Gene Sharp

Gene Sharp (born January 21, 1928) is the founder of the Albert Einstein Institution, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the study of nonviolent action, and is a retired professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. He is known for his extensive writings on nonviolent struggle, which have influenced numerous anti-government resistance movements around the world.

Gene Sharp has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 and has previously been nominated three times in 2009, 2012 and 2013. Sharp was widely considered the favourite for the 2012 award. In 2011 he was awarded the El-Hibri Peace Education Prize. ln 2012 he was a recipient of the Right Livelihood Award as well as the Distinguished Lifetime Democracy Award.

Sharp was born in North Baltimore, Ohio, the son of an itinerant Protestant minister. He received a Bachelor of Arts in Social Sciences in 1949 from Ohio State University, where he also received his Master of Arts in Sociology in 1951. In 1953-54, Sharp was jailed for nine months after protesting the conscription of soldiers for the Korean War. He discussed his decision to go to prison for his beliefs in letters to Albert Einstein who wrote a foreword to his first book, on Gandhi. He worked as factory labourer, guide to a blind social worker, and secretary to A. J. Muste, America’s leading pacifist. Between 1955 and 1958 he was Assistant Editor of Peace News (London) the weekly pacifist newspaper from where he helped organise the 1958 Aldermaston March. The next two years he studied and researched in Oslo with Professor Arne Nass, who derived together with Johan Galtung from Mohandas Gandhi’s writings the Satyagraha Norms. In 1968, he received a Doctor of Philosophy in political theory from Oxford University.

Sharp has been a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth since 1972. He simultaneously held research appointments at Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs since 1965. In 1983 he founded the Albert Einstein Institution, a non-profit organization devoted to studies and promotion of the use of nonviolent action in conflicts worldwide. The Albert Einstein Institution has received funding from the Ford Foundation, the International Republican Institute, the National Endowment for Democracy, while some former directors have come from the RAND Corporation and the Ford Foundation. In 2004, the Albert Einstein Institution lost much of its funding (with income dropping from more than $1m a year to as little as $160,000), and since that time has been run out of Sharp’s home in East Boston, near Logan Airport.

Gene Sharp described the sources of his ideas as in-depth studies of Mohandas K. Gandhi, A. J. Muste, Henry David Thoreau to a minor degree, and other sources footnoted in his 1973 book The Politics of Nonviolent Action, which was based on his 1968 PhD thesis.  In the book, a “three-volume classic on civil disobedience,” he provides a pragmatic political analysis of nonviolent action as a method for applying power in a conflict.

Sharp’s key theme is that power is not monolithic; that is, it does not derive from some intrinsic quality of those who are in power. For Sharp, political power, the power of any state – regardless of its particular structural organization – ultimately derives from the subjects of the state. His fundamental belief is that any power structure relies upon the subjects’ obedience to the orders of the ruler(s). If subjects do not obey, rulers have no power.

In Sharp’s view, all effective power structures have systems by which they encourage or extract obedience from their subjects. States have particularly complex systems for keeping subjects obedient. These systems include specific institutions (police, courts, regulatory bodies), but may also involve cultural dimensions that inspire obedience by implying that power is monolithic (the god cult of the Egyptian pharaohs, the dignity of the office of the President, moral or ethical norms and taboos). Through these systems, subjects are presented with a system of sanctions (imprisonment, fines, ostracism) and rewards (titles, wealth, fame) which influence the extent of their obedience.

Sharp identifies this hidden structure as providing a window of opportunity for a population to cause significant change in a state. Sharp cites the insight of Etienne de La Boétie (1530-1563), that if the subjects of a particular state recognize that they are the source of the state’s power, they can refuse their obedience and their leader(s) will be left without power.

Sharp published Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential in 2005. It builds on his earlier written works by documenting case studies where nonviolent action has been applied, and the lessons learned from those applications, and contains information on planning nonviolent struggle to make it more effective.

A feature documentary by Scottish director, Ruaridh Arrow, “How to Start a Revolution” about the global influence of Gene Sharp’s work was released in September 2011. The film won “Best Documentary” and “The Mass Impact Award” at the Boston Film Festival in September 2011. The European premiere was held at London’s Raindance Film Festival on October 2, 2011 where it also won Best Documentary. The film has been described as the unofficial film of the Occupy Wall St movement being shown in Occupy camps in cities all over the world. The film has been screened to MPs and Lords in the British Houses of Parliament and won a Scottish BAFTA award in April 2012. A How to Start a Revolution iPad app was released on the Apple app store on October 9, 2012 including the documentary and several Gene Sharp books.

Sharp has been called both the “Machiavelli of nonviolence” and the “Clausewitz of nonviolent warfare.” It is claimed by some that Sharp’s scholarship has influenced resistance organizations around the world. His works remain the ideological underpinning of the work for the Serbian-based nonviolent conflict training group the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies which helped to train the key activists in the protest movement that toppled President Mubarak of Egypt, and many other earlier youth movements in the Eastern European color revolutions.

December 2015