Sharp’s self-assessment is similarly modest. When he talks about his ideas and their impact, he makes no claim of intellectual ownership. Rather than presenting himself as an original thinker, Sharp casts himself as the guardian of an obscure but potent body of knowledge.
“This kind of struggle has happened in so many countries, although it’s largely unknown,” he says. “People think of Gandhi and Martin Luther King and that’s it. ‘Isn’t that great.’ But on all the inhabited continents — and even places that aren’t continents, islands — there’s been interest in this kind of thing.”
When it comes to the efficacy of the methods in question, though, Sharp’s confidence is almost overweening. His background may be academic — doctorate from Oxford, fellowship at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs (now dubbed the Weatherhead Center), emeritus professor at UMass Dartmouth — but when he’s discussing nonviolent struggle, he has the utter certitude of the true believer.
For example: at one point, Sharp mentions that agents from the FSB (heir to the KGB) recently disrupted efforts to print translations of From Dictatorship to Democracy in Moscow. One of the agents described the book as “a bomb,” he adds. I ask why. “It’s dangerous to dictatorships!” Sharp responds, baffled (and possibly irritated) by my obtuseness.
But why, exactly? “Dictatorships have weaknesses,” Sharp explains more patiently. “They’re not as powerful as they tell you they are. And one of their great weaknesses is that they, like all governments, depend on power. If you can identify the sources of power, that’s great. Then, how do they get those sources of power? The cooperation of what people and institutions and organizations is necessary to supply them?”
Next up: figure out how to cut off the power in question, brace for the violent reprisal that’s likely to ensue, and take the necessary action. In practice, all this is more complicated than it sounds; The Methods of Nonviolent Action, which Sharp published in 1973, delineates 198 separate types of protest and persuasion. But the underlying principle is easy to grasp.
“If there’s a table” — Sharp sketches one in the air with his hands — “and termites eat the legs, or someone comes in and saws off one of the legs, the table falls down. The same principle applies politically.”
When I mention allegations that he’s an imperialist in sheep’s clothing, Sharp suggests the charges come from repressive regimes looking to stay in power. “Some governments,” he says, “really don’t like the populations to know they don’t have to submit to dictatorships.” A few minutes later, when the subject comes up again, he’s less facile (in fact, he sounds downright weary). “They’re spreading all these total lies,” he says. “Total lies. They’re just off the wall.”
In two open letters on the AEI’s Web site — one to Chávez, one to Meyssan, the French journalist — Sharp offers a more detailed rebuttal. Some key points: he claims that neither he nor the AEI have ever received CIA funding; that the AEI has never received any government funding, period; that he traveled to Beijing in 1989 to do research, not to advise Chinese dissidents; and that the AEI didn’t advise the opposition during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution.