Gene Sharp, Nonviolence Evangelist

Ideas and Issues

New Orleans     Gene Sharp was not well-known, except where it mattered, and that was among the groups of activists here and abroad who tried to strategize about how to make change when faced with oppressive, often dictatorial, governments against amazing odds.  He wrote a shelf full of books about nonviolence.  Evangelizing, theorizing, and advising on the use of nonviolence strategies and tactics was the life he lived as both an academic and director of the Alfred Einstein Institute in Cambridge, which he founded, and where he worked virtually until his recent death at 90 years of age.

I didn’t know Sharp as well as I knew of his work and the rumors of his work.  In the early years of the Organizers’ Forum fifteen years ago we did two dialogues a year, one on domestic issues and one internationally.  Both were ad hoc offerings for community and labor organizers, as well as other activists, who came together in a form of dialectical “adult” education to better understand the issues and the work.   Barbara Bowen and I organized a workshop on developing practice and thinking on strategy and tactics at a retreat center near Boston.  Stephen Lerner and David Chu talked about corporate campaigns for example.  I had learned about Sharp’s work originally by reading an article in the New York Times magazine about the role he and a former army colonel had played in the background of developments that had effectively challenged power in Eastern European countries.  Organizers there touted his assistance with high praise.

Both Gene and the Colonel attended and they were forceful advocates for the power of nonviolent strategies.  They clearly saw the meeting as a chance to build a bridge to work in the United States to complement their efforts internationally.  Gene later sent me four of his books, which were fascinating.   Sharp was most famous for a list of 198 possible nonviolent tactics that he assembled.  Interesting, that for all his writing and work undergirding the political philosophy of nonviolence, it was a simple tool like that list that was most useful.  I referenced it in Nuts & Bolts for example.  Adding more on the use of social media would bring the list way over 200!

Some of the work was controversial.   His work was largely funded by USAID, not a usual instrument of social change.  Many of the countries where they agitated were Eastern Bloc communist governments.  The work in Burma/Myanmar was often tainted by questions of whether it involved the CIA.

These questions are impossible to resolve, and time softens the edges as the years have gone by and the struggles continue.  The old adage about watching sausage or democracy made is not for the squeamish, might apply here as well.

The one thing that was incontestable is that Sharp’s commitment to nonviolence and nonviolent change was absolute, and that’s enough to say about a life lived valuably on one straight and true path.