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Gene Sharp is perhaps the most influential proponent of nonviolent action alive. His work has served as a how-to manual for activists in a swath of countries across Eastern Europe and Asia. For instance, his From Dictatorship to Democracy and The Politics of Nonviolent Action helped inspire the Serbian student movement that toppled Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.
“Nonviolent action is possible, and is capable of wielding great power even against ruthless rulers and military regimes, because it attacks the most vulnerable characteristic of all hierarchical institutions and governments: dependence on the governed,” writes Sharp.
Sharp drafted From Dictatorship to Democracy at the invitation of a Burmese activist. He was smuggled into Burma to assist in courses on nonviolent struggle for those resisting the military regime. He was in Tiananmen Square shortly before the tanks started rolling in. He has traveled to Israel and Palestine a number of times to disseminate his ideas. He was also invited into Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, this time by the governments themselves. He consulted with ministers on the nature and requirements of the campaign that they were using to peacefully secede from the Soviet Union. The three governments also used as a guide his book Civilian-Based Defense. The three countries became sovereign with almost no loss of life.
His work has been translated into twenty-seven languages, ranging from Nepali and Chinese to Spanish and Arabic.
From Dictatorship to Democracy, Sharp’s most widely used tract, is a booklet that summarizes his ideas. The Politics of Nonviolent Action is a three-volume primer in which he lays out 198 specific methods, such as skywriting and holding mock funerals. He is also the author of Gandhi as a Political Strategist (with an introduction by Coretta Scott King), Social Power and Political Freedom (with an introduction by former Senator Mark Hatfield) and, most recently, Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential, an analysis of several historical cases of nonviolent protest. Another book of his, The Power and Practice of Nonviolent Struggle, has been published in Tibetan, with a foreword by the Dalai Lama.
Sharp has practiced what he preaches. As a young man, he was sentenced to two years in prison for civil disobedience during the Korean War. He was paroled after nine months.
He then worked for a short while with pacifist A. J. Muste. Sharp, who holds a doctorate in political theory from Oxford University, was a researcher for nearly thirty years at Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs, and was also affiliated with the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
In 1983, he founded the Albert Einstein Institution to help propagate his work. Due to financial difficulties, the organization now operates out of two rooms in Sharp’s three-story brick home in an East Boston residential neighborhood.
I interviewed Sharp on a late October morning. I was greeted by Jamila Raqib, the institution’s executive director. Sharp, dressed completely in black, received me inside. The two rooms were filled with newspapers, boxes, and books, the first room with works on Nazism and communism, and the second with books on Gandhi and Sharp’s own writing. One of the rooms had a frayed portrait of Gandhi that was given to Sharp by an Indian graduate student more than fifty years ago. The other room had a banner gifted to Sharp by the Serbian Otpor student movement.
Q: What sparked your initial interest in the field of nonviolence?
Gene Sharp: The world was quite a mess. The Second World War had just recently finished. Atomic weapons were new. The U.S. was starting to build a hydrogen bomb. There was racial segregation in the United States, including discrimination in Columbus, Ohio [Sharp’s hometown]. European colonialism was still alive. I was always trying to figure out how this alternative mode could be applied in the real world. How much more could we do?
I discovered actions of nonviolence dating from a long time back; Gandhi did not invent nonviolence.
Q: You mentioned racial segregation. Were you actively involved in the civil rights movement?
Sharp: A little. Somewhere around 1949-1950, in Columbus, we did lunch counter sit-ins. This was long before the lunch counter sit-ins in the South. I worked with the Congress for Racial Equality, or CORE, as it was called, with George Houser and others. But I spent ten years in England and Norway. So I missed most of the civil rights movement period.
Q: Did you come into contact with any of the civil rights leaders?
Sharp: I knew Bayard Rustin for a time. And after I moved back to the United States, Coretta Scott King invited me to Atlanta. They used to have a summer school on nonviolence, and she had me down there at least three times. But I wasn’t at Selma and Montgomery. I was in London or Oslo.
