Sharp Theory of Nonviolence Struggle and Color Revolutions

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Adapted from Gene Sharp's Theory of Power, Journal of Peace Research, vol. 26, no. 2, 1989, pp. 213-22 by Brian Martin.

The essence of Sharp's theory of power is quite simple: the power of rulers derives from consent by the subjects; non-violent action is a process of withdrawing consent and thus is a way to challenge the key modern problems of dictatorship, genocide, war and systems of oppression.  So in one sentence the idea of color revolutions advocated by Sharp can be stated as "delegitimization of rulers".

Sharp  borrows a lot from Marxism in general and Bolshevism in particular, especially Bolsheviks understanding of revolutionary situation although he is too shy to site those influences.

The two key concepts in Sharp's theory of power are:

The focus on obedience then leads Sharp to ask 'Why do men obey?' He suggests that important factors are habit, fear of sanctions, moral obligation, self-interest, psychological identification with the ruler, zones of indifference and absence of self-confidence among subjects (1973, pp. 16-24).

Non-violent action constitutes a refusal by subjects to obey in the presence of external forces which prevent government to use violence against the population.  So implicitly in Sharp scheme imply a powerful external country (say USA) interested in particular outcome: the  collapse of power of the current government due to the fact that it is delegitimized and non only the consent is withdrawn but action of non-obedience became prominent.

This active non-obedience actions fueled by external financing are vital. The ruler will not be threatened by grumbling, alienation or critical analyses alone. Sharp is interested in regime change.

Sharp's approach can be examined and challenged from many different angles especially from the point of view of structural approaches. The Marxist analysis of capitalism is probably the best example of this (e.g. Althusser, 1977; Baran & Sweezy, 1968; Mandel, 1976; Marcuse, 1964; Poulantzas, 1978). It includes several insight into capitalism behaviour as a social system such as the law of uneven development of international capitalism; international politics as struggles between states and also provides the framework of understanding social struggles (such as conflicts and accommodation between capitalism and labor). Founded on private property, the ownership of the means of production by a small minority of people, and a market on which labor power is purchased and exploited, capitalism appears to behave like a self-regulating system. Whatever the intentions of individual capitalists, if they do not extract surplus value from their workers and thus compete successfully in the market, they will be driven to bankruptcy.

Much Marxist scholarship has shown that vital to the establishment and maintenance of capitalist relationships are struggles between owners and employees, gender and ethnic divisions within the working class, economic intervention from the state to stabilize and protect markets, social intervention from the state to provide services (education, health and welfare) for reproducing the labor power needed by capital, and police and military intervention from the state to control labor revolts.

The resulting complex of economic and political relationships is still usually called capitalism which should be treated as a social system with its own dynamic.

Structural approaches help in analyzing social systems, if the structures which are conceptualized happen to capture key ways of organizing human interactions which tend to reproduce themselves. This is an important point. In principle, there is nothing to stop the employees at a factory from simply leaving their jobs and setting up production on their own in a different location. In practice, if the 'different location' were someone else's private property, police would be called in to evict the workers and there would be little support from anyone else in the community. Furthermore, the original company typically would find little difficulty in recruiting new workers. Thus, the system of private property and the market in labor would continue reproduce itself. It could be said that capitalist social relations are sticky.

It took many decades before the strike, a carefully circumscribed withdrawal of labor power, was accepted as legitimate, and it continues to be attacked by employers. Direct challenges to private property, such as squatting and workers' control, are even more difficult to use.

The existence of numerous internal conflicts within capitalism makes it hard to argue that capitalism is an automatically self-sustaining type of mechanism. Fundamentally involved is the commitment of individuals to the current order. This is where the concept of hegemony enters (Gramsci, 1971). Hegemony refers to the processes by which a given way of organizing social life, in which one class dominates another, becomes accepted as inevitable and desirable by most people. These processes include the mass media, formal education, the family, popular culture, and routines of daily life at work and leisure.

All those methods of achieving hegemony can be attacked, if financing is provided by external party.

One of the major dangers in using such concepts is the reification of categories. Capitalism, for example, is frequently presented as if it operates and evolves independently of the people whose interactions make it up.

