Gene Sharp, RIP: The Man Who Tried to Take the Violence Out of War

He was one of the world's greatest theorists of nonviolent revolution. But don't call him a pacifist.



The first interview I did with Gene Sharp was for a foreign-policy roundtable back in 2003. He wrote afterward to say he mostly liked the piece but I should please not call him a pacifist again.

This took me by surprise. Sharp, who died last week at age 90, had been a draft resister during the Korean War and an editor of Peace News. He had studied Gandhi's life and work for strategic insights, and he had dedicated his career to showing how dictatorships could be overthrown and invaders repelled nonviolently. That all sounded pretty pacifist to me. What I didn't appreciate was how much Sharp associated the term pacifism with a purely ethical position, and how frustrated he had gotten with so many of the people who embraced the p-word. "I don't condemn people who believe in nonviolence as a way of life," he told me in one of our later interviews, this one conducted as the Arab Spring was surging. "For them, that may be the best they can do. And there are other people who have been witnessing and protesting and being true to their beliefs, who want to know how they can do this most effectively. But they don't always grasp the importance of doing more than that. Not just to witness against the wickedness of the world, but how to change the world."

Meanwhile, most of the people he was learning from weren't pacifists at all. He had searched the historical record for empirical examples of civic resistance, ranging from "rude gestures" to nonviolent strikes and mutinies, even the creation of parallel grassroots systems of governance. He discovered countless case studies all over the globe. The vast majority of people conducting these protests and revolts, he noted, were not ideological pacifists; they were figuring out tactics and strategies on the fly. Sharp, in turn, focused more on how they were fighting than what they were fighting for. In the battle over Jim Crow, his sympathies were with the civil rights movement—he had taken part in a sit-in himself—but when the segregationists used a nonviolent tactic, he made sure to examine that too. After all, someone else might find it useful.

Sharp compiled a long list of those methods, and he developed a theory of power to explain why they worked (and why they sometimes didn't). It's a remarkable body of writing: Sharp is, I think, one of the most essential and underappreciated political thinkers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. No mere armchair theorist, he then set about sharing his findings with dissidents everywhere from Burma to the West Bank. When the next generation of nonviolent rebels came along, they were deeply in his debt. (After the Baltic states gained their independence, one Lithuanian defense minister said of Sharp's Civilian-Based Defense, "I would rather have this book than the nuclear bomb.")

I'm pretty certain that Sharp never lost the moral commitments that led him to pacifism (and anarchism) in his youth. But his vision really was much larger than pacifism, and I understand why he didn't like the label. Besides, the pacifists weren't sure they wanted him either. My favorite Gene Sharp story is the time he gave a talk about nonviolent resistance to foreign invasions. "Someone in the audience was very shocked," Sharp recalled, "and accused me: 'All you are doing is taking the violence out of war!'"

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  1. Albert Einstein Institution, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the study of nonviolent action, and a retired professor of political science

    …notable left wing writers Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn among others defended Gene Sharp:
    “Rather than being a tool of imperialism, Dr. Sharp’s research and writings have inspired generations of progressive peace, labor, feminist, human rights, environmental, and social justice activists in the United States and around the world.”

    So he takes the great Albert Einstein’s name and twists it from great physicist to be used to further socialist agendas. You can always pick out socialists because they always have a problem with what America does which protecting socialist tyranny around the World.

    Fuck that socialist.

    1. Leaving aside your inability to parse context and your poor writing skills (i’m pretty sure you didn’t mean to say that what America does is protecting socialist tyranny around the world, but that’s what you wrote), Albert Einstein was totally a socialist, yo.

      1. Of course, Albert Einstein was a socialist and pacifist. That is what we famously know him as.

        He was also Jewish and Jewish people tend to be socialists.

        His name was hijacked for this cause.

        It amazing what a quick comment with mistakes will get you. “You can always pick out socialists, because they always have a problem with what America does, which protecting socialist tyranny around the World.”

        1. 1. Of course Albert Einstein is most famous as a physicist. However, he was a real human being with a variety of interests, many of which he wrote articles and essays about – including politics, pacifism, and religion. Are you saying that being famous for one thing means that he can’t have been involved with anything else? Because that doesn’t bode well for the political career of a certain real estate developer/reality tv star.

