Gene Sharp: Freedom, Tyranny, and Peace

By James VanHise | 2018-04-01 09:00:00

Even though he was the odds-on favorite to win the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, Gene Sharp was not disappointed when he was passed over.

“It’s not surprising I didn’t [win] because my work was so unconventional,” he told me in a 2016 interview. “My theories challenge the basic assumptions of political science and politics, and the basic assumptions are not accurate, are not complete.”

When he died in January 2018 at the age of 90, Dr. Sharp left a legacy that called into question long-held assumptions about war and peace, tyranny and freedom. Throughout his 65 years of studying dictatorships and nonviolent action he was at times disparaged by the left and the right, pacifists and Gandhians, dictators and fervent anti-imperialists.

Yet despite all the doubters, Sharp’s ideas have had a profound effect on world history. While he was not directly involved, his writing was influential in the downfall of entrenched rulers in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and Egypt. One of his publications, a little pamphlet called From Dictatorship to Democracy that provides generic advice on how to overthrow dictators, has inspired countless nonviolent uprisings around the world. And his list of 198 methods of nonviolent action has become an indispensable “cheat sheet” for activists planning protest campaigns.

A Theory of Power

An important element of Sharp’s heterodoxy was the idea that war and tyranny were interrelated problems. Both originate from the use of violence, or the threat of it, to dominate a population. To reduce violence, he thought, both problems needed to be solved simultaneously.

Sharp contended that peace advocates often ignored people’s desire to live free from tyranny or foreign domination. Peace is always possible by acquiescing to a dictator or invading army. But few would willingly give up their freedom to avoid violent confrontation. Clearly, most people find freedom more important than peace and would never give up war and violent insurrection unless they had confidence in another form of conflict that was equally effective.

Sharp sought a resolution to two problems: the thirst for liberation and the need for a less destructive means of struggle. He began by spending many years cataloging various instances where ordinary people had used nonviolent techniques to struggle for freedom or justice. He was amazed by how many of them there were, and how consistently they had been ignored by historians. He was equally amazed at how often they were able to achieve success.

But it wasn’t until he turned to the study of political power that it all began to make sense. There he found the explanation of why nonviolent actions sometimes succeeded.

He realized power was not intrinsic to rulers. They derived their ability to rule from the obedience of the very people they ruled over. Yet that obedience was not automatic, and support could be withheld. Sharp saw that when the sources of power were effectively withdrawn, the government, or any institution for that matter, would often crumble into impotence.

By using weapons like strikes, boycotts and nonviolent noncooperation, people could erode the pillars of support that rulers relied upon. This idea, of course, was most famously utilized by Gandhi.

But Sharp took it further by aggregating and systematizing knowledge of nonviolent methods so they could be used more strategically. Rather than studying these incidents in isolation, Sharp saw they were related and could be analyzed, combined and used in ways that maximized their impact.

Civilian Based Defence

To the many skeptics that found the idea of overthrowing dictators without using weapons a bit far-fetched, defending a nation without violence seemed even more absurd. Yet Sharp theorized that the same techniques that could bring liberation from a tyrant could also deter or defeat foreign invasions. He called the program Civilian-based Defense (CBD). While such an undertaking would require a great deal of meticulous preparation through a process he called transarmament, it might not be as crazy as it sounds.

Say a country that relies on civilian nonviolent resistance is invaded by a hostile neighbor. The foreign soldiers are greeted by shuttered windows and deserted streets. Immediately, clandestine government radio stations broadcast a call for a general strike. Factories close down, key machine parts are lost, industrial experts go into exile and normal channels of communication and transportation are disrupted. The invader’s troops become unreliable as they are ordered to shoot protesting women and children.

A remarkably similar scenario actually occurred when Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. Using completely improvised nonviolent methods, Czechs prevented the Soviets from installing their puppet government for eight months. Sharp saw this as evidence that people could wield incredible power when they resisted attackers nonviolently.

In 1991 the tiny country of Lithuania used insights from Sharp’s newly published book, Civilian-Based Defense: A Post-Military Weapons System, to press for independence and deter a Soviet invasion. The defence minister, Audrius Butkevicius, was particularly impressed with the effectiveness of nonviolent defence. At a parliamentary meeting he held up a copy of Civilian-Based Defense and proclaimed: “I would rather have this book than an atomic bomb.”

While CBD is not a territorial defence, Sharp saw it as a way for people to defend their nation’s values and institutions without destroying the very society they were trying to protect. CBD promised not the end of war, but rather a functional substitute that was far less destructive.

Critiquing Activists

The inability, or unwillingness, of peace groups to accept the need for a war substitute exasperated Sharp. In 2007 he told the Ohio State Alumni Magazine he had “basically given up” on peace activists. “They think you get rid of war by refusing to take part and protesting. No! You get rid of war when people have something else they can do more effectively.”

But his criticism was not limited to the peace movement. He believed the crucial element of strategic planning was sorely lacking in most nonviolent campaigns. Too often Sharp saw activists using protests to simply witness against evil or make themselves feel good about expressing dissent. Isolated actions like demonstrations or civil disobedience, though they may be nonviolent, are unlikely to achieve the desired goal. To have a chance at victory, Sharp maintained that such methods must be integrated into a carefully planned campaign designed to sever the opponent’s sources of power.

