Change Agent: Gene Sharp’s Neoliberal Nonviolence
Above Photo: EGM Ethnographic Media/Flickr
Note: Popular Resistance sees the nonviolent strategies developed by Gene Sharp of the Einstein Institute to be tools that have helped people challenge governments in with strategic nonviolent resistance. We rely on Sharp’s analysis as one of the tools for activists in our School “How Social Transformation Occurs.” The article below is critical of the use of these strategies in US Color Revolutions. No doubt, the US has used Sharp’s strategies as he laid out nonviolent tools by which people could overthrow governments which are oppressive or not listening to their people (whether they are right wing or left wing). He provided a tool that can be used by people with different goals. Lately, the US has added to violence to these nonviolent strategies and they have failed more often then they have succeeded, e.g. Hong Kong. Venezuela, Nicaragua and Syria. Violence was also used in the US coup in Ukraine, which succeeded.
Below is one of many articles we have published on Sharp. You can see other views here:
How To Bring Down A Dictator: Reading Gene Sharp In Trump’s America, by Rafael Khachaturian and Jeffrey C. Isaac, www.dissentmagazine.org
Gene Sharp, the “Machiavelli of nonviolence,” has been fairly described as “the most influential American political figure you’ve never heard of.”1 Sharp, who passed away in January 2018, was a beloved yet “mysterious” intellectual giant of nonviolent protest movements, the “father of the whole field of the study of strategic nonviolent action.”2 Over his career, he wrote more than twenty books about nonviolent action and social movements. His how-to pamphlet on nonviolent revolution, From Dictatorship to Democracy, has been translated into over thirty languages and is cited by protest movements around the world. In the U.S., his ideas are widely promoted through activist training programs and by scholars of nonviolence, and have been used by nearly every major protest movement in the last forty years.3 For these contributions, Sharp has been praised by progressive heavyweights like Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize four times, compared to Gandhi, and cast as a lonely prophet of peace, champion of the downtrodden, and friend of the left.4
Gene Sharp’s influence on the U.S. activist left and social movements abroad has been significant. But he is better understood as one of the most important U.S. defense intellectuals of the Cold War, an early neoliberal theorist concerned with the supposedly inherent violence of the “centralized State,” and a quiet but vital counselor to anti-communist forces in the socialist world from the 1980s onward.
In the mid-1960s, Thomas Schelling, a Nobel Prize-winning nuclear theorist, recruited 29-year-old Sharp to join the Center for International Affairs at Harvard, bastion of the high Cold War defense, intelligence, and security establishment. Leading the so-called “CIA at Harvard” were Henry Kissinger, future National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, and future CIA chief Robert Bowie. Sharp held this appointment for thirty years. There, with Department of Defense funds, he developed his core theory of nonviolent action: a method of warfare capable of collapsing states through theatrical social movements designed to dissolve the common will that buttresses governments, all without firing any shots. From his post at the CIA at Harvard, Sharp would urge U.S. and NATO defense leadership to use his methods against the Soviet Union.
Sharp’s ideas about nonviolent action are generally billed as apolitical, post-ideological, common sense activist strategy and tactics. But they actually flowed from a clear worldview. Sharp saw “centralized government” as the key vector of violence in the modern world. He supported “decentralizing” state functions to “independent,” “non-State” institutions—a prescription that sounds a lot like privatization. Importantly, he argued nonviolent action itself was the most strategic way to bring about this state transformation.
With the rise of the Reagan-era foreign policy of communist “rollback,” Sharp began promoting “strategic nonviolence” internationally through his Albert Einstein Institution (AEI). Sharp co-founded AEI with his former student Peter Ackerman, who was simultaneously right hand man to the notorious corporate raiding “junk bond king” Michael Milken. Later, Ackerman was a Cato Institute board member and advocate of disemboweling social security. AEI spent the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s training activists, policymakers, and defense leaders around the world in Sharp’s nonviolent methods, supporting numerous “color revolutions”—again and again in state socialist countries whose administrations were attempting to oppose the privatization, austerity policies, and deregulation being pushed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and U.S. Treasury-led “Washington Consensus.” Sharp’s “people-powered” nonviolent “ju-jitsu” would prove surprisingly effective, distinguishing itself as a powerful weapons system in the U.S. regime change arsenal. While AEI was an independent non-profit, it had significant connections to the U.S. defense and intelligence community. One prominent AEI consultant was Colonel Robert Helvey, former dean of the National Defense Intelligence College. AEI’s regular funders included U.S. government pass-throughs like the U.S. Institute for Peace, the International Republican Institute, and the National Endowment for Democracy.
As Part Two of this article will explore, parallel to his efforts abroad, Sharp was also having a significant impact on the domestic activist left. Still today, his legacy is felt in profound ways within U.S. protest movements. In 2013, Mark Engler, an American activist trainer and promoter of Sharp’s work, asked in Dissent: “Can Sharp’s ideas about nonviolent conflict, which have proven potent in challenging dictators abroad, be used to oppose the corporate takeover of democracy at home?”5 Perhaps—but only if we properly contextualize the man and understand the hard limits of his ideas. Doing so offers a clearer view not only of Sharp, but also of recent history, modern imperial strategy, the limits of liberalism, and the ongoing uses and abuses of nonviolent protest.
Origins: Gene Sharp at the CIA at Harvard
In 1957, Gene Sharp was a 29-year-old editor at the London-based newsletter Peace News. The son of an Ohio minister, he had previously earned a Masters for research on Gandhi, worked for famous pacifist activist A.J. Muste in New York City, and in 1953, been arrested and imprisoned for refusing to fight in the Korean War. His work caught the attention of University of Oslo philosophy chair Arne Naess, a giant in the Norwegian social sciences and father of “deep ecology.”6 Naess, sharing Sharp’s interest in nonviolence, invited Sharp to Oslo to analyze the Norwegian nonviolent resistance to the Nazi occupation of Norway. The topic was likely of particular interest to Naess because during World War II, he had been a member of XU, the Norwegian intelligence network serving Norway’s London-based government in exile.7
From 1957 through the early 1960s, Sharp was in and out of Norway, while also beginning graduate work at Oxford.8 As a NATO member with a Soviet border, Norway was a critical front in the Cold War. It provided the Central Intelligence Agency and the nuclear-equipped Strategic Air Command with support, maintenance, and staging facilities for ariel spy missions into Soviet airspace.9 For example, the American U2 spy plane shot down by the Soviets in 1960 had taken off from Norway.
During one trip to Oslo, Sharp was introduced to Dr. Thomas Schelling.10 Schelling was an economist, described by the New York Times as a “master theorist of nuclear strategy.”11 The Washington Post called him the man who “made the Cold War what it was,” and “perhaps the most important economist and social scientist of his generation.”12 “The consummate establishment insider,” Shelling had worked on the Marshall Plan, advised President Truman, and in the early 1960s was at the RAND Corporation theorizing how to win an atomic war.13 Schelling would bring game theory to the Cold War, and was credited with making key contributions to President Nixon’s “madman” theory of nuclear strategy, a policy wherein “the foe would believe in your self-destructive threats…because it believed you just might be lunatic enough to go over the edge deliberately.”14 He would later win the Nobel Prize in Economics.
