Gene Sharp has spent six decades promoting non-violent struggle against authoritarian regimes, bringing him jail time,
Nobel Peace Prize nominations and the ire of dictators across the world. Alan
Leo talks to him about the power of words, his contact with Albert Einstein,
and why Angola is the latest regime to fear his works.
Angolan security forces burst into a home
in its capital city Luanda at the end of June and detained 13 young men –
“caught red-handed” in the words of Angola’s interior ministry.
offence? Meeting to discuss books about non-violent democratic reform,
including From Dictatorship to Democracy,
a tract on non-violent struggle by US political theorist Gene Sharp.
Amid a widening crackdown against critics
of Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos and his 36-year authoritarian
rule, the jailing of a book club struck observers as a particularly naked
assault on free expression. “The Angolan regime is afraid of books,”
wrote Angolan journalist and Index on
Censorship award winner Rafael Marques de Morais. But why?
For an article for quarterly magazine Index on Censorship the author put the
question to Sharp, whose works – which also include Sharp’s Dictionary of Power and Struggle and his three-volume opus,
The Politics of Nonviolent Action—have been suppressed by authoritarian regimes around the world, from Burma to
Belarus, Iran and China.
“They have good reason to be
afraid,” said Sharp. “Some words are more powerful than
Political power, in Sharp’s view, is never
taken; it is only given by the people. From Dictatorship to Democracy suggests 198 ways
people can stop giving.
That idea has animated 87-year-old Sharp
for six decades, from his own imprisonment for civil disobedience in the 1950s,
through an academic career researching theories of non-violent struggle, to his
establishment in 1983 of the Albert Einstein Institution, which supports
research and education to translate those theories into action around the
Einstein wrote the introduction to Sharp’s
first book, a study of Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent tactics. The young Sharp,
facing prosecution for civil disobedience in his stance against US conscription
during the Korean conflict, had written to the eminent scholar and pacifist
seeking advice – and a favour.
“He supported people who were
standing up for free speech, and who were in trouble because of that,”
Sharp said. Einstein had his work blacklisted in Nazi Germany, was targeted
under McCarthyism when he moved to the US, and spoke up for human rights
throughout his career. “So I wrote him a letter and said, ‘Excuse me, but
I’m about to go to jail. And by the way, I have this manuscript of a book on
how Gandhi used civil disobedience and non-violent struggle.’”
To Sharp’s surprise, Einstein agreed to
write the introduction and the two continued their correspondence until Sharp
went to prison. The book, with Einstein’s introduction, was not published until
after the physicist’s death.
“I never met him,” said Sharp,
who is nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for the fourth time this year.
“I should have, I guess. The executor of his estate, Otto Nathan, scolded
me later for not going down to Princeton. But I was also getting ready to go to
Today, Sharp believes his understanding of
Gandhi was in some ways naive. Like others, Sharp thought that Gandhi’s
followers converted some opponents through the moral weight of their
non-violent tactics. “I believed you could melt their hearts,” said
Sharp, palms pressed in supplication below sarcastic puppy-dog eyes.
The classic example was Gandhi’s first
campaign of mass civil disobedience, against caste-based segregation in the
Indian village of Vykom. Sharp said he now agrees with political scientist Mary
King, whose recent book Gandhian
Nonviolent Struggle and Untouchability in South India argues that the
Vaikom Satyagraha, as this practice of resistance was known, did not melt the
hearts of the upper castes; small concessions were instead squeezed from the
state through tactical pressure and compromise.
The tactical, rather than moral,
dimensions of non-violent struggle have defined Sharp’s later work. Sharp said
he disdains violence not as a pacifist but as a strategist. “The idea that
power comes out of the barrel of a gun,” he said, “was an idiotic
statement from someone who didn’t know anything about how to win a
In 1993, Burmese dissident U Tin Maung Win
asked Sharp to contribute to his underground journal, New Era. Sharp told Tin Maung Win he was unfamiliar with Burma but
offered to write in general terms about strategic non-violence. The result was
From Dictatorship to Democracy, which has since been translated into more than
40 languages and praised by democracy activists from Serbia to Indonesia to
Ukraine to the Arab Spring.
Sharp’s influence has led critics from
authoritarian regimes and the far left to accuse him of fomenting “soft
coups” on behalf of the US government. In response, 138 scholars and
activists, including Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, signed a 2008 letter
supporting Sharp and rejecting any link between the Albert Einstein Institution
and US foreign policy.
Sharp is used to suspicion. Soviet agents
trailed him through the Baltic states in 1991, Chinese agents outside Tiananmen
Square in 1989. “They were quite friendly,” he recalled. “Spoke
excellent English. ‘Who are you? What are you doing here? And so forth.”
The Albert Einstein Institution does not
seek out activists, Sharp said, and it offers its materials to anyone who asks.
In a statement expressing concern about the detention of Sharp’s readers in
Angola, the institution offered its resources to Angola’s president. If Dos
Santos is truly worried about a coup, the statement read, “We recommend
that he read our publication, The Anti-Coup, on how non-violent action can
deter and defeat coups d’état.”
In recent years, the institution has
operated out of Sharp’s home in East Boston, a working-class neighbourhood of
immigrants adjacent to Logan airport. The comfortable, shabby offices befit a
retired academic, but Sharp has no interest in retirement. He and the
institute’s five-person staff are working hard to collect, revise and publish
six decades of work, driven by an unspoken urgency to keep up all the work
while Sharp still has the energy.
The institution’s website offers most of
Sharp’s works for free. From Dictatorship to Democracy, which was originally
smuggled into Burma by river, can now be downloaded from anywhere in the world.
In the last year, they say the site has tallied visits from all but four
“This new technology is much more
dangerous,” Sharp said. And dictators know it.
“The regimes have become more aware
of my writing,” he said.
“Maybe? because I became more explicit about how you can get rid of these
regimes, the fact they’re not permanent, they don’t last forever. They’re on
their way out.
“And they don’t like news like
that.”- © Index on Censorship
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