Mass Political Defiance: A Conversation with Gene Sharp

by | 3 Jun 2011

Gene Sharp at the Albert Einstein Institution Picture courtesy of Ruaridh Arrow,

Gene Sharp, the most important theorist on non violent struggle, accepted to answer various questions about his work for the blog cosmopolita and the printed edition of El Espectador (20th of May 2011). In this interview Sharp speaks about his theory and also about recent political events, such as the revolt against Mubarak and the crisis in Libya.

After a brief introduction, which serves the purpose of providing a historical context to Sharp’s inquiry and of dispelling some misunderstandings about non violent struggle, Sharp himself explains various aspects of his theory and gives his opinion about major current events. I hope this interview works as an invitation to know and study his theory, and also to put it into practice.

Although the main audience I had in mind when I decided to make this interview was the Colombian people, I am thankful for having the opportunity to share it with another audience, far away from the place where I was born and where I live. For this matter, I would like to say a couple of words here.

After years and years of enduring the effects of a virulent armed conflict, one in which all sides have shown a remarkable callousness, an incredible indifference towards the suffering they cause, I am appalled to find that there are still people who believe that violence is an effective instrument to bring about political and social change. A good number of Colombians can give testimony of the futility of the armed struggle. Even worse, they can also tell the story of how a vanguardist Marxist guerrilla led to a widespread reaction against it and thus favored the emergence of an autocratic president. Nowadays, even far-leftist critics of the existing regime cherish the liberal freedoms they used to despise.

Academic philosophers and armchair revolutionaries who know nothing of the suffering related to a protracted armed conflict seem to find the idea of a violent revolution very palatable. This idea provides them with an extraordinary vehicle to articulate their frustration and impotence into something propositive. It also allows them to make peace with themselves. Yet, these intellectuals are far of providing anything resembling a responsible analysis of the costs and benefits of leading people to a nightmare of violent confrontations. I hope this interview help some people to distinguish the songs of freedom from their sirens’ chants.


In the beginning of the 1970s, the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote an oposcule titled On Violence. In that brief work, Arendt wanted to explain many of the misunderstandings concerning the use of violence in politics. She formulated her theses as a sort of antidote against a romantic and very infantile conception of the use of violence, one which, at that time, enjoyed a widespread acceptance among the US student movement. However, in order to avoid being taken as a naïve theorist and with the purpose of disciplining her thoughts with a great dose of realism, Arendt believed that it was necessary to admit that a non violent struggle couldn’t work everywhere. If it was successful in the case of the independence of India, Arendt claimed, it was because of the fact that Gandhi confronted a very civilized opponent. Had he had to deal with either Hitler or Stalin, his story would have been very different.

Gene Sharp claims that nothing of this sort is true. He holds that oppressive and brutal regimes can be undermined and removed through non violent actions. What is needful is to fight against those regimes with great intelligence. One has to calculate very well each of the stages of conflict and prepare oneself to deal with a violent response from the opponent. In the whole process, one has to exert a remarkable discipline. Otherwise, a non violent movement may end up defeating itself.

In each phase of the conflict, such a movement has to take advantage of the regime’s weakness against which it fights. In other words, it should attack it where the regime is weak, not where it is strong. That’s why Sharp affirms that a military struggle against an oppressive regime ends up being much more costly than a non violent one; moreover, he points out, the result of the military struggle is not always certain and, most of all, far from optimal.

Sharp sees Gandhi through this light: he sees in Gandhi a non violent struggle strategist. I find his analysis convincing. If one believes that British people, when they were at the helm of their empire, always played fair, one gets their story wrong from beginning to end. The very Indians knew it quite well. India’s First Independence War, as it is known the 1857 rebellion, was brutally repressed. Without euphemisms: British rulers didn’t hesitate to commit all the massacres that were necessary to crush the rebellion.

Not only did the Indians know this. The Burmese also suffered a very similar fate when they opposed the British Empire’s plans of controlling the Silk Road. The Boers also knew how atrocious the British could be. To vanquish them, the British Empire resorted to tactics such as laying their land to waste and even more: they invented the infamous concentration camps. Boer women and children were confined in those camps and had to endure deplorable conditions.

With this background, one can think of Gandhi’s audacity in a different way. Gandhi was not a shirtless leader submitting petitions before educated people. Nor did he believe in the power of morally moving his adversary to do the right thing. He was an oppressed who fought against his oppressor but without having to neither demonize it nor destroy it. He fought without resorting to the violent practices he put into question. There shouldn’t be doubts about this point, though: he was an oppressed who took upon himself the task of defeating an oppressor who resorted to very violent tactics.

