May 2005

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Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.

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Gene Sharp: Scholar of Strategic Nonviolence

Michael True, emeritus professor, Assumption College, is the author of An Energy Field More Intense Than War: The Nonviolent Tradition and American Literature (1995).

"We cannot do you intentional harm, but we shall resist you by all the non-injurious force in our power," Adin Ballou (1803-90) wrote in Christian Non-Resistance (1846), in what may be the first extended discussion of nonviolence theory. (For biographical information, please see and

As a Universalist preacher, Ballou's Christian rhetoric was central to his discussion of nonviolence -- or "non-resistance," as he called it. It was decidedly different from Gandhi's rhetoric, fifty years later, and Gene Sharp's, a century later. However, Ballou was obviously engaged in trying to understand a concept that others have tried to name, to understand, and to clarify since then. In the meantime, our understanding of how to wage nonviolent struggles has increased considerably. One clear indication of that is the successful campaigns around the world since 1980 -- from the Philippines to Poland to Ukraine.

For this reason, among others, the appearance of Gene Sharp's new major book, Waging Nonviolent Struggle (see page 12 for a review), is an appropriate time to acknowledge the central place that he occupies in the history of nonviolence theory and strategy, especially his contributions to political theory and to peace and conflict studies.

As the major theorist and strategist of nonviolence since Gandhi, Sharp has claimed for nonviolence its proper place in learned and public discourse by making available a body of information and research essential to its development. Translated into thirty languages, his publications and others by his colleagues at the Albert Einstein Institution, have not only evoked serious commentary from scholars around the world, but also have enhanced the sophistication of activists engaged in resisting injustice and humiliation, resolving conflict, and bringing about social change without killing people. (His special gift to Quakers and similar religious bodies has been to indicate how to make their peace testimony practicable in the wider community.)

As a young scholar, Gene Sharp brought a rich background of academic training and personal experience to his study of nonviolence, with degrees in sociology from Ohio State and doctoral studies at St. Catherine's College, Oxford. He was imprisoned as a conscientious objector for nine months during the Korean War and served as secretary to A. J. Muste, a major figure in the American tradition of nonviolence. (For biographical info, see In addition to lecturing widely at universities here and abroad over the past thirty years, Sharp chaired the sociology department at Southeastern Massachusetts University, and maintained a long-term association as a research fellow with the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. In a vocation that has combined research and direct engagement with activists around the world, he has been a consultant to the democratic opposition in Burma and the Tibetan Buddhist diaspora, while staff from the Albert Einstein Institution have provided training sessions for pro-democracy groups throughout Eastern Europe.

Numerous pamphlets and books since the mid-nineteenth century had commented on and explored the possibilities for waging nonviolent conflict, but without providing a means of evaluating what worked or what didn't work, and why. In light of the long history of organized nonviolent action, the lack of conceptual models was surprising, as Sharp pointed out in his classic study, The Politics of Nonviolent Action (1973). Prior to Sharp, we had only brief glimpses of nonviolent victories, and even less knowledge of the strategic and tactical planning essential to achieving the goals of nonviolent struggle. His first book, as he wrote in the preface, provided "the most comprehensive attempt thus far to examine the nature of nonviolent struggle as a social and political technique, including its view of power, its specific methods of action, its dynamics in conflict." It also enumerated "the conditions for success or failure in its use."

Based in part on his dissertation at Oxford, The Politics of Nonviolent Action indicated, as well, Sharp's extensive knowledge of the literature of nonviolence, including manifestos and declarations by American abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Adin Ballou, whom Leo Tolstoy translated and discussed in The Kingdom of God is Within You (1894). The latter book, as well as Thoreau's essay, Civil Disobedience, and Tolstoy's A Letter to a Hindu: The Subjection of India -- Its Cause and Cure, in turn contributed to Gandhi's education. In the following century, people around the world offered further insight, though the limitations of terms in English ("passive resistance," "non-resistance," and, since 1920, "nonviolence") underscored their failure not only to convey, but also to understand, its significance as a form of power. Indeed, this is still the case among commentators who approach the topic from a narrowly religious perspective.

Following Gandhi's extensive reflections on his "experiments with truth," important commentaries on nonviolent action included Joan V. Bondurant, Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict (1958), the writings of Martin Luther King, and the work of Mulford Q. Sibley, including, The Quiet Battle: Writings on the Theory and Practice of Nonviolent Resistance (1963). Nonetheless, re-reading most treatises on nonviolence prior to The Politics of Nonviolent Action, and then subsequent manuals and treatises on nonviolence since Sharp's initial book, dramatizes the significance of Sharp's contribution.

