The Machiavelli of Nonviolence: Gene Sharp and the Battle Against Corporate Rule

The Machiavelli of Nonviolence: Gene Sharp and the Battle Against Corporate Rule

If there are some things in life that should not be bet on, the question of who will next win the Nobel Peace Prize somehow feels like it should be among them. Internet bookmakers, however, will place odds on almost anything, and they are not above taking wagers on Nobel prospects. Over the past two years, some of the safest money has not been on a head of state, a major nongovernmental organization, or a charismatic resistance leader, but rather on a soft-spoken, eighty-five-year-old academic. His name is Gene Sharp.

Sharp, a theorist and author of groundbreaking works on the dynamics of nonviolent conflict, has been called the “dictator slayer,” the “Machiavelli of nonviolence,” and the Clausewitz of unarmed revolution. His circumstances are humble: he runs his research outfit, known as the Albert Einstein Institution, out of the ground floor of his row house in East Boston, and the organization has just one other staffer. For the most part, Sharp has labored for decades in quiet obscurity—well respected within a small field of study but virtually unknown outside of it.

At the same time, Sharp’s work has had an unusually broad impact. His pamphlet From Dictatorship to Democracy, a ninety-three-page distillation of his core insights and a handbook for overthrowing autocrats, has been translated into more than thirty languages. The slim volume has a habit of turning up in hot spots of global resistance. Originally written in 1993 to help dissidents in Burma use nonviolent action against the ruling junta, the book made it into the library of Serbian students seeking to overthrow the regime of Slobodan Milošević, circulated among activists during successful uprisings in Georgia and the Ukraine, and was downloaded in Arabic amid mass protests in Tunisia and Egypt.

The Iranian government has denounced the book and its author by name. In the summer of 2005, two independent bookshops in Russia were burned down after stocking the newly available Russian translation. (“I still keep a half-burned copy on a shelf in my office,” one opposition leader told the Wall Street Journal.) Particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring, Sharp’s renown has grown, and he was the subject of a feature documentary, entitled How to Start a Revolution, released just as the Occupy movement took shape in 2011.

Of course, the idea that any mass movement can be attributed to one person is dubious. With regard to the Arab Spring, Middle Eastern analysts have taken exception to the Western media’s eagerness to credit an American “Lawrence of Arabia” for rebellions that have deep local roots. Similarly ignoring indigenous agency, conspiracy theorists on the far left have painted their own picture of Sharp as a puppet master at the center of a sinister CIA-led scheme to overthrow governments disliked by Washington.

Those who recognize such notions as wildly off base but are intrigued by the evident power of Sharp’s work may be curious for a more sober assessment of the scholar’s contributions. And those involved in U.S. social movements might pose a more pressing question: can Sharp’s ideas about nonviolent conflict, which have proven potent in challenging dictators abroad, be used to oppose the corporate takeover of democracy at home?

Gene Sharp spent his first years of political life immersed in a mainstream current of the pacifist tradition, and he has spent much of the rest of his career declaring independence from it. During the Korean War, Sharp refused to cooperate with the draft. He proudly possesses a letter from Albert Einstein in which the physicist told the young resister that he could only hope “that I would have acted as you did, had I found myself in your situation.” But that sentiment held little weight with the state. Sharp ultimately served nine months and ten days in prison—an act of civil disobedience he now regards as entirely ineffectual, except in reinforcing his sense of personal integrity.

Upon his release in 1954, Sharp worked briefly as an assistant to prominent pacifist A.J. Muste before moving to Oslo and researching how teachers during the Second World War used nonviolent tactics to resist the imposition of fascist schooling in Norway. His investigations into nonviolence ultimately led to a doctorate at Oxford and a seminal three-volume, 900-page treatise called The Politics of Nonviolent Action, published in 1973 and still in print today.

Pacifism—moral opposition to war and violence—has existed for hundreds if not thousands of years. It can trace its roots to the core texts of many major world religions. But Sharp discovered that he was interested in something different. Reading through old newspaper coverage of Gandhi’s 1930 satyagraha in India, he found evidence that most participants in the resistance campaign did not embrace nonviolence out of a sense of moral commitment. Instead, they used nonviolent action because they believed it worked. This was a discovery that contradicted the cherished convictions of many pacifists he knew—adherents to what is now known as “principled nonviolence”—who believed that the practice requires deep ethical resolve. As Sharp explained in a 2003 interview, he considered omitting the finding from his research:

I wondered: Should I put that down? Better just leave it out!