Sharp studied Gandhi carefully. Not only did he study Gandhi. He also studied many historical episodes that taught him that it was possible to defeat an oppressive regime without resorting to violence. From that study, Sharp arrived to various conclusions. One of them was that history has been written by those who have an interest in profiting from violence, an interest in using it to prevail over other people.

The work of Gene Sharp helps to refute a widespread prejudice towards political theory: that an idea might be right in theory but not in practice. From a very small house where his foundation is located, Gene Sharp has inspired millions of people to fight against oppression without resorting to violence.

At first glance, this is not something particularly worthy of praise. Better examples can be found in the figure of people such as Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. Besides them, Sharp is just a pale old man. Apart from having been incarcerated once because of being a conscientious objector and of fulfilling very consciously his professorial duties, there is nothing admirable in Gene Sharp’s life and deeds. Except his work.

Sharp carried out a careful analysis of the way power works. He reached the conclusion that all regimes, even the most oppressive ones, require the acceptance and active cooperation from the majority of their subjects. Therefore, if those subjects withdrew their support and cooperation from a regime, such a regime would fall.

Based on this premise, Sharp developed a theory, the mass political defiance theory, whose purpose is to make oppressive regimes fall. His theory, as the very Sharp admits it, can be applied to other situations in which there exist oppression and injustice, as it happens in the economic and social realms.

Gene Sharp has lived long enough to see all sort of applications of his theory: some of them successful, in the Baltic countries; some others not, in Burma; some motivated by noble purposes; some others not quite so. The last historical event which confirms Sharp’s theory is the popular revolt in Egypt and the subsequent fall of Mubarak’s regime.


Gene Sharp’s theory on non violent struggle

Juan Gabriel: Concerning dictators, what led you to believe that there is an alternative to violence?

Gene Sharp: Because it happened. This is not the result of my imagination. I didn’t formulate my theory based on a political belief but on historical evidence. There are numerous cases of non-violent struggle against the occupation of foreign powers, against dictatorships, and dictatorial single-party communist regimes. Norway is an example of the former. It was occupied by the Nazis and the German army. A fascist regime was established, the Quisling regime. Teachers resisted efforts from the government to indoctrinate children in its fascist ideology and also contributed to overthrow that regime. Poland is an example of the fight against communist dictatorships. It was occupied various times by the Russian Empire, by the Germans and by the Soviets. However, when they confronted the communist dictatorship, they chose non violence. In the course of nine years of struggle, the Solidarity movement was able to undermine the bases of the regime. Case by case, the complete undermining of oppressive regimes, such as in the case of Baltic countries, happened through this kind of struggle, through non-cooperation with those regimes.

JG: Non-violent action is a term wrongly associated with a pacifist and even passive stance. You prefer to talk about mass political defiance. Why?

GS: Mass political defiance or civil resistance are terms that communicate much better which kind of activity people carry on when they resort to a non violent struggle. In the field of non violence there are many misunderstandings and false assumptions which evoke images of surrender when the truth is just the opposite: non violent struggle consists in defying tyranny. That’s why you need a new language, new words with which you describe this kind of struggle much better. This experience has motivated me to write a dictionary that will be published by Oxford University Press en New York titled Sharp’s Dictionary of Power and Struggle: Terminology of Civil Resistance in Conflicts. There you will find a definition of all these terms.

JG: If I understand your theory well, mass political defiance should be used not only against dictators but also against any other big abusive powers that do not show any respect for human rights and the environment.

GS: You’re right. My theory has that potential. But that’s not something that you decide on Tuesday and then implement on Wednesday. These are issues on which you have to think carefully. You have to ask yourself what you have to do to reach success. Therefore, you should plan everything with great care, including the response you’d get. You should expect that there would be repression, that people would be detained, tortured, even killed. The very same thing happens in a war. The difference consists of a lesser number of killings during a non violent struggle. The care you put in planning what the movement would do is critical to prevent its defeat, particularly, a defeat caused by the very same movement.

JG: To overcome fear, people usually resort to anger (I think of the Day of Wrath in Egypt). Yet, you stress that non-violent actions cannot be based on such a feeling but on rational calculations. Would you please elaborate on this matter?

GS: Given that oppressive regimes are often brutal, people become full of anger. You have to use that anger, but you cannot become angry and strike the way the regime does. You have to learn how to channel that anger to undermine dictatorships. Courage and bravery are very important but they always have to be directed towards actions that are effective. Given that the response to this challenge would be much more brutal, more repressive, you have to know very well how you’d use your actions and the response to those actions to undermine the regime, to make people withdraw their support of that regime and then make it fall. But, for that matter, you have to study the situation very carefully. That’s the reason why there are various studies in this field. One of them is my booklet From Dictatorship to Democracy, available at the Albert Einstein Institution’s web site.

