Gene Sharp Interview

War by other means

Boston's Gene Sharp learned how to turn nonviolence into a weapon – and helped quite literally change the world.

By Laura Secor  |  May 29, 2005

From the Boston Sunday Globe

A CURIOUS THING started happening in the formerly Communist world in
the year 2000. One after another, hated, repressive governments gave
way to mass movements of nonviolent refusal. First there was Serbia,
then Georgia, then Ukraine, and now Kyrgyzstan. It was as if a virus
were spreading – one that led long abused populaces to wake up to their
own power, which they could withhold from authorities to stunning

But it wasn't a virus. Among other things, it was an 88-page booklet
by a Boston scholar named Gene Sharp, which has circulated in local
translation at the site of every one of these nonviolent democratic

Called ''From Dictatorship to Democracy," Sharp's booklet lays out a
theory of power that explains the mechanisms of dictatorship and their
weaknesses. It also details the nuts and bolts of nonviolent
resistance: which tools to use in order to undermine a regime's sources
of power, how to sustain discipline in the face of violent response,
and the crucial importance of entering such struggle as one would a
military campaign, with a strategic plan. Tactics include
demonstrations and posters, strikes and sit-ins, boycotts and campaigns
of non-cooperation. Some of these techniques work to paralyze the
society and thus convince rulers that they cannot govern without
budging on the issues at stake – or that they cannot govern at all.

Sharp, now in his late 70s, has a gentle manner and an air of humility
before a vast and complex world in which his ideas have attained
powerful purchase. Since he began his work more than 50 years ago, he
has essentially invented the study of nonviolent struggle. In 1983, he
founded both a program on the subject at Harvard and the Albert
Einstein Institution, which focuses, as he puts it, ''not on pacifism,
not on any mahatma nonsense, but on pragmatic nonviolent struggle." His
books – he has written some 13 of them, including the just-published
''Waging Nonviolent Struggle" – are written almost like textbooks. They
betray no literary pretension; the language is clear but abstract, and
they are designed to be read across cultures.

Even as Sharp's work reaches the height of its influence, the Albert
Einstein Institution, which publishes educational materials, hosts
workshops abroad at the request of foreign activists, and painstakingly
manages and vets the translations of ''From Dictatorship to Democracy,"
has run out of funding and may be forced to close its doors in
September. The staff has already been reduced from four to two
employees, including Sharp.

I caught up with Sharp by telephone to his office last week.

IDEAS: How did you come to this subject?

SHARP: I grew into this topic in the very late 40s and
early 50s. The Second World War was just over, and the Holocaust was
new information. Stalin was still in Russia. There was European
colonialism, racial discrimination in the United States, and the threat
of war with nuclear weapons. And there had to be some better way. And
so I began learning about nonviolent resistance. The literature was
terrible, but the more I read the more I realized there was lots of
substance here – and that we really didn't know much about it. And so
bit by bit, I moved into the field, starting with a heavy study of
Gandhi, not as a mahatma but as a political strategist. I grew
increasingly interested in figuring out what made this kind of
technique succeed or fail, and how it could be made more effective.

Later on I lived in Norway, where I met people who had taken part in
the resistance during the Nazi occupation. One of the big insights I
gleaned was that the pacifist position, which holds that you can just
renounce violence, doesn't work. But if you don't have a realistic
alternative, people will either capitulate in passive submission or
they'll turn to the only kind of struggle they think is available,
which is war and violence.

IDEAS: Which ideas did you modify as you witnessed history?

SHARP: At one stage I shared the view that it's
necessary to have both the religious and the moral belief and the
knowledge of the technique. And later on I realized that was not
necessary at all. You could take only a political approach, only a
pragmatic approach. And in many of the historical cases, that was
indeed what happened.

IDEAS: Where have you seen your theories in action?

SHARP: We did some of them ourselves in very simple
ways as undergraduates, at lunch counter sit-ins in Columbus, Ohio. I
was in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania when their independence-minded
governments were trying to exit the Soviet Union. I met with government
leaders in all three countries, and they drew heavily on a book of mine
that we then had the English page proofs of, called ''Civilian-Based
Defense." I was also in Tiananmen Square with a friend of mine.

IDEAS: What do you think went wrong at Tiananmen?

