Nonviolent Warfare

Home » Gene Sharp » Nonviolent Warfare

Alternative to Armageddon?
By James L. VanHise

The year is 2010. Russian tanks swarm into a small country in Western Europe, spearheading an invasion by Warsaw Pact troops. But this invasion is unusual because no shots are fired. Instead, the Communist soldiers are greeted by shuttered windows and deserted streets. The nation being overrun phased out its military years ago and now relies on a carefully planned program of civilian nonviolent resistance to deter its enemies. Immediately, clandestine government radio stations broadcast a call for a general strike to oppose the invaders. Factories close down, key machine parts are “lost,” industrial experts go into exile, and normal channels of communication and transportation within the country are disrupted.

In an effort to get the country moving again, the Soviets round up government officials and tell them to end the strike or face execution. The few leaders that collaborate are socially ostracized. Meanwhile, an underground leadership begins to function and the economic shutdown continues unabated. Frustrated, the Soviets blunder by ordering troops to shoot at nonviolent demonstrators. As a result, the troops become restless, morale problems develop, and desertions begin to occur. Finally, realizing that the costs of continued occupation outweigh any possible benefits, the Soviets withdraw.

Farfetched? Perhaps. But Gene Sharp has reason to believe we could see a scenario like this within twenty-five years. Dr. Sharp is a Professor of Sociology and Political Science at Southeastern Massachusetts University and an Associate of Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. He is also the major U.S. proponent of civilian-based defense—a system of national defense that utilizes nonviolent resistance tactics.

Sharp testified before the U.S. Catholic bishops for their pastoral letter on war and peace. That letter received a great deal of publicity because of its criticism of U.S. nuclear strategy. But the bishops also suggest ways in which Christians can help develop policies that lead away from nuclear confrontation. Writing about nonviolent national defense, the bishops state that “practical reason as well as spiritual faith demands that it be given serious consideration as an alternative course of action.” And they declare that nonviolent principles “are thoroughly compatible with—and to some extent derived from—Christian teachings and must be part of any Christian theology of peace.” Yet while both Sharp and the bishops advocate more study into the potential of nonmilitary defense, they each appear to approach nonviolence from fundamentally different perspectives, as I discovered when I interviewed Sharp this summer. Before describing that interview, however, I will attempt to outline some of Sharp’s ideas by briefly reviewing portions of his monumental work The Politics of Nonviolent Action.

Politics consists of three volumes, each exploring a different aspect of nonviolent strategy and how it can be used by groups of people to wield political power. In part one, Power and Struggle, Sharp cites numerous historical examples of attempts to use nonviolent sanctions. Often these struggles were undertaken without planning, preparation or any real knowledge of the dynamics of nonviolent action. Usually nonviolence was used as a last resort when all else had failed. Yet surprisingly, in many of the examples Sharp describes, the resisters were completely or partially successful.

Gandhi’s campaign for Indian independence is the best-known illustration of nonviolent struggle. But Sharp points out that nonviolent sanctions had been used extensively (although perhaps less skillfully) long before Gandhi. Major aspects of the Russian Revolutions in 1905 and 1917 involved nonviolent resistance, and the American colonists made effective use of economic boycotts, tax refusal and political noncooperation. More recent examples include U.S. civil rights campaigns during the nineteen fifties and sixties, and Solidarity’s struggle in Poland.

I will recount two illustrations here: the defeat of a coup d’etat in 1920 and an unsuccessful attempt at national defense in 1968. In both cases the resistance was completely spontaneous. The coup occurred in Germany on March 12th when Wolfgang Kapp and his right wing troops marched into Berlin to oust the struggling new government of the Weimar Republic. President Ebert fled without a fight, but proclaimed that he was still head of the legal government. Resistance to the Kappists took a number of forms. Thousands of workers in Berlin went on strike. Officers of the Reichsbank refused to disburse money to Kapp because he could not obtain an authorized signature. Kapp had trouble finding a typist—or a typewriter—to prepare his manifesto, and as a result it was delivered too late for the Sunday papers. Many qualified government officials refused to participate in the new regime, forcing Kapp to appoint inexperienced men to his cabinet. Finally, responding to mounting resistance, Kapp resigned on March 17th. His defeated troops marched out of Berlin the next day.

