The Lonely Struggle: A Tribute To Gene Sharp


Dr. Gene Sharp, the preeminent expert on strategic nonviolence, passed away on January 28th. If the dictators of the world were celebrating, their joy was premature. Because it wasn’t this frail, 90-year-old professor that was a threat to their dominance, but his ideas. And they are far from dead.

While Sharp spent most of his life in obscurity, his years of endless researching, writing, teaching and speaking have had a profound influence on the modern world. His countless books, articles and pamphlets, many translated into dozens of languages, have been guiding freedom fighters around the world for decades. They were there in 2000 when young activists ousted Milosevic in Serbia, when Russian-backed strongmen were forced to step down during the Color Revolutions and when mass protests toppled Mubarak in Egypt. Today there is hardly a popular movement anywhere that is not inspired and guided, either directly or indirectly, by the ideas of this mild-mannered professor.

Sharp’s signature concept is basic yet profound: without the voluntary obedience of ordinary people, no government or institution can function. Governments need the cooperation of the general population to pay taxes and obey the laws, of course, but they also require support from civil servants to carry out their programs, and security forces to compel obedience. Weapons like strikes, boycotts and other forms of nonviolent noncooperation can help erode these “pillars of support,” leaving rulers isolated and impotent. This is an old idea that was utilized most famously by Gandhi.

But Sharp took it further by aggregating and systematizing knowledge of nonviolence so it could be used strategically. He did this by cataloging hundreds of instances of nonviolent resistance that had been largely ignored by historians. Rather than analyzing these events in isolation, Sharp saw that they were related and could be studied, combined and utilized in ways that maximized their impact.

EARLY YEARS

Sharp’s father was a conservative Protestant minister who instilled in him a deep sense of moral responsibility. He says he was influenced by his father’s principles, if not his religious teachings:

“I was very much trying to apply what I understood as Protestant Christian thinking and beliefs at the same time I was rejecting the theology,” Sharp told me in a 2016 interview. “The values, I tried to keep.”

As a youngster growing up in the 1940s it must have been unsettling to read about those values so brutally betrayed in a world wracked by war, genocide and ruthless dictatorships. His sense of justice compelled him to join the Congress of Racial Equality while an undergraduate at Ohio State, and he even participated in a lunch counter sit-in.

But Sharp, quiet and reserved, was not a joiner, not comfortable with the chaotic, contentious world of political activism. He was more suited to academic pursuits—toiling away in libraries trying to learn why the world worked the way it did and how it could be changed. Looking to Gandhi for answers, he wrote his masters thesis on nonviolence.

Following graduate school Sharp worked odd jobs in New York City while researching a book about Gandhi. But the Korean War was raging and the draft board was after him. He received CO status but rejected it, choosing instead to serve time in jail. Sharp was sent to Danbury Federal Prison where he spent nine months for draft resistance. Later, in an interview he characterized his resistance as a matter of personal conscience rather than a political act, telling me “I don’t think it did a damned thing to get rid of the war system.”

After prison Sharp worked briefly as an assistant to famed pacifist A.J. Muste and eventually got a job writing for Peace News in London. But he found peace activism somehow lacking. He wanted a realistic way to end war and tyranny, something besides symbolic protests that seemed to do little more than make the participants feel better about themselves.

EUROPE

As Sharp continued his exploration into the history of social movements and the characteristics of dictatorships, he saw patterns in history others had ignored. He began to develop a practical theory of how ordinary people could wield power that could challenge governments and entrenched institutions.

By the late 1950s Sharp was in Norway doing research at the University of Oslo. It was there he had his first important realization: the word “nonviolence” could mean two completely separate things. Belief in nonviolence as a lifestyle—Gandhi’s satyagraha, for instance—was different than the pragmatic use of nonviolence to achieve a political goal. The implications of this revelation were huge: to engage in nonviolent struggle people did not need to change their belief systems, become pacifists, or philosophically reject violence.

Tapping away on his typewriter in a tiny cubicle, he began to document various resistance techniques ordinary people had used throughout history. Interviewing Norwegians who had refused to follow Nazi orders during the war, he realized nonviolent defiance was not uncommon, even under extremely repressive circumstances. The number of resistance methods he found, which started at 18, soon grew to 65.

While talking to a Norwegian woman who had defied the Nazis, Sharp was struck by one of her comments. “You don’t know anything about power,” she told him. The need to better understand the nature of power stuck with him when he returned to England in 1960 to pursue his doctoral work at Oxford.

It was at Oxford where he began to fully develop his signature ideas. There his studies focused on power and dictatorships. As he looked more deeply into political power, he began to see patterns in the nonviolent actions he had been cataloging. Instances of popular resistance that were successful all had something in common—they had effectively severed the assistance and resources the ruler required to stay in power.