SHARP: They had no plan, no strategy. It was more or
less an accidental movement that then attracted great support. People
kept flooding into the scene, and once they got there the people who
had been leading it were sort of flooded out. Even after there'd been a
decision to evacuate the square, new people decided to stay on because
they hadn't had a chance to demonstrate yet. But they didn't have a

People also really didn't understand the essential importance of
withdrawing support from the system. We heard stories when we were
there of civil servants within the government buildings throwing money
out the windows for the resisters. But they didn't go on strike. And
there were reports that some [soldiers] refused to shoot
[demonstraters]. If that had happened on a large scale, it would've
done it.

I was there that night. We'd just been to dinner and were walking back
to the hotel across Tiananmen Square as the troops and the armored
personnel carriers came in. We were inclined to sort of hide around the
corner to look and see what was going on, but the local Chinese people
scurried us out of there, and I guess that's why we're alive today.
There was a lot of killing. It was really terrible.

IDEAS: How did ''From Dictator to Democracy" come into being?

SHARP: That booklet was originally written in 1983, at
the request of a Burmese democratic exile who was living in Bangkok and
editing an exile newsletter. It drew on previous work I had done,
including on weaknesses of dictatorships and the nature of power.

The booklet was only written for the Burmese, but though I had been
illegally in Burma two or three times in the area held by some of the
resistance groups and ethnic minorities, I didn't really know Burma.
You have to be very careful in writing about applying these theories to
a country you don't really know. You can really mess people up.

IDEAS: The manual has been translated into Russian, Farsi, Chinese, Arabic, and other languages. Have you arranged these translations?

SHARP: They come as requests from activists within the
countries. I didn't know at the beginning, but translations are
dangerous. People may not really understand the phenomenon. They may
not really know the equivalent terms in their own language, because the
terms maybe don't exist.

IDEAS: I'm curious what you think about the potential use of training in this technique as a foreign policy tool by the US government.

SHARP: That's dangerous. What the government can do is provide money. And it doesn't.

IDEAS: The Albert Einstein Institution's president,
Robert Helvey, led a workshop in Budapest for Serbian students prior to
the ouster of Slobodan Milosevic. Where else have you held workshops?

SHARP: I did one about three years ago for
Belarussians that had to be held in Vilnius, Lithuania. We did
short-term things for Cuban exiles in Miami. It's been done for
Venezuelans, and for Zimbabwe.

IDEAS: In your book there is a chapter on something
you call political jujitsu, in which a regime uses violence against
nonviolent resistance, and this backfires, creating deeper and more
widespread defiance.

SHARP: When I was starting out this study the belief
was, oh, this is fine for the Indians, they're all Hindus, they all
believe in reincarnation so it doesn't make any difference if they get
killed. Literally! But if you look at the Russian 1905 revolution, it's
the same thing.

Political jujitsu will not work if the people get scared, if they don't
know what to do, or if they don't understand that it's necessary to
hold their ground and risk some danger. Guerilla warfare has huge
civilian casualty rates. Huge. And yet Che Guevara didn't abandon
guerilla warfare because people were getting killed. The same is true
in conventional war, of course. But then they say if you get killed in
nonviolent struggle, then nonviolent struggle has failed. Some people
don't understand what they're doing and they say oh, we have to go over
to violence.

IDEAS: Of course, nonviolent movements don't
necessarily produce democracies. The Iranian revolution of 1979 was by
and large nonviolent.

SHARP: Yes, but they didn't plan for the transition,
and so various people who had their own ideas of what the new regime
should be took over. Now we have this other booklet on the anti-coup,
or how to block seizures of power and executive usurpations. That time
after a successful nonviolent struggle is very dangerous.

Our work has had major influence in Iran, except that it hasn't got a
movement quite succeeding yet. ''From Dictatorship to Democracy" is in
Farsi on our website. The translation was all done inside Iran. That's
dangerous, and people were gutsy enough to do it. But the booklet has
been declared illegal to circulate in Iran. Still, the knowledge is
there, and it fits into Persian history, like in the Constitutional
Revolution of 1906 and then more recently in the struggle against the

IDEAS: Is there any new insight that has jumped out at you from this recent spate of nonviolent dissolutions of governments?

SHARP: I think what is new is the recognition that
this technique can be learned, and that knowledge about it can be
shared to make the attempt to use it more frequent and more successful.
And I think that's one reason this particular booklet keeps spreading.

Laura Secor is a writer living in New York.

Leave a Reply