The articles in this issue on Aikido suggest at least one way people can defend themselves against their enemies without killing them. In this interview, Harvard political strategist Gene Sharp asks why nations can’t do the same.

We all want peace, Sharp says, but we can’t wait for some mass conversion to pacifism to save us. There will always be conflicts between societies; thus, there’s a need for an effective defense. But we can change the way we defend ourselves — and perhaps make war obsolete.

A well-organized population, with an understanding of psychological resistance, is a nation’s best defense, he says. It’s certainly a better bet than the nuclear weapons whose very use guarantees our destruction. Civilian-based defense, as he calls it, puts the defense of society in the hands of the people who live in it; also, it’s nonviolent; also, he insists, it works.

Sharp heads the newly-created Program on Nonviolent Sanctions at Harvard University. A historian and philosopher, he served nine months in prison for refusing military service. In the early Fifties, he worked with anti-war activist A.J. Muste. He’s written many books, including an acclaimed study of Gandhi as a political strategist. This interview by Valerie Andrews originally appeared in The Tarrytown Letter, published by The Tarrytown Group.

— Ed.


What is the goal of Harvard’s new project?

With the help of really good scholars — not ideologues — we are exploring civilian action as an alternative to military defense. Our aim is to blow the top off nonviolent struggle and show people that it’s much more powerful than they believe.


Who are the hardest people to convince of this?

Oddly, the utopians and pacifists. They don’t want to look at power as a necessary force in the modern world. Power itself isn’t bad — it’s only centralized power that gives one group the ability to oppress others and to do so violently. The good news is that the people coming out of religious and pacifist traditions are becoming more rigorous in their thinking and are consequently more aware of this distinction.

At the same time, there is a new receptivity to nonviolence. Some ultraconservatives are beginning to see its broad significance.


You are the first expert on nonviolence to tell conservatives and “hawks” that their concern with national security is legitimate. How do you talk effectively to two opposing camps?

I am a political realist. Our society — any society — needs the tools to deal with different kinds of conflict. Civilian-based defense can do this and in a way that is less costly in terms of human life and money than present military options.


What is the main idea of civilian-based defense?

It’s based on nonviolence and on the idea of spreading power out to all segments of society. If you give all people a means to express their political interests, that’s the best weapon against foreign aggression, dictatorship or totalitarian governments.


Where is nonviolent struggle being used today?

Important lessons are being taught to us by the Poles and East Europeans. What’s happened there is nothing short of miraculous. The Poles have done more to disintegrate the Communist systems without firing a single gun than anything the Pentagon has done for decades, with all of its billions in the budget. This means nonviolent economic and political sanctions may have more effect in preventing Soviet expansion than the military.

Such examples also make us rethink our justification for building up atomic weaponry after the Second World War: we believed if the Communist regimes ever got control of a society, their indoctrination would be so efficient that it would take hundreds of years, at best, to free that society again. Therefore, it was worth the risk of using hydrogen bombs to deter extreme dictatorial control.

We’ve learned from the Eastern European revolts and resistance movements since 1953 that this just isn’t true. The populations have retained their capacity for resistance. The generations brought up by those societies are by no means efficiently indoctrinated. In fact, they often rebel against the system.


What are the main features of this kind of civilian resistance?

Poland has used demonstrations, factory strikes, economic shutdowns — all of which contribute to a kind of mass psychological resistance. That’s what scares the Russians so much: they haven’t been able to squash the spirit of Solidarity in four years. This kind of unremitting resistance has to be very frightening to all dictatorships.

In fact, Indonesians are watching events in Poland very carefully. How citizens can use nonviolent power to free themselves is of crucial interest to many people around the world.


The Czech resistance in 1968 was, in part, a successful use of civilian defense. In the early months, the Soviet troops were so demoralized that they were called back home — and the government went to the expense of sending back a completely new army. What happened?

The resistance was spontaneous on the part of the Czech people and their government: it included work slowdowns, a refusal to obey Russian officers, or even to recognize the new regime. Radio broadcasts denounced the invasion as illegal. Typists refused to prepare military orders. That the Czechs succeeded in keeping the Russians at bay for eight months — with no advance preparation — is significant. They taught us how foreign troops can become unreliable and potentially mutinous, and how civilian strength can demoralize entire armies.


Could nonviolent sanctions be applied to the troublesome situation in Central America?

Trying to solve the imminent conflict in Central America is like trying to stop a car within two feet once it’s going sixty miles an hour! If everybody stays headed toward military confrontation then it’s hard to know just how to stop it. Still, there is a tradition of civilian resistance people could draw upon right now, and our center is publishing the first full account of one important case.

