A short profile of the ideas of Gene Sharp, the foremost scholar of nonviolent resistance.

Grant Babcock
Philosophy & Policy Editor

Grant Babcock is the Philosophy and Policy Editor of Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org and a scholar of political philosophy. He is especially interested in nonviolent action, epistemology of the social sciences, social contract theories and criticisms thereof, and finding libertarian‐​compatible responses to cultural problems.

What do you think of when I say “nonviolent resistance?” Maybe you imagine long‐​haired, draft‐​dodging hippies. Or maybe movements grounded in religious commitments to peaceful means, like Gandhi’s or Martin Luther King’s.

Many people see nonviolent resistance as the tool of cowards or of people who rule out violence for ethical reasons: a flimsy substitute for “real” action. In recent years, this has been changing, but for a long time, nonviolent resistance was widely misunderstood.

Which brings us to Gene Sharp.

What Sharp accomplished in his academic work, beginning with his 1973 three‐​volume opus The Politics of Nonviolent Action, was to reframe nonviolence on positive, rather than normative, grounds. He analyzed the work of people like Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Henry David Thoreau, and Leo Tolstoy with a predominantly strategic eye.

In his acceptance speech for the 2012 Right Livelihood Award, Sharp explained it this way:

During the past century and long before, at times people have found another way to fight when they needed to struggle for various objectives. In those limited situations the use of violence shrank or disappeared. Not because it was evil, but because it wasn’t needed anymore. The violence had been replaced with nonviolent struggle.

Nonviolence is certainly compatible with a pacifist ethic, but one need not accept that nonviolence is ethically mandatory to find it strategically useful. In any case, it has not historically been practiced exclusively by pacifists. Sharp explains:

This technique is identified by what people do, not by what they believe. And many of the people who have been so brave in nonviolent struggles that have changed the world in many ways have believed in violence, but they [inaudible] nonviolent struggle as an expedient way to accomplish something. It was because it would work better.

Sharp argues that nonviolent resistance is a powerful tool for fighting tyrants. His analysis is based on an acute insight into the basis of political power. To rule, the state requires the cooperation of a subset of the ruled population. Rulers do not enforce their own laws. Nor do they carry out their own atrocities. They always and everywhere have assistance from a group of people, usually a fairly sizeable group, willing to do as they are told. The ability of a government to enforce its will on others can therefore be undermined if the necessary cooperation is withdrawn.

Tyranny can be resisted by withdrawing one’s own cooperation, and by finding ways to disrupt the ruler’s ability to secure the cooperation of others. The trick is to carry on resisting in the face of violent repression. Violence does not, in itself, accomplish the ruler’s goals–those goals are only accomplished if the ruled respond to sanctions with compliance. As Sharp puts it, “the ditch remains undug even if the men who refused to dig it have been shot” (The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Vol. 1, p. 28). Of course, a tyrant’s ability to inflict sanctions also depends on the cooperation of others, and this cooperation can be disrupted.

The obedience theory of political power is not original to Sharp. Political theorists going back to Étienne de La Boétie have thought the same way. But Sharp’s treatment of this theory of political power is rigorous, scholarly, and comprehensive. He painstakingly investigated and classified the many different forms the tactical withdrawal of cooperation has taken.

Sharp’s compendious array of examples draws from different places, cultures, and eras. I’ll highlight two here.

During World War II, the noncooperation of schoolteachers in Norway thwarted the plans of the Nazi‐​collaborationist Quisling regime to corporatize the economy. The teachers refused, again and again, to join the regime’s fascist teachers’ organizations, or to propagandize their students. They persisted in their defiance even after being sent to prison camps. By refusing to implement Vidkun Quisling’s program, the teachers made it impossible for him to implement the fascist’s education policy, and because taking over education was the spearhead program in Quisling’s efforts to remake the entire Norwegian society, they thereby helped to thwart the fascist takeover of Norway. Quisling famously exclaimed, “You teachers have destroyed everything for me!” You can read Sharp’s longer account of the episode here.

Nonviolent resistance was also an important aspect of the resistance to slavery in America. One of many examples Sharp recounts is the rescue of Shadrach Minkins:

[Nonviolent interjection] has also been used to assist the escape of an apprehended Negro who was thought to be an escaped slave. One such example occurred in Boston in 1851, during the period of the Federal Fugitive Slave Law. Shadrach, a waiter in a Boston coffeehouse, had been arrested, Mabee reports, charged as an escaped Virginia slave, and brought to court. A group of from twenty to forty Negroes entered the courtroom and, laughing and jostling, moved about the room, thus enabling him to start the journey to Canada. Daniel Webster, then Secretary of State, called the rescue treason, and Senator Henry Clay thought the law should be made more severe. The American and Foreign Antislavery Society pointed out, however, that no weapons had been used and no one was injured, while [William Lloyd] Garrison pronounced this action by “unarmed friends of equal liberty” to be “an uninjurious deliverance of the oppressed out of the hands of the oppressor.”(The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Vol. 2, p. 384)

Sharp is careful to say that nonviolent resistance is not always and everywhere successful. It has, however, succeeded in a wide variety of historical contexts, and against even the most brutal opponents. Often, resisters have little or no training and resistance campaigns are improvised, rather than meticulously planned. Yet, despite these disadvantages, nonviolent resistance has been surprisingly successful. We must be careful, Sharp reminds us, to remember that violence doesn’t always work. The question from a tactical perspective is whether nonviolence is better suited to the task at hand than violent tactics would be.

For a more thorough introduction to Sharp’s work, I highly encourage you to read his booklet From Dictatorship to Democracy, which presents the theory in more detail than I have provided here. It’s a quick, accessible read and makes for good discussion material, if you are so inclined.

Libertarians have long sought effective methods to fight state power. Next week, I will look at nonviolence in the libertarian tradition and academic engagement by libertarians with theorists of nonviolence, especially Sharp.