This article was originally published by Scientific American.
Mindlessly swiping my Facebook feed after the election, I spotted something that cheered me up. Artist Jeffrey Thompson, my colleague at Stevens Institute of Technology, had created a poster, “198 Methods of Nonviolent Action.” Jeff’s poster, which now adorns the halls of the building in which I teach, highlights the ideas of political scientist Gene Sharp, who for more than 40 years has promulgated nonviolent methods of bringing about social change. Arguably the world’s most under-appreciated thinker, Sharp works out of a Boston-based nonprofit, the Albert Einstein Institution. If you are worried about discrimination against African Americans, Hispanics, Muslims and immigrants; about women’s right to get an abortion; about global warming and other threats to the environment; about freedom of the media; if you want to counter injustice and oppression, Sharp can empower you. Below is an edited version of a section of "The End of War" devoted to Sharp’s work.
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In the first few months of 2011, largely nonviolent protests toppled the repressive, corrupt governments of Tunisia and Egypt. Organizers of the uprisings, The New York Times reported, were influenced by the writings of an obscure political scientist, Gene Sharp. The Times described Sharp as a “shy,” “stoop-shouldered,” 83-year-old running a chronically underfunded think tank in Boston, the Albert Einstein Institution. “For the world’s despots,” the Times added, “his ideas can be fatal.”
A 2008 profile in the Wall Street Journal credited Sharp with “helping to advance a global democratic awakening.” His writings have influenced opposition movements in Serbia, Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Burma, Palestine, Venezuela and Iran, as well as Tunisia and Egypt. Leaders in some of these countries have denounced Sharp. Iranian officials viewed him as such a serious threat that they accused Sharp of being a CIA agent plotting Iran’s overthrow with John McCain and George Soros.
Our best hope for making the transition from an unjust, militarized world to a just, peaceful one is for people seeking social change to do so nonviolently. Sharp has devoted his career to showing would-be activists how powerful nonviolence can be and advising them on how to employ it.
He published his first major work, "The Politics of Nonviolent Action," in 1973 while teaching political science at Harvard. Since then, he has churned out many more books, papers and pamphlets. His writings, which have been translated into dozens of languages and are available on the internet, describe a wide variety of tactics: worker strikes, student strikes, mass petitions, underground newspapers, skywriting, display of flags and banners, boycotts of goods, boycotts of sporting events, refusal to pay rent, withdrawal of bank savings, fasts, mock trials, occupation of government buildings, marches, motorcades, teach-ins, pray-ins, ostracism of collaborators, publication of names of collaborators, seeking imprisonment, formation of parallel government and mass disrobing.
Many of Sharp’s methods involve mockery, which the !Kung and other hunter-gatherer groups also employ against the swell-headed. A tactic called "Lysistratic nonaction" refers to the Aristophanes play, in which Greek women withhold sex from their men until the men stop fighting wars.
Sharp’s meta-goal is to get people to realize that they have more power — more choices — than they think they do. Even the most brutal tyrants need the cooperation of citizens, not just those serving as soldiers and police but throughout the society.
Sharp was not the first thinker to offer this insight. Philosopher David Hume wrote: "Were you to preach, in most parts of the world, that political connections are founded together on mutual consent or a mutual promise, the magistrate would soon imprison you, as seditious, for loosening the lies of obedience, if your friends did not before shut you up, as delirious, for advancing such absurdities."
After asking how thirty thousand Englishmen “subdued” two hundred million Indians, Tolstoy responded: “Do not the figures make it clear that it is not the English who have enslaved the Indians, but the Indians who have enslaved themselves?” Gandhi, similarly, wrote that ending British rule required convincing Indians to “consider it a shame to assist or cooperate with a government that had forfeited all title to respect or support.”
Sharp is not a gentle or diplomatic man, and when I interviewed him in Boston in 2003, he spoke in a gravelly growl. He accused some pacifists of being more interested in demonstrating their moral purity than bringing about change. “If people want to be pacifists and conscientious objectors that’s fine,” he told me, “but don’t think you’re going to save the world that way.” Imprisoned for refusing to serve in the Korean War, Sharp later dismissed his conscientious objection as an ineffective gesture.
