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'Nonviolent action is a means of combat, as is war.'

You mean you don't want to fight the occupation of your country?' She would have liked to tell them that behind Communism, Fascism, behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of evil was a parade of people marching by with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison.

Sabina in ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’
Milan Kundera, 1984

Gene Sharp published his seminal trilogy, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, in 1973. The methods, theories and advice that he espoused, over thirty-five years ago, have continually received praise as a means to resist the inhumanity often found in society, yet, the extent of their usefulness to peacebuilding is less assured. This retrospective review of The Politics of Nonviolent Action acknowledges the significant contribution that the book has made in the service of peacebuilding, however, it also proposes several counter-arguments to the otherwise customary and unquestioning tributes to Sharp’s work.

In April 2008, Sharp was presented with the Courage of Conscience award by the Peace Abbey of Sherborn in Massachusetts, USA; an honour given ‘to promote the causes of peace and justice, non-violence and love.’1  Joan B. Kroc of Notre Dame’s Institute for International Peace Studies has stated that Sharp is ‘the world’s leading scholar on non-violent action... his reputation is so commanding, and his work is so established, that you can’t even begin to work in this field without acknowledging and working from his foundation.’2  Indeed, Sharp’s works have been widely read and his methods actively embraced by the likes of Otpor, (the Serbian student group which brought down the Slobodan Milosevic regime in 2000), and Pora, (the Ukrainian opposition movement so prominent during the 2004 Orange Revolution). In fact, one opposition activist in Ukraine went so far as to describe Sharp’s work as the ‘bible’ of Pora.3  Sharp has also previously consulted with leaders from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania during their secession from the Soviet Union; visited Tiananmen Square during the anti-government protests of 1989; and consulted with opposition leaders on the Myanmar border in 1996. Perhaps Sharp’s biggest accolade though is his capacity to irk dictators. In recent years, both Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and the military junta of Myanmar have publicly accused Sharp of directly trying to topple them from power.

These plaudits are a reflection on a career that has demonstrated an unwavering support for non-violent action, and the defence of freedom, and comprises several other important works such as the shorter and more accessible From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation, and his most recent book Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential. However, it is The Politics of Nonviolent Action, which remains the cornerstone of his approach and one of the most oft cited texts in peacebuilding literature, as well as in the broader field of international relations.

The foundation of Sharp’s work lies in his understanding of the nature of power. One of the initial misconceptions that Sharp seeks to correct is that power is not a monolithic structure with control concentrated in the hands of a few individuals at the top of a metaphorical pyramid. Sharp explains that such a model assumes that political power is ‘a “given”, a strong, independent, durable (if not indestructible), self-reinforcing, and self-perpetuating force.’4  Moreover, as Sharp notes, it is often commonly believed that the only method to oppose such a structure is through overwhelming force, for example, by means of a violent revolution. However, Sharp offers a contrasting view of power, and defines it as something which is diffused throughout society, and which by consequence makes power dependent on the consent and obedience granted to it by the larger citizenry. In other words, without the obedience of citizens, the power of a ruler simply disintegrates. In essence, it is like the fable of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, the notion of an omnipotent ruler is an illusion that will only exist if people continue to believe that it exists.

This definition is crucial because it forms the foundation for all of the 198 different kinds of non-violent action that Sharp proposes. Without going into excessive detail, these methods can be broken down into three broad categories; protest and persuasion; social, economic and political non-cooperation, and; non-violent intervention. Each of the methods are carefully explained and the book undoubtedly provides an excellent resource for people who feel they are being suppressed in a conflict (either latent or manifest). Moreover, the emphasis on non-violence, the mobilizing of stakeholders and the recognition that power is something consensual and changeable are themes embraced by all respected peacebuilding initiatives. It would therefore be easy to add Sharp’s methods to the canon of peacebuilding tools without further discussion. However, it is this author’s contention that the relationship between non-violent action and peace is not always a harmonious one, and the remainder of this review will be dedicated to highlighting potential flaws with non-violent action and demonstrating how, at times, the approach can be counter-productive to the ethos of peacebuilding. 

First, it must be acknowledged that Sharp never explicitly addresses peacebuilding, his concern is solely the politics of non-violent action. The fact that these can, at times, be adversarial is readily accepted by Sharp, who contends that ‘nonviolent action is a means of combat, as is war.’5  He also openly states that non-violent techniques ‘differ from milder peaceful responses to conflict, such as conciliation, verbal appeals to the opponent, compromise and negotiation.’6  In essence, therefore, non-violence should not be automatically (if ever) equated with peacebuilding. Indeed, it often offers a win-lose confrontational approach that does little to provide for reconciling with the past or envisioning a future which are essential elements in fostering a sustainable peace. From this perspective, and in the tradition of Johan Galtung, peacebuilding is conceived as not only the ‘negative’ task of preventing a relapse into violence, but also encompassing the ‘positive’ tasks of aiding the sustainable recovery of the state and removing the underlying causes of violent conflict.7  It is easy to dismiss the positive aspects of peacebuilding as wishful thinking, fuzzy, or utopian, but a reconsideration of recent events in Georgia reminds us that a movement towards peace that does not address the root causes of the conflict – no matter how non-violent that transition may be – will only represent a pause in an otherwise enduring, and ultimately violent, conflict.

