The Politics of Nonviolent Action

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The Politics of Nonviolent Action (3 volumes)
Author Gene Sharp
Country United States
Language English; Italian; others
Publisher Porter Sargent
Publication date
Pages 913
ISBN 978-0875580685
OCLC 691136

The Politics of Nonviolent Action is a three-volume political science book by Gene Sharp, originally published in the United States in 1973. Sharp is one of the most influential theoreticians of nonviolent action, and his publications have been influential in struggles around the world. This book contains his foundational analyses of the nature of political power, and of the methods and dynamics of nonviolent action. It represents a "thorough revision and rewriting"[1]:vi of the author's 1968 doctoral thesis at Oxford University.[2] The book has been reviewed in professional journals[3][4][5][6][7][8][9][10][11][12] and newspapers,[13] and is mentioned on many contemporary websites.[14][15] It has been fully translated into Italian and partially translated into several other languages.

Topics covered[edit]

The three volumes or "parts" of The Politics of Nonviolent Action contain a total of 14 chapters, as well as a preface by the author, and an introduction by Thomas C. Schelling. Each part begins with an introduction by the author.[16] The first volume or "part" addresses the theory of power that implicitly or explicitly underlies nonviolent action; Volume 2 offers a detailed analysis of the methods of nonviolent action; and the Volume 3 analyzes the dynamics of nonviolent action.

Part One: Power and Struggle[edit]

Chapter 1, The Nature and Control of Political Power, explains that, although rarely articulated, there are "basically... two views of the nature of power."[1]:8 The "monolith theory"[1]:9 views people as dependent upon the good will of their governments, whereas nonviolent action is grounded in the converse "pluralistic-dependency theory"[1]:9 that views government as "dependent on the people's good will, decisions and support,"[1]:8 a view that Sharp argues is "sounder and more accurate."[1]:8 Sharp argues that "political power is not intrinsic to the power-holder,"[1]:11 but flows from outside sources that include perceptions of authority, available human resources; skills and knowledge; material resources; and intangible psychological and ideological factors. These sources all depend upon obedience, which arises for "various and multiple"[1]:19 reasons that include habit, fear of sanctions, perceived moral obligation, psychological identification with the ruler, zones of indifference, and absence of self-confidence among subjects. Obedience is essentially voluntary, and consent can be withdrawn.

Next, Nonviolent Action: An Active Technique of Struggle (chapter 2) explains that nonviolent action may be used for a diverse mixture of motives that are religious, ethical, moral, or based on expediency.[1]:67 "Passivity, submission, cowardice [have] nothing to do with the nonviolent technique,"[1]:65 which is correctly understood as "one type of active response."[1]:65[17] Nonviolence has suffered scholarly neglect.[1]:71–4 Nonviolence may involve both acts of omission and acts of commission,[1]:68 does not rely solely on persuading the opponent,[1]:70 and "does not depend on the assumption that man is inherently 'good'."[1]:70 These and other characteristics of nonviolence are explained and illustrates through examples from ancient Rome, colonial United States, Tsarist Russia, Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, Latin America, India, Czeschoslavakia, and the Southern United States.

Nonviolent Leaders & Campaigns
(From 100s of examples in Politics of Nonviolent Action)
"It was Gandhi who made the most significant personal contribution in the history of the nonviolent technique"[1]:82[18]
"The trial of [Martin Luther King and other] arrested leaders... became a testimony of fearlessness"[1]:96[19]
"Ghaffar Khan ... organized a powerful movement... pledged to complete nonviolence"[20]:790[21]
"Four... were asked, as was usual, to give up their seats... Mrs. Parks... refused"[1]:95[22]
Methods of Nonviolent Action
(Chapters in Volume Two)

3. Nonviolent Protest & Persuasion


Describes methods that include formal statements, such as public speeches, petitions, and letters; communications with a wider audience, such as banners, newspapers and skywriting; group presentations such as deputations, picketing, or mock awards; symbolic public acts, such as public worship, displays of flags; pressures on individuals, such as vigils or fraternization; drama and music; processions; honoring the dead; public assemblies, such as protest meetings or teach-ins; and acts of withdrawal such as walk-outs or renouncing honors.