While Sharp saw emotion as important for inspiring and motivating activists, he stressed that clear thinking and rational deliberation was even more crucial. As he explained on the Harvard Law Today website, “Most people operate with their feelings and not with their head. But a revolutionary movement cannot start only from the heart, you need to study and plan a revolution in multiple details to make it work.”

Because he was advocating a technique that promoted conflict and coercion, Sharp sometimes clashed with members of the pacifist community as well. Early in his career he made great efforts to convince some pacifist groups that they should stop making futile attempts to convert others to their beliefs, and instead advocate the use of pragmatic nonviolent action as a substitute for violence. For the most part, his pleas were not well received. After much frustration, he abandoned his attempts to sell his strategic approach to those who insisted on taking a purely ethical stance.

Dangerous Books

Despite his disagreements with peace groups and pacifists, Sharp’s writing was always targeted at activists rather than scholars. Not that he didn’t have roots deep in academia. Sharp received a doctorate from Oxford, was a tenured professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, and spent many years as a researcher at Harvard. Yet in his many books, pamphlets and articles he avoided academic jargon, hoping to connect with ordinary people who wanted to achieve liberation and defend their societies.

His most groundbreaking book, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, was published in 1973. Praised by many critics and largely ignored by most activists, the 900-page book earned him the appellation “the Clausewitz of nonviolence.” In it he set forth his theory of power and described how nonviolent action could function to achieve success in social and political struggles. Significantly, Politics marked the first appearance of his famous 198 methods of nonviolent action.

But Sharp’s most famous publication appeared much later. From Dictatorship to Democracy, translated into over 32 languages, has helped inspire and guide youthful revolutionaries around the world. The pamphlet was essentially a generic guide on how to overthrow an authoritarian government. Activists have been arrested for the mere possession of this dangerous little booklet, most recently in Angola and China. An FSB agent in Russia called it “a bomb.”

To help further promote his ideas Sharp set up the Albert Einstein Institution in 1983. AEI had two broad purposes. One was to encourage pure research into making nonviolent sanctions more effective. The other goal was more practical. Sharp wanted to promote the use of strategic nonviolence in conflict situations around the world.

In the 1990s the Institution thrived, overseeing distribution and translations of Sharp’s books, providing research fellowships, sponsoring conferences and funding other organizations. Sharp and his colleagues traversed the globe, meeting with activists and holding workshops. At its height AEI boasted a full-time staff of eleven and annual budgets of over a million dollars.

2011 – A Flicker Of Fame

Even though Sharp’s ideas challenged conventional ideas of power and conflict, as the years wore on they gradually began to gain more acceptance. By the beginning of the 21st century his insights had begun to percolate into the consciousness of young revolutionaries abroad. One reason for this was From Dictatorship to Democracy, which had begun to propagate around the world without the assistance (or even the knowledge) of AEI.

In Serbia, the youth group Otpor borrowed parts of Sharp’s books for their training manual. After using nonviolent civil resistance to oust dictator Slobodan Milosevic, Otpor disseminated their own interpretation of Sharp’s principles to other rebel youth groups in the region, triggering the Color Revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and beyond.

But the real breakthrough came in 2011 when Sharp’s writing was credited with inspiring the Arab Spring. After the New York Times ran an article calling him the man who created the playbook for the Egyptian revolution, the world’s media was suddenly beating a path to his door. The claim was clearly an exaggeration, as the ever-humble Sharp insisted: “The people of Egypt did that—not me,” he told the Times.

More recognition came later that year when a young journalist released a film about Sharp called How to Start a Revolution, which traced his influence in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. The film aired on TV stations around the world and garnered numerous awards at international film festivals.

Backlash From Dictators

Inevitably, Sharp’s higher profile brought distortions and vicious attacks from authoritarian rulers, a testament to the dangerous nature of his ideas. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez ran commercials warning citizens against Sharp’s subversive influence and railed against AEI in a TV speech, claiming the Institution was part of a US imperialist conspiracy.

Iran produced an animated video that portrayed Sharp as a CIA agent, huddled in a room with John McCain and George Soros, conspiring to overthrow the regime. After the “Green Revolution” protests in 2009, the Iranian government indicted scores of activists, claiming the uprising was “completely planned in advance” with more than 100 of the 198 nonviolent methods “executed in accordance with the instructions of Gene Sharp.” While some US academicians who were also named in the indictment chose to break off contacts with Iranian activists to avoid putting them in further danger, Sharp vowed that he would not shy from providing information when requested:

“They contact us because they want liberation,” he told The Boston Globe. “They know they are taking a risk. That’s their choice.”

A Transpartisan Approach

It’s not only dictators that had a problem with Sharp and the policies of AEI. Some leftist bloggers and fervent anti-imperialists condemned the Institution for making no distinctions between good guys and bad guys.