This insight meant the dynamics of nonviolent struggle could be rationally explained, bringing nonviolence into the realm of political realism. That suggested further possibilities. What if the multiplicity of techniques employed to successfully defy powerful adversaries throughout history could be analyzed and best practices developed? What if, rather than being used spontaneously and in isolation, these techniques could be purposefully combined and strategically deployed to multiply their effectiveness? Then a practical nonviolent technique for preventing genocide, removing dictators and even defending nations might be within reach.

THE POLITICS OF NONVIOLENT ACTION

In 1965 Sharp met Thomas Schelling, who was then director of the Harvard Center for International Affairs, and handed him a 600-page manuscript on nonviolent action. After reading it, Schelling was so impressed with the young scholar’s insights that he offered him a one-year fellowship to distill the work down to book length.

Two years later, the document had gotten longer instead of shorter. It served as Sharp’s Oxford doctoral dissertation, but it took several more years of editing to get it into book form. Eventually he found a publisher, a daunting task considering he was an unknown scholar and the manuscript was over 900 pages long.

The book was The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Later broken into three volumes, the work described Sharp’s conception of power and explored the mechanisms that gave nonviolent struggle the potential for success. It also included a detailed study of various nonviolent methods, which by this time had grown to 198, with examples of how each had been used in the past.

Sharp broke these nonviolent action types into three broad categories. Protest and persuasion, the most benign type of dissent, included petitioning, picketing and demonstrating, as well as more unusual protest actions such as skywriting and disrobing. The second category—social, economic and political noncooperation—encompassed dozens of different kinds of strikes and boycotts. Various types of nonviolent intervention made up the third category and included sit-ins and creating a parallel government.

Politics was the first systematic study of nonviolence that explored the subject as a pragmatic technique, divorced from its moral and ethical aspects. It was received favorably in some circles, notably foreign military establishments, probably because of its emphasis on strategy and tactics. The book’s length and detailed analysis led many to compare Sharp to Karl von Clausewitz, who wrote the classic treatise on military strategy. But it was mostly ignored by pacifists and peace researchers.

EMBRACING CONFLICT

The feeling was mutual. While Sharp was often referred to as a “pacifist” he strongly rejected that label. He saw pacifism as an ethical position—the personal commitment not to use violence to harm another person. But his concept of strategic nonviolent action was not ethical and was anything but passive. It was about the struggle to gain political power while denying it to others.

Sharp’s brand of nonviolence was a form of warfare. But instead of guns and bombs it used economic, social, political and psychological weapons. It had nothing to do with negotiation, conciliation, compromise or reliance on the opponent’s goodwill. Sharp’s nonviolence stressed the use of planning, strategy and tactics while engaging an opposing force in battle. Like warfare, waging this form of struggle required discipline, courage and sacrifice.

Sharp was not interested in peace, and rejected the label “peace researcher.” He saw conflict as inevitable and even beneficial to society. There are times when certain core social principles simply cannot be compromised. He insisted that people would not stop supporting war and violent revolution unless there was another way to effectively defend their fundamental values. Sharp’s nonviolence fulfills the same function as violence, but with less damage to the social fabric.

In the early days particularly, Sharp found that many pacifists were simply opposed to any kind of conflict. He tells the story of giving a lecture to a peace group about civilian-based national defense and afterwards someone in the audience spoke up, taking serious issue with his proposals. “All you are doing is taking the violence out of war,” they complained.

In 2007 he told the Ohio State Alumni Magazine he had “basically given up” on peace activists. “They think you get rid of war by refusing to take part and protesting. No! You get rid of war when people have something else they can do more effectively.”

AEI

While still at Harvard Sharp started the Albert Einstein Institution (AEI) to research the potential of nonviolent sanctions. But the new organization also had an additional purpose. Not content to simply theorize from an ivory tower, Sharp wanted to use the Institution to reach out to the larger world, to do educational work and consult with policy makers and groups struggling for justice and freedom.

By the 1990s AEI was thriving. Sharp and his colleagues traveled the world meeting with activists, holding workshops and doing consulting work. The institution oversaw distribution and translations of Sharp’s books, provided research fellowships, sponsored conferences and funded other organizations. At its peak, AEI boasted a full-time staff of eleven and annual budgets of over a million dollars.

The success of AEI could be partially attributed to two men who fortuitously entered Sharp’s orbit—a millionaire and a military man. Peter Ackerman first met Sharp many years earlier when he had gone to Sharp for advice on his doctoral thesis about nonviolent strategy. Later, Ackerman made millions working with infamous financier Michael Milken. He became a key supporter of AEI, sitting on the board and providing major funding. Over a period of years Ackerman says he gave over ten million dollars to AEI.