Impressed by Sharp’s dissertation draft, Schelling recruited the young graduate student to finish his research on nonviolent action at an elite new interdisciplinary research outfit back in the U.S.: the Center for International Affairs at Harvard. Known colloquially as “the CIA at Harvard,” the center was indeed a spooky place. Founded in 1958, it was a major node in the emerging post-war national security state, with research priorities focused on cutting edge defense-related questions like understanding “the role and control of force” in the postcolonial, Cold War world.15 Sharp accepted the invitation and joined in 1965.16
The CIA at Harvard’s founders, directors, staff, and scholars were a long list of first-string U.S. Cold War intellectuals.17 Boston Brahmin and Skull and Bones inductee McGeorge “Mac” Bundy got the center going, at the invitation of the Ford Foundation.18 During World War II, Bundy had been a key State Department advocate of using the atomic bomb in Japan—a move both Generals Eisenhower and MacArthur opposed as unnecessary and even genocidal.19 Bundy would serve as national security advisor to both Kennedy and Johnson, where he would press for a secret policy of “sustained reprisal”—i.e. carpet-bombing North Vietnam—as would be exposed by the Pentagon Papers.20 From 1966 to 1979, Bundy would direct the Ford Foundation.21
Dean Rusk was also intimately involved in the Center’s formulation.22 He was then president of the Rockefeller Foundation and would later serve as secretary of state under both Kennedy and Johnson. So too was James Perkins, leader at the Carnegie Corporation, president of Cornell University, and director of Chase Manhattan Bank. Funding for the CIA at Harvard came from the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Dillon family, Standard Oil, and IBM.23
The center’s original managing co-directors were the infamous Henry Kissinger, who simultaneously held a post at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and Robert Bowie, future deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency.24 One of the first two permanent faculty positions was awarded to Sharp’s mentor Thomas Schelling, the other to Edward Mason, previously chief economist for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency.25 Other Cold War luminaries included: Alex Inkeles, OSS member, famed modernization theorist, and head of the Central Intelligence Agency-funded Munich Institute26 ; 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”27 ; Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor to Carter and mentor to Madeleine Albright28 ; Samuel Huntington, who advocated carpet-bombing and defoliating the Vietnamese jungles to undermine the Viet Cong’s base of support, formulated the “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, and later, was a member of Carter’s National Security Council29 ; and Seymour Martin Lipset, development scholar and “the leading theorist” of American exceptionalism.30
The milieu also included Cold War luminaries from the nearby MIT Center for International Studies: Walt Rostow, development scholar and security advisor to Johnson; Lucian Pye, a China expert, advisor to several Kennedys, and later doctoral advisor to the notorious Charles Murray; and Ithiel de Sola Pool, a political scientist who came under criticism for his research “analyzing enemy motivation,” using “interrogation records of captured Viet Cong suspects.”31 Even Daniel Ellsberg, a RAND nuclear strategist before turning left whistleblower, gave seminars at the Center.32
Strangely, given his acceptance and influence on the U.S. activist left, Sharp would remain at the CIA at Harvard, among these leading establishment intellectuals of the Cold War, for thirty years.33 The CIA at Harvard was, in Sharp’s own words, an “academic home” for his research and writing.34 Indeed, Sharp was no mere wallflower, but an important member of the CIA at Harvard community. David C. Atkinson, official historian of the CIA at Harvard, describes Sharp as one of “the generation’s most influential theorists,” and praises his work as “pioneering and enduring.”35 The Center would come to house a special research outfit for Sharp, the Program on Nonviolent Sanctions in Conflict and Defense. When Sharp’s appointment was in jeopardy, then-director Samuel Huntington defended it.36 Perhaps most significantly, from 1965 to 1970, Sharp participated in the intimate and highly significant Harvard-MIT Joint Arms Control Seminar, a discussion group convened by Kissinger, Bundy, Shelling, Bowie, Pool, and Rostow, among others, whose policy recommendations constituted one of the CIA at Harvard’s “most important and durable contributions to international relations.”37
The majority of mainstream accounts do not mention, much less interrogate, Sharp’s long and fruitful connection to the Center for International Affairs at Harvard, insider bulwark of Cold War defense and security policy development.38 Instead, they cast Sharp as an intellectual outsider and gadfly, a “lonely” underdog long “labor[ing] in obscurity,” “toil[ing] in isolation,” a dark horse who throughout his career “sought recognition of his ideas from scholars and policy-makers, but received very little.”39 The CIA at Harvard doesn’t come up at all in Mark and Paul Engler’s 2016 book This Is An Uprising, which outlines a theory of nonviolent social movements based substantially on Sharp’s work, and discusses Sharp’s life at length. Instead the Englers, major U.S. activist trainers, describe Sharp as an anonymous outsider who “followed a somewhat lonely path.”40 The only reference to the CIA at Harvard in Ruaridh Arrow’s 2011 BAFTA-award winning documentary about Sharp, How to Start a Revolution, is the flash of a black and white photo showing Sharp standing in front of a sign that reads, in small script, “Program on Nonviolent Sanctions in Conflict and Defense, Center for International Affairs.”41 The film was an “underground hit with the Occupy movement.”42 Arrow, a senior producer at the BBC, is currently writing Sharp’s official biography.
At the CIA at Harvard, Schelling helped Sharp secure research funding from the U.S. Department of Defense.43 Social scientist Brian Martin writes that Sharp’s interest in nonviolent action “was highly radical at the time, going against dominant thinking…”44 But that’s not exactly correct. Nonviolent action was of great interest to the defense community in the 1960s. Shortly before Sharp joined the CIA at Harvard, Schelling had been appointed a consultant to a multiyear, $50 million Department of Defense counterinsurgency study, known by the sobriquet Project Camelot, “one of the most infamous Cold War social science projects.”45 Sometimes called the “Manhattan Project of social science,” Camelot’s formal title was “Methods for Predicting and Influencing Social Change and Internal War Potential.” Its mission was “to find nonmilitary and nonviolent solutions to international projects” and make breakthroughs in “peace research.”46 Critics said Camelot was actually “the most conspicuous of several military-funded efforts to comprehend, contain, and combat political insurgency in the volatile new nations of the Cold War world,” and emblematic of the militarization of the American academy during this era.47 At the helm of Camelot was the Office of the Chief of Psychological Warfare, that division of the army “responsible for psychological, political, guerrilla, and ideological combat.”48 More specifically, Camelot was the charge of the Special Operations Research Office (SORO), a Psychological Warfare unit whose particular work “centered on ideas and doctrine.” Its mission was to “manage global politics and usher in gradual, stable change toward an American-led world order” through research on “communist-threatened countries.”
In spring 1965, news of Project Camelot was leaked.49 This led to international outrage, embarrassment for the American academy, a Congressional investigation, and eventually, Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara calling off the Project under pressure from Secretary of State Rusk and President Johnson himself.50
In reality, the Department of Defense simply reorganized and continued the massive “peace research” initiative under a new name: “Measurement of Predisposing Factors for Communist Inspired Insurgency.”51
Insurgency, protest, and revolution were not confined to the decolonizing world. It was the 1960s, and mass social movements were roiling America. The Civil Rights and student movement had yielded smaller, more militant formations like the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground. From 1964 onward, massive violent riots rocked multiple American cities every summer. And as the decade wore on, this domestic wave of social rebellion became increasingly inspired by socialism and Marxism. If in 1964 Mario Savio had urged students to “throw their bodies on the gears of the machine” to make it stop, by 1969 Fred Hampton was talking about expropriation, owning the means of production, and black and white joining together for class revolution. As the war in Vietnam kept grinding on, communist national liberation struggles and their Marxist worldview seemed more and more understandable, even attractive, to average Americans.
Especially explosive was the year 1968. It opened with the disastrous Tet Offensive in January. In April, Martin Luther King Jr., who was taking an increasingly explicit anti-war and class-conscious line, was assassinated. In May, Paris erupted in a general strike. Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down in June. In August, Chicago police “rioted” against leftists protesting the Democratic National Convention.52 In October, Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the black power salute at the Olympics.
Also in October, at the CIA at Harvard, the excrement hit the fan when radicals invaded.53 That month, protesters from campus and the Cambridge area stormed the Center for International Affairs’ office building, demanding that it be shut down on grounds that it was “imperialist,” “a front for the CIA,” and home to the “intellectual architects” of the Vietnam War and the 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic.54 Activists charged Development Advisory Services, the Center’s development assistance program, with “propping up right-wing dictators in Pakistan, Indonesia, and elsewhere.”55 They alleged that the CIA at Harvard’s Fellows Program “constituted a ‘fifth column’ of intellectuals and officials who would do U.S. foreign policy bidding.” Even a sympathetic historian of the Center had to concede that the accusations “sometimes hit uncomfortably close to home.”56
In reaction, the Center changed its acronym to include the previously missing F. This seemed to have little effect. In 1969, forty Weathermen again stormed the offices of the newly re-acronymed CFIA, overturning bookcases, stealing, and destroying files, breaking windows, covering the walls with rude graffiti, and even beating up some of the Center’s staff and scholars.57 The director of the Fellows program, Benjamin Brown, had to get stiches. Three Weathermen were indicted. Leaflets in their defense were circulated around campus, calling the CFIA a “gold plated pig sty.” One leaflet read: “The people who run the CFIA are hired killers. They write reports for the government on how to keep a few Americans rich and fat by keeping most people poor and starving. You might think these vicious pimps would rush off to Vietnam to fight since they dig the war so much. But these are smart pigs. They prefer to stay at Harvard while Black people from Roxbury and white working kids from Dorchester and Jamaica Plains are sent off to die.”
Needing something more than a new acronym, the leadership of the CFIA put forward none other than Gene Sharp and his peace research as proof of the Center’s virtue.58 Unimpressed, the Women’s Brigade of the Weather Underground detonated a bomb inside the CFIA offices one night in the fall of 1970.59 No one was ever caught.
