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Teaching People Power

Gene Sharp talks about nonviolent conflict, the Middle East, and why we need to rethink politics

Jesse Walker
February 25, 2011

The Daily Beast calls Gene Sharp "The 83 Year Old Who Toppled Egypt." The New York Times reportsthat "for the world's despots, his ideas can be fatal." In the last month he's been praised in venues ranging from Scientific American to the BBC. It's an unprecedented level of attention for a scholar whose work has always circulated on the edge of our political debates, gathering influence but never driving the discussion. "It's really been quite amazing," Sharp says of the sudden wave of media attention. "It's never happened before."

Sharp didn't topple Mubarak, of course. The Egyptian people did that. What he did do was write books that activists in Egypt—like activists in other countries, from Serbia to Burma and from the Baltic states to Iran—found useful in forging their own revolutions. In an earlier age, rebels seeking strategic and tactical knowhow might have sought the advice of Che Guevara or Vo Nguyen Giap. Today they're more likely to read Gene Sharp. The differences between Che and Sharp are many, but the most important distinction may be this: Where Guevara would attempt to instruct the insurrectionists in the art of armed struggle, Sharp draws on the Gandhian tradition of organized, nonviolent noncooperation.

Sharp's magnum opus, 1973's three-volume The Politics of Nonviolent Action, clocks in at over 800 densely packed pages, so I won't try to boil his insights down to a few sentences. But three strands of his work stand out. The first is his careful combing of the historical record for empirical examples of civic resistance, which he not only recounts but sorts into useful categories, from "rude gestures" and "letters of opposition or support" to strikes, mutinies, and the creation of parallel grassroots governments. The second is his theory of political power, which aims to explain how such tactics could work in a world where the state has far more arms than the citizens. Drawing on several sources—Gandhi, Arendt, the anarchists—Sharp takes the insight that the government relies on the cooperation of the public and then explores its ramifications, probing the ways those habits of loyalty and obedience can be strengthened or weakened.

The third strand is a style that stresses strategic effectiveness more than moral appeals. For many people, the word nonviolence connotes a shelf in a New Age bookstore. But Sharp writes for realists eager to end oppressive dictatorships, not for would-be mahatmas.

Sharp lives in Boston, where the tiny Albert Einstein Institution serves as his base of operations. I spoke with him via phone on Wednesday, as the revolutionary fire lit in Tunisia in December was burning across the Middle East and Africa.

Reason: Do you know of any historical parallels with what happened in Tunisia?

Gene Sharp: Jamila Raqib [executive director of the Albert Einstein Institution] has been working on an account of the development of the Tunisia case. It seems quite special. It was way off in a part of the country that was relatively backward economically and politically. It was on a very small scale—an individual was very much wronged by the local officials—and then it escalated up to what finally happened. I don't know of any other case that started that way.

Reason: Right after Tunisia, a lot of people pointed to Egypt and said the same thing couldn't be done there. What was your level of optimism or pessimism as the protests there began?

Sharp: Well, I hoped they'd do something right. But I didn't expect what happened. It was very remarkable in at least two major ways.

One, that they somehow cast off their fear. They kept saying this to person after person, reporter after reporter, that they're no longer afraid. That is very dangerous for a dictatorship. Dictators always want to install fear, to get compulsive compliance and obedience and cooperation. When people cast off their fear and are not afraid, the dictator has very little means to control anymore.

And then they maintained nonviolent discipline. Not perfectly, but relatively very well. Even when they had a million people in a massive day of struggle and protest, when there was tension that might have developed into violence, I heard they kept saying: "Peaceful, peaceful!" This is an amazing achievement with that many people in a short period of time.

Violence is a tool that the dictatorship has more of than you. They are equipped to wage violence and to put down riots and that kind of resistance. They are not well-equipped to control a nonviolent movement. You have a chance of winning there.

Reason: How optimistic are you about the interim, or allegedly interim, military government? Do you feel there's more likely to be a transition to self-rule or just to another flavor of dictatorship?

Sharp: I don't know enough about the situation in Egypt to be either pessimistic or optimistic. I have noticed that the Egyptian themselves are being very careful about that. After the fall of Milosevic, the Serbs put up big posters: "We're keeping our eyes on you." You have to do that.

We have this danger of a coup d'etat in the transition period. It could easily be a military coup, as the Egyptians have had their spate of before. It could be some outside group, like the Bolsheviks did in 1917 after a successful nonviolent struggle had brought down the old czarist system. We have a handbook called The Anti-Coup that's a detailed account of what you can do and must not do during that period.

Reason: With Bahrain, one thing you keep hearing is that in this case it's hard to imagine troops defecting, because they're people brought in from other countries who aren't embedded in local communities the way the conscripts in Egypt are. Yet right now, despite that, the momentum is arguably with the protesters.