Robert Helvey was another unlikely person who became an influential player at AEI. Helvey, a hard-boiled retired army colonel, had served two tours in Vietnam and received a Distinguished Service Cross for heroism. One day in 1987 he walked into one of Sharp’s seminars at Harvard. “I didn’t have anything to do that afternoon,” Helvey recalls. “I just thought I’d go in and see who these long-haired bastards were.”

What Helvey heard blew him away. Instead of a bunch of hippies advocating peace and love, here was a man advocating a form of strategic warfare that Helvey could relate to. The personalities of the two men couldn’t have been more different. Helvey was tough and gruff with a penchant for profanity while Sharp was quiet and refined. But later they had lunch and soon became friends. Eventually Helvey would become president of AEI.

FROM DICTATORSHIP TO DEMOCRACY

The colonel was indirectly involved in the inception of Sharp’s most famous work—a little pamphlet that became the how-to guide for revolutionaries the world over. Helvey, who had served as a US military attaché in Burma, began conducting nonviolence workshops for resistance fighters there in 1992. At the request of a Burmese opposition leader, Sharp wrote a serialized article that was published in an obscure weekly journal. The manuscript was subsequently stashed away in a file cabinet at AEI. “I thought that would be it,” said Sharp about the essay. But apparently the Burmese did not forget about it because various booklet editions began to circulate clandestinely within the country.

Details about how the tract propagated after that are a bit murky, but eventually various smuggled editions began to find their way into the hands of freedom fighters everywhere. The booklet was called From Dictatorship to Democracy.

FDTD is essentially a 90-page handbook on how to overthrow a government. In it Sharp outlines a methodology for developing a strategic plan to undermine the sources of power that sustain all rulers. Since Sharp did not know the details of the situation in Burma when he originally wrote the guide, he kept his advice generic. In the booklet his approach is characteristically hardheaded, stressing the absolute necessity of careful strategic planning, and warning against jumping into a struggle unprepared. Liberation plans should not be based on feelings or someone’s “bright idea,” but rather should be carefully thought out and formulated after a realistic appraisal of the available facts.

To date FDTD has been officially translated into over 32 languages. Repressive regimes have studied it, and regard it as a pernicious threat. In some countries people have been jailed for merely possessing this dangerous little book.  In 2005 a Russian FSB agent shut down the presses in a print shop outside Moscow, calling FDTD “a bomb.” China tried to buy exclusive Chinese language rights from AEI, clearly an attempt to suppress the pamphlet’s distribution.

SERBIA AND THE COLOR REVOLUTIONS

One of the places FDTD had been circulating was Serbia, where dictator Slobodan Milosevic was defeated by a well-organized, nonviolent resistance. His ouster in 2000 was one of the first successful campaigns where Sharp’s influence was widely recognized. Otpor, the youth group that was instrumental in the successful drive to topple the dictator, made liberal use of Sharp’s ideas in their strategic planning. The official Otpor training manual incorporated sections from both The Politics of Nonviolent Action and FDTD.

The successful campaign in Serbia spawned the so called Color Revolutions, as young Serb revolutionaries began sharing organizing ideas with dissidents in other countries who were fed up with their own Kremlin-backed leaders. The Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine were both inspired by Otpor’s strategic model.

Then in 2003 some Otpor organizers formed the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), a network of multinational trainers that fanned out across the globe teaching their own style of Sharp’s nonviolent insurgency techniques. To date, CANVAS says they have met with activists in over forty-five countries.

RECOGNITION

If, as they say, it is always darkest before the dawn, the darkness that descended on the Albert Einstein Institution in 2005 may have portended its emergence into the light of worldwide recognition. Peter Ackerman had broken with Sharp to form his own organization, and AEI’s funding was drying up.

Sharp never relished mundane administrative tasks like fund raising and organizational development, preferring to immerse himself in his research and writing. Now, with staffers leaving and Helvey resigning as president, AEI faced an existential crisis. At the last hour, with the board set to vote on dissolving the Institution, some key donors stepped up and a successful fundraising drive brought it back from the brink of extinction. AEI staggered forward and Sharp continued his work, doggedly believing in the importance of his ideas, but now more isolated than ever.

Up to this point Sharp’s influence had flown under the media radar for the most part. That changed in 2011 with the Arab Spring. The Egyptian uprising had all the hallmarks of a Sharp-inspired insurrection. As well it might. CANVAS and Ackerman’s organization had both provided workshops for Egyptian activists. A group based in Qatar called the Academy of Change had also conveyed Sharp’s ideas to movement leaders. A downloadable Arabic version of FDTD circulated widely among activists.