Q: I’ve read that you met with people in Norway who were involved in the resistance against Hitler. This raises the ultimate dilemma for people inclined toward pacifism: How do you deal with someone like Adolf Hitler?
Sharp: It doesn’t have to be made as a hypothetical situation. What did the Norwegians do during the Nazi occupation? How did they successfully resist the Norwegian fascist regime of Vidkun Quisling during the Nazi occupation? I interviewed several people on that subject, and I wrote that up and it became a booklet. [The booklet details how Norwegian teachers braved intimidation and incarceration to band together and resist Quisling’s indoctrination program for the schools.] I also interviewed several people on what was done to save the Jews of Norway. And there were other successful anti-Nazi movements, such as German women married to Jewish men, who demonstrated at Rosenstrasse. The Albert Einstein Institution actually financed the research for the book by Nathan Stoltzfus. I saw the film [Rosenstrasse] on television quite by accident just a few months ago. The film didn’t convey the whole power. My information was that there were about 6,000 women participating. The film only showed a few hundred.
Q: Which cases would you cite over the past few decades as the most successful examples of nonviolent resistance?
Sharp: There are a number of them. The whole of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. They had terrible occupations, both by the Nazis and by the Soviet Union. They had to endure imported Russian populations and the KGB. And they got out of the Soviet Union using nonviolence. The largest number of dead was in Lithuania, about twelve. In Latvia, it was about seven. In Estonia, no one was killed. They had done guerrilla warfare against the occupation with terrible casualties and had not succeeded. And so they tried to use other ways, and they won, with great danger, relatively quickly. Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Serbia from Milosevic, and the Ukraine all used the same pattern of resistance.
Q: Do you see any tension between nonviolence as a pragmatic tool and as an ideal?
Sharp: Some believers in ethical or religious nonviolence do not endorse or use nonviolent action. They think it’s conflict and say, “Oh, no, no, we can’t do that.” On the other hand, many of the people using nonviolent struggle have not believed in nonviolence as an ideal. People who believe in the ethical or religious approach to nonviolent means could assist, if they’re not too arrogant, the development of pragmatic nonviolence to be used by the masses of people.
Even in India, most of the people participating in the independence struggle did not believe, as Gandhi himself did, in the religious principle. And that’s grounds for hope because it says that people can use nonviolent means even though they don’t believe in the ethics of nonviolence. They can believe that violence is good and violence is moral and still do nothing violent.
I get that from Gandhi. That’s the way he operated. His extreme asceticism and his extreme belief in ahimsa was not what he presented to the Indian National Congress. That was pure pragmatism. At the end of his life, he defends himself. He was accused of holding on to nonviolent means because of his religious belief. He says no. He says, I presented this as a political means of action, and that’s what I’m saying today. And it’s a misrepresentation to say that I presented this as a purely religious approach. He was very upset about that.
Q: You’ve said that you prefer people to think of Gandhi as a pragmatic tactician, rather than as a Mahatma.
Sharp: Not tactician, strategist. That’s bigger and more important. Yes, people say, “Oh, Mahatma, Oh Mahatma! I’m not a saint. There’s nothing I can do.” That belittles him.
Q: How did you write From Dictatorship to Democracy?
Sharp: A Burmese exile asked me to write it. I had been let illegally into Burma. I didn’t know much about Burmese society, and to plan a struggle, you need to plan a strategy, you need a grand superplan. You need not only an understanding of nonviolent struggle, which we almost never have, and you also need an understanding of that society and that particular situation, which only they had. I couldn’t write that. So I had to write a generic booklet on the basis of a study of dictatorships and the experience of the past few decades, and an understanding of nonviolence. I had to put all of those together.
Q: I read somewhere that you were denounced by the Burmese regime.
