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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Prof. Gene Sharp and nonviolent action: The most influential book you've never heard of.

by John MacBeath Watkins

Prof. Gene Sharp is one of those academics who think ideas can change the world. He's been writing books, he's started a foundation, and he's a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. Hardly the sort of guy to foment a revolution.

And yet, he's been called the Machiavelli of nonviolence, the Clausewitz of warfare without weapons. In 1983 he founded the Einstein Institute, which is devoted to the study and promotion of nonviolent action.

He even did time, jailed for nine months for protesting against the conscription of soldiers during the Korean war. Damn hippie, well before there were hippies.

Yet as dictators fall across the Muslim world, his name keeps coming up. Sharpe refined the ideas of Mohandas K. Gandhi and spread them widely. His book, From Dictatorship to Democracy, has been the foundation for "people power" revolutions in Serbia, Georgia, the Ukraine and Belarus. It's been the basis for those organizing against dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, and the protests against vote fraud in Iran. The Einstein Institute makes his works available for free download in 60 languages.

Sharp has taken a basic idea first voiced by liberal theorists in the 17th century -- that power, regardless of how the state is organized, ultimately derives from the subjects of the state. John Locke argued that the citizens have a right to overturn a government that does not serve them (an idea so dangerous at the time that he did not allow Two Treatises of Government to be published under his name during his lifetime.) This is a natural conclusion from the basic idea of the social contract.

But Sharp has taken this further, pointing out that if citizens cease to obey a leader, that leader no longer has power. He's worked hard on finding out how to apply this principle, and the Einstein Institute even trained some of the Serbs involved in getting rid of Slobodan Milosevic.

Some have been eager to attribute the nonviolent revolutions in the Muslim world to the availability of Twitter and Facebook for organizing, and I'm sure they played a role, but it matters what ideas people communicate for organizing. After all, Osama Bin Laden had access to the same tools, and he has overthrown not one dictator. The Muslim Brotherhood has access to the same tools, and like Bin Laden, they have overthrown no one. The Serbs didn't have Twitter, they had graffiti, and they had Sharp's book.

The basic idea behind liberal democracies -- that the legitimacy of the state stems from the consent of the governed -- has remade the world.  In America, it first caused the Revolutionary War, which was an incomplete revolution.  As the American Constitution was originally written, slaves counted as 3/5 of a person as far as the allocation of congressional seats, although they were not allowed to vote. In states like South Carolina, where black slaves outnumbered whites, this gave the state enough power in the national legislature to resist efforts to eliminate slavery. Until slavery was eliminated, the American revolution was not complete. The American Civil War began its completion. Violence did not complete the revolution. Nonviolent action, in the Civil Rights Movement, completed it, finally gaining for blacks the rights the defeat of the Confederacy promised them. Martin Luther King, Jr. acted on the basis of Gandhi's ideas, and in so doing, completed the American Revolution.

So if you don't see a liberal democracy growing up immediately in the wake of events in Tunis or Egypt, keep in mind, it took us a couple hundred years to complete our revolution. But the idea behind it is there, and it's a hardy seed, with surprising power to crack the most solid-looking tyranny.


Slavery still exists in parts of the world, but it and absolute tyrants are becoming more rare. Both are threatened by the ideas of liberalism. Even in Egypt under Mubarak, even in Iran, tyrants feel a need to imitate the forms of democracy, to make claims to the sort of legitimacy liberalism demands. It is the compliment tyranny pays to democracy, and a sign that tyranny lacks any legitimacy of its own.

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