Marcie Smith
Original publication:
Editing: Roderic Day, Alice Malone

How Gene Sharp’s Neoliberal Nonviolence Shaped the Left (2020)

32 minutes | English

In 2020 Jacobin’s Micah Uetricht interviewed Marcie Smith, a lawyer and an adjunct professor in the Economics department at John Jay College in New York, on the subject her two-part essay in about Gene Sharp, the “protest left”, and social change:

It’s thoroughly-researched academic work. I found her outlay in the interview complemented the research well as a more accessible version of the same material, so I transcribed the bulk of it, and fashioned a small conclusion for it out of the Q&A section at the end of the interview. The transcript is faithful to the content, but corrects for phrasing and the like.
 — R. D.

Gene Sharp is popularly understood to be a kind of social movement hero. He is this intellectual giant that specifically wrote, prolifically, on the question of non-violent actions; the question of how non-violent tactics and strategy are sort of uniquely equipped — moreso than, Sharp argued, violence — to advance social justice. Typically, if you were to google him, you would find articles that cast him as a lonely “Prophet of Peace,” this mysterious character who is a sort of modern-day non-violent warrior in the style of Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize several times. He won the Right Livelihood Award. So, he really is lionized. He’s been praised by Zinn and Chomsky, and his ideas undergird lots of social movement theory on the U.S. “protest left” today.

My argument is that he’s actually better or best understood as one of the most important U.S. defense intellectuals to come out of the Cold War; that his theorization of non-violent action needs to be contextualized in his original Cold War context. When he came up with his ideas he was at a place called the Center for International Affairs at Harvard. This was his academic home for around the 30 most intellectually productive years of his life. So, he’s a defense intellectual. He’s an early kind of neoliberal theorist of the state. He is unusual for his moment, very explicitly critical of the “centralized state.” As he argues, it is a key vector of violence in the modern world. And then, very practically, he was on the ground: a vital counselor to very important anti-communist movements and anti-communist forces in the socialist world, in the world of actually existing socialist states, from the 1980s onward.

All of this, I’m arguing, is a much needed historical corrective to who Gene Sharp was. Part of the reason I think this is important is because, while Sharp has had a really important and understudied impact on the international stage, he also powerfully influences the U.S. domestic left today. That’s the top line.

To get into some of the details: Gene Sharp — incidentally, he passed away in January 2018, just a few months before I got my research out [1] — begins his political career in the 1950s as a run-of-the-mill pacifist. He is very famously jailed for resisting the Korean War, and he edits a newsletter in London called Peace News. But in the late 1950s he goes to the University of Oslo in Norway, where he studies the role of non-violence in the Norwegian resistance to Nazism with a fellow named Arne Naess. [2]. While there, Sharp is introduced at some point (we don’t know exactly when) to this very important “Cold Warrior” named Thomas Shelling, who was this master nuclear strategist. He has been called “the consummate establishment insider,” the man who “made the Cold War what it was.” [3] He was a really top flight Cold War defense intellectual. Shelling was really impressed with Sharp’s work at the time. At the time, Shelling was working for the RAND Corporation, [4] but had previously worked for the Marshall Plan in Europe as an advisor to Truman. [5]

Shelling and Sharp meet, and Shelling is really impressed with this research that Sharp is doing, which has evolved from a case study of the Norwegian resistance into the question of the dynamics of non-violent action more generally. On reading Sharp’s research, Shelling recruits Sharp to come to a place called the Center for International Affairs at Harvard — the “CIA at Harvard” [6] — which had only recently been founded in 1958 as this kind of preeminent Cold War think tank.

It was launched by McGeorge Bundy, who was a very important thinker throughout the Cold War, and a presidential advisor in multiple administrations. His original co-founders, there in that photo right in the middle, were Henry Kissinger himself and, right next to Henry Kissinger on the right, Robert Bowie, who would go on to be deputy director at the Central Intelligence Agency. And there they are, surrounded by lots of early fellows. This photo was taken a little bit before Gene Sharp joins in 1965, but the Center already boasted of a very impressive lineup — what we could call the “Cold War Starting Lineup.” People like Alex Inkeles, who’s a really important modernization theorist; Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor to Carter and mentor to Madeleine Albright; Raymond Vernon, an economist who helped set up the IMF and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, called by some the “father of globalization”; Samuel Huntington of “the Clash of Civilizations” thesis; the list goes on and on.

