, they have an Indian Army, and so forth. As though one series of struggles for independence from a colonial power could have possibly solved all these problems! That's nonsense. They set much higher standards for evaluating effectiveness and success of nonviolent struggle than for violent struggle.

SPENCER: What about a nonviolent struggle against a nonviolent struggle? Such as in, say, Venezuela. Both sides in conflict now have largely used nonviolent methods.

SHARP: I haven't been to Venezuela. A couple of people who worked with us, including Bob Helvey, have been there and done a workshop for Venezuelans, but I am not well informed on that situation. However, without discussing Venezuela, which I don't know much about, the idea that you can have nonviolent resistance confronting nonviolent resistance, that's wonderful!

SPENCER: I agree.

SHARP: We don't think it's strange that in a war both sides use violence. If you can get both sides using nonviolent struggle against each other, that's a great advance. We should be welcoming that, even though we could still take sides.

SPENCER: In fact, I raised the Venezuelan case because it illustrates another point -- that whether or not the side using nonviolence is the one with the better policies, it won't win if citizens don't strongly support them. Personally, I think Chavez is steering the wrong course on economic matters. They won't get out of the hole until they have different policies. But the nonviolent opposition against him lost. I am not sure that nonviolence always gives the best political outcome, but at any rate, I would rather see nonviolence used than violence.

SHARP: Yes. Nonviolent struggle can fail because it wasn't planned well -- because it had a poor strategy. People sometimes say, "Let's just have a strike and stop everything from functioning economically." But how long can people not feed their families because they are not getting any pay? There is a limit on how long a strike can continue. When it fails, it doesn't necessarily mean the population favored one side over the other. It may have been a simplistic economic solution to what was largely a political problem. And some of the means being used now by the Chavez government -- such as the currency limitations -- mean that people can't buy things abroad. So the newspapers, which have often been anti-Chavez, cannot buy newsprint. Therefore opposition newspapers will be driven out of business, which means government control of the news. So it is a very complex situation.

SPENCER: Clearly so. What do you think about the use of force in such cases as Rwanda or East Timor, to prevent oppression by part of the population or by the government itself on its own people?

SHARP: First let me react to your use of the word "force." I have a problem with that word because it's a polite term for military violence. It assumes that nonviolent means are incapable of force. It sets up a terminological bias in favor of military means. We say it is "force" and that is more respectable.

But the question of genocide by the government, that is a grave problem. We can't wait to find an answer until the slaughter starts. It's like getting a car on the edge of a cliff and saying,"If you don't like the way I'm driving, you take over." You get to the point where there is no easy solution, whereas we should have started in a different direction long ago.

Hannah Arendt's book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, for which she was maligned, is very important. She said that the slaughter that the Nazis perpetrated will not be the last. At that time, many people thought, "Oh good, it's over!" She was saying, No, it's not over! This is going to happen again and we have to examine how it happened if we are to block it it in the future! She showed that the Nazis did not get as many Jews and Gypsies out of occupied countries as they wanted. In some cases they got massive numbers to the gas chambers. In other countries they got very few -- not that they didn't want them; they just couldn't get them. She asked: Why were more people saved in some countries than in others? It turns out it was largely because someone whose help was needed, refused to help the Nazis. Sometimes even German officials didn't give the instructions or make their troops available. Sometimes it was the general population that hid the Jews or helped them escape. Sometimes it was Jews themselves who made themselves difficult to collect and send on to the gas chambers.

Decades ago I proposed studying cases of attempted genocide and the degree to which the perpetrators' attempts were successful. And how they were blocked, so we can learn what forms of resistance are likely to be useful in the future. There are more studies of genocide now, but I think that kind of comparative study has not been done. When you have a massive slaughter going on, what do you do? I don't have easy solutions. We should have started those kinds of studies before, knowing there is ethnic hatred in an area where military institutions are continuing to build up that can be transferred to a different purpose when they get the command. If such institutions weren't there, if people had training in noncooperation and resistance and identifying the danger points, we could put a stop to it now. Then we wouldn't be depending upon military or international assistance, which may or may not be helpful. Genocide happens under wartime conditions. Goebbels and Hitler both recognized that fact and were looking forward to a war in order to exterminate Jews and others.

SPENCER: Some critics say that a nonviolent campaign requires special circumstances, such as a free press and means of communicating with members of the opposition.

SHARP: Well, obviously, under a totalitarian regime communication is more difficult and the activities are more dangerous. But the idea that it cannot happen under such conditions is ridiculous. It has happened.


SHARP: Nonviolent struggle occurred in Nazi occupations. In Norway, for example, and the Netherlands. Newspapers were published in the hundreds of thousands of copies per issue in Nazi-occupied Netherlands. Not just one, but several. In Norway, they published small newspapers, newsletters, and books. Copies of them are in the Norwegian Resistance Museum in Oslo. The same thing happened in the Soviet Union with their "samizdat" publications. It happened in Poland during the Soviet presence and the Communist regime. They had underground publishing houses.

SPENCER: Let's talk about the future. How can we advance this technique? What research issues still need to be addressed? And how can we promote nonviolence as a message?

SHARP: First, we need to disseminate knowledge about this type of struggle. How do you face difficult conditions? I acknowledge that there are difficult conditions, but difficulties are not the same as impossibilities. Bob Helvey focuses on one important element: How can people control their fear and act despite it? I am not sure whether this is different from soldiers in the front lines of conventional wars. They are afraid, yet they keep fighting. How do they do this? In nonviolent struggles people knowingly face terrible potential consequences for their actions and their protests. They have to learn what not not do. Don't deliberately march down the street toward the machine guns. Stay home! Mobilize the city in silence! It will be harder for them to kill anybody, let alone thousands of people in a few minutes. Some people oppose strategic thinking. Time after time, people march down facing the guns, very brave. Sometimes the soldiers lower their guns and sometimes they don't. But resistance movements need to plan. This is no time for spontaneity or feeling. People say,"I feel that..." in many nonviolent action planning groups. How conceited! Their feeling is more important than whether the struggle succeeds? This is one of the terrible things that happened in Tiananmen Square. The students had voted to leave the square. Then students came from other parts of China who had not had a chance to demonstrate yet, so they voted to stay in the square, because they wanted to. Foolish!

How to plan to make nonviolent struggle more effective? My next book will have four chapters on planning strategies for nonviolent struggles. People in nonviolent struggles rarely understand what the word means, so be careful when you hear people talk about "strategy." It means calculating how to remove the sources of power from the oppressive regime. You have to identify what makes those sources strong. You must also be aware of the weaknesses of the regime and how to aggravate them and make the regime disintegrate. In Poland they came up with nine points: Do not do this, do this, do that. A simple list.Then disseminate this knowledge right away.

Correct our history books. Put nonviolent struggles into the places they merit in history. How people view the past helps determine their present and future.

Our military establishments are well prepared for decades in advance. Nonviolent struggles may be prepared a few days in advance -- and frequently that's not done well. This tips the bias in favor of the use of military means. Methods of undermining dictatorships can be presented in clear terms and spread throughout the whole population. Then they will have greater chance of success.

We need programs on genocide prevention. Instead of just considering how to do it at the last minute, ask, how can we prevent it from getting started? How can we prevent the rise of new dictatorships -- not just how we can fight them when the Gestapo is knocking at our door? And if they are there, how can we disintegrate those dictatorships before they slaughter a population or engage in international aggression or develop methods of mass extermination? We have a lot to do.

SPENCER: Thank you for this. You're a hero!

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2003

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2003, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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