Waging Nonviolent Struggle:20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential

Gene Sharp, Porter Sargent Publishers, 2005, Boston, 598 pages, $24.95 (US). Also, can be downloaded from the website of the Albert Einstein Institution.

By John Bacher (reviewer) | 2005-07-01 12:00:00

Gene Sharp has outdone himself. For thirty years he has been the pre-eminent scholar showing societies how to get rid of oppressive rulers. No one else -- at least since Gandhi -- has been such a brilliant strategist of nonviolent resistance. Repeatedly he has shown us (at least those of us who would pay attention) that dictators depend for their power on the willingness of populations to obey, and that with astute strategizing, it is possible to withdraw that obedience on far more occasions, and at considerably less risk, than we normally suppose.

Lately, we are in a new phase when such strategies are being employed again. Around 1988-1992, in the previous such phase, the populations of the Philippines, China, Eastern Europe, and Chile emulated each other's methods and overthrew their own rulers. More recently, however, such movements as the one in Serbia that overthrew Milosevic, the one in Georgia that toppled Shevardnadze, those in Lebanon, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, have consciously used strategies for which they had trained, explicitly drawing from Gene Sharp's writings -- especially his booklet From Dictatorship to Democracy, which is now being translated into more and more languages for the benefit of populations that are only now daring to plan their next moves. At last, the European press is also catching on, for journalists are frequently phoning his organization, the Albert Einstein Institution, requesting interviews. Regrettably, the North American press is slower, seemingly not yet convinced that any other form of power can possibly equal those wielded by states.

Sharp's new book, Waging Nonviolent Struggle, gives redeeming meaning to the euphemism for military violence, "shock and awe." Here the shock and awe comes from the evidence he assembled, based on an impressive range of nonviolent struggles from a great variety of cultures and civilizations.

Our own shock and awe upon reading Waging Nonviolent Struggle reveals how poorly the general public understands the power of nonviolent resistance. Unfortunately, Sharp is not a guru even to such bold critics of military adventures as Noam Chomsky. Indeed, the skimpy public recognition in his own society urgently threatens the survival of his Albert Einstein Institution for lack of funds, even while his advice is paying off in dissolving one dictatorship after another on the other side of the world. We can only hope that this impeccably logical book will be read by those who have previously ignored his insights.

The book has four parts. In Part One Sharp explains in plain, cogent language the true basis of power and how disaffected populations can refuse to obey rulers and thereby gain power for themselves. In Part Two, Sharp offers 23 short chapters by several different authors, each chapter showing a historical case in which these methods have been employed -- usually successfully, even when the rulers would eagerly have used violence against the resisters -- if only the military had obeyed their orders!

In Part Three, we get additional theoretical insights into the dynamics of collective political defiance. Sharp does not minimize the risks of such resistance. He insists that this is no amateur sport, but that it is risky and requires strategizing as astute as that of any military general. Indeed, in Part Four he focuses entirely on the strategic analyses that should be carried out before a campaign of nonviolence is launched. He offers an appendix by a former colonel, Robert Helvey, who has become his closest ally in promoting alterantive ways of fighting; it was Helvey, for example, who met with the young Serbs to plan the "Otpor" campaign that would oust Slobodan Milosevic. Helvey proceeds by identifying the specific "pillars of power" on which each particular ruler happens to rely. This kind of resistance is used when the movement has gone past any effort to persuade the rulers. Instead, as Sharp notes, "In order to control the power of rulers, those sources of power that are provided by the society's groups and institutions must first be identified. Then the population will be able, when needed, to restrict or sever the supply of those sources."

Yet in most of these 23 cases, there was little or no prior consideration of strategy, advance planning, or even selection of methods that were most suitable for that particular conflict. The people who used it had little real understanding of the nature of nonviolent resistance, its history, or its requirements for effectiveness. Sharp writes,

"If such an analysis had been prepared, it certainly would have assisted the planners of the nonviolent struggles. It might then have been possible to make a much more effective use of the strengths of the resisters.... [But] there were no handbooks on how to plan the struggle... With such handicaps, it is amazing tht the practice of the technique has been as widespread, successful, and orderly as it has been."

Each of the 23 heroic struggles cited here would be a wonderful subject for a Hollywood movie, but the only one that has made it to the big screen so far is the life of Gandhi. Nor are these stories on any weekly TV shows. After reading Sharp, one yearns for a nonviolent TV series to counter the tiresome propaganda piece for the military way, JAG.

Ever since the US began preparing to invade Iraq, we have heard debates between defenders of Saddam Hussein's regime and advocates of armed invasion -- as if those two options were the only realistic ones. We hear similar polarized debates now around such surviving "rogue states" as Iran, Syria, and North Korea.

Unlike many on the left, Sharp does not trivialize the problems created by dictatorships. In contrast to the right, however, he shows that there are effective alternatives to the use of bombs, high technology missile shields, and invasions. In Waging Nonviolent Struggle he traces back in time the use of nonviolent action to foster democratization, showing for example such approaches in the brave acts of suffragettes, who won voting rights for women. While women were willing to die in this struggle -- notably, one being crushed to death at a horse race -- not a single person used violence against anybody.

