Gene Sharp’s ‘terrifyingly simple’ methods for non-violent revolution

by Thomas Lowe

As he walks to sit at the front of the room one can see Gene Sharp is frail, and at times it’s hard to hear his gravelly voice. But you can’t doubt the passion with which he speaks, or the power in his words.

His ideas on non-violent revolution have been hugely influential in the ‘Arab Spring’ and further afield to Burma and the Ukraine. Sharp founded the Albert Einstein Institution in 1983 to promote ideas of non-violent revolution. These ideas, Sharp says in conversation with journalist/filmmaker Ruaridh Arrow, are “terrifyingly simple”: if you are less obedient then you restrict the sources of authoritarian power.

“When people lose their fear and use their brains and plan skilfully, and act bravely, and maintain non-violent discipline… you have a good chance of succeeding.”

Sharp’s conclusions on how best to organise non-violent action is the result of a long period over which his ideas matured. One of his first significant stands came in reaction to the Vietnam war.

“I had chosen a particular kind of conscientious objection – the most obnoxious kind: civil disobedience… I refused to fill out more applications for conscientious objector status, I refused to carry a draft card, I refused to report for physical examination.”

He researched non-violent action in Oxford, later moving to Oslo University.

“What I discovered is that I didn’t know a damn thing about political power. I learnt that I didn’t know, and that’s a great advantage… because you have a chance of learning if you want to and you’re not arrogant.”

He returned with a 11,000-page manuscript. Notes on different types of non-violent action littered his room until the ‘moment’ came.

“I discovered the mechanism of non-violent coercion – which I once thought was heretical I concluded was absolutely valid… I discovered that the way coercion could be established was identical with the beginning analysis that I’d almost forgot of the sources of power and that this type of [inaudible] takes away the sources of power of even dictatorships… That was the Eureka moment.”

A list of 12 methods to use non-violent action lengthened and he published ‘198 Methods of Non-violent Action’ in 1973.

Perhaps his best-known book,‘From Dictatorship to Democracy’, published 1993 is available in 30 languages.

Sharp says the success of his books is unexpected but can be put down to the fact that;

“People have been quietly desperate, even hungry that something can be done so we don’t suffer these horrible fights that people all these decades have been suffering.”

In the question and answer section, two questions come about how to act to best effect change in Iran. Sharp’s answer is typical in its modesty.

“An outsider like me can’t tell you what to do and if I did you shouldn’t believe me. Trust yourselves, research, investigate it and think – and think and think and think.”