But I put it down. And later it dawned on me that, rather than that being a threat, it was a great opportunity, because it meant that large numbers of people who would never believe in ethical or religious nonviolence could use nonviolent struggle for pragmatic reasons.

Embracing the position known as “strategic nonviolence,” Sharp began arguing that people turn to violence not because they are wicked or warmongering but because they do not see any other option for resolving intractable conflicts. If you show how a strategy of nonviolent conflict can be an effective alternative, he urged, you will be able to win over far more people than you will by merely making “exhortations in favor of love.” He would ultimately come to eschew the term “nonviolence” altogether, believing that it is too ambiguous and loaded with connotations of passivity and religious belief, and he now uses the word only as an adjective, referring to “nonviolent struggle” or “nonviolent conflict.” Recently, academic researchers influenced by Sharp have made a further break in terminology: they now discuss campaigns of unarmed action simply as “civil resistance.”

Can Sharp’s ideas about nonviolent conflict, which have proven potent in challenging dictators abroad, be used to oppose the corporate takeover of democracy at home?

As he emerged as a writer, Sharp saw his role as being one of correcting common misconceptions about nonviolent action: that people have to be pacifists or saints to undertake it, that strategic nonviolence somehow involves avoiding conflict, and that it can only be used in democracies. He set out to show that nonviolent action is “a technique of struggle involving the use of psychological, social, economic, and political power,” and that it can be used even against viciously repressive regimes.

To explain how it works, Sharp first presents a theory of political power. Contrary to the assumption that, in the end, “power comes from the barrel of a gun,” Sharp draws on a wide range of political thinkers in the first volume of The Politics of Nonviolent Action to argue that all rulers fundamentally rely on the cooperation and consent of their people to survive. “Obedience is at the heart of political power,” he writes. Countless institutions—including the police, the courts, the civil service, and the army—must carry out orders for the system to function. If individuals and institutions start to withdraw their cooperation, a regime is weakened. If enough of them withdraw, the regime collapses. At Oxford, fueled with excitement over his discovery of this theory, Sharp dug through historical records to uncover dozens of examples, large and small, of how nonviolent action has succeeded by encouraging the withdrawal of obedience, eroding the authority and bureaucratic capacity of rulers.

This idea also allowed him to theorize about how future campaigns might take shape. Just like armed struggle, nonviolent conflict involves the “waging of ‘battles,’ requires wide strategy and tactics, and demands of its ‘soldiers’ courage, discipline, and sacrifice.” Perhaps for this reason, Sharp believes, those with a military background have often been quicker than peace activists to catch on to his ideas.

Sharp’s analysis of nonviolent struggle is unflinching. He recognizes that withdrawing cooperation is not always easy. If the target of nonviolent action is a tyrannical regime, repression can be severe. “There must be no illusions,” he writes. “In some cases nonviolent people have not only been beaten and cruelly treated but killed…in deliberate massacres.” Nor does he promise success: “the simple choice of nonviolent action as the technique of struggle,” Sharp explains, “does not and cannot guarantee victory, especially on a short-term basis.”

That said, it can produce remarkable, and sometimes counterintuitive, results. While violent uprisings play to the strengths of dictatorships—which are deft at putting down armed rebellions and using security challenges to justify police state measures—nonviolent action often catches these regimes off guard. Through what Sharp calls “political jiu-jitsu,” nonviolent campaigns turn repression into a weakness for those in power. Violent crackdowns against unarmed protests end up exposing the brutality of a ruling force, undermining its legitimacy, and, in many cases, resulting in wider withdrawal of cooperation.

In a 2005 interview, Sharp lamented that nonviolent struggle is held to an unfair standard, even if its human cost is relatively minimal. “Guerrilla warfare has huge civilian casualty rates. Huge,” he said. “And yet Ché Guevara didn’t abandon guerrilla warfare because people were getting killed. The same is true in conventional war, of course. But then they say if you get killed in nonviolent struggle, then nonviolent struggle has failed.”

With a similar lack of sentimentality, Sharp breaks with pacifists in his understanding of how movements achieve success. He argues that, while it may be desirable, it is not necessary that activists express love for their adversaries or make enemies see the errors of their ways. In fact, insistence on “conversion” of the opponent can be counterproductive. As an alternative, Sharp approvingly quotes civil rights leader James Farmer: “In the arena of political and social events, what men feel and believe matters much less than what, under various kinds of external pressures, they can be made to do.” Farmer elsewhere concludes: “Where we cannot influence the heart of the evildoer, we can force an end to the evil practice.”