The use of a structural analysis does not commit one to a particular method of political action. Historically, Marxist analysis has been linked to parties whose aim is to capture state power in the name of the working class, and for whom tools such as violence and the state are neutral. But others using a Marxist analysis favor more populist methods, involving themselves in mass struggles or working with the 'new social movements' such as the environmental, feminist and peace movements.

Limitations of Sharp's Approach

The question arise how this simplistic, pseudo-religious doctrine be so successful. It is now widely used as a blue print for color revolution used to export neoliberalism into particular countries, much Trotsky theory of permanent revolution for Marxism.

Sharp's focus on consent is individualistic and voluntaristic in orientation, as shown by his attention to psychological reasons for obedience. It requires external money source and a network of distribution for those money, such as NGO within the country as well as controlled by external power subservient press, ready to praise actions of protesters ("air cover" in cover revolution). It is typical in color revolution to create "opposition for hire" which supplements "natural" protesters making it closer for foreign power organized coup d'état, that a genuine social movement.

An analysis of social structure provides a better way to understand consent (Moore, 1978) then Shapr views. Also an understanding of the power relationships associated with capitalism would seem essential to developing effective non-violent methods of struggle. While Sharp gives numerous examples of non-violent action by workers - he devotes an entire chapter of The Politics of Nonviolent Action to 23 types of strikes (l973, pp. 257-284) - he essentially position himself as a tool of imperialist, neoliberal powers which use his theory for regime change and as such gives no examination of capitalism as a system of power, and misses out on insights provided by Marxist analysts.

While in principle an oppressive ruler can be opposed by workers walking off the job, in practice there are many factors to be taken into account in mobilizing them to do so. The workers are likely to be divided along lines of status, skill, wages, gender and ethnicity; the mass media may provide little support or active disinformation; certain workers may have been tied to the regime by dispensation of special favours, being involved in corruption, or compromised by participating in repression of minorities; education in nationalism may make it easy for the ruler to raise the specter of foreign enemies, external agitators and hurting the national interest.

Furthermore, the 'system', whatever its oppressiveness, it may still benefit large groups of people which constitute the "critical mass" of supported of regime that is not that easy to silence by using Sharp methods.  Many members of the working class, while exploited by capitalists, at the same time receive wages sufficient only to offer a life seen as better than those of their parents. Capitalism as a social system simultaneously oppresses and benefits those who live in it.

Sharp also gives no analysis of the social system of bureaucracy and how its hierarchy, division of labor and regular procedures serve to mesh everyone - including top bureaucrats - into patterns of behaviour which are hard to escape. Political struggles take place within the institutional framework of  bureaucracies (Weinstein, 1979).

As these struggles are almost always non-violent, Sharp's approach may offer some insights. But the ruler-subject dichotomy is of  very limited value here, since in a typical bureaucracy, nearly everyone has both superiors and subordinates. To be of use, the dynamics of non-violent action would have to be elaborated in light of studies of the dynamics of bureaucracy.

Another key factor in systems of power is technology. Rather than being neutral tools, technologies can be said to embody social relations (Dickson, 1974). In other words, particular artefacts are easier to use for some purposes and by some social groups than others. For example, nuclear weapons can serve the ends of state elites and perhaps some terrorists, but not the ends of environmentalists or even the police. Small-scale solar energy embodies values of self-reliance and decentralization, whereas fossil fuels are more easily linked to dependence on centralized suppliers.

The practical possibilities for 'withdrawing support' depend in part on the technological infrastructure available to protesters. Technologies for person-to-person communication, such as the cell phones, instant  messaging and Internet provide a stronger basis for non-violent resistance than one-directional technologies such as television. Sharp does not provide insights here as he wrote his books before Internt became donminant communication media.