Sharp concedes that the coup was amateurish and poorly planned. And, as in most instances of spontaneous resistance, there was a certain amount of violence, especially in outlying towns. Yet Sharp maintains it was the widespread refusal of the bureaucracy and population to cooperate with his illegal government that ultimately crushed Kapp’s putsch.

Since most countries have militaries they feel compelled to use when invaded, it is perhaps not surprising that there are very few examples of nonviolent national defense. But when half a million Warsaw Pact troops stormed into Czechoslovakia in 1968 to replace the Dubcek regime with a puppet government, Czech officials ordered soldiers to remain in their barracks. Instead, Czech leaders that weren’t kidnapped by the Soviets issued statements denying that the troops had been invited in. A pirate radio network (which had been set up in case of a NATO invasion) coordinated the resistance by organizing a clandestine congress, calling for short general strikes and urging the people to remain nonviolent. Soviet troops found themselves clashing with unarmed civilians determined to defend their homeland. As a result, Sharp reports that troops had to be rotated out of Czechoslovakia in a few days because of morale problems. Adding to Soviet demoralization was the fact that very few Czech government leaders and police collaborated with the invaders.

Startled by this strange form of warfare, the Soviets agreed to a compromise that left the Dubcek regime in power. Eventually, they were able to install their puppet government after anti-Russian rioting provided an excuse for more repression. But it took the Soviets eight months to achieve their goals in the face of spontaneous civilian resistance, versus the two or three days it would have taken them to overpower the well-prepared Czech military. If the civilian defense had been carefully preplanned, Sharp believes that the Czechs might have held off complete Soviet control for much longer—perhaps indefinitely.

In part two of The Politics of Nonviolent Action Sharp discusses 198 different kinds of actions that can be used as weapons during a nonviolent campaign. Some of these are clever (in 1968 the Czechs removed street signs to confuse invading troops), some are bizarre (protest disrobings and collective disappearance), most are commonplace (protest marches and strikes). Many of these methods are practiced by single persons (speak-ins, fasting) while others can be used by entire nations against each other (boycotts, embargoes). Sharp admits his list of methods is far from exhaustive, as nonviolent techniques are being adapted and developed all the time for new situations.

Part three of The Politics of Nonviolent Action is called The Dynamics of Nonviolent Action. This volume illustrates why Sharp has been called the Clausewitz of nonviolent warfare. Taking an almost military approach to the study of strategy and tactics, he talks about the importance of timing, the choice of weapons, geographical and physical elements. It is here that Sharp develops at length a concept of power that is as simple as it is profound: People are the source of all power. When the citizenry withdraws its cooperation, the government crumbles.

The idea that power comes out of the barrel of a gun is a myth, says Sharp.

Rather than viewing tyrants as monolithic pillars of granite that need to be destroyed with explosive force, we should see them as pathetically fragile figureheads that can be toppled by simply undercutting their base of support. Click To Tweet

All governments, and especially oppressive ones, have inherent weaknesses that naturally contribute to their ineffectiveness and limit their control and longevity. Often these weaknesses are related to dissension within the ranks of the ruler’s agents and a reluctance to carry out orders. When a government is faced with massive popular nonviolent opposition, those cracks in the bureaucracy tend to widen. An effective resistance would concentrate its strongest weapons against the ruler’s most vulnerable points.

When governments go on the offensive, they often experience difficulty in suppressing nonviolent resistance. Using their usual violent measures against groups that are clearly acting nonviolently can result in what Sharp calls “political jiu-jitsu.” The violence in effect rebounds against the aggressor by strengthening the resolve of the resisting group. The use of violence by the government also tends to alienate previously neutral parties while increasing sympathy and support for the victims. And morale problems can develop among troops and police who have the distasteful job of shooting or beating up nonviolent resisters who pose no immediate threat to them.

In part three Sharp also discusses the three ways a nonviolent campaign can be successful. 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 to 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 opponent is forced against his will to concede because his power base has been dissolved. Thus, even when a nonviolent campaign is unable to change the adversary’s way of thinking, it can still influence his actions.