JG: Non-violent actions are associated with converting the opponent. You stress that the goal is to break its power.

GS: Some people, particularly those who have a religious orientation, insist on converting their opponents, even Hitler, if such a thing would have been possible. They do it based on reasons pertaining to their religious creed and as a way of keeping their hearts pure. But that’s not the way you fight against dictators. It is not by converting them but by taking their power away from them that you can put an end to their oppression. That power has to be taken with the help of the entire people, undermining dictators’ military power and taking away from them all forms of economic control. In that case, dictators will cry and say that they are subjected to an undue pressure, that their power is being undermined, but such power is what they use to oppress their people. To take their power away from them is a laudable moral objective, even though you may not be able to convert your opponents.

JG: However, conversion, particularly of third parties, plays a decisive role in breaking the opponent’s power.

GS: I wouldn’t call this change conversion. I think conversion is a change related to very deep rooted opinions. I would call the adherence of new members to a mass political defiance movement the realization of their power potential. Those new members are not handicapped victims who have no power at all. No, they are people who can learn to do many things to confront oppression, to put an end to it. For that matter, you should give them a new understanding of their self-respect, of their dignity, of the way in which they can act to put the regime to the test. This is a mentality change that you can call conversion, if you want to, but I prefer to insist on something different, their realization of their power potential. People could internalize that they were weak, but they also can learn to be strong and can do it at all levels of the struggle: psychological, economical, political. By means of acquiring control of their lives and their society, people can free themselves.

This is what’s going on in the Arab world. It is something surprising. Many had the stereotype that Arabs were not able of something of this sort. And look at all they have done. It happened in Egypt. It’s happening in Oman, in more countries, in Syria, where the regime ordered the Army to repress the protest movement brutally but where the Army has begun refusing to obey the dictator’s orders.

JG: Non-violence is associated with the Christian mandate of turning the other cheek. You’d reply that to reach its goals a mass political defiance movement should in all cases avoid unnecessary sacrifices.

GS: Dictators know what they do to their people. They don’t love them. That’s why, when fighting against dictators, one has to use the most effective actions to take their power away from them. To turn the other cheek might be spiritually good, but one doesn’t have to have such a level of spiritual achievement to fight against an oppressive regime. The decisive thing is to use the most effective means to reach the goal of ending the oppression.

JG: I can’t help thinking that lurking behind your rational analysis concerning the power of ordinary people and how they can use it to overthrow an oppressive regime there lie very deep spiritual convictions. I would like to know what kind of experiences led you to stress the strategic aspects over the moral ones concerning the superiority of non violent struggle over the use of violence.

GS: I think that your assumption is not right. Think of the experience of your own country when fighting against Rojas’ dictatorial regime [in 1957] and of overthrowing him. Those who participated in that movement didn’t have any particular spiritual background. These people were simply determined to make that regime fall and put an end to the oppression. To have a decent income, to make their government serve its people, they didn’t need any particular spiritual achievement but a good deal of stubbornness, tenacity and determination to do something they were told they couldn’t do, to stop obeying the way they were always told they had to. This is something for which you don’t have to have any previous spiritual achievement.

JG: And, yet, I still believe that, when dealing with a brutal repression, you would need a certain level of spiritual achievement, to have a cultivated spirit to exert a high degree of self-discipline.

GS: That’s not true. Think of ordinary soldiers sent to the frontline. In the case of non violent struggle something similar happens. The struggle for dignity and freedom doesn’t require a certain spiritual revelation. What is needful is courage and determination.

I would like to make a clarification about the meaning that I attribute to the word spiritual, a word which I mentioned various times during the interview. I don’t believe that the spirit is an entity separated from the body. The word spiritual could be well replaced by the word mental, but this wasn’t the word that I used in the interview. My insistence on the issue of cultivating a certain mental disposition has to do with the internal resources needed to maintain a non-violent self-discipline in the face of brutal repression. Concerning this matter, each one of us has to pursue her own inquiry.


“The Egyptian movement was authentic”

JG: In its struggle against Mubarak’s regime, the Egyptian movement seemed to have followed your theory. Did this successful uprising surprise you?

GS: Yes, it did. I would like to say, though, that the actions of this movement are comparable with my theory, but they were not necessarily caused by it. The Egyptian movement was an authentic movement, with no outsiders, that most of the time showed a remarkable degree of non violent self-discipline. People also showed they were not afraid, something which was a very important component of the whole process.

