Einstein, Gandhi, and Dr. Gene Sharp: the Politics of Nonviolence

How can we hold our established democracies to account, and how can we ensure the change we want is long-lasting?

You’re likely familiar with the names Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, leaders who advocated for and led their movements by the philosophy of nonviolence. At least as equally deserving of widespread recognition is a man named Dr. Gene Sharp.

Dr. Sharp, who passed away in 2018 at the age of ninety, had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize four times during his career for articulating and advancing the cause of nonviolent action for change. His first book, Gandhi Wields the Weapon of Moral Power, was published in 1960 and included a Foreword by Albert Einstein, with whom Dr. Sharp corresponded with during his nine-month imprisonment in New York, having been arrested for civil disobedience against military conscription during the Korean War. Dr. Sharp’s books and publications on nonviolent struggle, power, political problems, liberation struggle, dictatorships, and defense policy have been published in over forty languages, most notably his 1973 three-volume The Politics of Nonviolent Action, a pragmatic political analysis of nonviolent action as a method for applying power in a conflict, and his 1993 handbook, From Dictatorship to Democracy, which has influenced resistance movements across the world.

In 1983, Dr. Sharp founded the Albert Einstein Institution, a non-profit organization that continues to support research and policy studies on strategic nonviolent action, and is committed to the defense of freedom, democracy, and the reduction of political violence through the use of nonviolent action. The Institution has consulted with resistance and pro-democracy groups across the world, from Asia to Eastern Europe to the Middle East. Dr. Sharp’s works are the ideological underpinning of the work for the Serbian-based nonviolent conflict training group, the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), which helped to train key activists in youth movements in the Eastern European color revolutions and the protest movement that toppled President Mubarak of Egypt in 2011.

Once people decide to be free, nothing can stop them.
— Desmond Tutu
Dr. Gene Sharp with Jamila Raqib, Executive Director of the Albert Einstein Institution

Dr. Gene Sharp with Jamila Raqib, Executive Director of the Albert Einstein Institution

How Nonviolent Action Works

It’s important for Millennials to have the tangible tools and tactics needed to design and execute our plans for lasting, positive change. When we understand how the game is played, we are equipped to rewrite the rules and change the game.

The following information are key highlights from Dr. Sharp’s book, How Nonviolent Struggle Works, to understand the dynamic between the grassroots and government.

In Dr. Sharp's view, all effective power structures have systems by which they encourage or extract obedience from the people they rule, and states, in particular, have complex systems for keeping people obedient. These complex systems include specific institutions, such as the police, courts, and regulatory bodies. They can also include cultural dimensions that inspire obedience by implying that power is monolithic, such as the dignity of a political office, or moral or ethical norms and taboos. Through these systems, people are presented with a system of sanctions, including imprisonment, fines, and ostracism, and rewards including titles, wealth, and fame, which influence the extent of their obedience.

Yet, a great strength can transmute into a great point of weakness in the face of contextual change. Dr. Sharp’s basic political assumption of nonviolent action is when people refuse to cooperate, withhold help or participation, and persist in their disobedience and defiance, they deny their opponents the basic human assistance and cooperation which any government or hierarchical system requires. When people do this in large enough numbers for a long enough period of time, that government or hierarchical system will no longer have power.

Where traditionally people have believed their options as either passive submission or violent action, Dr. Sharp presents a third alternative – struggle by means of nonviolent action, resting on the belief that the exercise of power depends on the consent of the ruled who, by withdrawing that consent, can control, and even destroy the power of their opponents.

Throughout his research, Dr. Sharp has observed the following demonstrable features of nonviolent action: as a technique, it occurs despite the absence of attention to the development of the technique itself; its practice is part spontaneous, part intuitive, and part vaguely patterned after a known case; it is usually practiced under highly unfavorable conditions; it is usually practiced with a lack of experienced leaders or participants; there are almost always no advance preparations, training, or consideration of strategy and tactics; and, its practitioners usually have little understanding of the technique or its history as there were no sources of information available to them to consult.


Why Nonviolence

A 2011 study by American researchers Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan found that out of 323 civil resistance campaigns around the world, between 1900 to 2006, 53 percent of nonviolent campaigns were successful, whereas only 26 percent of violent campaigns were. Of regime changes that resulted in a functioning democracy, 42 percent came from nonviolent campaigns, and only 4 percent from violent ones.

Opponents prefer violence. Resistance violence is seen to “legitimize” violent oppression. The opponents may provoke violence by very severe repression, or they may employ spies and agents provocateurs. If it is publicly revealed that the opponents have acted in these ways, the news could disastrously undermine some of their usual support and power position. Disciplined nonviolent resistance will help to expose any such agents.

