Nonviolence in the service of imperialism

I first learned about Gene Sharp in 2011, when I learned that his writings on nonviolent fighting were used as a tactical handbook by the Arab Spring protesters.

When the Mubarak regime in Egypt and others accused Sharp of being a tool of the Central Intelligence Agency, I dismissed this a typical dictator blaming protests on outside agitators.

Gene Sharp, in 2009

But a writer named Marcie Smith presented evidence that Sharp worked with “defense intellectuals” who used non-violent struggle as one more means of bringing about regime change.

Sharp began his public life as a pacifist.  He went to prison during the Korean Conflict for opposing the draft.  Later he was secretary to A.J. Muste, the leading American pacifist, and supported anti-war protests in Britain.

He conceived the ambition of working out strategy and tactics for non-violence comparable to the thinking of Clausewitz on war and Machiavelli on political power.

He obtained a research appointment in 1965 with the Center for International Affairs, often called the CIA at Harvard, through the influence of Thomas Schelling, noted for his ideas about game theory and nuclear war.

Other members of the Center were cold warriors Henry Kissinger, McGeorge Bundy and future CIA director Robert Bowie.

Later, in 1983, Sharp founded the Albert Einstein Institution, which was independent of the government, but received funding from the National Endowment for Democracy, Ford Foundation and International Republican Institute.

The Albert Einstein Institute, according to Smith, supported non-violent struggles against dictators that the U.S. government was trying to overthrow, while ignoring dictators that were friendly to the U.S.

Sharp is dead, so there’s no way to ask him what he had in mind.  My guess is that he hoped to influence the United States and other governments to substitute non-violent struggle for armed struggle.  If so, this was naive.

The fact that Sharp’s ideas were misused, and that he allowed them to be misused, does not mean they were wrong or useless,

His insight was that tyrants lose their power when and only when their subjects cease to obey them, and that killing is not necessary to achieve this goal.

He did not make spiritual or religious arguments for nonviolence.  His argument was that non-violence could be as effective a tactic for achieving your goals as military force or revolutionary violence.  Saul Alinsky was as much a practitioner of non-violence in Sharp’s terms as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I am not a pacifist.  Nonviolence resistance would not work if you were a Jew or Slav fighting Nazis whose goal was to kill you off.  It might work if you were a Dane or Norwegian resisting Nazis whose goal was to make you obey.

I oppose the mentality that sees military force or revolutionary violence as the default choice rather than a last resort.  I think Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy was a good contribution to human knowledge.  And I see no evidence that the Arab Spring uprisings were inspired by the CIA.

There is an argument that having a noble purpose does not justify using criminal means to achieve that purpose.  Likewise, the fact that you are using ethical and lawful means just not justify a criminal purpose.


Change Agent: Gene Sharp’s Neoliberal Nonviolence (Part One) by Marcie Smith for

Vietnam to Venezuela: US Interventionism and the Failure of the Left by Adolph Reed Jr. for Common Dreams.

Gene Sharp, the Cold War Intellectual Whose Ideas Seduced the Left, an interview with Marcie Smith for Jacobin.  [Added 7/3/2019]

Change Agent: Gene Sharp’s Neoliberal Nonviolence (Part Two) by Marcie Smith for [Added 1/17/2020]

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