Material by and about Gene Sharp
Gene Sharp died in January 2018 after spending over 65 years studying dictatorships, political power and nonviolent struggle. His long journey is fascinating (to me at least), full of twists and turns and improbable events. Over the years I’ve written four articles about him. This page contains links to all of them.
This lengthy article was originally published in the March 1976 issue of Fellowship magazine. Dr. Sharp adapted it from two of his oral presentations. I like this piece because the tone is more conversational and passionate than Sharp’s books, which are mostly written in an academic style. When I first read this essay way back in the 1970’s, it sparked my interest in nonviolent action. The idea of looking at nonviolence systematically as a unified technique for wielding political power really “blew my mind” (as we used to say back then).
In this piece Sharp relates several historical episodes, including the American Revolution, where nonviolent action played a pivotal role in achieving political change. He makes the point that stubborn, nonviolent resistance is an inherent part of human (and animal) nature. While advocating more serious study of strategic nonviolence for national defense, he upbraids the peace movement for its failures and reluctance to explore new alternatives to war. For me, one of the more interesting threads is the idea of a “hidden history” of nonviolent struggles. Although historians focus on wars, revolutions and bloody coups, nonviolent power dynamics may be more influential in shaping history than is generally recognized.
“So we don’t have to change human nature—or even animal nature—in order to be nonviolent. We can be the same stubborn, obnoxious people we’ve always been, under the guise of our halos and piety, while accomplishing things collectively that have a political objective.”
This is a brief summary of Power and Struggle, part one of Gene Sharp’s classic book The Politics of Nonviolent Action. In this introductory volume Sharp discusses the nature of political power, why people obey rulers, the limitations of using violence, and how change can be brought about through the use of strategic nonviolence. He also offers reasons why historians have largely ignored the technique of nonviolent struggle.“Without at least the passive support of the general population and his/her agents, the most powerful dictator in the world becomes just another crackpot with dreams of world domination.” Click To Tweet
I interviewed Dr. Sharp in June 1983 while he was attending a conference in Whittier, California. This transcript represents those portions of that conversation that still seem (to me) most interesting and relevant. I’ve tried to include questions that reveal a little about the personal side of the man and his work, and those that cast a critical eye on Sharp’s conception of civilian-based defense and the possibility of transarmament.
There is a mention of the Polish situation near the end of our conversation. At the time of the interview, tensions were high in Poland; the communist regime had declared martial law and Solidarity, the independent trade union, was operating underground. Using strikes and other nonviolent weapons, Solidarity eventually won recognition from the government and was instrumental in the fall of Polish communism in 1989.“…we have more evidence now that we could develop a viable defense policy using nonviolent forms of struggle than existed in 1939 that you could take atoms and make bombs out of them.” Click To Tweet
In this speech, strategic nonviolence expert Gene Sharp stresses the need for nations to have effective methods of defending themselves. He makes a case for the feasibility of nonviolent civilian-based defense, while advocating more research to increase its potential for success. Though this lecture was originally presented in 1983, its main points are just as relevant today, and it provides a great introduction to the subject of nonviolence. Educational listening on your phone or tablet.“…we may be able to give up military weapons for the same reason we gave up bows and arrows—not because they are wicked and immoral—but because we have discovered a better weapons system.” Click To Tweet
(Please do not distribute these audio files without permission from the Albert Einstein Institution.)
This article originally appeared in a 1984 issue of the Catholic magazine Commonweal. It explores the potential of civilian-based defense—the technique of defending a nation’s social institutions using strategic nonviolent action. The piece is based on The Politics of Nonviolent Action, a lecture by Gene Sharp (see above “Civilian-based Defense: A Lecture by Gene Sharp”) and an interview I did with him after the lecture (see above “Nonviolence & Civilian-based Defense: An Interview with Gene Sharp”).
“In the past, Christians faced with evil and injustice have often had to choose between two distasteful alternatives: submit, or resist with force of arms. But if a system of nonviolent sanctions can be developed that is as effective as violence, then perhaps there is a way out of this dilemma.”
Text by James L. VanHise licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
For civil resistance updates, follow me on Twitter