While its mission statement made clear it was committed to defending democratic freedoms and institutions, AEI had always taken what it called a “transpartisan” approach to disseminating information. Sharp was insistent that strategic nonviolence should not be linked to any ideology or political group. His hope was that violence-prone insurgents and repressive governments alike might see the advantages of nonviolent coercion. Rightly or wrongly, Sharp believed that as the power of nonviolent action became better understood by all groups, the general tendency would be an overall reduction in violence..

Accordingly, AEI put much of Sharp’s writing online, making it freely available to everyone. And over the years the Institute provided direct support in the form of consultations and workshops to some freedom fighters that exhibited a questionable commitment to nonviolence. Moreover, Sharp was a strong advocate of nonviolent sanctions research by military establishments.

Predictably, all this drew condemnation from some left-wing critics intent on questioning AEI’s commitment to democratic processes and eager to paint it as a supporter of US imperialism. Undeniably, the neocon goal of regime change for foreign governments unfriendly to US interests seemed to mesh all too neatly with Sharp’s advice on how to overthrow dictators.

The ugly truth is that some quasi-governmental agencies in the US, including perhaps the CIA, were involved with assisting the opposition in Serbia and in some of the Color Revolutions. But it would be a stretch to claim that because these activists used techniques derived from Sharp’s research, he was complicit in promoting US imperialism. The fact is, AEI had influenced groups across the political spectrum, including those whose goals didn’t coincide with US interests.

The anti-imperialists’ suspicions were further fueled by past financial support from some US groups with nefarious reputations. Sharp claimed categorically that AEI never took direct government funding. Yet early in its existence the Institution received small grants at various times from the United States Institute for Peace, the International Republican Institute and the National Endowment for Democracy, all of which receive full or partial funding from the US government, and are considered by some to be instruments of an interventionist foreign policy.

Sharp insisted AEI would never accept any funding that had strings attached. But while the amount of funding from quasi-governmental organizations was probably insignificant, it provided ammunition to detractors who wished to characterize AEI as just another tool of US imperialism.

A Compassionate Man

Whatever mistakes he may have made, there is no doubt Sharp possessed uncompromising moral principles and empathy for the suffering of his fellow humans. Robert Helvey tells the story of walking down a street with him at dusk one cool evening in Washington DC. Sharp stopped for every homeless person and gave them money. When Helvey told him to stop because they might be using the money for drugs or booze, Sharp glared at him and mumbled something under his breath. “Perhaps he was remembering his own circumstances as a young student or maybe he was mumbling ‘there but for the grace of God…,’” recalls Helvey. “Whatever the reason for his charity, it was not for show or winning points with God. He is simply a most compassionate man.”

Sharp could have spent his career as a respected professor, enjoying a middle-class life and a leisurely retirement. Instead, he devoted himself to endless research with minimal financial reward. The fact he never married and had few close friends simply freed up more time to pursue his work. His commitment to building a better world never flagged, even when he found himself increasingly alone and isolated because funding for AEI dried up, as it often did.

Chris Miller, a former AEI staffer, says he could see in him a strong sense of social responsibility. Sharp himself said he “detests” dictatorships, telling Voice of America, “I don’t know where it came from but I have a deep belief in freedom and justice, and that people should have the right to make their own decisions…” Clearly, this was a man with a strong moral compass.

Yet paradoxically, Sharp adopted Gandhi’s nonviolence and stripped it of its religious and ethical elements, leaving only strategy and coercion. He once said he was influenced by Gandhi as a “calculating political operator,” not as a holy man. The conception of nonviolence as a Machiavellian instrument of pure power, rather than a means to reach the opponents’ hearts through love and self-suffering, made some people uncomfortable.

New Paradigm

While Sharp admired Gandhi’s rigorous discipline and spiritual commitment, he also understood that ordinary people were not likely to adopt a nonviolent lifestyle, as the Mahatma advocated. Without a realistic approach, Sharp knew the problems of war, tyranny and genocide might only be solved at some point in the indefinite future when humanity somehow had become more morally perfect. In fact, when Sharp began his work in the 1950s, nonviolence was seen as a quixotic pursuit, the sole purview of naive idealists and aspirant religious saints.

“Before Gene, books and courses on nonviolence…were almost exclusively looking at the ethical issues involved,” says Stephen Zunes, Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco. “And it was taught almost exclusively in religion classes or philosophy classes…” But Sharp “forced people to take it more seriously,” bringing the consideration of nonviolent action into the realm of realism, making it a legitimate subject for political science and strategic studies.

Today the landscape of political resistance has changed. Though the repertoire of protest has expanded well beyond his 198 methods, and the study of pragmatic nonviolence has burgeoned and diversified, the basic principles Sharp formulated long ago still hold true. Pick up any book about civil resistance and chances are you will find a mention of his ideas or a footnote citing one of his books. That’s because Sharp established the foundation for understanding how little people could wield political power against big institutions.

“He put forward a whole new paradigm, which if you’re stuck in the old paradigm you have a hard time understanding, much less agreeing with,” says Zunes. “So if you want to talk about a legacy, you could say he’s responsible for a huge paradigm shift in thinking about how change occurs.”

James VanHise writes and manages the Nonviolence 3.0 blog at

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2018

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2018, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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