Summary of "The Dynamics of Nonviolent Action"

Summary of

The Dynamics of Nonviolent Action

By Gene Sharp

Summary written by Conflict Research Consortium Staff

Citation: Gene Sharp. The Dynamics of Nonviolent Action. Marina Finkelstein, ed. Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973, 450 pp.This Book Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff

The Dynamics of Nonviolent Action explores the nature and processes of nonviolent action.

The Dynamics of Nonviolent Action will be of interest to those who seek a better understanding of the mechanism and operation of nonviolent resistance. This volume is the third in Sharp's three volume series, The Politics of Nonviolent Action. This work is divided into six chapters, with a brief introduction.

The first chapter discusses the groundwork needed in order to effectively employ nonviolent action. The risks involved in the use of nonviolent action include the possibility of defeat, of hurt and suffering, and of an outbreak of political violence. Nonviolent actors will be required to cast off their fear, and exercise great courage in the face of such risks. The most important source of social power is the number of, and degree to which the population participates. Also important are the degree of public sympathy with the movement, and the quality of leadership of the movement. Preparations for nonviolent action should include an investigation into alleged grievances, efforts at negotiation with the opponent, sharpening the focus of nonviolent attack, generating public awareness of the cause, the formulation of a specific plan of action and of an organization to carry out that plan. Sharp discusses the uses of openness and secrecy in nonviolent action. As in war, nonviolent action requires clearly defined strategies and tactics. When developing strategies, the elements of psychology, timing, geography or setting, numbers or strength, concentration of strength, and relevance to the issue should be considered. The final preparatory stage is generally the issuing of an ultimatum warning of the impending nonviolent action.

Nonviolent challenge is likely to result in repression by the entrenched powers. The second chapter discusses the forms which such repression is likely to take. Sharp discusses eight general types of repression. The opponent may seek to control communications and information. They may apply psychological pressure, via misinformation campaigns or threats. Opponents may confiscate property or resources, or apply other economic sanctions. They may apply bans and prohibit various activities. The most common form of repression is arrest and imprisonment. They may employ exceptional restrictions, such as declaring martial law, forced deportations, and suspension of civil rights. Finally, a variety of forms of direct physical violence may be employed, both officially and unofficially. The only acceptable nonviolent response is persistence. Nonviolent actors must be prepared to suffer in order to advance the cause, and may even be called upon to face brutalities. Sharp discusses the impact of suffering, and describes the forms which extreme repression can take.

The third chapter describes solidarity and discipline as the keys to fighting repression and persisting in nonviolent action. Sharp describes various techniques for promoting solidarity. Opponents are generally better equipped to repress violent action than nonviolent action, and so will often attempt to provoke a nonviolent movement to violence. Sharp describes some of the ways in which opponents attempt to provoke violence, and suggests ways of resisting such provocation by promoting movement solidarity and discipline. While sabotage itself is not violent, it does entail a number of elements which are incompatible with nonviolent action. Sharp argues that the use of sabotage should be avoided. The chapter concludes by describing how the opponents' repression itself may be used to strengthen the nonviolent resistance movement.

Chapter Four expands on Sharps notion of nonviolent action as "political jiu-jitsu." Sharp explains that "the nonviolent actionists cause the violence of the opponent's repression to be exposed in the worst possible light. This in turn may lead to shifts in opinion and then to shifts in power relationships favorable to the nonviolent group."[657] This chapter discusses three groups whose opinion may be swayed, and describes the mechanisms by which such changes may occur. First, the nonviolent movement needs to win over uncommitted groups and individuals. Second, nonviolent resistance can provoke dissent, opposition and even mutiny from within the opponent's group. Third, persistent nonviolent action increases support and participation from within the nonviolent movement. The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of an opponent's use of counter-nonviolent action.

In the next chapter Sharp argues that nonviolent action succeeds by producing either conversion, accommodation or nonviolent coercion. Conversion occurs when "the opponent, as the result of the actions of the nonviolent person or group, comes around to a new point of view which embraces the ends of the nonviolent actor."[707] Factors which encourage or discourage conversion include the degree of conflict of interest, degree of social distance between the opposing groups, social beliefs, and the influence of third parties. Accommodation achieves the nonviolent actors' ends without changing the opponent's basic attitudes. The opponent may accommodate the nonviolent actors in light of a favorable cost-benefit analysis, or because the alternative of violent repression is seen as unacceptable. Nonviolent coercion operates by removing, withdrawing or limiting the opponent's power to enforce its will. Sharp discusses six sources of political power: authority, human resources, skills and knowledge, intangible factors, material resources, and sanctions. The chapter closes with an evaluation of nonviolent versus violent resolutions to conflict.

The final chapter discusses power. Nonviolent action redistributes power. The effects of this redistribution on the nonviolent group include increased self-esteem, fearlessness, internal cooperation and unity. Sharp concludes by contrasting nonviolent action and the decentralization of power to violence and the centralization of power.

The Dynamics of Nonviolent Action will serve as a valuable resource for those interested in nonviolent action. The processes and mechanisms of nonviolent action are clearly presented and are illustrated with many historical cases.