The requirement that movement supporters maintain nonviolent discipline is rooted in the dynamics of the technique of nonviolent action. Without nonviolent behaviour, the opponents’ repression will not rebound to undermine their power through political jiu-jitsu and the mechanisms of change will not operate. Nonviolent behaviour is likely to contribute to achieving a variety of positive accomplishments. Four of these are: winning sympathy and support; reducing casualties; inducing disaffection and even mutiny of the opponents’ troops; and, attracting maximum participation in the nonviolent struggle.

The introduction of violence by resisters will reverse the process which produces strength in nonviolent action, and will increase the effectiveness of the opponents’ control measures. Violence by resisters shifts attention to the violence itself, away from the issues, and away from the courage of the resisters and the opponents’ own, usually much greater, violence. The introduction of violence into a nonviolent struggle movement may weaken nonviolent discipline, contribute to a shift to violence, and even lead to the collapse of the movement. The use of violence by the grievance group tends to unleash disproportionately severe repression by the opponents and to reverse any sympathy for the resisters which may be developing inside the opponents’ group. Success requires that only nonviolent “weapons” be used.

Understanding Political Power


Importance of power

  • Power is inherent in practically all social and political relationships.

  • Its control is the basic problem between political theory and political reality.

  • It is necessary to wield power in order to control the power of threatening adversaries.

  • Social power is the totality of all influences and pressures which can be used by and applied to groups of people, either to attempt to control the behaviour of others directly or indirectly, or to accomplish a group objective or group action.

  • Political power is that kind of social power which is wielded for political objectives, especially by governmental institutions or by people in opposition to or in support of such institutions. Political power this refers to total authority, influence, pressure, and coercion which may be applied to achieve or prevent the implementation of the wishes of the power-holder.

Nature of political power

  • The monolithic view of power sees people as dependent upon the goodwill, the decisions, and the support of their government or of any other hierarchical system. It perceives power as emanating from the few who stand at the pinnacle of command. It considers powers to be self-perpetuating, durable, not easily or quickly controlled or destroyed.

  • The social view of power sees governments or other systems to be dependent on the people’s goodwill, decisions, and support. It sees that power as continually rising from many parts of the society. It views political power as fragile, always dependent for its strength and existence upon a replenishment of its sources by the cooperation of a multitude of institutions and people – cooperation which may or may not continue. Therefore, political power can most efficiently be controlled at its sources.

  • Established democracies function on the premise of the social nature of power. Yet, in practice, elites and bureaucracies have entrenched their spectrums and silos of power to levels of reduced transparency and accountability. In all democratic nations, people power is decreasing, and monolithic power is increasing, most clearly demonstrated in the European Union. People in established democracies have fewer options and decreased ability to exercise social power.

Therefore, it’s important to discern what your opinion is of the role of government, and why the translation of this belief has created “left-wing” and “right-wing” politics. The political left favours greater government involvement, and the political right favours less. Libertarians favour managing the basics. Millennials favour the basics led by community consciousness.

Sources of political power

  • Authority, voluntarily accepted by the people and therefore is present without the imposition of sanctions.

  • Human resources, the number of people who obey them, cooperate with them, or provide them with assistance.

  • Skills, knowledge, and abilities of these people, in relation to the skills, knowledge, and abilities the opponent needs.

  • Intangible factors, the psychological and ideological habits and attitudes, and the presence or absence of a common faith, ideology, or sense of mission.

  • Material resources, the degree to which the opponent controls property, natural resources, financial resources, the economic system, communication, transportation, and so on, that helps determine the limits of their power.

  • Sanctions, the enforcement of obedience, which may be violent or not.

Why do people obey

 Obedience is the heart of political power, and all government is based upon consent. The explanation for why people obey are multiple, complex, and interrelated:

  • Habit

  • Fear of sanctions

  • Moral obligation

  • Self-interest

  • Psychological identification with rulers

  • Indifference

  • Absence of self-confidence

Freedom is not something which opponents “give” their subjects. It is something achieved in the interaction between society and government. Pacifism doesn’t work, for this reason, because freedom is dependent on this relationship, this interplay. Freedom requires action for its own existence. Without it, dictatorships, communist, and fascist governments take hold because of the default consent they’ve been allowed by the people.

Structure of resistance

Withdrawal of consent becomes politically significant, and the opponents’ will is thwarted, in proportion to the number of disobedient subjects and the degree of the opponents’ dependence upon them. The key question then becomes how to implement this insight into political power. While individual acts may at times be scarcely noticed, the defiance of organizations and institutions – churches, trade unions, business organizations, the bureaucracy, neighborhoods, villages, cities, regions, and the like – may be pivotal. The ability of the population to wield effective power and to control that of its opponents will be highly influenced by the condition of these non-state organizations and institutions. It is these “places” where power operates that provide the structural basis for the control of the opponents. Where these independent bodies are strong, the capacity to control the opponents will be strong. When these are weak, so will be the controls over the opponents’ power. It is through these bodies that people can collectively offer noncooperation and disobedience.