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Keeping nonviolent resistance real

2011 will certainly be remembered as a year of uprisings and protest. Consider the “Arab Spring” and the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. Complacency has no place in the present, but nor does violence, hopefully. From the 494 B.C. plebeians’ march out of Rome to gain improved status, to Gandhi’s nonviolent campaigns in India, to the Solidarity movement in Poland in the 80s and uprisings and protests of 2011, nonviolent struggles have played pivotal roles in world events for centuries. Around each of these events a vocabulary, a lexicon, of power and struggle emerged. And Gene Sharp, the “godfather of nonviolent resistance” has been “one of the great pioneers of nonviolent theory,” according to Joseph Nye. “His writings have affected nonviolent resistance tactics around the world, most recently in Egypt. He distills…wisdom…readily accessible to activists, journalists, and researchers alike.” Below is some of that wisdom, an essay by Sharp from the recently published Sharp’s Dictionary of Power and Struggle. Let’s hope the lines of communication stay open and all parties keep it real.     -Purdy, publicity

You can also listen to an interview with Gene Sharp on today’s edition of WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show.

Our world is filled with conflicts. They often cause us grave problems. However, conflicts themselves are not the real problem. Conflicts are often positive and a given conflict can have meritorious purposes. Problems arise principally from the means by which conflicts are often waged: through violence.

Many political groups and virtually all governments operate on the unexamined assumption that the means of last resort and greatest effectiveness is violence, especially in a military capacity. Violence is certainly necessary to support certain objectives, among them oppression, dictatorship, and mass killings. If we oppose those objectives we need to think about how otherwise to act so that our actions truly weaken the possibility of oppression, dictatorship, or mass killings, and do not unintentionally contribute to their growth.

The choice to use violence is determined by our understanding of the nature of political power. We need to understand better both the power possessed by our opponents and the power available to those who reject their opponents’ objectives. Opponents in “no-compromise conflicts” are understood to be able to wield massive power. We know that the power they use for hostile purposes must be counteracted by equal or greater power. If it is not, the opponents’ objectives will likely be achieved.

Our opponents’ power is often understood to be strong, solid, and long-lasting. If we choose to act against our opponents with violence, it is because we believe that our capacity to wage violent conflict is needed—that is, our opponents’ power for hostile purposes cannot be successfully defeated without violence. But in choosing to fight with violence we have agreed to fight with our opponents’ best weapons. We think that extreme risks are justified because our opponents’ power is likely to triumph unless it is confronted by greater violence. We do not examine whether our understanding of power is accurate.


In our quest for better understanding of what is possible in extreme conflicts, we must start by asking a fundamental question: What is “political power”?

Drawing on the insights of respected political theorists and analysts, we understand that political power is nothing less than the totality of means, influences, and pressures available to determine and implement policies and governance of a society. This especially refers to the institutions of government, the State, and those who oppose them. Such power may be directly applied or may be held as a reserve capacity, as in negotiations. In such cases power is no less present than it is in open conflict.

Power is intrinsic to politics. It is involved, directly or indirectly, in all political action. It may be measured by the ability to control a situation, to control people and institutions, or to mobilize people and institutions for a certain activity. Political power may be used to achieve a goal, to implement or change policies, to induce others to behave as the wielders of power wish, or to oppose—or support—the established system, policies, and relationships. Power is also used to change, destroy, or replace the previous distribution of power, or to accomplish a combination of these objectives.

We are challenged to look afresh at the nature of political power. We know that it can accomplish horrendous objectives. But is there anything about power that could reveal dictatorships to be less than omnipotent and reveal our opponents’ massive military power as a serious problem, but not a guarantor of the regime’s success in every conflict? Is there something about power that reveals a potential for serving positive goals?


We have concrete evidence for why we should question the usual understanding of political power. Over twenty years ago, during the remarkable events in Central and Eastern Europe, my neighborhood news vendor came close to such questioning. He commented, “A funny thing is happening. The people without guns are winning!”

The successful self-liberation of Poland in a ten-year struggle, despite earlier decades of Nazi and Soviet occupations and the continued presence of Soviet troops, has not shaken our preconceptions of political reality. Similarly, note what happened in the small Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which also experienced both Nazi and Soviet occupations and had even been annexed into the Soviet Union when it was still intact. That these small nations could regain independence without firing a single shot does not amaze us. Reality is ignored. Similar refutations of our usual view of political reality came from the collapse of other dictatorships in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

And then there is South Africa, where for many years intelligent, concerned people assumed there would be no liberation from the

There have been other clear refutations of our usual understanding of power in politics. We have ignored or explained them away. Apparently, the assumption of the omnipotence of extreme dictatorships and of massive violence is false. We rarely recognize the importance of occasional evidence that powerful dictatorships and great violence have been defeated through nonviolent means. We have become so indoctrinated to believe in the near omnipotence of extreme dictatorships and massive military might that we cannot see the reality of contradicting events. When supposedly “impossible” political events occur, we find “explanations” to block our seeing reality.

