Posts Tagged ‘Gene Sharp’

Donald Trump and the limits of protest

March 23, 2016

I admired Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he was alive.   I admire the thinking of Gene Sharp.  I think civil disobedience is justified when all else fails.

But I do not agree with the non-violent protests that shut down an Arizona highway near a Donald Trump campaign events, nor with other protests intended to prevent Trump from speaking.

Dr. King’s non-violent protests were strategic attacks on structures of power.  His protests succeeded to the extent that people in power concluded it would cost them less, in terms of damage to profits and reputation, to give in to his demands than to fight them.

They also succeeded to the extent that Dr. King was able to convince the larger American public that his cause was just, and his protests were disciplined and organized as to give his followers the moral high ground.

Dr. King had specific lists of demands.  His opponents always knew what they had to do in order to shut off the protests.

trumpblock20Protestors who try to shut down Donald Trump rallies do not hurt either Trump’s reputation nor his profits.  Instead they solidify Trump’s support, while inconveniencing and alienating the general public.

Those protestors are not defending their Constitutional rights.  Instead they are denying Trump his right of free speech and his followers their right to peaceably assemble.

Yes, I know the Constitutional rights of Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and other groups have not been respected, and that Donald Trump himself is not a friend of civil liberties.  That does not mean that he and his followers are not entitled to hold meetings or that there is anything to be gained in trying to deny them that right.

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Martin Luther King Jr. on nonviolence

January 19, 2015

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We Americans honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as one of our national heroes, but the only thing we remember that he stood for is that people should be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skins.

That’s important, of course.  But many of us tend to forget his strong advocacy of economic justice and, even more, we forget his strong commitment to nonviolence, or rather mass defiance as an alternative revolutionary violence.

I am not a pacifist, as Dr. King was.  I do not believe that war is always wrong.  But the stronger reason is that I do not have the moral strength to following his teaching.  I am unable to live up to the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels to love my enemies, resist not evil and do good to them that hate me.

The amazing thing about Dr. King was that he was able, for a short time, to persuade large numbers of Americans to fight without violence and to win.

Considered purely pragmatically, the nonviolent techniques of struggle advocated by Gene Sharp and practiced by Saul Alinsky have been at least as successful as revolutionary violence.

Alinsky’s career in particular is evidence that successful use of nonviolent techniques did not require Christian love or the turning of the other cheek.

My impression is that many black Americans today regard Malcolm X as a more manly role model than Dr. King.  Yet Dr. King made governors and presidents bow to his will, while Malcolm X’s struggles were mostly with other African-Americans.

This statement is not completely fair to Malcolm X, because he was murdered when his work had only just begun while Dr. King was struck down after he had accomplished most of what was in him to do.

But the fact remains that the Black Panthers and other advocates of armed struggle were much more easily crushed than the followers of Dr. King.

The power of oppressive elites is the power to compel obedience.  Their power ceases when the oppressed cease to obey.  I admit that’s easy for me to say when I’ve never put myself at physical risk in any struggle, nonviolent or otherwise.  But I believe it’s true.

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Nonviolent resistance to Hitler?

April 29, 2012

On this web log, I favorably reviewed two of Gene Sharp’s manuals for nonviolent resistant to despots.  A friend asked if I think nonviolent resistance would have worked against Hitler.

His ideas rest on the truth that the power of a tyrant is the power to command the obedience of the people he rules.  To the extent that they cease to obey, his power disappears.  Gene Sharp cited examples of successful nonviolent resistance to Hitler, including Norwegian school teachers who successfully resisted demands that they teach Nazi doctrines, and German women married to Jewish men whose protests caused the German government to rescind orders to deport their husbands to death camps.

But nonviolent resistance would not work for peoples marked for extermination or ethnic cleansing.  this would not work for the Jews, gypsies and others marked for extermination.  Hitler did not wish to rule the Jews, gypsies and others marked for extermination.   He wished to eliminate them.  Nonviolent resistance would not have been an obstacle to that goal.

I am not a pacifist.  I understand that war is sometimes the least bad option.  I do not think that the line between nonviolent and violent resistance is always clear.  Many campaigns of mass defiance involve both.   A nonviolent struggle has the merit of being inherently democratic, in the way that many seizures of power in the name of liberation did not.  M.K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. had power that rested on the voluntary compliance of their followers.  Unlike the leaders of many supposed liberation movements, they didn’t kill people to keep their followers in line.

Click on The realism of nonviolent action for my review of Gene Sharp’s The Politics of Nonviolent Action.

Click on Gene Sharp’s revolution handbook for my review of his From Dictatorship to Democracy.

Click on Gene Sharp: A dictator’s worst nightmare for a good profile by CNN.  [Added 6/27/12]

Gene Sharp’s revolution handbook

April 14, 2012

I just finished reading From Dictatorship to Democracy by Gene Sharp, the great strategist of nonviolent struggle.  Like the great Prussian military strategist, Carl von Clausewitz, his strategy and tactics are directed against the mind of the enemy.  An enemy is defeated when they are no longer willing to fight.  A government is defeated when people are no longer willing to obey it, and this can be accomplished, Sharp claims, without having to kill people in large numbers.

