Gene Sharp passed away on January 28th of this year at the age of 90. He was not well know among the broader public or the academic world at large necessarily but was well know to those schooled in the traditions of non-violence. He was one of the best and most important theoreticians of non-violence. Of course everyone knows the major advocates of non-violence such as Leo Tolstoy, Henry David Thoreau, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. Gene Sharp deserves his place among those greats not for his popularity but for his strong intellectual contribution to the study of non-violence and his advocacy for non-violence.
The New York Times obituary for Sharp focused on his influence in resistance movements around the world and in the U.S.
“His strategy was adopted by insurgents in the Baltics, Serbia, Ukraine, Burma (now Myanmar) and Egypt, during the Arab Spring turmoil. The Occupy Wall Street movement and other “occupy” demonstrations to protest economic inequality in the United States also drew from the Sharp manual.”
Although Sharp acknowledged the moral element of non-violence his advocacy for it was primarily that it was a superior strategy for oppressed groups to get what they want. Non-violence is far more efficacious that violence. Again from the times obit:
“His philosophy could be reduced to two axioms:
First, autocracies are vulnerable to being undermined because “dictators are never as strong as they tell you they are,” he said in Mr. Arrow’s film, “and people are never as weak as they think they are.”
Second, while limited violence against dictatorial governments may sometimes be inevitable, violence provokes more violence, a strategy that gives dictators an advantage.”
Furthermore in his book From Dictatorship to Democracy, Sharp states clearly why non-violence is often the superior strategy for resistance movements:
“Whatever the merits of the violent option, however, one point is clear. By placing confidence in non-violent means, one has chosen the very type of struggle with which the oppressors nearly always have superiority.” (pg 6)
Sharp was not just a theoretician of non-violence but a tactician as well. His famous list of 197 non-violent tactics can be found on the website of the Albert Einstein Institution which he founded. The tactics are divided into six broad categories: the methods of nonviolence protest and persuasion, the methods of social noncooperation, the methods of economic noncooperation: economic boycotts, the methods of economic noncooperation: the strike, the methods of political noncooperation, and the methods of nonviolent intervention. Sharp has provided resistance movements with a wide range of tactics adaptable to almost any situation at any time.
New political science research has mostly reaffirmed what Sharp was saying all along and that was that non-violence is ultimately a superior political strategy than violence. I hope his message continues on.