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Gene Sharp, the Cold War Intellectual Whose Ideas Seduced the Left

Marcie Smith

Gene Sharp has been called the most important American political figure you’ve never heard of. How did a militant Cold Warrior come to wield so much influence in protest movements from Venezuela to the Middle East?

A stack of books written by Gene Sharp, one of the most important Cold War defense intellectuals in the United States. (Phil Wilmot)

Interview by
Branko Marcetic

Gene Sharp is hardly a household name, but the late thinker’s ideas about nonviolent action have suffused protest movements in the United States and around the world. And yet, while Sharp is often classed with dissenters like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, he himself was no anti-establishment figure. Ensconced for decades at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs, he worked closely with intellectuals at the heart of the US defense establishment. How did a militant Cold Warrior come to wield so much influence on protest movements from Venezuela to the Middle East?

In an essay for Nonsite last month, Marcie Smith of John Jay College presented some of the findings of her research into Sharp’s life and work. Sharp, she discovered, was, in her words, “one of the most important Cold War defense intellectuals that the U.S. has produced” — a fact that might surprise some of those who have been influenced by his ideas. In this interview with Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic, Smith expands on her essay, describing Sharp’s life and career and how he paradoxically helped to inject neoliberal ideas about the state into the intellectual climate of the American left.


BM

Let’s start with an explanation of who Gene Sharp was and why he was such a significant figure. What brought you to look into his career in the first place?

MS

Gene Sharp is, as Politico put it, the most important American political figure that you’ve never heard of. And I think that is a fair assessment. He was a social scientist who passed away in early 2018, who spent his career writing about the dynamics of nonviolent action as a political tool. If you were to Google him, you’d see lots of articles talking about him in the same breath as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize multiple times. Especially since his passing I think you can observe a mainstream effort to almost sanctify, to canonize him. You can look at the BBC or the New York Times or the Washington Post, also outlets like Waging Nonviolence and other lefty outlets, and he is cast, generally without caveat, as being a hero of peoples’ movements around the world and a friend of the Left, broadly construed.

I spent about ten years, from 2006 to 2016–2017 involved in the US climate movement, and I also spent some time working within the climate movement internationally. And about 3–4 years ago I started to become acutely aware of, and frustrated with what were, in my view, chronic challenges that I kept observing — strange idiosyncratic tics within our movement that I couldn’t really understand. And I started this research as an effort to understand these challenges, and as part of that I started looking a bit more critically at some of the intellectuals and books that circulated in the movement, generally without any kind of skepticism or critical engagement. Many of these organizing handbooks are superficially apolitical; there’s no obvious ideology that they spring from. Indeed, often “ideology” is treated like a bad word. Anyway, Gene Sharp is one of the intellectuals whose name kept coming up again and again, and the more I read about Sharp, and read Sharp’s work itself, the more stunned I was that this fellow is so central to US protest movements and to international protest movements as well.

I’ve spent about two and a half years or so learning about Sharp and reading his corpus — he wrote prolifically. My argument is threefold. I think that Sharp is best understood not as a modern-day Gandhi, but rather as one of the most important Cold War defense intellectuals that the US has produced. He should be as thought of and recognized alongside people like the nuclear strategist Thomas Schelling, who was in fact his mentor and is the one who brought him to the Center for International Affairs at Harvard. Second, that Sharp should be understood as a kind of early neoliberal theorist of state transformation. Because even though he adopted a realpolitik sort of affect — that’s his tone in all of his major work — the thing that inspired Sharp more than anything was that he saw the world, as many of the Cold Warriors did, in terms of good and evil. And for him evil was personified by the totalitarian dictator.

But if you look more closely into Sharp’s work, his indictment is not merely of dictators, it’s also of the “centralized state” more broadly. This centralized state in his view is the key source and vector of violence in the modern world. It is the thing that produces tyranny and genocide and war; but for the centralized state the world would not be so violent. What are the hallmarks of the “centralized state” for Sharp? Features that are easily identifiable to most on the Left as the key redistributive hallmarks of the New Deal state — things like economic regulation, public ownership of key sectors. Sharp talks about how in a “centralized state” there are too many “government controls” in the economy. So he wants state “decentralization,” a common watchword on the modern US left; he wants to “devolve” key state functions to “non-state” entities. And by implication, Sharp thinks a decentralized state will produce less violence. He goes so far as to say that his politics of nonviolent action — his theorization of how nonviolent action can be used to overthrow a dictator — can more generally be used to diffuse (that’s his word, “diffuse”) or “decentralize” state power. What is telling about that is that, again and again, such state “decentralization” is indeed the outcome of nonviolent revolutions that used Sharp’s methods, like those in the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, the Color Revolutions in places like Georgia and Ukraine. That practically looks like economic liberalization, what we refer to as “neoliberalism.”

Which brings me to the third part of my argument. I think Sharp should be understood as a kind of wise man to anti-communist movements, from the final stages of the Cold War through the 2000s. Sharp offered up the art of protest to the US government for anti-communist purposes abroad. I contend that if you don’t get this, you don’t get Sharp. Sharp and his colleagues were on the ground providing counsel to the secessionist movements in the Baltics. They were in the Baltics and in Russia consulting with activists just a day before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. There were similar patterns in Yugoslavia: Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution, which is the organization he starts to advance nonviolent action around the world, they train people in Yugoslavia who go on to train people in Georgia, Ukraine, the Arab Spring, Venezuela. In many cases AEI is working parallel to the National Endowment for Democracy and its adjuncts.

For Sharp, there is an affirmative belief that US Cold War policy, very broadly construed, is a good thing. He doesn’t accidentally find himself working with people like Thomas Schelling, in a center that also houses Henry Kissinger and so forth, just by happenstance, or because he’s a sellout or a rube. It’s because Sharp thinks, “I agree with the US anti-communist agenda, but I just want this agenda to be advanced by nonviolent means as opposed to violent means, and in fact I think nonviolent action will do the job of defeating communism more effectively than violence will.” And it seems Sharp was right. The USSR is dead, vestiges of socialism in Eastern Europe have largely been eliminated through the Color Revolutions, Yugoslavia was destroyed, and so on, all nonviolently. And surprisingly large quarters of the US left have cheered, even as these events have practically meant the destruction of public health care and social housing, destruction of unions, imposition of harsh social-safety-net cutting austerity. We need to wise up.

Stepping back, Sharp’s full career tells us important things about modern imperial strategy. Are workers supposed to celebrate when the United States advances owning class interests nonviolently? Many Sharpians seem to think so. Sharp tells us a lot about how protest itself can be used, but also how it can be abused. Too often there’s this attitude that if we see people in the street protesting, that’s the beginning and end of the inquiry, it is prima facie evidence that they are righteous and whatever they want they should be given.

BM

Which, I guess, we’re seeing a bit in Venezuela now. It makes it tough for people who aren’t on the ground, because in a place like Venezuela there is definitely disgruntlement towards Maduro from Chavez supporters, but there’s also a right-wing grassroots movement against him. These things get conflated and it can be very difficult for outsiders to figure out what’s going on.

MS

Yeah, and we see that pattern in regime change operations a lot. The Venezuelan public has reason to be angry — though to be clear, I think that many of the problems that Maduro is attempting to manage are not of his own making. The American public has reasons to be angry with our administration, and indeed a substantial number are. We would still object to international interference within our domestic politics, and I think that’s something that needs to be underscored. That’s what we’re talking about in places like the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. We aren’t simply talking about movements of people who want to liberate themselves from dictatorship, we’re also talking about geostrategic conflicts where the United States and its allies have interests, and the outcome of the US and its allies getting what they want is consistently neoliberalization — austerity, privatization, the creation of free-trade zones, etc. and generally speaking a collapsing standard of living for the average person.

While people certainly have reasons to criticize the Maduro regime, the Milosevic regime, the Soviet leadership — that is a different question from “should the US intervene, and to what end is the US intervening?” Furthermore, saying “Maduro is a dictator” is not an analysis.

BM

You talk a bit in the article about Sharp’s definition of violence. How did Sharp define violence and how did that influence, or perhaps reflect, his political philosophy?

