Gene Sharp at the 2005 Celebrating Nonviolent Resistance conference in Palestine, where he gave a key note address. (Damon Lynch)
  • Analysis

Will the real Gene Sharp please step forward?

Recent criticisms calling the founder of nonviolent theory a Cold Warrior are way off the mark. To rightly evaluate him, we need to understand the role he chose for himself.
Gene Sharp at the 2005 Celebrating Nonviolent Resistance conference in Palestine, where he gave a key note address. (Damon Lynch)

In a recent interview with Jacobin, lawyer and political activist Marcie Smith expands on an essay she wrote earlier this year calling Gene Sharp — the late founder of nonviolent theory — “one of the most important Cold War defense intellectuals the U.S. has produced.” Unfortunately, the interview, much like her essay, miss him by a mile.

To be fair, I’ll admit that Gene — a mentor and friend from when we were both young adults — was not an easy guy to figure out. Both his role and his project puzzled many. Peace studies academics expected him to join them, but couldn’t understand his obsession with conflict and the fact that he hardly mentioned peace. Pacifists knew he’d been in prison for refusing military conscription, but were puzzled by his reluctance to identify with them. And while he was a trained sociologist who researched social movements, that wasn’t the right niche for him either.

Previous Coverage
  • Gene Sharp — the lonely scholar who became a nonviolent warrior
  • Nevertheless, Sharp made a global impact on political movements — something Marcie Smith knows and understands. But she didn’t know him personally, and she makes a guess about the role he chose. There’s no suggestion that she interviewed his colleagues, who are easily available — and that got me wondering why Jacobin would turn to her as an authority on him.

    Smith assigns him the role of a public intellectual, then criticizes him for not doing what he “should” have done: jumped into the arena of left politics and acted like a movement thought leader. With a tone of accusation she demands, “What is your affirmative program? What are your ideas about how the economy should be organized and are they historically informed?”

    Was Sharp a ‘Cold War intellectual?’

    Smith calls Sharp a Cold Warrior, lining him up with Harvard’s Thomas Schelling, who consulted with the Department of Defense. Her evidence is that nonviolent struggle was used to hasten the unraveling of the Soviet empire. While that is true, nonviolent struggle has also been used to overthrow regimes that were part of the U.S. empire — most notably the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. Additionally, Sharp’s advances in nonviolent theory have been used by Palestinians in their revolt against the occupation of U.S. ally Israel.

    Because Smith doesn’t understand the role Sharp actually played, she gets confused about the nature of his project, which was to amplify the power of nonviolent struggle for whoever chooses to try it instead of using violence. Some groups did choose civil resistance instead of armed struggle to elude the grasp of Russia. Others chose it to abolish apartheid in U.S.-allied South Africa. It is available for all.

    Believing it is actually leaders of movements who need to devise a specific strategy, Sharp tried to be helpful by explaining how the technique of nonviolent struggle works, when it does.

    As someone who detested violence, Sharp believed that political actors should know about an alternative way to fight their battles that didn’t bring the terrible suffering of war.

    A real Cold Warrior would give his weaponry to one side and deny it to the other. He would keep it secret and, in that way, make it all the more powerful. Sharp, of course, prodigiously published his work, translated it into many languages and media, and encouraged everyone else to do the same.

    My own fight with Sharp over the question of strategy

    Referring to Sharp’s conceptualization of nonviolent struggle, Smith demands, “Has this strategy been developed with any awareness of the reality of class struggle?”

    For one thing, Sharp did not offer a “strategy.” Believing it is actually leaders of movements who need to devise a specific strategy, he tried to be helpful by explaining how the technique of nonviolent struggle works, when it does. It was on the leaders to create strategy for their people and circumstance.

    If Smith actually understood his role she would see why Sharp didn’t write about the topic of class struggle even though he researched labor and peasant struggles relentlessly and his three-volume masterwork is chock full of them. His purpose was simply other than Smith’s — he wanted to learn about working people’s choice to differ sometimes from the conventional wisdom that to become powerful it is necessary to be violent. Those working people who chose nonviolent struggle were (and are) innovators, something that was of abiding interest to Sharp.

