From the August-September 2018 issue of The Catholic Worker
One week after his 90th birthday in January, the peace community — along with champions of social justice and self-determination around the world — lost a truly foundational figure. Gene Sharp was among history’s most prolific and tireless advocates of nonviolent action, whose increasingly global influence belied a humble, near-monastic way of life, religiously devoted to his work, his dogs, and his orchids.
Owing in large part to the underground circulation in dozens of languages of his writings worldwide, Dr. Sharp gained more renown in recent decades than he had been used to. The press he began receiving in the years following the Eastern European color revolutions, and especially in response to the nonviolent movements that helped constitute the Arab Spring, concerned mainly a condensed, conceptual blueprint he had drawn up for Burmese activists in 1993 called From Dictatorship to Democracy. Outlining in stark terms the wisdom of strategically planned nonviolent resistance to an authoritarian regime, the lessons contained therein traveled easy, and would later prove critical to the success of groups such as Otpor! in Serbia, and the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt. With the downfall of dictators from Milošević to Mubarak in mind, Sharp’s ideas have filled dissidents with hope and tyrants with fear. In 2016, a public reading of Sharp’s work in Luanda was enough for the Angolan government to sentence a group of demonstrators to prison terms of up to 8½ years. The offending main idea was put succinctly by Dr. Sharp in a 2012 article on CNN.com, “Dictatorships are never as strong as they think they are, and people are never as weak as they think they are.”
Not all of Sharp’s fame, however, arrived late in life. He had in fact become well known to an earlier generation of activists for the three tomes that made up The Politics of Nonviolent Action (Porter Sargent, 1973), a 900-page chef-d'œuvre that had grown out of his doctoral work at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford. Opening with an expert analysis of power, obedience, and consent steeped in political theory from La Boétie to Montesquieu to Maritain, and from Godwin to Tolstoy to Gandhi, Part Two famously included his typology of 198 methods of protest, persuasion, noncooperation, and nonviolent intervention. A veritable activist’s toolkit, the ever-growing list was expanded upon recently in Sharp’s Dictionary of Power and Struggle (Oxford University Press, 2012).
Before arriving at St. Joseph House in 2009, I spent nearly a year working for Dr. Sharp and his colleague Jamila Raqib in the same East Boston row house where he had lived for decades, and on January 28th of this year, died peacefully. Supremely self-effacing and always quick with a joke, Gene also had the ability to be unequivocally direct, dissuading me once in 2010 from undertaking any sort of biographical portrait of him, lest it detract in any way from his work. He wrote via email, “My studies and my writings are what is important, not myself, much less the intricacies of how I have lived my life.” It is therefore in the most reverent spirit of disobedience that I include but the briefest, most basic such profile, where what Dr. Sharp might consider “irrelevant details” respectfully thread together the various strands of his work.
Gene Elmer Sharp was born in North Baltimore, Ohio, to Paul Walter Sharp (a traveling Protestant minister) and Eva Margaret Sharp (an elementary-school teacher, née Allgire), on January 21, 1928. Attending high school in nearby Columbus, Sharp went on to earn his BA and MA at The Ohio State University (1949, 1951), capping his time there with a 500-page master’s thesis titled Non-Violence: A Sociological Study. Before long the Korean War had forced him to refuse conscription into the US Army, a decision which earned him 9 months in a Danbury, Connecticut prison. It was during this time that he began a correspondence with Albert Einstein, who lauded Sharp’s act of defiance and in 1953 agreed to write a foreword to Sharp’s first book, Gandhi Wields the Weapon of Moral Power (Navajivan Press, 1960). Bonding over a shared affinity for the Indian revolutionary leader whose views Einstein had once described as “the most enlightened of all the political men in our time,” the unlikely friendship between the seventy-four-year-old physicist and the twenty-five-year-old war resister left an indelible mark on Sharp, and served as inspiration throughout his life.
