Gene Sharp

This weblog post is not being written for residents of democratic countries, where respect and prosperity for all, are guiding ideals. Rather it is written to give hope to those who either live under a dictatorship, or imagine that they soon could be living under one, or more generally, live in countries where large segments of the population live undignified and impoverished lives.

Gene Sharp, in his office at The Albert Einstein Institution, co-located in his house in East Boston. The equipment on his desk indicate that he was a member of the Apple tribe. Photo: Héctor Darío Reyes, 2014

Gene Sharp (1928 – 2018) was born in North Baltimore, Ohio. He received a Bachelor of Arts in Social Sciences in 1949 and a Master of Arts in Sociology in 1951 from Ohio State University. He chose imprisonment for nine months between 1953–54 to protest Korean War conscription, and discussed this decision in letters to Albert Einstein. Einstein later wrote a foreword to Sharp’s first book, Gandhi Wields the Weapon of Moral Power: Three Case Histories. He then worked as factory labourer, guide to a blind social worker, and secretary to the American pacifist, A. J. Muste. Between 1955 and 1958 he was Assistant Editor of Peace News in London, a weekly pacifist newspaper. From here, he helped organize the 1958 Aldermaston anti-nuclear weapons march and demonstration.


While the English language is renowned for its variety, it continually imports new terms to augment denotations that prove to be inadequate. Such is the case with the phrase passive resistance. Mahatma Ghandi (1869-1948) dismissed that phrase because it “is different from satyagraha in three essentials: Satyagraha is a weapon of the strong; it admits of no violence under any circumstance whatsoever; and it ever insists upon truth.”

Sharp spent two periods living in Oslo, Norway. The first was between 1958 and 1960 when he was engaged as a Research Fellow, at the Institute for Social Research. He studied and researched Mohandas Gandhi’s Satyagraha Norms, under Professor Arne Næss, and with Johan Galtung.

Between 1964 and 1965, immediately after he had undertaken doctoral studies at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford (but before being awarded a Doctor of Philosophy degree in 1968), he combined work as an Assistant Lecturer at the Institute for Philosophy and the History of Ideas, University of Oslo, Norway (part-time) with a role as Fellow for the American Scandinavian Foundation.

After 1968, Sharp spent most of his life working in the Boston area, and living in East Boston. He had academic positions at Harvard, University of Massachusetts Boston, Tufts University, Brandeis University, Southeastern Massachusetts University (now University of Massachusetts Dartmouth). From 1983, he was affiliated with the Albert Einstein Institution, until his death in 2018.

An aside: In 2020, I hope to present many of the keywords used by Chomsky, Galtung, Ghandi, Muste, Næss, Sharp, Thoreau and Zinn, with respect to Satyagraha in the weblog:

Sharp’s 1973 book, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, was based on his 1968 doctoral thesis. This book is a practical political analysis of nonviolent action as a means to apply power in a conflict. One key to understanding Sharp is that he regards power as a non-intrinsic quality of people in power. He says that their power is not monolithic. In the past, kings were notorious for asserting their divine right to rule.

Political power is dependent on the obedience of the state’s subjects, normally its citizens and other residents. If subjects won’t obey orders, then rulers don’t have power. This insight comes from Étienne de La Boétie (1530–1563). Sharp cites his work frequently in both The Politics of Nonviolent Action and From Dictatorship to Democracy.

Sharp contends that all effective power structures have systems to encourage or extract obedience. States are particularly complex, devious and effective in keeping subjects obedient. Mechanisms include institutions (police, courts, regulatory agencies), but also include more subtile, cultural dimensions. These institutions with a system of sanctions (imprisonment, fines, ostracism) and rewards (titles, wealth, fame) which influence and encourage obedience.


Sharp’s writings on Civilian-Based Defense were used by the Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian governments during their separation from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Sharp’s 1993 handbook From Dictatorship to Democracy has been translated into at least 31 other languages. The book served as a basis for: the Serbian Otpor! (Resistance!) 1998 to 2004; The Rose Revolution in Georgia supported by the Kmara civic resistance movement in November 2003; The Orange Revolution followed the disputed second round of the Ukrainian presidential election in 2004 involved Pora! (It’s time! ) a Ukrainian civic youth organization and political party; The Tulip/ (sometimes Pink) Revolution in Kyrgyzstan, a more violent protest than its predecessors, that was supported by the KelKel youth resistance movement following the disputed Kyrgyz parliamentary election in 2005; the Jeans revolution in Belarus involving the student group Zubr in March 2006; and, the Saffron revolution in Myanmar (Burma) in August/ September 2007.

In general, if subjects identify and understand the working of political forces, they can gain a window of opportunity to cause significant change in a state. However, this also applies to other power players in society, not just national politicians or dictators.

Big Music and Big Movies have concentrated their efforts on promoting superstars, to the detriment of equally talented, but less visible people. Many of these superstars have behaved immorally, and treated almost everyone in their presence with derision. Fortunately the #MeToo movement has caught up with both these industries, with Michael Jackson as the latest person to come under scrutiny. In a two-part, four-hour exposé, Leaving Neverland, Wade Robson and James Safechuck allege that they were abused as children by Jackson.

The time has come for people to stop being fans, and to start becoming connoisseurs. One can no longer just play music because it sounds good. An entire set of ethical considerations has to be fulfilled, before sound should be allowed to stream from a loudspeaker.


Not everyone agrees with Gene Sharp.

Egyptian writer/ activist, Karim Alrawi, finds Gene Sharp’s writings more about regime change than revolution. According to Alrawi, revolution has an ethical and material dimension that Sharp deliberately avoids.

Sharp has been accused of having strong links with a variety of US institutions including the CIA, the Pentagon and Republican-related institutions. He has consistently denied these claims, and received support from Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn and others in 2008, “Rather than being a tool of imperialism, Dr. Sharp’s research and writings have inspired generations of progressive peace, labor, feminist, human rights, environmental, and social justice activists in the United States and around the world.”