Another important factor is the knowledge and experience of individuals and groups. People with a tradition of independence and social struggle, and with practical experience of opposing authority,  can easily use of non-violent action. Knowledge and experience of this sort depend on a number of factors, including styles of upbringing, formal education, the prevalence and mode of activity of community groups, and the organization of work.  Knowledge and experience are taken into account by Sharp in his discussions of the psychology of obedience and loci of power, but he provides no structural analysis of how people come to have the knowledge and experience that they do. Knowledge is importnat feature of processes of negotiation and the exercise of power. Governments provide funds to research and develop certain kinds of knowledge (including anti-Sharp leaflets ;-). MSM select and construct knowledge in certain ways creating the discourse for the nation.  Those factor are missing from Sharp analysys.

Like any moderately adaptable political theory, Sharp's theory of power can be extended or adapted to cover facets that initially seem to be left out. Indeed, a careful reading of Sharp's work reveals an awareness of many of the points raised here. Touching on issues in a general way, however, is quite different from integrating them into the core concepts. The adaptability of the theory does not remove its central focus, and it is this focus which shapes how the theory is used and who is likely to use it.

Sharp understanding of "oppressive regimes" is extremely naive. To fully understand the phenomenon of Stalinism, it is essential to analyze the mobilization of support and suppression of dissent through the Communist Party, the process of industrialization, the reconstitution of the hierarchical army in the 1918-21 war against the Western attack on the revolution, the social inheritance of Tsarism, and the international political scene. Similar comments apply to Nazism. The point is that Stalinism and Nazism were much more than simply systems of ruler and oppressed, and that a full understanding of 'consent' requires a deep social analysis (e.g. Gouldner, 1977-78).

This point is clearer in the context of present-day struggles, where the judgment of history has not yet become conventional wisdom in school history classes and bipartisan political rhetoric. The meaning of nonviolent action is the result of social struggle rather than following immediately from a simple examination of rulers and subjects. Those such as the Berrigans who have taken non-violent direct action against facilities linked to the capacity for nuclear warfare can be interpreted as acting for humanity against evil rulers who are willing to risk mass killing to defend systems of power. But only a minority of people accept this interpretation; in practice, the civil disobedients to the nuclear war machine are engaged in political practice to convince people that their concerns should be the concerns of others. These activists have found that the dynamic of non-violent action does not automatically click into place to generate greater support. Sharp could only agree; he continually stresses that non-violent action is not guaranteed to succeed. The trouble is that his theory of power does not provide the conceptual tools needed to determine whether direct action against nuclear facilities is a particularly effective way to challenge the current systems of power and the current ideologies which mobilize much of the population to support organized violence as 'defense' against an 'enemy'.

Sharp comes closest to a structural approach in his discussion of loci of power. For example, he describes how the distributed power of the nobility under feudalism constrained the monarch, who in principle had unlimited authority (1980, pp. 33-35). But Sharp does not introduce any concepts convenient for analysing these structures. The major purpose of his examples is to argue for his thesis that constitutions are not sufficient to control rulers, that replacing rulers does not lead to control over rulers, and that devolution and diffusion of power among many groups is necessary to control the ruler's power (1980, p. 47). In short, his discussion of structures is used to support his basic ruler-subject picture. Once established, the structures tend to be dropped out of the picture. It is perhaps significant that when Sharp does discuss structures of power it is usually using historical examples such as feudalism or Fascism rather than examples also quite relevant today such as capitalism or patriarchy.

Even Sharp's discussion of loci of power gives a very simplified picture. Sharp argues that 'In order for effective control over the ruler's power to be possible in the long run, power must be effectively devolved and diffused among various social groups and institutions throughout the society' (1980, p. 47). This ignores the possible supportive relationships between the loci ('various social groups') and dominant social groups, and conflicts between the loci themselves. For example, trade unions arose out of workers' struggles against oppressive working conditions under capitalism, and were only set up in the face of vigorous opposition by capitalists and governments. Therefore, trade unions seem to be a perfect example of loci of power. Yet, once established, many trade unions have been incorporated into the 'system' and act to control the workers, for example in opposing grassroots worker initiatives and wildcat strikes. The existence of hierarchy and bureaucracy in trade union structures belies the image of a straightforward process of devolution of power.

