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Gene Sharp: The father of nonviolent revolution

His work has influenced nonviolent resistance movements throughout the world. Gene Sharp received the Right Livelihood Award 2012.

 

He has spent his life studying nonviolent resistance and why it is the most effective way to overthrow corrupt, oppressive regimes. The work of Gene Sharp has influenced resistance movements throughout the world – and continues to do so.

Something unusual is happening around the world: it’s the people without weapons who are winning, he states.

Gene Sharp has just turned 85. His body is frail and he uses a cane when he walks, but his gaze is clear and his intellect sharp. He gives the impression of being humble, friendly and moral. It is hard to understand that this timid man is a threat to dictators and totalitarian regimes. But he is. And so much so that authorities in Syria and Iran claim he is a CIA agent. In Russia, the two bookstores that sold his book From Dictatorship to Democracy were set on fire.

He has been called ‘the Machiavelli of nonviolent action’, something he smiles modestly at when it comes up in conversation. The epithet fits him well. Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince is a kind of handbook about how dictators should act in order to keep their power over the people. Gene Sharp’s book From Dictatorship to Democracy, however, is a guide outlining 198 nonviolent methods and is written for the people under the rule of the dictator or totalitarian system.

 

So, what exactly is nonviolent resistance? “Let me try and put it briefly. People are stubborn in large numbers – for example, marching together through the streets to show their displeasure. They act through symbolic protests, economic and political boycotts, civil disobedience and nonviolent interventions. There are many ways,” Gene Sharp explains.

Sharp’s theories on nonviolent action have influenced resistance movements all over the world. His book, which has been translated into more than 35 different languages, has been downloaded from the Internet, copied and smuggled over borders by rebels and other resistance groups. Using the book, and some of his other writings, as a foundation, people in countries like Myanmar (Burma), Estonia, Ukraine, Serbia and, more recently, in Egypt and Tunisia, have planned how to overthrow their regimes.

The essence of Sharp’s theory is: the sources of the ruler’s power depends upon the obedience and cooperation of the subjects’. This can be called the consent theory of power. Without the consent of the subjects – either their active support or their passive acquiescence the ruler would have little power and little basis for rule.

However, trying to get rid of a regime through violence is, according to Sharp, an unwise strategy. “Military regimes are well equipped to deal with this kind of resistance. They are built to meet violence with violence. When regimes see that the people refuse to be oppressed by violence and that their resistance is large and disciplined – that’s when they lose control. In the end, people are stronger than they think because they do not use violence,” he says.

The need to know
Gene Sharp first became interested in nonviolent strategies as a way of political struggle at the end of the 1940s. “The world was in chaos! The atom bomb was new; the Nazis and the Holocaust still fresh in our memories. Stalin ruled the Soviet Union and I knew a little bit about the camps for the political and religious prisoners over there. I became more and more convinced that there must be an alternative to war.”

So he studied past and present times, analysing how people had successfully resisted without using violence. Among other things, he spent two and a half years in Norway at the end of the 1950s. His time there affected him deeply. He saw up close how the Norwegian resistance used civil disobedience in the educational system as a weapon against Vidkun Quisling’s pro-Nazi rule.

 

You won’t get far with just inspiration. If you only have good ideas, then what? Lots of people with great ideas have done terrible things. Inspiration isn’t as important as having knowledge and understanding of what can be done to change what is wrong and what is needed to make things better. This requires thought and analysis, he declares.

 

He talks about the time he interviewed a woman who helped the Jews escape the Nazis. “I met a very wise person who said, ‘You don’t know anything about power.’ I thought about this and applied to Oxford University. I spent months there reading, analyzing and putting together different theories from respected intellectuals. I added knowledge where there were gaps and this work was the foundation for my power analysis, which is still a unique contribution in the field. And all because someone pointed out what I didn’t know, but needed to.”

Gandhi was a big influence
It was also in Oxford as he sat hunched over books and newspaper clippings that he really got to know a major source of influence: Gandhi. He disagrees with the picture of Gandhi being only a spiritual leader, saying that it gives an unfair picture of who he really was and why he managed to become a leading figure in India’s struggle for independence from the British Empire.

“I don’t admire Gandhi because he was ‘nice’. He was anything but naïve. He studied law in London and was well read. He knew a lot about how resistance movements used civil disobedience. He was an intellectual and an analyst. This has been overlooked, something that has done more harm than good, as people think they know what he did and how, when in fact, they don’t know,” he says.

“Up until then, I thought that nonviolent struggle was connected to a kind of ethical or religious belief. But then I realized that Gandhi used nonviolent actions for practical reasons too – because, quite simply, it had a better effect. This gave me hope that people can resist massive violence around the world,” he continues.

Sharp does not usually stand at the barricades himself, but during 1953-1954, he spent nine months in jail for protesting against the conscription of soldiers for the Korean War. In 1989, he talked to the demonstrators at Tiananmen Square. And in 1992, he travelled to Myanmar (Burma) illegally after activists for democracy asked him to hold workshops on nonviolent actions for students.

