Civilian-based Defense

Home » Gene Sharp » Civilian-based Defense

A Lecture by Gene Sharp (audio files)

“If ever there was a time by which war should have been abolished, it has passed.” So begins this June 1983 lecture given by Dr. Gene Sharp at Whittier College in California. The presentation was part of a conference called “Feeling Safe: Exploring Paths to National and International Security” sponsored by the Whittier Institute for International Understanding.

Sharp goes on to ask rhetorically why war continues to be an accepted form of conflict. His answer is that people do not want to helplessly submit to genocide, dictatorial regimes, foreign occupations, cultural usurpations and other forms of injustice so ubiquitous in the modern world, and they see no other way to resist. People require a way to fight for good causes and, even more importantly, to defend themselves and their families against possible enemies. War and violence are the only forms of struggle they trust to defend their way of life.

Civilian-Based Defense, Sharp suggests, may provide an effective nonviolent alternative to military warfare. CBD is based on the insight that power is derived from the obedience and cooperation of people, and no invading army can effectively rule a country whose citizens refuse to support the new regime. Sharp maintains that using nonviolent action is not contrary to human nature (or even animal nature); it builds on our natural capacity to be stubborn, obnoxious and incompetent. He stresses that it is not necessary to be opposed to violence on ethical or religious grounds in order to use nonviolent tactics, just as those who support war don’t need to embrace violence as a way of life. In fact, nonviolent action has been used for hundreds of years by ordinary people, and Sharp goes on to cite historical examples of successful or partially successful nonviolent struggles.

Since all previous attempts at nonviolent national defense have been spontaneous, Sharp theorizes that a carefully prepared program could be far more effective. A trained citizenry might be able to multiply the power of nonviolent non-cooperation by ten times. He advocates more research to develop the technique, claiming great strides could be made with just one percent of the Pentagon’s budget. In fact, Sharp point out (at the time of the lecture) several smaller European countries were already giving serious consideration to using Social Defense (as they call it) as part of their overall defense strategy.

Sharp concludes his talk by suggesting ways ordinary citizens can begin to raise public consciousness about CBD, and suggests initial steps toward what he calls transarmament.

(Please do not distribute these audio files without permission from the Albert Einstein Institution.)

Part One

Click to play: Sharp Lecture Part 1.mp3 Runtime 33:22 (6.3 MB)

Some points covered in part one:

  • Why hasn’t war been abolished?
  • Nuclear deterrence is a desperate and bankrupt policy
  • In our era of extreme dictatorships, technology is providing tyrants with even more effective instruments of oppression
  • Even in “free” countries people often feel powerless
  • People don’t reject war because they refuse to submit to certain “evils” and don’t know any other way to effectively resist them
  • People require methods of defense
  • Defense and deterrence are not synonymous with military
  • Because past ideologies and movements (including peace movements) have failed, a new approach to wielding power is required
  • Power derives from obedience and cooperation of people, not from violence
  • Tyrants are powerless without agents who carry out their will
  • Strategic nonviolence builds on our natural ability to be stubborn and defiant
  • Nonviolent action is practiced by animals and humans all the time
  • People do not need to embrace ethical or religious beliefs in nonviolence in order to reject the use of political violence (it can be a strategic decision)

Part Two

Click to play: Sharp Lecture Part 2.mp3 Runtime 24:50 (4.7 MB)

Some points covered in part two:

  • Gandhi didn’t invent nonviolent action—he learned it from studying the struggles of Russians, Americans, Irish and others
  • Nonviolence is as old as humanity
  • Examples of historical struggles using nonviolence as the primary weapon
  • In 1968 the Czechs used improvised nonviolent resistance to prevent a Soviet takeover for eight months
  • What would have happened if the Czechs had been able to prepare and train for the use of nonviolence?
  • With training, the effectiveness of nonviolent action might be multiplied tenfold
  • If NATO countries trained their populations to be unrulable, a Soviet invasion might be deterred
  • The Military can’t defend against coups d’ état, but nonviolent techniques could
  • European countries are currently [in 1983] studying the use of nonviolence for deterrence and defense
  • Steps ordinary citizens can take to generate public interest and further research
  • People need to educate themselves about civilian-based defense so they can advocate intelligently
  • Transarmament would start with serious research studies
  • As transarmament progressed, military and civilian-based defense would coexist, with a gradual fading away of the military component
  • If civilian-based defense is more effective than military defense, it will eventually prevail

Creative Commons License
Text by James L. VanHise licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

For updates on nonviolent activism and civil resistance, follow me on