Sharp: In most cases, you do not get the troops refusing to fire. In most cases, you count on the police and the troops obeying orders and you conduct your struggle accordingly. In most general strikes, for example—not just the British in 1926—you count on the troops obeying orders, and then the resisters have to deal with the practical consequences you would expect when the troops obey orders, including killings.

Reason: What would be an example of a successful nonviolent revolt against a dictator of Qaddafi-level brutality?

Sharp: There's Iran in 1979. The Shah was quite brutal in his repression, yet the people maintained nonviolent discipline quite well, even putting flowers in the muzzles of the rifles of the soldiers and undermining their reliability.

Reason: In Libya, it sounds to me like there's been much more violence on the protesters' side.

Sharp: I don't know of another case exactly like this. There's so many mercenaries brought in from other countries. They're not sympathetic to the local people; they're sympathetic to the people who are paying them. There is a great temptation under those conditions for some of the resisters to go over and use violence, which I understand has already happened in Libya.

That's almost fatal for resistance. It may not kill it off, but it's certainly very bad. That's why these regimes put their agents into the resistance movement to commit violence.

Reason: What do you think about the calls for NATO to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya?

Sharp: A no-fly zone is a unique method, since there's not the direct intervention on the ground. But generally I advise that the United States should stay out of these situations. They don't know what's going on. This is the struggle of the other people. The U.S. aid—so-called aid—might indirectly help the regime. "The foreigners are trying to run our affairs for us!" It becomes a nationalist sentiment.

Reason: Some people who are wary of anything that stinks of a military intervention have suggested freezing bank accounts, intervention on that level. Do you think that's a good idea? Or would it feed that same ability to say, "We're being attacked by the foreigners!"

Sharp: I think that's different. I think that's quite feasible. That would only affect some people. Most people even on the side of the regime would not have big bank accounts to worry about. Some of the people on the top would, and that might help individuals be less willing to carry out the regime's controls.

Reason: What's your general sense of the relationship between nonviolent struggle and new media, such as the Internet and text messaging?

Sharp: These are tools of communication. They don't determine what you're going to say. That requires something more than technology. Some people don't recognize that.

Reason: Do you think networked organization of people interacting online lends itself especially well to networked resistance?

Sharp: Not necessarily. They may not know what they're talking about or what they're doing.

Reason: There's a longstanding debate among people influenced by your work as to whether sabotage is a nonviolent tactic, a violent tactic, or something in-between. If I recall correctly, you excluded sabotage from your list of nonviolent actions.

Sharp: That's right. Though that term is often defined differently by various people, so we're not always talking about the same thing.

Reason: I can see the outlines of a similar debate over the things Anonymous has been doing, and in general about hacking as a tactic. Where do you come down on that question?

Sharp: I have very little information about that, so I couldn't comment on it.

Reason: A number of the public employees protesting in Wisconsin have compared their movement to the Egyptian uprising. On the other side of the conventional political spectrum, some Tea Partiers have claimed the same mantle. Do you see any notable similarities in either case?

Sharp: It's very interesting if both sides, as in the Wisconsin case, are trying to use means that are nonviolent. Even if they're there for a cause you detest, it's better they use nonviolent means than they use violence. That's progress.

But I would have to know a lot more about the struggles in Wisconsin. I just know the most superficial things about them.

Reason: One of the things that struck me in The Politics of Nonviolent Action was the way you looked for tactics that you could learn from no matter what you thought of the people involved. You drew examples not just from the civil rights movement but from the segregationists. Are there any other examples from the last few decades where both sides were using nonviolent tactics?

Sharp: Not necessarily from the last few decades, but there are a few examples. In India, protesters were marching along and the police met them. The protesters sat down in the road, and then the police did the same thing.

With the example of the segregationists, banks called in the loans of people who had been involved with civil rights activities. This is progress. It's getting away from lynching, for example, or other kinds of terrible violence. It's not satisfactory in the long term, but you then have to learn how to make the case for justice from whatever your perspective is, and how to conduct your struggle more skillfully.

Reason: When did you start work on The Politics of Nonviolent Action?

Sharp: Long before I knew I was starting work on it.

There were three main components of The Politics of Nonviolent Action. The first volume was the power analysis. That research was done at Oxford in '62-'64, and yet I had been gathering information about Gandhi's theory of power much longer. I was also finding the idea in Gustav Landauer in Germany and in Leo Tolstoy in Russia, but only in very sweeping generalizations. All of them wrote that the government depends on the cooperation and obedience of the people.

The second volume of Politics lists 198 methods of nonviolent action. My first list, which I did when I lived in Norway, was, I think, 18 methods. Over the years that grew to 198, and I'm sure there must be 198 more that have been used since.

The third volume, about dynamics, is 350 pages or more. That originally was seven pages of notes for a lecture in Norway.

Reason: When were you in Norway?