4. Social Noncooperation


Methods that include ostracism of persons; noncooperation with social events, customs or institutions, such as a student strike or a suspension of a sporting activity; and withdrawals from the social system, such as staying at home, or protest emigration (hijrat).

5. Economic Noncooperation (I) Economic Boycotts


Boycotts and other similar methods, including consumer boycotts and other consumer actions; workers' and producers' boycotts; suppliers' and handlers' boycotts; actions by owners and management, such as lockouts or traders' boycotts; actions by holders of financial resources, such as withdrawal of bank deposits; and actions by governments, such as embargos or blacklisting of traders.

6. Economic Noncooperation (II) The Strike


Various types of strikes, including symbolic strikes such as quickie walkouts; agricultural strikes; strikes by special groups such as prisoners or professionals; industrial strikes; restricted strikes, such as slowdown strikes and selective strikes; multi-industry strikes, such as a general strike; and a strike combined with economic closure, such as a hartal.

7. Political Noncooperation


Political noncooperation can be implemented through rejection of authority, as by withholding allegiance; citizens' noncooperation with government, such as boycotts of elections or refusals to assist enforcement agents; citizens' partial or full disobedience, such as slow compliance, refusal to disperse, or disobedience of 'illegitimate' laws; actions by government personnel, such as mutiny; and international government action, such as severing diplomatic relations.

8. Nonviolent Intervention


"Compared with... protest and persuasion and... noncooperation, the methods of nonviolent intervention pose a more direct and immediate challenge."[23]:357 They include psychological interventions, such as the hunger strike, satyagrahic fast, and reverse trial; physical interventions, such as sit-ins and nonviolent occupations; social interventions, such as guerilla theater, and establishing new social patterns or social institutions; economic interventions, such as nonviolent land seizures or establishing alternative transportation systems; and political interventions, such as seeking imprisonment or establishing a parallel government.

Part Two: The Methods of Nonviolent Action[edit]

Volume 2 (chapters 3 to 8) contains a detailed listing and description of specific methods of nonviolent action, such as boycotts, strikes, and sit-ins. Such a listing, Sharp says, "may assist actionists in the selection of methods most appropriate for use in a particular situation... [or] give researchers and persons evaluating the political potentialities of the nonviolent technique a greater grasp of its armory of methods of struggle."[23]:114 Nearly 200 methods are listed in the table of contents, and Sharp groups them into three broad categories, protest and persuasion (ch. 3), noncooperation (chs. 4-7), and intervention (ch. 8), in terms of how they relate to the dynamics of nonviolent action (Vol. 3). These categories "ought not to be regarded as rigid, but simply as generally valid."[23]:114 The methods are summarized in the adjacent table.

Part Three: The Dynamics of Nonviolent Action[edit]

The third volume focuses on the dynamics of nonviolent action, which always "involves continuous change in the various influences and forces which operate in that process and are constantly influencing each other. No discussion in static terms... can be valid."[20]:450 It opens with Chapter 9, Laying the Groundwork for Nonviolent Action, with subsections addressing such issues as casting off fear, the social sources of power changes, leadership needs, openness and secrecy, investigation, negotiations, generating "cause-consciousness."[20]:473 It also describes key elements of nonviolent strategy and tactics, pertaining to issues such as initiative, timing, numbers and strength, psychological elements, application of an Indirect approach, the choice of weapons (as described in Vol. 2), and the issuance of an ultimatum.

Chapter 10 describes how the onset of nonviolent action is likely to bring various types of oppression, and reviews examples and approaches for withstanding increasing repression, which is imperative, because "without willingness to face repression... the nonviolent action movement cannot hope to succeed."[20]:547 Chapter 11 describes methods for maintaining the nonviolent group's solidarity, such as "Maintaining rapport"[20]:575 through regular mass meetings. Chapter 11 also extensively analyzes the threats against and needs for ongoing adherence to nonviolent discipline, "in order to bring into operation the changes that will alter relationships and achieve [the] objectives,"[20]:573 even as "the opponent... tries to provoke them to commit violence - with which he could deal more effectively."[20]:573

