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Where Gene Sharp departed from Gandhi — and where it leaves us

Illustration for a critical blog post about Gene Sharp. (Socialistplatform)

There is something of a genre of critique, one sometimes lobbed at Waging Nonviolence, which considers the discourse of nonviolence to be wholly subservient to the U.S. foreign policy interests, and/or the CIA specifically. It’s a line of attack that has generally baffled us, since anything worthy of the name “nonviolence” would certainly run counter to the doings of the largest and most pervasive military machine in the history of the world. Occasionally there seems to be some truth in these critiques, but it’s hard to know where that begins and the conspiracy-theory nonsense ends.

Now I think I know where to begin to draw the line. The reason is a new paper published in the journal Societies Without Borders in September by Sean Chabot and Majid Sharifi. It’s called “The Violence of Nonviolence: Problematizing Nonviolent Resistance in Iran and Egypt.”

Chabot and Sharifi do a helpful job of identifying just where the disconnect lies. The eminent theorist (and Waging Nonviolence contributor) Gene Sharp is often credited with at most directly influencing or at least describing the logic of recent nonviolent insurgencies, from the “color” revolutions of Eastern Europe to the Arab Spring; the authors focus on the cases of Iran’s Green movement and Egypt’s Tahrir Square uprising. The heart of the paper’s analysis, however, is in texts.

Gene Sharp has tended to present himself as codifying and systematizing the legacy of Gandhi. (Two of Sharp’s early books mention Gandhi in the title and a third was published by the Gandhi Peace Foundation.) But Chabot and Sharifi focus on identifying exactly how, especially later in his career, Sharp departed from his guru, and why that departure matters.

Sharp puts an overwhelming emphasis on nonviolent action as a method of carrying out conflict with an unjust regime. Although Gandhi developed his strategies in the midst of just such a conflict, his overwhelming emphasis was of a more prefigurative bent — putting the practice of better forms of social and economic relationships at the center of the culture of his movement. He believed that simply replacing the British Empire with an Indian empire would hardly be a victory at all. Chabot and Sharifi write:

While Gandhi highlighted the constructive program [that is, the practice of better forms of social and economic relationships] and downplayed the role of civil disobedience campaigns, Sharp focuses on dramatic mobilization and mass direct action against undemocratic states without aiming to contribute to personal, relational, social, or global transformation. And since Sharp’s work takes existing ways of life and systems of domination as given, it is easily adaptable to the contemporary imperial mentality and neoliberal world-system.

On several occasions I’ve heard Sharp asked why his model says so little about economic systems, and what resisters should do to confront them. He has usually replied with something along the lines of, “That’s for your generation to figure out” — as if it’s utterly foreign territory that brave young minds must explore in generations to come. This may be partly true, but Chabot and Sharifi make clear that a starting point has been before him, in Gandhi, all along.

The paper is less convincing in the authors’ empirical effort to map the difference between Gandhi and Sharp onto how movements in Iran and Egypt have played out; those movements and their influences are so complex as to resist an easy typology. Besides, explicitly Gandhian movements (Gandhian at least among some prominent segments) like the struggles for Indian independence and U.S. civil rights have also proven vulnerable to neoliberalism. Touting Gandhianism is no guarantee of Gandhian results.

Neither Gandhi, nor Sharp, nor any theorist of nonviolent struggle should be accepted as gospel. But their flaws don’t warrant dismissing their contributions altogether, either. Perhaps the most important thing about this paper is its spirit of discretion, of demonstrating a way of approaching the tradition of nonviolence critically without resorting to demonizing or conspiracy theories. For a tradition that has tended to worship its gurus more than listening to them carefully and thoughtfully, this could be harder than it sounds.