Sharp: We conducted two workshops in Burma. From Dictatorship to Democracy was published in Bangkok, both in Burmese and in English. The SLORC military dictatorship was extremely upset and issued denunciations in newspapers and radio and television. We also managed to get From Dictatorship to Democracy translated into four so-called ethnic languages. They were horrified. They denounced us as harshly as they could and they gave out our home addresses. I’ve been told that the denunciations didn’t stop in ’95. They continued. Recently, four people were sentenced to seven years in prison—for only having a copy of From Dictatorship to Democracy, not for doing anything.
Q: To what do you attribute the fact that your work has gotten so much more play abroad?
Sharp: I’m not sure. The kind of issues that people found most urgent, situations of desperation, like in the Baltic countries, like in Burma, haven’t existed here. And among many Americans, there is a great belief in violence as being omnipotent.
Q: Have you reflected on the applicability of your work in protesting the Iraq War or other Bush Administration policies?
Sharp: I don’t think you get rid of violence by protesting against it. This is how I differ from the multitude of people who don’t like violence. I think you get rid of violence only if people see that you have a different way of acting, a different way of struggle. Gandhi didn’t organize demonstrations against the Indian National Army; he offered another way, and most of the people could follow that. The civil rights movement didn’t get strength by campaigning against those people who were favoring violence. It offered another way to do the struggle. And I think this is the way. Part of my analysis is that if you don’t like violence, you have to develop a substitute. Then people have a choice. If they don’t see a choice, then violence is all that they really have.
Q: You haven’t been disappointed by a lack of efficacy of the anti-war protests?
Sharp: The thing that has been most shocking is that the Bush Administration acted on the basis of the belief—dogma, “religion”—in the omnipotence of violence, which ignores the history of how the dictatorships under communist regimes and certain other regimes had been removed. It’s by people power. That’s all ignored. The assumption is an invading country can come in, remove its official leader, arrest some of the other people, and well, then, the dictatorship is gone.
Q: So do you see a nonviolent approach working in the other countries that the Bush Administration is targeting, such as Iran?
Sharp: Our work is available in Iran and has been since 2004. People from different political positions are saying that that’s the way we need to go. And that kind of struggle broadly has important precedence in Iranian/Persian history, both in the 1906 democratic revolution and in the 1979 struggle against the Shah—all predominantly nonviolent forms of struggle. If somebody doesn’t decide to use military means, then it is very likely that there will be a peaceful national struggle there.
Q: What about Israel/Palestine? You’ve done some work there, too, and worked with Mubarak Awad, who has been the most ardent Palestinian proponent of nonviolence.
Sharp: Mubarak did his first little booklet on nonviolence during the first Intifada in the early ’80s. I was there in the mid-’80s on at least three trips, and met with people in the West Bank and Jerusalem. I also met with Israelis. I spoke at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and even spoke at the Israeli Institute of Military Studies. Most of the methods—90 percent of the methods—used in the first Intifada were that of nonviolent struggle. But Fatah leaders had this faith in the religion of violence. It was absolutely the worst thing they could have done.
Q: What was it like to be in Tiananmen Square?
Sharp: It was very dramatic, very moving. We were there three or four days before the crackdown. It was quite startling. Those people were very, very brave. As we walked across the square from our restaurant to get back to our hotel, the troops were coming in. We thought, let’s go to the site and stand and watch and see what happens. There were armored personnel carriers coming in. Some Chinese said, “Get out of here! Get out of here!” They were more savvy about what might happen than we were. And so we left.
Q: How have you been received in Russia?
Sharp: I’ve had five translations done of my work there. When the fifth translation went to a printing press in Moscow, the successor to the KGB, the FSB, raided the presses, ordered the presses to stop, took the text away. It finally had to be printed outside of Moscow. Two of the bookstores that were selling it in Moscow then burned down within two weeks. Of course, accidentally.
Q: When did this happen?
Sharp: About a year ago. Dictators don’t like us.
Amitabh Pal is the managing editor of The Progressive.