In El Salvador in 1944, the military tried to overthrow the dictatorship of General Hernandez Martinez — but without success. After that, the women and students launched a nonviolent insurrection that spread to virtually all professions — shutting down the economic and political life of the country. In a matter of two or three weeks, the regime was powerless. Martinez resigned, renounced politics, and left the country. A similar thing happened in Guatemala two months later, and this pattern was later imitated in two other countries.

I envision a situation in which nonviolent methods are used against other nonviolent methods. Then we would have a perfect replacement for what we call war where both parties would agree upon the “weapons.”

So these citizens’ campaigns can be contagious?

Absolutely — but you need a good model. A campaign must be conducted efficiently and with discipline. And you need to get the information spread around. It’s also important to determine how citizen action can best succeed in denying the legitimacy of an oppressive regime.


How long does that take?

Not long with a new regime that hasn’t yet established an effective ruling system. Yet even with an established government, things can happen suddenly. The Persian Revolution in 1906 began with a nonviolent action: the religious leaders who traditionally gave the blessing to the head of state said, “This ruler no longer has our obedience.”


We usually associate nonviolence and civil disobedience with modern visionaries like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. Is this a phenomenon of the twentieth century?

No, it has a substantial history. There was a clear use of nonviolence to prevent dictatorship in ancient Greece. When a leader became too popular and was perceived as too competent, he was asked to leave the society. The people determined this by voting with oyster shells — which is where we get the term, “ostracized.” This was so no all-powerful ruler could take over during the golden age of Greek democracy. If the ruler didn’t leave, nobody paid any attention to him.


What is the history of such civilian action in the United States?

It’s impressive. We’ve just completed a new book on successful campaigns prior to the Revolutionary War, including the resistance to the Stamp Act and the Townshend Act. What’s more, the Continental Congress comes off as a nonviolent resistance organization.

Using documents never before publicized, we’ve shown that the Revolutionary War was probably unnecessary. Nine or ten of the colonies had autonomous and independent governments totally outside of British control before Lexington and Concord. What’s more, these governments had already successfully thrown off British domination by economic means.


Could similar actions prevent violent revolution in other countries now?

Yes, in the Middle East, for one. The Palestinians have set up a center for the study of nonviolence in Jerusalem, and certain villages on the West Bank are using these methods to resist Israeli domination.

A second case is the crucial situation in South Africa. If blacks follow the lead some activists have already taken with bus boycotts, school protests, and trade unions, they will have a much greater capacity to change the system. But violent revolution there would be catastrophic. It would engulf us in world problems because neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union nor China would be indifferent.

Most important, the use of violence ignores the power base and political resources the people already have. A primary principle of nonviolent struggle is never fight with your enemy’s best weapon.


When mass demonstrations and civil protests are openly discussed, what does that do to their effectiveness?

It increases it! Gandhi always insisted on openly planning his campaigns. The very audacity of saying you are preparing to protest, or close down the factories, is perceived as a great psychological and political strength.


Gandhi also said the methods of nonviolence involved a greater degree of consciousness. Is the nonviolent activist more moral than the soldier?

I don’t buy that. My interpretation of Gandhi is different. The main idea is not to take suffering on ourselves, but to wage a struggle that will give a cause maximum power, to achieve the social changes people want.


So you’re talking about nonviolent struggle as a pragmatist, not a moralist.

Yes. First off, if a method doesn’t work, people aren’t going to use it. Second, it’s a little doubtful to me that it’s really very moral. How could something be in harmony with reality — with the nature of existence or the laws of the universe — and fail?


The French statesman Charles Peguy once said, “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.” Maybe that’s the process you’re talking about.

I think that it’s related. Somehow our vision has to be extended into effective practice. If we could develop nonviolent techniques and show they have just as much chance of succeeding as violence, then who could reject them?

The advocates of “just” wars would have no basis — neither practical nor ideological. And those who object to war on moral grounds would finally have an impact — instead of being fated to polish their halos while the rest of the world goes on.


Let’s look, then, at our religious attitude toward war. In Violence and the Sacred, Rene Girard says violence is a sacred ritual deeply embedded in man’s unconscious. If so, we can’t just consciously stop wars — since they fill some kind of instinctive need to appease the gods, or satisfy our inner complexes.

But our historical records don’t show that war is an orgy of sacrifice and killing for its own sake. And this kind of thinking ignores the fact that wars are fought to achieve concrete objectives: somebody wanted to accomplish something — to seize land, take gold, spread an empire, or extend a religion.