In arguments repeated and further developed in Waging Nonviolent Struggle (2005), Sharp's 1973 three-volume work documents the viability of nonviolent action through extensive historical detail and insights into the patterns of nonviolent action. Focusing on the nature of power, he complemented Hannah Arendt's writings in political philosophy (see In a challenge to a popular dictum of Mao Zedong, Arendt argued that terror, not power, grows out of the barrel of a gun, and made a useful distinction between power and violence. Sharp argued along similar lines that "real" political power is pluralistic and fragile "because it depends on many groups for reinforcement of its power sources…. All governments rely on cooperation and obedience for their very existence. When people choose to withhold or withdraw that cooperation, governments are left without any pillars to support their weight."

Another important argument, on anthropological grounds, was based upon Sharp's understanding of the relationship between human beings and violence. He said that the belief that human nature is inherently violent, a popular view at the time, was "a distortion of reality." Such an assumption was based upon conviction rather than evidence, indicating a bias toward violence in Western civilization and further prejudicing historians and others against the viability of nonviolent action.

Mentioning numerous examples of nonviolence over two millennia, Sharp subsequently identified numerous methods of nonviolent action. Along the way, he appropriated tools of analysis familiar to military strategists, particularly the British historian, Sir Basil Lidell Hart, and Sharp's long-time associate at Harvard's Center for International Affairs, Thomas C. Schelling. Although acknowledging the courage and resourcefulness of nonviolent activists, Sharp also chided them for failing to appreciate Lidell Hart's insight that achieving results depends upon strategies informed by reason: "The better your strategy, the easier you will gain the upper hand, and the less it will cost you."

Over the past forty years Sharp has maintained a consistently rich and detailed expansion of his arguments and analyses of nonviolent theory and strategy in a shelf of books and pamphlets under his authorship and guidance. A particular virtue of his publications is their readability -- informed prose that makes quite technical material easily accessible to the general reader.

Among the numerous publications, two books and two pamphlets, in addition to those already mentioned, are indispensable. The books are Civilian-Based Defense: A Post-Military Weapons System (1990), and Gandhi as a Political Strategist, with Essays on Ethics and Politics (1999). There Are Realistic Alternatives, a 54-page pamphlet, available free on the Albert Einstein Instiutution website,, discusses issues relevant to addressing local and international conflicts, with brief synopses of historic cases, a list of Sharp's 198 methods of nonviolent action, and a glossary of important terms.

The other, more recent pamphlet, is From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation (2002), which was widely circulated among dissidents involved in nonviolent movements in the former Yugoslavia, Georgia, and Ukraine. This pamphlet discusses what must be attended to at various stages of a campaign against oppressive governments, including norms for a peaceful transformation of the emerging conflict. Most important for skeptics, Sharp challenged popular misconceptions about nonviolence, with hard-headed advice on struggle against repressive regimes. He confronted the widely held belief that nonviolence succeeds only against humanitarian and democratic opponents, citing successes against brutal regimes, including Nazi and Communist dictatorships. He also argued that nonviolent struggle does not require a religious commitment, although that component has often sustained activists through long and arduous campaigns.

Almost as important as Sharp's publications are others sponsored or indebted to the Albert Einstein Institution, most notably (1) Peter Ackerman and Christopher Kruegler, Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century (1994); (2) Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall, A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict (2000), which has reached a wide audience both as a book and as a series on PBS, now available on video; and (3) Protest, Power, and Change: An Encyclopedia of Nonviolent Action from ACT-UP to Women's Suffrage (1997), a beautifully written and well-edited 600-page reference work that deserves to be in every school, college, and public library.

Although Sharp's sophisticated approach to strategic nonviolence differs radically from early commentators, such Ballou, Sharp's judgment that "all the proposals to solve the problem of violence, or particular expressions of it, have been unsuccessful" resonates with Ballou's thesis a century ago. Both men share a deep commitment to finding and exploring a realistic alternative to violence. No doubt Sharp's influence had something to do with the recent re-publication of Ballou's Christian Non-Resistance (1846), and Christian Non-Resistance in Extreme Cases (1860).

Too many people who speak about Sharp's work are unaware of its sophistication and practicality. Promoting Sharp's work can inform public discourse, help the centuries-long effort to understand the concept of nonviolence, and assist programs in peace and conflict studies around the world. With the new book, Waging Nonviolent Struggle, readers have another opportunity to recognize and to appreciate Sharp's achievement.

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