Non-Violent Activist Dies, Leaves Behind “Non-Violent Nationalism” Philosophy

Gene Sharp had a now little-talked about theory of “non-violent nationalism” that is getting a second look after his passing on January 28th, 2018 at aged 90.  He was considered a legend among non-violence activist, with his most well known work being “Which Way to Freedom?”  Here is an excerpt from an article by Kristian Skrede Gleditsch, writing for

From Wales to Catalonia and Beyond: Gene Sharp and Non-Violent Nationalism

Gene Sharp – a pioneer in the study of non-violent action – died peacefully at the age of 90 on 28 January 2018. Obituaries in many newspapers have highlighted his contributions to the study of non-violent resistance against dictatorial regimes, pointing to how his work inspired the Arab Spring and his reputation as a “dictator’s worst nightmare”…….

Although separatism and nationalism is often associated with violence and terrorism, especially when the state tries to restrict the political space for separatist or nationalist claims, the recent rogue independence referendum in Catalonia attests to the enduring relevance of forms of direct action and civil disobedience such as illegal protests in nationalist campaigns.

On p. 17, Which Way to Freedom? lists as one of the demands of Plaid Cymru “a Welsh Parliament with freedom within the Commonwealth, sitting at Cardiff, the Capital”. This aim was achieved 30 years after the publication of the pamphlet when the devolved National Assembly for Wales was set up in 1998, following a 1997 referendum.

Which Way to Freedom? is very much rooted in the idea of national liberation from colonialization or foreign occupation. Sharp is sympathetic to the case for Welsh independence, and the need for national liberation to use extra-legal methods and reject gradual reform. However, he argues that violence is not necessary for revolution, and indeed that it is typically counterproductive.

A standard argument for the need for violence is that colonizers or occupiers are likely to rely on violent repression. Sharp highlights how not responding in kind with violence has important “psychological effects” (p. 14), including generating international support for the cause of the non-violent nation and a “chance of support of sympathy and even active support from nationals of the invading State”. A movement that does not rely on arms is also less likely to be vulnerable to decapitation, when leaders are removed, or the loss of arms.


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