Gene Sharp, 'Waging Nonviolent Struggle - 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential'

IssueJuly - August 2008
Review by Nik Gorecki

Hundreds of thousands of people in the world engage in nonviolent struggle. Be it a labour strike, a boycott of a business, or an attempt to overthrow an oppressive state, people are practicing nonviolent methods to resolve their disputes. Considering the extent to which the technique is used, it is surprising how little literature exists to help activists to go about their campaigns.

Few have done more to help demystify nonviolent action and make it a practicable activity than Gene Sharp. Sharp has spent the last 50 years bringing a rigorous academic and scientific approach to the subject, in the hope of furthering our understanding of the method’s history and techniques.

Sharp has published a number of influential books and pamphlets; Georgia’s Kmara, Ukraine’s Pora, Kyrgyzstan’s KelKel and the Zubr of Belarus are among those who credit his writing as instrumental to the success of their campaigns. Across the scope of his work Sharp has attempted to chart all the possible forms of nonviolent action available to the practitioner, to examine and evaluate nonviolent actions of the past, and most importantly, to create a strategic framework with which to aid the effective planning and execution of actions.

Above all, Sharp wants to help activists succeed.

This latest addition to his oeuvre in many ways consolidates his life’s work into a single, surprisingly readable and decidedly useful, 600-page tome. Most of the book consists of case studies, seemingly chosen for their variety rather than their historic importance. Acts of small-scale non-cooperation, like that practiced by Norwegian teachers under Nazi occupation, sit beside more epic victories, like the collapse of Eastern European Communism following the uprising of the Polish Solidarnosc movement. Although he avoids emotive language and goes out of his way to underplay the drama of the situations, the effect of these case studies on the reader is inspirational.

But it is his approach to forward planning and insistence on the importance of properly deduced, strategic decision-making that marks out this text as an essential handbook for anyone already involved in, or considering taking part in, any form of nonviolent action. The skill with which he presents the strategising process has rightly won him the title “the Machiavelli of nonviolence”.

Moral arguments for nonviolence are notable by their absence; Sharp is a pragmatist throughout, and it is the efficacy of nonviolent action in bringing about deep-rooted, enduring change that is at the heart of his enthusiasm for the subject. Violent struggle, argues Sharp, can in some cases bring about a short-term victory, but the political dynamics that arise through such a struggle tend to replace one power-greedy cabal with another.

The crucial achievement in this work is the primacy placed on grounding activism in disciplined, focused, rational thought. For all its strength as the definitive handbook for strategic planning of nonviolent activism, this is above all a truly inspirational read.

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