John-Paul Flintoff: Power - and how to seize it

John-Paul Flintoff

Power - and how to seize it

After a lifetime’s work, people are finally listening to Gene Sharp

If Gene Sharp had his way, there would be no more fighting. People everywhere would learn to resolve their differences by other means.

But Sharp is not a typical pacifist. “When I used to lecture, I would always get complaints from the pacifists. They would say I wasn’t pure. What I was proposing was “still conflict”, they would say.”

Military people often understood him better. One retired US Army colonel, Robert Helvey, heard Sharp lecture 20 years ago, and persuaded him to visit Burma, where rebels asked Sharp to give them advice.

“I didn’t know Burma well,” Sharp remembers. “So I had to write generically: if a movement wanted to bring a dictatorship to an end, how would they do it?”

He wrote a pamphlet, From Dictatorship To Democracy. This contained the idea for which Sharp is best known: that power is held only by the consent of the people over whom it is exercised, and that consent can be withdrawn. All regimes depend on certain pillars of support, and with a proper strategy resisters can remove those pillars non-violently.

The book was originally published in English and Burmese. “And I thought that was it,” Sharp says. But it was put on display in a bookshop in Bangkok. From there, nobody knows exactly how it spread. But it did – all over the world. “I’m still amazed. It didn’t spread because of propaganda or some sales pitch but because people found it useable, and important.”

“I had no idea how useful it would be,” confirms Srdja Popovic, a leader of the movement that toppled Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia. Others have described the effect of reading Sharp’s work as “mind blowing”, because it showed that what previously seemed impossible may not be after all.

For nearly 20 years, From Dictatorship to Democracy has circulated clandestinely in nearly 40 countries. It was being printed in Russia when the the FSB (successor to the KGB) raided the print shop. It later went on sale in two independent Russian bookstores that both, remarkably, soon caught fire.

The British film maker Ruaridh Arrow first heard about Sharp when he was covering Ukraine’s Orange revolution. He decided to find out more, and the result of his work was a film, How To Start A Revolution, which has been shown in more than 22 countries and became an underground hit among the Occupy movement. But Sharp’s teachings are winning interest from the mainstream. From Dictatorship to Democracy was finally given official publication in the UK last year. It sold out within days. The Archbishop of Canterbury invited Sharp to meet bishops from around the world; and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Conflict Issues asked Sharp to address MPs, peers and senior civil servants at the House of Commons. The room was packed – thanks to a few dozen Occupy activists – and Sharp received a standing ovation.

After a lifetime of lonely academic toil, Sharp has suddenly found, in his mid-80s, that people all over the world are ready to hear his theory of power – and how to seize it. “This is a very strange experience,” he says.

Is the acclaim overblown? Since Sharp’s visit to the UK, the Occupy movement has largely fizzled out, and the Arab spring has not amounted to much either. Is he worried that his reputation will fall again? “I don’t give a damn about my reputation. The point is that bringing down one regime does not produce political nirvana. You still have tough times ahead. I have always been very clear about that.

“But people used to say non-violence can’t work. After Tunisia and Egypt, people can no longer deny that non-violent regime change is possible. The old theory of a “just war” is that there must be no viable alternative. I think that’s false now. It’s no longer a theological question – it’s an empirical question.” He quotes Kenneth Boulding: “That which is, is possible. The breakthrough has happened. And you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”


In person, Sharp is frail. He walks slowly, using a stick, and speaks quietly: talking to him, I find it necessary to lean forward to catch what he’s saying.

He has held tenure at both Oxford and Harvard, but since 2004 he has run his Albert Einstein Institute out of two rooms in his home, near Boston’s Logan airport. His desk is piled up deeply with papers, and the rest of the office is cluttered too. The lack of space is a real problem. “You can’t imagine the number of things I can’t find now,” says the man who has been nominated for a Nobel peace prize. “I can’t find my thesaurus, or the Oxford English Dictionary. I don’t know where my copy of Aristotle’s Politics is… They’re in boxes, they’ve been in boxes since we moved here years ago. I miss them all the time. We have maybe 20 or 30 boxes like that. I can’t look through them, because it takes me away from doing something more important.”

It’s a modest arrangement that belies the charge, not infrequently repeated by regimes in Venezuela, Iran and elsewhere, that the AEI is a well-funded front for the CIA.