After Mubarak was deposed, The New York Times ran an article about Sharp headlined “Shy U.S. Intellectual Created Playbook Used in a Revolution.” Suddenly, the world’s media came knocking at the unmarked door of the lowly AEI, which by now Sharp was running out of his home with a staff of two. Activists of all stripes sought an audience with the new guru of instant revolution, including a supermodel from Gabon concerned about the potential outbreak of violence in her country. AEI’s website and email system were overwhelmed by pamphlet downloads and requests for assistance.

Characteristically, Sharp was quick to deny all credit—or blame—for the overthrow of Mubarak. “The people of Egypt did that—not me,” he told The New York Times.

Of course, he was not wrong. AEI had no direct role in any of the Arab Spring uprisings. Attributing events to a hero, especially an American one, nicely fit the biased narrative of the Western press. Sharp had always maintained that he simply shared information he had learned, and what people did with it was up to them. While his ideas may have provided inspiration and guidance, the essential work of organizing and strategizing was done by indigenous activists on the ground.

Sharp’s celebrity was further burnished when a young journalist named Ruaridh Arrow released a major documentary about him. How to Start a Revolution traced Sharp’s influence in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, and featured interviews with Robert Helvey and Sharp himself. The film aired on TV stations around the world and garnered numerous awards at international film festivals.

After laboring for decades in relative obscurity, Sharp was finally seeing his ideas recognized and their viability demonstrated on the world stage. But the diffident professor remained as humble as ever.

“I am bashful,” he said in an interview with Britain’s The Telegraph. “I am not used to all this personal attention.”

While Sharp may have been uncomfortable in the limelight, it must have been gratifying to see the breakthrough he had been expecting for so long to finally materialize.

“I’ve been studying this question of dictatorships for many decades,” he told The Daily Beast “It is a lonely struggle. To get this kind of recognition is very important.”

REGRETS

Sharp spent more than 65 years studying conflict and nonviolence. It was largely a solitary pursuit. When an interviewer asked him how a best friend would describe him, he said he didn’t have any best friends. In 2016 he told me he had a few regrets about his life: “Maybe it wasn’t as nice as it could have been. I don’t know. I don’t worry about that.” Sharp never married, devoting all his energy to his research instead of raising a family. He almost got married “two or three times” and said he regretted it didn’t happen.

“Do I feel lonely? Yes, but it’s no big deal” he told New Statesman. “People pay too much attention to who I am, as opposed to what I’m saying.”

The quiet professor was never been big on self-promotion. When I asked him a few years ago if he saw his life’s work as a crusade, he vehemently denied it:

“I started out by going to the libraries, and sitting at my typewriter—for years on end,” he laughs. “Literally, many years on end. And I began to try to find some of the pieces of the answers.…I began to fit things together, and then try to write that up and get it printed.…And then attention comes.”

Those “pieces of the answers” continue to threaten authoritarian regimes. In 2015 Russia added AEI to its list of undesirable NGO’s. People are still being arrested for possessing Sharp’s books, most recently in China and Angola. Activists from around the world still contact AEI, looking for advice on how to strengthen their campaigns for immigration reform, women’s rights, environmental justice and a host of other causes. But with Sharp gone, the future of the tiny organization is in doubt.

GROUNDS FOR HOPE

Although, as he readily admitted, many others have contributed to the understanding of nonviolence, Sharp was undoubtedly a pioneer. Perhaps more important than the academic validity of his ideas was the ability to communicate those ideas concisely and without academic jargon, so that real-world activists could understand and adapt them to their own situations. As Robert Helvey put it, “Just as Albert Einstein compressed the myriad calculations of physics into E=mc2, Gene has compressed thousands of years of observing social power into something we can all understand immediately.”

Those many years of writing and research left Sharp cautiously optimistic about the future. Despite setbacks, he saw recent events as verifying the power of strategic nonviolent action. While progress may be slow and sporadic, what is learned cannot be unlearned. “The genie out of bottle,” he told Deutsche Welle in 2011.

Such optimism was hard won. In his youth Sharp witnessed the destructive effects of racial discrimination, colonialism, dictatorships and devastating wars. Decades later, the world still seethes with violence and injustice. Not much seems to have changed.

Yet at least one thing is different. It is the possibility there is a way forward out of the morass. Just a possibility—but that is at least grounds for hope.

“We are at a new stage in the practice of nonviolent struggle and in the recognition of its potential,” Sharp declared in his 2012 acceptance speech for the Right Livelihood Award. “If we take wise and responsible steps in the coming years, the future will reveal achievements beyond what we can now imagine.”

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