In the 1970s I was working as a volunteer for the War Resisters League down at the old Lafayette St. building in lower Manhattan. One day I was goofing off (as usual) when I spotted a copy of Fellowship magazine lying on someone’s desk. Leafing through it, I came upon an article called “Disregarded History” by someone named Gene Sharp.1
It was pretty amazing stuff. Writing in a casual, entertaining style, Sharp outlined the expanse of his pioneering ideas with playful examples and dramatic historical vignettes. For example, he claimed US independence had largely been won through nonviolent economic resistance campaigns before the Revolutionary War even started, and the eight years of bloodshed may have actually delayed independence.2
In the article he illustrated how stubbornness and disobedience were part of human nature; how even our pets use civil resistance. Intriguingly, he argued there was a “hidden history” of nonviolent struggles. While historians focused on bloody wars, violent revolutions and powerful leaders, they ignored how the past was shaped by the ubiquitous phenomenon of nonviolent “people power.”
Over the years I read all the books and pamphlets by Sharp I could get my hands on. In 1983 I heard he would be giving a talk to a peace group in Southern California, where I was living at the time. I wrote asking if I could interview him and he graciously assented. Listening to those tapes now is embarrassing, with me chomping on a wad of gum and asking stupid questions. But Sharp indulged my brash ignorance with respectful patience and affability.
When I interviewed him again in December 2016 he was not well. At 89, his speech was badly slurred and he could not hold his thoughts together when trying to focus on more complex ideas. Yet he was still kind and gracious, taking every opportunity to find out more about me.
This blog is not about the past. I want to write about cutting edge strategies and tactics for social change. I want to explore creative activism—using art, stories, humor, pranks and imaginative stunts. But such tactics must have strategic underpinnings, and Sharp provided that foundation. Pick up any contemporary book about civil resistance and you are likely to see his ideas referenced somewhere within its pages.
Gene Sharp died last January 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. They are now all available online. Links are below.
Nonviolent Warfare: Alternative to Armageddon?
Commonweal – April 20, 1984 issue
This article explores the potential of civilian-based defense—the technique of defending a nation’s social institutions using strategic nonviolent action. It is based on the book The Politics of Nonviolent Action, a lecture by Gene Sharp that I attended in 1983, and the interview I did with him after the lecture.
“…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.”
Nonviolence, Power, and Possibility: The Life of Gene Sharp
The Progressive – April/May 2017 issue
This piece was based on the interview I did with Sharp in December 2016. I’m disappointed at what the editors did to it, but at least I was able to get a few ideas through that are rarely mentioned in other articles I’ve read about Sharp (and I’ve read most of them).
“The idea of an empowered population is central to Sharp’s political vision, and relevant even to democratic societies, where governments and big corporations are becoming increasingly centralized and alienated from the people. He sees this trend as a primary threat to human freedom. Even when those in power grant rights and privileges to their citizens, those gains can be easily reversed if the people are powerless and too reliant on the government.”
The Lonely Struggle: A Tribute To Gene Sharp
ZNet – February 10, 2018
This is my favorite of the four articles, but the one fewest people have seen, buried as it is in the back pages of ZNet. I like it because it is the longest piece, so I was able to trace Sharp’s life and the evolution of his ideas in some detail. Because so much nonsense has been written about him—that he was a rabid anti-communist, a supporter of US imperialism, a CIA agent and more—I wanted to give his writing and actions some context. Hopefully readers will come away with a fuller sense of Sharp’s character and motivations.
“’I’ve been studying this question of dictatorships for many decades,’ he told The Daily Beast ‘It is a lonely struggle. To get this kind of recognition is very important.’”
Gene Sharp: Freedom, Tyranny, and Peace
Peace Magazine – April–June 2018 issue
Sharp’s ideas were seen by many political scientists as unconventional. He was criticized by dictators and anti-imperialists alike. He was critical of pacifists and peace activists. In this article I emphasize his life as an outsider. Also discussed: Sharp’s moral character, funding controversies and civilian-based defense.
“’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.’”
Text by James L. VanHise licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
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- Many years later Sharp gave me permission to post this article on my website. I still think it’s a great introduction to his ideas—and a fun read.
- Sharp’s Albert Einstein Institution recently republished a book about nonviolent aspects of the American struggle for independence. Before Lexington is available as a free download here: https://www.aeinstein.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Before-Lexington.pdf