The institute took its name from Einstein because, as a young conscientious objector at the time of the Korean war, Sharp himself used civil disobedience to oppose conscription, and Einstein supported him. He was living in New York, writing a book about Gandhi, when he learned that Einstein admired Gandhi too. “I wrote to him in Princeton and said I was about to go to jail for resisting conscription and – oh, by the way, I’ve written this book.” Einstein wrote a foreword.

Sharp was sentenced to two years in jail. His parents, a pastor and a schoolteacher, were understandably upset. “They tried to get me to be more reasonable, by applying to be a recognised conscientious objector, but I was objecting to military conscription itself.” They visited him only once in jail.

Much later, after his mother died, Sharp learned that her first great love had been killed in the WW1 in France, so she was a bit more understanding about opposition to military service than his father. “But he came round too, eventually.”

On his release, Sharp worked as secretary to A J Mustie, then described by Time magazine as America’s number one pacifist, as a typist in Wall Street, and continued his analysis of Gandhi. The motive, it should be noted, was not sentimental. “I don’t admire Gandhi because he is “nice”. He was no fool. He has quotations about power and the need to struggle that, if you read them out of context, could have come from Mao Tse Tung. He was a tough cookie.”

As Mustie’s secretary, Sharp had put up a visitor from a British newspaper, Peace News, who recommended him for a job. So he moved to London. Based in King’s Cross, Peace News had a weekly circulation of about 14,000. Sharp reported on demonstrations, and Ministry of Defence press conferences. And soon after he was given the opportunity to study Oxford for a DPhil. (He had a BA and an MA from Ohio State.)

By this time he had developed a general theory of non-violent struggle, largely based on Gandhi’s insights, and classical political theorists such as Hobbes. His supervisor at All Souls, John Plamenatz, was a philosopher and a wartime member of the Yugoslav government in exile. Plamenatz advised Sharp not to focus exclusively on theory but to consider anecdotal evidence from actual dictatorships and revolutions.

So, living in a shared house on Oxford’s All Saints Road, Sharp started to accumulate examples from what turned out to be a vast history of the pragmatic use of nonviolent struggle. With hindsight this may not seem such a remarkable idea, but the effect of his researches would be stunning.

Sharp had always believed that a principled belief in nonviolence was necessary for the techniques to work. But his research showed that an overwhelming number of cases of nonviolent struggle were waged by people who did not have ethical or religious objections to violence.

He first became aware of this when he was sitting in a library, examining newspaper accounts of the use of nonviolent struggle in India. “I was copying by hand descriptions in Indian or English newspapers of what was happening in one of these conflicts. It became clear that the resisters were acting nonviolently without that belief.

“I stopped taking notes. Should I write that down or skip that part? I wrote it down. In time I realized this was not a grave problem but an immense opportunity. It will not be necessary to convert masses of humanity to believe in principled nonviolence before abandoning violence in conflicts.”

People who have tried to make change in the past have often done so spontaneously, and intuitively. How much more effective might they have been, he wondered, if they had a better idea what had been done before?

He made it his mission to show how effective non-violent political action has been, and how often. Over several years, he would compile a list of methods that stalled for years at precisely 198 methods of non-violent action. In his magnum opus, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, he gives examples of each method, drawn from throughout recorded history and all over the world. No. 67, “flight of workers”, could be said to have been used by Moses and the Israelites as a way to register dissatisfaction with the conduct of Pharoah. No. 90, “revenue refusal”, was used in Ancient China by unwilling taxpayers, who buried their possessions and took to the hills when the tax collector was known to be on his way. No. 57, “Lysistratic non-action”, may or may not have been used by women in Ancient Greece to end war by refusing sexual relations with bellicose men (as Aristophanes suggests) but Sharp found evidence of the technique being used by women of the Iroquois nation and in what was then called Southern Rhodesia. (It was used in Kenya more recently, by women who included the wife of the president.)

Some of the techniques appear almost boringly familiar, such as technique No 2, “letters of opposition or support”. But they can still be effective, and in certain contexts, even that step requires courage.