A more accurate understanding of political power may depend on examining afresh the basic nature of such power.


Political power has sources in the society. According to respected political theorists these are authority (legitimacy), human resources, skills and knowledge, intangible factors, material resources, and sanctions (punishments). Sanctions are usually a key element of political power.

It is highly significant that political power is seen to derive from these six sources. We need to understand these sources and their fragility.

Authority is perceived legitimacy. Authority makes a person or institution accepted voluntarily as superior in some way. Persons or institutions with authority are seen to have the right to command and be obeyed or followed. Authority is clearly a major source of political power.

Human resources refers to the number of persons who obey, cooperate with, and assist the rulers, and their proportion in the population. The extent and forms of their organizations are also relevant.

The skills and knowledge of those persons, and how those capacities relate to the needs of the rulers, also are a significant source of political power.

Intangible factors as sources of power include the habits and attitudes of the population towards obedience and submission. These may be affected by the presence or absence of a common faith, ideology, or sense of mission.

Material resources also help to determine the extent of the power of the rulers. These include property, natural resources, finances, communications, transportation, and the economic system.

Finally, the type and extent of sanctions (punishments) that rulers have available to enforce obedience by the population and to conduct acute conflicts with other States are important sources of political power. Sanctions prominently include military capacity and police forces for governments and, for nongovernmental groups, selective violence and terrorism. Sanctions also include government-directed economic embargoes and nongovernmental noncooperation.

The existence of political power, and its strength, depend on the continuous availability of these sources.


Many people and institutions make these sources of political power available. This does not mean that all subjects of all rulers prefer the stablished order. Consent is at times given because of positive approval. However, consent is also often given because people are unwilling to endure the consequences of a refusal of consent. In essence, this type of consent arises from intimidation. Refusal of consent requires selfconfidence, strong motivation to resist, and knowledge of how to act in order to refuse.

The amount of power at the disposal of rulers depends on the extent to which the sources of power are provided. The provision of those sources depends on the cooperation, assistance, obedience, and compliance
of multiple individuals, populations, and institutions. When that support is given in full measure, the potential power of rulers will be virtually unlimited. The rulers can then do almost whatever they wish. The situation can become akin to tyranny.

Although that support may be provided most of the time, in unusual circumstances support may become restricted or refused. The withholding of cooperation, assistance, and obedience can wield great power. That simple fact explains the unusual events and major political changes in Poland, the Baltics, and elsewhere, as cited earlier.

When the reasons for obedience are weak, rulers may seek to secure reliable obedience and cooperation by applying sanctions or by offering increased rewards for obedience and cooperation. However, sanctions do not guarantee the rulers’ success at achieving their goals. Under certain circumstances, members of the population will become willing to endure the punishments that can follow noncooperation and disobedience, rather than submit passively to rulers whose actions can no longer be tolerated. A change in a population’s will, sense of purpose, or intention may lead to withdrawal of its obedience and cooperation. When important sources of power on which the rulers depend are denied for long enough, the political power of rulers weakens. In extreme situations the power potentially can be dissolved. The precise ways in which the sources of power are thereby restricted or severed varies, as does the extent to which they are removed. Some of the methods of symbolic protest will simply reveal the degree to which the sources of power have already been restricted by earlier noncooperation. Various methods of political and economic noncooperation can directly shrink or sever the supply of important sources of power.

Noncooperation becomes coercive in a conflict when people and institutions withhold or withdraw their obedience and cooperation to a decisive degree, despite penalties. This potential is of the greatest political significance. Whether the end result for resisters of a specific struggle waged by noncooperation is defeat, success, or mixed results, the power capacities of the contending parties will be


If the rulers’ power is being used for purposes that we abhor, the question becomes: How can the availability of the sources of power be shrunk or severed? That would appear to be the most basic, and potentially most effective, means to halt the applications of power for purposes we reject.

The loss of authority removes the single most important reason for obedience. The loss of obedience affects not only the general population but at times also the opponents’ bureaucracy, military forces, and police. Any loss of the opponents’ authority among these bodies will weaken the opponents’ power. If the general population no longer feels an obligation to obey, if the noncooperation is powerful, and if the troops and police are no longer reliable in repressing resisters, the rejected rulers may not remain rulers much longer.

Massive civil resistance may make the regime’s ability to retain the necessary human resources extremely difficult or impossible.

Rulers may need the cooperation of some people more than others, because of the specialized skills and knowledge they possess. Therefore, the noncooperation of relatively small numbers of individuals with those capacities may have a disproportionate impact. Refusal of assistance by key subjects may make it difficult for the opponents to develop and carry out policies appropriate to the situation they face. This may lead to the acceptance of policies that prove to be political mistakes or to an inability to implement—or at least a difficulty in implementing—chosen policies.