The Politics of Nonviolent Action does not really explore in depth the possibility of using nonviolent sanctions for national defense. But on the day of our scheduled interview, Dr. Sharp spoke at Whittier College as part of a Quaker-sponsored seminar about national security. In that lecture, Sharp talked about the need for a substitute form of international warfare. “If ever there was a time by which war should have been abolished, it is past,” he began. We live in a century of extreme dictatorships, where the technological means for genocide and oppression have been all but perfected. People will not give up military warfare because it is the only method they know to fight these evils. “For most people, disarmament is a dirty word,” he said.

The wielding of power by groups and nations is inevitable, Sharp continued. He called for the development of a functional substitute for war: a way to exercise power that is less destructive to society and human values. Sharp said we need to rethink politics from the ground up. He rejected the traditional answers such as disarmament, world government, socialism, even pacifism, declaring “none of these are adequate today to address our problems in these extreme forms which they have taken.” We can no longer afford to wait for some indefinite time in the future when human nature will change for the better, and we should not expect mass conversions to pacifism or an outbreak of universal altruism. With nonviolent struggle there is no need to wait for participants to adopt a new set of moral values.

People can (and do) use nonviolence to gain political goals without espousing a “turn the other cheek” philosophy in their everyday lives. Click To Tweet

Sharp insisted that right now, building on our natural abilities to be stubborn, obnoxious and incompetent, we can develop nonviolent strategies for national defense.

Still, Sharp admitted that adoption of civilian defense by the United States, if it ever happens, is a very long way off. Americans would first need to accept a narrower definition of national security. After the lecture, many of the questions from the audience demonstrated the gulf between the public’s perception of U.S. security needs and the capabilities of civilian-based defense (CBD). Some examples:

Q: Without a military, how could the U.S. project its power globally in order to preserve its supply of resources?

A: It could not. Preparations for CBD would have to include developing a high degree of self-sufficiency through stockpiling and other means.

Q: How could we defend our allies with CBD?

A: We could not. They would have to learn to take care of their own defenses.

Q: If a country adopts CBD, won’t it be vulnerable to nuclear attack?

A: Perhaps, but there is no defense against nuclear weapons, and it is the nations with large offensive militaries that are most likely to be targeted. Nations with CBD would threaten no one.

After the lecture, Sharp and I secluded ourselves in a back room and I punched on the tape recorder for the interview. “Do you think we will see the end of war in our lifetime?” I asked. “Maybe not in mine,” he replied. But he said he felt there would definitely be some exciting developments in the next few years. Sharp hypothesized that the smaller Western European countries will take the lead in adopting CBD. A nation would first develop a limited CBD capacity alongside their military. Then, as citizens become more comfortable and proficient with CBD, the military could slowly be phased out. This process is called transarmament. Sharp told me that the Netherlands has already approved funding to study certain aspects of what they call “social defense,” while the Swedish Cabinet has authorized a commission to prepare a plan for incorporating nonviolent resistance into Sweden’s defense program. In fact, Sharp predicts that Sweden will adopt a limited civilian defense plan within two or three years, and there could be several cases of full transarmament in the next twenty to thirty years.

How would a nation prepare for CBD? One goal of preparation would be to prevent the mass bewilderment, uncertainty and passivity that often occur during an invasion. Citizens would be trained in nonviolent tactics so they would be able to function without a centralized leadership. A corps of defense workers could be established to coordinate different aspects of the resistance. Stockpiling of food, fuel and other essentials might be encouraged, and contingency plans drawn up to relocate some of the population to rural areas where control would be more difficult. Mutual nonviolent defense treaties could be implemented between nations to help out with international boycotts and embargoes. Some experts have even suggested nonviolent “war games” to carry out local or nationwide practice drills.

Of course, not all societies are ready for transarmament. Before converting to CBD, a nation with highly centralized industries would probably need to disperse its production facilities, making it more difficult for adversaries to gain control of the economic infrastructure. The best candidates for transarmament are countries with healthy, harmonious societies. But even the most stable nations would find it beneficial to improve the quality of life for all segments of the population in order to insure a unified civilian resistance. A country adopting CBD would in effect eliminate the traditional conflict between guns and butter. Imagine a future world in which a defense build-up consists of improving social welfare programs for minorities!