Second, what happens when the suppressed are on the wrong side of the win-lose dichotomy? One only has to remember the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989 to understand that non-violent protests in the face of overwhelming military power may not only prove futile, but can also have a negative impact on a fledgling peace process by ‘frightening’ people into accepting the status quo. A similar situation has recently developed in Uzbekistan, where anti-government opposition has been effectively silenced following a bloody crackdown by the government on non-violent demonstrations in Andijan in 2005 which left several hundred dead. Ultimately, it is human instinct to protect your life rather than risk it for some higher goal, however noble that objective may be.

Third, even if the use of non-violent methods forces the demise of an authoritarian government, there is no guarantee of what will fill the subsequent vacuum. There is no caveat provided that ensures repressive regimes will be replaced swiftly and seamlessly by inclusive democratic regimes. Even if democratisation is initiated, a poorly managed transition and premature elections can often lead to a return to violence by polarising the society on the very issues that led to discord and violence.8  Moreover, several studies indicate that the typical outcome of such a transition is usually only a pseudo-democracy; a regime that allows periodic multiparty elections, but otherwise restricts the exercise of democratic freedoms.9  Luc Reychler has observed that ‘the devil is in the transition’ and Sharp’s methods do not provide for dealing with the devil.

Fourth, non-violent techniques may be effective means, but they do not always have justifiable ends. As Sharp writes ‘there is nothing in nonviolent action to prevent it from being used for both “good” and “bad” causes.’10  For instance, Milosevic effectively used ‘human shields’ – a method advocated by Sharp11  – to protect key infrastructure during the 1999 NATO bombardment of Serbia. Similarly, radical right-wing and neo-Nazi groups in Western Europe are increasingly positioning themselves as non-violent organizations that adhere to the rules of peaceful democratic processes.12  Interestingly, during an interview in 2003, Sharp was specifically asked what his response would be if neo-Nazis asked for advice on non-violent action, his response was telling: ‘I would say, “Here is a list of publications on non-violent struggle... I would prefer that you change your outlook on the world and on other people. If you continue to be Anti-Semites, then it is better for you do this than to slaughter people”.’13  This answer typifies the relationship between The Politics of Nonviolent Action and peacebuilding. Non-violent action is a virtue, but it is not the only one. The assumption that there is a ‘unity of goodness’ between non-violent action and peacebuilding is a naïve one. Non-violent methods are undeniably preferable to violent ones, but they do not necessarily guarantee the positive aspects of a sustainable peace, such as inclusive governance, reconciliation, or a secure environment.

Finally, and to return to Kundera’s quote at the beginning of this review, the image of any unified popular movement can be both simplistic and unsettling. The rallying of the masses around a new symbol – be it Otpor’s clenched, raised fist, or Pora’s orange flags – masks the complexities of peacebuilding and suggests a one-voice-no-debate approach. The reasons why people took to the streets in Georgia, Ukraine and Serbia were myriad and although they may have been united in their opposition to an unpalatable regime, they are unlikely to maintain that harmony in agreeing a new future for the country. Dislodging a dictator is one thing, fostering inclusive democratic governance is another.

The clenched, ‘raised fist’ of the non-violent Serbian opposition group, Otpor. Logo from Wikipedia.

Admittedly Sharp never offers any pretence that these concerns will be addressed in his work, however, this only serves to reaffirm that his methods should therefore be approached by peacebuilders with trepidation. Indeed, non-violent action can be considered to offer only one part of an equation. Yes, non-violent methods are preferable to violent ones, but without efforts to promote inclusive governments that can effectively address the underlying tensions, these methods alone will never be enough to ensure a positive and sustainable peace, and, at times, they may even frustrate efforts. Therefore, despite mainstream thought indicating otherwise, at its best non-violent action can only be considered as a complement to peacebuilding, but at its worst it can be its very antithesis.

1. The Peace Abbey, The Courage of Conscience Award (2009 [cited April 8 2009]); available from
2. Quoted in: Adam Reilly, The Dictator Slayer (The Boston Phoenix, December 5 2007 [cited April 8 2009]); available from
3. Oleh Kyriyenko, quoted in: Margreet Strijbosch, Ukraine: The Resistance Will Not Stop (Radio Netherlands, November 25 2004 [cited 2009 April 8]); available from
4. Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action: Part One: Power and Struggle (Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers, 1973). p.9
5. Ibid., p.67
6. Ibid., p.67
7. Johan Galtung, "Cultural Violence," Journal of Peace Research 27, no. 3 (1990).
8. Luc Reychler, Democratic Peace-Building & Conflict Prevention: The Devil Is in the Transition (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1999).
9. See, for example: Roland Paris, At War's End: Building Peace after Civil Conflict (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
10. Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action: Part One: Power and Struggle., p.71
11. Ibid., p.388
12. See, for example: Forthcoming in R. Eatwell and M.J. Goodwin, The New Extremism in 21st Century Britain (London and New York: Routledge, 2010).
13. Metta Spencer, Gene Sharp 101 (July-September) (Peace Magazine, 2003 [cited April 8 2009]); available from