Right Livelihood Award Foundation mourns Gene Sharp
The Right Livelihood Award Foundation is deeply saddened by the passing of the world’s foremost expert on nonviolent resistance, Gene Sharp from the USA. Sharp, who turned 90 only a week ago, has been described as the “Machiavelli of nonviolence” and received the Right Livelihood Award in 2012 “for developing and articulating the core principles and strategies of nonviolent resistance and supporting their practical implementation in conflict areas around the world.” In a lifetime of academic work, Sharp founded the field of academic research on the theory and strategic practice of nonviolent action. His writings on nonviolent struggle have been used by social movements around the world, from the tropical forests of Burma to the streets of Serbia and Tahrir Square in Egypt during the Arab Spring. Gene Sharp passed away peacefully at his home in East Boston on 28 January.
“We are filled with gratitude for the life and work of Gene Sharp, and our thoughts are with his family, closest friends and colleagues. Now it is up to all of us who are inspired by Gene Sharp’s work to carry on the torch” said Ole von Uexkull, Executive Director of the Right Livelihood Award Foundation.
Gene Sharp, who just turned 90 (born January 21, 1928), was a researcher at the Center for International Affairs, Harvard University, for nearly 30 years. He is a graduate of Ohio State University with a B.A. in social sciences and an M.A. in sociology, and of Oxford University with a D.Phil. in political theory. In 1983, Gene Sharp founded the Albert Einstein Institution, now lead by Ms. Jamila Raqib, to promote the study and strategic use of nonviolent action in conflicts.
Sharp discovered as a graduate student that while historical accounts and research on violent conflict and military strategy were abundant, the successes of nonviolent actions had often been written out of the history books. To address this problem, he began to study the historical cases when nonviolent means of struggle were used, in order to better understand how the technique worked. While writing his first book on Gandhi when he was 25, Sharp was jailed for 9 months for conscientiously objecting to conscription for the Korean War. He discussed his decision to go to prison for his beliefs in letters to Albert Einstein who wrote a foreword to this first book.
Sharp argued that the major unresolved political problems of our time – dictatorship, genocide, war, and social oppression – require us to rethink politics. He maintained that pragmatic, strategically planned, nonviolent struggle can be highly effective in ending oppression. His writings have helped governments and social movements around the world to plan and implement successful methods of nonviolent resistance. In 1990, Sharp advised the Swedish Ministry of Defence on their plans to incorporate a nonviolent resistance component into the existing military defence policy.
Sharp’s book Civilian-Based Defense was used by the Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian governments during their separation from the Soviet Union in 1991. Lithuanian Defence Minister Audrius Butkevicius declared at the time, “I would rather have this book than the nuclear bomb”.
At the request of democracy activists, Sharp travelled illegally into Burma in 1992 to teach workshops on nonviolent action to students, democracy activists and Karen rebel fighters. A Burmese intellectual asked him to write an analysis that could be applied to the Burmese situation. Sharp resisted writing specifically for Burma but published a generic analysis in 1993 called From Dictatorship to Democracy. Simple to translate and easy to smuggle across borders this book would go on to become one of the seminal works for democracy activists across the world, translated into more than 34 languages on every continent and is available online here. These texts have been studied by groups including Egypt’s April 6 Movement, Serbia’s Otpor, Georgia’s Kmara, Kyrgyzstan’s KelKel and Belarus’ Zubr in their efforts to effect change in their societies without the use of violence.
Since its release in 2004, the Farsi edition of From Dictatorship to Democracy has been downloaded thousands of times by Iranians. Access to Sharp’s writings peaked after the post-election ‘green uprising’ in 2009, and at the first court trial of activists arrested during the protests, Gene Sharp was cited (through his writings) as having influenced the activities of the Iranian opposition. One of the methods, which Sharp listed and the Iranian activists implemented, was for people to stay at home and paralyse a city as an expression of resistance against the regime.
The feeling off loss among fellow Laureates is epitomised by 2017 Right Livelihood Award Laureate Khadija Ismayilova from Azerbaijan:
“It’s with deep-felt grief we receive the sad news that we have lost one of the most well known members of the Right Livelihood Award Family, professor Gene Sharp. His book ‘From Dictatorship to Democracy’ has guided many non-violent transitions in Eastern Europe and post-Soviet states and continues to inspire activists all over the world”.
In 2011, How to Start a Revolution, a documentary focusing on Gene Sharp’s writings and their impact on resistance movements around the world, was released, and has since been viewed by millions around the world winning eight international awards.
“He has set down his pen for the last time; yet his work will live on forever” writes Albert Einstein Institution in a statement released upon the death of its founder. The Right Livelihood Award Foundation will work tirelessly to preserve Gene Sharp’s legacy. As long as his wisdom lives on, there is hope for a more just and peaceful world.
Memorial donations in Gene Sharp’s name may be made to the Albert Einstein Institution.