Gene Sharp

Interview: Gene Sharp

Gene Sharp is a senior scholar at the Albert Einstein Institute for Peace and is the author of the seminal texts on the theory behind nonviolent conflict.

On the strategies and techniques of successful nonviolent opposition movements:

Among the factors that increase the chances of success are:

The clear determination of the issues and the selection of achievable objectives and careful assessment of the conflict situation, including the strengths and weaknesses of the two sides and then the dependencies between the two sides

Wise planning of how the nonviolent is to be conducted; that is, the development of a realistic strategy for the conflict in the face of the opponents — people also talk about strategy, but not everybody who does knows much about it

Building on the strengths of the nonviolent group in focusing their action on the weaknesses of the opponents, which are really there, believe it or not, especially relating the dependence of the opponents on the nonviolent group, which is at present makes the opponent subject to the influence of non-cooperation

Aggravating pre-existing weaknesses of the opposing group, because they're never as strong as they tell you they are

Ability and willingness of the nonviolent group to act in a disciplined way and to apply the planned strategy despite the opponent's repression, which among other things means nonviolent discipline, but not passivity, discipline in continuing resistance

And, lastly, the action in accordance with the knowledge of how nonviolent struggle operates and what makes it succeed and fail, and there are others. But probably the most difficult of these factors for groups to achieve is the development of a wise strategy for the struggle.

Now, some comments on that: if the issue is quite simple, clear and specific — like better food in the school lunch room — then the plan of resistance can also be quite simple. Like boycotting the school lunch room.

However, if the issue is to bring down a dictatorship, then it is not good enough to say "we want freedom." It's necessary to develop a strategy, or a super-plan, to weaken a dictatorship and that can only be done by identifying its sources of power. These [sources of power] include: authority, human resources skills, knowledge, tangible factors, economic and material resources and sanctions like police and troops.

And then one needs to identify those institutions, which we call pillars of support, that provide the dictatorship with its needed sources of power. If one has sufficient strings to weaken or remove those sources of power, then this is the table whose legs have been cut — the dictatorship will weaken or collapse.

So, it's necessary to ask: do you have the strength, the civil society, including the resisters? Or, can you quickly develop the strength to weaken or sever those sources of power? If so, then a carefully calculated strategy for the struggle is required.

But if you don't have that strength, then it's better not to launch a struggle at that time to bring down a dictatorship, but to hold that goal in mind for the moment and instead focus on resistance in more limited objectives.

Your society must either have institutions capable of resistance (or quickly, if it can be done) mobilize them. So, one is capable of effective mass resistance.

And the last point: if you can mobilize the population's potential power into effective power — which is really the trick — and then wield that mobilized power through limited campaigns for quite specific smaller objectives, one has the possibility of achieving those one by one.

And then the resisting population grows in strength and can win limited objectives in case after case and the dictatorship is defeated in case after case. And if you can do that, you are well on your way to ending the dictatorship.

That's probably most complicated of the various types of situations, but I think people should be aware that this is not a simplistic technique, this can be quite complicated. And one has to really use one's brains and not just one's feelings in planning what to do.

On the idea that all regimes have an Achilles heel, a weakness that groups can target:

Some parts of the Achilles heel you will never find until it [the dictatorship] falls apart and you can say, "oh, there it was," or they were really in fundamental disagreement internally. But you also find the Achilles heel in these weaknesses in dictatorships by not only studying that regime as best you can, but also other regimes that have faced resistance.

And you know that in some cases, its legitimacy may appear to be strong, but actually the groups in the society that bestow and encourage that legitimacy may be very shaky and uncertain. For example, religious groups may be strong supporters of the moral authority of a regime to rule, but they may not be reliable.

The civil servants and people working in government offices may be going through the motions, but they may be unhappy about what's going on. And, so, they can do things like misfiling things or losing things or carrying out orders very slowly.

And in many cases where repression has ordered the shooting of resisters and demonstrators, you may figure out that sometimes they don't shoot, or they shoot over their heads, or the resisters may not make themselves targets by marching down the street towards the machine guns.