Sharp: I was in Norway and England for about 10 years, from about 1955 to 1965.

Reason: What brought you out there?

Sharp: I was first working at the Peace News, the weekly pacifist newspaper. And then I was invited over to Norway, first for short periods of time and then eventually back for more research. I was at the University of Oslo and then at the Institute for Social Research. But I couldn't get the understanding of power there in the first stretch. To get that theory I was very fortunate to be back to Oxford University, where I did my doctoral work.

I was developing and growing incrementally. There wasn't some big fell swoop where I found some important leader or thinker who I thought had solved all the problems. I was always learning a bit here and a bit there, developing new insights, discovering new sources of information and understanding. Only that way could I develop and play with the questions that I needed to focus on next.

Reason: A lot of people are used to thinking of Gandhi as a charismatic spiritual figure. You were analyzing him as a hard-nosed political tactician. Was anyone else taking that approach when you started writing about him, or did you feel like you were all alone?

Sharp: There were other people. There was a good book on Gandhi by Krishnalal Shridharani, an Indian who was doing a Ph.D. at Columbia University. He wrote a very hard-nosed but limited study about Gandhi called War Without Violence. There was a Dutch thinker, an anarchist and syndicalist called Bart de Ligt. His study The Conquest of Violence focused on historical cases. He had a case in there on Samoan island resistance to New Zealand's rule, for example. Or the Korean resistance to Japanese occupation.

Not that all those cases were so wonderful. People in Korea certainly did not know really what they were doing very well—they were only using symbolism and not these kinds of power application. But I was learning from other people, yes.

Reason: Did you draw much on your own experience as an activist?

Sharp: My activist experience was limited to one lunch counter sit-in in Columbus, Ohio, and my civil disobedience to conscription, which didn't do much to get rid of the war system. I only felt that I was maintaining my own integrity there. I was out to move beyond that.

Reason: You've been critical of people who see nonviolence more as a lifestyle than as a means of actually getting something done. When you were editing Peace News, did you feel like you were making progress toward your political goals, or did you feel like you were butting up against a wall?

Sharp: A wall with the pacifists, you mean?

Reason: Yeah.

Sharp: I don't condemn people who believe in nonviolence as a way of life. For them, that may be the best they can do. And there are other people who have been witnessing and protesting and being true to their beliefs, who want to know how they can do this most effectively. But they don't always grasp the importance of doing more than that. Not just to witness against the wickedness of the world, but how to change the world.

Gandhi is often quoted by people who have the way-of-life approach. And he did make those statements. But in his later years he operated on two levels at the same time. He operated on the level of the belief in ahimsa as a strong moral and religious principle. But also he operated on the political level with people in the Indian National Congress who did not share that belief and never would, and worked with them in charting strategic plans and waging effective struggles against the British to get India out of the empire. He did not think he was compromising his beliefs by operating on those two levels. That is extremely important.

Reason: Do you feel that there's more nonviolent struggles—and more successful nonviolent struggles—around the world now than when you were young? Or is it just a matter of it being more visible?

Sharp: There's more happening. Look at the independence of the three Baltic nations that had already been incorporated into the Soviet Union, how they were able to get out of the Soviet Union in such a short period of time with very, very few casualties. Look at all of 1989. The emigration and protests inside East Germany. The Czechoslovak resistance way back in 1969 against the Warsaw Pact invasion, which held off Soviet control for eight months—far more than they ever could have done with an army. And now all of these movements developing in the Muslim and Arab world.

It's true that we didn't always know about things that had already happened. The Hungarian struggle against Austrian rule was very important in the middle of the 19th century, and we never remember that. Often historical accounts are hard to come by. A lot of this research has not been done. Or it's been done and hasn't been published. The neglect of this phenomenon is shocking.

Reason: When you watch an uprising, what's your hope for what the ultimate result is going to be? If they end up with a better society, what does a better society look like?

Sharp: There's not going to be an ultimate result that's going to solve most of the big problems. It's going to come bit by bit, incrementally, sometimes in major spurts and sometimes with disasters, Tiananmen Square for example.

I don't choose to identify myself by any of the standard political viewpoints or philosophies or programs. The first chapter of my book Social Power and Political Freedom is called "Rethinking Politics." I think the old analyses of politics—socialist, communist, anarchist, conservative, liberal—are not adequate anymore.

Reason: Do you think there tends to be a natural link between strategies that rely on nonviolent, decentralized activity and an interest in relatively nonviolent and decentralized political systems? Or are those just separate categories, and if they overlap in a Venn diagram it's a coincidence?

Sharp: I've never focused on that particular question, unfortunately. It's a very relevant question. Maybe some other people would take that up as an issue to examine. It would be important. Nonviolent strategy is very compatible with decentralization and small government. But I don't know if it's always that way.


Jesse Walker is Senior Editor


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