Gene Sharp's Ideas are Breaking Through

All his life Sharp has studied ways of fighting effectively without violence. Now that he is regarded, at 83, as the brains behind the Arab Spring, people are taking his strategies seriously.

By Metta Spencer (interviewer) | 2012-01-01 11:00:00

METTA SPENCER: It has been eight years since I last interviewed you for the magazine. Since then people around the world have begun to listen to you.

SHARP: Yes, I was just now invited to a Washington journal— Foreign Policy —who will publish something about people who had some response in the world in the last year. That kind of invitation never happened a few years ago.

SPENCER: I know. In fact, let’s begin by reviewing the changes in your own thinking. As I recall, you started off as a graduate student in sociology working on a masters thesis and have managed to turn into Gene Sharp, the guy on the front page of the New York Times. Let’s start at the time when you began to realize that nonviolence was a special set of practices that could be developed into useful procedures.

SHARP: Ah yes! One thing that was in the masters thesis was a typology of nonviolence. I classified six or seven belief systems, of which one was called “nonviolent resistance.” That’s a different category but it was in with the others. (Today I don’t even like the term “nonviolence” except for very special uses.) That typology went through several revisions and one was published in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, which was an entirely new publication at the time. In it I took out nonviolent struggle as a separate category. That was a breakthrough in my thinking—that people didn’t have to have the belief in order for them to act.

I remember one time in the basement of the Ohio State University library. I was looking through old Indian newspapers on the conflict—I think it was the 1930 campaign—and the evidence was there: These people did not believe in nonviolence as an ethic! That was a shock. I thought: Oh dear! We didn’t have copy machines then. I had to copy the whole thing by hand and I thought; Should I copy that down? It’s not supposed to be that way. But my focus on reality won out, fortunately, and I copied it down. Later I realized that it wasn’t a problem. It was a breakthrough, an opening! People didn’t have to believe in order to use this form of action! Therefore, it was open to almost everybody. That breakthrough was in about 1950 or ’51.

SPENCER: So it was the fact that people could do nonviolent resistance without being ethically committed to nonviolence.


SPENCER: That’s still controversial. A lot of peace activists believe that you have to start by purifying your heart and mind and soul—and then you might be entitled to use nonviolence.

SHARP: Uh huh. Otherwise, you’ve got to use violence. That’s the implication.

SPENCER: (Laughs.) I still get into arguments with people about some version of that issue.

SHARP: I’ve lost my patience with some of these people. I did a paper for Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute a few years ago on the responsibility of people who believe in it as an ethic to also explore it pragmatically. I never got any feedback on that at all. It was never published (See Principled and Pragmatic Peace in this issue for a précis, discussion, and link). At that time in the library, I too felt quite threatened by that piece of information. That was heresy.

SPENCER: But your thinking is a breakthrough because people are beginning to look at it.

SHARP: I don’t claim credit for that breakthrough. People were coming up with that long before me. Particularly Bart de Ligt in the Netherlands. He had an important book called Conquest of Violence: An Essay in War and Revolution. In it he didn’t say that but he was operating on that assumption throughout the whole analysis. Another one was The Power of Nonviolence by Richard Gregg, who described twelve examples of nonviolent action from history. He operated on the assumption that it was tied together with conversion. There were other books on labor strikes and economic boycotts. Those books were extremely important. I didn’t have them in 1949 but they were footnoted in my book, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, in the chapters dealing with those methods.

SPENCER: You said you no longer like to use the word “nonviolence.” I never heard you say that before.

SHARP: It can be useful for some things, like “the crowds in the square maintained nonviolence,” or “these people believe in nonviolence as an ethic.” But to use that same word for people in a revolutionary situation who would be very happy to use violence if they had the means, but they didn’t-to lump those all together as the same thing? Have you got my dictionary?


SHARP: Oh, my goodness. It came out on November 2. I worked on it for decades. It’s so heretical that it’s published by that revolutionary publication, Oxford University Press. It has 997 entries and 845 defined terms.

SPENCER: If it’s that big, you must be illustrating terms with historical cases.