If you look at war as ritual, that puts you into a very fatalistic mode. You believe that war is an instinct and it’s impossible to escape. People who succumb to this kind of apocalyptic view cannot be very effective in changing society.


Then they become locked in an outmoded myth system that keeps them from acting to preserve the future?

Exactly. And that’s a major problem of our time.


Does your approach put the responsibility for social change into the hands of the individual citizen?

Yes, but the individual must be connected to empowered social groups. The individual worker or teacher is important. But if they’re facing a powerful government seeking to control the economy or an oppressive educational system, then each has limited power.


What about the problem of large-scale, highly centralized institutions?

The largest of those is government, and the American government has grown steadily larger with every war it’s fought. The difficulty is this: governments get big and they get centralized in order to fight wars. And their very bigness and centralization then gives them more control over society.

If we really wanted to make government smaller, we should ask, “Do we need a military? Could security and defense be attained some other way — other than building up the size of the government as well as its repressive capacity?”

Good conservatives can see some advantages in this. Ultimately, the stronger the society, the less it needs to rely on an aggressive military.


Can civilian-based defense lessen our present reliance on nuclear weapons?

It can and it’s a tremendously important factor. My next book calls for civilian-based defense to alleviate security problems in Western Europe. NATO, admittedly, has very grave difficulties with its defense plan. There don’t seem to be many good options militarily. The generals admit the danger of triggering a nuclear war.

My proposal is a serious attempt to talk to the hard-headed, strongly anti-Communist, anti-Soviet, and pro-Western defense groups: accepting their assumptions, their suspicions of the Soviet Union, their distrust of Communist parties; accepting the need for deterrence and dissuasion and defense policies in Western Europe; even, in some ways, being more militant than they are.


How so?

By saying that co-existence with Communist-ruled Eastern Europe is simply not good enough. We should try to explore other ways whereby their governments would disintegrate and their dictatorships collapse. And that’s a point of view that we only expect the very extreme pro-right wing military to even raise.

Now I’m raising this in the context of nonviolence. This is bound to cause great confusion initially. But this is really a great advance, for when people get confused, they have to start thinking.


How would civilian-based defense lessen our dependence on nuclear arms?

By making any nation unconquerable by foreign invasion. If citizens are taught to use economic and political resistance, and to keep the power in their own hands, this would be revolutionary.

If you look at war as ritual, that puts you into a very fatalistic mode. You believe that war is an instinct and it’s impossible to escape. People who succumb to this kind of apocalyptic view cannot be very effective in changing society.

How quickly can this be achieved?

Not overnight. Civilian-based defense can one day replace warfare, but it’s naive to think people will leave themselves militarily defenseless before they fully understand this new option. That’s why I propose a ten-year study where we look at nonviolent struggle and show people that it has at least the same effectiveness as conventional military weapons.


You say the U.S. and the Soviets are stuck in such rigid ideological positions that revolution or political change, anywhere in the world, can set us off toward nuclear war. That means there is little room for political struggle — even if its aims are ultimately progressive.

Exactly. We’re in a static situation because the old ideologies are inadequate. The only way out is to move away from these highly emotional commitments and toward a pragmatic assessment of our policies.

In the past, many political groups have adjusted their ideology to what they thought was required for the practical world. But usually that led to a weakening of the “ideological purity” and toward accepting the kind of world they were supposedly against.

This case, however, is quite different. If you accept nonviolence as a means of political action, then you are moving toward a society that is less reliant on military force or dictatorial controls. All that has to be to the good.


You’ve said the cornerstone of civilian-based defense is nonviolence. But can these tactics be used offensively?

Some nonviolent methods could clearly be called offensive. If we were to distribute handbooks in the Soviet Union on the use of nonviolent struggle to overthrow your friendly neighborhood Communist dictatorship, you can bet that would be perceived by the Politburo as an attack.


How have nonviolent methods ever been used for negative ends?

The Nazis first organized economic boycotts against the Jews — then accompanied this with intimidation. But if the Nazis had stopped at economic sanctions, there would have been no holocaust.

I envision a situation in which nonviolent methods are used against other nonviolent methods. Then we would have a perfect replacement for what we call war where both parties would agree upon the “weapons.”

This new way of understanding conflict would be an evolutionary change of the same magnitude as the invention of spears some 500,000 years ago.


Then is the nature of political struggle about to be transformed?

Yes, but not in an airy, woolly, romantic sort of way. Our search for a solution to the problem of war is not based on utopian illusions. I’m not talking about passivity and submission but a well-thought-out plan.

Already in hundreds of significant conflicts, nonviolence has taken the place of military action. Pacifists and peace-workers have no idea how many people are ready to join in a search for an alternative defense.