Michael L. Westmoreland-White, Ph.D.

Research Associate, Fuller Theological Seminary Extension

Adjunct Professor of Religion and Philosophy, Spalding University

Reviewing Gene Sharp's Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential for  www.ecapc.org, 6/4/05  


Last week, we looked at a work on the spirituality of nonviolence, especially Christian nonviolence. This week, instead, we examine nonviolent action the way a sociologist or political theorist would—a series of practices designed to wage a social struggle without the use of violence. Some people, such as Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., have contributed to both these dimensions of the literature on nonviolence. But most people have concentrated, at least in their writing, on one or the other. Since the early 1970s, former Harvard professor Gene Sharp has been the most influential figure among those who study nonviolence as practices of social struggle.

In some ways, Waging Nonviolent Struggle simply condenses into one volume the major insights of Sharp's 3-volume, The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Like the first volume of the earlier work, part one summarizes the view of political/social power implied in nonviolent struggle and, like volume two of Politics, it finishes that first section with an outline of the many methods of nonviolent direct action that Sharp has categorized. Part two looks at many of the cases of nonviolent struggle in the 20th Century—cases which Sharp is at pains to point out were largely improvised campaigns. Part three of the book, like the 3rd volume of Politics, is a fine-grained analysis of the dynamics of nonviolent action—the forces which make such a campaign successful or unsuccessful.

This section three contains some new insights that Sharp has refined over the years since Politics (72-74) in such works as The Anti-Coup; Civilian-Based Defense, Making Europe Unconquerable, & From Dictatorship to Democracy. But it is amazing how many insights were seen right from the beginning.

In the final section of the book, Sharp works to make future nonviolent campaigns more effective. To do so would mean greater planning in advance and greater study of the dynamics of nonviolence. For instance, using nonviolent means to defend a nation against an aggressor would be most effective if nations gradually "transarmed" themselves from military defense to nonviolent civilian-based defense. Such preparation of the populace also makes nonviolent prevention of coups d'etat far more effective. The most undeveloped part of the book is an analysis of the difficulties and possibilities of nonviolent 3rd-party intervention. Though they can find helpful materials here, those pioneering in this most dangerous form of nonviolent action (e.g., Christian Peacemaker Teams, Peace Brigades International, The International Solidarity Movement, Witness for Peace, Voices in the Wilderness, and Nonviolent Peaceforce, to name the most prominent groups) must still largely experiment on their own.

Still, this is a significant work. It is a good one-volume primer on nonviolence-theory (minus discussion of spiritual resources and practices) for classes and for activist groups. I recommend it highly.

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