SHARP: No, that’s in volume two of The Politics. There are only a few cases where I do that in this book. Anyway, Oxford asked me to write an essay on political power, which I did, and then they said they should have accounts of this kind of struggle being used, so I used Joshua Paulson’s account of Serbia, which was in Waging Nonviolent Struggle, and Jamila Raqib here wrote an account of recent actions in Tunisia. They were added to the dictionary. The cover is bright yellow with a fist.

SPENCER: The Otpor fist. You have followers who are carrying your message on their own. For example, the Otpor people in Serbia have an organization now called CANVAS, which seems to be doing what the Albert Einstein Institution has always favored.

SHARP: Broadly, I think that’s accurate. Srdja Popovic visited here a couple of months ago when he was in the US. He’s a bright guy. Other people who work with me wind up with their own perspectives and their own career ambitions. They’re not puppets!

SPENCER: Are there other groups similar to CANVAS that are implementing your ideas?

SHARP: Maybe. Groups often use From Dictatorship to Democracy, and sometimes they ask our permission to translate it. Jamila gives them strict instructions on how to translate it and what not to do. There are several translations into indigenous languages in Africa. That’s one reason the new dictionary will be helpful.

SPENCER: Are there incompatible splits or factions among people who carry on your work?

SHARP: I wouldn’t put it that strongly, but there are variations among them in terms of objectives.

SPENCER: Let’s talk about the Arab Spring. Recently your ideas seem to have inspired people throughout the Middle East and North Africa. That has made your name more prominent than it was during the movement against Milosevic or the color revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, and so on. You’re called the brains behind the Arab Spring.

SHARP: I hear that but I don’t see the evidence. One Egyptian activist who was asked about it denied that it’s the case at all. But he had earlier said that it was the case. I don’t know. I resist people giving me the credit for what other people have done. If my ideas have helped show what’s possible, I’m happy for that, but I don’t use that to advance my halo.

SPENCER: After the Egyptian movement began, there was a contagion of movements throughout the Arab world. I worried that these people were just reacting to what they had seen in the media, but had neither planned nor strategized. I thought they were unlikely to succeed or to remain nonviolent. Half of me was rejoicing that they were doing this, but the other half was worried for them. And indeed we saw that Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria quickly became very difficult and dangerous. If you were giving advice then, when the Arab Spring was just budding during the Cairo actions, what suggestions would you have offered to the people who wanted to emulate the Tunisians and the Egyptians?

SHARP: Number one, I would have started a few years earlier. It was a bit late in the game to start figuring out what you’re going to do. We did have people coming to us from certain Middle Eastern countries, particularly Syria, and I refused to tell them what to do. I don’t know their situation and my advice might be erroneous. I said: You need to prepare, you need to study. About a year ago we pulled together the results of that lengthy correspondence between us and some personal visits, and a two-day or three-day session with a group from one country, into a new book: Self-Liberation.

SPENCER: Really! You are one busy man!

SHARP: We refuse to tell them what to do but we do know something. We tell them: Plan your own strategy. So what do you need to know before you do that? You have to know your own situation and your opponent’s in great depth—which you probably don’t know now, even though you live in the country. What are the problems of that society? Find the weaknesses of your opponent’s system.

And, number two, you’ve got to understand nonviolent strategy in depth. And nobody usually does, including the people who are advocating the nonviolent means. To get that, there are writings-mostly my own, and some from Bob Helvey. So I selected 900 pages from massive amounts of readings to get the basic understanding of nonviolent struggle. What are its requirements for effectiveness? And when you get those, you’re still not ready if you can’t think strategically. You have to be able to think strategically or you can’t plan a strategy. We can only give them clues in that direction. We can’t say: Do these three things and you’ll be a strategic genius.

That’s published. It’s also on our web site, with all the 900 pages of readings. And it’s already in Chinese, with translations pending in Arabic and Farsi. If somebody says they’re not going to do that much reading, then they’re not interested in their liberation. It’s a small price to pay for the ability to plan your liberation. The readings are mainly from The Politics of Nonviolent Action, and other sources that you probably have already.

