Correcting attacks against Gene Sharp
It’s been more than a year ago now that Gene Sharp passed away at his home in East Boston. For me it’s been time to review and complete the biography I’ve been writing about him for the past few years. In that time I’ve produced over 160,000 words, only a little over half of that will be be published but it’s given me a far greater insight into his work and its use around the world than I had in 2011 when I made the How to Start a Revolution documentary.
Just after Gene died there was a new slew of attacks against his work that I knew only too well before I’d even met him. Some of the incorrect information comes from a discredited article written in 2005 by a French journalist, Thierry Maysan, then based in Syria, who argued that Gene was a tool of the CIA. Almost immediately after Sharp’s death in January 2018 Doug Henwood interviewed Marcie Smith an Adjunct Professor at John Jay College which alluded to the same accusation through a similar process of guilt by association. The interview with Marcie Smith is in some ways more serious than the Meysan article because she is a practicing academic with a JD in law and therefore it might be reasonable to expect her standards of evidence and research would be reliable. However, in the podcast she berates people for not doing proper research on Sharp while making many basic factual errors and in some cases simply using Thierry Maysan's article while coming up with many of her own incorrect assertions about Gene's work which he would have strongly refuted. Smith never contacted the Albert Einstein Institution to answer any questions she had or allow the opportunity for a right of reply. She then recorded the podcast just weeks after Sharp’s death which allowed her and Doug Henwood to make factually inaccurate claims without fear of Sharp being able to respond. Marcie Smith followed this podcast in May 2019 with a long read article which replicated many of the same mistakes of understanding that were present in the podcast. I wrote to her back in August offering to open up a private dialogue on her arguments and sources but received no response.
We should hold journalists to high standards of accuracy but it’s obvious that academics should be held to an equally high standard. Inaccuracy of this gravity, especially when used to attack the career of another academic calls into question the quality of Marcie Smith's previous research, but also the quality of her home university and faculty. As a fellow academic to Sharp, Marcie Smith not extending his institution a right of reply was unprofessional and unethical and as a fellow human being it was pretty unpleasant. Both academics and journalists make mistakes of fact and understanding all of the time, I don't blame Smith for her mistakes, but what I do take serious issue with is the blinkered attitude she has taken in not seeking verification and continuing arguments which are patently false with no opportunity for those who understand the work well to counter them. However, the best and only real defence I can offer is to factcheck from my own research over the course of almost a decade in archives on three continents and with revolutionary leaders and defense and intelligence officials all over the world.
Sharp ‘spent decades working with the Langley CIA’ (Marcie Smith podcast)
INNACCURATE. This is categorically untrue and defamatory. First of all this statement requires evidence that Gene Sharp worked with the CIA (AT ALL) and then secondary evidence that that work spanned ‘decades’ - neither Marcie Smith nor Doug Henwood offer evidence of the first, let alone the second. Sharp repeatedly urged democracy groups and activists NOT to take money from the CIA and other intelligence agencies because that reliance could weaken their movement and make them reliant on a foreign state which could suddenly cut off money and support, causing serious damage to their cause. It’s one thing to deny involvement with the CIA, it’s quite another to go around the world giving convincing arguments NOT to take money from them. If Marcie Smith or anyone else has any evidence to support this allegation then I will immediately post it directly below. See below for Gene Sharp telling people NOT to take money from the CIA.
The left have never properly critiqued Gene Sharp (Marcie Smith allegation)
In fact most of the major public intellectuals on the left have grown up academically with Sharp and have engaged throughout the decades with his ideas. Both Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn came to Sharp's defence when he was falsely accused by Hugo Chavez of being a CIA puppet, co-signing a letter - an extract of which reads ..
"Nonviolent struggle has historically been the weapon of the poor and disenfranchised through which they can gain an advantage over powerful and wealthy elites whose capacity to use violence against them is usually far superior. It is therefore ironic that some of those who view themselves as champions of oppressed peoples mischaracterize these popular nonviolent movements simply as tools of U.S. imperialism and global capital. We therefore call upon people of conscience to reject the false allegations levelled against Gene Sharp, the Albert Einstein Institute and other groups promoting strategic nonviolent action; to continue to struggle against U.S. imperialism in all of its manifestations; and, to support popular democratic movements engaging in nonviolent action in the cause of human rights and social justice in the United States and throughout the world."
When Gene Sharp died in January 2018, Chomsky again wrote a piece in support of his work.
"Gene Sharp made fundamental and original contributions to the theory and practice of nonviolence, a contribution of immense significance in an age of brutal violence under the spreading shadow of virtual extermination." Noam Chomsky
I'm not sure if Marcie Smith is saying her analysis is better than Chomsky and Zinn's but both are known for their intellectual rigour and are unlikely to have come out so forcefully for someone who they thought was in any way suspect.
