Lessons from the Godfather: Interview with Gene Sharp

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Zina Saunders / www.zinasaunders.com

The following is part of a series of articles on activism in the United States. For more, readTea Party Crashers andThe New Face of Activism.

When political scientist Gene Sharp published his three-volume study The Politics of Nonviolent Action in 1973, his dream was to seed global grassroots nonviolent movements.

How wildly he has succeeded. Over the past four decades, revolutionaries from Belgrade to Tehran have cited Sharp’s work as a key tool in their struggles. His writings on nonviolent strategy have been translated into 40 languages. All are freely accessible on the website of the Albert Einstein Institution, a nonprofit Sharp founded in 1983 “to advance the worldwide study and strategic use of nonviolent action.”

In 2009 the government of Iran pointed with fury to Sharp’s seminal list “198 Methods of Nonviolent Action,” calling it the blueprint for the popular uprisings there. The Farsi translation of a more recent treatise, “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” which includes the list, was downloaded more than 3,000 times as the protests raged. The Christian Science Monitor recently called Sharp “the godfather of non­violent resistance.”

Now 82 years old, Sharp carries on his lifetime project. Of late he has finished the manuscript of a “dictionary of civilian struggle,” which he labored over for years, meticulously defining more than 800 terms. Utne Reader spoke with Sharp about lessons activists can glean from centuries of nonviolent struggle around the world.

Explain your enduring obsession with nonviolence. You’ve been wrestling with it for decades.

It has been a long time–because I recognize its fundamental power and what a difference it has made in various parts of the world.

Imagine if Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and the Baltic countries had risen up using violence. They would have been slaughtered by the Soviet power. Eastern Europeans could still be under Russian control, but they aren’t because people chose a different way to struggle.

And this technique can be refined–it can always be made more effective.

I sometimes get the sense that people are worried that they would have to give up something to engage in nonviolent struggle.

Sure, and this is partly the fault of the pacifists. They say you have to be willing to die. Most nonviolent struggles don’t involve marching down the street toward machine guns.

I was actually thinking of the idea that nonviolence is “for the weak.”        

Oh, that’s all over the place. That’s why I don’t like the word non­violence–it’s sloppy, confusing, and can mean all kinds of things. To many people it means being weak and passive–and that’s the opposite of what it really is. Nonviolent struggle opens the door to greater control over your society and makes democracy durable.

We need to develop a different terminology. Maybe we shouldn’t get rid of the word nonviolence as an adjective, but you can talk about “nonviolent struggle” or “non­violent action.”

When you look at contemporary domestic movements, both on the left and on the right, what do you see?

People don’t have a good idea of what kind of social change they want. They assume that you get major social change simply by voting every four years.

When I lived in Brooklyn many years ago the people in my neighborhood would always find something to complain about and then end with the same phrase: “What are you going to do?” That’s a tragic situation.

Is there a single mistake you see over and over again?  

Yes. The failure to properly analyze political power; nobody understands political power. All power has its sources. And if you can identify the sources you can cut them off.

It’s a fundamental distinction that leads to a totally different approach to waging political struggle.

What do these sources of power look like?           

There is moral authority: Do the people giving the orders have the right to give them? There is economic power. There is control of the masses. Hitler didn’t have three brains, you know; he got other people convinced that what he was doing was important and that they should help.

Rather than protest the actions of those with political power, you can cut off the sources of their power–and this is rarely understood.

This seems like an approach that demands strategy.         

Well, it should, but not everybody who uses nonviolent action knows a thing about strategy. People often think that if they can just show the world how terrible an opponent is, they’ll be able to get rid of the opponent. That’s nonsense.

And the opposite of identifying the sources of power.            

That’s a totally different trip. There’s also a big issue [in nonviolent movements] of how people define success and failure. I remember cases where people didn’t succeed at all in achieving their objectives but say they felt better afterward. That’s not success. It’s important to feel that you’ve done something worthwhile, but it isn’t good enough.

You have to learn as much about nonviolent struggle as possible; know your own situation as well as possible; and know your opponent’s objectives, needs, and weaknesses as well as possible–and then make a plan.

You shouldn’t have an objective like total justice or complete peace. You have to think in smaller bites. Work out a plan that will weaken your opponent, but also strengthen your people and give them the capacity to carry on the struggle–to achieve the next objective.

So if you haven’t defined a realistic objective before you’ve launched into a struggle using nonviolent methods, you’ve already failed.


Nonviolent actions were a major component of the movement to stop the invasion of Iraq. Activists failed to stop the war; does that mean the movement was a failure?

You don’t get rid of war by professing against it–though professing against it should be done. You can’t get rid of war until you have a substitute tactic. And once war is breaking out, it’s usually too late to apply a substitute means.

With Iraq, there needed to be an effective nonviolent movement to oust Saddam Hussein. There wasn’t a need for a war in Poland [when the country broke away from Soviet control], for example; they didn’t need a foreign military power to intervene because they did it themselves and they did it nonviolently.

You’ve been a consultant to movement leaders in other countries trying to oust dictators. It’s a strange role–an American flying into another country to advise. How do you carry yourself?

I focus on helping people learn to build their own strategies so that they’re not dependent on outsiders. Maybe the worst possible thing to do is follow the advice of an outsider.

I also try to understand what I’m coming into. How much do people already know? I went to the West Bank several years ago for a conference and I prepared my presentation in Boston. I didn’t realize how tuned in many of the Palestinians were to nonviolent struggle. I had to scrap my speech completely. What I was going to say was too elementary for them.

When I was working on The Politics of Nonviolent Action, which took many, many years, I was hoping that people who were in tough situations–economically, politically, and socially–and needed means of fighting would find the book and learn from it.

We continue that work [at the Albert Einstein Institution]. People ask us to spend one week or two weeks with them and give them a workshop, and while I’ve done some of that, I don’t think it’s effective. What works best is extensive correspondence. Long letters: You’ve got to study this or that, you’ve got to know your own situation.

Again, you need to figure out where your opponent is weak. Nobody talks about the weaknesses of dictatorships–but they sure as hell have them. If you know their weaknesses, then you know where to concentrate resistance using your strengths and legitimate objectives.

You spent time in jail for refusing to serve in World War II and you once told an interviewer that you “don’t think it did a damned thing to get rid of the war system.” Do you regret your resistance?

It was effective only in keeping my sense of personal integrity together–[knowing] that I hadn’t sold out and that I hadn’t compromised. I didn’t run away. That was important to me.

How long were you in prison?         

Nine months and ten days.

Is that time something that comes up much these days?

I don’t think about it at all. It might come up with people who think that I only work in academia and that I’m not facing the real dangers of the world. I don’t engage people in arguments over that. I feel like, “Been there, done that; now where do we go from here?”

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