SPENCER: I want to put on a conference here in Toronto about the controversy as to whether it is appropriate and acceptable for one government to promote democracy in other countries. To me it’s absurd for anyone even to question that, but since George W. Bush began to “impose” democracy on Iraq, the left has turned against the very idea of assisting democracy overseas. They consider anything that a country (especially the US) does to support democracy would be an act of imperialism. I want to bring that discussion back into the open because it remains so controversial.

SHARP: Yes. We get that kind of opposition because, maybe fifteen years ago, we got some money indirectly from the National Endowment for Democracy. It was from the National Democratic or the National Republic Institute, which indirectly came from a US Congress appropriation. Therefore we were tools of imperialism some years ago and shouldn’t be trusted today. That’s pure doctrinalism. I have no tolerance for such nonsense.

SPENCER: Well, if NED wanted to give me some money, I’d take it. I don’t have many objections against what they do.

SHARP: Twelve people came here from Moscow. We could hardly get all of them into our tiny office. They were expecting a big suite of offices because of us having so much influence. They were in shock because if we were getting so much money we wouldn’t be working in these restricted circumstances.

SPENCER: A lot of Russians are hostile to color revolutions and think you’re one of the bad guys.

SHARP: Uh huh. Totally ignoring the nonviolent struggles in Russian history.

SPENCER: Indeed. What about Iran? I had so much hope that their Green Revolution was going to make it. Why has that not paid off? Have any Iranian dissidents come to you for advice?

SHARP: If so, we don’t give them advice. We’d have to know what advice they need.

SPENCER: (Laughs) Come on! You do have a history of helping groups analyze their own resources and the resources of the regime. It isn’t as if you’ve never been helpful.

SHARP: We can be helpful in general terms. Look at this! Examine that! Don’t forget to do this! That’s the kind of thing we do and it’s in the Self-Liberation guide. It helps people become competent to plan their own strategy.

SPENCER: Is this Self Liberation an updating of From Dictatorship to Democracy?

SHARP: No. From Dictatorship is a broad conceptual framework of thinking about how to get rid of dictators.

SPENCER: So Self Liberation is more specific?

SHARP: Yes, and as each group takes hold of that, it’s going to become more specific about each particular country, each particular period of time.

SPENCER: Tell me your thinking about Libya.

SHARP: I don’t know much about that situation but I’ve learned some things from, for example, one Reuters correspondent who was here. Lots of people think that the shift to violence occurred because the Ghadafi regime or its threats of future violence were so harsh that nonviolent means couldn’t deal with it. But what actually happened was different. There was a general who defected from Ghadafi’s forces, bringing his troops and his weapons with him, and offered them to the rebels. And the rebels accepted that. But why did he defect? This same general was killed later on in the rebels’ camp. Why would a general defecting to the revolution be killed in the revolution’s camp? And why is it that Gadhafi and his son, two weeks before the shift to violence, predicted that it would become a civil war? Although unsupported by documentation, I believe that this guy was a high-level agent provocateur trying to offer the rebels something they couldn’t refuse. Then they asked for international help. It was a set-up.

SPENCER: Interesting. I can’t recall the methods that the rebels were using at that phase, but they were nonviolent. Gadhafi said “I’m going to go door to door, killing these people like rats,” and people believed it was necessary to do something to protect many thousands of people in Benghazi. If you had been with them at that point, do you think it would have been possible for them to win? Was there a way for them, at that point, to have struggled on, without accepting the arms that the agent provocateur was offering them?

SHARP: I think so but I don’t have detailed knowledge of the conditions at that time. There’s the assumption that if things are going to be tough, you have to go to violence. We find a history of nonviolence in extreme situations where it should not have been possible, but where nonviolent means worked anyhow. But is military intervention going to save lives? No. I’ve seen figures about the casualty rates and deaths after that shift to violence occurred, and they are absolutely horrendous. Military intervention did nothing to save lives. It had the opposite effect. War, violent rebellions, and guerrilla warfare have immense casualty rates. So the faith that military means are the only way to save lives-they don’t do much saving.