The real crescendo, however, came in 1971, when students occupied the CFIA again and seized a particularly damning cache of documents.60 It included confidential minutes from the “Bissell Meeting,” a private convening of U.S. leaders held in January 1968 at the Council of Foreign Relations’ mansion on Park Avenue. A CFIA representative served as the assembly’s rapporteur.61 The event’s main interlocutor was Richard Bissell, who ran the Central Intelligence Agency’s Deputy Directorate of Plans, or DDP, under Alan Dulles. The DDP managed covert operations—including the assassination of Patrice Lumumba and the Bay of Pigs fiasco.62
The topic of discussion was new Central Intelligence Agency strategy. The Agency had recently suffered a spate of bad press, triggered by the 1967 Ramparts expose of their clandestine funding of the National Student Association.63 Bissell explained to those assembled: in order to recover, “the Central Intelligence Agency will have to make use of private institutions on an expanding scale, though those relations which have been ‘blown’ cannot be resurrected. We need to operate under deeper cover, with increased attention to the use of ‘cut-outs’ [i.e. intermediaries]. CIA’s interface with the rest of the world needs to be better protected.”64
In The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, Victor Marchetti and John D. Marks describe these stolen notes as “the most complete description of the CIA’s covert-action strategy and tactics ever made available to the outside world.”65 And indeed, the effect of the stolen documents was profound. Student demonstrations at the CFIA continued on nearly a daily basis until the end of the Vietnam War.66 The protests seemed to have gotten to Robert Bowie who resigned in 1972. And perhaps the pressure had something to do with Thomas Schelling and Seymour Martin Lipset turning against the Vietnam War. Both publicly traveled to Washington “to deliver their protests personally . . . to their former colleague Henry Kissinger.”67
Amidst all this commotion, Gene Sharp quietly carried on, finishing his massive, 1,428-page, DOD-funded doctoral thesis. Completed in 1968, the dissertation was published in 1973 as Sharp’s three-volume magnum opus: The Politics of Nonviolent Action.68
The Politics of Nonviolent Action
Gene Sharp’s The Politics of Nonviolent Action was widely and, in general, favorably reviewed. The Western Political Quarterly deemed the tome “monumental,” and Armed Forces and Society compared it to Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.69 The Journal of Developing Areas described it as “the most important, comprehensive, and challenging work on nonviolence to appear in this century,” and International Organization dedicated twenty-one journal pages to its discussion.70
Sharp’s nuclear theorist mentor, Thomas Schelling, wrote the book’s introduction, capturing its essence: 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.”71 Ostensibly, for Sharp, nonviolent action was not about philosophical commitments, but about superior gamesmanship; not sentiment, but strategy. It was the heyday of game theory—“the theory of strategic interaction between rational individuals”—and true to the zeitgeist, Sharp offered an almost scientific formula for successful nonviolent protest movements, a rationalization of political resistance.72
In Part One, Sharp lays out what would become his best-known argument, eventually termed his “social theory of power.”73 Here, echoing Machiavelli’s dictum that “the safest castle is to not be hated by the people,” Sharp argues a state’s power is always fundamentally based on the voluntary consent, obedience, and cooperation of the governed.74 If one wants to “control” or collapse a regime, one must figure out how to withdraw these things en masse.75 The most strategic way to do this, Sharp says, is for protest movements to attack the sources of a government’s political power with “nonviolent action.”76 In later work, he would urge protesters and their handlers to focus their moral incursions on the “pillars” of a regime’s power, institutions like the media, universities, and the military.77
In Part Two, Sharp details 198 nonviolent “actions,” the specific maneuvers of his “technique of struggle.” Culled from the long history of labor struggles, civil rights campaigns, and national liberation movements, and offered in index form, this list of protest tactics includes: use of symbolic colors, parades, vigils, use of banners written in English for international consumption, mock awards, protest disrobings; forms of economic non-cooperation like boycotts, divestment campaigns, and strikes; political non-cooperation, like refusing to assist law enforcement; and psychological interventions like fasts. Absent from the list is any kind of sabotage. Sharp lists nine “strong reasons why the introduction of sabotage will seriously weaken a nonviolent action movement” and concludes that “the idea that sabotage is compatible with nonviolent action must be rejected, as either a false accusation of uninformed critics, or as a highly dangerous action proposal likely to disrupt the processes which could be strength and victory.”78
Sharp is emphatic: this is no mere pacifism. In Part Three, he presents nonviolent action as a style of combat he terms “political jujitsu”—using the stronger opponents’ energy against themselves, rather than confronting it head-on.79 In the dynamics of political jujitsu, government repression is itself a source of power for revolutionaries. If protesters can nonviolently provoke a violent response from the state, public opinion might be turned against the regime, its moral authority weakened: “…Nonviolence helps the opponent’s repression throw him off balance politically.”80 Sharp writes, “When the system largely characterized by political violence is actively, albeit nonviolently, challenged, one can expect that the basic nature of that system will be more clearly revealed in the crisis then during less difficult times. The violence upon which the system depends is thus brought to the surface and revealed in unmistakable terms for all to see: it then becomes more possible to remove it.”81 According to Sharp, an unerring commitment to “nonviolent discipline”—that is, refraining from “violent retaliation,” what some may call “self-defense”—is crucial to winning political jujitsu. “Nonviolent actionists must be prepared to endure the opponent’s sanctions without flinching… to suffer in order to advance their cause.”82 This acceptance of “nonretaliatory suffering” is, according to Sharp, not a moral requirement, but rather key to the dynamics of nonviolent combat. Any indulgence in “violence,” even if defensive, has the potential to shift the struggle onto terrain more favorable to the regime—which has, by definition, a monopoly on socially legitimate force.83 Sharp offers a whole chapter on how a nonviolent movement might endure escalating brutalities without resort to self-defense.84
What arrangements should replace an unjust government once defeated, to ensure a tyrannical regime does not grow up once again? Sharp was canny about this.85 He would note, “There is nothing in nonviolent action to prevent it from being used for both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ causes.”86 Schelling echoes: nonviolent action “can be misused, mishandled, or misapplied,” even “used for evil or misguided purposes.”87 Sharp often insisted he did not want to tell people what to demand, and referred to himself as politically “unidentified” or “transpartisan.”88 In particular, Sharp rarely commented on economic questions. Activist and journalist Nathan Schneider writes, “On several occasions I’ve heard Sharp asked why his model says so little about economic systems, and what resisters should do to confront them. He has usually replied with something along the lines of, ‘That’s for your generation to figure out’—as if it’s utterly foreign territory that brave young minds must explore in generations to come.”89
But Gene Sharp’s “politics of nonviolent action” were just that: a politics. Today, Sharp’s popularity stems in part from his supposed apolitical, post-ideological character, his ideas framed as common sense activist tactics and strategy. But indeed, Sharp had a worldview, and his theory flowed from it. Despite his realpolitik style, Sharp was a liberal idealist, like many Cold Warriors, and he viewed world-historical struggle not as a material one between the propertied rich and landless poor, or powerful bosses and exploited workers, but as a morality epic between “violence and human degradation” on the one hand, and “love and human dignity” on the other.90 And for Sharp, violence had a particularly important source and vector: the “centralized state.” Consequently, the victory of nonviolent struggle looked like the “diffusion” of state power.
The Violence of the “Centralized State”
Sharp made his critique of the “centralized state” most candidly and thoroughly in his 1980 book Social Power and Political Freedom, a 400-page work of state theory, published while Ronald Reagan was on the campaign trail championing deregulation and tax cuts.91 There Sharp writes: “It may be no accident that the problems of dictatorship, genocide, war, systems of social oppression, and popular powerlessness have grown in severity during the same time frame that our political, economic, and even many social institutions have increased in size, have come more severely under elite control, and become highly centralized,” a tendency seen especially “in the particular institution of the State.”92 He argues: “All of our grave social, economic, and political problems involve at some point a serious maldistribution of power. That is to say that effective power has become highly concentrated in certain parts of the population and institutions, and, most seriously, the State.”93 And, “One of the most urgent general problems in politics today is how to control the actions of modern governments. Their uncontrolled power threatens us in various ways—most blatantly in the forms of modern tyranny and war.”94
Sharp’s suggestion was that there was a positive, causal relationship between the degree of a state’s centralization and the amount of violence in the society it governs. State centralization leads to violence; violence in turn produces more state centralization. Sharp writes “…it is precisely the concentration of power and expansion of control by the State which is a major source of the capacity to inflict the problems which have devastated so many people and societies.”95 In turn, “It has been widely recognized that violent revolutions and wars have been accompanied and followed by an increase in both the absolute power of the state and in the relative centralization of power in its hands.”96
So what marked a state as too “centralized”? According to Sharp, evidence included: government regulation, state ownership, and other forms of “State intervention” and “controls over the economy.” In terms that echo Hayek’s neoliberal classic The Road to Serfdom, Sharp writes: “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 [government]. 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.”97
Accordingly, Sharp found even regulated capitalist democracies too big and centralized: “In constitutional democracies, diverse groups have constantly tended to give the State greater responsibilities for the society as a whole, and greater power over it… Social reformers and revolutionaries of various types of relied on the State to affect the changes they desired and to deal with the groups which they saw as responsible for social evils or which opposed to the desired changes. The reliance on the State has been justified in democratic terms by claims that the legislature or other policy determining bodies were exercising democratic control for the benefit of the whole society.”98 But this, according to Sharp, was dangerous: “The violent means of struggle and violent State sanctions relied upon to produce … ‘equality’ have frequently contributed to increased concentration of power in the State. It is these particular types of changes in the name of a movement toward equality which constitute a significant contribution to the modern forms of tyranny.”99 Did Sharp believe that Eisenhower made “a significant contribution” toward “tyranny” when he federalized the Arkansas National Guard in 1957 to protect the Little Rock Nine and enforce the integration ruling of Brown v. Board of Education? Or Kennedy, when he dispatched 30,000 U.S. troops, federal marshals and national guardsmen to enforce integration at Ole Miss? Or Johnson, when in the wake of “Bloody Sunday,” he federalized Alabama’s National Guard to protect civil rights demonstrators marching from Selma to Montgomery? Segregationist Dixiecrat Governors Orval Faubus, Ross Barnett, and George Wallace certainly thought so.