JG: What should people do to continue en route towards democracy in Egypt?

GS: I really don’t give advice to people. It’s up to the people in Egypt to make their own decision. What they have to do is to pay attention to what’s going on and make sure they prevent a return to a dictatorial regime.

JG: What have you learnt from the revolt in Egypt?

GS: That it’s possible that thousands of people, even millions, were able to display a non violent challenge to an oppressive regime and, at the same time, keep a non violent discipline. These events remind us that it’s possible to overthrow a dictatorship without resorting to violence. It has happened now, it happened in the past; therefore, it can happen in the future.

JG: According to Hussein Ibish, if Egypt was the dream, Libya is the nightmare. What do you think of what’s going on in this country?

GS: Ibish’s description is right. A serious mistake was made in Libya, particularly when a very important general, followed by his troops, defected from Gaddafi’s regime and decided to join the opposition. At that moment, many believed that they had the opportunity to resist Gaddafi resorting to violence. That was the beginning of the end of the non violent movement. Had this movement had a clear idea of where Gaddafi’s regime was strong and where it was weak, they would have realized that Gaddafi was strong with military means and that the resistance was weak with military means. Therefore, it was foolish, very foolish, to challenge the regime where it was strong. That challenge only made things worse and fostered an intervention that, otherwise, wouldn’t have taken place.

JG: From your point of view, was there an alternative to the use of violence to protect the civilian population against the violence exerted by Gaddafi’s regime? Before attacking Bengazi, Gaddafi said he would go after each one of those who resisted him.

GS: First of all, it was impossible for Gaddafi to go after each and every one of those who resist against his regime. In non violent struggle, you always have to choose the field in which you fight without violent weapons, without military means, because you have more powerful weapons, those with which you can undermine a dictatorial regime. But in the whole process, you have to keep a non-violent discipline. Look at what’s going on in Syria. The regime has relied on a violent repression. This in turn has caused that many members of the army, after seeing what this regime does to its own people, have ceased being loyal to their regime. The net effect of this process is that the regime has lost the support of many who used to endorse it.

JG: What are your thoughts concerning how to deal with terrorist groups and people like Osama bin Laden?

GS: I don’t have an answer to this question. However, it is obvious that in some cases in which violence is used to fight against these groups they become stronger, not weaker. It is also a problem that, when confronting them, one ends up acting like them. The goal is to support resistance against terrorism. I believe this is an issue about which more research should be conducted.

JG: I would like to direct your attention to events that have occurred in my country, Colombia. We have had two large political demonstrations against the violence exerted against the civilian population, one on the 4th of February 2008 and the other one on the 11th of March, the same year.

GS: I don’t think you have to mention these two events. You have other experiences in Colombia. During two weeks in April 1957, a mass political defiance was able to topple Rojas’ dictatorial regime through the use of various non-violent techniques. As it happened in Tunisia and in Egypt, the outcome was quick, but it’s not always that quick. In other cases, it can take much more time.

JG: Is your theory applicable in Colombia, particularly, as a way of dealing with irregular armed groups?

GS: Broadly speaking, the answer is yes. The very same principles apply to that case. With a great exertion of self-discipline one can confront the intimidation and the repression with which a mass political defiance is rejected. That’s something one should expect to occur. What one has to do is to extend the resistance against oppression among the entire people. But as I told you before, these are aspects that require a better understanding and study. There are unique factors, those of your own country. That’s why this is a subject you should study on your own.

Those who are interested in Sharp’s work can find many of his publications at the Albert Einstein Institution’s web site:




  1. An interesting counterpoint to the question of violence in Egypt was written by the activist Hossam el-Hamalaway, who blogged on the ground in Egypt:

    One of the biggest myths invented by the media, tied to this whole Gene Sharp business: the Egyptian revolution was “peaceful.” I’m afraid it wasn’t. The revolution (like any other revolution) witnessed violence by the security forces that led to the killing of at least 846 protesters.

    But the people did not sit silent and take this violence with smiles and flowers. We fought back. We fought back the police and Mubarak’s thugs with rocks, Molotov cocktails, sticks, swords and knives. The police stations which were stormed almost in every single neighborhood on the Friday of Anger–that was not the work of “criminals” as the regime and some middle class activists are trying to propagate. Protesters, ordinary citizens, did that…

    The rest is here:

  2. Also, just came across a documentary film about Gene Sharp and the contemporary implementation of non-violent tactics. It’s due out in a few weeks but you can see the trailer on their website:


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