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Power and Struggle

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A Summary of The Politics of Nonviolent Action: Power and Struggle
By James L. VanHise

When it comes to strategic nonviolence, Gene Sharp is the man. No one has thought more, spoken more, and written more about the subject. His magnum opus is The Politics of Nonviolent Action, published in 1973. In over 800 pages of heavily footnoted text, Sharp analyzes the technique of nonviolence more methodically and in greater depth than anyone ever has.

All hierarchical systems require the cooperation of people at every level—from the lowliest workers to the highest bureaucrats. When enough people withdraw their support for a long enough time, the power of the ruler disintegrates. The Politics of Nonviolent Action is essentially about how this can be most effectively accomplished. Sharp stresses that strategic nonviolence is not passive, nor is it a way of avoiding conflict. He sees conflict as necessary and inevitable. Strategic nonviolence is a method of actively engaging in resistance through carefully planned campaigns of disobedience and disruption.

In this book Sharp makes no attempt to explore the possibilities of using nonviolence for social change or national defense. Rather, he analyzes nonviolence solely as a technique—the theory behind it, its methods, its dynamics. Politics is broken down into three volumes the first of which, Power and Struggle, I will review here.

The Nature of Power

Power and Struggle is the smallest of the three volumes (only a hundred pages) but is in some ways the most important because it focuses on the nature of power. The view of power described here is crucial to understanding why nonviolent strategies can be so effective.

Sharp puts forth two ways of looking at the nature of political power. One is the monolithic model, where people are dependent on their ruler for support. This model assumes the government is “…a ‘given,’ a strong, independent, durable (if not indestructible), self-reinforcing, and self-perpetuating force.” From this point of view, the only means of opposing the power structure is with overwhelmingly destructive force. This model provides the justification for war and violent revolution. The monolithic theory of power is only true when both the rulers and the ruled believe it is. For obvious reasons, this is a conception of power that those with power like to perpetuate.

A more realistic view of political power recognizes that rulers derive their power from those over whom they rule. The cooperation of those around a ruler is absolutely essential if (s)he is to have any power at all. Without at least the passive support of the general population and his/her agents (cabinet members, aids, legislative bodies, police, military officers, etc.) the most powerful dictator in the world becomes just another crackpot with dreams of world domination. The technique of strategic nonviolence is based on this insight.

Why People Obey

Clearly the question of why people obey is central to understanding the dynamics of political power. Sharp lists seven reasons:

  1. Habit: In my opinion habit is the main reason people do not question the actions their “superiors” expect of them. Habitual obedience is embedded in all cultures. After all, isn’t that what culture is—habitual behavior?
  2. Fear of sanctions: It is the fear of sanctions, rather than the sanctions themselves, that is most effective in enforcing obedience.
  3. Moral obligation: This “inner constraining power” is the product of cultural programming and deliberate indoctrination by the state, church and media.
  4. Self interest: The potential for financial gain and enhanced prestige can entice people to obey.
  5. Psychological identification with the ruler: People may feel an emotional tie with the leader or the system, experiencing its victories and defeats as their own. The most common manifestations of this are patriotism and nationalism.
  6. Zones of indifference: People often obey commands without consciously questioning their legitimacy.
  7. Absence of self-confidence: Some people prefer to hand control of their lives over to the ruling class. They may feel inadequate to make their own decisions.

When analyzing human obedience, the psychological factor is decisive. Domination and submission are psychological states of mind.

Those who argue against the use of nonviolent tactics like demonstrations or petitions, claiming that they are merely symbolic gestures, forget that power is symbolic as well. Click To Tweet

Withdrawing support, even symbolically, calls into question the props and illusions that hold Power up. Yet people are often ignorant of the power they hold, and governments conspire to maintain the illusion of their monolithic power, making their subjects feel helpless.

Violent Sanctions

It may seem counter-intuitive that nonviolent resistance can be effective against rulers who have massive amounts of force at their disposal. But that is precisely the beauty of nonviolence. Using violence against “violence experts” is the quickest way to have your organization or movement crushed. That is why governments frequently infiltrate opposition groups with agents provocateurs—to sidetrack the movement into violent channels that the violence professionals (police, military, security agencies, etc.) can deal with.

After World War II military historian Basil Liddell Hart interviewed German generals about their reactions to the various forms of resistance they encountered during the war. In his essay “Lessons from Resistance Movements” he writes about the difficulties Nazi generals had in dealing with nonviolence:

“Their evidence also showed the effectiveness of non-violent resistance….Even clearer, was their inability to cope with it. They were experts in violence, and had been trained to deal with opponents who used that method. But other forms of resistance baffle them—and all the more as the methods were subtle and concealed. It was a relief to them when nonviolent forms were mixed with guerrilla action, thus making it easier to combine drastic and suppressive action against both at the same time.”