Regardless, if in Sharp’s view constitutional democracies were playing with fire, socialist states were already toast. Sharp saw little distinction between popularly elected democratic socialists and armed communist revolutionaries. Sharp spends an entire chapter critiquing the “political technique” of democratic socialists and communists—that is, their focus on taking state power.100 According to Sharp, “…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 over to the State.”101 However, “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,” the “relative atomization of the subjects may also follow as an unintended result,” leading to the weakening of society and its “independent institutions,” and the inexorable growth of tyrannical state power.102
Consequently, for Sharp, it mattered little whether one was advancing social democratic “social change by State action” via “liberal democratic processes,” or fomenting a revolutionary “coup d’etat or guerrilla warfare to seize the State.” One was in both instances pursuing strategies that would lead to state centralization and violence. Sharp writes: “Both approaches contribute to the growth of State power—neither contributes to the empowerment of the populace…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; that strategy actively contributes to increasing the concentration of effective power in the State.”103 (Apparently Sharp did not consider redistributive programs like universal public education to be “empowering.”)
Mark O. Hatfield, a powerful Libertarian Republican senator from Oregon, wrote the book’s introduction. He congratulates Sharp for his “vision and apprehension of the criminal relations of centralized government,” and praises Sharp’s description of “the resulting institutionalized violence that spews from centralized government.”104 Hatfield’s summary: “Whether that government is ruled by self-appointed or elected officials—war, dictatorships, genocide and systems of social oppression will always follow…Gene Sharp points the way to the decentralization of political institutions and power…”
Gene Sharp was a modern Machiavelli—but in reverse. He was not interested, like Machiavelli, in how to build, maintain, direct, or transform the popular will that buttresses political power. Rather, he was interested in how to disintegrate it. In Sharp’s “politics of nonviolent action,” the state was not the prize, not even a terrain of struggle: it was the enemy, the object to be paralyzed and dissolved.105 And in this regard, Sharp fit neatly into the emerging neoliberal consensus’s pathological hatred of the state, and unerring faith in the “free market.”
The Peace of the Market?
As Sharp believed the “centralized State” produces ever-greater violence, he correspondingly called for a “significant devolution” or “redistribution” of state power to a “variety” of “alternative,” “independent,” “non-State” social groups and institutions.106 Impliedly, such a devolution would produce a more peaceful society. It is worth quoting Sharp at length on this point: “As we contemplate the problems of our society and the growth of centralized State power . . . we must deliberately act in ways which strengthen the non-State institutions of our society, and consciously refrain from increasing the concentration of effective power in the State . . . Simple denunciation of the dangers of strong central government, the insensitivity of bureaucracies, or the high tax rates can produce no lasting solution to the problem of elite control [and] centralization of power… Institutional change is required. One way to do this is to develop alternative institutions to meet those desirable and necessary functions now provided by the large centralized institutions. Some tasks now carried out by the central State apparatus are not really needed, or are even inappropriate to a society which speaks so often of freedom and democracy. These functions, and those parts of the State apparatus which are involved in them could simply be abolished to the advantage and welfare of society. However, most general functions which are (or are supposed to be) carried out by the central State apparatus, and many proposed additional ones, are seen by most people to be desirable and necessary. The State’s involvement in meeting those needs will not be drastically reduced or terminated until and unless those functions are being otherwise successfully performed by other bodies. Consequently, if one wishes to halt further expansion of the central State apparatus, one needs to develop alternative ways to meet neglected genuine social, economic, and political needs . . . In order to reduce progressively the size of the existing central State apparatus, and thereby its dangers, it will be necessary to create or strengthen smaller-scale institutions (loci of power) with decentralized decision-making to provide [for] genuine needs, and then gradually to shift to them tasks now carried out by the State.”107
This is an ambiguous prescription. Sharp was not an economist, and he never spoke of the “market” or “privatization.” But to invoke “alternative,” “independent,” “non-State” social groups and institutions calls to mind entities like businesses, banks, foundations, non-profits, religious organizations—all of which are privately controlled, and none of which are required, as a matter of law, to submit to any internal democracy. Turning over public schools to hedge fund financed-charter companies certainly diffuses state power—but it also decreases the degree of democracy in public education. Thus Sharp’s was a theory of state transformation easily compatible, philosophically and practically, with neoliberal free market fantasies and programs of vast privatization—as demonstrated by the course of the USSR’s collapse and the Color Revolutions, where Sharp’s ideas were pivotal.
Sharp’s optimism about “small government” relied in part upon the argument that, “at their worst, smaller institutions can do less harm than large ones. With smaller bodies it is easier for their participants and constituents, acting directly, to correct problems. Smaller institutions make possible greater participation and control by those directly concerned than do large ones.”108 But smaller institutions don’t necessarily enable greater participation and control—democratic institutions do. Relatedly, Sharp cites and praises small government champion Thomas Jefferson and his states-rights plan for breaking the U.S. up into “elementary republics.”109 He does not comment on the dictatorial social relations of Jefferson’s slavery-based antebellum Southern plantation economy, which offer some of the best evidence that “limited,” “decentralized” government, whatever its other virtues, does not guarantee a less violent society. In fact, the slave power opposed a strong federal government precisely because they feared it would deny them the auction blocks, whips, and shackles that enforced their labor regime. As North Carolina Senator Nathaniel Macon once quipped, “If Congress can make canals, they can with more propriety emancipate.”110
How to effect this supposedly peace-producing state decentralization? According to Sharp, just as violence begets centralization, his “politics of nonviolent action” might be a key means of state decentralization: “Nonviolent action appears by its very nature to contribute to the diffusion of effective power throughout the society. This diffusion in turn, is likely to make it easier in the long run for the subjects to control their ruler’s exercise of power in the future. This increased potential for popular control means more freedom and democracy” and “may be a step in the direction of increased substitution of nonviolent for violent sanctions in that society.”111
Here, it is important to understand what precisely Sharp meant by “nonviolent”—a task that requires reference to “violence,” a difficult concept to pin down.112 By the end of his career, Sharp had come to formally define violence like this: “The direct infliction of physical injury or death on persons by whatever means, or the threat to inflict such harm.”113 For Sharp, violence was defined by its directness. If an act was sufficiently distant from its injurious effect—delivered not via guns, but by way of, for example, sanctions that strangle economies—impliedly, the act was rendered nonviolent. If the blow that delivered the injury was adequately attenuated, or the discrete point of origin unknown, proximate cause could not be established, and the injury was thus “naturalized,” transformed into a random “act of God.”
If violence must be direct, then those indirect injuries inflicted by the “free market”—poverty, the pain of relative inequality, the alienation of capillary-level social competition, diseases from toxicity, stress, and despair, accelerated environmental degradation, exploitation itself—are in a way, laundered.114 Sharp’s construction of “violence” and “peace” thus operates smoothly within a laissez-faire program, placing him in a long line of capitalist peace theorists, like Montesquieu, Andrew Carnegie, and Thomas Friedman, who argue that it is the “free market” itself which is the best mechanism for peace building. Indeed, the money form, the contract, and private property all offer the owning class a kind of attenuated violence: a clean, discreet, nominally non-coercive, nominally nonviolent method for controlling and exploiting labor, and securing for itself ever greater shares of the value produced. To mask violence so thoroughly as to naturalize it—is this not the finest crystallization of power, the essence of a “totalitarian” regime?