Once out of prison, Sharp worked for a time in New York City as secretary to AJ Muste — one of the most well-known pacifists of the era and himself a Protestant minister (whose March 24, 1967 obituary in Commonweal was penned by another of the era’s most well-known pacifists, Dorothy Day). In 1955 Sharp accepted an assistant editor position for the weekly pacifist publication Peace News in London. Finding himself two years later in Oslo, he worked next with Arne Næss at the Institute for Social Research, and began learning about the remarkable campaign led by Norwegian teachers resisting the pro-Nazi Quisling regime during World War II.
It was around this time that he made a profound realization and underwent a subtle, yet consequential shift in philosophy. Understanding that in virtually every successful, broad-based nonviolent movement a majority of participants will not have adopted nonviolence as a belief system, Sharp came to know that his life’s work would involve somehow isolating the pragmatic from the principled. This break with traditional Gandhian thought was matched in equal measure by a recommitment to studying Gandhi’s methods, no longer focusing, as he told the Boston Globe in 2005, “on any mahatma nonsense, but on pragmatic nonviolent struggle.” And so, while maintaining throughout his life a series of ideals entirely consistent with pacifism, Sharp made what some might call a strategic choice and decisively ceased to self-identify as a pacifist.
Sharp returned to England in 1960 to pursue his doctorate in political theory at Oxford, and once back in the US, finally settled in Boston during the mid-1960s. For the next three decades, he maintained academic affiliations at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs, as well as at Southeastern Massachusetts University (currently the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth), where he held a professorship in Political Science and Sociology. Following the publication of his magnum opus in 1973, his research for the remainder of the decade culminated in twin collections of writings — Gandhi as a Political Strategist (Porter Sargent, 1979) and Social Power and Political Freedom (Porter Sargent, 1980) — featuring review essays of books by Erik Erikson, Joan Bondurant, and Hannah Arendt, as well as Sharp’s ideas on topics as wide-ranging as civil disobedience, the abolition of war, and the importance within a democracy of a decentralized, robust civil society.
The 1980s saw Dr. Sharp pivot more definitively in the direction of what he and other researchers had years earlier begun calling transarmament, charting a realistic path towards how society can end its reliance upon militarism through a transition to nonviolent national defense. Using first the backdrop of the Cold War in Western Europe, in Making Europe Unconquerable (Harper & Row, 1985) Sharp made the case for nonviolent deterrence against the Soviet nuclear threat, and nonviolent resistance in case of invasion. Towards the end of the decade, this was followed by a more generalized treatise on national security through transarmament titled Civilian-Based Defense (Princeton University Press, 1990). Never one to remain content preaching only to the choir, Sharp actively sought out a diverse audience for his ideas, cognizant that his most influential conversions may be among policymakers or members of the military. This strategy helped lead Lithuania, and to some extent its northern neighbors Latvia and Estonia, to adopt in the early 1990s an official policy of civil resistance in response to potential Russian aggression — a complete anomaly on the world stage.
Yet it would be pro-democracy activists who most readily took Dr. Sharp’s lessons to heart, helping his work gain the recognition it deserved through heroic efforts to resist oppression around the globe. For example, in her Letters From Burma (Penguin Books, 1997), Aung San Suu Kyi writes of “an expression much bandied about these days which, in its Burmanized form, sounds very much like ‘jeans shirt’.” She goes on to explain, “the expression actually refers to Gene Sharp, the author of some works on political defiance,” before mentioning that the ruling Burmese junta had been convicting people of high treason for mere possession of his books.
