The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and Gene Sharp’s misunderstood legacy

With the 40-year anniversary of Poland’s Solidarity movement, we should remember the complex history of nonviolent resistance in Eastern Europe.
Resisters outside Moscow’s White House in August 1991, confronting the military coup. (Wikimedia/David Broad)

This story has been adapted from an article published in the Journal of Resistance Studies. To read the full text and other peer-reviewed articles on resistance, subscribe here.

Over the past year, a two-part article by researcher Marcie Smith has leveled the serious accusation that Gene Sharp supported and advocated for neoliberalism through his work. A reply by George Lakey was published on this site, receiving a further counter by Marcie Smith. My own impetus to enter this debate was my PhD research, which in part assessed Sharp’s relationship to the so-called “Arab Spring” events. Instead, I refer to these as the West Asia North Africa, or WANA, revolutions below, as a more inclusive definition of events. Moreover, Smith offers a broader criticism of the concept of nonviolent revolution, which reduces and narrows the concept as being formulated solely around Gene Sharp.

Resistance to communism in Eastern Europe and neoliberalism’s emergence

Marcie Smith situates Gene Sharp’s ideas as fundamental to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the emergence of neoliberalism. As with early Western media explanations of the WANA revolutions that overplayed Sharp’s influence on the nonviolent resistance practices in the region, any impact of Sharp’s work in Eastern Europe must be seen in the context of far longer-running resistance, and legacies of unarmed resistance.

A barricade in Jēkaba street, Riga, to prevent the Soviet Red Army from reaching the Latvian Parliament, in July 1991. (Wikimedia/Apdency)

The Baltic states have a history of both armed and unarmed resistance to Soviet occupation, and Smith’s argument for Sharp’s influence revolves around the adoption of his civilian-based defense, or CBD, ideas by the Baltic states as they pushed for independence. CBD emerged out of assessments of historical grassroots and “spontaneous” cases of civil resistance. CBD was perceived as a way of systematically organizing for civil resistance. Sharp hoped it would be adopted by Western governments as an alternative defense policy and form of de-escalation of tensions during the Cold War — for him and other theorists, it was clearly rooted in the early socialist doctrine’s stance on anti-militarism.

To consider organized ideas of CBD as shaping the resistance to communism is to play fast and loose with history. While some of Sharp’s CBD ideas were evidently incorporated into the Baltic states’ defense planning in 1991, this was in urgent circumstances where three states, having already made significant moves towards re-establishing independence, confronted Soviet troop occupations, a genuine prospect of large-scale Soviet invasion, coups d’état and slim — if any — chance of military resistance. Notably, accounts from the time also show that Lithuanians were preparing, somewhat forlornly, for armed resistance.

Barricades in Seimas Palace, Vilnius, in 1991. (Wikimedia/

It was only at the end of 1990, following Lithuania’s declaration of independence, that the government translated Sharp’s “Civilian-Based Defense” — within a context of interest in broader nonviolent literature — with Eastern European language versions being produced in 1992. If Sharp’s CBD was a system of civil resistance apparently backed and funded by the U.S. defense establishment to overthrow communism, the lateness of such translation initiatives seems a severe oversight. Such retrospectivity suggests no concerted policy existed around Sharp’s CBD in the late 1980s.

Meanwhile, Sharp openly acknowledged that his conceptualization of nonviolent resistance and still-nascent organized forms of CBD were actually being informed by Eastern European resistance generally at this time, rather than the other way round. As Sharp and Jenkins acknowledge: “This type of defense has its roots in several improvised defense struggles in Europe, as well as in much of the resistance and liberation struggles waged in Communist-ruled nations during the decades of totalitarian domination. However, in civilian-based defense this resistance is utilized in refined and strengthened forms.” Nevertheless, any effort at a formal CBD policy in the Baltics seems like a flash in the pan by 1992, with a turn away from non-military defense already being apparent.

Poland, as a further case of resistance to communism, helps challenge Marcie Smith’s suggestion that nonviolent revolution neglects working-class struggle.

Not just in the Baltic states but Russia itself saw resistance to the Soviet Union, and its eventual collapse took on far more complex and longer-running dimensions. In this context, Sharp’s meeting with Russia’s first President Boris Yeltsin’s team at the end of 1991, as emphasized by Marcie Smith as somehow marking Sharp’s closeness to those actors who brought an end to the Soviet Union, seems a bare footnote. 

Concerning the limited summary I provide here, it should be noted that the broad institutions which Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution were working under from 1989-1991 were linked to neoliberalism’s emergence in Eastern Europe. Harvard University and the Harvard Institute for International Development were significant in shaping Russia’s economic “shock therapy.”

However, the U.S. government, World Bank, Harvard Institute for International Development, right-wing think tanks and Russian economists already had well-established connections, including those in Yeltsin’s team. At least from the mid-1980s, negotiations were ongoing between Gorbachev and Yeltsin around economic liberalization and marketization, far prior to Sharp’s visits.

