(One in a series of posts on Mark & Paul Engler’s 2016 book, This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping The Twenty-First Century.)
“…(T)oday, the study of nonviolent conflict and civil resistance is a respectable subfield within political science and strategic studies, engaging scholars who would have no interest in a ‘peace studies’ curriculum.” (p. 16)
Nobody was more responsible for that development—and for the spread of nonviolent campaigns of civil resistance around the globe—than Gene Sharp, a soft-spoken political scientist who died earlier this year, and served in many ways as the intellectual godfather of the developments catalogued in This Is An Uprising.
Called the “Machiavelli of nonviolence”, the “dictator slayer”, and the “Clausewitz of unarmed revolution” (p. 2), Sharp started out as a pacifist and draft resister who had what the Englers describe as an “epiphany”:
“…that nonviolence should not be simply a moral code for a small group of true believers to live by… (and) that nonviolent conflict should be understood as a political approach that can be employed strategically, something that social movements can choose because it provides an effective avenue for leveraging change.” (p. 3)
Civil resistance—“devoted to understanding how unarmed social movements are able to stage uprisings of dramatic consequence” is the field of study that has flowed from Sharp’s insights. Sharp, in turn, pointed to Gandhi as the originator, saying “Gandhi was probably the first to consciously formulate over a period of years a major system of resistance based upon the assumption…(that) hierarchical systems can be modified or destroyed by a withdrawal of submission, cooperation, and obedience.” (p. 13)
Over several decades of research, Sharp systematized both a set of theories about how and why civil resistance works, and a catalog of nonviolent tactics and strategies—dating back thousands of years—that people have effectively used against their oppressors. Among Sharp’s key writings are:
- The Politics Of Nonviolent Action: published in 1973, 900 pages long, available in a three volume edition (Power & Struggle, The Methods Of Nonviolent Action, The Dynamics Of Nonviolent Action), it “contains his foundational analyses of the nature of political power, and of the methods and dynamics of nonviolent action“;
- From Dictatorship To Democracy: “a 93-page distillation of his core teachings and a handbook for overthrowing autocrats, (it) has been translated into more than 30 languages. Originally written in 1993 to help dissidents in Burma use nonviolent action against the ruling military junta, the book became a valued possession of Serbian students seeking to overthrow the regime of Slobodan Milosevic. It circulated among activists during uprisings in Georgia and the Ukraine in 2003 and 2004. And it was downloaded in Arabic amid mass protests in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011.” (p. 2);
- “198 Methods Of Nonviolent Action”: distilled from The Politics Of Nonviolent Action, this list represents Sharp’s documentation and classification of nonviolent tactics “that had already been put into practice by others” (p. 14), including 1) protest & persuasion (e.g., public statements, marches, symbolic acts), 2) social, economic & political noncooperation (e.g., stay-at-homes, boycotts, strikes, embargoes), 3) intervention (e.g., hunger strikes, sit-ins, civil disobedience).
The Englers also list some of the recent cases around the world where nonviolent civil resistance has been used against undemocratic regimes:
- “the boycotts against apartheid South Africa;
- the people power movement in the Philippines;
- the ouster of Pinochet in Chile;
- the revolutions of 1989 in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany;
- the ‘color revolutions’ in Serbia, Georgia, and the Ukraine;
- uprisings in Burma in 1988 and 2007, and Iran in 2009;
- and the revolts that swept the Arab world in 2011.” (p. 25)
And they emphasize the use of those tactics in the US over the last half century:
“The SCLC’s campaigns—and those of the civil rights movement more broadly—have become touchstones for a modern tradition of direct action in the United States. Young people whose politics were shaped by campaigns in the South went on to play important roles in New Left student organizing and in the movement against the war in Vietnam. Their example would influence antinuclear activists and feminist groups in the 1970s; Central American solidarity, antiapartheid groups, and AIDS campaigners in the 1980s; and grassroots environmentalists in the 1990s. A strain of common experience would run through the historic protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle at the turn of the millennium, the massive demonstrations against the Iraq War under George W. Bush, and the eruption of Occupy Wall Street in the Obama era. Although these efforts had distinctive traits and drew in unique constituencies, they also shared many common characteristics, and it is no accident that they have displayed overlapping vocabularies and tactical repertoires.” (p. 27)
Nearing the end of the second decade of the 21st century, civil resistance is both an established academic discipline and a growing field of practice for people in nations on every continent.