Gene Sharp

[ cross-posted from Zenpundit, with thanks to Lex for the nudge ]

I was impressed by him in London in the early sixties.

Okay, I was young and impressionable. But others have noticed him more recently, too: Hugo Chavez accused him of being a conspirator with the CIA, and the Iranians thought he, George Soros and John McCain were in cahoots.


Gene Sharp has been in the news quite a bit recently [1, 2, 3, 4], because he pretty literally wrote the book on non-violent resistance.

The young leaders of the Egyptian revolt that toppled Mubarak studied tactics with members of the Serbian Otpor youth resistance who topped Milosevic, Otpor studied tactics in the writings of Gene Sharp, specifically his 90-page pamphlet From Dictatorship to Democracy [download as .pdf]. Sharp wrote that handbook for use in Burma, where it was apparently translated at the request of Aung San Suu Kyi — who once cautioned her readers that that phrase they kept hearing wasn’t “jeans shirt”, it was “Gene Sharp”.

And before that, he’d penned his masterful 900-page, three-volume work, The Politics of Nonviolent Action…

I told you he was impressive.

Recommended reading:

From Dictatorship to Democracy is now available in Amharic, Arabic, Azeri, Belarusian, Burmese, Chin (Burma), Jing-paw (Burma), Karen (Burma), Mon (Burma), Chinese (Simplified Mandarin), Chinese (Traditional Mandarin), English, Farsi, French, Indonesian, Khmer (Cambodia), Kyrgyz, Pashto, Russian, Serbian, Spanish, Ukrainian, Tibetan, Tigrigna, and Vietnamese.

5 thoughts on “Gene Sharp”

  1. I’m not familiar with Sharps work but I will say this: Non-violence only works to the degree that the guys with the most guns want it to.

    I note that today is the anniversary of the execution of the members of the White Rose society in Munich in 1943. Passive resistance against the Nazi just meant less effort for Nazis. Passive resistance only works against people who are not utterly ruthless. It was useless against Hitler, Stalin, Mao etc.

    When you look at the details of uprisings like those we are seeing now, the critical turning decision is always the one the military makes. If the military supports the uprising, the regime falls. If the military supports the regime, they massacre the protestors and the regime survives. If the military is divided, a shooting civil war erupts.

    People protesting in the streets are really talking to the military. They really have to convince the people with guns and organization to join them or at least not shoot the protestors. Only when the military at least stands aside does non-violent methods have a chance to even begin working.

  2. Hi Shannon:

    Passive resistance only works against people who are not utterly ruthless. It was useless against Hitler, Stalin, Mao etc.

    I haven’t read it myself, but Peter Ackerman and Christopher Kruegl tackle that issue in their book, Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century (Praeger, 1993) according to this review in Reason magazine:

    The most tenacious myth Ackerman and Kruegler debunk is that nonviolent resistance is effective only in dealing with democratic governments that have adopted uncharacteristically repressive policies. According to that argument, peaceful demonstrations and civil disobedience can prick the conscience of democratic rulers and publics, gain the support of international opinion, and force a change of policy while totalitarian and authoritarians regimes will simply use whatever force is necessary to smash the opposition.
    The episodes examined in Strategic Nonviolent Conflict suggest that the reality is far more complex. If the conventional wisdom were correct, the successful movements would have been the German resistance to the occupation forces of democratic France and the Indian anti-colonialism movement against democratic Britain. And, following the logic through, the Danish resistance to Nazi Germany’s occupation, the Salvadoran rebellion, and Poland’s Solidarity would have had faint prospects.
    The actual results don’t fit that pattern. For example, the resistance to the Ruhr occupation ultimately fizzled, despite substantial covert support from the German government. (Only the U.S.-sponsored Dawes plan eventually caused Paris to withdraw its forces.) The Indian effort, led by Mohandas K. Gandhi, failed as well, at least in the short run. (Although Britain ultimately granted India independence, it did so only because of the financial exhaustion caused by World War II.) Conversely, the Danish resistance movement was surprisingly effective; the El Salvador strike ousted an odious dictator; and the Solidarity campaign, while only partially successful in the short term, created the conditions for a definitive victory just a few years later.

