Gene Sharp: The David Who Helped Bring Down Goliath
This article appeared a few years ago in the WSJ about Gene Sharp, who penned books we don’t read in America much. As a figure dedicated to bringing down totalitarian regimes, he is feared by Dictators. Yet, in the USA, most have never heard of him.
Quiet Scholar Inspires Revolution Around The World
BOSTON — In February, the Iranian government showed a fictionalized video on the dangers of foreign plots against the state. One of its stars: a mysterious American named Gene Sharp.
In June 2007, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez publicly accused Mr. Sharp of stirring unrest in Venezuela. Last year in Vietnam, authorities arrested several opposition activists who were distributing a book written by Mr. Sharp. In 2005, fires destroyed two Moscow bookstores selling Russian translations of the same book.
The target of all this intrigue and animosity is 80 years old and slightly stooped. He walks with a cane.Shanona White for the Wall Street JournalGene Sharp, whose writings have irked Iran and other governments.
Working from a modest house in East Boston, Mr. Sharp is nearly unknown to the U.S. public. But he is despised by many authoritarian regimes and respected by opposition activists around the globe. Mr. Sharp has had broad influence on international events over the past two decades, helping to advance a global democratic awakening.
An aging academic, Mr. Sharp says he has no links with the government or any intelligence agency. He responded to Mr. Chavez’s speech with an open letter suggesting that if the president is concerned about being overthrown, he should read “The Anti-Coup,” a booklet Mr. Sharp co-authored.
Spread via the Internet, word-of-mouth and seminars, Mr. Sharp’s writings on nonviolent resistance have been studied by opposition activists in Zimbabwe, Burma, Russia, Venezuela and Iran, among others. His 1993 guide to unseating despots, “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” has been translated into at least 28 languages and was used by movements that toppled governments in Serbia, Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.
Several years ago, a funding cut drastically curtailed the operations of Mr. Sharp’s Albert Einstein Institution, which is devoted to research and promotion of peaceful resistance to dictatorships. He dismissed most of his staff, closed his office in a Boston business district and retreated to his personal digs.
Since then, Mr. Sharp has worked from a brick townhouse near Logan Airport. Shy, never married and childless, Mr. Sharp spends most of his days in the company of a young assistant and a massive black dog named Caesar. To unwind, he tends orchids in a greenhouse on the top floor.
“You see how rich we are,” says Mr. Sharp, dressed in wrinkled black pants, as he motions at his cluttered office. Books are everywhere, even on shelves in the bathroom. A bulletin board boasts stickers for a student movement that brought down Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic (“He is finished”) and for a Tibetan student group (“Game over. Free Tibet”).
Mr. Sharp never expected his work would find adherents in so many countries. “I’m still a little stunned by that,” he says.
Although nonviolent struggle has played a major role throughout history, Mr. Sharp was among the first modern scholars to take a comprehensive look at all the various movements, from the civil-rights struggle in the U.S. to uprisings in Eastern Europe.
“You had to do a lot of work to get all you need,” says Ivan Marovic, one of the founders of the Serbian youth movement that helped depose former leader Mr. Milosevic. “Gene Sharp put it all together.”
In his writings, Mr. Sharp teased out common principles that make nonviolent resistance successful, creating a broad road map for activists looking to destabilize authoritarian regimes. Mr. Sharp’s magnum opus, the 902-page “Politics of Nonviolent Action,” was published in 1973. But the main source of his success is his 90-page “From Dictatorship to Democracy.”
This slim volume offers concise advice on how to plan a successful opposition campaign, along with a list of historically tested tactics for rattling a dictatorial regime. Aimed at no particular country, and easily downloadable from the Internet, the booklet has found universal appeal among opposition activists around the globe.
Though he warns readers that resistance may provoke violent crackdowns and will take careful planning to succeed, Mr. Sharp writes that any dictatorship will eventually collapse if its subjects refuse to obey.
He offers a list of 198 methods of nonviolent action, like the staging of mock elections to poke fun at problems like vote-rigging, using funerals to make political statements and adopting symbolic colors, a la Orange Revolution in the Ukraine. Less conventional tactics include skywriting political messages and “protest disrobings.”