Ultimately, the issue with Sharp’s supposed central position in this is not that he could not have supported neoliberalism, but rather that he, the Albert Einstein Institution and nonviolent action are entirely superfluous to the economic system that emerged.  Following the attempted coup by USSR government members on August 20, 1991, Sharp’s subsequent trip — including his meeting with Yeltsin — seems more likely to have been another vain attempt at promoting CBD.

Solidarity’s 21 demands, presented at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk , in August 1980. (WNV/Craig Brown)

Poland, as a further case of resistance to communism, helps challenge Marcie Smith’s suggestion that nonviolent revolution neglects working-class struggle. Indeed, it counters the prominence of Sharp’s role in change in Eastern Europe. 

Poland’s Solidarity movement is an obvious case of the grassroots emergence of workers’ nonviolent resistance to communism. When it emerged in 1980, Polish workers’ councils and peasants’ rural self-defense committees which had been developing before Solidarity, informed its 1981 program emphasizing workers’ self-management.

As a bottom-up or grassroots building of an alternative to state socialism, such actions reflect the concept of “constructive resistance,” which is receiving greater focus in resistance studies as a crucial part of nonviolent revolution. This concerns the processes through which individuals and groups can “start to build the society they desire independently of structures of power.” However, as the 1980s progressed, the emerging leaders from the Solidarity movement increasingly championed the need for neoliberal economic reforms. 

Monument to the 42 fallen shipyard workers, killed during Poland’s protests and strikes in 1970. (WNV/Craig Brown)

Rather than a failing of nonviolent resistance, the notion of “elite pacting” is relevant, where opponents within the same political ruling class have shared interests which tend to dominate. For Poland this culminated in the 1989 round table talks, with the Communist Party and Solidarity’s leaders agreeing to the transition to liberal democracy. David Ost characterized this as the coalescence of class interest, with Solidarity coming to serve “as the vehicle for the technical intelligentsia in its drive to become the new dominant class,” with the labor movement “totally separate from those emerging new elites.” This led to the abandonment of what was a largely nonviolent working-class struggle.

Decentralization against neoliberalism

Despite the above, the early Solidarity organization recalls Hannah Arendt’s characterization of decentralized political and economic organization as being the “authentic extension” of revolutionary processes. While Sharp never provided any in-depth economic analysis, in “Social Power and Political Freedom” he presents a chapter where his admiration for Arendt’s analysis in “On Revolution” is evident. Meanwhile, Appendix F of Sharp’s text shows his position is far removed from neoliberalism. In his understanding, decentralization is neither libertarian nor neoliberal. The steps Sharp envisages as “both ends and means” advocates:

Expansion of both consumers’ and workers’ ownership and control; establishment of new firms to provide alternatives to existing ones whose size and practices are viewed as undesirable; maintenance of the independence of small privately-owned firms from takeovers by massive corporations; changing specific practices and products of existing firms when they are deemed to be of poor quality or otherwise harmful; and promotion of economic decentralization to enhance the population’s economic well-being, independence, and ability to withstand crises. To the degree that a society transarms from military means of defense to civilian-based defense, the freeing from military use of resources, production capacity, labor, and expertise for civilian needs could have highly beneficial economic results.

It is notable that the only economic work Sharp directly refers to in his appendix is E.F. Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.” While Smith aligns Sharp’s 1980 work with Ronald Reagan’s economics, Sharp’s drawing on Schumacher’s text at this point in U.S. history would align him more with President Carter’s condemnation of materialism and incessant growth. More radically, Roszak aligned Schumacher’s work with that of Peter Kropotkin, Tolstoy, Gandhi and Murray Bookchin, among others, from the anarchist tradition. Unfortunately, Sharp never really elaborated on the links between nonviolent action and decentralized political and economic systems.

Despite Smith’s criticism of Sharp and nonviolent revolution as enabling the dismantling of state protections, neglect of working-class struggle and installation of neoliberal regimes, the anarchist roots of nonviolent revolution and Sharp’s own ideas remain. My own research has cast serious doubt on Sharp’s influence over the 2010/11 WANA revolutions, although the emergence of coordinated grassroots council organizations in various countries, at least during the early stages, give further weight to Arendt’s observations on such organizations, and the potential for constructive resistance as part of nonviolent revolutionary campaigns.

This story was produced by Resistance Studies

Resistance Studies is a collaborative effort between academics and activists, or “professors of the street,” that promotes the analysis of and support for nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience around the world. This includes the Resistance Studies Initiative at UMass Amherst, scholars in the Resistance Studies Network and the interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed Journal of Resistance Studies. This initiative is managed and edited by Stellan Vinthagen, Craig Brown, Ben Case and Priyanka Borpujari.

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