Those determined to force such an end have a variety of options for getting started—indeed, a great many options. Discussion of Sharp’s work invariably includes his list of “198 methods of nonviolent action,” originally presented in detail in the second volume of The Politics of Nonviolent Action. It includes approaches as varied as vigils, fasting, land occupations, “protest disrobings,” display of flags and symbolic colors, mock funerals, humorous skits and pranks, deliberate bureaucratic inefficiency, and civil disobedience, not to mention several dozen distinct types of strikes and boycotts. Despite Sharp’s suggestions that there would be “considerable expansion” of the list as movements innovated and other researchers added to the documentary record, the total has remained frozen in the four decades since it first appeared, gaining totemic status.

Sharp’s admirers and enemies alike have a tendency to treat the list with undue reverence. Sympathetic accounts act as if the theorist had somehow invented the tactics, rather than merely cataloging them. Hostile regimes, meanwhile, have viewed the items as a sort of nefarious recipe: in 2009 the Iranian government referenced the list in a televised trial of 110 dissidents, noting, as the Boston Globe reported, that “More than 100 of the 198 steps in the Gene Sharp manual of instructions for Velvet Revolution have already been executed.”

In fact, the list can be both arbitrary and exhausting, reflecting Sharp’s taxonomic writing style. A variety of the items on the list are needlessly specific. (Should “turning one’s back” as a means of protest really be singled out as its own method, apart from similar nonverbal expressions of disrespect?) Other methods, such as “skywriting and earthwriting,” seem dated and obscure. Conversely, activist innovations based on post-1970s technology remain outside Sharp’s classification. There are no cell-phone-driven flash mobs here.

At one point Sharp borrows a story from Saul Alinsky about a protest in a depressed area of Chicago. Members of a community organization, angry about the mayor’s refusal to address deteriorating housing conditions, took dead rats from their neighborhood and piled them up on the steps of city hall. For Alinsky the tale is a chance to highlight the creativity of the activists and to show off his storytelling élan. For Sharp it is an example of Method #21, “Delivering symbolic objects.” A lack of self-awareness about the danger of pedantry in Sharp’s lengthy enumeration produces some moments of unintentional humor, as when he notes that the “illustrations could go on indefinitely.”

Yet whatever the limitations of the list, the 198 methods have considerable strengths. At a time when little attention was granted to nonviolent tactics, Sharp’s catalog hinted at a new world of possibility—both for action and for research. The list encourages dissidents to be creative in their planning and not to simply repeat their previous approaches. Sharp likens the methods to the various weapons in the arsenal of a violent army: each has different range and effects, and each is adapted to distinct circumstances. They can be used separately or together, and their wise selection can help determine the outcome of a battle.

The differences between Sharp and Alinsky are not merely stylistic. While Alinsky favored the creation of stable “organizations” to the outbreak of “movements,” Sharp’s ideas would prove most useful to those seeking to spark, guide, and maximize the power of sometimes short-lived mass uprisings. His list of 198 tactics shows that those plotting such outbreaks are often more methodical than popularly imagined. And the field of study that rose in the wake of Sharp’s pioneering work has sought to understand how unarmed insurrections have been far more politically significant than observers focused on military warfare have cared to admit.

Given the impact of Sharp’s ideas, reporters visiting the scholar often express surprise that he is working out of his home in East Boston and not enjoying the salary and research budget typical of eminent professors a few miles away in Cambridge. But Sharp’s standing among academics is actually somewhat tenuous. Although he is sometimes described as a former Harvard professor, this is not quite true. Sharp held appointments for decades at the university’s Center for International Affairs, directing its Program on Nonviolent Sanctions, but these were research positions, outside the tenure track of any particular discipline. Sharp is also a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, but his life there as a teacher and colleague is never much emphasized—by him or others.

While Sharp acknowledges intellectual debts to figures such as Gandhi and Richard Gregg, an early philosopher of nonviolence, his work gives off a hint of autodidacticism. Sociologists take issue with his application of terms such as “pluralist” and “consent” in ways that are inconsistent with accepted usage in their field. They object that his theory of power is too voluntarist, too focused on individual choice, and that it fails to take into account how power is embedded in culture and in social structures. Sharp, for his part, has never shown much interest in the sometimes-tedious processes of peer review. As a result, he has placed himself in a nether region: he writes like a professor and is regarded as such by outsiders, but he is not fully accepted within academia.