    Previous Coverage
  • How ‘Strategy for a Living Revolution’ came to life
  • In the early ‘70s, we had quite a passionate argument when I published a book with the title “Strategy for a Living Revolution.” [Now available under the title “Toward a Living Revolution.”] It was sponsored by an academic think tank and introduced important new concepts like “the dilemma action.” It was also full of evidence-based knowledge that supported a revolution in our country.

    Because Sharp had mentored me for so long, I was upset that he wasn’t pleased. Finally, though, he got through to me a subtle but important distinction that had to do with my being known in academia as a nonviolent researcher. He worried that the then-fledgling field of nonviolent theory wouldn’t get the space it needed to develop if it got distracted by books that wrapped nonviolent studies into the author’s radical politics.

    Sharp deliberately chose not to become a political leader. It makes no sense to criticize his not acting like one.

    Sharp wanted to develop theory focused on a technique of struggle, free of my book’s questions of “Which side are you on?” If he could prevent his theoretical work from getting “captured” by any one political stance, he reasoned, theory would develop more fully and become more useful to diverse movements with a variety of goals.

    While I doubted that my book was dangerous in that way — since it wasn’t polemical, and I believed our new field was not that fragile — I came to understand Sharp a little better. He saw himself as a scientist building theory that would lend itself to applications that others could figure out how to use in their contexts. He wanted me to continue theory-building with him.

    Of course Sharp had opinions of his own regarding political issues. Some of these showed up in his writing. For starters, he loved democracy, self-determination and power from below — so he judged negatively the Soviet model and its variations, along with the variety of imperialisms. Nevertheless, Sharp deliberately chose not to become a political leader. It makes no sense to criticize his not acting like one.

    Who, then, was he?

    The best metaphor I can think of is to imagine a botanist who, as a young man, discovers that the jungles of the world are a fantastic resource for human health and survival. Even though jungles may be out of sight and out of mind for city-dwellers, he becomes fascinated with how much he’s finding that was previously not known.

    Almost none of his peer botanists “get it” — they are busy with research in known varieties of plants and possibilities of hybrids. But our lonely botanist plugs away, exploring distant jungles and making finds that dramatically extend what has been known. He sees he needs to make a taxonomy of his own, then finds it steadily growing.

    Sharp gave himself the (probably hopeless) task of asking people to identify conflict behaviors like botanists identify plants, asking about their characteristics and function rather than their worthiness.

    Bit by bit his published work gets known and medicines are made from the “new” plants. Major money gets made, but he doesn’t see it, busy exploring a yet more distant part of the jungle. He is learning about jungle ecology and daring to guess its larger contribution.

    Finally, our botanist’s lifetime achievement coincides with a new urban consciousness of need. The planet is about to choke itself to death from carbon overload. The botanist celebrates the awakening realization even in the cities that jungles are the lungs of the world.

    Civilization will never look at jungles the same way again. The botanist’s hunch has led to a paradigm change.

    Is ‘nonviolent’ Sharp’s god-term?

    In casting Sharp as a political thought leader, Smith makes a common error: imagining him offering us moral guidance, as political leaders do, defining “nonviolent action” as an ethical term rather than simply behavioral.

    Sharp gave himself the (probably hopeless) task of asking people to identify conflict behaviors like botanists identify plants, asking about their characteristics and function rather than their worthiness. His taxonomy invites us to put aside our rush to moral judgment for a moment in order to agree that when we see a group of people moving back and forth repeatedly in front of a store, we’re seeing “picketing” and that it’s a method of “nonviolent action.”

    White people have picketed to support racial segregation; in our field we still call their method “nonviolent action,” even though morally deplorable. Making definitions that make such observations possible is what sociologists do.