The Obfuscation of Production
Sharp’s “social theory of power” is preoccupied with the way the “centralized state” possesses political power. In this theory, there is little recognition of how power is articulated through the material process of production: through the private ownership of the means of production, the exploitation of workers through the wage form, the imperative for profit maximization through constant exchange of commodities on markets, an unequal global geography of peripheries and cores, and the on-going, brutal process of direct, often-extrajudicial seizure of land and labor, “primitive accumulation.”115
If the base relations of production are invisible, the objective reality of class also becomes obscured, relegated to mere cultural identity. For example, workers are identified not by their material relationship to the means of production, but by their accents, choice of food, manner of dress, customs, etc. Indeed, in Sharp’s Dictionary of Power and Struggle, the entry for “Class” is subdivided into two concepts: “Political Class” and “Social Class.” No mention is made of “Economic Class” at all.116
Furthermore, when the state is flatly demonized, rather than analyzed as a superstructural, dialectic reflection of productive relations, it creates serious confusion about political economy. For example, in Sharp’s Methods of Nonviolent Action, boycotts by consumers, stoppages by workers, lockouts by owners, and capital strikes by banks are all presented as equivalent nonviolent tactics.117 It is true each can be used to undermine the power of a sitting government without resort to guns. But if one’s goal is not to collapse a government, but to raise wages or increase funding for public schools, these are not equivalent tactics at all.
Muddy political economic thinking is also evident in Sharp’s discussion of cooperatives. Sharp endorses cooperative firms, which on its face seems progressive.118 But Sharp argues for the use of “purely economic means—as distinct from political means”—to “resolve economic problems and to restructure economic institutions” in a cooperative fashion.119 This would supposedly allow movements to “by-pass” the “political problems of economic change.” Sharp wants firms and markets to voluntarily transition to a cooperative economy, rather than be forced to cooperatize as an outcome of political struggle. Here there are several problems. First, this fails to recognize the clear-eyed commitment of bourgeois power to its own interests. Second, it neglects to see that politics, mediated by the state, is always at play in the supposedly free markets of “the economy,” most fundamentally in the courts, which define, administer, arbitrate, and enforce property regimes. This in turn points to a third problem: an underestimation of unmitigated capitalist competition’s ruthlessness. “Free markets” are ruled by the law of the arena—kill or be killed—which makes voluntarily humane behavior, including worker or consumer ownership, challenging for firms. Thus state support is often crucial to fostering and supporting cooperativism. For example, the central reason credit unions are competitive in the United States is the fact they are exempt from state and federal taxes, a policy that the capitalist banking sector is hard at work to undo.120
Furthermore, Sharp asserts that in a cooperative economy there would be no need for regulation at all. Cooperativism might replace “State take-overs, State regulation, and dependence on legal prosecutions in court imposed fines and imprisonment for violations of laws and regulations.”121 Again, this is gravely misguided. By its nature, market competition, whether between capitalist firms or worker-owned firms, incentivizes cost saving. And to ensure market competitors are not engaging in dangerous, race-to-the-bottom corner cutting in effort to lower costs, society needs market-wide rules—i.e. regulation.
Perhaps most incredibly, Sharp claims that state action has never “contributed to democratization… within economic institutions.”122 This ignores sweeping historical evidence to the contrary: the U.S. government’s role in emancipating four million enslaved black Americans and upending the South’s entire slavery-based property regime, the union-based industrial democracy made possible by the Wagner Act, and the development of rural electric and agricultural cooperatives by the New Deal state, to name only three examples.
These kinds of errors reveal—and breed—a lethal pessimism about existing progressive features of government, all hard won, and which reflect real achievements in democratizing production.123 As Max Weber observed, and as Sharp agrees, the state is the most powerful means of domination in society: that organization with the monopoly on the legitimate use of force in a given territory. Wherever the laboring majority or its allies are in possession of the state, they are able to impose pro-social rules upon the owning class—indeed, to “dictate” terms to them. A state-enforced right to unionize, earn a living wage, receive an old-age pension—these are all best understood as the demands of the many encroaching upon a dictatorial system of profit-oriented, privately-controlled production. Capital understands this perfectly well. It recognizes that such victories transform the balance of power within production, and that is why it always opposes such policies.
But if the public believes the state is the source of all problems, never the source of solutions, why should it try to contest for its control, make progressive demands of it, or theorize and transcend its contradictions? Should the public not turn its collective energies against the state? All the better for capital, which welcomes all the help it can get in its great project of reducing government to a size that can be “dragged into the bathroom and drowned in the bathtub.”124
The Reagan Revolution, Communist Rollback, and the Albert Einstein Institution
The 1970s launch of Sharp’s state-phobic, stealthily market-friendly theories about “nonviolent social change” was timely: Western elites were beginning to turn away from “embedded liberalism,” the Keynesian system of state-managed, labor union-accepting capitalism that had reigned in the mid-twentieth century.125 As far as the banks were concerned, the U.S. working class had grown too powerful under the dynamic economic conditions of the post-war New Deal state. Wages were too high, unions too strong, regulations too costly, state budgets too big, taxes too large, post-colonial states too uppity. And so began the shift to economic neoliberalism, heralded by Milton Friedman and the Chicago Boys.
Neoliberalism’s advance was long, marked first, many argue, by the economic liberalization of Pinochet’s authoritarian Chile following the successful CIA-backed coup against the democratic socialist administration of Salvador Allende in 1973. Another important moment was the “structural adjustment” of New York City in 1975, wherein Wall Street creditors used a fiscal crisis to force a bleak public austerity package on the city, with little skin off their noses. In 1979, chairman of the Federal Reserve Paul Volker confronted high wages by jacking up the federal funds rate, eventually to 20%, plunging the U.S. into a “cold bath recession.” Wage freezes and concessions followed, as well as debt-crises throughout the export-oriented Third World, useful opportunities for more creditor-driven, sovereignty-eroding structural adjustment policies. But the neoliberal assault was kicked into high gear with the Reagan Revolution of the early 1980s, which featured dramatic tax cuts, the rollback of public services, deregulation, and union busting.
This “neoliberal turn” was accompanied by a more pugnacious, neoconservative foreign policy. U.S. grand strategy shifted from mere “containment” of the communist contagion, to active “rollback.” The face of anticommunism changed, from brooding Ivy League spook to crusading Sunbelt cowboy.
An important organ of the new foreign policy was the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a Congressionally funded “democracy-promotion” organization launched in 1983.126 In 1968, Bissell had reminded those assembled at the Council of Foreign Relations headquarters that clandestine intelligence funding was politically costly if exposed. The NED would be different. As Reagan declared at the founding: “This program will not be hidden in shadows. It’ll stand proudly in the spotlight… And, of course, it will be consistent with our own national interests.”127 For the next forty years the NED would openly fund “pro-democracy” opposition movements against administrations that failed to fall in line with the new neoliberal orthodoxy or the U.S. agenda more broadly.128 Allen Weinstein, who helped establish the NED, put it like this: “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.”129
The same year the NED was founded, Gene Sharp launched the Albert Einstein Institution (AEI), a public-facing non-profit dedicated to advancing “the worldwide study and strategic use of nonviolent action.”130 Thomas Schelling, Sharp’s Cold War mentor from the CIA at Harvard, would sit on the board of directors. With neoliberalism at home and communist rollback abroad, Sharp and AEI staff would spend the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s tracking, studying, consulting with, and training nonviolent social movements calling for “democratic freedoms and institutions” around the world.
According to its own annual reports, AEI did not prioritize fighting dictators and promoting “democratic freedoms and institutions” in US client states like Saudi Arabia, Zaire, Chile, El Salvador, or Guatemala. These countries are either never mentioned, or mentioned only in brief passing, in two decades worth of AEI annual reports. Rather, AEI and its adjuncts consistently focused their efforts in countries where political leadership was resisting NATO’s geostrategic priorities and/or the economic liberalization programs being pushed by the World Bank, the IMF, and U.S. Treasury’s “Washington Consensus”: countries like the Soviet Union, Burma, Thailand, Tibet, Yugoslavia, China, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, and post-collapse Belarus, Ukraine, and Georgia.131 In a number of these cases, the movements trained in Sharp’s methods successfully executed nonviolent revolutions—sometimes called “velvet revolutions” or “color revolutions,” for the telltale use of an official movement color.
