A response to Gene Sharp

Letter by Michael Randle, Shipley

ImageI was pleased to see in the last issue of Peace News the interview with Gene Sharp who has done much to promote an understanding of nonviolent action as a strategy for political and social change and even revolution.

However, even allowing for the fact that this was an interview, and that his answers were of necessity somewhat off the cuff, I find the reasons he gives for no longer considering himself a pacifist unconvincing.

He says that ‘maybe unjustly, or maybe not, pacifists are known for their refusal to use violence’. But that isn’t so much what pacifists ‘are known for’, as what defines them.

It’s not clear whether Gene himself rules out absolutely the use of violence, or, to set the bar somewhat lower, the use of military force.

If he does, then his stance is a pacifist one, whether or not he wants to use the term.

He states that he is ‘not for violence.’ That’s too vague.

Few people would say they are ‘for violence’ in an abstract sense. The question is – does he altogether rule out its use? His response to a later question as to whether there are any instances in which he has supported violent resistance to occupation or invasion suggests that for pragmatic reasons, rather than as a matter of absolute principle, he does rule it out. But again his position is not completely clear.

Gene rejects the proposition embodied in the old Peace Pledge Union slogan: ‘Wars will cease when men refuse to fight’. He says he does not believe you can get rid of war that way – you have to have a substitute.

I absolutely agree, as I think today would most pacifists and peace activists. As far back as the 1950s, when we were both working on Peace News, the more radical wing of the pacifist movement, while continuing to support the right of individual conscientious objection, argued that by and of itself it would not end war and that nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience was needed to resist both oppression and war preparations, particularly preparations for nuclear war.

Gene in the intervening years has distanced himself from the pacifist and wider peace movement. Perhaps this has assisted him in his efforts to convince a wider audience outside any kind of peace movement of the possibilities of nonviolent action and to get policy makers and military strategists to take seriously the notion of what he terms ‘civilian-based defence’

However, I hope this interview marks a step in the direction of his re-engagement with a constituency which has promoted his own work and that of other scholars and activists in the field, and sometimes been at the forefront of important movements and campaigns.