Known as the «Machiavelli of non-violence,» Gene Sharp shares the 2012 Right Livelihood Awards with three others. He’s written widely on non-violent political action, inspiring movements from Myanmar to Egypt.
It may have started when he chose to become a conscientious objector and refused to serve in the Korean War of the 1950s. The US political theorist Gene Sharp, now 84, knew even back then that political revolution could be non-violent.
That conviction – and his work over the past decades – has won Sharp a Right Livelihood Award, otherwise known as an «Alternative Nobel prize,» in Stockholm. He shares the 150,000-euro ($195,000) prize with Sima Samar, an Afghan doctor, and Britain’s Campaign Against Arms Trade. The 90-year-old Turkish environmentalist Hayrettin Karaca receives an honorary award.
In an interview with DW on Thursday (27.09.2012) following the announcement of the award, Sharp noted: «It’s a great honor, of course. And it shows that there’s been increasing recognition in the past few months, and the past two years, of the importance of ‘people power’ or civil resistance. People are realizing: ‘aha, there is something we can do. We do not need to passively submit to a person, we do not need to go over to violence and dictatorships. We can do something else and we can win.'»
A public enemy
If Sharp’s 1973 book «The Politics of Nonviolent Action» was inspiring, it’s been his philosophy of people power, as outlined in his 1993 publication «From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation,» that has been earth-shaking. This how-to guide to toppling tyrants in non-violent fashion has been repeatedly reprinted and translated into over 30 languages – appealing to social activists around the world, from Serbia and Ukraine to Egypt and Myanmar. It is also said to have influenced protesters involved in the Arab Spring demonstrations of 2010-2012 and those of the Occupy movement.
But Sharp’s pacifist philosophy has also triggered the wrath of regimes like those in Iran, which portrayed him as a public enemy in a propaganda video. The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has warned that Sharp was planning a «velvet revolution» in Iran. Still, Sharp has remained modest about his impact, saying that he merely analyzed the weaknesses of all regimes.
Pointing out that dictatorships are largely motivated by the oppressors’ fears, Sharp’s analyses of political regimes seem to be his greatest weapon.
«In the past, with the Nazi dictatorship and with atomic weapons used on Japan, we’ve had the feeling that people are powerless and at the mercy of these horrible regimes and the horrors of the world,» he reflected. «But there have been plenty of people who have also resisted. And there has been an extension of that in the past few years in North Africa and other places. This type of struggle is coming of age in terms of its recognition and that’s very important for people pondering how to deal with the problems that remain.»
Those problems, in Sharp’s view, include continued dictatorships, coup d’états, terrorism, and a feeling of helplessness among people.
A list of tools
Sharp’s premise for non-violent revolution is brilliant in its simplicity: without the support of its people, no regime can survive. Take it away, and the whole structure collapses.
His methods to that end are equally simple and powerful. In his «198 Methods of Nonviolent Action,» he lists «displays of flags and symbolic colors» as one of many tools for toppling a regime. During the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, protesters transformed city squares into seas of orange flags and clothing. The effect was striking.
Other tools on Sharp’s list: slogans, caricatures and symbols, prayer, worship and singing. In Cairo last year, protesters during the Egyptian Revolution assembled for Friday prayers followed by mass political rallies. They lived in tents on Tahrir Square, singing and making art all along the way.
Sharp’s visions have prompted everything from accusations that he was working for the CIA to the British documentary «How to Start a Revolution,» released last September, in which the scholar plays the leading role. Still, Sharp forges on, continuing to publish works such as «Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential» with Joshua Paulson in 2005, and «Sharp’s Dictionary of Power and Struggle» in 2011.
The academics of pacifism
Sharp, who is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth, founded the non-profit Albert Einstein Institution in Boston in 1983, an organization devoted to the study and strategic use of non-violent action in conflict situations around the world.
He studied at Ohio State University and received a Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University in 1968, before holding research posts at Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs.
Born in North Baltimore, Ohio in 1928 as the son of a Protestant minister, Sharp has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize twice.
But looking back at his life, Sharp said there was no key moment that inspired his study of non-violent revolution. «It was more a series of realizations about the state of the world and of all of the puzzle pieces,» he said. «The struggle of non-violent revolution is not new, however. It draws on the very nature of human beings. People are capable of being stubborn and a bit difficult, and governments have trouble with this.»
Sharp demonstrated such an attitude, which landed him nine months in jail when he protested against conscription for the Korean War.
Filling in the gaps
Although as an American he was not directly affected by the Nazi dictatorship in Europe, it was that dictatorship which shaped Sharp’s thinking and his belief in people power. He read of examples of non-violent struggle which had achieved something even then, and he became convinced that this was the way forward.
Despite the more violent protests across the Arab world of late, Sharp believes that, in the long term, insightful reflection on political mechanisms combined with non-violent protests will gain the upper hand in a conflict – after all, he says, violence is the enemy’s best weapon.
«If you really want to accomplish your objective, you have to think about how to do it, and do it skillfully,» he said. «This is a new realization of what human beings are capable of: that we can use our minds now to find our way out of these difficulties.»