East Boston's Gene Sharp is soft-spoken, but he makes bad guys from Caracas to Beijing cringe
According to some people — including at least one sitting head of state — East Boston’s Gene Sharp is a dangerous dude, a political demolition man capable of destroying rulers and regimes. When Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez faced street protests earlier this year, he accused the Albert Einstein Institution (AEI), which Sharp founded in 1983, of leading an “imperialist conspiracy” to overthrow him. To make his case, Chávez cited a 2005 article by French journalist and anti-imperialism crusader Thierry Meyssan that cast Sharp as a shill for NATO and the CIA. And when mass demonstrations destabilized the military junta that rules Myanmar (Burma) a few weeks ago, a piece in the Asia Times Online described Sharp as the “concert-master of the tactics of Saffron monk-led nonviolence.” It wasn’t a compliment: the Saffron Revolution, the author charged, was really a crafty US attempt to control the Strait of Malacca.
It’s difficult, though, to square these claims of nefarious influence with the material facts of Sharp’s existence. If Sharp really was an imperialist mastermind, for example, you’d expect the AEI to have nicer digs: a gleaming space downtown, maybe, or a tweedy little office in Cambridge. But after starting out in Harvard Square, and then moving to what Sharp calls the “slummy end of Newbury Street,” the AEI now operates out of two cluttered rooms in Sharp’s row house near gritty Maverick Square. You’d also expect Sharp to be surrounded by a bevy of bustling junior imperialists; instead, he shares his space with one co-worker and an enormous Great Dane. In addition, Sharp himself just doesn’t look or act the part of a covert American empire-builder: at 79 years old, he seems too old, too frail, too soft-spoken.
This, then, is the conundrum of Gene Sharp: if he’s as powerful as he’s supposed to be, why is he whiling away in relative obscurity? And if he isn’t, why are so many people so afraid of him?
Pens and swords
Let’s start with question number two. The answer is actually pretty simple: run down the list of recent revolutions in the world, successful or otherwise, and Sharp’s name will probably pop up. In Serbia, members of the opposition group Otpor circulated translations of Sharp’s best-known work — From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation — shortly before overthrowing Slobodan Milošević in 2000. After Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, a leader of the student opposition said that that same book had served as a “bible.” Sharp personally consulted with the leaders of the Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia as those countries moved to secede from the Soviet Union. He also left China’s Tiananmen Square just before the government’s crackdown on protesters in 1989, made a surreptitious visit to the Myanmar (Burma) border in 1996 to consult with opponents of the regime, and held a meeting in Boston for Venezuelan critics of Chávez in 2004.
The AEI, meanwhile, is determined to find the biggest possible audience for Sharp’s theories of nonviolent struggle. A bookshelf in his home office is packed with translations of his own work; the AEI’s Web site features downloadable translations of Sharp’s oeuvre in (among other languages) Arabic, Farsi, Khmer, Russian, Tibetan, and Vietnamese.
What exactly is in these books? To a lay reader — especially an American who takes regular, peaceful political change for granted — the contents might seem utterly unobjectionable, and maybe even a tad dry. Here’s a sample passage from Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential:
The act of protest may be intended primarily to influence the opponents — by arousing attention and publicity for an issue, with a hope to convince them to accept a proposed change. Or, the protest may be intended to warn the opponents of the depth or extent of feeling on an issue, which may lead to more severe action if a change the protesters want is not made. Or, the action may be intended primarily to influence the grievance group — the persons directly affected by the issue — to induce them to take action themselves, such as participating in a strike or an economic boycott.
Zesty it ain’t. But Sharp isn’t a prose stylist — he’s a social scientist who’s anatomizing his chosen subject in meticulous detail. What’s more, he’s not writing for a general readership. His audience is anyone who seriously wants to bring down a government. His writings, in essence, are strategy manuals that explain how to achieve this goal. And those who know his work say his influence is enormous.
“He’s a giant in the field,” says David Cortright, the president of the Fourth Freedom Forum and a research fellow at Notre Dame’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. “He’s the world’s leading scholar on nonviolent action as a means of political change. And his reputation is so commanding, and his work is so established, that you can’t even begin to work in this field without acknowledging and working from his foundation.”