MS

By the end of Sharp’s career he had come to formally define violence as the direct infliction of injury, and that word “direct” is very important. It implies that indirect injury is somehow nonviolent; it’s kind of naturalized in a way. There are many very unjust but indirect injuries that the “free market” inflicts all over the place. Things like poverty, exploitation — these are indirect forms of injury, so for Sharp, they do not count as violence. So that’s convenient.

Similarly, sanctions. For Sharp, sanctions were not sufficiently direct so as to count as violence. He actually is one of the early theorists of sanctions. He starts an institute at Harvard within the Center for International Affairs called the Program on Nonviolent Sanctions in Conflict and Defense, which studies the use of sanctions. This started in 1983, right at the beginning of Reagan’s “rollback” foreign policy. In 1983 he was given this center of his own, and the same year he also founded the Albert Einstein Institution, which is a more public-facing NGO dedicated to supporting the use of nonviolent action around the world, particularly in struggles that are supposedly trying to “advance democracy.”

Looking back at that era, we can now see the neoliberal turn at home, but there is also a more aggressive confrontation with communism in the form of the foreign policy of rollback. In this context of rollback, Sharp is promoting the idea of sanctions. And Thomas Schelling, his nuclear strategist mentor, says that when Sharp’s sanctions program was founded, that was formal recognition by Harvard that this is a legitimate field of study. Though it is not well known, apparently it was really a groundbreaking institute that Sharp had.

BM

How did his political philosophy help to undermine the revolutions that some of these movements managed to wage?

MS

Gene Sharp is sometimes called the Machiavelli of nonviolence, and I think that is fitting, but I think he was like Machiavelli in reverse. Whereas Machiavelli was interested in questions of how to consolidate power, how to maintain power, how to build consent for a political regime, Sharp is interested in the question of how to dissolve that common will, that common allegiance, that buttresses all governments, really all political projects.

In The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Sharp’s big three-volume magnum opus, he outlined a style of combat which he calls “political jujitsu.” This is basically a weapons system, a social demolition device, that is capable of collapsing administrations of all kinds, be they dictatorial or democratically elected, it doesn’t matter. The point is that you attack the sources of a regime’s legitimacy; you provoke the regime into violent retaliation and expose the violent force upon which it rests.

The definition of a state, according to Max Weber, is an organization with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. So when you had a secessionist insurrection in the Baltics, which included many people who wanted to reassert their pre-Soviet bourgeois property relations, it was very predictable that Gorbachev would deploy tanks and try to quell it. Bear in mind that Abraham Lincoln deployed force to put down a secessionist movement in the American South, another secessionist movement that sought to re-entrench highly reactionary property relations. So I am trying to problematize the hegemonic story, which is that these Sharpian movements are, by virtue of being nonviolent and opposing the “centralized state,” were all progressive, and by extension that someone like Gorbachev was acting illegitimately when he attempted to preserve the union, even though that is what the majority of Soviet citizens said they wanted. The polls showed that Soviet citizens wanted a slightly more liberalized economy and certainly more political freedom, but did not want the Soviet Union entirely dissolved.

So I’m not so sure that Sharp’s political philosophy undermined a political revolution in a place like the Baltics. Rather I think that movement’s use of Sharp reveals their political philosophy. There isn’t any inconsistency here.

Having said that, I do think that left movements that try to shoehorn their objectives into Sharp’s framework, who treat Sharp as the key modern political philosopher, they are going to quickly run into trouble. Because for Sharp, the bad guy is always the state, the good guy is whatever group is in the street raising their fists. Sharp is by no means the only vector of this; there’s a long anarchist tradition in the US with compelling critiques of the state. But I think that Sharp’s fixation on dictators and the “centralized state” has contributed to an allergy and a deterministic style of thinking towards the state. In Sharp’s schema, the state is not something to contest for, the state is not something to try to take over. It is something to dissolve and destroy.

So what if your objective is to take the state, or “expand” the state through something like Medicare for All? You’re going to be really confused. And what if the people raising their fists nonviolently in the street, or doing the sit-in, or having the permitted march, what if they are fascists? I’m not sure the US left understands that ideological incoherence, logical weakness, is a strategic weakness as well. My view is that on the US left there is a dangerously high tolerance for bad argumentation, provided one has the correct moral positions.

