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Billy King


Nonviolence News


Number 279: May 2020

Readings in Nonviolence features extracts from our favourite books, pamphlets, articles or other material on nonviolence and related areas, or reviews of important works in the field (suggestions and contributions welcome).

Back to basics – with Gene Sharp

Introduction by Rob Fairmichael

Gene Sharp, who died in 2018 aged 90, left a large volume of work on nonviolence including some, such as “The Politics of Nonviolent Action” which has been hugely influential. He became well known internationally at the time of the ‘Arab Spring’ (2011+) towards the end of his life because of the circulation of his work then – and this also led to conspiracy theories and some Marxist accusations of being in cahoots with the CIA – much of this can be found online.

There are a number of points of criticism of his work which have been made with considerable justification, but that should not detract from the considerable importance of his work which not only ranges widely over different aspects of nonviolence but put many historical examples on the map. He pins down some of the dynamics of power in society which nonviolence relies on to be effective.

To cover some of the criticisms at the start, one is that he does not give adequate credence to the ideological aspect of nonviolence, since he roots nonviolence in the pragmatic and the practical. But this is simply where he is or was at. Those of us who do have an ideological commitment to nonviolence because of philosophical, religious, humanist, political or other reasons can do our own arguments. But if we neglect to point out that nonviolence is also pragmatic, e.g. that taking on an opponent who is much better resourced, with weapons and/or finance, we are likely to do our cause considerable disservice and possibly ensure defeat if we either use violence or fail to use our imagination and the full range of tactics available to us. We can also fail to allow others to ‘get into’ nonviolence if they think the only entry point is through an ideology.
That he neglected to a greater or lesser extent the contribution of women to nonviolence, and women’s experience (despite examples of action by women), is a fair point, especially in not dealing with patriarchy. It is an issue which does need correction but it can be pointed out that he is in in good (or bad) company since not only has the contribution which women have made in all aspects of life been seriously underplayed, gender dynamics is still often seriously overlooked. Some feminist criticism considers Gene Sharp’s work as, to a greater or lesser extent, a male based theory of power. See e.g.  If Sharp’s basis is social contract theory (the contract between ruler and ruled, involving consent), does this ignore those who are not part or fully part of the social contract?

There are other specific criticisms. One was included in the last Readings in Nonviolence when Iain Atack mentioned Bob Overy’s criticism that Sharp in writing about Gandhi ignored his constructive programme.  The issue here is that nonviolence is not just about challenging and tearing down – it is additionally about building up the alternative (and this also relates to questions of pragmatic or ideological nonviolence). Obviously there may be issues about what it is possible for any group of people to do at any one time but the point is an important one in that many nonviolent movements have had initial success only for the situation to regress again after some, possibly cosmetic, political change has taken place because a society fell back into old ways of doing things and old power relationships.

The issue of the extent to which ‘nonviolent coercion’ (as opposed to conversion or accommodation) is possible in nonviolence is another issue arising from Sharp’s work and “The Politics of Nonviolent Action” which can be controversial.

Brian Martin’s consideration of Gene Sharp and his work can be found here.  Much more can be found with an online word search.
The website of the institute which he set up, the Albert Einstein Institution, gives a good indication of the range of Sharps’ work including biographical details and bibliography, and a variety of free material. If you wanted to start at or near the beginning you can read his work on the resistance by teachers to the pro-Nazi Quisling regime in Norway during the Second World War (“Tyranny could not quell them”, originally from ‘Peace News’ at the end of the 1950s, see under ‘Free Resources’).
Also under the same section of the website is the listing of his famous “198 varieties” of nonviolent action methods. Some of these are straightforward, however without reading up (in Part Two of “The Politics of Nonviolent Action”) on the historical examples others will not communicate much. These 198 methods or tactics could be 1,980 or 19,800, the variety is massive and contexts vary so much. This typology is used as the basis for a workshop exploring nonviolent tactics.  This uses Sharp’s typology to broaden out people’s concept of possible tactics before individual consideration of risk (‘what am I willing to do’) and then brainstorming possible tactics on a particular campaign.

This piece is intended as a brief introduction to Gene Sharp, and to give some hints for further consideration of his work. It is only fair to give him the last word (which I hope will be a ‘first word’ for those unfamiliar with his work) in the following short piece about what nonviolent action is, and dealing with misconceptions, which appears on the Albert Einstein Institution website. It is adapted from “The Politics of Nonviolent Action” (1973) (especially pages 64-71). This summary should also be read critically.

Gene Sharp: What nonviolent action is
Nonviolent action is a technique of sociopolitical action for applying power in a conflict without the use of physical violence. Nonviolent action may involve acts of omission—that is, people may refuse to perform acts that they usually perform, are expected by custom to perform, or are required by law or regulation to perform; acts of commission—that is, people may perform acts that they do not usually perform, are not expected by custom to perform, or are forbidden to preform; or a combination of the two.

As a technique, therefore, nonviolent action is not passive. It is not inaction. It is action that is nonviolent.

These acts comprise a multitude of specific methods of action or “nonviolent weapons.”

Nearly two hundred have been identified to date, and without doubt, scores more already exist or will emerge in future conflicts. Three broad classes of nonviolent methods exist: nonviolent protest and persuasion, noncooperation, and nonviolent intervention.

Nonviolent action provides a way to wield power in order to achieve objectives and to sanction opponents without the use of physical violence.

Overwhelmingly, nonviolent action is group or mass action. While certain forms of this technique, especially the symbolic methods, may be regarded as efforts to persuade by action, the other forms, especially those of noncooperation, may, if practiced by large numbers, coerce opponents.

Whatever the issue and scale of the conflict, nonviolent action is a technique by which people who reject passivity and submission, and who see struggle as essential, can wage their conflict without violence. Nonviolent action is not an attempt to avoid conflict. It is one response to the problem of how to wield power effectively.

What nonviolent action isn’t

1) Nonviolent action has nothing to do with passivity, submissiveness, and cowardice; just as in violent action, these must first be rejected and overcome.

2) Nonviolent action is not to be equated with verbal or purely psychological persuasion, although it may use action to induce psychological pressures for attitude change; nonviolent action, instead of words, is a sanction and a technique of struggle involving the use of social, economic, and political power, and the matching of forces in conflict.

3) Nonviolent action does not depend on the assumption that people are inherently “good”; the potentialities of people for both “good” and “evil” are recognized, including the extremes of cruelty and inhumanity.

4) People using nonviolent action do not have to be pacifists or saints; nonviolent action has been predominantly and successfully practiced by “ordinary” people.

5) Success with nonviolent action does not require (though it may be helped by) shared standards and principles, a high degree of community of interest, or a high degree of psychological closeness between the contending groups; this is because when efforts to produce voluntary change fail, coercive nonviolent measures may be employed.

6) Nonviolent action is at least as much of a Western phenomenon as an Eastern one; indeed, it is probably more Western, if one takes into account the widespread use of strikes and boycotts in the labor movement and the noncooperation struggles of subordinated nationalities.

7) In nonviolent action there is no assumption that the opponent will refrain from using violence against nonviolent actionists; the technique is designed to operate against violence when necessary.

8) There is nothing in nonviolent action to prevent it from being used for both “good” and “bad” causes, although the social consequences of its use for a “bad” cause may diff er considerably from the consequences of violence used for the same cause.

9) Nonviolent action is not limited to domestic conflicts within a democratic system; it has been widely used against dictatorial regimes, foreign occupations, and even against totalitarian systems.

10) Nonviolent action does not always take longer to produce victory than violent struggle would. In a variety of cases nonviolent struggle has won objectives in a very short time — in as little as a few days. The time taken to achieve victory depends on diverse factors — primarily on the strength of the nonviolent actionists.
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