There is some irony in his scholarly fate. Had he started his career today, rather than in the 1970s, Sharp could have much more easily found an academic home—thanks to the field of study his writing has done so much to spawn. In his 1973 magnum opus, Sharp predicted that his work might inaugurate a “new stage in the development of nonviolent alternatives.” Remarkably enough, this turned out to be the case. Stephen Zunes, a professor at the University of San Francisco and expert on nonviolent social movements, comments that prior to Sharp, lectures on Gandhi took place almost exclusively in religion and ethics courses. Slowly, consideration of Gandhian campaigns moved into sociology. Today, the study of nonviolent conflict and civil resistance is a respectable subfield within political science and strategic studies.

These developments have taken place too slowly to benefit Sharp’s professorial career, however, and he has instead achieved his greatest acclaim outside of the academy. His most famous work, From Dictatorship to Democracy, is conspicuously lean, stripped of any significant scholarly references. A modern-day Art of War, it provides a short, powerful glimpse into the universe of strategic thinking about nonviolent conflict. In that work, the value of Sharp’s conception of power is that it is useful—in contrast to highly nuanced sociological theories that do nothing to help social movements understand how they might leverage change.

While Saul Alinsky favored the creation of stable “organizations” to the outbreak of “movements,” Sharp’s ideas would prove most useful to those seeking to spark, guide, and maximize the power of sometimes short-lived mass uprisings.

Sharp’s theories have been widely adapted by other writers and incorporated into popular training manuals for nonviolent activism. To credit a single theorist for insights into the art of political uprising that are often independently rediscovered and shaped by activists to suit local circumstances is to assume a type of direct, linear causality that rarely exists in protest movements. The relationship between ideas and action tends to follow muddier and more circuitous paths. Still, like the Egyptian protester who told the BBC that he had been handed a photocopy of the 198 methods printed without any reference to the list’s provenance, many dissidents who have never heard Sharp’s name have nonetheless been exposed to his thinking.

For an intellectual opponent of autocracy, being featured as an animated character in an Iranian propaganda film surely counts as a high honor. Sharp received this strange accolade in 2008, when Iran aired a video that showed a computer-generated version of the theorist scheming with Senator John McCain and philanthropist George Soros. It accused Sharp of being a CIA agent “in charge of America’s infiltration into other countries.”

These claims represented a move by right-wing theocrats to piggyback off of the delusions of the far left. In 2005 French anti-imperialist Thierry Meyssan charged that Sharp “helped NATO and the CIA train the leaders of the soft coups of the last 15 years.” In Meyssan’s view, the Serbian students who respected Sharp were Washington shills used to overthrow a leader, Milošević, “who was very popular for resisting NATO.” That Meyssan is also author of a book entitled 9/11: The Big Lie unfortunately did not stop the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez from swallowing the Frenchman’s accusations whole. In 2007 Chávez publicly denounced Sharp as being part of a U.S. plot to oust his government.

Like most conspiracy theories, Meyssan’s case against Sharp depends on using guilt by association to establish a shadowy network of intrigue. It doesn’t help that rabid neoconservatives such as Max Boot support Sharp’s Nobel candidacy, that right-wing students in Venezuela have sought out nonviolence trainings, or that organizations with close ties to the U.S. foreign policy establishment, such as Freedom House, have taken recent interest in the long-neglected role of nonviolent resistance in international affairs. But the fact that Sharp’s influence has transcended ideological lines hardly invalidates his advocacy of nonviolent movements.

Defenders such as Stephen Zunes have issued point-by-point rebuttals of charges by the likes of Meyssan. Along with prominent academics such as Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, as well as antiwar leaders associated with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Code Pink, and the War Resisters League, Zunes signed a letter of support for the Albert Einstein Institution, stating, “Rather than being a tool of imperialism, Dr. Sharp’s research and writings have inspired generations of progressive peace, labor, feminist, human rights, environmental, and social justice activists in the United States and around the world.”