When rulers choose to use their superior force (what Sharp calls “sanctions”) against nonviolent actionists, they sometimes find that it does not bring about the desired results. First, all sanctions must be carried out by the ruler’s agents (police or military personnel) who may or may not obey (or may drag their feet and only make a show of obeying). A ruler’s agents can become unreliable for a number of reasons. They may become reluctant when ordered to commit especially brutal acts against people who are clearly presenting no physical threat. Agents may also feel their leader is losing his/her mantle of authority, or may begin to sympathize with the opposition’s cause.

Rulers have another potential problem when using violent sanctions against nonviolent actionists. Too much brutality may result in what Sharp calls “political jiu-jitsu” where the opposition group is able to increase their unity and support while politically throwing the ruler off balance and weakening his/her regime. This can happen when martyrs are created, or when third parties (either foreign countries or internal groups) who were previously neutral are appalled by the brutal treatment of nonviolent actionists and begin to sympathize with their cause.

Furthermore, sanctions do not always achieve their intended effect because it is impossible to physically force a person to obey. To take an extreme example, someone can put a gun to my head and order me to dig a ditch. But the choice to dig or not is still mine. If he pulls the trigger the ditch will certainly not get dug.

As Sharp puts it: “It is not the sanctions themselves which produce obedience, but the fear of them.” Click To Tweet

For those who think that it really comes down to the same thing it should be pointed out that history is full of examples where masses of people willfully refused to comply with their ruler’s wishes, despite the very real risk of injury or death.


Sharp cites three ways that nonviolent actionists can prevail. The first is conversion. Gandhians and many religious groups insist that converting the opponent to their point of view—winning their hearts and minds—is the only true victory. Accommodation, on the other hand, occurs when the opponent doesn’t agree with the resisters, but decides it is too costly to continue the fight. Accommodation is probably the most common path to victory. The third way that success can be achieved is through what Sharp calls nonviolent coercion. This occurs when the opposition is forced to make concessions against its will because its power base has been dissolved. Thus, even when a nonviolent campaign is unable to change its adversary’s way of thinking, it can still wield power and influence the course of events.

The Invisible History

Until recently, nonviolent action has not been recognized as a legitimate method of struggle. Sharp lists a number of reasons for this oversight:

  • Rarely have nonviolent actionists been romanticized as heroes. Rather, warriors and terrorists and their dramatic acts of heroism are mythologized for future generations.
  • Historians have accepted the dominant culture’s view that violence is the only legitimate form of combat.
  • Historians conspire with the ruling class to keep the people ignorant of their own power.
  • Western civilization is “biased toward violence.”
  • It requires a “new way of viewing the world.” It is a paradigm whose time has not yet come.
  • Nonviolence has never been seen as a coherent conceptual system. Consequently, historical examples of nonviolent action are viewed as isolated events rather than as different aspects of the same technique of struggle.
  • Nonviolence is unfairly compared to violence. Nonviolence is often used when violence has no chance of success. When nonviolence fails, the method is condemned. But when violence fails, strategy or tactics are blamed—not violence as a method. Nonviolence successes are written off as flukes. Partial successes are seen as total failures.

The Future

Since The Politics of Nonviolent Action was published, public awareness of nonviolence as a legitimate and effective form of struggle has blossomed. The technique has been used successfully in numerous high visibility conflicts, most notably the ousting of Marcos in the Philippines (1986) and the prevention of a military coup in Russia (1991). Although history is filled with such examples, they seem to be occurring with increasing frequency in the late twentieth century. Perhaps it is an indication that we are finally realizing that using violent methods against those in power—who are violence specialists—is not strategically smart. Perhaps there are more effective ways to wage conflict.

The Other Volumes

Part Two: The Methods of Nonviolent Action

Here Sharp examines 198 different kinds of nonviolent actions, giving historical examples of each. He breaks them down into three broad categories:

  1. Protest and persuasion
  2. Social, economic and political noncooperation
  3. Nonviolent intervention

Part Three: The Dynamics of Nonviolent Action

This is an exploration of nonviolent strategy and tactics that can be used against violent, repressive opponents. Sharp explains how the relative power relationships of all parties should be carefully analyzed so the resisters can develop a strategy that uses their strengths to attack their opponent’s weaknesses. The problem of dealing with brutal repression is explored, along with the phenomenon of “political jiu-jitsu.”

Also included in this volume is a discussion of how the act of nonviolent struggle itself can be beneficial to groups and their society. The feeling of empowerment that evolves within resisting groups during a campaign can bring about increased self-esteem and personal development, whereas the use of violence tends to create callousness and de-humanization. The use of nonviolence also disperses power throughout a society, in contrast to violent struggles that tend to centralize power.

Originally published in 1997

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

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