"You want to screw up your economy? Screw up your government."
Gene Sharp, the single most influential proponent of nonviolent change alive, has deservedly been awarded the Right Livelihood Award, commonly referred to as the Alternative Nobel. This prize is a capstone for Sharp (also a Nobel Peace Prize nominee) during a period when his work has been finally recognized for its global influence.
The Right Livelihood jury gave Sharp the award, it said in its citation, “for developing and articulating the core principles and strategies of nonviolent resistance and supporting their practical implementation in conflict areas around the world.” Sharp will receive the honor (which carries a cash award of $64,000) at the Swedish Parliament in December.
Sharp’s writings have served as a how-to manual for activists in a swath of countries across Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Protest organizers in the anti-Hosni Mubarak uprising took inspiration from his ideas. “The hallmark of Mr. Sharp’s work is well-tailored to Mr. Mubarak’s Egypt: He argues that nonviolence is a singularly effective way to undermine police states that might cite violent resistance to justify repression in the name of stability,” the New York Times said last year.
Sharp stresses the practical utility of nonviolence, de-emphasizing its moral aspects.
“I get that from Gandhi,” he told me in 2006. “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.”
“From Dictatorship to Democracy,” Sharp’s most widely used tract, is a booklet that summarizes his work. “The Politics of Nonviolent Action” is a three-volume primer in which he lays out 198 specific methods. Sharp propagates his research out of a two-room office in his three-story brick home in an East Boston residential neighborhood. There are a sum total of two people on staff, including Sharp himself. It is from such modest surroundings that Sharp is able to shape happenings worldwide.
Sharp is said to have been an intellectual force behind the Iranian Green Movement, the uprising against Mahmoud Ahmadenijad for stealing the presidential election in 2009. Another place he’s had a big effect on is Palestine, where his theories were employed in the First Intifada against the Israeli occupation that started in the late 1980s. (I’ve detailed Sharp’s influence in my book on Islam and nonviolence.)
And his impact has also been felt domestically, with a number of U.S. activists involved in protests such as the Occupy movement acknowledging the force of his worldview. Sharp “emphasizes again and again that what revolutions need is an analysis of power and its vulnerabilities, a plan for exposing and exploiting those vulnerabilities, and a lot of thinking about what comes after,” writes Frida Berrigan in a tribute on the Waging Nonviolence website.
Sharp himself has been exceedingly modest about his impact. “The primary credit for successes must go to the peoples of Tunisia and Egypt,” he told me last year when I asked him about his effect on the Arab Spring.
A charge made against Sharp by the Iranian government and Hugo Chavez—and echoed by some in this country—is that he acts in cahoots with U.S. officialdom in subverting anti-American governments. This is contradicted by the evidence. “Rather than being a tool of imperialism, Dr. Sharp’s research and writings have inspired generations of progressive peace, labor, feminist, human rights, environmental, and social justice activists in the United States and around the world,” stated a 2008 open letter signed by Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, among many others.
After decades of neglect, Sharp’s work is finally being honored. A 2011 documentary, “Gene Sharp: How to Start a Revolution,” pays tribute to him. And the New York Times in a profile this month called him the “godfather of nonviolent revolution.”
The Right Livelihood Award is yet another feather in his cap. He has amply earned it.
If you liked this article by Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of the Progressive magazine, please check out his article entitled "How the Enola Gay Co-Pilot Made Hiroshima Survivor Work for Peace."
Follow Amitabh Pal @amitpal on Twitter