By the mid-to-late 1990s, these writings had then begun to spread far and wide, thanks in part to the efforts of the Albert Einstein Institution (AEI), a Boston-based nonprofit founded by Sharp in 1983 as a vehicle for the advancement and study of strategic nonviolent struggle. Named for the man whose correspondence meant so much to a young draft resister three decades prior, the AEI commissioned research, conducted trainings and workshops, and managed the translation and dissemination of materials authored by Sharp and a first-rate team of researchers. Forced to scale back operations in 2004, the AEI in recent years has dedicated itself to the distribution of small-scale monographs (and within those, many of Sharp’s later works), the majority of which, including translations, are available for free at aeinstein.org. Under Sharp’s tutelage, the organization’s executive director Jamila Raqib has become in every way the senior scholar’s worthy successor, well poised to bring these ideas in front of younger generations and reintroduce, as Peter Maurin would say, “a philosophy so old that it looks like new.” Assuming the mantle of leadership gradually, Raqib has proven herself a captivating speaker whose 2015 TED talk, “The secret to effective nonviolent resistance,” has been viewed so far over a million times.
As it happens, the AEI was not the first organization to dedicate part of its operating budget to the promotion of Sharp’s work. For over 100 years Boston has been home to Porter Sargent Publishers, founded by prominent social critic Porter E. Sargent when no other publishing house dared publish his own rather controversial points of view. In 1951 the eponymous outfit was passed down to his son, F. Porter Sargent, who four years later launched a small left-leaning imprint called Extending Horizons Books with a reprint of Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid. Perhaps seeing reflections of his father’s tenacity, in the early 1970s the younger Sargent agreed to publish Sharp’s three-volume masterpiece after other publishing houses had turned it down. Having since put out more works by Sharp than any other author, including most recently 2005’s Waging Nonviolent Struggle, the imprint these days is helmed by Nelia Sargent, a third-generation pacifist, war tax resister, and the current chair of the AEI’s board of directors.
I myself got to know the Albert Einstein Institution in 2007, during a rather interesting time in the organization’s history. Pared down at that point to only Sharp and Raqib, through a bequest Nelia and the rest of the board were pleased to welcome me on as a (part-time) administrative assistant. This cash-strapped reality, however, was difficult to reconcile with the accusations that had begun rolling in, painting Sharp and the AEI as covert US government agents, secretly funded by the CIA. First it was Hugo Chávez who denounced Gene publicly in a July 2007 televised speech. Whip-smart and with a hint of rhetorical jiu-jitsu, less than ten days later Gene had fired off a missive to the Venezuelan leader suggesting that if Chávez was truly concerned with anti-democratic forces conspiring against him, Gene would be happy to send along a booklet he had co-authored called The Anti-Coup (Albert Einstein Institution, 2003), which detailed nonviolent ways for democratic governments to guard against political upheaval. Then perhaps even more improbably, Jamila and I arrived at Gene’s one morning in early 2008 to news that a fairly ludicrous Iranian propaganda video had surfaced overnight, complete with a cartoon version of Gene sitting in a nefarious-looking boardroom at the White House, plotting the overthrow of the Ayatollah alongside John McCain and George Soros. Though these are of course extreme examples, it was eye-opening to witness first-hand how simply providing sincere advice to those wishing to learn more about nonviolent struggle was enough to earn the ire and contempt of authoritarians from across the political spectrum.
But for every detractor the partisans had been arriving in spades. In response to accusations of taking direction from the Pentagon, CIA, and Department of State, an open letter in support of Dr. Sharp was signed by scores of US foreign policy critics, including Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Daniel Ellsberg. Indeed, throughout a seven-decade career as a writer and a thinker, Dr. Sharp earned accolades from figures as politically distinct as Einstein, Coretta Scott King, Republican senator Mark O. Hatfield, American diplomat George F. Kennan, the Dalai Lama, and Nobel laureate in economics Thomas C. Schelling (who each at some point contributed a foreword to one of his books). He was the focus of an exquisitely shot biographical film allowing an unparalleled view into his life and work (2011’s How to Start a Revolution), and in 2015 was honored with an official proclamation by the City of Boston, declaring April 27th Gene Sharp Day. Internationally, he had been nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize by the American Friends Service Committee (the AFSC themselves won in 1947) and was a 2012 recipient of Sweden’s Right Livelihood Award. Some of the most welcome praise, however, came not from the peace community, but from hard-nosed realists, such as former Lithuanian defense minister Audrius Butkevičius, and retired US Army colonel Bob Helvey. Both came to see the wisdom in what Sharp was preaching, driven primarily by an interest in adopting the most effective means of struggle available, but at the same time not unmoved by the significant humanitarian advantages to nonviolent methods. As Helvey says in the film, “Vietnam convinced me that we need to have an alternative to killing people.”
