Taking Strategic Action: The Teachings of Gene Sharp
Martin B. Wellstock
As the horrors of the last months have unfolded, there has been profound sense of betrayal among those of us who prize our democratic ideals. Everyone we trusted to keep democracy safe, to do the work of democracy for us—our elected leaders, the press, the courts, 'the system'—they have all failed us. But in these very dark clouds is a silver lining, an essential lesson to learn for our own personal development and for the future of our country.
Democracy is not a spectator sport. Its essential tasks cannot be delegated to any group or individuals to whom we can later point in outrage and say 'but they didn't do their job!' We don't delegate the essential tasks of running our own lives; we cannot delegate the essential tasks of maintaining a democracy. Citizenship and the duties of citizenship cannot be entrusted to others, not even to elected officials.
Our actions will soon have to move to the next level, as the time is fast approaching when each of us will be called upon to make a stand, to take action. And there can be no better preparation for that action than reading (or re-reading) Gene Sharp's classic guide to strategy and tactics: The Politics of Non Violent Action.
Written in 1973 and reportedly used as a road map for recent liberation movements in Eastern Europe, Sharp's three-volume work is a clear and compelling analysis of nonviolent action as an effective strategy for regaining political power. It is based on Sharp's reading of the history of past liberation movements, including the American revolution, the liberation of India from the British and anti-Nazi actions in the 1930's and 1940's.
Sharp's premise is simple: even the most totalitarian regimes rest on the consent of the governed. If consent is withdrawn, the regime will collapse. The strategy and tactics of implementing this premise are not simple, so Sharp gives us splendidly clear catalogue of how it might be accomplished.
Sharp treats Non Violent Action (NVA) as a military campaign—with defined goals and strategies, carefully planned tactics, and scenario development to foresee and counter the inevitable moves against it from inside and outside. Sharp's NVA is not nonviolence for cowards, but rather a robust and pragmatic roadmap to effective action and ultimate victory.
Part one, the shortest of the three volumes, describes the basic premises of NVA and Sharp's theories of political power. Sharp quotes Gandhi at some length, noting that Gandhi believed that the individuals must undergo a psychological change to go from passive submission (which in the U.S. often hides behind sneering cynicism) to self-respect and courage. In the process of this change, the individual can come to recognize that his personal actions help make the regime possible, as he builds his determination to withdraw cooperation.
Looking at history, Sharp concludes that NVA is typically practiced by 'ordinary people, does not necessarily take a long time, does not assume that man is inherently good, does not require a high degree of agreement among the groups practicing it, and does not assume that there will be no violence in opposition. NVA is instead a strategy for using the opponent's power against them, converting the undecided, and effecting change by forcing the opponent to act differently.
In part two, Sharp looks at history to describe and catalogue the various tactics of non-violent action. These include formal statements and communications, social non-cooperation, economic non-cooperation, and political non-cooperation. NVA can also take the form of psychological, physical, social, economic or political interventions. One hundred and ninety eight specific actions are described.
Part Three lays out what happens to get NVA started, how successful campaigns happen, the dynamics of leadership and what ultimate end game strategies might be. Starting with the premise that violence is the field of battle desired by the opponent, and therefore as with all successful military campaigns the field to be avoided, Sharp goes on to point out that fearlessness is the core of NVA.
A totalitarian regime works by making its subjects afraid of sanctions: if people can act courageously in spite of fear, then the regime immediately loses a great deal of its power. The personal transition from fear to fearlessness is self-liberating, inspiring to others, and builds energy and commitment within the group taking action.
Sharp writes, "If hierarchical systems exist in part because the subordinates submit as a result of seeing themselves as inferiors, the problem of how to change and end the hierarchical system becomes twofold: first, to get the members of the subordinate group to see themselves as full human beings, not inferiors to anyone, and second, to get them to behave in ways consistent with that enhanced view of themselves, i.e. to resist and defy the patterns of inferiority and subordination."
Seeing ourselves as effective directors of our own lives, as passionate participants in collective action to right the wrongs that have been done, and as strategic warriors in the fight for democracy is potent stuff indeed.
We are not consumers of democracy, we are its creators. And to guarantee democracy and take effective action, Sharp's classic is excellent reading as we prepare for our campaign.
To learn more:
Gene Sharp biography http://www.peace.ca/genesharp.htm
Interview with Gene Sharp http://www.peacemagazine.org/9709/sharp.htm
198 Tactics of Non Violent Action http://www.peacemagazine.org/198.htm
Purchase the Books http://www.aeinstein.org/books_index.html
Albert Einstein Institute http://www.aeinstein.org/index.html