If there is one modern thinker that I think needs larger exposure, it is nonviolent struggle academic Gene Sharp. Now a frail old man in his mid-80s, Sharp has spent the last sixty years compiling countless case studies and composed rock-solid theories on nonviolent means of enacting political change, and added a list of 198 methods to achieve them.
His thesis: even for those with no moral opposition to violence, unarmed struggle is more likely to succeed, and much more likely to produce a better society than the one it overthrew. This idea over the past few decades has gained widespread currency, as a feature in the not-at-all pacifist Foreign Policy this summer supports, entitled “Drop Your Weapons”.
The Albert Einstein Institution, which is primarily Sharp and Jamila Raqib, operates out of Sharp’s home in Boston. Much of his work is available for free on the organization’s website, most notably There Are Realistic Alternatives, the short pep talk for would-be revolutionaries, and the practical guide to creating a better world, From Dictatorship to Democracy.
I already wrote a piece last year extolling Sharp’s virtues; this is more of an update. Some may look at this scene and think Sharp and Raqib to be fringe academics, that nobody actually listens to. However, there is always the theme, across the world and over many years. Ask key organizers of movements, whether those in Serbia that overthrew Slobodan Milošević, someone even US air power couldn’t drive from power. Some of the students behind the initial revolution in Egypt sought Sharp’s advice, and Benny Tai, a key leader in the current Occupy Central campaign in Hong Kong openly admits the influence. From this Bloomberg article:
Occupy Central is inspired by a civil-disobedience playbook set out by Gene Sharp, a U.S. academic whose work has inspired non-violent uprisings from Egypt to Serbia, Tai said. Sharp, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, argues that once authorities use violence against unarmed protesters they lose the sympathy of the rest of the population, leading to a shift in public opinion to support the protesters.
Wherever you go, Sharp shows up somewhere. He may never be the primary influence, and certain local conditions create local strategy and leaders, but he is around. His work is disseminated organically- he or his supporters have never printed copies by the millions. Yet From Dictatorship to Democracy has ended up translated into Chinese, and Ukrainian, and five separate languages used in Burma. We all know that the real heroes are those on the ground, and Sharp is thankfully a humble personality, but the effectiveness and discipline of Occupy Hong Kong shows the power of resources for planning and executing nonviolent forms of struggle. Work by Sharp, Robert Helvey, and others help anyone interested in the work of 20th century nonviolent resisters accessible. Not everyone has the brilliance of Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., but lessons learned from their work can be distilled and provided as a guide.
Gene Sharp was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize this year, his fourth nomination. Two years ago he received the Right Livelihood Award, which is its closest equivalent. I would like him to receive the Peace Prize, but it has always been a bit faddish (Barack Obama the year of his election) or strange (the European Union as a whole). This year I’d put good money on Pope Francis winning, but there’s a reason betting sites always have Sharp in the top five.
Have a plan. Know the methods. Change the world.