A Short, Select Guide to Major Publications by Gene Sharp

Robert A. Irwin

Published Spring 2004

This guide was written in January 1998 for use by a study group on Gandhi, timed to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of his death, conducted by the Friends (Quaker) Meeting at Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Gene Sharp's books total more than 3000 pages in length. Although written clearly, their sheer bulk, combined with their wide intellectual scope and unconventional viewpoint and arguments, makes getting an understanding of his position as a whole more challenging than with many other authors. Here I list and describe his major publications in chronological order and explain their place in his work as a whole. I have presented his views regarding Gandhi more fully than those on other topics.

Gandhi Wields the Weapon of Moral Power: Three Case Histories. Foreword by Albert Einstein. Completed 1953; first published in 1960 in Ahmedabad, India, by Navajivan Publishing House. 340 pp. Sharp describes Gandhi's campaign in Champaran (1917-18), the 1930-31 Independence campaign, and his 1948 fast at Delhi. As the title indicates, Sharp approaches these episodes, despite their great differences, as instances of one phenomenon: a distinctive way of wielding power that Sharp describes (at this stage in his thinking) as "moral power."

The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Introduction by Thomas C. Schelling. 1973. 902 pp. The first part, Power and Struggle (about 100 pages), of this highly acclaimed work (which has been compared to the masterworks of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and Max Weber) 1) explains Sharp's theory of political power as resting on cooperation, resources, and obedience or acquiescence from below which can be withdrawn or redirected, making possible the toppling or rendering irrelevant of would-be leaders; and 2) defines "nonviolent action" and sketches its historical development as "an active technique of struggle." Part Two, The Methods of Nonviolent Action (about 350 pages), classifies 198 methods of nonviolent struggle into three broad categories (protest; noncooperation; nonviolent intervention) with social, economic, and political subcategories. Part Three, The Dynamics of Nonviolent Action (about 400 pages) shows how nonviolent action can mobilize power, use solidarity and discipline to withstand violent repression, shift the balance of power through "political jiu-jitsu," and bring success through any of three social mechanisms: conversion of the opponent, accommodation by the opponent, or nonviolent coercion of the opponent.

Gandhi as a Political Strategist, with Essays on Ethics and Politics. Introduction by Coretta Scott King. 1979. 380 pp. The first of two collections of major essays. Regarding Gandhi, Sharp argues that he had "serious weaknesses": "he was not a political theoretician or analyst" and did not write, and was "perhaps not capable of writing, a systematic treatise on his approach to politics" (p. 18). Nevertheless, Gandhi was a political innovator and strategist of enormous ability and great significance, who merits careful study even though "in many ways, we have already moved beyond Gandhi" (p. xvii). Concerning Gandhi's innovations, Sharp shows that Gandhi in 1905 and 1906 (before reading Tolstoy's "Letter to a Hindu" or Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience") recognized a variety of methods of struggle being used in Ireland, Russia, China, and India as having something in common that was relevant to the Indians of South Africa. For example, Gandhi wrote as follows:

"We, too, can resort to the Russian remedy [sic! "more powerful than rebellion and murder . . . a general strike"] against tyranny" (quoted, p. 29). Sharp argues that, rather than developing his approach independently, deducing a politics from the Bhagavad Gita or other religious or ethical writings, "Gandhi's development of nonviolent struggle in politics was directly stimulated by other historical and contemporary cases of nonviolent struggle" (p. 26). "It is no longer clear to me," Sharp concludes, "that Gandhi reasoned from the ethical to the political. . . . It now appears . . . that to a considerable extent Gandhi reasoned directly from the political to the political" (p. 26).

Sharp further points out that while what Gandhi thought satyagraha ideally should be distinguished it substantially from the instances of nonviolent struggle elsewhere that had caught his attention, its actual characteristics, as used by him and his community of persons engaged in struggle, were less distinctive (p. 37).

In the second part of the book, Sharp examines the view (famously articulated by Max Weber in "Politics as a Vocation") that "realism" in politics requires acceptance of violence, while "idealism" must confine itself to "witnessing," protest, speaking (e.g., "speaking truth to power"), long-term education, or resignation to political marginality or (more harshly) irrelevance. He argues that the availability of nonviolent struggle as a technique of wielding power in conflict situations, along with its potential for refinement into a technique of still greater effectiveness and wider scope, offers idealists (and realists dissatisfied with violence) an avenue for action that meets the demands of both realism and idealism. (Sharp also notes [pp. 251n-252n] his frustration that many – though not all – Quakers and other pacifists have ignored his arguments and pleas that they should focus their peace energies on developing nonviolent struggle as a substitute for political violence.)