The Albert Einstein Institution
Professor Gene Sharp has mainly been active in the academic world. He was a researcher at Harvard University for thirty years and in 1983, he founded the Albert Einstein Institution, AEI, to promote the study and use of nonviolent action in conflicts. The Institution is operating from two rooms in his house in East Boston since 2004. His current title is Senior Scholar.

The Institution’s Executive Director is Jamila Raqib, 32. When she finished her studies in Management, she wanted to work for a year in a non-profit organization. That is when she saw a job advert from AEI.


“I was sceptical at first, to say the least. When I was five, my family fled to the US and I’m from a society that has glorified resistance violence. Because it has been invaded countless times over the centuries, Afghans understand that strong action is sometimes necessary to defend your country.  For many, it is not just a person’s right, but their responsibility, to fight oppression, invasion, and occupation using the most powerful means available.  Unfortunately, in Afghanistan, as in many places, violence is seen as the most powerful way to fight back. But I did a lot of reading and saw that there are alternative methods that actually work. And now I’ve been working for the Institution for ten years,” Jamila says.

 

Gene Sharp emphasizes that his theories must be adapted for each specific situation. Both he and Jamila stress the fact that they do not tell the people who come to them for advice how they should act. They simply do not have the knowledge of what it is like to live in those countries.

“It is the people themselves who must analyse, plan and act. Because they have the knowledge. And they are the ones taking the risks and the consequences,” Jamila explains.

They both use words like conflict, strategies and operations. Words that make you think of military forces. According to Sharp, the same expressions used by the military can be applied to nonviolent struggle.

“Words are incredibly important. How can you think clearly if your vocabulary is unclear? Take a word like nonviolent: it means everything and nothing. That’s why it’s important to put a word like action or struggle after it to show that this kind of resistance very much involves active action and not passivity,” Sharp says.

“After all, it’s all about armed struggle. The difference here is that the weapons are nonviolent,” Jamila adds.

Think first, then act
People organize peaceful protests against governments around the world and they do so knowing that their actions can mean severe punishment. When asked where people get the courage to stand up to violent regimes, Sharp answers thoughtfully, “To be honest, I don’t know. Maybe it becomes second nature. What’s important is that they can and do make it happen. When you start resisting, totalitarian regimes won’t like it. They will use violence to create fear. But people carry on resisting because nonviolent action works.”

He then continues, “If you are afraid, then nothing changes. And if you know what is going to happen, then you are less likely to do nothing. Calculate the risks and if you think they are too great, then don’t do it. If you decide to act, then do so with the knowledge that the gains are greater than the risks. Otherwise, your actions will do more harm than good.”

Sharp comes back to the importance of being prepared and being careful and emphasizes how important it is to have the necessary knowledge before acting.

“You won’t get far with just inspiration. If you only have good ideas, then what? Lots of people with great ideas have done terrible things. Inspiration isn’t as important as having knowledge and understanding of what can be done to change what is wrong and what is needed to make things better. This requires thought and analysis,” he declares.

Throughout the years, he has been criticised both by people who support violence in conflicts and by pacifists. Pacifists who believe that even though Gene Sharp researches and promotes nonviolent resistance, he still focuses on conflicts. Sharp believes that many people have a very romantic view of non-violence.

“I’m proud to be different from most other peace activists and pacifists. To completely get rid of conflicts is a dangerous vision. It depends on what kind of conflict we’re talking about. If there is injustice, then there should be conflict. And opinions should be put into action but those actions must be chosen wisely,” he states.

Sceptics often argue that nonviolent methods could not have beaten the Nazis during the Second World War. But instead of discussing whether they would have worked or not, Sharp encourages people to focus on how the Nazis were obstructed by nonviolent actions, something often forgotten by historians. He believes that without this kind of civil resistance, the Nazis would have done even more damage.

“An American magazine once wrote: ‘Test for pacifists! Can you melt Hitler’s heart?’ What bullshit! Utter nonsense! That wasn’t the problem. The question was – and is – how can you take away the power from someone like Hitler? How can you empower people who think they are helpless? These are the questions I focus on,” he says.

He has analysed the ideas of great thinkers and met wise politicians and policy makers, but they are not the people who have influenced him the most. “It is said that you can’t do things under certain circumstances and yet people do them anyway. So called ordinary people can do extraordinary deeds. So do the right thing. It doesn’t matter how small your act is, it can turn out to be great,” he says.

 

By Anna Åhlund           Photo Mattias Lundblad

Gene Sharp was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 and 2012, and received the Right Livelihood Award in 2012.

His latest book, Sharp’s Dictionary of Power and Struggle: Language of Civil Resistance in Conflicts is a reference work of key terms related to power and struggle, and was published by Oxford University Press in January 2012.

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