We also run into trouble when we use the Sharpian framework to try to interpret modern international relations. Substantial quarters of the Left have been trained to make judgments about international affairs on the basis of who is a “dictator.” It’s so 101, it’s so inadequate. Dictatorial behavior by political executives exists on a spectrum, and also, if a territory is under assault, militarily, economically, whatever, and if it is trying to defend itself, political relations will become militarized — that is, hierarchical and dictatorial. But for sake of argument, let’s concede, the big problem in international affairs is the presence of bad dictators. So a radically small percentage of a population nonviolently unseats the guy. And my question is, okay, then what? You’ve overturned the existing nasty, compromised regime — then what? Again and again, very earnest, well-intentioned people have gotten inspired at this idea of felling dictators around the world, but are very thin in the description of what ought to come next and how to do it. What happens after the dictator falls? What is your affirmative program? What are your ideas about how the economy should be organized and are they historically informed? How do you communicate all this publicly? Has this strategy been developed with any awareness of the reality of class struggle? Those are questions that the Left needs to ask itself at least as often as the question of how do we get rid of a bad administration. Because if we don’t do a good job answering these questions, and we manage to succeed in collapsing the existing government, then very likely, power will end up being consolidated by people who do have clear answers to those questions and who have consolidated their forces and have material and ideological discipline — as we have seen, for example, after the Arab Spring, often these are reactionary forces.

The implication of the questions I’m raising here is not that we should abandon all of Sharp’s work, or that we should excise Sharp’s work from social movements. Rather, we need to see Sharp in his full context and see his very important limitations, because if we don’t, there’s a real risk we will find ourselves surrounded by enemies in an even more chaotic political landscape.

BM

You mentioned climate change earlier; your investigation of Sharp came out of your climate activism. How did Sharp’s ideas influence the movement for climate justice?

MS

I will deal with this more in the second part of the essay, which will come out soon — it’s about how Sharp’s ideas spread and migrated throughout the Left, how they show up. One of the things I began to see, and others have commented on — and this was not just in the climate movement but in the US protest scene more broadly — was a kind of instrumentalization of protests. By which I mean, elevating protest as an end in itself as opposed to recognizing it as a means to specific political outcomes. This idea that if we do protest, good things will happen. If we perform righteousness, power will notice and we will get the justice and freedom that we demand, whatever that means. Protest gets elevated way above other skills, like organizing, political education, intellectual labor, debate, the skills of alliance building, i.e. diplomacy, etc.

I myself am implicated in this. I was a college climate activist and it’s a very heady thing to get involved in protest movements, to connect and cathect in the street with others who are rightly outraged at the injustice of our current state of affairs. But always we need to be clear, what are we demanding? And who or what are we demanding it of? And is this the best, most strategic use of limited time and resources, is it informed by history and the dynamics of class struggle? And I think intergenerational movements are essential if we are going to answer these questions well. I don’t think it’s coincidental that many Sharpian movements have been driven by middle-class, urban university students, young people with lots of energy, so-called moral clarity, but who are still negotiating their relationship to authority, have few or no bills to pay, etc., and may be “cosmopolitan provincials” in their worldview. When a movement is of, by, and for working people, and includes both town and country, things tighten up, as we have seen with the Sanders campaign. “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Let me put it this way. I think that when you read Sharp, it is clear that he’s an intellectual, he is a kind of philosopher. If you take him without any of the limiting caveats that I’m offering and you don’t add to him other key intellectuals, then the worldview that you’re going to emerge with is one in which dictators in the centralized state are bad; we want to get rid of those and protest helps us do that; and if we do that, then nonviolence, peace, harmony, justice will prevail. So, we are operating with these very moralistic categories that don’t offer much in the way of specifics about what kind of world we want, what kinds of productive relations we want, and what would it actually take to achieve them in the face of extremely powerful opposition.

That’s dangerous. It puts protest movements in a position where they can be easily co-opted, where they can serve as a kind of battering ram, and then the neoliberal experts with the “good ideas” come rolling out and with the content. That’s something that I have seen, and it concerns me greatly. Because when supposedly progressive forces triumph, but then conditions for the average person get worse – well that is doing the fascists’ work for them.