In "Types of Principled Nonviolence" (pp. 201-234) Sharp outlines six different belief systems that reject violence on principle, of which Gandhi's satyagraha is only one (and not the most recent, nor the type most widely adhered to in the U.S.). At the end of the book, Sharp shows how Krishnalal Shridharani's War Without Violence: A Study of Gandhi's Method and Its Accomplishments (1939) resembles his own view that Gandhi provides a way of fighting and exerting force that is more akin to war than to (say) negotiation (although – just as with war – negotiation can occur alongside it and hasten its end). Sharp's final chapter is "Nonviolence: Moral Principle or Political Technique? Clues from Gandhi's Thought and Experience." Almost thirty years after this chapter was first published, almost twenty years after its publication as a moderately priced paperback, many proponents of "nonviolence" assume, on the basis of a very selective reading of Gandhi, that he supports their view that "practicing nonviolence" requires prolonged inner purification and commitment to "nonviolence as a way of life," and that to advocate use of nonviolence as a "technique" is a shallow "instrumental" approach in conflict with Gandhi's message. Sharp shows that the matter is not so simple (as does the presence of Coretta King's "Introduction," which refers to "the nonviolent method").

Social Power and Political Freedom. Introduction by Senator Mark O. Hatfield. 1980. 456 pp. This second volume of essays rounds out the fundamentals of Sharp's political thought. The title chapter began as a companion to Chapter One of The Politics of Nonviolent Action, presenting the more social and structural counterpart of the power analysis that opened that book. This book's first chapter, however, calls for "Rethinking Politics," and in particular rethinking what Sharp identifies as four principal problems of the violent twentieth century: genocide, dictatorship, social oppression, and war. In chapter after chapter of penetrating analyses, Sharp identifies each of these four as deriving from the direct or indirect consequences of relying on political violence as the ultimate sanction in acute social conflicts.

Citing such writers as sociologist Robert K. Merton and political analyst Walter Lippmann, Sharp argues that political violence as the ultimate sanction in politics can be replaced by "nonviolent sanctions" if nonviolent struggle is developed, through historical practice and extensive research, as a "functional substitute" for, or "political equivalent" of, violence — with such a level of practical effectiveness that most people will be able to have realistic confidence in its efficacy. Only then will it be possible to eliminate war, genocide, dictatorship, and social oppression.

In an appendix, Sharp argues that "believers" in "nonviolence" impede the elimination of violence by assuming that all that is needed is adoption of the proper moral principles (assumed to be already adequately understood) of rejecting violence and embracing nonviolence. In contrast, Sharp spells out "Twenty Steps in the Development and Evaluation of Nonviolent Sanctions," designed to advance toward and make possible the institutional adoption of nonviolent struggle as the basis for national defense, thereby reducing and ultimately eliminating the perceived need and justification for armed forces and the concomitant potential for dictatorship, genocide, and oppression.

In 1985 Sharp published Making Europe Unconquerable: The Potential of Civilian-based Deterrence and Defense, which received a judicious but highly favorable review, by the renowned Cold War "realist" George F. Kennan, that was featured on the cover of the prestigious New York Review of Books. This was followed in 1990 by Civilian-Based Defense: A Post-Military Weapons System. Sharp's writings on nonviolent struggle, in various abridged or specially prepared versions, have been translated into more than twenty languages by people convinced his ideas can help their efforts to liberate themselves from dictatorships, attempted genocide, or oppression.

Sharp's colleagues have published books on the use of nonviolent struggle to fight the Nazis, oust Central American dictators, resist British rule of the American colonies, and overthrow Communist regimes. 1997 saw the publication of two mammoth projects: a 600-page encyclopedia on nonviolent struggle (Protest, Power, and Change) and a 720-page annotated bibliography (Nonviolent Action: A Research Guide) of sources for study of cases of nonviolent action. Additional kindred works continue to be published.

Robert A. Irwin is the author of Building a Peace System (1989). He teaches writing at MIT, is an active nonviolence trainer, and lectures on nonviolent struggle, contemporary politics, and social change strategy. His widely reprinted "Why Nonviolence?" is now available at vernalproject.org.


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