New Internationalist

The NI Interview

Issue 296

The NI Interview
Gene Sharp
Noreen Shanahan
talks with a theorist of non-violence
and finds his pacifism far from passive.

Gene Sharp For a pacifist, Gene Sharp pulls no punches. ‘We need to remember that the word “peace” is not magical,’ he says. ‘Peace activism will not bring total peace, the end to dictatorships, preventing all genocide and lifting all oppressions.’ Strange words from a veteran peace activist and my first introduction to a very thought-provoking mind. Sharp’s pragmatism, combined with his passion for peace, cuts through some of the wooly-headedness often associated with peaceniks. He urges activists to learn ‘unconventional skills’ in order to ‘fight wars without violence’, when the more usual strategies of negotiation, compromise and arbitration fall apart.

I found myself strongly affected by both his thoughtful and inspiring words and the gentle delivery of his ideas. Gene Sharp, senior scholar-in-residence at the Albert Einstein Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has written extensively on the nature and potential of non-violent strategies for social-justice movements. His two books, From Dictatorship to Democracy and The Politics of Non-violent Action, lay out a blueprint for how mass movements of workers and citizens can achieve their social goals without resorting to the gun or the machete.

In his mid-sixties now, Sharp first got involved in activism with anti-segregation, lunch-counter sit-ins back in his student days in Columbus, Ohio – ‘long before people were doing that sort of thing’. His passion for social justice and his training in the social sciences led him to the study of non-violent action throughout human history. ‘The more I got into studying what has been happening, the more I realized that non-violent action was a much bigger phenomenon than I had thought. Gandhi hadn’t invented this thing.’

For Sharp, hard-headed realism is more important than ethical and religious zeal in the struggle for peace. He sees non-violent action as a strategy for imperfect people in an imperfect world – a tool to achieve civil defence, justice or liberation. ‘While few individuals are able to “turn the other cheek” in a spirit of love and forgiveness, many are able to understand that for their particular objectives, non-violent action offers the best chance of success.’

‘The solution,’ he says, ‘lies in getting groups to substitute non-violent struggle for violent struggle in the conduct of a conflict. Not to resolve the conflict, not to eliminate the conflict, but to conduct the conflict it is necessary for at least one contender to shift from violence.’ Numerous examples from history come quickly to his mind: the ‘people-power’ revolution in the Philippines in 1986, the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, Poland’s Solidarity movement. He sees such non-violent struggles as having real potential for ending the ‘cyclical predations of violence’ that haunt our world.

Sharp believes that any regime, no matter how dictatorial, depends upon crucial sources of power: a certain moral authority, obedience or at least some co-operation from the people, the army and the police, the economic system and the bureaucracy. The key is to cut off these sources. Preparation and planning are the strategic weapons of non-violent action. Too often he has seen the disastrous results of insufficient preparation. ‘You’re a passenger in a car and there is somebody else driving. They’ve headed the car towards the cliff, the accelerator is tied to the floor and the brakes have been cut. And they say: “Okay, you don’t like this? You take over.”’

Sharp believes that advance preparation at least gives you a chance to avoid the violent crashes and clashes that have marred modern history.

He has had his work translated into 20 different languages. One recent publication about which he is very enthusiastic is a story he adapted from an old thirteenth-century Chinese tale. His version, called The Wise Monkeys, was then translated into Burmese and has become a tool in that country’s fight to rid itself of a vicious military dictatorship. ‘It’s a bit more complicated, but it is something that Burmese villagers can understand if they can read. It communicates the idea of non-cooperation in a form that’s entertaining but simple, yet political dynamite.’

Sharp and his colleagues at the Albert Einstein Institute have been called upon by leaders of movements from different parts of the world to conduct workshops on non-violent action. So far some 600 Burmese have gone through both introductory and advanced courses. At great personal risk they then return to Burma and, tapping sources in local history, teach clandestine courses inside the country.

I was curious as to whether Gene Sharp was able to draw direct inspiration from the effects of his teachings on people’s movements as they helped the shift ‘from dictatorship to democracy’. His response was characteristically modest. He neither wanted, expected nor attributed much credit to himself, but instead spoke of ‘good feelings’ when the effects of non-violent education began to take hold. He again cited Burma as the most recent example where his smuggle-sized booklet in its Indian edition was spirited across the Western border and in its Thai edition across the Eastern border of that besieged country. The book was seen by both the resistance movement and the regime as a threat to the dictatorship. ‘That’s a good feeling. But there are so many things that remain to be done, and so much help is needed from a variety of people, and so much money is needed. So there is no chance of getting smug.’

Noreen Shanahan is a Toronto-based poet and journalist.

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