Intangible factors, such as habits of unquestioning obedience and general acceptance of political beliefs that support reliable obedience, cooperation, and submission, may be weakened or destroyed by a widespread noncooperation movement. This can in turn facilitate additional noncooperation and defiance.

The availability of material resources may be restricted by a noncooperation struggle. Material resources include control of the economic system, communications, financial resources, raw materials, and the like. A large percentage of the many methods of noncooperation have direct economic consequences, and others do so indirectly. Large-scale strikes, economic shutdowns, consumers’ boycotts, and embargoes can have major political impacts.

The powers that be may attempt to control resisters by legal prohibitions and by actions of police and troops. However, the rulers’ ability to apply sanctions can also vary, as we have seen. This variation can at times be consciously influenced, most directly by troops or police themselves. Police and troops may carry out orders for repression inefficiently, or more rarely may ignore them completely. Even more rarely, they may actively assist the resistance. For example, in Prague, during resistance to the Warsaw Pact invasion in 1968, police cars transported resistance newspapers throughout the city.


The application of this power analysis in actual conflicts will never be simple or easy. However, compared to the applications of the doctrine that power comes out of the barrel of a gun, these difficulties are to be much preferred.

The weakening or severance of the supply of the sources of power often requires large numbers of people acting together despite repression. Individual protest and disobedience can be heroic and exemplary, but group noncooperation can wield real power. The resisting institution may be a long-established one—such as the Norwegian teachers’ organization in the 1942 struggle against fascist control of schools during the Nazi occupation—or it may be a new institution created during the struggle, such as the workers’ councils of the 1956–1957 Hungarian Revolution.

Just as individuals and independent groups and institutions may refuse to cooperate fully, so too the subsidiary units and organizations within the ruling body may at times also become unreliable. No complex organization or institution, including the State, can carry out orders and policies if the individuals, organizations, and unit bodies that compose the overall ruling institution do not enable it to do so.

Being accustomed to widespread obedience and cooperation, rulers do not always anticipate generalized noncompliance and therefore have difficulties handling strong disobedience and noncooperation. The answer to uncontrolled political power, that is, to oppression, therefore may lie in learning how to carry out and maintain withdrawal of obedience and cooperation, and to sustain that withdrawal despite repression. This will not be easy.


The degree of liberty or tyranny in any government is, in large part, a reflection of the relative determination of the population to be free and their willingness and ability to resist efforts to enslave them. “For the tyrant has the power to inflict only that which we lack the strength to resist,” wrote the Indian sociologist Krishnalal Shridharani.

A technique of action capable of accomplishing those controls over the power of rulers, and of mobilizing the power potential of the population, should be one that will give the population a lasting capacity to control any rulers and to defend the population’s capacity to rule itself. A type of action with the potential to achieve such controls is “people power”—that is, the technique of nonviolent action.

Gene Sharp is the founder of the Albert Einstein Institution and Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. He is the author of more than a dozen books that have been translated into over 60 languages. Some of his notable works include: The Politics of Nonviolent Action and Social Power and Political Freedom. Sharp’s writings have had a direct effect on nonviolent resistance tactics around the globe, from Iran to Venezuela to Russia.

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Recent Comments

  1. David Galiel

    Mr. Sharp, you are one of my greatest intellectual heroes and inspiration, having catalyzed more change in the world than any living human.

    That said – please do not confuse privileged young adults in the US who can’t be bothered to vote, with the courageous Arab Spring protesters in Syria (where more have been killed during the protests than the US lost in 9/11), Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, etc.

    People in the Arab Spring face death and torture for the right to vote & have a voice.

    In the US, in our 2010 midterm elections – where the entire House of Representatives, 1/3 of Congress, and any number of state and local elected officials were chosen, less than 20% of eligible citizens age 18-29 bothered to vote.

    Meanwhile, the Occupy folks – who, by and large, are childern of the 5% – spend a few weeks churning up our downtown parks (which the 99%, not the 1%, use) into mud pits, using up our scarce taxpayer-supported city budgets, and hurting the local economy of the 99%, while the 1% play elsewhere. Then they leave their garbage and destruction behind, along with the homeless who bolstered their numbers but now are forgotten by this “US Revolution”.

    Don’t even compare “Occupy” to previous US struggles – Abolition, women’s suffrage, desegregation, were all battles for enfranchisement, for the right to vote. In the 60’s, young people under 21 had no right to vote.

    Today, Every American citizen over the age of 18 has the same single vote.

    The 99% in the US already HAVE 99% of the vote.

    The path to change in the US is to register, educate and mobilize voters.

    Not play-acting the 60’s at taxpayer expense.

    Register the 99%.

    Educate the 99%.

    Mobilize the 99% to register and educate others, and to VOTE – in every election, major or minor, in every primary or caucus. Don’t see the candidates you’d like? Run yourself.

    So, please, Mr Sharp, continue your wonderful work of inspiration AND instruction, invaluable to those without a voice, without a vote, without power and without a choice.

    Please do not dilute that voice with pseudo-Woodstock reenacters.

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