Fortunately, in reading Waging Nonviolent Struggle we find some corrections of distorted foreign policy debates. For example, in the nonviolent Serbian revolution of 2000 (which won without causing one drop of blood to be shed) CNN made it appear that the celebratory burning of stuffed ballot boxes was an act of violence! Actually, the Serbian Revolution followed the guidelines for nonviolent struggle outlined in Waging Nonviolent Struggle. It was aided by both the Republican and Democratic National Institutes, which have both played a distinguished role in promoting nonviolence to spread human freedom. These institutes were not mentioned by the big media conglomerates, who look to the military as the projection of American power.

By selecting so many case studies, Sharp shows that nonviolent methods have been used in a great variety of cultures, including Islam, which is stereotyped as relying entirely on violent struggle. (This image has been reinforced by Samuel Huntington's sensationalist book, Clash of Civilizations.)

The Islamic example in Waging Nonviolent Struggle is the account by Dr. Mohammad Raqib of the Muslim Pashtun "Red Shirt" movement of the North-West Frontier Province of India from 1930 to 1934. This was led by the remarkable democrat, Ghaffar Khan. The Awami League, his political party, founded after independence, has sometimes been the government of Bangladesh and still struggles as a weaker political voice in Pakistan. Raqib's account has greater significance, given the subsequent role in international terrorism played by Pakistan, which has received world attention since September 11, 2001.

To counter the Red Shirts, who believed in working with the predominantly Hindu Congress Party, the British assisted the Muslim League, which built support for the creation of Pakistan. According to Raqib, he British,

"took advantage of Hindu-Muslim differences by telling the pro-government mullahs (Muslim religious leaders) in the frontier to name Ghaffar Khan and the Khudai Khidmatgar (Red Shirts) as friends of Hindus. This misinformation campaign was used by the British to turn Pashtun opinion against the Khudai Khidmatgar and to label them as kafir (unbelievers). The interfaith unity made the colonial power so nervous that from the mid-1930s, they directed time and effort to create the Muslim League and undermine the Red Shirt-Congress alliance."

In addition to using the Red Shirt struggle to shatter stereotypes about Islam, Raqib uses it effectively to demolish the notion that Gandhi succeeded in India only because of the "gentlemanly" nature of the British. Rather than behaving with such restraint, the British carried out a massacre of 200 peaceful demonstrators. According to reliable accounts by an international observer, "gunning the Red Shirts was a popular sport and pastime in the British forces in the province."

Unlike the more famous Amritsar massacre described in the movie Gandhi, soldiers who took part in this slaughter were not punished by authorities. The people punished by the British were the two brave platoons of soldiers of the Royal Garhwal Rifles who refused to take part in the slaughter. They were treated harshly and given prison sentences of 10 to 14 years.

Sharp refutes Huntington's argument that civilizations differ in irreconcilable ways by showing examples of spectacular nonviolent struggle from every religious tradition. Typically he praises Gandhi, not for being a great Hindu holy man, but for being the greatest tactician of nonviolent struggle.

Joshua Paulson, in his account of Burmese nonviolent struggle, provides moving portraits of Buddhist nonviolence. Key roles were played by Buddhist monks, who were able in 1988 to take over the administration of Mandalay and outlying villages, but were later targeted for assassination.

In an astonishing account of nonviolent struggle in California's grape workers strike, Hardy Merriman describes how, rather than commit violence against strikebreakers, union leader Cesar Chavez used mass prayer meetings and established altars. This encouraged strikebreakers to leave the fields to pray at these altars.

One of the most moving stories describes nuns kneeling in prayer in front of tanks and priests climbing atop military vehicles to lead people blocking a wave of troops originally loyal to Philippines dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. Confronted by this spectacle of prayer and devotion, the troops turned back.

Sharp links his analysis of how to make nonviolent struggle strategically more effective to his 23 case studies. These include such varied events as saving Jewish husbands in Berlin in 1943, the French defence against a military coup in 1961, and defending democracy in Thailand in 1992. Significant of the new importance of these struggles in fostering a saner world order is that Thailand's constitution now gives its citizens the right to use nonviolent civil disobedience against an attempted military coup.

Knowing how the end of Sharp's book resembles Robert Helvey's training course makes it seem tragic that Helvey, despite his good connections with the International Republican Institute, was not able to give this course to students who wanted to learn how to put an end to Saddam Hussein's tyranny. Not enough funding could be gathered for the critical part of the course -- identifying the pillars of a dictatorship and the means of removing them. The continuing new coverage of the ongoing civil war in Iraq certainly proves that the lessons of Waging Nonviolent Struggle should be learned. Research into the effective nonviolent alternatives to war deserves our fullest possible support.

Reviewed by John Bacher, a Toronto writer and activist.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2005

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2005, page 28. Some rights reserved.

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