While interest in Europe is high (a number of smaller political parties are advocating CBD research as part of their platforms), civilian defense is practically unheard of in the United States. Nevertheless, recent developments indicate that awareness is on the rise. This summer Harvard’s Center for International Affairs established the Program on Nonviolent Sanctions in Conflict and Defense to do research and policy studies. Dr. Sharp heads the project, which is the first of its kind in the world. Sharp also told me about a new organization in Omaha called the Association for Transarmament Studies. This group is trying to facilitate research, discussion and public education about CBD in the U.S.

Throughout the lecture and interview Sharp appeared to take great pains to present an amoral image. For example, when I asked if he thought violence was ever justified, he replied, “I really don’t deal with the question of justification…it’s not one that interests me.” Do you consider yourself a crusader I asked? No, he said, he had never tried to “sell” CBD. He saw himself mainly as a researcher and writer who had come upon an important idea—the better mousetrap theory for the abolition of war he called it—and it was beginning to generate a lot of interest. I was also curious why he did not like being referred to as a pacifist. Pacifism is a personal moral position, he said, and does nothing to offer a practical alternative to war.

Yet Sharp also told me that years ago he had spent nine months in jail as a conscientious objector, and that he is still personally opposed to war and violence. It seems that he is concerned that being characterized as a “peacenik” might hurt his credibility with more mainstream groups, or lead to the impression that nonviolent resistance is for pacifists only. Clearly, Sharp sincerely believes that CBD can stand on its own as a practical, effective alternative to war. As he put it, 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. Sharp said that if nonviolent struggle becomes recognized as a superior method for defending people, then the military “will just gradually fade away like the old soldiers.”

But the concept of CBD is still very new. In fact, Sharp does not really advocate transarmament for any nation at this point. What we need first, he says, is hardheaded research by both governmental and nongovernmental institutions to determine its feasibility. Then studies can be done to develop and refine strategy and tactics to increase its effectiveness. “The nonviolent technique,” he has written, is “an underdeveloped political technique, probably at the stage comparable to violent group conflict several thousand years ago.”

On the need for more research into nonviolent resistance, Sharp and the U.S. bishops are in complete agreement. In their letter the bishops write: “Nonviolent means of resistance to evil deserve much more study and consideration than they have thus far received.” But Sharp and the bishops would seem to disagree on one key point. The bishops state that the objective of nonviolent resistance is “to seek the good of the other. Blunting the aggression of an adversary or oppressor would not be enough. The goal is winning the other over, making the adversary a friend.” Sharp, the pragmatist, would counter that the only goal of nonviolent action must be victory. Converting the opponent is all well and good if it should occur, but there are times when this may be impossible, and we must not rule out the more common forms of victory: accommodation and coercion.

This is an important point because if the only objective is “making the adversary a friend,” then certain tactics could not be used for fear of alienating the opponent, thus limiting the effectiveness of CBD. And, to play a significant part in a Christian theology of peace, CBD must not only help reduce the level of violence in the world, it must also prove an effective method of struggle against oppression and injustice. Until then, even most moral and well-intentioned Christians will not feel comfortable in renouncing violent forms of struggle.

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. As the bishops put it in their letter, “We believe work to develop non-violent means of fending off aggression and resolving conflict best reflects the call of Jesus both to love and to justice.” And later they write “Non-violent resistance offers a common ground of agreement for those individuals who choose the option of Christian pacifism even to the point of accepting the need to die rather than kill and those who choose the option of lethal force allowed by the theology of just war.”

The Catholic bishops are not the only religious body to recognize the potential importance of civilian defense. Last year the United Methodist Church adopted a resolution calling for more study on CBD, and there is interest among some evangelicals. What is needed now is for all Christians who are concerned about the increasing violence of modern warfare to join together to encourage more research into nonviolent methods of resistance. With the world teetering on the brink of disaster, the time is right for new and bold thinking. Gene Sharp believes the possibility now exists to deliberately contribute to a new stage in human history, leading perhaps to the “transformation of politics and the justifiable restoration of hope.” But unless the peace-loving souls in the world take an active role in the search for alternatives to violence, we will no doubt continue to stumble toward nuclear catastrophe. As Pope John Paul II said at Hiroshima, “From now on it is only through a conscious choice and through a deliberate policy that humanity can survive.”

Originally published in the magazine Commonweal in 1984.

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