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The Methods Of Nonviolent Action – An Introduction To Political Jiu-Jitsu At Work

March 10, 2017

The “Machiavelli of nonviolence“, the “Clausewitz of nonviolent warfare“, Gene Sharp is perhaps the leading living theorist of power and nonviolent action as a means of political and social change.

His 1993 essay, “From Dictatorship To Democracy”, has been translated into over 30 languages and used by citizens’ movements from Burma to Serbia to Egypt and around the world, to nonviolently remove the pillars of social support upon which their dictatorial governments are built until those governments collapse and are overthrown.

The Methods Of Nonviolent Action is volume 2 of Sharp’s 1973 magnum opus, The Politics Of Nonviolent Action. In Methods, Sharp catalogues 198 methods of nonviolent action, classifying them into three broad categories: 1) nonviolent protest and persuasion, 2) noncooperation, and 3) nonviolent intervention.

This post is the first in an occasional series that will dip into The Methods Of Nonviolent Action as (hopefully) something of a well of inspiration and understanding for organizing in the Trump era.


Sharp’s brief (6 page) introduction to Methods is a summary of how, in his understanding, nonviolence works.

Nonviolent action ‘works’ in very special ways which must be grasped if the technique itself is to be understood, evaluated intelligently, and applied most effectively. These ways diverge significantly from popular assumptions about conflict and struggle—in particular the assumption that violence can be effectively met only with violence.

Nonviolent action is designed to operate against opponents who are able and willing to use violent sanctions. There is no assumption in this technique that such opponents will, when faced with nonviolent action, suddenly renounce their violence, or even that they will consistently restrict their use of violent repression.

However, the use of nonviolent means against violent repression creates a special, asymmetrical, conflict situation, in which two groups rely on contrasting techniques of struggle, or ‘weapons systems’….An extensive, determined and skillful application of nonviolent action with cause the opponent very special problems, which will disturb or frustrate the effective utilization of his own forces. The actionists will then be able to apply something like jiu-jitsu to their opponent, throwing him off balance politically, causing his repression to rebound against his position and weakening his power.” (pp. 109-110)

Sharp’s analysis is highly pragmatic, even dispassionate, as he analyzes what nonviolent actionists, whether a tiny vanguard or a mass movement, can expect from the regime they are confronting.

There should, in fact, be no dismay or surprise at repression: it is often the result of the opponent’s recognition that the nonviolent action is a serious threat to his policy or regime. Nonviolent actionists must be willing to risk punishment as a part of the price of victory. The severity and chances of repression will vary. This risk is not unique to nonviolent action, however. There are also risks when both sides use violence…. ” (p. 110)

To sum up: Repression of a nonviolent group which nevertheless persists in struggle and also maintains nonviolent discipline may have the following effects. As cruelties to nonviolent people increase, the opponent’s regime may appear still more despicable, and sympathy and support for the nonviolent side may increase. The general population may become more alienated from the opponent and more likely to join the resistance. Persons divorced from the immediate conflict may show increased support for the victims of the repression. Although the effect of national and international public opinion varies, it may at times lead to significant political and economic pressures. The opponent’s own citizens, agents, and troops, disturbed by brutalities against nonviolent people, may begin to doubt the justice of his policies. Their initial uneasiness may grow into internal dissent and at times even into such action as strikes and mutinies. Thus, if repression increases the numbers of nonviolent actionists and enlarges defiance, and if it leads to sufficient internal opposition among the opponent’s usual supporters to reduce his capacity to deal with the defiance, it will clearly have rebounded against him. This is political jiu-jitsu at work.” (p. 113)





From → Books, Politics

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