A Progressive Interview with Gene Sharp

By Pal, Amitabh | The Progressive, December 2011 | Go to article overview

A Progressive Interview with Gene Sharp


Pal, Amitabh, The Progressive


Gene Sharp is the single most influential proponent of nonviolent change in our time. His work has served as a how to manual for activists in countries across Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa, and has been translated into dozens of languages. And it played a role in the Arab Spring, as anti-Mubarak protesters in Egypt, particularly, found inspiration in his teachings.

Indeed, Sharp's work is so globally respected that Gabonese activist Gloria Mika told the BBC that when she traveled to Boston to see Sharp in person, "I felt like I was going to meet the main man in terms of nonviolent resistance in the world."

At eighty-three, Sharp shows little sign of slowing down. His new book is Sharp's Dictionary of Power and Struggle: Language of Civil Resistance in Conflicts, a comprehensive glossary of terms and phrases used in nonviolent action. A recent documentary, Gene Sharp: How to Start a Revolution, focuses on his ideas.

I had met Sharp back in 2006 at bis Boston office to interview him for The Progressive. In the wake of recent events, I e-mailed him questions to get his take on what's happening with nonviolent resistance--in the Middle East, as well as here in the United States.

Q: What's your reaction to the Arab Spring, especially Tunisia and Egypt?

Gene Sharp: The struggles in Tunisia and Egypt have demonstrated that the old preconceptions about nonviolent struggle are no longer valid. These cases demonstrate that nonviolent struggles are realistic and that they can be successful in a violent world.

There was a time when it was widely thought that nonviolent struggles required a charismatic leader, a mahatma, to be successful. We now know that is not true. Dependence on such a leader can even be a liability. Regular people can learn enough to enable them to create a wise and competent strategy for their self-liberation.

It was also once thought that violence works quickly, while nonviolent struggle takes forever. The events in Tunisia and Egypt have shown that belief to be false.

Q: Why did the region finally rise up?

Sharp: The region rose up against longtime oppression because people became confident that they could win by nonviolent defiance. …

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