In Zimbabwe, opposition activist Magodonga Mahlangu has organized the tract’s translation into two main local languages. In Russia, opposition activist Oleg Kozlovsky estimates he and his colleagues have used about 30 of 198 protest methods listed in Mr. Sharp’s booklet. Venezuelan student leader Yon Goicoechea says Mr. Sharp’s work inspired him to think creatively of ways to carry out antigovernment protests: Activists once tied themselves to the stairs of a government building and have staged street theater to mock constitutional changes.
The son of an itinerant Protestant minister, Mr. Sharp was born in 1928 in North Baltimore, Ohio. The Sharps moved around a lot, and young Gene often lost friendships and “had to start all over again,” he recalls. While still in high school, Mr. Sharp began reading about Nazi atrocities, which helped trigger his fascination with the nature of totalitarian regimes and with ways to resist them.
In 1951, Mr. Sharp received a master’s degree in sociology from Ohio State University. His lifelong research interest has been Mohandas Gandhi’s Indian independence movement that shook off British colonial rule largely by peaceful means. In the 1950s, Mr. Sharp spent nine months in jail for refusing conscription during the Korean War. He later moved to England and then Norway, where he studied how local schoolteachers used nonviolent means to weaken the country’s pro-Nazi Quisling regime in World War II.
In 1965, Mr. Sharp came to Harvard University as a researcher in international studies, and in 1983 he founded the Albert Einstein Institution, choosing the name because the renowned physicist also had an interest in nonviolent resistance.
In 1987, when Mr. Sharp was teaching at Harvard, a flier for his seminar on nonviolent sanctions caught the eye of Robert Helvey, a Vietnam veteran and a former defense attaché at the U.S. embassy in Burma.
“I had an image of nonviolence as being a bunch of long-haired hippies,” recalls Mr. Helvey, who was at Harvard on a year-long fellowship from the Army. After he heard Mr. Sharp talk about seizing power, he says he realized the approach had “nothing to do with pacifism” and invited the scholar to lunch. The two men hit it off.
Around the same time, a military junta seized power in Burma. Three years later, Mr. Helvey, by then retired from the military, was in the Burmese jungle imparting Mr. Sharp’s teachings of peaceful resistance to antigovernment guerrillas.
Although nonviolent opposition had a history in Burma, the concept was a tough sell among the more-militant dissidents. “We were very much engaged in the armed struggle at the time,” recalls Kyaw Kyaw, a Burmese opposition activist who says he eventually embraced the idea of nonviolent action.
In 1992, Mr. Sharp slipped into Burma on a boat from Thailand and taught some seminars to the guerrillas. A Burmese exile asked Mr. Sharp to write a short primer on nonviolent struggle. The result was “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” which was initially intended only for Burmese consumption.
In 1997, Marek Zelazkiewicz, a Polish-American peace activist involved in the Balkans, picked up a photocopy in the U.S. and took it to then-unraveling Yugoslavia. Mr. Zelazkiewicz first preached nonviolent resistance in Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians were being persecuted by Mr. Milosevic’s Serb-dominated regime. That fight quickly got too brutal for peaceful opposition.
So, the peace activist decided to work on Serbian public opinion and headed to the Yugoslav capital of Belgrade, hiding pictures of alleged Serbian atrocities and a copy of Mr. Sharp’s booklet in his duffel bag. “If you take out the ladies, it was nearly [like] James Bond,” Mr. Zelazkiewicz says of his cloak-and-dagger movements. He hand-delivered a copy to a local democracy-promotion group called Civic Initiatives, which translated and published it.
“It was interesting to hear that there was this whole science behind what we were learning the hard way,” says Srdja Popovic, one of the founders of Otpor, a youth opposition movement that got the book from Civic Initiatives. Otpor activists traveled to Budapest, where Mr. Helvey gave them a workshop on nonviolent resistance. Otpor’s country-wide campaign of grassroots activism and civil disobedience helped push Mr. Milosevic out of power in 2000.
By then, Mr. Helvey, working closely with Mr. Sharp, had written his own book examining how best to undermine or co-opt a regime’s “pillars or support,” such as the police, the military, media and civil servants.
Heartened by their success in Serbia, Otpor members gave seminars on nonviolent struggle to Georgian and Ukrainian activists, relying in part on Mr. Sharp’s tract. Mass protests in Georgia in 2003 and in Ukraine in late 2004 and early 2005 forced incumbent regimes out of office. “You cannot import social change,” says Mr. Popovic. “But the knowledge can be transferred.”
Mr. Kozlovsky, a member of the Russian opposition group Oborona, came across “From Dictatorship to Democracy” on the Web in 2005 and immediately decided to have it translated into Russian. The first printing house he enlisted backed out of the deal, saying the book was too sensitive, so he found another publisher who printed 1,500 copies, Mr. Kozlovsky says.
In July and August of 2005, two small bookstores where the book was sold burned down, destroying some of the books, Mr. Kozlovsky says. “I still keep a half-burned copy on a shelf in my office,” he says, adding that he’s trying to organize another printing. At one of the stores, Mr. Kozlovsky says, an explosive device thrown by unknown parties set off the blaze.
The cause of the other fire has been officially ruled an accident. There’s no evidence of government involvement in the incidents. Both shops carried other opposition literature as well.
Thousands of miles away, in the United Arab Emirates, Iranian oil and gas engineer Mehdi Kalantarzadeh found “From Dictatorship to Democracy” on the Internet, combined it with Robert Helvey’s book, and translated the mix into Farsi last year. The Iranian activist forwarded his translation to Shahla Lahiji, a prominent Iranian publisher who often pushes the limits of state censorship.
“I knew what I’m publishing,” Ms. Lahiji says. “I knew it wouldn’t make the regime happy.” Ms. Lahiji says the book was selling briskly at her stand in the book fair in Tehran last year, and that a few months later a pro-government Web site accused her of “teaching velvet revolution to the people.”
In the Iranian government’s fictional video that aired on Iranian television a few months later, three Iranians receive cash to stir unrest in exchange for a promise to “have a good time in America.” The scheme unravels after one plotter’s sister calls an Iranian government hotline (the number is provided). A stern voiceover introduces a computer-drawn likeness of Mr. Sharp as “one of the CIA agents in charge of America’s infiltration into other countries,” according to a translation by the Middle East Research Institute, based in Washington, D.C.
For all his success, a few years ago Mr. Sharp, who left Harvard in the 1990s to focus on the institution, found himself confronted by a coup of sorts — this one at his doorstep. Since its founding in 1983, the Albert Einstein Institution had been funded by Peter Ackerman, managing director of investment firm Rockport Capital Inc. who had written his doctoral thesis under Mr. Sharp’s guidance before earning millions working with financier Michael Milken in the 1980s. Over the years, Mr. Ackerman estimates he has given a sum in the “low eight figures” to the institution.
But by 2004, Mr. Ackerman wanted the institution to be more active in spreading nonviolence research, he says. He was exploring other means of promotion, such as video. Mr. Sharp preferred keeping the institution smaller, although he won’t go into specifics. Mr. Sharp says the dispute is “related to different views of reality between Peter and myself.”
Mr. Ackerman cut the funding of the Albert Einstein Institution and turned to the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, or ICNC, which he founded in Washington, D.C. in 2002. An annuity which Mr. Ackerman set up in the 1980s still provides Mr. Sharp’s personal income. Mr. Sharp’s institution still collects some minor funding from other private sources.
Mr. Ackerman has underwritten production of two documentaries, one on the downfall of Mr. Milosevic and the other on the history of nonviolent conflict.
He has also commissioned the creation of a video game, “A Force More Powerful,” in which players can model nonviolent struggle in fictional scenarios, such as a dictatorship in the country of Infeliz. The game’s chief designer is Mr. Marovic, one of the founders of Otpor, the Serbian opposition group.
The Otpor alumni now run the Belgrade-based Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, or Canvas, which is funded by Mr. Ackerman’s ICNC. Canvas has trained activists from Venezuela, Nigeria and the Palestinian territories, among many others. A large part of ICNC’s and Canvas’s theoretical arsenal is drawn from Mr. Sharp’s writings.
Mr. Ackerman points out that he still supports Mr. Sharp financially and distributes his books. “My center is a bigger compliment to Gene than Gene is willing to make to himself,” he says.
Write to Philip Shishkin at firstname.lastname@example.org