He advocates nonviolence for practical rather than spiritual reasons. He rejects religious exhortations that we should turn the other cheek and love our enemies. People in power often deserve to be despised and fought, he contends, but violence, even in the service of a just cause, often causes more problems than it solves, leading to greater injustice and suffering. Hence the best way to oppose an unjust regime is through nonviolent action. Nonviolent movements are also more likely than violent ones to garner internal and international support and to lead to democratic, non-militarized regimes. (Other scholars, notably Erica Chenoweth, have done empirical studies demonstrating the effectiveness of nonviolent social activism.)
Sharp discounted the value of international treaties. Nor was he keen on the idea of an armed, global government that enforces treaties and quashes violent movements. “We’ve seen what military capacities, and police intervention capacities, can become within a country,” he said. “They are key tools of dictatorships, both for maintaining existing dictatorships and for establishing new ones. Now we want to extend that capacity on a world scale? And who is going to control the people who are giving the orders and making the decisions?” Sharp envisions, instead, world peace emerging from “an incremental increase in the use of nonviolent struggle in the place of violence” in troubled regions around the world.
Sharp’s philosophy of nonviolence is based on a clear-eyed view of human nature. Asked if he viewed humanity as fundamentally good-natured, Sharp laughed and shook his head, muttering, “No, no, no.” But he believed most people — even members of terrorist groups like Al Qaeda — wage war not for its own sake but as a means to an end; if they can be persuaded that nonviolence is more effective than violence, they will choose nonviolence.
“Realists” often accuse proponents of nonviolence of naivety and wishful thinking, and they tend to agree with Mao Zedong that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” But history offers abundant evidence of the power of nonviolent methods, even against ruthless regimes. In 494 B.C., working-class plebeians in Rome, protesting their treatment at the hands of the Roman consuls, staged a kind of sit-down strike on a hill near the city, later called the Sacred Mount. They remained there for several days, disrupting life in Rome, until the consuls acceded to many of their demands. Roman soldiers employed a similar nonviolent strategy more than two hundred years later to win concessions from the Roman Senate.
We tend to remember the wars and genocide of the 20th century, but there were successful nonviolent movements. In Nazi-occupied Norway in 1942, Norway’s puppet leader, Vidkun Quisling, ordered Norwegian teachers to join a “corporation” that would promote fascist principles. As many as ten thousand of Norway’s twelve thousand teachers refused to join the organization and signed statements of protest against it. Quisling had one thousand teachers arrested and sent to concentration camps, but the others maintained their resistance. Quisling finally gave in, allowing the imprisoned teachers to return home.
Other examples of nonviolent action include Gandhi’s organization of boycotts, strikes and other acts of civil disobedience against the British Empire; Martin Luther King’s marches against segregation and other legally sanctioned forms of racism; the rebellion of Lech Walesa and Polish labor unionists against the totalitarian control of the Soviet Union; and the triumph of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress over white rule in South Africa. (The ANC had a military branch early on but gradually embraced nonviolence.)
Largely nonviolent movements also helped topple dictatorships in East Germany, Mongolia, the Philippines, Chile, Argentina and elsewhere. Pessimists too often forget instances in which ostensibly powerless people prevailed over violent regimes without the use of force.
Sharp’s pragmatism and rough-edged manner have antagonized some pacifists, who compare him to cold-hearted political theorists like Machiavelli and Clausewitz. Sharp made no apologies for that fact that his strategies can be employed toward insidious as well as noble ends. A world in which bad people pursued their goals nonviolently, he noted, would be a vast improvement over ours.
Economist and Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling made a similar point in an introduction to Sharp’s "Politics of Nonviolent Action." If Sharp's writings "enlighten our adversaries, we can be doubly thankful," Shelling wrote, because "one is better off confronting a skillful and effective recourse to nonviolent action than a savagely ineffectual resort to violence."
If recent events have left you feeling powerless and fearful, visit the website of the Albert Einstein Institution, download its publications, make a donation if you can. In this dark time, Gene Sharp’s ideas are more relevant than ever.