Sharp’s ideas are recognized by Shelling as potentially being very useful to the Cold War project. The defense community at this time is very interested in what they refer to as “peace research,” and, in fact, once Sharp accepts Shelling’s invitation and comes to the CIA at Harvard, his research is funded by the Department of Defense.

This is also interesting because some of the initial pushback I got on this research is, “Sharp was at the CIA at Harvard, but he wasn’t an important character.” But, actually, Sharp himself describes the CIA at Harvard as his academic home; he’s there for thirty years; he’s awarded his own center. In the 80s the official historian of the CIA at Harvard described Sharp as one of the generation’s most influential theorists, whose work was pioneering and enduring. So, he’s understood within this defense community to be offering something very important, and Sharp identifies with this center as well.

There are major protests targeting the CIA at Harvard in 1968. The Weathermen detonate some bombs — well, one bomb, but they overrun the center multiple times. And the criticism is that these characters within the CIA at Harvard are doing the bidding of the U.S. empire. During one of these protests that the Weathermen and community organizations in Cambridge undertake, student protestors seize this really interesting cachet of notes from a very important meeting called the “Bissell Meeting,” a convening of CIA officials, industry leaders, philanthropic leaders and representation from the CIA at Harvard, which had taken place a few years beforehand. It’s been described as “the most complete description of the CIA’s covert-action strategy and tactics ever made available to the outside world.” [7] And what the notes say, among other things, is that the CIA has been explaining to those assembled at the Bissell Meeting that “the CIA will have to make use of private institutions on an expanding scale” because there have been a number of exposés recently. The CIA was funding, for example, the National Student Association directly. Ramparts magazine did this big exposé in the late 60s that basically blew this cover, so the CIA is saying they’re going to have to operate under deeper cover, with increased attention to the use of “cut-outs.” In other words, the CIA’s interface with the rest of the world needs to be better protected. So, indeed, the CIA at Harvard is in communication and in conversation with organs of the state, and there’s a rotating door between its leadership and fellows and the U.S. government; specifically the defense and intelligence community.

Sharp is in this milieu, he receives lots of praise and attention for his work. He finishes his dissertation in 1968, and then, in 1973, publishes it as his kind of magnum opus: The Politics of Nonviolent Action. In this three-volume book he outlines his big idea, which is that non-violent action, which had previously been exclusively associated with ideological pacifism, is actually available as a strategic tool that’s available to anyone, including nation states themselves — including the U.S. government itself. Really, what Sharp is interested in is ‘how can we take the violence out of war?’ Thomas Shelling, the aforementioned mentor of Sharp’s and a nuclear strategist, says this in the introduction, which I think is helpful:

[Sharp’s work] does not attempt to convert you to a new faith. It is not about a compassionate political philosophy that, if only enough of us believed it, would make the walls come tumbling down. It offers insight, by theory and example, into a complex field of strategy.

Indeed, what Sharp is trying to do is make the case to the U.S. defense community — arguably to the public more largely, but very deliberately to this defense intelligence audience — that non-violent action is a strategic means of warfare to advance U.S. interests.

Like I mentioned, there are three parts to this tome. The first book outlines what is sometimes called Sharp’s “social theory of power,” which basically makes the observation, which Machiavelli made several hundred years before, that the power and legitimacy of a state fundamentally rests on the consent of the governed. If you want to overthrow a regime, Sharp argues, you need to remove these sources of consent. The second book outlines 198 “non-violent action maneuvers.” For people who really love Sharp it’s important to get that number, 198, right. It’s sort of like the rosary or something. And then Part Three is really about the political methods of non-violence, which Sharp calls “political jiu-jitsu.” So, not the specific maneuvers, but how the dynamics of non-violent action work, which are basically what you want in order for protests to work. You want to effectively victimize yourself. You want to get the hegemon — the dictator, whomever — to injure your movement. You’re trying to provoke the regime into retaliation — disproportionate retaliation if possible — and then you can shift those pillars of power, shift public consent away from the regime, because they’ve shown their ‘true colors’. And the regime topples.

For Sharp this question of violence is key. He’s trying to take the violence out of war. He understands “violence” to be the big world historical problem, in the way that Marxists think of exploitation as a big world historical problem. So, what is violence? This is kind of a wily concept to pin down. For Sharp, on the one hand he defines violence as needing to be direct, a direct injury. So, indirect forms of injury — for example, market forces which operate indirectly — are laundered, in a way. As we’ll see in a moment, market forces that produce injurious outcomes aren’t exactly violent in Sharp’s methodology. On the other hand, the injury dimension of violence is blown out to be a mile wide, and is seen to include all kinds of coercion and domination. So, whereas market forces are rendered non-violent because they operate indirectly, all kinds of state action are rendered violent because they are coercive. Forcing people to pay taxes is coercive, forcing corporations to submit to regulation is coercive, and quite directly so, and thus, violent. For Sharp, the “centralized state” becomes the major source and vector of violence in the modern world.