Gene Sharp's nonviolence is 'neo-liberal' (Marcie Smith allegation)
I'll leave this to the reader to judge but we'll start by asking the question why Chomsky, perhaps the world's greatest critic of neo-liberalism, would support Gene Sharp if Sharp's work was neo-liberal or promoted neo-liberalism. It's well known that the most read and translated work by Sharp is 'From Dictatorship to Democracy'. It's available for free for anyone to download so you can go and read it. Try and find any mention of economic systems or neo-liberalism or even an ideal form of government and you won't find it. It's perfectly possible to use Sharp's work to fight for a communist utopia or an Islamic fundamentalist state if you so wished. There is an assumption that democracy is a good thing - that's not neo-liberal, it's just liberal ... and democratic. If you don't believe in democracy then a book called 'From Dictatorship to Democracy' probably isn't your bag anyway. The allegation about neoliberalism seems to come from some passages in a Sharp book from the 1980's called Social Power and Political Freedom where he advocates for distributed political and economic power in society, but that's simply a reflection that states with diffused political power are generally more democratic than those with very centralised power structures. There is absolutely no mention of anything approaching neo-liberalism and given that multi-national companies are inherently undemocratic and unresponsive to populations, I'll give you a reasonable guess about what Sharp might have made of them and what could be done to curtail their power.
Sharp had a ‘longstanding relationship with the security and intelligence establishment’ (Marcie Smith allegation)
NO he did not have long-standing relationship with the intelligence establishment. YES he had a long standing relationship with figures in the defense establishment. Clearly at government level the two are interdependent but there’s a fundamental difference. While Sharp wanted to collaborate openly with the defense department on nonviolent forms of warfare to reduce violence and killing, he did not want to work with the CIA who were at the time using controversial covert actions to overthrow governments (subsequently investigated by the Church Committee).
To unpick this we need to understand that his work in the 60’s 70’s and 80’s wasn’t focused on democracy groups bringing down dictators - which is the focus today - but on preventing a nuclear war. Sharp believed that by training ordinary people to nonviolently resist an occupation as the Norwegians had in Norway during WW2, they could make the costs of a Russian occupation of Western Europe so difficult that it would act as a deterrent to invasion equal to that of mutually assured destruction. He realised that simply protesting for peace was weak and unlikely to produce change so he actively pursued contact with the most influential figures in the defense establishment both in the UK and the US. His aim was to have nonviolent resistance written into official defense policy by governments believing that was the best way to avoid nuclear war. He wanted to replace violent weapons with nonviolent defense where possible. So where there is funding from and consistent contact with the defense establishment, Tom Schelling, Bob Helvey, Liddel Hart, there is no similar contact with figures in the CIA, NSA or MI6.
N.B Robert Helvey was a career army officer who in his last two years of service served as dean of the Defence Intelligence School, but Marcie Smith appears not to understand the difference between defense intelligence and and a civilian intelligence agency like the CIA. Defence intelligence generally deals with the technology and use of an opposition's military equipment, displacement and training - not political intelligence (governments). That's why they exist as separate agencies. It's an organ of the department of defense. I grant this is a subtle distinction, but it's very important to understanding the red line Sharp drew between the defense establishment and the intelligence establishment.
Sharp states in the How to Start a Revolution documentary that he was offered funds at one point by the CIA but he turned them down. A couple of internal CIA documents which discuss the potential utility of protests and nonviolence reference Sharp's work as an external academic at Harvard but discuss his work in quite dismissive terms. Many other university academics are referred to in internal documents as working 'for' the agency. There were plenty of academics who rotated through CIA HQ as analysts (see the ENSAP project) but according to a leading CIA academic I interviewed who worked at the agency throughout this period, Sharp was never one of them.
Sharp supports international sanctions which are a form of structural violence that end up killing people by starving them and depriving them of medicines. (Marcie Smith allegation)
This is a terrible and totally untrue allegation which can only be based on a poor understanding of the work. Sharp argues that one of the primary dynamics that makes nonviolent action work is 'political ju-jitsu'. In short, when a regime inflicts violence on a nonviolent population demanding democratic freedoms, those violent acts rebound on the regime making them look even more brutal, attracting more people to the democracy movement and creating potential defections among the security forces and other organs of state that a regime relies upon to survive. Sharp argues that using violence against the security forces has the opposite effect, if you throw bombs at the police you solidify them against you and you look chaotic and violent to the general population whose support you might lose. Thus the controlling factor on nonviolent action is that you do not cause harm to your own side which will lose you your popular support. SO for instance if you blocked a road to a hospital and an ordinary citizen died because they could not get medical treatment in time that would rebound horribly upon the democracy movement and the regime would use it in their propaganda to attack you. Similarly supporting or advocating for international sanctions which end up starving or reducing the availability of food or medical supplies to your own population is a sure fire way to kill the support for your movement and strengthen a dictatorship. In short it's a total failure of logic that Sharp would ever advocate for nonviolent measures or sanctions which had harmful effects upon a population -quite the opposite, he repeatedly warned against this. The intrinsic controlling factor on any methods of nonviolent action employed is that they operate the dynamics of political ju-jitsu in favour of the democratic movement - not the regime.