Trade unions, too, have been key agencies for maintaining the gender division of labour, often in the face of the acceptance or preference of employers for women at a lower wage (Walby, 1986). Women's groups in their struggle against discrimination in employment have gained some leverage from state power, for example in the form of equal employment legislation. This seems to be a process of one locus of power, the women's movement, drawing on state power (the 'ruler') to challenge features of another locus of power, namely patriarchal work practices supported by trade unions. A similar analysis could be made of the dual role of other organizations, such as political parties or environmental lobbies, which act both to gain concessions and coopt radical ferment. The message from such examples is that Sharp's idea of strengthening the loci of power is not nearly as straightforward as it might seem, while the complexities are hard to grasp using Sharp's conceptual framework.

Sharp argues that the use of non-violent action tends to diffuse power: 'Changes achieved by nonviolent action are therefore likely to be more lasting' (1980, p. 62). Sharp's lack of structural analysis makes it difficult to say anything more than this vague claim. The practical results of non-violent action depend on the political context, and a detailed analysis needs to be made to determine the role of nonviolent action (e.g. Zielonka, 1986).

For example, the Iranian Revolution in 1978-1979 was won largely through the mass use of non-violent methods mobilized through the decentralized loci of the bazaars. Furthermore, in the early stages of the revolution there were some important social initiatives, for example towards equality for women (Albert, 1980). Yet the revolution quickly turned into a system of centralized repression. Factors involved in this transformation include the availability of the state bureaucracy and military forces from the Shah's regime, the hierarchical structure and ideology of Shiite Islam, and the global political configuration. The point here is that a simple analysis of the 'dynamics of nonviolent action' leaves out much of the social complexity needed to understand the Iranian events. Structural analysis has much to offer in understanding the process of revolution (Skocpol, 1979, 1982).

From the point of view of structural approaches to social analysis, Sharp's theory of power is much too simple to capture the full dynamics of society, if it is not misconceived entirely. But this critique has been made using a tacit assumption, associated with structural approaches, about what a theory of power is supposed to achieve. To unearth this assumption, it is useful to start with a basic question: what is the point of having a theory of power in the first place?

The usual answer to this question in social science would appeal to some unexamined notion of achieving a better 'understanding' of social reality. But, to pursue the point, what is the purpose of better understanding? Whose ends does this understanding serve? If the aim to advance the careers of intellectuals who stand by the side observing society but preferring to avoid interaction with it, then a complex, erudite theory serves admirably. On the other hand, if the aim is to provide some insights which can be used by activists, then a simple, straightforward, easy-to-apply theory is far superior, so long as it grasps certain basic insights. By this criterion, Sharp's theory is highly successful.

While his jargon-free accessibility is important, however, his picture is essentially voluntarist and simplistic: people, by deciding to withdraw consent, can topple even the most repressive dictatorship. Sharp provides not only a host of examples of non-violent action, but also describes a simple dynamics which shows how seeming weakness - nonviolence - can lead to increasing support.

Sharp has been taken up as the patron theorist of color revolutions around the world. His ideas about power are regularly presented in color revolution activists training sessions,  endlessly re-used in talks and leaflets, and his authority is routinely invoked in support of non-violence.

Ironically, while Sharp's analysis is most applicable to at least semi-democratic then to pure authoritarian regimes. As soon as regime decide to cut West monetary and political support of neoliberal forces within the country color revolution comes to a screeching halt as happened in Russia. The other aspect of color revolutions is that can be tremendously successful if the country is already divided (Orange Revolution in Ukraine). Sharp method would be ineffective under Stalin's rule: gulags have enough capacity to host all the participants of non-violent actions and secret police would infiltrate any attempt to organize protests in no time.

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[Jan 18, 2014] Class of Nonviolence - Introduction

You ought to believe in something in life, believe that thing so fervently that you will stand up with it till the end of your days.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

dovesThe Class of Nonviolence is an eight session class developed by Colman McCarthy, founder of the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington, D.C. It uses classics in peace and justice literature to teach peacemaking. This course can change your life and you can change the world.

The entire eight-session / 48 essay class can be downloaded as a PDF file - it's free!

