Watcha Gonna Do?

Excerpts from a Speech by Gene Sharp

[Editor’s Note: Gene Sharp is the doyen of nonviolent thinkers. Born in 1928, he founded the Albert Einstein Institution in 1983. Its mission, an extension of his life’s work, is to advance the study of nonviolent action. His 3 volume work, THE POLITICS OF NONVIOLENT ACTION (1973) came to my attention shortly after The Voluntaryists was begun in 1982. Many forms of non-electoral strategies dovetailed with the voluntaryist opposition to the Libertarian Party. George Smith alluded to these alternative methods of displacing State power in his “Party Dialogue.” Gene Sharp’s fundamental belief is aligned with the voluntaryist insight and can be traced back to Etienne de LaBoetie’s DISCOURSE OF VOLUNTARY SERVITUDE. “Every power structure relies upon the subjects’ obedience to the orders of the ruler(s).”

Articles about nonviolence have appeared in THE VOLUNTARYIST since its inception. The major ones include:

Issue 1: Book review of Sharp’s THE POLITICS OF NONVIOLENT ACTION
Issue 3: Book review of Sharp’s GANDHI AS A POLITICAL STRATEGIST
Issue 9: Francis Tandy, “Methods”
Issue 26: Murray Rothbard, “The Voluntaryist Insight”
Issue 27: Jerry Tinker, “The Power of Nonviolent Resistance”
Issue 125: “Voluntaryist Resistance”
Issue 128: Issue 128: “Without Firing A Single Shot: Voluntaryist Resistance and Societal Defense.”

On December 7, 2012, Gene Sharp received the Right Livelihood Award. The following text is an excerpt from his acceptance speech delivered before the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm. The speech had no title, so I have chosen an expression from his concluding remarks to identify it. Parts of the speech were reprinted in The Albert Einstein Institution’s December 2013 newsletter, “Nonviolent Struggle.” A video presentation can be found on the worldwide web at]

Violence in our world is so common and mostly accepted without question that at times it seems to be a permanent part of reality. Those of us who want the future to be different are often relegated to a role of irrelevant objectors, able only to dissent, but unable to achieve a change away from the heavy role of violence in political practice. This situation can lead us to accept that reliance on violence is inevitable and beyond our control. That conclusion is a great error.

During the past century and long before, at times, people have found another way to fight when they needed to struggle for various objectives. In those limited situations the use of violence shrank or disappeared. The violence had been replaced with nonviolent struggle.

Nonviolent struggle, or nonviolent action, includes three categories of methods. The methods of nonviolent protest are symbolic activities, such as marching and the displaying of certain colors. This technique also includes the more powerful methods of noncooperation such as social boycotts, labor strikes, economic boycotts, and political noncooperation, including civil disobedience. There are also the methods of nonviolent intervention and disruption, such as sit-ins, fasts, and the creation of new institutions.

This technique is identified by what people do, not by what they believe. Such actions have been used against diverse types of opponents, including employers, governments, and dictatorships. Rarely an individual takes such action, but almost always it is a group; scores, hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people acting together.

Throughout the centuries people have waged this type of conflict with modest effectiveness. The past resisters have had limited knowledge and understanding of the operation of the technique. There were no guidebooks on planning strategy, nor even lists of “dos and don’ts”. Sometimes this type of conflict was used where it was not expected, for example, in Nazi-occupied Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, elsewhere, and even in Berlin to save Jews during the Holocaust.

It was once thought that the peoples of Eastern and Central Europe would be living under Communist rule for decades, barring a Western military intervention. Now, the peoples of Poland, East Germany, the former Czechoslovakia, and other countries are recognized as having freed themselves without a war of liberation.

Perhaps most remarkable of all are the little nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Their brave guerrilla wars were fought against both Nazi and Soviet rule, and all three Baltic states had been annexed as republics of the Soviet Union. Following their own improvised methods of nonviolent protest and new strategic understanding gained from my then new book CIVILIAN-BASED DEFENSE, they exited the Soviet Union with minimal casualties.

In early 2011 the predominantly nonviolent victorious revolutions against long entrenched autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt launched the “Arab Spring.” The struggles were stunning in their mass mobilization, nonviolent discipline, fearlessness, and speed.

Now there is a widespread growing hunger for knowledge about nonviolent struggle, fueling an increased demand for publications and other resources. New and old books are revealing a technique of great power with insights into its history and understanding of how it operates. The Arab Spring and other developments have let the genie out of the bottle and it cannot be put back again. The knowledge of how to cast off oppression nonviolently is now known and is spreading.

The dramatic increase in media attention to our work at the Albert Einstein Institution in the wake of the Arab Spring revealed an amazing new reality. Nonviolent struggle is finally receiving the serious attention and consideration it has long deserved. Also, it should be noted that the several dozens of reporters from various countries who contacted us already had an accurate basic understanding of nonviolent struggle. None of them had the old misunderstandings that were nearly universal in past years. Long-standing misconceptions about nonviolent struggle have included that it can only be successful against gentle opponents, that it requires a charismatic leader, that it only “works” by conversion, that in order to keep the required nonviolent discipline it is necessary that resisters believe in moral nonviolence or pacifism, that wise action requires a single strategic genius, such as Gandhi, and that violence works quickly, while nonviolent struggle takes forever.

We now know that those earlier misconceptions that limited the relevance of nonviolent struggle are false. Effective nonviolent struggle is now known to be more possible than earlier believed. Nevertheless, almost all governments retain their irrational faith in the omnipotence of violence, and therefore drag their people into disasters. However, we now know that the disasters caused by violence in political conflicts are not inevitable. My writings and those of others show that power in political conflicts is derived from identifiable sources. All of these sources are rooted in the obedience, cooperation and assistance of people and their institutions. When that cooperation and obedience are withdrawn, oppressive regimes are left without the support necessary for their continued rule.

But despite this more accurate understanding and growing recognition, challenges remain. We now know that people need to learn how to plan a wise strategy for their struggle. If the hard-won gains achieved by nonviolent struggle are not to be later stolen, as they were in Russia by the Bolsheviks in 1917 and in Iran by the Ayatollahs in 1979, it is necessary to learn how to block such efforts. It is important that the achievements and failures of nonviolent struggles be accurately documented for the historical record and not forgotten or misrepresented after the immediate crisis has passed. It is necessary to learn how to block foreign military intervention, whatever the real motive, that can derail the collapse of the oppressing regime and help it to maintain its rule. Foreign military assistance can also give the foreign forces major control of both the on-going struggle and the future society. Instead of accepting military intervention, the nonviolent struggle movement needs to intensify its self-reliant efforts to paralyze or disintegrate the oppressive regime.

Much has been learned about the nature and potential of nonviolent struggle. And there is still a lot to be learned. Many dangers remain. Major efforts are required to spread the knowledge of how to defeat those dangers and how to increase the effectiveness of nonviolent struggles. A future of domination, the rule of violence, and popular helplessness is not inevitable!

I once lived in a not-very-fancy area of Brooklyn, in New York. And when you get in a conversation with people there, it always ended, “So whatcha gonna do?” And it’s not only the people of Brooklyn in that section who had that experience; that their efforts had never succeeded.

But now people around the world are not thinking, “So whatcha gonna do?” No, [now they are asking,] “What’re we gonna do?” It’s a different attitude. They’re learning how to do it and how to achieve, and we hopefully have played a small role in that if we want to do it in the future. We now have the knowledge needed to block that sad future, if we have the will to use it. We are at a new stage in the practice of nonviolent struggle and in the recognition of its potential. If we take wise and responsible steps in the coming years, the future will reveal achievements beyond all that we can now even imagine.

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