When I was a student at the University of Wisconsin in the 1950s, there was a story that at some point in the Russian history course taught by Professor Petrovich, he would throw a chair to the side of the room.   Supposedly he was making a point about revolution.   I took the course, and the chair-throwing apparently was an urban legend, but the point he made was an important one.

Revolution does not come, he said, when you have a privileged aristocracy, dancing to Strauss waltzes, who are suddenly overthrown by Jacobins or Bolsheviks, and here is where he would have tossed the chair to one side.  No, he said, revolution comes when a society is on the verge of collapse, and here he would have balanced a chair on one leg with one finger, and it loses its last support – here he would have let the chair fall.

That is surely true.  Governments can govern only because people obey them.  They fall when their people cease to obey them.  That is what happened to the King of France in 1789, the Tsar of Russia in 1917 and the Shah of Iran in 1989.   Gene Sharp says that the way to overthrow a despotic government is to undermine the public’s habits of fear and obedience, and to deprive it of the resources it needs to govern.

In From Dictatorship to Democracy, originally published in 1990, and The Politics of Nonviolent Action, published in 1973, he listed 198 different tactics by which this could be accomplished, including public protests, strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience and creation of parallel institutions.  Here are his broad principles.

Develop a strategy for winning freedom and a vision of the society you want.

Overcome fear by small acts of resistance.

Use colors and symbols to demonstrate unity of resistance.

Learn from historical examples of the successes of non-violent movements.

Use non-violent “weapons.”

Identify the dictatorship’s pillars of support and develop a strategy for undermining each.

Use oppressive or brutal acts by the regime as a recruiting tool for your movement.

Isolate or remove from the movement people who use or advocate violence.

via BBC News.

Back in the 1950s, I never would have thought these tactics would work against a ruthless totalitarian government such as the Soviet Union, which had the power to sniff out and suppress the slightest dissent.  I had to change my mind after the Soviet government did fall, simply because it lost the authority and power to compel obedience.   On the whole, nonviolent fighters have a better record of success than the advocates of terrorism and guerrilla warfare.

Sharp argued nonviolent struggle requires as much strategic planning and tactical discipline as military action.  Superior ethics and morality will not in themselves bring victory.  You need to be as tough-minded as the community organizer Saul Alinsky, who in his way was a master of nonviolent struggle.  But while there are many academies where you can learn military science, there are few academies where you can learn the strategy and tactics of nonviolent struggle.  I used to think proposals to establish a national Peace Academy or Department of Peace were naive, but I know think such proposals might be more than mere sentimental gestures.

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The realism of nonviolent action

March 31, 2011

There is a mindset that identifies violence with practicality.  People who think this way regard boycotts, peaceful protests and civil disobedience of an oppressor as woolly-minded idealism, and assassination, terror and military force as hard-headed realism.  They become impatient with negotiation and diplomacy when they fail to bring about immediate results, but believe in responding to the failures of military action with redoubled military action.

Gene Sharp, in 2009

I used to think a little bit that way myself.  I of course admired Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., but I thought they were special cases because they appealed to humanitarian public opinion in the British and American democracies.  To deal with a truly ruthless enemy, such as Hitler or Stalin, required armed force or even the threat of nuclear annihilation.

Gene Sharp wrote The Politics of Nonviolent Action in 1973 to challenge that kind of thinking.  I never read it when it first came out.  My interest was aroused when I learned that it was used as a tactical manual by Egyptian protesters who overthrew Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship.

Sharp contended that nonviolent action was as effective and realistic a means of struggle as war.  He intended his book to inspire the study of nonviolent strategy and tactics what Clausewitz and other military thinkers did for the study war.  The introduction was written by Thomas C. Schelling, a noted theorist of game theory and military strategy who was noted for his cold-blooded logic.  He praised Sharp for his dispassionate and realistic approach.

Sharp was to nonviolence was Clausewitz was to war.  Like Clausewitz, he said strategy and tactics were aimed at the will of the opponent.  Although Sharp was a conscientious objector, he insisted that you don’t have to be a religious pacifist to favor nonviolent struggle; there are many pragmatic reasons for doing so, he said.

All oppressive institutions depend upon the obedience of the subjugated class; when that obedience is withdrawn, the oppressor is no longer powerful.  And in Sharp’s view, the nonviolent fighter can win over or divide the opposition while a violent fighter unites it.

Oppressive institutions fear nonviolent action more than violence, Sharp contended.  That’s why agents provocateurs always try to instigate violence.  Sharp said rulers prefer violent to nonviolent opponents because they know better how to deal with the former than the latter.  If nonviolent resistance were weak and ineffectual, why wouldn’t the informers and infiltrators encourage it?

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