On the importance, or lack of, dynamic leadership at the head of an nonviolent opposition group:

Charismatic leaders are really not typical, in spite of the preconceptions and people thinking of Gandhi and Dr. King.

Wise leaders, intellectually wise leaders who know nonviolent struggle well can be very helpful, but someone who is charismatic isn't necessarily wise. Charismatic leaders can even have a negative effect, because their recommendations for action may be unsound.

And besides they are often targets for assassination or imprisonment. And — as we've noted in the case of Gandhi and King alone — then people feel lost. And much better than looking for or trying to develop a charismatic leader (or even worse — somebody claiming to be one) is to spread the knowledge of how to wage nonviolent struggle effectively — to spread that knowledge, that information widely and keep it deeply diffused among the population of the potential resisters.

And then no matter who's arrested or who is killed the population knows essentially what to do and if they have that know-how of what to do, that's going to make their resistance stronger and more durable.

On the dissemination of his work, which was critical to Otpor:

You know, my big book, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, is still in print. That was published way back in 1973. And it's still getting around. And we still find places where it's been discovered and been used. And Serbia was one of those, where Bob Helvey conducted a workshop in Budapest for people from Otpor.

And then Otpor and other groups said, "Oh, okay, let's see what we can do to remove those [the sources of power]," which is a sensible sort of thing to do. Sometimes the books, pamphlets and guides get around who knows how, but they turn up in very strange places sometimes, often in English. But we have a lot of smaller publications in I guess 30 languages.

Sometimes there are groups that are aware that they need further knowledge or know-how and they are able to be in touch with a group, sometimes ours, sometimes one of the groups associated with the National Endowment for Democracy, National Democratic Institute or the International Republican Institute where the key resistance leaders come to learn about this kind of struggle.

Because you can learn it. It's not something that's magical or you have to be blessed with something coming down from the sky to know about. But it can be learned, so sometimes that happens.

But there are other groups in situations you don't know where they got the knowledge. I haven't been able to find much about the Madagascar resistance of a few [years] ago, but clearly from the little bit I was able to glean, [they] knew very well what to do. And we've had no contact with them at all.

And sometimes they've learned from their own previous history and sometimes that's learning what they did before wasn't very good. Like there have been many violent uprisings in Poland against the Russian Czarist empire, for example, in the 19th Century and on into the 20th Century.

But when the people who were thinking through how to deal with the communist regime and the Soviet occupation, they chose specifically to go nonviolent and that's partly learning from your own history what to do and how to avoid violence, because it can be very counterproductive and really help your opponents.

We're trying to develop literature in simplified forms of telling people what are the key factors if you're going to plan a strategy. There are a lot of people that are out there in so-called nonviolent circles who claim to be trainers and to be strategists. And a lot of them may be very good for some purposes, but not in terms of planning.

But how do you plan a strategy for a massive struggle? And we can help them by developing literature which provides a step-by-step guide. Step one, you do this; step two, you do that, and on down the line. It may not be perfect, but you're better off than if you didn't have a plan at all.

On the issue of foreign support and presentation of your cause to foreign media outlets:

Don't count on it [foreign support]. Foreign regimes may have their own purposes and their own objectives, which may not be identical with yours.

And foreign regimes may be prepared for their own purposes to betray your cause. On the other hand, the foreign regimes may or may not understand what's going on, because they may regard this nonviolent stuff as toy stuff, play things, and so forth, for a few protestors.

Whereas they may believe the real power is violence and they may, in fact, be disruptive if they try to organize some military or guerilla group to enter the struggle, which will help mess things up very badly. So, one has to be very careful.

On the other hand, if your group is visibly well prepared, if they plan it carefully, if they're initial actions have been disciplined and responsible and if they've been nonviolent — no assassinations, no bombings, none of that nonsense — then they may inspire support such as Otpor received, for example, to help them with printing costs and things like that, which a foreign government would not have offered for a violent guerilla or terrorist group.

So, your chances of getting solid support may be greatly increased to the degree that you are nonviolent and disciplined and courageous. But it should be made clear to the foreign friends that you don't want the other kind of help, because it won't help.

Excerpted from a telephone interview with Elizabeth Bausch, February 21, 2002.