By Amitabh Pal on September 27, 2012

Gene Sharp is the single most influential proponent of nonviolent change in our time. His work has served as a how-to manual for activists in countries across Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa, and has been translated into dozens of languages. And it played a role in the Arab Spring, as anti-Mubarak protesters in Egypt, particularly, found inspiration in his teachings.

Indeed, Sharp’s work is so globally respected that Gabonese activist Gloria Mika told the BBC that when she traveled to Boston to see Sharp in person, “I felt like I was going to meet the main man in terms of nonviolent resistance in the world.”

At eighty-three, Sharp shows little sign of slowing down. His new book is Sharp’s Dictionary of Power and Struggle: Language of Civil Resistance in Conflicts, a comprehensive glossary of terms and phrases used in nonviolent action. A recent documentary, Gene Sharp: How to Start a Revolution, focuses on his ideas.

I had met Sharp back in 2006 at his Boston office to interview him for The Progressive. In the wake of recent events, I e-mailed him questions to get his take on what’s happening with nonviolent resistance—in the Middle East, as well as here in the United States.

Q: What’s your reaction to the Arab Spring, especially Tunisia and Egypt?

Gene Sharp: The struggles in Tunisia and Egypt have demonstrated that the old preconceptions about nonviolent struggle are no longer valid. These cases demonstrate that nonviolent struggles are realistic and that they can be successful in a violent world.

There was a time when it was widely thought that nonviolent struggles required a charismatic leader, a mahatma, to be successful. We now know that is not true. Dependence on such a leader can even be a liability. Regular people can learn enough to enable them to create a wise and competent strategy for their self-liberation.

It was also once thought that violence works quickly, while nonviolent struggle takes forever. The events in Tunisia and Egypt have shown that belief to be false.

Q: Why did the region finally rise up?

Sharp:The region rose up against longtime oppression because people became confident that they could win by nonviolent defiance.

Q: What do the various Middle Eastern uprisings teach us about the efficacy of nonviolence, since some (notably Libya) have been quite violent?

Sharp: The start of the Libyan struggle demonstrates that dictatorships can be expected to behave brutally when they are attacked nonviolently, and that defecting military units must practice nonviolent discipline if they are not to wreck the nonviolent uprising. The Libyan case teaches nothing about the efficacy of nonviolent struggle, except that people will sometimes panic in tough times and that violent “assistance” can put control of the struggle into foreign hands.

Q: What’s your own assessment of the role you played in the Arab Spring?

Sharp: I lack sufficient hard facts at this time to assess what role my writings may have played. In any case, the primary credit for successes must go to the peoples of Tunisia and Egypt.

Q: What’s your take on recent peaceful protests in the United States, such as the Occupy Wall Street movement and the fight back in Wisconsin? 

Sharp: The protest actions in Wisconsin and the “occupy” actions are encouraging for their intentions and initiative—and cautionary for the need for greater skill and advance thought.

Q: Where do we go from here, both globally and domestically, in terms of nonviolent civil disobedience?

Sharp: The breakthrough of understanding and recognition of nonviolent struggle that I have been predicting for more than thirty years has now happened. We are now challenged to move ahead with research, evaluation, policy studies, disciplined action, and education. Doctrinalism must be avoided and clear thinking cultivated. New possibilities can await us if we use our heads.

Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of The Progressive, is the author of the new book “ ‘Islam’ Means Peace: Understanding the Muslim Principle of Nonviolence Today” (Praeger). His longer interview with Sharp for the March 2007 issue of The Progressive is available online.

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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