Srdja Popovic and Slobodan Djinovic are the co-founders of the Center For Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, an educational institution that trains pro-democracy activists around the globe.
Someone once said, “The greatness of a person is defined not only by their friends, but also by their enemies.” Gene Sharp, who passed away this week at age 90, had a truly remarkable list of enemies. The Iranian mullahs, the ex-KGB oligarchs in Moscow, Venezuela’s modern-day caudillos — all of them counted him among their mortal foes. In 1996, the military junta in Burma accused him of working with dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyi to overthrow the government. The Iranian regime issued an animated video depicting him as a plotter, along with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and George Soros, of the 2009 popular uprising that came to be known as the Green Movement. In 2015, 13 young Angolan activists were arrested during a meeting in Luanda to discuss Sharp’s book “From Dictatorship to Democracy.”
On the face of things, Sharp — a gentle old fellow who spent most of his time in a room full of books in a crumbling old building in South Boston — seemed an unlikely target for such paranoia. Yet these regimes were right to be afraid. They lived in terror of his fundamental insight: that people who live under authoritarian regimes are, in fact, far from powerless when confronting the “bad guys” who run their states. As one of the world’s leading thinkers on nonviolent action, Sharp inspired millions with his practical advice on organizing and sustaining people power movements.
How well we remember the first time we learned about his work. It was late April 2000. We were both in our mid-20s at the time, and we were among the leaders of the Serbian pro-democracy movement Otpor (“Resistance”), which was mobilizing tens of thousands young Serbs in a nonviolent campaign to oust dictator Slobodan Milosevic. Sharp’s friend Bob Helvey arrived with a thick stack of Sharp’s books, and we consumed them in a few days when we were hiding out from the Serbian police at a friend’s place. We can still remember how we were jolted by Sharp’s words, which conveyed so simply and clearly the tactical and strategical lessons that we had been trying to learn for ourselves in two previous years of protests.
It was only later, after our nonviolent revolution had succeeded, that we finally had the chance to meet Sharp in person. Inspired by his revelations, we soon began developing a project for spreading his insights to others around the world — in places such as Georgia, Ukraine, Zimbabwe, Burma and Iran — who were thirsty for change. Benjamin Franklin is credited as saying, “All mankind is divided into three classes: those that are immovable, those that are movable, and those that move.” Sharp had an extraordinary talent for finding movers in every corner of the world, and he offered them a guiding light as they fought for democratic change.
What impressed us both most about our meetings was the force of Sharp’s personality. Here he was, this quiet, modest, smiling old man, who never took any credit for amazing inspiration he gave to countless people. He never talked about his own story: how he had gone to jail for protesting military conscription in the Korean War; his close friendship with Albert Einstein, who admired him as an equally great mind; his four nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Whoever met him in person probably couldn’t help thinking that George Lucas must have had Sharp in mind when he created Yoda — the calm and unassuming master sitting quietly in his little home somewhere on the galactic periphery, greeting those seeking his advice on how to fight the powers of evil. Aside from making you wiser, hanging out with Sharp somehow made you a better human being.
Sharp knew that great ideas are difficult to kill. The ideas of anti-colonialism and racial equality didn’t die when bullets killed Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., just as the idea of democratic Serbia didn’t die when our friend Zoran Djindjic, the first democratically elected Serbian prime minister, was gunned down near the door of the main government building in 2003.
Similarly, Sharp’s own books and thoughts outlive him, and you can rest assured that they will inspire generations to come. It’s easy to imagine Thais and Egyptians reading his “The Anti-Coup” and figuring out what went wrong when they left the streets and allowed military rulers to take over. It’s easy to envision pro-democracy activists in increasingly illiberal Poland or Hungary learning from Sharp how to build campaigns for safeguarding remaining “pillars of democracy” such as the judiciary or the media.
And if the leaders of Occupy Wall Street had paid more attention to his ideas, we might today be witnessing a different outcome of their struggle for social equality in the United States. Will the new generation of activists rising across the United States coalesce into a movement capable of uniting a deeply polarized country? It’s hard to know. But they will need to read and study Sharp if they want success.
Sharp has left our world. But those taking part in the never-ending struggle for freedom, human rights and democracy would be well-advised to take up his torch.