Nonviolence Guru Gene Sharp Gets His Due

Gene SharpOn February 16, the New York Times ran an article on the “Shy U.S. Intellectual” who “Created Playbook Used in a Revolution.” Author Sheryl Gay Stolberg reports:

“Few Americans have heard of [political scientist Gene] Sharp. But for decades, his practical writings on nonviolent revolution — most notably “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” a 93-page guide to toppling autocrats . . . have inspired dissidents around the world.”

According to a recent BBC article

. . . Sharp provides in his books a list of 198 “non-violent weapons”, ranging from the use of colours and symbols to mock funerals and boycotts. Designed to be the direct equivalent of military weapons, they are techniques collated from a forensic study of defiance to tyranny throughout history. . . . From Dictatorship to Democracy was written for the Burmese democratic movement in 1993, after the imprisonment of Aung San Suu Kyi. . . . From Burma word of mouth spread through Thailand to Indonesia where it was used against the military dictatorship there. Its success in helping to bring down Milosevic in Serbia in 2000 propelled it into use across Eastern Europe, South America and the Middle East.

Including Egypt. Ms. Stolberg explains.

Egypt’s April 6 Youth Movement was struggling to recover from a failed effort in 2005 [and] its leaders tossed around “crazy ideas” about bringing down the government, said Ahmed Maher, a leading strategist. They stumbled on Mr. Sharp while examining the Serbian movement Otpor, which he had influenced.

She then quotes Foreign Policy in Focus’s Stephen Zunes: “He is generally considered the father of the whole field of the study of strategic nonviolent action.”

Obviously Sharp is far left, right? Think again. Ms. Stolberg:

Some people suspect Mr. Sharp of being a closet peacenik and a lefty . . . he once worked as personal secretary to A. J. Muste, a noted labor union activist and pacifist [and] as a young man he participated in lunch-counter sit-ins and spent nine months in a federal prison in Danbury, Conn., as a conscientious objector during the Korean War.

But . . .

. . . he insists that he outgrew his own early pacifism and describes himself as “trans-partisan.”

Still, you might be surprised to learn that he has been the subject of withering attacks from the left. In a 2008 Foreign Policy in Focus piece, Zunes reports that Sharp was

. . . under attack by a number of foreign governments that claim that he and his small research institute are key players in a Bush administration plot against them.

Though there is no truth to these charges, several leftist web sites and publications have been repeating such claims as fact. [Apparently] as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Bush administration’s open advocacy for “regime change,” any American group or individual who provides educational resources on strategic nonviolence to . . . human rights activists in foreign countries has suddenly become suspect of being an agent of U.S. imperialism — even Gene Sharp and [his] Albert Einstein Institution.

For example, in February [2008] Iranian government television informed viewers that Gene Sharp was “one of the CIA agents in charge of America’s infiltration into other countries.” [Meanwhile] Tony Logan insists that AEI [It doesn't help that it has the same initials as the conservative American Enterprise Institute. -- RW] “is a U.S. government run operation designed to link Gandhian methods of nonviolent protest to [U.S.] efforts to overthrow foreign governments.” [And] a commentary published in the Asia Times . . . accused Sharp of being the “concert-master” for the Saffron Revolution in Burma, claiming that [AEI] is funded by an arm of the U.S. government “to foster U.S.-friendly regime change in key spots around the world” . . . Implicit in such charges is that Burmese monks and other pro-democracy activists in that country are unable to initiate such actions themselves and their decision to take to the streets . . . without some Western scholar telling them [what] to do.

The closest thing to a charge that sticks, according to Zunes:

Well prior to the Bush administration coming to office, AEI received a couple of small grants from the congressionally funded [and soundly discredited -- RW] National Endowment for Democracy . . . and the International Republican Institute . . . to translate some of Gene Sharp’s theoretical writings. [As noted in the Times article, Sharp takes] a “transpartisan” position that cuts across political boundaries and conceptions and makes their educational resources available to essentially anyone.

In the end:

Activists from groups ranging from . . . Code Pink to the Brown Berets — as well as such radical scholars as Noam Chomsky [and] Howard Zinn [signed] an open letter in support of Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution.

We’ll end with some “sharp words,” as quoted by Ms. Stolberg.

“If you fight with violence,” Mr. Sharp said, “you are fighting with your enemy’s best weapon, and you may be a brave but dead hero.”