Gene Sharp, who has died aged 90, carved out a unique role as a theorist of non-violent resistance. In a large number of books and shorter works he did more than anyone else to develop a coherent theory of this phenomenon – also called people power, civil resistance and non-violent action.
Only he had the range of knowledge, and the sheer doggedness, to produce a list of no fewer than 198 methods of non-violent action, comprising 54 methods of protest such as demonstrations, 103 methods of non-cooperation ranging from Lysistratic non-action to strikes, boycotts and expulsion from international organisations, and 41 methods of non-violent intervention such as land seizures, alternative markets and the creation of parallel governments. Not one of these methods was invented by Sharp, but no one before had amassed such a range of possibilities and given such a range of historical examples of each.
His book The Politics of Nonviolent Action (1973) was no mere list. Only he had the originality and clarity of mind to develop a serious political theory of how people power can sometimes undermine tyranny, oppression and colonial rule. He explored the vulnerabilities of dictatorships, including totalitarian regimes, and emphasised particularly the extent to which they depend on the cooperation of their citizens – which can be withdrawn. This foreshadowed the ways in which civil resistance played some part in the ending of communist rule in Poland and then elsewhere in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Georgia’s Rose revolution (2003) and Ukraine’s Orange revolution (2004-05) were further evidence of his foresight.
He did more than anyone else to pioneer the idea that the practice of non-violent action can be, and often is, separate from pacifism. He emphasised the importance of strategic thinking in non-violent movements, whose leaders often have to make tough choices, and sometimes fail to do so. He was always aware of the fact that such movements can fail.
His work won him recognition and praise from many leaders of non-violent movements. Srđa Popović, a colourful and controversial leading figure in the revolution that overthrew President Slobodan Milošević of Serbia, said: “I learned about his work in 2000, while leading the Serbian non-violent movement Otpor! [Resistance!]. Since then, I have never stopped studying and applying his great work, which has left a significant stamp on people-power-driven movements worldwide. I am sure that his legacy will be even more important in the age that we are living in, the age when human rights and democracy seem to be under permanent threat.”
Inevitably there were criticisms of Sharp’s extraordinary role. The most common, and least perceptive, was that he was a Machiavellian monster who orchestrated trouble everywhere – and, for good measure, was colluding with the CIA. To all who knew Sharp and his work (not to mention the modesty of his finances and of his home in east Boston), the accusation was absurd. It neglected the extent to which movements develop for local reasons, not because a distant writer has pulled imaginary strings.
In 2008, more than 100 scholars and activists in longstanding opposition to US foreign policy – including Noam Chomsky, Daniel Ellsberg and Howard Zinn – issued an open letter in support of Sharp. They stated: “Rather than being a tool of imperialism, Dr Sharp’s research and writings have inspired generations of progressive peace, labour, feminist, human rights, environmental, and social justice activists in the US and around the world.”
Sharp was born in North Baltimore, Ohio. His father, Paul, was a travelling Protestant minister, his mother, Eva (nee Allgire), a teacher. Between 1946 and 1951 Gene did a BA and then MA at Ohio State University in social sciences. His master’s thesis, entitled Non-violence: A Sociological Study, was an early sign of things to come.
In the 1950s, his actions were largely those of a dedicated pacifist. He moved to New York where (apart from odd jobs to earn a living) he worked on his first book, on Gandhi. Albert Einstein wrote a foreword expressing strong support for Sharp’s mission “to overcome … the danger of self-destruction by which humanity is threatened”. Opposing participation in the Korean war, Sharp served nine months in prison.
In 1955 he moved to London as an assistant editor of the weekly Peace News. Gradually he realised that he needed to study non-violent action more deeply. Taking a growing interest in movements that used such methods but were not pacifist, he did research in Oslo on the civil resistance of teachers and others in Nazi-occupied Norway during the second world war.
The belated publication (and only in India) of his book Gandhi Wields the Weapon of Moral Power came in 1960. In the same year, Sharp enrolled at Oxford University to study for a DPhil. The doctorate took a long time, partly because of the many distractions of life, including teaching, and partly because of the sheer complexity of his topic. In 1968 the thesis was approved, and in 1973 after much further amendment it was published in Boston as The Politics of Nonviolent Action. At more than 900 pages, it provides a more thorough and detailed analysis than anything before, but it never found a UK publisher.
It was Sharp who, when he and I were both studying at Oxford University in the early 60s, first sparked my interest in the subject. Although our intellectual paths diverged – I had more doubts about non-violent methods being a panacea, or being able to replace force generally in international relations – this did not stop us from cooperating on various projects over the years.
In 1965 Sharp moved back to the US, taking up a number of research and teaching posts in and near Boston. He wrote numerous books, always sticking to his core theme; and his ideas began to receive the recognition he had long sought. In 1983 he established the Albert Einstein Institution, to advance the study and use of strategic nonviolent action as a pragmatic alternative to violence: it enabled several young scholars to make a start in this field.
Sharp is survived by his brother, Richard.
• Gene Sharp, political theorist, born 21 January 1928; died 28 January 2018