The 2011 documentary How to Start a Revolution introduced me to Dr. Gene Sharp, one of the world’s leading thinkers on strategic nonviolent action, also known as nonviolent resistance or nonviolent struggle.
Sharp’s ideas have been implemented in many anti-government uprisings around the world in the past few decades. His book-length essay From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation has been “circulated worldwide and cited repeatedly as influencing movements such as the Arab Spring of 2010–2012..”
A few of the leading activists who recently successfully overthrew (or rather, undermined) dictators in the Middle East and elsewhere were interviewed in the documentary explaining the influence that Sharp’s work had on their actions.
One of these activists visited Gene Sharp in Boston for the documentary. One of the first things Sharp said in the documentary after they greeted each other was:
There’s one thing that’s been ‘learned’ maybe from Tunisia and Egypt that I think is a mistake, a major mistake. And that is that the existing ruler has to resign. He doesn’t have to resign. You take all the supports out from under him; he falls. No matter what he wants to do. This is the distinction in the analyses between nonviolent coercion in which he has to resign, but he’s forced into it, and disintegration when the regime simply falls apart. There’s nobody left with enough power to resign. [1:14:51 of full film; 46:18 of the 52-minute abbreviated version of the film]
Today 84-year-old Gene Sharp works as Senior Scholar at the Albert Einstein Institution in Boston with his one colleague Executive Director Jamila Raqib. Both Sharp and Raqib were interviewed extensively in the documentary about the work they are doing to advance the study and use of nonviolent action in conflicts around the world.
I had never heard of Gene Sharp until Ademo Freeman recommended the documentary on Facebook. The first time I mentioned Sharp to someone else (online) was in a comment on one of Wendy McElroy’s articles. While McElroy did not know about the documentary, she was very familiar with Sharp’s writings. She recommended Sharp’s three-volume work The Politics of Nonviolent Action in one of her comments, mentioned that she met him before in another comment, and in a third comment said, “Gene Sharp is pivotal. If you have a choice between reading him and reading me…I want him to win out.” Other people in the comment section had at least heard of him too. Apparently he is more well-known than I thought.
Of course Gene Sharp deserves to be even more well-known than he is now. At one point in the documentary Jamila Raqib says that she believes that one day Gene Sharp will be a household name. I would say the reason is because his writings have had a great effect on several uprisings, revolutions, and nonviolent undermines of dictators, yes, but also because his ideas can be applied to effectively undermine all unjust governments. All of us who passionately want to achieve a free society ought to read and understand his work so that we can know how to most effectively reach our goal.
A list of 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action is published on the Albert Einstein Institution’s website.
UPDATE 03/27/2013: I have finally finished reading Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy. I will write a post on it in the next few days. In the mean time, I have posted one of my favorite parts of the essay: The “Monkey Master” Fable. Check it out.