While there is genuine reason to be concerned about U.S. activity undertaken in the name of “democracy promotion,” Sharp is a red herring. Not insignificantly, his ideas have frequently been used against U.S.-supported dictatorships (in places such as Egypt and the Philippines), and Palestinian activists referenced them during the first intifada in the 1980s. In response to Chávez’s complaints, Sharp wrote the Venezuelan president a letter recommending his volume The Anti-Coup, which explains how nonviolent action—just as it can be unleashed against an unjust regime—can also be used to repel an armed putsch that does not have the backing of the majority.

Sharp’s theory is, at base, democratic, because without mass support nonviolent campaigns cannot ultimately succeed. To imagine that imperialist conniving is at the heart of Sharp’s project is to avoid the task of actually reading his books.

Progressives who do read Sharp’s books may wonder whether his ideas have implications for those who do not live under dictatorships—if, for example, they can be applied to confronting climate change, runaway economic inequality, and the corporate hijacking of democracy. The 2011 release of How to Start a Revolution, the documentary about Sharp, coincided almost exactly with the establishment of the encampment in Zuccotti Park, and the film’s Wikipedia entry cites claims that it served as “the unofficial film of the Occupy movement.” This notion is a stretch at best. Sharp was not widely known among Occupy activists, nor were his strategic insights widely applied.

Could his ideas have been a threat to Wall Street? Labor disputes and economic boycotts play a prominent role in Sharp’s histories of unarmed conflict. Moreover, he consistently includes economic injustice in his lists of grievances that nonviolent activists might choose to address. That said, his focus is clearly on challenging the power of authoritarian regimes.

Several factors contribute to this emphasis. When Sharp began his career, popular opinion held that nonviolence could only work in democratic societies—within states that, at least in principle, respect basic civil liberties. Gandhi could succeed against the British Empire, the argument goes, but he would have been wiped out by a fascist foe, just as the civil rights movement relied on the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to constrain southern racists. Sharp took it upon himself to refute such notions, and that commitment has shaped his career.

Today, the list of undemocratic governments ousted by “people power” uprisings is so expansive that conventional wisdom about nonviolent conflict may well have reversed: one might argue that nonviolent action can be effective in challenging tyrannies but holds little value in places where dissent can be channeled through lobbying and electoral politics. The onus now is for activists to show how the same types of tactics used to oust Mubarak and Miloševi´c might also cause discomfort for the West’s wealthiest 1 percent.

A second factor influencing Sharp’s focus relates back to his theory of power. In a 1989 essay, Brian Martin of the University of Wollongong noted that when The Politics of Nonviolent Action discusses structures of power “it is usually using historical examples such as feudalism or Fascism,” rather than modern capitalism. While contemporary “authoritarian regimes…most closely approximate the ruler-subject picture” presented by Sharp, Martin argues, “the complexity of power structures [in liberal democracies] limits the relevance of his theory.” Such limits are not insurmountable. The insight that withdrawal of cooperation can force change remains valid in the economic sphere—it is, after all, the core principle behind the boycott. But for campaigns of nonviolent action to take on structures of corporate influence that are sometimes violent but more often seductive, Sharp’s analysis of the subject-ruler dynamic needs to be integrated with more subtle analyses of how public opinion forms and shifts in contemporary consumer society.

As he undertook his most important writing, Sharp saw himself at the beginning of a new stage in the development of nonviolent action. He has made a major contribution by pioneering a field of study devoted to understanding strategic nonviolence free from the biases and constraints of traditional pacifism. That field now extends well beyond the work of one person and consistently provides insights into protest movements that diverge from conventional labor organizing, Alinskyite schools of thought, and mainstream political campaigning. When moments of widespread defiance arise—outbreaks such as the global justice movement after Seattle, the vast immigrant rights protests of 2006, or the Occupy encampments—these other organizing traditions are largely mystified, while the study of strategic nonviolence has much to say about how mass action can escalate, garner public sympathy, and ultimately win concrete gains.

Contrary to the claims of his detractors, Sharp is not a puppet master of global revolt; rather, he is an inspiration to many who have dared confront some of the world’s most brutal dictatorships. The difference speaks to the deeply democratic core of Sharp’s ideas. That there is now a need for a next stage of nonviolent conflict—one that may bring his theories back home to a country whose democratic institutions are threatened by oligarchic influence—is merely further testament.

Mark Engler is an editorial board member at Dissent, a contributing editor at Yes! Magazine, and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books). With Paul Engler, he is writing a book about the evolution of political nonviolence. He can be reached via the website