SPENCER: What if it actually got to the point where Gadhafi and his army were approaching Benghazi with the intent to wipe everybody out? I would see that situation as likely to lead to what happened in Rwanda or other horrible cases. My friends who know about military strategy say that this was absolutely impossible, but let’s say a peacekeeping army went in, interposed itself between the two armies, and then said: “Now, nobody is allowed to shoot at the other side. We are going to prevent aggression against both sides. We’re not here to take sides in a civil war. but we’re here to prevent the war. Now let’s have a ceasefire and negotiations.” Would that have saved lives? Admittedly, according to military people, that was not possible.

SHARP: I can’t engage in that kind of political fiction. It’s too hypothetical. On the basis of a hypothesis you’re going to propose a particular military action which is not hypothetical. It’s quite concrete, and we know what military interventions do. Now, look—who’s going to be controlling the new Libyan government?

SPENCER: Probably the Islamist leaders. One of them has stated the intention to go back to Shari’a law, according to which a husband could have multiple wives. Not many Western women would be glad we had supported such a change.

SHARP: No, it’s more like US pressures and Western influences controlling things. It may not be Islamist at all.

SPENCER: You think so? (Laughs.) Well, as between the two, I’m not sure which I would choose. I just think that now the work really begins—to create democracy. Once the fighting has stopped, you have a whole set of new problems in creating democracy. Syria, especially, is so fragmented by ethnic and religious conflicts that it’s not going to be easy.

SHARP: No, it’s not. There again, some Syrian military forces are defecting from the regime. Then they assume that simply withdrawing military assets from the regime is not enough—they have to stay and fight the rest of the Syrian army, which they will not be in a condition to do without a major civil war, with tremendous casualties and dubious prospects. It would not be a nonviolent solution at all. It’s a civil war there, and that’s really very bad.

SPENCER: A few years ago I was close to some Karen people here from Burma. They said that if there was an immediate agreement and the junta stepped down and turn everything over to Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, as elected, there would still be trouble because of the long-lasting animosities between the various nationality groups. There are about eleven ethnic groups in Burma. They believed that the way to help them would be to hold preparatory democratization meetings here in Toronto, as a way of anticipating a time when they would be able to form a government, but work through some of the old problems between them. They thought this would improve their prospects of creating a working democracy when the time comes. Would you consider such a process worth attempting for other groups besides the Burmese?

SHARP: If it happened, I suppose it wouldn’t do much harm but I don’t think it would do any good at all. It’s romantic. You’re taking something that is many decades old. Its roots are deep, That’s not something you can resolve by bringing groups together in a different location.

SPENCER: Well, but as we just said about Syria—let’s say Bashar al-Assad stepped down today (which he may have to do before we go to press) and left it in the hands of the rebels. Forming a new democracy there is going to be difficult. You don’t think there is any way of anticipating the problems and working through them ahead of time?

SHARP: Not just by talking. I don’t know what’s going to happen.

SPENCER: But you have a foreboding that there will be a civil war in Syria.

SHARP: Yes. When you’ve got one army deciding to fight the established army, what else would you call that but a civil war?

SPENCER: That’s a cheerless thought on which to end our conversation. Do you have any happier thoughts to share?

SHARP: For decades there have been people who were interested in the kind of work I was trying to do myself. When we got discouraged I used to say: There will come a breakthrough when people will take all this seriously. It didn’t come, year after year. Ten years went by and then another ten years and it didn’t come. I think that the breakthrough has come now. This is now taken seriously. You can get a page in the New York Times. Just this week I read a story in the London Sunday Times about the tremendous response after Tunisia and Egypt.

We were deluged by journalists. Journalists had never paid much attention to my writings. They all had false preconceptions, misunderstandings. But this time, starting during a six-week period in March and April, we were deluged by reporters from all over the world. Asian papers and South African papers, for example. This time we had between four and seven interviews a day for six weeks, but this time none of those journalists came with the old preconceptions and misunderstandings. None! They all now understood the basic realities. And the editors who assigned them to the job thought the readers would want to know about this. This is all new and now we have to think differently. How do we deal with this situation from now on?

Gene Sharp’s most recent publication is Sharp’s Dictionary of Power and Struggle, now available through Amazon and other online booksellers.Many of his other books are available for free download: see the Albert Einstein Institute’s website at The journal Foreign Policy now places him in the top ranks of 100 people who are changing the world.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2012

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2012, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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