    It is possible to make such observations with reasonable accuracy — something we found at Swarthmore College, where Sharp’s taxonomy is used for the Global Nonviolent Action Database. Because of the database’s operational need for a description, we used a variation of Sharp’s definition of “violence,” again emphasizing observable phenomena.

    While knowing there are linguistic difficulties lingering under the surface, we found it easy to get agreement on observations among student researchers, and since definition is about communication, agreement among observers is the bottom line.

    For Marcie Smith, on the other hand, definitions based on observable behaviors is not the bottom line — morally-based political judgments are. (She projects Sharp, after all, as a political leader.) The taxonomy is not a useful sociological device for her. Instead, she sees it as a dramatic reveal of just how subtly Sharp plays his role as a neoliberal Cold Warrior.

    In just a few words, what can I say? For many of us leftist anti-imperialist revolutionaries, Sharp’s taxonomy works just fine, and we understand it is there for good reasons of scholarship.

    Is Sharp’s theory anti-state?

    “In Sharp’s schema, the state is not something to contest for, the state is not something to try to take over. It is something to dissolve and destroy.” This assertion of Smith’s actually contradicts her view of Sharp as Cold Warrior — since Cold Warriors very much wanted to support the security of their state.

    That being said, I happen to agree with Smith’s concern about overthrowing dictatorships with no preparation for the aftermath. In fact, that concern was a major motivation for my 1973 book on revolution. In those pages, I pointed out that precise deficiency, citing some of the spontaneous nonviolent insurrections that had occurred years earlier. I also offered a model of stages through which a grassroots revolutionary movement could prepare, so it could enter the power vacuum it generated already having a new political and economic order “good to go.”

    Smith’s “anti-state” assertion actually flies in the face of a significant part of Sharp’s work. At Sharp’s invitation I participated in the 1964 Civilian Defense International Study Conference at Oxford University. I was surrounded by people on very friendly terms with their national governments, including the famous Captain B.H. Liddell-Hart, who made his living consulting with ministries of defense.

    Yes, Sharp influenced politics in the world. We cannot rightly evaluate him, though, until we understand him, his choice of role and his life project.

    There were also activist-academics like me present. What drew us together was the idea of applying nonviolent struggle to the problem of national defense. We commonly assumed that, in case of an aggression by another nation, it would be the state that led the people in a nonviolent defense, as had happened after World War I when French and Belgian troops invaded Germany and the German state led the nonviolent resistance.

    Sharp continued to develop civilian-based defense, or CBD, for years — even consulting with Baltic and other governments that were investigating that policy for their own defense. Neutral Sweden and Austria did incorporate some elements of CBD into their planning. Later in his career he published a book called “The Anti-Coup,” which was meant to help states use nonviolent means to defend themselves. All of this contradicts Smith’s assertion that Sharp was keen to undermine all state authority.

    Where does her charge come from? A close reading suggests a fear that people power might prevail over the military power of a state she supports. If governments she supports do get overthrown nonviolently, she’s clearly ready to lay that at Sharp’s door, even though people have been nonviolently resisting governments long before anyone ever heard of him.

    It’s certainly her privilege to have opinions about, say, Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, Venezuela’s Maduro and others who over the years are subjects of debate among us on the left. Some, for example, may deplore much about a government and still consider it the lesser-of-two-evils, the greater evil being domination by an imperialist power.

    Marcie Smith wants to force Sharp to weigh in on such questions, teasing out inferences from his writings, but he was interested in quite a different question: “If the people decide to overthrow their government, would you want them to consider using nonviolent direct action to do it?” Sharp said two things about that question for as long as I knew him: While it wasn’t his job to tell people whether they should change their government, it was his job to develop a sound theory — so that they could create a nonviolent strategy, if that was their desire.

    Yes, Sharp influenced politics in the world. We cannot rightly evaluate him, though, until we understand him, his choice of role and his life project.

    His choices were both modest and bold. He was modest about telling people what to do — that’s why Smith’s picture of him is so off the mark. His boldness was in daring to find and assemble nonviolent tools that empowered others, whatever their decision, to act.



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