The targeted regimes were corrupt and dictatorial to varying degrees; the citizenry had plenty of reason to want change. But always, “the social demands for bread, for work, for effective public services, even for an end to police repression, that drove people into the streets” remained unmet after their nonviolent revolution.132 Rather, in most cases submission to neoliberal structural adjustment followed: selling off state assets, deregulating and privatizing state and worker-owned industry, cutting taxes, rolling back social spending, forcing tight monetary policy, removing price controls, removing capital controls, forcing markets open to Western investors, and establishing free trade zones. For this reason, the late radical Brazilian political economist Moniz Bandeira would argue in his final book, The Second Cold War: Geopolitics and the Strategic Dimensions of the USA, that it was Gene Sharp’s ideas that “lay at the heart” of the U.S.’s “Second Cold War” regime change policy.133
The same year the NED and AEI launched, the Center for International Affairs at Harvard also green-lit a new research center for Sharp: the Program on Nonviolent Sanctions in Conflict and Defense.134 According to Sharp, since sanctions did not involve direct violence, e.g. dropping bombs or assassinating heads of state, they were nonviolent. Sanctions were among the favored methods for rollback. According to Schelling, Sharp’s program constituted “formal recognition by Harvard that this [topic] is a legitimate field of study.”135
In 1985, under the egis of his new Harvard program, Sharp published another remarkable book: Making Europe Unconquerable: The Potential of Civilian-based Deterrence and Defense.136 In this volume, Sharp urges NATO to apply his methods of nonviolent action to its defense strategy vis-a-vis the Soviet Union and its satellites. But in the spirit of rollback, Sharp also points out that NATO governments might use nonviolent action offensively: promoting news and views hostile to the Soviet regime, translating guides on nonviolent struggle, distributing them among the target population, and providing financial support to opposition groups.137 Sharp points out that the Soviet Union’s “linguistic, ethnic, and nationality diversity” made it a “fertile ground” for strategic nonviolence—a rare acknowledgment of the utility of existing social fissures to the entropic dynamic of Sharp’s nonviolent action.138 George Kennan himself, famous U.S. Cold War grand strategist, contributed the book’s forward.
Junk Bond Bankers and the Collapse of the Soviet Union
From 1983 to 2003, Sharp co-directed AEI with one of his former students, Peter Ackerman.139 For the first seven years of this partnership, Ackerman’s day job was at Drexel Burnham Lambert, the most notorious Wall Street investment bank of the 1980s. There, Ackerman was Director of International Capital Markets, “right hand man” to CEO Michael Milken. Milken, the “junk bond king,” was known for innovating the junk bond funded leveraged buyout, a financial scheme that facilitated American deindustrialization.
Parallel to his promotion of nonviolent action around the world, Ackerman would sit on the boards of a variety of neoliberal and neoconservative groups, including: the Cato Institute, the free market think tank which has opposed minimum wage and child labor laws; the Cato-run Project on Social Security Choice, which advocated turning the U.S. social security system over the Wall Street; Freedom House, a democracy promotion outfit and regular recipient of NED funds, where Ackerman served as chairman, a post he took over from board colleague and former Central Intelligence Agency director James Woolsey; the Atlantic Council, which recently got in hot water for accepting monies from foreign governments, and then pushing those governments’ agendas; and the Council on Foreign Relations, “Wall Street’s Think Tank.”140 In 2003, Ackerman would depart AEI to start his own organization, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC).141
Sharp and Ackerman’s activities through the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s proved Sharp’s ideas about nonviolent action had legs. As neoconservative foreign policy analyst Max Boot writes, “It is fair to say that Sharp and Ackerman have been indirectly responsible for more revolutions than anyone since Lenin or Mao,” helping “create numerous liberal democracies.”142
AEI’s first dramatic success came at the end of the 1980s, when Sharp and Ackerman met and began corresponding with with the leadership of nationalist separatist movements in the Soviet Union, namely those of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.143 Here, the NED was also at work. For example, the nationalist Lithuanian front with which AEI was working, Sajudis, was getting NED money.144 The funds were channeled through Lithuanian Catholic Religious Aid, a U.S. NGO led by bishop Vincentas Brizgys. According to Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg, during World War II under the Nazi regime, Brizgys had forbidden his clergy from aiding Jews.145
In March of 1990, riding on the momentum of glasnost and perestroika, Lithuania became the first soviet to assert its independence from the USSR. Predictably, Gorbachev refused to recognize the secession, and tensions escalated. In mid-1990, Sajudis member and director-general of the Lithuanian Department of National Defense Audrius Butkevicius “had Gene Sharp’s Civilian-based Defense: A Post-Military Weapons System translated into Lithuanian for use by government officials.”146 In January 1991, in effort to quell the Lithuanian rebellion, Gorbachev deployed tanks to Vilnius.147 The plan backfired, per Sharp’s political jiu-jitsu. Eleven civilians ended up dead, and by April 1991, Estonia, Latvia, and Georgia, had also announced their secession from the Union.148
At the end of April, in the midst of the power struggle, Sharp and Ackerman made a personal visit to the Baltics.149 There they consulted with members of the new secessionist Lithuanian government—including the president, defense minister, military personnel, religious leadership, and Sajudis movement leaders—regarding use of nonviolent action as a weapon against the Soviets. Sharp even drafted a study guide on nonviolence for the Lithuanian defense department. It worked. The Soviets were forced to withdraw, and by September, conceded Baltic independence.150 According to Butkevicius, AEI’s help had been decisive in the victory: “I would rather have this book [Civilian Based Defense] than the nuclear bomb.”151
Baltic secession was highly destabilizing to the USSR. The chaos was exacerbated by a “carefully planned assault against the ruble in 1989-1991” via a “worldwide operation by currency speculators and professional money launderers involving several Western banks.”152 The result was a severe and legitimacy-eroding economic recession in the Union.
In November and December 1991, with the USSR in political and economic tailspin, Sharp and Ackerman conducted another three-week consulting trip to Russia and the Baltics.153 There they coached the anti-Soviet activists of Boris Yeltsin’s camp who wanted the USSR totally destroyed and its economy pried open for private capital penetration.154 Yeltsin was leader of the Russian soviet, but his was a minority position: in a 1991 referendum, over 75% of the Soviet citizenry had affirmed they wished the Union to remain in tact.155 The preference of the majority would not be heeded. AEI wrapped up its trip to Russia and the Baltics on December 7. The next day, Yeltsin and other Soviet leaders signed the Belavezha Accords, formally dissolving the USSR.
Yeltsin, with the aid of the West, immediately began rapacious economic “shock therapy.”156 It’s a small world; none other than Development Advisory Services at the CIA at Harvard, spun off and re-branded as the Harvard Institute for International Development (HIID), got the USAID contract to supervise the privatization of Russian state assets and creation of private capital markets. Top HIID leaders ended up under investigation by the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice for money laundering, and otherwise under scrutiny for conflict-ridden practices like insider auctions of “prime national properties” in which, for example, the only foreign entities allowed to participate were the Harvard Management Company and George Soros.157
A New Mandate in Yugoslavia
The disintegration of the “Red Menace” and “the end of history” could have put a pall on AEI’s fundraising. After the Soviet collapse, AEI’s president, Christopher Kruegler, reminded their audience and donors of the organization’s continuing relevance: “A fifth of humanity still lives under brutal communist autocracy.”158
Like NATO, AEI eventually found its new mandate in the grisly breakup of the multi-ethnic socialist state, Yugoslavia. After World War II, Yugoslavia had accepted development loans from the World Bank and other Western financial institutions. By the late 1980s, Western creditors, led by the IMF, were using their leverage to push Yugoslavia toward neoliberal economic restructuring.159 In January 1991, in defiance of these policies, Slobodan Milosevic, leader of the Yugoslav Republic of Serbia, signed a law behind the backs of international creditors “requiring Serbian-controlled national banks to issue $1.8 billion worth of new money” to pay pensioners, farmers, and avoid industrial bankruptcies.160
The West was incandescent at this upstart nationalist. Western diplomats condemned Milosevic’s move as a “‘fatal assault’ on the country’s standing with Western creditors, since it showed that Belgrade had no control over the money supply.”161 The international press turned sour, the U.S. terminated aid to Yugoslavia, and threatened to use its veto power at the World Bank and IMF to suspend credit.162 The Executive Director of the World Bank offered blunt terms echoing Margaret Thatcher: “We expect [Yugoslavia] to stick to the program. That implies sticking to disciplines that go with the fiscal and monetary policy. Whatever the social cost, there is no alternative.”163
The next ten years were ugly. Yugoslavia descended—some would say was pushed—into the horrendous nationalist violence of the Yugoslav Wars.164 The U.S. did not help matters. The Central Intelligence Agency “helped to train” the separatist Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army—previously considered by the U.S. to be a terrorist group—and “encouraged them to launch a rebellion in southern Serbia in an effort to undermine the then Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.”165 As one European K-For battalion commander complained, “The CIA has been allowed to run riot in Kosovo with a private army designed to overthrow Slobodan Milosevic.” NATO imposed several rounds of economic sanctions, refusing to lift them unless Milosevic accepted permanent NATO occupation and the full privatization of the economy, a demand “deliberately” made “to provoke rejection by Belgrade.”166 When Milosevic refused, as designed, NATO launched a 78-day ariel bombing campaign. Even Henry Kissinger was appalled.167 All this, and yet at the turn of the millennium, Milosevic was still in power. To unseat him, something more was needed.