Chapter 12 covers "political jiu-jitsu... one of the special processes by which nonviolent action deals with violent repression."[20]:657 More specifically:

By combining nonviolent discipline with solidarity and persistence in struggle, the nonviolent actionists cause the violence of the opponent's repression to be exposed in the worst possible light. This, in turn, may lead to shifts in opinion and then to shifts in power relationships favorable to the nonviolent group. These shifts result from withdrawal of support for the opponent and the grant of support to the nonviolent actionists.[20]:657

This chapter provides numerous historical examples of such political jiu-jitsu, and analyzes such factors as the impact of third party opinion and international indignation, arousing dissent and opposition in the opponent's own camp, and increasing support and participation from the grievance group.

Three Ways Success May Be Achieved (Chapter 13) describes and analyzes conversion, accommodation, and nonviolent coercion. These represent "three broad processes, or mechanisms, by which the complicated forces utilized and produced by nonviolent action influence the opponent and his capacity for action and thereby perhaps bring success to the cause of the grievance group":[20]:705–6

In conversion the opponent has been inwardly changed so that he wants to make the changes desired by the nonviolent actionists. In accommodation, the opponent does not agree with the changes... and he could continue the struggle... but... has concluded that it is best to grant some or all of the demands.... In nonviolent coercion the opponent has not changed his mind on the issues and wants to continue the struggle, but is unable to do so; the sources of his power and means of control have been taken away from him without the use of violence . This may have been done by the nonviolent group or by the opposition and noncooperation among his own group (as, mutiny of his troops), or some combination of these.[20]:706

Finally, The Redistribution of Power (Chapter 14) describes how using the nonviolent technique is likely to affect the nonviolent group, and the distribution of power between the contenders and in the larger society or system. Such effects may include the ending of submissiveness, increases in hope, effects on aggression, masculinity, crime and violence, increased group unity, and the decentralization of power. "Nonviolent action appears by its very nature to contribute to the diffusion of effective power throughout the society"[20]:802 due in part to the enhanced self-reliance of those using the technique.


Reviews have appeared in the Armed Forces & Society,[3] International Organization,[4] Social Forces,[5] Social Work,[6] The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science,[7] Ethics,[8] American Journal of Sociology,[9] The Journal of Developing Areas,[10] The Western Political Quarterly,[11] Political Theory,[12] The Bay State Banner,[13] and elsewhere.[15]

In Armed Forces & Society, Kenneth Boulding described the book as "monumental,"[3]:140 writing that "there are some works which bear the unmistakable stamp of the classic.... and this work is a good candidate."[3]:140 Sharp, he said, "has been called the "Machiavelli of nonviolence" and the "Clausewitz of nonviolent warfare" [and] the comparisons are by no means unjust."[3]:140 The book "reveals a large but previously mostly unnoticed segment of human action relationship which would very properly be described as 'nonviolent warfare.'"[3]:140–1 Boulding asserted several parallels with a seminal work in his own field, economics, explaining that

this volume... reminds one of [Adam Smith's] The Wealth of Nations. There is a single theme of immense importance to society played in innumerable variations throughout the whole work. There is a wealth of historical illustration and detail. There is a distinct view of society as a whole seen perhaps from a somewhat unfamiliar angle. And there is a wholly honorable passion for human betterment through intellectual clarification.[3]:140

Boulding stated that if a key word for economics is "exchange," then the key word for nonviolent action is "disobedience" - "One might almost call Gene Sharp's book, therefore... the discovery of disobedience, especially of large-scale disobedience.... nonviolent action is concerned with the institutionalization of a threat-defiance system."[3]:141 A key to this process, Boulding argues, is the "dynamics of legitimacy... [the] public denial of the legitimacy of some command,"[3]:141 which Sharp "hints at many times," although Sharp "never quite works [it] out in detail."[3]:141 Boulding described Part II as "in some ways... the meatiest and richest part of the work,"[3]:142 although he noted that Sharp's examples are drawn from "quite restricted range"[3]:142 of human history:

There must be many examples from Chinese history; Latin America is hardly mentioned; and the European middle ages, with its extraordinary phenomenon of the "Truce of God," receives hardly a mention. Nevertheless, Sharp's examples are broad and wide and illustrate the universality and significance of this phenomenon, which, simply because it has not had a name, has been grossly neglected by conventional historians.[3]:142

Boulding also reported some ways that Sharp's theoretical analysis seemed to be deficient, "even in terms of what might be called 'classical' or Gandhian theories of nonviolence."[3]:142 The book's analysis

neglects the importance of "Satyagraha" or "Truth-grasping," that is, the appeal of nonviolent action to some objective truth, even an objective moral truth, as the basic source of its legitimacy. In this sense nonviolent action is closer to the spirit of science than it is to the spirit of war, in that it is concerned... that truth should prevail no matter who wins. Sharp, perhaps in too great a reaction to the accusations of sentimental pacifism sometimes brought against nonviolence, has stressed the conflictual aspects of it perhaps to the exclusion of its integrative aspects."[3]:142–3

In International Organization, Bleicher's 21-page review stated that "What Professor Sharp... has demonstrated is that our understanding of the dependency of governments upon the continuing consent of the governed can be translated into the development of nonviolent action as a strategy of change that is effective outside of established institutional arrangements and yet operates without the use of force."[4]:532 He wrote that Sharp

has exposed the inadequacy of assuming the monolithic character of the nation state in international relations theory. Recognition of nonviolent action as a tool in the hands of governments and citizens to influence the policies of other nations and of international organizations calls for a fundamental re-evaluation of the critical parameters in the study and conduct of international relations.[4]:532

Bleicher stated that the "full utilization of this new understanding requires an expansion of the horizons of scholars and policy makers in the international arena, the collection and application of new data in the evaluation of international relations, and the development of new theoretical constructs."[4]:532 He warned that if we do not develop a better understanding of phenomenon related to nonviolence, we face the danger that we will be progressively less able to... design policies and institutions that can cope with the future."[4]:532

In Political Theory, Carl J. Friedrich wrote that Sharp considers his view of power as "much more original than it is,"[12]:465 and that the reviewer [Friedrich] found it "exasperating to try and follow arguments with the drift of which he definitely sympathized, except for their alleged novelty."[12]:467 In particular, Sharp does not

relate [his view of power] to such classics as Charles Merriam's magisterial treatment of power, or even Bertrand Russell's journalistic book on the subject. He seems unaware of the reviewer's [Friedrich's] analysis of many years ago, in which the distinction between two views of power, and the dependence of power on the cooperation of those over whom it is wielded, was analytically developed, and its root in the classics was shown.[12]:465

Friedrich also stated that a "fundamental weakness"[12]:465 of Sharp's argument was his understanding of violence "as physical violence,"[12]:465 since "some of the most vicious forms of coercion are psychic."[12]:465–6 Furthermore "According to Sharp, violence by definition excludes demolition and destruction of things, such as machinery, buildings and the like. Hence, according to him, much sabotage is not violent; clearly at this point Sharp deviates markedly from popular usage."[12]:466 Due to the "illusory"[12]:466 nature of the distinction based on physical violence alone, Sharp is often "confused,"[12]:466 although "many thoughtful arguments are offered."[12]:466–7 Friedrich concluded that "the topic of how to avoid violence in political conflicts is an important one, the treatment given here is learned, but not very clear, and the results not conclusive," but that the book was a "timely one" that he hoped it will "lead to further more searching studies."[12]:467

In The Western Political Quarterly, H. L. Nieburg wrote that he "would like to see the work cut down to 125 pages and published in paperback as a token of new life for insurgency politics. But, this... should not deter one from the duty to welcome a monumental, competent, and sometimes exciting, work of scholarship."[11]:338