Other techniques require physical bravery, such as technique No. 171, “non-violent interjection”, as practised by that anonymous Chinese man before the tanks at Tiananmen Square. Or technique No. 66, “total personal non-cooperation”. During World War II a conscientious objector in the US named Corbett Bishop declined to eat, dress himself or even stand up. His limp body had to be carried in and out of court and a variety of prison cells. He was forcibly fed by tube. Eventually, after considerable newspaper publicity, he was allowed home without agreeing to anything.

Many techniques usually require the participation of more than one person. Technique 193, “overloading of administrative systems”, was used to great effect in the US during the Vietnam War, and more recently to crash official computer systems.

Taken as a whole, the list of 198 methods of non-violent action can be divided into three categories. The first comes under the general heading of “protest”, or “raising awareness”. The second are described by Sharp as non-cooperation – ceasing to have dealings with systems or people you dislike. (For instance, not buying items made by companies that exploit their workers, or refusing to fly in order to reduce CO2 emissions.) The third group comes under the heading of active interventions to disrupt the status quo, perhaps by building alternatives to what is currently available. These innovations need not be especially “alternative” in the pejorative sense. Nor are they always negative, in the sense of involving withdrawal or hostility. Japanese unions, working for employers who used just-in-time delivery, invented the “go-faster” strike to support their demand for better pay. In Milton Keynes, when a library was threatened with closure owing to budget cuts, local residents joined forces to withdraw every single book from that library, leaving every shelf bare: that is, they opposed the planned closure by showing that they really did use the library.

The tactic is so elegant that it appears obvious, and even unremarkable. But in light of it we can see the ineptness of others who, out of desperation in a similar situation, might have chosen different tactics – throwing paint over the local mayor, for instance, or embarking on a hunger strike.


Sceptics often say that ordinary people’s non-violent political efforts “could not have defeated the Nazis”. Are they right? Hypotheticals can never be proven, one way or the other. Rather than get bogged down in debate about whether non-violence “might have” beaten the Nazis, Sharp encourages us instead to consider how the Nazis actually were opposed non-violently, both within Germany and in occupied countries. His work provides a stunningly comprehensive account of non-violent resistance to the Nazis, often overlooked by military historians, in occupied countries and in Germany alike. There are too many instances to list here, but the individual examples aren’t important. The point is that, if it hadn’t been for these setbacks, modest though most of them were, Hitler’s regime might have been even worse than it was. To put it another way: if more people had dared to resist, the Nazis worst outrages might have been prevented. To say this is not to pass judgement on people living long ago. It’s to challenge ourselves, right now. Because it’s easy to imagine that we’d have acted boldly if we’d been in Germany at the time, but Sharp’s litany of examples challenges us to ask whether there’s something that we should be doing today, about something that’s going on right now.

Mind you, that challenge is not delivered in glittering prose. Sharp’s work impresses because of its thoroughness, and sheer bulk. Professor Thomas Schelling, who later won a Nobel prize for his work on game theory, tells me that when they first met in Oslo, in the 1960s, Sharp gave him “about eight hundred pages of a manuscript to read on airplanes back to London and back to the US”. Schelling offered Sharp a job at Harvard, partly (he told me) in order that Sharp could shorten the manuscript. In fact, Sharp lengthened it.

It was at Harvard that Sharp began to distance himself from his origins on the left, perhaps to make the work more palatable to a mainstream audience, by working with people he might previously have shunned. Indeed, he has never hidden the fact that his work at Harvard was partly funded by the US Department of Defense.

“Some people may find either the availability or the acceptance of such funds surprising. I have been arguing for years that governments – and other groups – should finance and conduct research into alternatives to violence.”

One of the students Sharp supervised was Peter Ackerman, who would go on to make a lot of money on Wall Street. In 1983, when Sharp’s tenure at Harvard ended, Ackerman invested generously in the new Albert Einstein Institute, with offices on Harvard Square and space for up to 12 people. But a decade ago the two men started to disagree. Ackerman’s focus moved from research towards disseminating the work. He set up a new body, the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, to produce and distribute documentaries, books and computer games promoting nonviolent action.

“Gene has been one of the most important people in my life,” says Ackerman, “and created the intellectual foundation for my work. But the important thing is not to deify him. It’s to understand the contribution he made, and to understand that the field is now very robust.”

As Ackerman withdrew funds, AEI income dropped from more than a million dollars a year to as little as £160,000. Sharp’s writing, much of it translated and printed clandestinely, generated little additional revenue. (Indeed, he still gives much of it away, as free downloads.)