Since the late eighties, Gene Sharp’s Albert Einstein Institution had been actively reaching out to “Slovenian democrats.”168 In 1997, AEI began communicating with Albanian students, meeting once in person.169 And in March and April of 2000, the Albert Einstein Institution provided a workshop on nonviolent action for two-dozen members of the anti-Milosevic youth organization Otpor!—translated, “Resistance!”—at the Budapest Hilton.170 Funding for the confab came from the International Republican Institute, an NED pass-through.171
Presiding was long-time AEI consultant Colonel Robert Helvey. Helvey was an expert in clandestine actions, and had formerly presided as dean of the Defense Intelligence School, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s training institute.172 He had also served as Defense Intelligence Agency attaché to Rangoon and as instructor at the Naval War College. From March 31 to April 3, Helvey trained the young activists in the theories of Gene Sharp, “who emerged as a sort of guru to Otpor! leaders.”173 According to an understated New York Times Magazine article, “This session appears to have been significant.”
Portions of Sharp’s Politics of Nonviolent Action were translated and compiled as the “Otpor! User Manual.”174 Freedom House, a U.S. democracy promotion NGO and regular recipient of NED funds, paid for the translation, printing and distribution of 5,000 copies of Gene Sharp’s user-friendly pamphlet for nonviolent revolutionaries, From Dictatorship to Democracy.175 These materials were “disseminated to 70,000 activists throughout Serbia.”176 According to The Washington Post, “U.S. taxpayers paid for 5,000 cans of spray paint used by student activists to scrawl anti-Milosevic graffiti on walls across Serbia, and 2.5 million stickers with the slogan ‘He’s Finished…’”177 According to Colonel Helvey, Otpor! received about $25 million from the NED—a fact about which the organization’s leadership apparently lied to membership at the time.178 By fall of 2000, “Otpor was no ramshackle students’ group? it was a well-oiled movement backed by several million dollars from the United States.”179 Otpor! enjoyed not only U.S. money, but also audience with high-ranking officials: U.S. representatives from the U.S. Institute for Peace and the National Endowment for Democracy, former American ambassador to Croatia William D. Montgomery, and Madeleine Albright herself.180
In September 2000, Milosevic was unseated. In 2001, he would be arrested for war crimes and despite promises to the contrary, hauled off to The Hague for trial.181 In 2018 he was posthumously acquitted.182 All told, the NED spent $41 million to topple Milosevic in “the Bulldozer Revolution.”183 The final nails were driven into the Yugoslav project; economic liberalization accelerated.184 Dianna Stefanova, director of the European Agency for Reconstruction’s office on privatization in Kosovo, echoed the neoliberal refrain: “We must privatize… There is no alternative.”
The countries of the former Yugoslavia, which enjoyed a reasonably high standard of living under socialism, as well as political freedom, are today consistently among Europe’s poorest. Otpor! is meanwhile a popular model for U.S. protest movements.185
Otpor! Goes Abroad
Some of Helvey’s most enthusiastic trainees were two young men named Srdja Popovic and Slobodan Djinovic. After success in their home country, they set out to become nonviolent action trainers themselves, founding the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) in 2003.186 They began with “the concepts of the American academic Gene Sharp,” but on the basis of their revolution in Serbia, “refined and added to those ideas.”187
Popovic and Djinovic set to work training the Georgian youth activists of Kmara!—“Enough!”—who were opposing president Eduarde Shevardnadze with Otpor!’s model and a half-million dollar start-up grant from George Soros’ Open Society Institute.188 Shevardnadze had been a Yeltsin-allied architect of the Soviet Union’s dismemberment and a friend of NATO. For thirty years, he had been the most powerful politician in Georgia. But he had raised the ire of his Western sponsors. First he signed a 25-year gas contract with Russian-owned Gazprom.189 Then he sold Tblisi’s electricity distribution company to Russian-owned United Energy Systems—though only after U.S. firm AES bungled a grid privatization effort, and pulled out when its chief financial officer wound up dead after the company increased electricity rates.190
And so in this context, CANVAS trained and Kmara! agitated. A Peter Ackerman-produced film about Otpor!, Bringing Down a Dictator, was broadcast repeatedly on anti-Shevardnadze network television.191 As one activist said, “All the demonstrators knew the tactics of the revolution in Belgrade by heart because they showed . . . the film on their revolution. Everyone knew what to do. This was a copy of that revolution, only louder.” The Washington Post reported that “thousands were trained in the techniques honed in Belgrade”—that is, Gene Sharp’s politics of nonviolent action. By November 2003, Shevardnadze had been ousted by “The Rose Revolution.” Even The Guardian charged the U.S. with undertaking another regime change “trick.”192 Shevardnadze was replaced by slick Columbia Law grad Mikhail Saakashvili, who re-established friendly relations with the IMF, privatized public hospitals and clinics, deregulated the health insurance system, increased military and prison spending, signed the Economic Liberty Act which restricted the state’s ability to manage the economy, and reversed foreign policy, inciting a war with Russia.
CANVAS also coached the young Ukrainian agitators of Pora!—“It’s Time!”—who opposed leader Leonid Kuchma.193 Kuchma was corrupt, but his real political error was selling anti-aircraft radars to Saddam Hussein.194 In November 2004, The Guardian declared, “US campaign behind the turmoil in Kiev,” and reported that the U.S. had already spent about $14 million in an effort to oust Kuchma.195 The “Orange Revolution” continued apace, and by early 2005, Kuchma was out and U.S.-favorite Viktor Yushchenko, former head of the Ukrainian central bank with close ties to racist ultranationalists, was in.196
In 2013, Wikileaks released emails revealing that Popovic, Otpor! star and Sharpian trainer, had been collaborating with private intelligence firm Stratfor since 2007, sharing contacts, information, and analysis from within social movements around the world.197 Popovic’s explanation: “We believe in talking to everybody…”
Scrutiny and Defense
Included in the intel Popovic passed along to Stratfor was CANVAS analysis about how to overthrow Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.198 CANVAS had been supporting anti-Chavez student activists since 2005—the milieu from which 2019 coup-leader Juan Guaidó would emerge.199
Venezuela had long been a source of frustration for regime change operators. In April 2003, in the wake of a failed military coup “blessed” by Washington, AEI sent Colonel Helvey to Caracas, Venezuela, to spend nine days consulting with anti-Chavez activists.200 Despite these activists’ efforts, Chavez won the 2004 election in a landslide. The NED and USAID poured money into a campaign calling for a recall referendum.201 It was granted. Again, Chavez handily won.
Sharp’s AEI, Ackerman’s ICNC, and Popovic and Djinovic’s CANVAS had up to this point enjoyed minimal public scrutiny. But things started going sideways when, in 2007, Venezuelan-American attorney and dogged reporter Eva Golinger published Bush v. Chavez: Washington’s War on Venezuela, in which she flagged the AEI’s role in training anti-Chavez activist “guarimbas” like far-right opposition leader Robert Alonso—who would get busted for aiding a plot to assassinate Chavez.202 The accusations began snowballing. Chavez himself got on Venezuelan television and accused Sharp of “stirring unrest.”203 The Asia Times called Sharp the “concert-master” of the failed Saffron Revolution in Burma, where Sharp and AEI had been providing trainings to opposition groups since the late 1980s.204 Ahmadinejad’s Ministry of Propaganda made a caricaturish video of George Soros, Gene Sharp, and John McCain conspiring against Iran in the White House.205 In multiple countries, activists accused of studying Sharp were sent to jail.206
Sharp’s supporters mobilized. In 2008, Stephen Zunes, Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, wrote an open letter defending Sharp, the Albert Einstein Institution, as well as Popovic’s CANVAS and Ackerman’s ICNC.207 One hundred and thirty-eight people signed it, including Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Paul Ortiz, Daniel Ellsberg, and activist trainers like Paul Engler and George Lakey. The signatories “categorically reject” the “false accusations” that Sharp “engaged in activities designed to promote U.S. imperialism.”
In this letter, Zunes et al insist that AEI’s financial flows are clean of government money, writing, “Except for receiving a couple of small one-time grants from the NED and IRI in order to translate some of Dr. Sharp’s theoretical writings, the Albert Einstein Institution has never received any money from any government or government-funded entity.”