In 1980, Sharp writes a book called Social Power and Political Freedom, where he susses this out a bit more, gets into this criticism of the state much more explicitly. For example, he says:

The strategy of relying upon the State to make needed social and economic changes, instead of using some other means of action and different institutions, not only does not empower the people who are already weak … [but] actively contributes to increasing the concentration of effective power in the State. … State regulation and ownership of economic institutions have reduced neither their size, the degree of centralization, nor elite controls within them. Instead, State intervention has increased all three of these within the specific enterprises and in the economy generally. … The growth of State controls over the economy has resulted in a major expansion of the size of the State itself, a growth of the scale of our institutions, enhancement of elite controls, centralization of decision-making, growth of bureaucratization, increases in the areas of society under State control or absorbed by the State, and an increasing powerless dependency of the people. [8]

Much of the growth of the State apparatus has often occurred as a result of noble, and even humane, motives. Many people who have sought social change have viewed the single institution which combined a permanent bureaucracy with legitimated capacity for political violence as very useful to them — if only they could gain control of it and use it for their own ends. … When reformers and revolutionaries have sought to impose controls over powerful economic groups, classes, or institutions, they have usually done so by establishing State regulations over them or by transferring actual ownership of the economy to the State. [9]

The relative atomization of the subjects may also follow as an unintended result … where reformers and revolutionaries use the State apparatus to control certain social and economic groups, such as the nobility, landlords, or capitalists, and where the State is used as the primary instrument for controlling the economic and political development of the country. [10]

In summary, the strategy of using the State to check the power of certain classes (the bourgeoisie) has resulted in “the relative atomization of the subjects” as an “unintended result,” leading to the weakening of society and its independent institutions, and the growth of tyrannical state power. This strategy of relying on the State to make needed social and economic changes “does not empower people who are already weak but instead just increases the concentration of effective power in the State,” which Sharp argues, in the meta argument that he’s making, increases violence in the world.

This is an unusual argument, frankly, for someone adjacent to social movements to be making in 1980, because throughout the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, the “New Deal” moment, the rise of communist movements, the creation of the Soviet Union and other actually existing socialist states, the State was the vehicle for revolutionary change. A lot of effective redistribution happened via that mechanism. And right at this moment, the early ’80s, is when we start to see a much more deliberate, concerted, and effective bourgeois pushback against those movements. [11]

Sometimes people talk about the “Neoliberal Turn” as the moment Ronald Reagan is elected. As part of this neoliberal turn the posture toward actually existing communism changes from “Containment Strategy” to a policy of “Active Rollback” — we’re trying to actually get rid of these communist states. World War II was still in living memory, so this idea of doing that non-violently was very appealing.

For example, in 1983 the Reagan administration launches the National Endowment for Democracy, which is an organization that is, as its founder at the time said, dedicated to “doing a lot of what the CIA did covertly just a few decades before”: funding “anti-dictator, pro-democracy” movements, but very consistently in countries where the “dictator” is left-wing, while leaving right-wing reactionary religious dictators doing the U.S. bidding alone — think Saudi Arabia.

Interestingly, that same year, 1983, Gene Sharp launches something called the Albert Einstein Institution, which is dedicated to the practice of non-violent actions and spreading the skills of non-violent action. He’s done the theory, and now it’s about taking it out into the field. If you look at AEI’s mission language, there’s a lot about fighting dictators, promoting democracy… these are the bywords of the moment.

He actually co-founded AEI, interestingly, with somebody named Peter Ackerman, who at the time is serving, as his day job, as right-hand man to Michael Milken, who was referred to as the “Junk Bond King” — Gordon Gekko of Wall Street is loosely based on that character. The fund that Milken and Ackerman are working at was called Drexel Burnham Lambert, and because of their innovations in the junk bond market, which are quite shady, Milken does end up going to jail. Ackerman’s politics are very clear-cut: he had served on the board of the Cato Institute’s “Project for Social Security Choice,” which was seeking to privatize Social Security. And Sharp founds this democracy-promotion organization, this non-violent training institute, with Peter Ackerman.