If you have suggestions or questions, e-mail [email protected]







The Class of Nonviolence

"Human beings are used to thinking about violence and war as problems to be controlled rather than thinking positively about peace as an achievement, as a state of being within their control. Peace education rests on an active vision of peace where skilled individuals, who have been trained in the ways of nonviolence, intervene in conflict situations to manage them without using (violent) force." Ian Harris

Readings for Lesson One

  1. If We Listen Well, by Edward Guinan
  2. Nonviolent Response to Assault by Gerald Vanderhaar
  3. Human Nature Isn't Inherently Violent by Alfie Kohn
  4. Axioms of Nonviolence By Lanzo del Vasto
  5. Teaching Reverence for Life by Albert Schweitzer
  6. Students Astutely Aware by Colman McCarthy

Readings for Lesson Two

  1. Doctrine of the Sword by Mohandas Gandhi
  2. Gandhi in the 'Postmodern' Age by Sanford Krolick and Betty Cannon
  3. Family Satyagraha by Eknath Easwaren
  4. Ahimsa by Eknath Easwaren
  5. My Faith in Nonviolence by Mohandas Gandhi
  6. Love by Mohandas Gandhi
  7. A Pause From Violence by Colman McCarthy



Readings for Lesson Three

  1. Love is the Measure by Dorothy Day
  2. Poverty and Precarity by Dorothy Day
  3. Undeclared War to Declared War by Dorothy Day
  4. This Money is Not Ours by Dorothy Day
  5. The Scandal of the Works of Mercy by Dorothy Day
  6. Dorothy Day by Colman McCarthy

Readings for Lesson Four

  1. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Charles De Benedetti
  2. Loving Your Enemies by Martin Luther King, Jr.
  3. Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam by Martin Luther King, Jr.
  4. Pilgrimage to Nonviolence by Martin Luther King, Jr.
  5. King and Pacifism: The Other Dimension by Colman McCarthy


Readings for Lesson Five

  1. Feminism, Peace and Power by Mary Roodkowsky
  2. Rape is all too Thinkable for Quite the Normal Sort of Man by Neal King and Martha McCaughey
  3. To the Women of India by Mohandas Gandhi
  4. Narrowing the Battlefield by Carol Ascher
  5. Patriarchy: A State of War by Barbara Hope
  6. An American Shero of 1941 by Colman McCarthy

Readings for Lesson Six

  1. The Technique of Nonviolent Action by Gene Sharp
  2. The Politics of Nonviolent Action by Gene Sharp
  3. The Methods of Nonviolent Protest and Persuasion by Gene Sharp
  4. Albert Einstein on Pacifism
  5. Letter to Ernesto Cardenal: Guns Don't Work by Daniel Berrigan
  6. Building Confidence at Prairie Creek by Colman McCarthy



Readings for Lesson Seven

  1. On the Duty of Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau
  2. The Judge and the Bomb by Miles Lord
  3. Patriotism or Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  4. What Would You Do If? by Joan Baez
  5. Pray for Peace but Pay for War by Maurice F. McCrackin
  6. A Vigil for Life While We Celebrate Death by Colman McCarthy

Readings for Lesson Eight

  1. Animals, My Brethren by Edgar Kupfer-Koberwitz
  2. Interview on Respect for Animals, with Isaac Bashevis Singer
  3. A Vegetarian Sourcebook by Keith Akers
  4. Diet for a New America by John Robbins
  5. Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé
  6. 'Terrorists' for Animal Rights by Colman McCarthy


Facilitator's Manual Class of Nonviolence
Facilitator's Manual for the Class of Nonviolence
150 pages of film clip, art, reflections, games, poetry, simulations, songs — a bit of everything — to help you experience the material in a different way than reading-and-talking, to move it from your head to your heart. Written by Susan Ives of the San Antonio peaceCENTER. Download a sample chapter and buy it here ($13, paperback)


The Class of Nonviolence was developed by Colman McCarthy of the Center for Teaching Peace, 4501 Van Ness Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016 202/537-1372

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Helen Gillett, Brian Martin and Chris Rust, "Building in nonviolence: nonviolent struggle and the built environment," Civilian-Based Defense, Vol. 11, No. 3, Fall 1996, pp. 1, 4-7.

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