Gene Sharp, the pioneering and prolific scholar of Gandhian nonviolence and civil resistance, passed away this week at age 90. His life was dedicated to examining the ways in which nonviolent action achieves political change.
While studying Gandhi’s methods at Oxford in the 1950s, Sharp realized that it is not necessary to convert people to pacifism in order to organize effective nonviolent action. Many of those who followed Gandhi in the Indian freedom struggle did not accept his pacifist principles. They used his methods because they found them to be most effective for their strategy of winning independence from British rule.
This understanding of nonviolence as a superior method of political action was a key conceptual breakthrough. Nonviolent action is not only the right thing to do, it is also the most effective.
Sharp’s thesis on the superiority of nonviolent methods was later confirmed in the work of Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, whose 2008 book Why Civil Resistance Works provides empirical data showing that campaigns utilizing nonviolent means are twice as effective as those that employ armed struggle.
Sharp devoted himself to the study of nonviolent action as a pragmatic means of achieving change. He published many important books and pamphlets, including his three-volume classic, The Politics of Nonviolent Action (Porter Sargent, 1973) and Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential (Extending Horizons Books, Porter Sargent Publishers, 2005). His booklet, From Dictatorship to Democracy, published originally by his Albert Einstein Institution in 1994, was subsequently reprinted and translated into more than two dozen languages, including Arabic.
The youth leaders in Egypt who led the revolution overthrowing the Mubarak regime in 2011 read and received training in Sharp’s work. This prompted the New York Times to credit the bookish octogenarian scholar with creating the playbook for revolution, a claim Sharp denied although he expressed satisfaction that the revolutionists found his ideas useful.
Sharp’s ideas and insights live on in the work of the Einstein Institution, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict and in the work of peace studies and civil resistance centers around the world. Let us commemorate his life by re-reading his work and renewing our commitment to nonviolent action for justice and peace.