Another important character in the AEI scene is Colonel Robert Helvey, who becomes a very important trainer of non-violent activists, and he’s coming from the Defense Intelligence Agency. He actually had been Dean of the Defense Intelligence College, which is the training institute for the Defense Intelligence Agency, and a key consultant and trainer.

Both the National Endowment for Democracy and AEI were founded in 1983, and despite claims to the contrary by Sharp’s defenders — which are just patently false — the Albert Einstein Institution gets funding very regularly throughout its existence from the National Endowment for Democracy and its subsidiaries, and also adjacent organizations like the U.S. Institute for Peace.

AEI has a lot of success. They train key leaders of the anti-Soviet movement, the leadership of the secessionist movements in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, which are key to triggering the final crumbling of the U.S.S.R. Obviously the contradictions within the U.S.S.R. are manifold, so it’s not correct to say that Gene Sharp destroyed the Soviet Union, but he does play a very interesting role in the social movements that help bring it down ultimately. The AEI is also very important to training the movement that overthrows Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia, and that leads to the disintegration — the Balkanization — of Yugoslavia. (In the first essay I get into this in more detail, what’s the real geopolitical situation in each of these contexts.)

So, the movement that AEI trains in Serbia, Yugoslavia goes on to train movements in Georgia, in Ukraine, etc., etc. They come up with their own organization, in fact, called CANVAS as acronym. Again and again what we see is that while the regimes that they’re targeting are often very corrupt — people have a have good reason to want change and to want more democratic controls — what ends up happening after these revolutions is neoliberalization. It’s privatization, deregulation, removal of price controls, removal of capital controls, submission to the International Monetary Fund — whatever they’re demanding — submission to whatever NATO is demanding. And, again, very interestingly, like the National Endowment for Democracy, Albert Einstein Institution does not seem to have much to say about reactionary right-wing religious dictatorships that are doing the U.S.’s bidding in places like Saudi Arabia, Zaire, Guatemala. It’s crickets.

The intervention that I’m trying to make is that there are key components in the story that are just entirely left out. Sharp’s association with the Center for International Affairs of Harvard is effectively never mentioned in public portrayals. The significance of his ideas in their original Cold War context is never dealt with, nor is the political pattern of Albert Einstein Institution’s work. There are also sometimes outright fabrications, which are perhaps not with malignance but ignorance, about, for example, Albert Einstein Institution’s funding and their associations. There are also very suspicious personal attacks on anyone who dares question or critique the role of Gene Sharp and his ideas and the ideas of his students and mentees. Part of the reason I think the stakes are high is because, while Sharp has this very interesting history internationally and we need this historical corrective, his ideas and the ideas of many of his U.S. students provide the scaffolding for mainstream social movement theory that is really at the heart of a lot of the U.S. “protest left” today. The second part of my essay deals with this. [12]

Much of Gene Sharp’s influence on the U.S. protest left is thanks to a group called Movement For A New Society (MNS), which was a self-described non-violent revolutionary group founded in 1971 out of West Philadelphia but with chapters all over the country. One of its key intellectual leaders — perhaps its key intellectual leader — and co-founder, George Lakey, is a mentee of Gene Sharp’s. In the early ’70s, Lakey writes a book called Strategy for a Living Revolution, which seeks to operationalize these ideas about strategic non-violence in a U.S. context. MNS really focuses on training, as opposed to political education, which was more associated with the socialist left. MNS is into these immediately practicable, purportedly non-ideological skills-based trainings on strategic non-violence and direct action protests. A lot of these ideas are culled from Sharp’s theories, and then develop alongside Sharp’s work, because now Sharp and MNS both operate concomitantly.

MNS folds in 1980, but its alumni go on to create new training outfits. George Lakey founds Training For Change, which trains lots of non-profit organizations and unions, both domestically and internationally. Still today they inform social movement theories like Momentum, founded by the Engler Brothers. MNS co-founder Bill Moyer’s ideas are key in the Englers’ book This Is an Uprising, for example.

Sharp and MNS situate themselves broadly within this rarely-named ideological framework of “strategic non-violence” or “non-violent action,” but there’s also a broader ideology that they situate themselves in called “revolutionary non-violence.” What is this exactly? It’s loosely construed. It’s distinguished from pacifism because they don’t see the problem of violence merely being an interpersonal one, they also see violence as being a structural thing that needs structural solutions. But a very defining feature is that it’s extremely anti-communist, and sees itself as a revolutionary alternative to communist movements.