This is not correct. AEI’s funding did come from a variety of sources.208 But it received money from “government-funded entities” for more than small NED and IRI translation projects. AEI’s own annual reports note that at the very least, the IRI paid for both the 2000 Budapest Otpor! training and for a 2002 AEI consultation with Zimbabwean activists.209 AEI annual reports note monies received from the government-funded U.S. Institute for Peace (USIP) through the 1980s and 1990s.210 Furthermore, it appears AEI had more than minor, incidental funding relationships with these government pass-throughs. Annual reports between 1993 and 1999 list the IRI and NED as among those who provided “generous support” to AEI. The Swarthmore Peace Collection, which holds Albert Einstein Institution files, lists forty-three AEI folders containing U.S. Institute for Peace development and fundraising material; thirteen for the National Endowment for Democracy; and fifty-two for the Democratic Voice of Burma, a recipient of substantial NED funds.211 By contrast, there are but six AEI development folders for the Ford Foundation.212
But Zunes et al’s defenses are broader still: ignoring or unaware of AEI’s activities in places like the Baltics and Yugoslavia, they claim that neither Sharp nor his organization have ever even “collaborated” with the NED, nay “any U.S. government or government-funded agencies,” nor “taken sides in political conflicts,” nor “engaged in strategic planning with any group.” Gene Sharp himself wrote an open letter to President Hugo Chavez, echoing many of Zunes et al’s points, and asserting further that AEI’s work “has not been backed by powerful political or economic interests in the U.S. or internationally.”213
Zunes et al write of Sharp’s critics: “Those who attempt to dismiss recent popular nonviolent struggles against autocratic regimes as somehow being instigated and controlled by Western powers invalidate the ability of the millions of people who have placed their bodies on the line for freedom and justice to think for themselves or play a decisive role in determining their own nations’ future.”
Elsewhere, Zunes puts it more bluntly: skepticism of Sharp belies a “racist attitude that the peoples of non-Western societies are incapable of deciding on their own to resist illegitimate authority without some Western scholar telling them to do so.”214 For Zunes, the real culprits are “Marxist-Leninists,” whom he bizarrely claims “have traditionally downplayed the power of nonviolence and insisted that meaningful political change can only come about through manipulation by powerful external actors or privileged elites.”
This is a telling one-two punch. At issue are Sharp’s political record and his ideological commitments. In response, Zunes jabs with some classic redbaiting, and then crosses with an assertion of the strategic superiority of nonviolent action, as though Sharp’s critics had been bellowing for a guerilla war.
Incidentally, there has been voluminous debate on the question of whether Sharp’s strategic nonviolent action is more or less effective than “violence.”215 Setting aside definitional issues, Sharpian boosters are certainly guilty of overreach. They suggest that nonviolent action was critical to the defeat of the Nazis.216 They insist that nonviolence is “inherently democratic…requiring mass public support and participation if they are to succeed,” while simultaneously suggesting one needs a mere 3.5% of the population engaged in peaceful protest to nonviolently overthrow a regime.217 The Sharpian prohibition on self-defense, supposedly merely a strategic position, is also odd. The civil rights movement had, for example, a much more permissive attitude about self-defense, and most would describe it as successful. According to Dr. King, “The right to defend one’s home and one’s person when attacked has been guaranteed through the ages by common law.”218 King even recognized the possible political utility of self-defense: “When the Negro uses force in self-defense he does not forfeit support—he may even win it, by the courage and self-respect it reflects.”219 After his family’s home was bombed in 1956, King himself started keeping guns around the house; Glenn Smiley of the Fellowship of Reconciliation recalled the King home as “an arsenal.”220 Journalist William Worthy once nearly sat on two pistols tucked in a family armchair, but was saved by Bayard Rustin: “Bill, wait, wait! Couple of guns on that chair! You don’t want to shoot yourself.” Likewise the Sharpian opposition to sabotage—again, ostensibly only on strategic grounds—is strange. Jesus of Nazareth, perhaps the original nonviolent activist, was himself a saboteur, famously wrecking merchants’ wares and tables in the Temple and using a whip to drive them out, declaring, “Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!”221 This was apparently not too serious a strategic blunder, as followers of Christ eventually managed to take over Rome and today constitute the largest religion in the world.
But notwithstanding these excesses and blind spots, the events of the 20th and early 21st centuries tend to suggest that Gene Sharp’s theorization of the dynamics of nonviolent action has plenty of technical merit. In Yugoslavia, it even achieved what air strikes could not. And so the fixation on proving the superiority of Sharpian nonviolent action is peculiar not because Sharpian protest lacks power—but rather because it is so often coupled with a committed refusal to acknowledge Sharp’s very complicated legacy.
Zunes et al’s letter had a more or less pacifying effect. From that point forward, Gene Sharp and AEI enjoyed frequent positive press coverage, especially throughout the Arab Spring, wherein activists frequently invoked Sharp and CANVAS and Ackerman’s ICNC provided training support.222 Often these articles would note and dismiss rumors that Sharp was a spook.223 And indeed, there is no evidence Sharp was on retainer with any U.S. intelligence organization. That might be more compelling if Bissell and his colleagues at the Central Intelligence Agency had not recognized back in in 1968 that clandestine funding of civil society groups by intelligence agencies could end up undermining U.S. interests—the thesis upon which the National Endowment for Democracy itself was founded.
Reducing debates about Sharp to whether he was a “spy” misses the forest for the trees. Sharp’s identity is not revealed by some single smoking gun paystub, but by the content of his ideas, the object of this work, the pattern of his affiliations, and, most importantly, the political effect of his efforts. And this full context reveals Sharp as an unheralded Cold War defense intellectual whose world-historical significance registers alongside that of Schelling, Bundy, Kissinger, and Bowie. It reveals him as a stealth neoliberal state theorist who championed nonviolent action in large part because he saw it as a means to “diffusing” state power. And it reveals him as a vital wise man to the most significant anti-communist efforts of the late twentieth and twenty-first century.
Some of Sharp’s defenders, after having to concede some of the basic facts, suggest it was not Sharp’s intention to aid the U.S.-led global neoliberal project. According to official biographer Ruaridh Arrow, Sharp “placed himself at Harvard where he could influence leading US figures in US foreign policy” merely “to be taken seriously”—not because Sharp agreed with the broad contours of the United States’ Cold War agenda.224
Maybe. Perhaps Sharp was just an earnest preacher’s kid from the Midwest, too simple to appreciate the full import of his associations, adrift in a world of Groton graduates bred for power.225 Sharp’s position on U.S. involvement in international protest movements did appear to evolve over time, from vocal support to disavowal. In 2003, defending U.S. funding of Otpor!, Sharp grumbled, “What do they [critics of U.S. intervention] prefer that the U.S. spend the money on? …I think any superpower has a responsibility to explore other kinds of struggles that might be developed so that frustrated people seeking democracy don’t kill thousands of people. Superpowers should devote one or two percent of their military budgets to exploring these other possibilities. That’s the least that one could ask for.”226 But in 2011, Sharp’s position had changed: “I think the U.S. should stay out of these situations completely.”227 Arrow recounts, “One of the last things I told him about from my research was that the US Iran democracy program had incorporated his work at State department level and on his deathbed he turned to me and managed one word. ‘Yuck.’”228
Over time, Sharp may have grown more cynical about U.S. interventionism. But he was never a simpleton who misunderstood his political views, or carelessly miscalculated his alliances. Rather, he was a principled, discerning man who promoted his ideas “with a certitude that reflect[ed] many decades of careful and unblinking study.”229 Sharp was an undercover idealist, like many of his compatriots from the high Cold War era, and he believed that liberalism could deliver a world without violence. And so he rationalized the weapons of the weak to advance the interests of the strong: at the CIA at Harvard, he theorized the dynamics of nonviolent action with Department of Defense funds and strategized about arms control with the likes of Kissinger and Bundy; he dreamed of a world free of government regulation in a book marked with the imprimatur of a libertarian senator; he encouraged NATO to use his theories to undermine states resisting their economic and geopolitical agenda; and alongside Ackerman, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the former head of the National Defense Intelligence College, he helped re-order the post-Cold War world along lines most favorable to capital.
The turn to neoliberalism, aided by Sharp’s politics of nonviolent action, has produced the “State decentralization” Sharp favored. In practice, this has meant deregulation of industry, privatization of public assets, deep tax cuts for the wealthiest, austerity for the rest. But tellingly, and perhaps somewhat tragically, it takes only a quick glance at the news to recognize it is very hard to argue that neoliberal hegemony has produced, as Sharp hoped it would, more democracy, more freedom, or more peace.