Nonviolence, power, and possibility: The life of Gene Sharp.

Author:VanHise, James L.

I have been granted a rare interview with Gene Sharp, who has been studying political power, violence, and dictatorships for more than sixty-five years. Jamila Raqib, executive director of the Albert Einstein Institution, an organization Sharp founded in the 1980s, meets me at the weathered East Boston row house that serves as both the institution's headquarters and Sharp's home. Raqib punches in the door codes and we enter.


As I begin setting up my microphone, I can see this is no lavish think-tank office. The institution, which at its height in the 1990s held workshops and met with resistance leaders and government officials all over the world, has been reduced to a paid staff of two: Raqib and Sharp. I see plaster crumbling around an electrical outlet, revealing the wood beneath. One wall of the small cluttered room is lined floor to ceiling with sagging bookshelves. The iMac on Sharp's work desk is nearly hidden by piles of books and papers; pinned to the wall behind it are several hand-lettered signs providing basic computer operating instructions.

Sharp, now eighty-nine, spent much of his life in the academic world, holding positions at Harvard's Center for International Affairs for more than thirty years and retiring as a tenured professor at Southeastern Massachusetts University (now called the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth). He has written numerous books and monographs, including a massive study of people power called The Politics of Nonviolent Action. His most famous booklet, From Dictatorship to Democracy, can be found in the hands of activists all over the world.

Activists have used Sharp's ideas to change the course of history, from Serbia to the Arab Spring. Yet because his approach to studying nonviolent conflict is unique, his work is often misunderstood, applied in ways that jeopardize successful outcomes, he says.

Some journalists have dubbed Sharp "the Machiavelli of nonviolence." He rejects the label "pacifist" and has refused to have his work lumped into the category of peace studies, dismissing many of the peace researchers he's known as "quite naive." In fact, Sharp sees conflict as inevitable and even desirable.

At some point, when negotiation and compromise fail, people require an effective means to defend their core values. Sharps years of research have convinced him that nonviolent techniques, if used strategically, can be as effective as violence in such situations. His theories are based on a hard-headed realism that Machiavelli would appreciate, because to Sharp it's all about power--wielding it and denying it to the opponent.

Sharp is pushed into the room in a wheelchair. He lives alone, except for a caregiver who attends to him a few hours a day. He has a scruffy gray beard. Shaving is not among his most pressing concerns.

Raqib introduces us. I mention to Sharp that we've met before, when I interviewed him in California in 1983. He does not remember. His speech is slurred and forming words seems to require a good deal of effort. When I first speak to him, he cocks his head and cups his ear, so I speak louder.

Much has changed since Sharp began his search for alternatives to violence. I begin our interview by asking if his ideas are still relevant in todays world.

"Absolutely," he says. "They're not based on a superficial image of what's going on."

Sharp's core idea is universally applicable. It is essentially a theory that power underpins political associations.

When he began studying nonviolence in graduate...

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