Honing Nonviolence as a Political Weapon

Article excerpt

When Gene Sharp was attending high school in Ohio, World War II was just finishing, Stalin was in control of the Soviet Union, colonialism was strong, and nuclear weapons were new. Even as a teenager, Sharp was aware of the world's big problems and as he puts it, he wanted to see what could be done about them. He worked as secretary to American pacifist A.J. Muste, spent nine months in prison as a conscientious objector to the Korean War, and after obtaining a master's in sociology from Ohio State University and a doctorate in political science from Oxford University, he went on to become the world's foremost nonviolent strategist.

Once dubbed the "Clausewitz of nonviolent warfare," Sharp, 77, has spent the last five decades researching and promoting the application of nonviolent methods to some of the world's biggest problems. People can, he says, resist an occupation, prevent an internal takeover of their government, and even cause a dictatorship to disintegrate without tiring a shot.

A former chair of the sociology department at University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, and research fellow at Harvard University, Sharp is an indefatigable and prolific analyst. Over the past four decades he has written more than a dozen books and numerous articles on the theory and strategy of nonviolent action, including Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential, published earlier this year.

Although Sharp has written extensively on political power, you are more likely to find one of his essays or books in a cafe in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev or a Burmese refugee tent along the Thai border than in the political science curriculum at an American university. Labeled seditious by repressive regimes, his writings have guided pro-democracy activists in disparate corners of the world, including the Middle East, the Baltic states, Eastern Europe, Burma and the Tibetan diaspora.

Colleagues of Sharp say he is no peacemaker. Nor should he be cast as an advocate of conflict resolution, for he promotes "nonviolent disruption" and writes about ways to seize power from repressive regimes. But the scholar of people power is a revolutionary without a gun who has taken the killing out of political conflict.

"[His] approach attracts people who are otherwise turned off by peaceniks, people who participate in their own liberation," said Bob Helvey, a retired U.S. Army colonel and former research fellow with Sharp at Harvard.

Sharp preaches a muscular nonviolence, defining nonviolent struggles as a political technique. It is not to be confused with an abstention from violence based on ethical or religious beliefs. War has persisted, he maintains, because people believed military means were all they had "to prevent aggression and fight off attackers. One needed a substitute."

For Sharp, that "substitute" is strategic nonviolence, and his appreciation for its viability came early in his academic career. In the late 1950s, while at the University of Oslo, Norway, Sharp researched the unarmed resistance of Norwegian teachers to the Nazis. He documented 65 methods of nonviolent action. His list' eventually grew to 198 methods and was included in the second book of his three-volume 1973 work, The Politics of Nonviolent Action.

In 1983, Sharp founded the Albert Einstein Institution to promote the study and use of nonviolent action. A brochure for the nonprofit pointed out that unlike military warfare, which is "predicated on the rigorous study of past battles and supported by billions of dollars worth of military infrastructure and weapons," nonviolent struggles had to rely on "anecdotal information, political manifestos or just plain guesswork." The institution sought to fill the information gap. Operating out of a sparsely furnished two-room office in downtown Boston, Sharp and his colleagues wrote books and articles on the methods of nonviolent action, disseminating their work to distant countries via mail or the Internet. …