In a 2003 interview with Canada’s Peace Magazine, Dr. Sharp tells the story of an audience member at one of his talks accusing him of simply taking the violence out of war. Of course for Sharp that was precisely the point, though for many peace activists this is where his ideas are at their most provocative, in that, according to him, conflict is not at all something to be avoided. Instead, a cornerstone of Sharp’s philosophy is that conflict is in fact inevitable — at times even necessary — in order to stand up for justice when those around us are being oppressed. Whether we choose to engage, however, in violent or nonviolent conflict is entirely up to us, and as Catholic Workers committed to nonviolence we find ourselves compelled to learn how to resist war and injustice most effectively. In the preface to Part One of his 1973 classic (Power and Struggle, p. vi) Sharp writes the following: “Mere advocacy of nonviolent alternatives will not necessarily produce any change… unless they are accurately perceived as being at least as effective as the violent alternatives.” Within this statement lies the key to finally shepherding pacifist ideals from the fringes of society into the mainstream, and it is in precisely this way that few political philosophers have done more to advance the movement that Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin began presciently in 1933.
Dr. Sharp is remembered today by his brother, Richard, as well as nieces, nephews, cousins, and a growing number of people around the world whose lives he has affected in some way. I remember him as a kind yet stern fatherly figure with whom I didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but whose sincere concern that I wasn’t meeting my own potential managed to push me in the right direction. Always happy to welcome me through the front door whenever I would go back and visit, I think it gave Gene solace to know how the CW community had welcomed me in New York, that the War Resisters League had eventually taken me in as well, and that later I had found a home in a doctoral program myself. History, on the other hand, will remember Gene Sharp as an advocate for oppressed peoples who believed in giving activists the tools for their own liberation. He will be remembered, too, as a groundbreaking theorist for how nonviolent methods can be used to resist injustice, dictatorship, even genocide; and through civilian-based defense have the potential to make even war itself obsolete. Finally, Dr. Sharp will be memorialized as the founder of an entire academic discipline centered around civil resistance, whose discoveries, like those of Einstein before him, will forever change the way we perceive the world. For instance, while many nonviolent movements are spontaneous and severely lacking in terms of a larger strategy, as Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan noted in their recent book Why Civil Resistance Works (Columbia University Press, 2012), a great many of them nonetheless end up miraculously victorious. Understanding this deeply through decades of study, Dr. Sharp had the audacity to wonder aloud how much more effective these movements could be if nonviolent struggle came to be seen as a legitimate area of research, deserving of even a fraction of the resources that over centuries have been poured into furthering the ruthlessness of organized violence.
In biographical portraits throughout the years, Dr. Sharp had been variously referred to as the godfather of nonviolent resistance, the Clausewitz of nonviolent warfare, or simply the Machiavelli of nonviolence. Although perhaps at face value the latter appellation does have an impressive ring, I rather tend to disagree, as it places far too high an estimation on the value of Machiavellian thought. In a lecture on civilian-based defense Sharp once said, “The doctrine that ‘power comes out the barrel of a gun’ is not a humanitarian — much less a socialist — doctrine. It's a militarist and a fascist doctrine. And besides, it isn't true... power in fact comes from people” (at precisely the ten-minute mark, accessible on the Vimeo platform). If, despite all odds, we succeed at keeping this in mind, as history marches forth it may well be Sharp’s ideas that prove the most revolutionary.