In Social Work, Harry Specht stated that "Sharp has performed a useful service for students of community organizing by producing an encyclopedic description of nonviolent action," and that "by shear weight of detail, the reader comes to recognize that nonviolent action has been far more pervasive than many assume."[6]:249 Specht stated that the books flaws included "repetition and excessive detail,"[6]:249 and that the book "seems to imply that nonviolent action is usually undertaken by the oppressed against the state and that it is usually in the cause of positive social change. But... for example, I have just read of two massive nonviolent demonstrations in Boston, one for and the other against integration of the public schools."[6]:249 Specht described an "absence of a clear theoretical framework.... it does not illuminate such central questions as... Why is nonviolent action used in some cases and not in others? Why does it work in some cases and not in others?"[6]:249–50 The book is also "rich with writings on social movements and thin on theorists such as Kenneth Boulding, Amitai Etzioni, Jerome Skolnick, and Ralf Dahrendorf - who have dealt with conflict and violence."[6]:249 Still, "Sharp's work is an impressive accomplishment that will be welcomed as an important addition to the literature of community organizing."[6]:250

Other influence[edit]

The book has been mentioned in various other publications, including Utne,[24] the American Conservative,[25] the CNN website,[14] and elsewhere.[15]


The Politics of Nonviolent Action originally appeared in 3 volumes in English in 1973, and has subsequently been translated fully or partially into several other languages. The English language edition was published by Porter Sargent in 3 volumes entitled: 1. Power and struggle, 2. The methods of nonviolent action, and 3. The dynamics of nonviolent action. The respective citations of the 3-volume set and of each individual volume are:

In 2013, Sharp published a 143-page English language condensation:

Full or partial non-English translations have appeared in languages that include Arabic, Dutch, Italian, Polish, and Spanish:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Vol. 1 of Politics of Nonviolent Action (1973).
  2. ^ Gene Sharp (1968), "The politics of nonviolent action: a study in the control of political power." Doctoral dissertation at University of Oxford. OCLC 46341106
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Kenneth E. Boulding (March 1974). "Book review: The Politics of Nonviolent Action; The Discovery of Peace". Armed Forces & Society. University of North Carolina Press. 1 (1): 139–144. ISSN 0095-327X. doi:10.1177/0095327X7400100111. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f Samuel A. Bleicher (1975). "Nonviolent Action and World Order [reviews of Politics of Nonviolent Action, by Gene Sharp; Building Peace, by Commission to Study the Organization of Peace]". International Organization. University of Wisconsin Press. 29 (2): 513–533. ISSN 0020-8183. JSTOR 2706367. 
  5. ^ a b Louis Kriesberg (1975). "Untitled [review of Politics of Nonviolent Action, by Gene Sharp]". Social Forces. 53 (3): 530–531. ISSN 0037-7732. JSTOR 2576627. doi:10.2307/2576627. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h Harry Specht (1975). "Untitled [review of Politics of Nonviolent Action, by Gene Sharp]". Social Work. National Association of Social Workers. 20 (3): 249–250. ISSN 0037-8046. 
  7. ^ a b Bruce Unger (1974). "Untitled [review of Politics of Nonviolent Action, by Gene Sharp]". Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Sage Publications, Inc. in association with the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 412 (March): 166–167. ISSN 0002-7162. JSTOR 1040412. 
  8. ^ a b Eugene Garver (1974). "Untitled [review of Politics of Nonviolent Action, by Gene Sharp]". Ethics. University of Chicago Press. 84 (3): 266–273. ISSN 0014-1704. JSTOR 2379961. 
  9. ^ a b Severyn T. Bruyn (1974). "Untitled [review of Politics of Nonviolent Action, by Gene Sharp]". American Journal of Sociology. University of Chicago Press. 80 (3): 795–798. ISSN 0002-9602. JSTOR 2777274. 
  10. ^ a b Thomas A. Rusch (1974). "Untitled [review of Politics of Nonviolent Action, by Gene Sharp]". The Journal of Developing Areas. College of Business, Tennessee State University. 8 (4): 616–617. ISSN 0022-037X. JSTOR 4190194. 
  11. ^ a b c H. L. Nieburg (1974). "Untitled [review of Politics of Nonviolent Action, by Gene Sharp]". The Western Political Quarterly. University of Utah on behalf of the Western Political Science Association. 27 (2): 338. ISSN 0043-4078. JSTOR 447771. 
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Carl J. Friedrich (1974). "Untitled [review of Politics of Nonviolent Action, by Gene Sharp]". Political Theory. Sage Publications. 2 (4): 465–467. ISSN 0090-5917. JSTOR 190910. OCLC 39266906. 
  13. ^ a b Kay Bourne (June 28, 1973 (Vol. VIII, Iss. 90)). "Author sees nonviolent techniques as practical tool". Bay State Banner. p. 19.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  14. ^ a b Mairi Mackay (25 June 2012). "Gene Sharp: A dictator's worst nightmare", CNNWorld (accessed 27 June 2012). The article described Sharp's "eureka moment" of insight when he was at Oxford, explaining that "That moment would evolve into Sharp's first big text, 'The Politics of Non-Violence [sic],' which was published in 1973. It was immediately hailed a classic and is still considered the definitive study of nonviolent struggle."
  15. ^ a b c For example, articles at websites: Conflict Research Consortium Staff "Book Summary: Power and Struggle, by Gene Sharp" (accessed 24 June 2012); Thomas Weber and Robert J. Burrowes "Nonviolence: An Introduction" (accessed 24 June 2012).
  16. ^ Other book information: the same detailed table of contents is published in each volume. Bibliographic notes are placed at the end of each chapter. All three volumes are served by a single 53-page index at the end of volume 3.
  17. ^ Emphasis in original.
  18. ^ It was Gandhi who made the most significant personal contribution in the history of the nonviolent technique, with his political experiments in the use of noncooperation, disobedience and defiance to control rulers, alter government policies, and undermine political systems. With these experiments the character of the technique was broadened and its practice refined. Among the modifications Gandhi introduced were greater attention to strategy and tactics, a more judicious use of the armory of nonviolent methods, and a conscious association between mass political action and the norm of nonviolence" (Vol. 1, p. 82).
  19. ^ "Fear, long known by Southern Afro-Americans, was cast off. Many went to the sheriff's office, hoping to be among those 'wanted.' The trial of the[Martin Luther King and other] arrested leaders, which received world attention, became a testimony of fearlessness and a recounding of grievances...." (Vol. 1, p. 96).
  20. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Vol. 3 of Politics of Nonviolent Action (1973).
  21. ^ Nonviolent action has also been used by groups which have been famous for their very aggressive behavior and violence... [such as the] Pathans.... Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, "the Frontier Gandhi," organized a powerful movement of the Khudai Khidmatgar, or Servants of God, which was pledged to complete nonviolence and whose members became some of the bravest and most daring and reliable nonviolent resisters of India's struggle for independence." (Vol. 3, p. 790).
  22. ^ On December 1, 1955, four Negroes in Montgomery were asked, as was usual, to give up their bus seats to newly boarded whites and stand. Three complied, but Mrs. Parks, a seamstress, refused. A one-day boycott of the buses on December 5 in protest against her arrest was nearly 100 percent effective. It was decided to continue the boycott until major reforms were made..." (Vol. 1, p. 95).
  23. ^ a b c Vol. 2 of Politics of Nonviolent Action (1973).
  24. ^ Jeff Severns Guntzel (2010). "Protect & serve". Utne. 160: 56–57. ISSN 1544-2225. 
  25. ^ Jesse Walker (2010). "Protect & serve". American Conservative. 9 (5): 35–37. ISSN 1540-966X. 
  26. ^ According to Gene Sharp's Preface to How Nonviolent Struggle Works (2013): "The present text is an extreme abridgement of the published The Politics of Nonviolent Action. The original condensation was prepared by Jaime Gonzalez Bernal in Spanish in Mexico and published as La Lucha Politica Nonviolenta.... in March 1988... The English language text here is primarily Mr. Glozalez Bernal's condensation returned to English. It has been evaluated and edited with the important assistance of Caridad Inda. She has made major contributions to this text from 1987 to this edition in 2013. I have made limited recent changes and additions to both the English and the Spanish texts.... After re-reading both the English and the Spanish texts, I was amazed at the quality of the condensation made by Mr. Gonzalez Bernal. This concentrated version... provides the essence of the nonviolent technique. I decided that this English text must be published" (pp. xi-xiii).