George Mason University
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George Mason University

Gene Sharp (1928 - 2018) and his strategy of non-cooperation

January 31, 2018

Gene Sharp (middle) with Paul Snodgrass (Left) and Jannie Botes (Right) at Sharp’s home in Boston. Parents of the Field Interview, October 18, 2007.

Gene Sharp (middle) with Paul Snodgrass (Left) and Jannie Botes (Right) at Sharp’s home in Boston. Parents of the Field Interview, October 18, 2007.

By Chris Mitchell

Very few people in our field can claim to have seen their ideas have an immediate impact on the way in which conflicts are waged, change brought about and resolutions constructed. Gene Sharp, who died in Boston at the end of January, 2018, was one of those rarities. His work on non-violent direct action is now so well-known as to have become standard practice in many parts of the world for those seeking to bring about change in authoritarian and totalitarian regimes through the widespread withdrawal of approval and cooperation by large masses of citizens.

Like many others, Gene Sharp was much influenced by the ideas of Mohandas Gandhi, and his first book, which had a Forward written by Albert Einstein, was a study of the Indian activist’s use of non-violent methods against the British. While Sharp was best known as a writer and thinker, he himself was also an activist and early on he spent two years in jail for his opposition to the U.S. use of conscription to fight the Korean War.

Among other influences of Sharp’s early career were the America pacifist, A.J.Muste and the Norwegian philosopher, Arne Naess, who was also an influence on the early career of Johan Galtung. Always, a major influence on Gene Sharp was what his did, as well as what he read, and his time in London working for “Peace News” and helping to organize the first anti-nuclear march on Aldermaston showed him the practical opportunities for organizing non-violent resistance.

Sharp’s most famous work, The Politics of Non-Violent Action, arose from his doctoral thesis written at Oxford, although his later work, From Dictatorship to Democracy, originally written specifically for the non-violence campaign in Burma, became better known because of its clarity and its succinct style. The former work contained Sharp’s famous list of 198 non-violent methods for waging conflict, ranging from strikes and mass withdrawal of cooperation to individuals’ letter writing campaigns and the constant shadowing of authoritarian figures targeted for protest.

Since the 1970s, Sharp’s ideas have spread throughout the world, partly because of his willingness to go anywhere to teach about the nature of non-violence to those who were willing to listen, learn and apply. They were used and gratefully acknowledged in the Baltic republics following the breakup of the Soviet Union, in Serbia to help bring about the overthrow of President Slobodan Milosevic, in Egypt among the leaders of the April 6 Movement, and in Georgia and the Ukraine as part of the so-called “colour” revolutions there. As I noted at the start of this celebration, not many conflict researchers can claim to have had such a direct influence on the course of on-going conflicts.

Gene Sharp was nominated three time for a Nobel Peace prize, was awarded the “Right Livelihood” Prize, and was the subject of a biographic documentary film, How to Start a Revolution, in 2012.  He continued to work in his Albert Einstein Institute right up until and beyond his 90th birthday. His ideas and example will continue to influence our field for many years to come.

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