His commitment to the work, and the never-ending struggle for financial support, substantially explain why he never married. “I came close two or three times,” he says, “in my late 20s and mid 30s, in the US and in Norway. I did regret it, but it didn’t happen. Am I devastated? No. Maybe it’s a flaw in my character.”

He has nephews and nieces, scattered widely over the US, but sees them only rarely. “Sometimes they will come and stay in Boston. And I talk to them on the telephone once in a while. Do I feel lonely? Yes, but it’s no big deal.”

He’s uncomfortable talking about his personal life. “People pay too much attention to who I am, as opposed to what I’m saying.”

In 2004, to avoid closing down altogether, he moved the Institute into two rooms at his home. “We had to get rid of some of our office furniture. We left it on the street for people to take if they wanted it. I knew I would carry on, whatever happened. But it was depressing.”

Just one other member of staff came with him. Hired just two years previously, Jamila Raqib and her family had fled Afghanistan when she was five years old. She had graduated in business management, but she had her own concerns about the world. (“It was an interesting year, 2001,” she said, with some understatement.) She saw an ad for the job at the AEI, and applied. “I had not heard of Gene before, nor the institution.”

She was warned that there was no job security, but recently completed ten years with Sharp. “I’m absolutely privileged to be involved in this work,” she says. “I can’t imagine more important work.” She recognised very early that if she was to make a contribution she would have to learn a lot. “I began to read almost everything, the big books and the monographs, and a huge amount of other works that are still unpublished. For a decade or more we had quite a number of fellowships doing this work. There is a lot in the files and there is nobody apart from Gene with that institutional memory.”


Now that Sharp has started to be well known, the institute is flooded with inquiries from the media and from people seeking advice. They struggle to cope with it all.

“I always advise people to beware of foreign advisers – including me. People need to understand their own situation, understand non-violence, and learn to think strategically.”

Despite adopting this stance, Sharp has been the frequent target of conspiracy theorists. “That’s because he has reached out, over the years, to military people and to Republicans and to anybody who might give credence too the idea that his work is not a soft, squishy, idealistic, pacifist thing,” says Professor Stephen Zunes, at the University of San Francisco. “Unfortunately, in doing so, he has fed conspiracy theories on the far left, that he’s part of a US imperialist plot to create soft coups.”

As Sharp sees it, the methods he documents can be used by goodies and baddies interchangeably. And he doesn’t see that as a problem. “In the US, during the civil rights struggle, both sides used these techniques. In the bus boycott, when black people organised car sharing in protest against segregation, their opponents refused to sell them gasolene, and cancelled insurance policies on their cars. I don’t think that was a wonderful thing to do, but it’s certainly better than lynching.”

What he hopes for more than anything is that people will learn to use non-violent struggle to replace military and violent conflict. Everybody will benefit. “Governments won’t have to fight terrorism any more if the people who might have been terrorists learn to use this kind of struggle instead.” (Among others who have bought his books recently, it transpires, are people who used to be in the IRA.)

Sharp has never said that every use of every method of non-violent action will bring success. “But people who say it can never work at all seem to use a higher standard of success for non-violent struggle than they do for war. How many wars have been lost, how many people have died in wars without getting the results for which they fought?”

But his work is not only intended to help overthrow regimes, Sharp says, or even to resolve political disputes. “It’s relevant to anybody who has a conflict to figure out,” he says. “One woman wrote to me after reading From Dictatorship to Democracy. She said it helped to sort out problems within her family.”

Not long ago, she says, an abstract of From Dictatorship to Democracy was listed on a business website. “Generally we frown on that, but when we looked at it, it was really good. And this book was on their top five for months and months and months – for business people, among titles by the likes of Malcolm Gladwell.”

More remarkable confirmation of Sharp’s embrace by the mainstream was the recent invitation to address a conference of paediatricians. He couldn’t make it, so Raqib offered to give the standard talk in his place. “It was very interesting that work about undermining dictatorship was seen to be useful to doctors,” she says. “But it made sense, because they were interested in making their own advocacy more effective.” The focus on strategy was key. “They were particularly interested in the diversity of methods available – and the fact that writing strongly worded letters will only take you so far.”

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