Gene Sharp: Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice

and 21st Century Potential


Lester R. Kurtz, Professor

Department of Sociology, U. of Texas-Austin

writing in Ahimsa Nonviolence, Vol. 1, No. 2, March-April 2005


Gene Sharp has done more to advance our understanding and practice of strategic nonviolence than anyone except Mahatma Gandhi himself. Waging Nonviolent Struggle is a compendium of his wisdom developed over half a century of serious study, writing, and consulting. If I were to recommend one volume on nonviolent struggle to newcomers and experts alike, it would be this one. Its argument is nuanced with deep social and political theory, but also includes a practical guide to strategic planning for activists.


During the past five decades, Sharp has analyzed and systematized historic examples of types of nonviolent direct action; he has observed, advised, and learned from contemporary movements, and charted directions for the future. Waging Nonviolent Struggle is the culmination of that work. It begins with an instructive autobiographical preface that reviews the evolution of his thought, proceeds to a concise introduction to the theory of power and nonviolent action that underlies the power of nonviolence and then provides 23 short case-studies that illustrate the efficacy of nonviolence. The finale of the book is a practical guide to strategic planners that draws on Sharp’s research and experience, charting the future of nonviolent direct action as a reflexive and deliberate strategy rather than an improvised response to concrete historical situations.


This will be the foundational text for introductory courses at the nonviolent equivalent of West Point and the Air Force Academy. It contains the information one needs to have to understand the tectonic shifts in geopolitics of recent decades, in which nonviolent people-power rather than military brute force has been primarily responsible for reshaping the globe. Yes, freedom is on the march, but not for the reasons trumpeted in the halls of political privilege.


My personal sense of intellectual indebtedness to this senior scholar was heightened by learning that his serious study of nonviolence began the year I was born, 1949, and was further developed in his 1951 master’s thesis in sociology. His original perceptions were “modified, enriched, rejected and even reversed” (p. 4) over time as he studied Gandhi in India, political theory at Oxford, wrote a 3-volume overview of The Politics of Nonviolent Action in 1973, observed decades of nonviolent struggles, and met with opposition leaders from Burma, Thailand, China, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and elsewhere.


At the core of Sharp’s theory of nonviolence is a reconceptualization of the nature of power as variable and from diverse sources rather than monolithic and relatively permanent, an idea expressed (and implemented) by Gandhi but developed substantially in Waging Nonviolent Struggle. Instead of growing out of the barrel of a gun, Sharp’s “social view of power sees rulers or other command systems ... to be dependent on the population’s goodwill, decisions, and support. As such, power rises continually from many parts of society” (p. 28).


A dictator’s stranglehold on a people, as Gandhi understood and Sharp explains, is reliant upon their obedience. Sharp identifies six sources of political power that a regime requires and nonviolent actionists can mobilize to withdraw: authority (legitimacy), human resources (people who obey them), skills and knowledge, intangible factors (e.g., habits and attitudes toward obedience), material resources, and sanctions (to enforce obedience). Or, a people may choose to withdraw the “pillars of support” for a regime, and withdraw their consent to be governed. If they overcome their fear of sanctions, they may be able to mobilize the defiance in such organizations and institutions as “trade unions, business organizations, religious organizations, the bureaucracy, neighborhoods, villages, cities, regions, and the like (p. 35).


After outlining the basic theory, Waging Nonviolent Struggle provides 23 empirical sketches of a range of significant nonviolent movements in Russia, Germany, India, Norway, Guatemala, the USA, France and Algeria, Namibia, Argentina, Poland, South Africa, the Philippines, Burma, China, and elsewhere. The concluding chapter of that section assesses the cases, providing Sharp’s defining insights into the history of twentieth century nonviolence. The emphasis is on their diversity in terms of applications and issues, participants, objectives and provocations, methods, opponents, casualties, and much more. He concludes that many of the misconceptions of nonviolent struggle can be cleared up by examining these cases—nonviolence is available in many types of situations and the opponents of successful movements were not “soft” or “pushovers” as is often believed. Of particular note is that most of the movements described lacked serious advanced strategic planning.


These brief encounters are hors d’oeuvres that whet the appetite for more but fail to satisfy real hunger—for the details, one has to go elsewhere (although recommendations for further reading are provided) because two major agenda items remain in the last 250 pages of this 600+ page tome.


Parts Three, “The Dynamics of Nonviolent Struggle,” and Four, “Shaping the Future,” continue the theoretical exposition of Part One, but also gets down to the details of praxis and is replete with advice not only for scholars but also for activists and would-be strategists; it will both appeal to the theorists and serve as a manual for movements and there is no way to do this complex discussion justice in a brief review. They are full of the insights that only Gene Sharp might offer from his half century of observation and study on such crucial issues as the importance of overcoming fear, coping with repression, developing solidarity and discipline.


Waging Nonviolent Struggle summarizes Sharp’s seminal systematization of the “weapons of nonviolent action”: protest and persuasion, noncooperation, and nonviolent intervention. It also provides a helpful discussion of the concept of political jiu-jitsu, a process of using a regime’s power to weaken it in a nonviolent counterpart to the Japanese martial art tactic of meeting an attack not with physical blockage or counter thrust but pulling “the opponent forward in the same direction the attacker has already started to strike. This causes the opponent to lose balance and fall forward as a result of the acceleration of the force of the attacker’s own forward thrust” (pp. 405-6).


The final section of the book is devoted to strategic planning and ways of making nonviolent action more effective. It offers an outline for strategic planning and suggestions for how to conduct a nonviolent struggle. It concludes with a sweeping discussion of the kinds of potential applications of nonviolent struggle such as the dismantling of dictatorships; blocking coups d’etat; defending against foreign aggression and occupations; lifting oppression of ethnic, religious, and racial groups as well as social and economic injustices; preserving and extending democracy and human rights; preventing dictatorships and genocide; and the preservation of indigenous peoples and cultures.


I do not review books I dislike (my mother taught me not to criticize people), but I do understand the genre, so will make my obligatory critique. Gene Sharp’s apparent mission is to argue that nonviolent direct action is more effective than violent struggle and that it does not require a religious basis or a charismatic leader. Whereas Martin Luther King, Jr. baptized Gandhi’s nonviolence, Sharp secularized it, leading to a debate among advocates of nonviolence over what is sometimes called a difference between “strategic” and “principled” nonviolence.


Sharp appears to follow his own advice, being as strategic in planning his personal action as he would advise a movement to be in planning its action. His insistence on stripping nonviolence of its religious rhetoric and foundations makes some sense strategically, but may not be accurate empirically. I suspect that in his rush to make nonviolence palatable to the non-religious activists, he may skew the facts of the history of nonviolence, but we do not really have an adequate comparative historical base for making such judgments, and I hope that someone will do the kind of careful empirical comparison this requires.


Anyone looking for a book of meditations on the moral superiority of principled nonviolence might be disappointed with this volume. However, if you want to know how to fight without violence, or to analyze how nonviolent struggle works and how it might be used in the future, this is the book to study.


Porter Sargent Publishers have priced this book to sell despite its length, and more details (including downloadable versions of two chapters) are available at I, for one, hope that it becomes a bestseller and a tool for shaping the future.


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