The Rediscovery of Nonviolent Action
I planned to have this short essay on Gene Sharp’s work on nonviolent action posted during the drama of the Egyptian revolution. Life got in the way, so I stayed tuned to media accounts all the while thinking how “the story” was only partly told.
The New York Times assessed Sharp’s influence on pro-democracy movements around the globe; one NYT Op-Ed columnist suggested Sharp’s work was “little known in America” (not sure what America the columnist refers to here). In several articles, Scientific American (Horgan, February 11th, 2011 & July 19, 2010) weighed in on the significance of Sharp’s research on nonviolent action and political violence. And in the spirit of spontaneity and homage, the protesters themselves created a Twitter hashtag: #GeneSharpTaughtMe.
A post on Gene Sharp might seem out of place on a blog that deals with gov secrecy except if one considers Gandhi – who Dr. Sharp extensively discusses in his numerous works – used transparency as tactic, as a form of nonviolent action and engagement. Philosopher Sissela Bok (1989) writes that Gandhi
rejected secrecy in his dealings with supporters as with those who opposed him. He regularly sent his policy statements and plans to those who might oppose him, to give them an opportunity to respond in the search for a just solution. He also disseminated these plans and articles on his movement as broadly as possible in the press. This allowed him to build up a much wider following at home and abroad than might otherwise have been possible, and helped prevent some of the worst forms of repression that could otherwise have been deployed against him (p.47-48).
I’m thrilled the Net is abuzz with Sharp. But there’s a missing part here, a backstory if you will, for Sharp’s work and its influence. Among those who strive for nonviolence and thoughtful living, Sharp’s research is a beacon based in history and inspiration. For decades, Sharp’s almost classic publications have been collected by libraries as well as widely read by students in political science, politics, peace and justice studies courses, academics whose research concerns social movements, the lay public searching for alternative modes of political participation, and lawyers defending those of conscience who practice Sharp’s examples of nonviolent change in the streets. Sharp isn’t new, although it took a few revolutions to propel him broadly onto the media’s radar.
In what is perhaps his most famous work, the three volume encyclopedic The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Sharp not only analyzed power and “bureaucratic obstruction” (volume 1), but methods of nonviolent action (volume 2), and the dynamics of nonviolent action, indeed the necessity of suffering as strategy by the disenfranchised in order “to advance their cause” (volume 3, p. 551). Sharp is a guide to the Gandhian idea of casting off fear, “which makes possible the challenge, the persistance in favor of repression, and the capacity to bring into operation the sources of strength…” (p. 458).
Coupled with his ideas on nonviolent action, Sharp also proposed the need for a functional substitute for war, arguing that a pure civilian, nonviolent defense was more effective (Bogdonoff, para.12).Along these lines, Sharp built on Gandhi’s nonviolent method of civilian-based defense or CBD, which he explained as
Instead of military weaponry, civilian-based defense applies the power of society itself to deter and defend against internal usurpations and foreign invaders. The weapons are psychological, social, economic, and political. They are wielded by the general population and the institutions of the society (Civilian-Based Defense, p.vii)
I discovered Sharp’s work as a student at Colman McCarthy’s Center for Teaching Peace years ago while obtaining a Certificate in Peacemaking. Sharp’s ideas were essential reading as an integral part of Lesson six, which has an eclectic, exciting mix of readings by Sharp, Einstein, Berrigan, and McCarthy – a feast of visions on nonviolent action. Sharp’s work still captures my imagination in terms of what was made possible by those who stood courageous in shifting power, and what remains unfinished as we collectively stagger towards social justice.
A little bibliography of Dr. Sharp’s contributions is here (references too).
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Update :: this story from NPR’s The World is a fascinating case study of nonviolence and forced evictions.