    I’m no historian, and don’t want to argue the finer points of that analysis -– but the interest of the nonviolent techniques Gene Sharp has cataloged is not that they will always triumph against any adversary. It is that they are powerful means by which a large and oppressive force can be at times impeded, at times contained, and at times even defeated – and that their power to do so is often overlooked by those who, without first becoming acquainted with them, assume them to be “pacifistic” – they are anything but passive – and hence, “weak”.

  3. Here are some excerpts from Fr. Thomas Merton’s writings on the Danish Resistance to Hitler, from his book, The Nonviolent Alternative (1980), pp 165 ff:

    One of the rare glimmers of humanity and reason in the detailed history of Eichmann’s patient labors to exterminate the Jews, as recorded by Hannah Arendt’s recent series of articles in The New Yorker, was the nonviolent resistance offered by the entire nation of Denmark against Nazi power mobilized for genocide.
    Denmark was not the only European nation that disagreed with Hitler on this point. But it was one of the only nations which offered explicit, formal and successful nonviolent resistance to Nazi power. The adjectives are important. The resistance was successful because it was explicit and formal, and because it was practically speaking unanimous. The entire Danish nation simply refused to cooperate with the Nazis, and resisted every move of the Nazis against the Jews with nonviolent protest of the highest and most effective caliber, yet without any need for organization, training; or specialized activism: simply by unanimously and effectively expressing in word and action the force of their deeply held moral convictions. These moral convictions were nothing heroic or sublime. They were merely ordinary.
    [ … ] When Germans first approached the Danes about the segregation of Jews, proposing the introduction of the yellow badge, the government officials replied that the King of Denmark would be the first to wear the badge, and that the introduction of and anti-Jewish measures would lead immediately to their own resignation.
    [ … ] Meanwhile the Jews themselves had been warned and most of them had gone into hiding, helped, of course, by friendly Danes: then wealthy Danes put up money to pay for transportation of nearly six thousand Jews to Sweden which offered them asylum, protection and the right to work. Hundreds of Danes cooperated in ferrying Jews to Sweden in small boats.
    [ … ] The Danes were able to do what they did because they were able to make decisions that were based on clear convictions about which they all agreed and which were in accord with the inner truth of man’s own rational nature, as well as in accordance with the fundamental law of God in the Old Testament as well as in the Gospel: thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. The Danes were able to resist the cruel stupidity of Nazi anti-Semitism because this fundamental truth was important to them. And because they were willing, in unanimous and concerted action, to stake their lives on this truth. In a word, such action becomes possible where fundamental truths are taken seriously.

  4. Finally, here’s a quick quote from an article I ran across just now, describing another instance of nonviolent resistance to the Nazis, this one in Germany:

    The fact is that the Nazis did succumb to nonviolent resistance in Berlin. As Nathan Stoltzfus chronicled in Resistance of the Heart, the 1943 Rosenstrasse protest demonstrated the effectiveness of nonviolence even in the most extreme circumstances.
    In 1943, roughly 2000 non-Jews who had Jewish spouses descended upon Rosenstrasse street for what became a weeklong protest against the capture of their Jewish partners. Despite repeated threats by the Gestapo that they would be shot, the wives held their ground without fighting and refused to quietly let their spouses be taken by the Nazi authorities. The threatening possibility of even wider social unrest prevented the Nazis from being able to harm the non-Jewish protesters.
    According to Dr. Nagler and Nathan Stoltzfus, the predicament was too much for Hitler, who reportedly passed off responsibility by saying “I wash my hands of this.” Joseph Goebbels caved in to the pressure, decided that harming the protesters would trigger mass social unrest, and released the Jewish spouses. Most of them also survived the rest of the war.

    It seems to me that what we have in the work of Sharp and those who have followed him is an under-studied body of knowledge — not a panacea, perhaps, but a significant addition to our armamentarium.


    I’m going on at such length about this because I haven’t studied Sharp’s work any time recently, and feel the need to catch up, and because I welcome exposure to the views and arguments of Shannon and others here on CBz.

    I’m here to learn.

  5. There is no hard and fast rule here. The use of a strategy nonviolence, like the use of a strategy of violence, is a continuation of political intercourse. Successful government turnovers generally follow a fatal split in a governing elite. If nonviolence brings about such a political effect, even under the most repressive regime, it is a useful tactic. If not, the streets will run with blood.

    The outcome of any political maneuvering is ultimately determined by control of the means of violence. If the Danes had been Slavic or Jewish the result of their effective nonviolence may have been Lidice on a larger scale.

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