          2. The Jewish thing is an odd and unnecessary bit of collectivism.

          3. If you’re founding an institute to promote peace and you name it after a guy who tried to promote peace, that’s not hijacking. Even if the guy was more famous for something else.

          4. Making a mistake and then being lightly mocked for that mistake is not “amazing.”

          1. If you’re founding an institute to promote peace and you name it after a guy who tried to promote peace, that’s not hijacking

            Especially since Sharp and Einstein were in fact friends.

            1. Boon: Forget it, he’s rolling.

            2. Of course, that’s why Jesse.

              Einstein urged FDR to beat Germany to develop a nuclear bomb. Einstein knew full well that it would be magnitudes more powerful than conventional bombs and would be used if developed.

              But Einstein was a guy who pursued peace…

              An institute that promoted socialism on the backs of millions dead is very peaceful.

              You’re on a roll Jesse and clearly in awe of Gene Sharp.

    2. But…Einstein was socialist.

      1. But…Einstein was socialist.

        And more to the point, he was a peacenik, which is why the institute was named for him.

        1. About Our Name

          The Institution is named after the physicist Albert Einstein, who was willing to explore new approaches to confronting war, oppression, dictatorship, genocide, and nuclear weapons. At various times he was a war resister, a supporter of the war against the Nazi system, and an advocate of world government. In his later life, he became impressed with the potential of nonviolent struggle. On a United Nations radio broadcast in 1950, he remarked that, “On the whole, I believe that Gandhi held the most enlightened views of all the political men in our time.”

          In 1953, Einstein wrote a foreword to Dr. Sharp’s first book on Gandhi, Gandhi Wields the Weapon of Moral Power. He continued to correspond with Gene Sharp during Dr. Sharp’s time in prison as a conscientious objector in Danbury, Connecticut.

          Nothing but socialists hijacking Albert Einstein’s name in 1983 to further socialist violent enslavement of people of the World. They call themselves peaceniks though.

          More non-Libertarian crap from Reason.

          1. Nothing but socialists hijacking Albert Einstein’s name in 1983 to further socialist violent enslavement of people of the World.

            I see your extensive Googling hasn’t led you to this, or to any of the other many items that would reveal what a deeply stupid statement that was.

            More non-Libertarian crap from Reason.

            If you want to play libertarian purity cop, LC, try directing your ire at something that is actually un-libertarian. Start with your own statements throughout Reason‘s comment threads, which regularly reek of right-wing authoritarianism.

            1. Sorry Jesse but if you actually read my past posts you would easily see that I despise authoritarianism. Clearly Googling a bio piece on someone is beneath you but you would be amazed what you can find these days on Google.

              I know that people questioning your devotion to Gene Sharp hurts your FEELZ, as it affects your left-wing sensibilities. I get it. You met a socialist and you to speak with him. He says that he is for peace and you believe. You will not be swayed as your stupid statements prove.

              I would certainly love to discuss with you how a peace loving Einstein urged FDR to beat Germany to a nuclear bomb to promote peace. Especially when Einstein had quite a few socialists in his circle of academics that were actively seeking to steal the atomic secrets for the USSR. The FBI was nervous about his socialist friends.
              Einstein and the FBI
              This included the Russian spy Margarita Konenkova who he had an affair with. Remember those peace loving socialist Russians?

              Remember the Korean War that Sharp protested and got jailed for? The USSR was emboldened to confront the USA because it had attained the atomic bomb earlier because of espionage in 1949. With the atomic bomb, Russia supported and armed invasion of South Korea by North Korea in June 1950.

            2. Hey, Jesse. Remember when Einstein supported the Zionist seizure of land to form a Jewish state in Palestine? That involved violence too.

              You clearly need to defend yourself with insults of Tony grade and are way out of your league.

              Your article reeks of infatuation of Sharp and if you are fine with that, so be it.

              Don’t try and lecture a Libertarian, like myself, with your amateurish historical knowledge. You cannot keep up.