In MNS history there’s a lot of discomfort with the idea of class war, even though according to Sharp, war can be non-violent. There’s also a lot of discomfort with mass politics, and the idea of development. They are advocates of development and population control, even, and instead of class consciousness they’re trying to advocate for cross-class movements. And the obstacle to cross-class movements, they feel, is classism, which is a sort of inter-class prejudice — like making fun of poor people because their teeth are bad, or making fun of rich people because they have a lockjaw accent. And so to get these cross-class movements we have to fight classism and also develop “world consciousness,” a phrase that Lakey offers.

MNS alumni are very candid, in literature that’s been produced reflecting on MNS, about practical problems that flowed from the construction of violence that I mentioned earlier. So, again: on the one hand violence has to be direct, but on the other hand the injury can be domination or coercion. You get this construction of violence that’s an inch deep but a mile wide, and the set of problems that I define as “domination anxiety”: because we’re trying to avoid injurious violent domination or coercion of any kind we can’t have any hierarchy, no leadership, no centralization. For this reason MNS is a big pioneer and a big promoter of the “consensus method.” There’s a resistance and an anxiety around plans or programs or political priorities or blueprints of any kind, and a fixation on and valorization of spontaneity. The state is pathologized, because taxes — much less expropriation — are violent, whereas market forces are seen as benevolent because they operate through freedom of choice. Then also there’s anxiety about class struggle, because class struggle was not seeking consensus with the bourgeoisie. When Bernie Sanders says “Wall Street won’t like me,” clearly he does not care that Wall Street doesn’t like him, he’s not trying to find a happy consensus with them. He is trying to build power and restructure the ownership and control and operation of the means of production in spite of what the bourgeoisie wants. So, MNS members’ idea in all of these things leads to the ultimate demise of the organization. And, in my own experience in social movements and social movement organizations, I see this as well.

That’s a broad overview of Sharp’s international role as I see it, and his domestic impacts as I see them.

His academic home is not an anarchist commune, it is within the U.S. defense and intelligence community in the Cold War context. What’s the ultimate outcome of the Cold War? It’s the collapse of the Soviet Union and the establishment of neoliberal hegemony. In the case of Yugoslavia, Gene Sharp’s ideas managed to do what airstrikes couldn’t.

Protest is just one political means, and at this point it should be very clear that the left doesn’t necessarily have a monopoly on that political means. The U.S. empire has been studying how to use protests to advance its interests. There are other political means available to us, that we’re going to need to study and utilize.

Within Marxism we have this idea of base and superstructure. The superstructure includes state organs, but those are actually a reflection of what’s happening down here in the base, in the economic material life of a society. Sharp “social theory of power” doesn’t have much to say about that, and what it does say is that we don’t want the state to intervene in the economy. Gene Sharp’s work has to be viewed in its full ideological context, and too often it is presented as a technical, apolitical or trans-political set of ideas. And that’s really dangerous.

When something as ideological as this is presented as not being ideological, I think we’re in dangerous territory.

[1] Marcie Smith, 2019-05-10. “Change Agent: Gene Sharp’s Neoliberal Nonviolence (Part One).” Non-Site. [web] 

[2] That’s a different interesting rabbit hole — Arne Naess is the father of “Deep Ecology” — but he was also very interested in the role of the non-violent Norwegian resistance to Nazism, and was himself in fact a member of Norwegian intelligence. 

[3] Henry Farrell, “Thomas Schelling has died. His ideas shaped the Cold War and the world.” The Washington Post, December 13, 2016. [web] 

[4] RAND Corporation: an American nonprofit global policy think tank created in 1948 by Douglas Aircraft Company to offer research and analysis to the United States Armed Forces. 

[5] Marshall Plan: formally “European Recovery Program” (April 1948-December 1951), it was a U.S.-sponsored program designed to dominate the economies of 17 western and southern European countries and install bulwarks against socialism. 

[6] The “har har” inside joke is that the Center for International Affairs is called the CIA at Harvard, true to its nickname. 

[7] Victor Marchetti and John D. Marks, The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1974), 29-31. 

[8] Social Power and Political Freedom, 319. [web] 

[9] Social Power and Political Freedom, 317. [web] 

[10] Social Power and Political Freedom, 41. [web] 

[11] Incidentally the introduction to this book is offered by a libertarian senator, so that gives you a sense of Sharp’s politics as well. 

[12] Marcie Smith, 2019-12-29. “Change Agent: Gene Sharp’s Neoliberal Nonviolence (Part Two).” Non-Site. [web]