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Machiavelli of nonviolence

By Brook LarmerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 16, 1986

Cambridge, Mass.

IT'S not easy being considered the Machiavelli of nonviolence. But Gene Sharp relishes his role. For nearly 40 years -- ever since the ashes of Hiroshima and the Holocaust left an impression on him as an undergraduate at Ohio State University -- Dr. Sharp has probed alternatives to violence. Today, as director of Harvard University's Program on Nonviolent Sanctions, the soft-spoken scholar is considered one of the world's leading proponents of nonviolent struggle.

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And like Renaissance statesman Niccolo Machiavelli, Sharp is a pragmatist. Almost obsessively so.

He preaches the power of nonviolent force to the nation's ``princes'' -- the military and political leaders who shape United States defense strategy. But he says his ``gospel'' has nothing to do with religion, morality, or social justice -- and little to do with peace.

``Peace? No, we're not talking about peace,'' says Sharp with quiet intensity, leaning forward in his chair. ``We're talking about alternatives to violent struggle.''

A deliberate man with ruddy cheeks and wavy brown hair, Sharp articulates these alternatives in a tiny office tucked away in a building that houses the Harvard School of Design.

When Harvard carved a niche for the Program on Nonviolent Sanctions in 1983, Sharp's work was legitimized. He says he felt further vindicated in 1984 when a condensed version of his three-part opus, ``The Politics of Nonviolent Action,'' was translated into both Hebrew and Arabic and distributed at Jerusalem's Center for the Study of Nonviolence.

But with its financial struggles and fringe status at the university, the Harvard program has not yet reached its potential.

``Nobody abandons violence if it is viewed as the most effective means of struggle,'' Sharp says. ``People will only accept nonviolent struggle if it is more effective than violence.''

That's why, in his writings, he sidesteps issues of morality, religion, and pacifism. He prefers a vision of nonviolent action based on power, not peace. Indeed, the cornerstone of his work is the belief that political power depends on the people's support and/or submission. When citizens are thoroughly trained in ways to withdraw that support, he says, a ruler cannot rule, a leader cannot lead.

The Oxford-educated philosopher illustrates his points by referring to real-life examples of nonviolent resistance -- from ancient Rome to modern Manila. In ``The Politics of Nonviolent Action'' Sharp traces the often-neglected history of nonviolent boycotts, strikes, symbolic protests, and organized disruption.

Unlike Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, both of whom sought spiritual reconciliation and education, Sharp's ``end product is success,'' says Michael Nagler, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. `` . . . He invites people to use his techniques without making nonviolence a way of life.''

Many observers applaud Sharp's pragmatism. ``He's taken the concept of nonviolent action off the pedestal,'' says Paul Wehr, chairman of the sociology department at the University of Colorado, Boulder. ``The peace movement has had too little concern for alternatives. But that's changing, because people like Sharp are doing so much research.''

But others think Sharp's avoidance of morality and religion has gone too far. One colleague criticized Sharp's admiring study of Gandhi's political wisdom in ``Gandhi as a Political Strategist''; he feels that Sharp failed Gandhi by failing to assess the crucial role of religion in Gandhi's political action.