              1. Well, I’ve read several of Sharp’s books, interviewed him multiple times, read & interviewed activists that he’s influenced, and read & interviewed his critics. You’ve Googled the name of his institute and extrapolated a dumb conspiracy theory based on the fact that it’s named after Albert Einstein. I agree that I’m not in my league here; I don’t think we’re even playing the same sport.

                1. The internet contains no resources besides google?

                  I added a Wikipedia bio because that is all your article deserves. Anything more would be a waste of my time as you don’t put much time into your nonsense writing.

                  I clearly got to you and you cannot handle it. Your sport is lazy infatuation writing about a socialist who hijacked a name of a “friend” for his socialist cause.

                  You are great Jesse (In your own mind). Keep up the work.

                  1. The internet contains no resources besides google?

                    My apologies to Bing.

                    1. Your wit is undeniable. You must be a Wolverine Alumni.

                      Keep up the work. We know its the best you can do.

      2. Einstein was a socialist. Very good.

        He was best known for something else, though… If I could only remember.

        I did hear about Einstein getting a Nobel prize for socialism and he was so happy to get it.

  2. His passing totally flew by me last week, so thanks for another fine obit, Walker. I thumbed through some of his writing back when I first looked at the idea of strategic non-violence, but I’ve yet to sit down and look closely at his research and arguments. I’m downloading that PDF now.

  3. Gandhi is often quoted by people who have the way-of-life approach. And he did make those statements. But in his later years he operated on two levels at the same time. He operated on the level of the belief in ahimsa as a strong moral and religious principle. But also he operated on the political level with people in the Indian National Congress who did not share that belief and never would, and worked with them in charting strategic plans and waging effective struggles against the British to get India out of the empire. He did not think he was compromising his beliefs by operating on those two levels. That is extremely important.

    I suppose I don’t know nearly enough about this specific history to understand what he’s saying here.

    Was the ‘two different levels’ here referring to the fact that the Indian National Congress were not pacifists and so Gandhi’s working with them might be perceived as a moral inconsistency?

    1. More to the fact that he was getting his hands dirty with nitty-gritty politics, hard-nosed tactics, etc., rather than simply trying to change the world by living according to a nonviolent spiritual code.

      1. Socialism requires being avid propagandists and doers to get those people enslaved.

  4. Non-violent resistance really worked during the Holocaust. And Gandhi even wrote an open letter telling Jews in Europe to engage in non-violent resistance.

    And teaching non-violent resistance in the West Bank??? You have to got to be fucking kidding me.

    I am sorry, but to paraphrase Miyamoto Musashi:
    Bother no one. If someone bothers you, ask him to stop. If he doesn’t stop, destroy him.

    THAT is how you accomplish peace.

    1. It was how many socialists in the USA plied their trade of disrupting America’s goals of promoting freedom while providing socialist propaganda for the USSR.

      It was named COMINTERN (Communist International) for a reason. Gotta have those useful idiots spread the socialist word.

    2. About 25% avoided the Holocaust by non-violent resistance, e.g., they fled Europe. Most of the ones who stayed did not use non-violent resistance, they, like the vast majority today, enabled their rulers, i.e., they were “good citizens”.

      When violent resistance is suicide it is better than surrender, but it rarely comes to that. There are many choices before that. Analyzing the Holocaust after it started is short-sighted and out of context. The roots, the beginning, can be found in WWI.

      The Jewish collective mindset of “go along to get along” did nothing to resist the violent authoritarian nationalism. They didn’t try to stop the roundup of the indigent mentally ill, gypsies, and minority religious groups. Their behavior avoided expression in action of their moral condemnation on grounds it was impractical and dangerous. This separation of the moral from the practical was a mistake. Non-violent resistance early on might have made a big difference.

      In conclusion, the journey into chaos was slow but relatively unimpeded. All that was needed was “good men” to stand up and act as such instead of acting like good (obedient) citizens.

  5. I credit Gene Sharp with convincing me how futile violence is against violence if your goal is to eliminate violence.

    In general, if your goal is to “live & let live”, killing does not send that message. While it is easy to kill & die, it takes a lot of work to be civil and humane. It takes thought, compassion, self-control, empathy.

    Humanity can thank Gene for pointing the way.

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