Gene Sharp, Nonviolence Evangelist

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.

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Egypt’s Protests and Gene Sharp

Gene Sharp in his office
Gene Sharp in his office

San Pedro Sula Newspapers, as the saying goes, write the rough drafts of history.  In Egypt is is fascinating to watch the 20-day process of rewriting, revising, and re-framing that is already taking place in papers like the New York Times.

The first drafts desperately wanted this to be a Facebook or Twitter revolution…young and hip, and that’s still the hope in the rewriting now, because that supposedly had helped drive the Tunisia overthrow only days before.  Then there was the effort to try and find the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Nobel Laureate wherever possible, though it was hard to do, since neither were on the scene in many situations and seemed almost uncomfortable and disconnected from the masses on the streets.  Finally, as the plot thickened the real organizers, as we have discussed earlier, grabbed the press by the collar and had to break it down for them.

Now, luckily, every day we get to see behind the screen a little more clearly.

Maybe?

Today’s lead story purported to once again sand the story down.  Maybe the story is even accurate but I worry that we are getting spun again by someone somewhere behind the screen.

The line today was back to the Balkans and earlier overthrows from the state, particularly the role played Optor years ago.  There the Times had wanted to credit text messages and other communications devices as if all the tools were the same as the carpenters.

It was nice to see that Gene Sharp once again got to make an appearance.  He has been a relentless advocate and theorist of non-violence and one of the unparalleled heroes behind many of the most dramatic efforts to win popular voices a place against firmly entrenched dictatorships.  His has been thankless work, so when he is anywhere near a success, the world is frankly a better place.  When I read the Times piece on Optor, I tracked down Gene at his Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and he not only agreed to speak at one of the first dialogues of the Organizers’ Forum, but sent me a copy of his books developing his theories on non-violent organizing, which I found fascinating.  That’s the good news.

The other piece of the news is the way that it is so important for victories to have a thousand fathers is that often Gene’s work and many of these efforts have been funded by various arms of the US government, like National Endowment for Democracy and others.  Given that Secretary of State Clinton had been busted for being off message, I wonder if others are lining up to make sure that they get some accolades for the next funding cycle.

So, good work Gene, and all props to the organizers and the Egyptian people, and we’ll have to look for the future reports as we find the real story in future drafts.

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