Gene Sharp, the Cold War defense intellectual-cum-“Nonviolent Warrior,” is famed for developing a theory of nonviolent action that has undergirded regime change operations around the world. But Sharp also had an impact closer to home: the U.S. protest left. Thanks to a little-known organization from the 1970s called the Movement for a New Society, Sharp’s ideas are ubiquitous on the protest left, bound-up with a rarely named ideology, “revolutionary nonviolence.” Nonviolent direct action is a vital feature of broad-based people’s movements, but historically, “revolutionary nonviolence” has been, at best, ambivalent about, and at worst, antagonistic to questions of class struggle. A closer look is warranted.
The late Gene Sharp is known worldwide as a Gandhi-like champion of nonviolent protest. But he is better understood as one of the most important U.S. defense intellectuals of the Cold War and a neoliberal theorist who advocated nonviolent action as a means to “State decentralization.” Properly contextualizing Sharp and his ideas is essential to understanding the world today.