Sharp arrived ‘weeks before Tiananmen Square protests and was kicked out’ (Marcie Smith allegation)
INCORRECT. Tickets show the team consisting of Gene Sharp his assistant Bruce Jenkins and a translator arrived at midnight on May 28th well after the protests were underway and departed after the brutal crackdown voluntarily on 4th June when it was clear they would be unable to conduct any further research work. Records show that Bruce Jenkins requested a ticket change at the PanAM office in Beijing on 5th June and they exited the country on the 6th. The Chinese have no record of a deportation of Sharp. Marcie Smith makes this allegation in the podcast but it's clear this is just a plagiarised from the unsourced Thierry Maysan article because it exists nowhere else on the internet. If by miracle she produces any counter evidence for this allegation I will post it directly below here.
Colonel Robert Helvey made a number of trips to Belgrade to train OTPOR (Marcie Smith)
INCORRECT - Helvey made only one trip to train a number of OTPOR members and this was held in a hotel in Budapest not Belgrade. These are quite basic established facts.
The politics of Nonviolent Action was published in 1968 (Marcie Smith)
INCORRECT - I've included this only to make the point that Marcie Smith's research is so bad that she can't even open the front cover of Sharp's book or check Wikipedia for a correct publication date - it's 1973 by the way. This is someone paid to be an academic.
Sharp’s work is poor or 'woolly' on establishing a post revolutionary state. (Marcie Smith)
INCORRECT. It’s not just woolly it’s intentionally non existent. Sharp is not prescriptive about the type of government which might come after a successful nonviolent resistance campaign. What he does say is that there must be a ‘vision of tomorrow’ but it's for the people to decide what form that government takes. If he had been prescriptive about type of government the books would not be nearly as successful across different states, religions and cultures as it has been. The form of government Muslim activists in Sudan might seek is likely to be radically different from those in Ukraine. The idea that Sharp would be able to prescribe an ideal form of government for an array of countries and cultures or one single form that could fit all is ridiculous. The people decide. What is clear though is that planned, strategic nonviolent action is better at producing the conditions by which peaceful post revolution government can sustain than a spontaneous violent uprising or military coup which are the obvious alternatives. Really? do you want a Harvard academic telling someone in Zimbabwe what kind of government they should have? Is that a good idea? No, That's why he never did it, it's not 'woolly' it's totally sensible.
Sharp’s work on nonviolent resistance has been used to de-power or neuter protest movements? (Marcie Smith allegation)
INCORRECT. This is probably the most egregious allegation Marcie Smith makes because it assumes that violent struggle is the more powerful form of struggle, despite the successes of the civil rights movement in America, Gandhi in India and a whole host of other cases where nonviolent action has been used to defend freedoms. The spread of Sharp's work was largely organic, different groups across the world finding it a useful analysis upon which to build a movement and passing it along. Certainly organisations like Freedom House and the International Republican Institute also distributed the work but nobody forced anyone to use it, that would be entirely counter-intuitive to the theme of the book. Ask yourself which kind of society you want to live in, one where you go onto the streets and molotov cocktails are being thrown at the police and government buildings or one where you can go out onto the streets with your children and grandparents? How much harder do you think it might be to reform a political system after you have had a situation where neighbour has killed neighbour rather than a nonviolent removal of a sitting government? Does anyone really think that going out attacking police officers and breaking windows in Washington is going to make the Trump presidency any better? I didn't think so. There's great research by Stephan and Chenoweth on why nonviolent action is more successful too - see here.
The George Kennan, (State Department official and widely accepted 'Father of the Cold War') foreword to Sharp's book, Making Europe Unconquerable is somehow sinister and evidence of high level contact with the deep state. (Marcie Smith allegation)
NO. Again this involves, firstly, the not very challenging research skill of checking the publication date of Making Europe Unconquerable, the date of birth of George Kennan and then noticing the origin of the foreword. The book was published in 1985 which makes Kennan at least 81 years old when he writes the foreword, except it wasn't really a foreword it was a reproduced review from the new York Review of Books which was only published in the 2nd edition of Making Europe Unconquerable. In reality Gene Sharp read the book review like everyone else in the New York Review of Books and a second print run was hastily commissioned to include it as a foreword. It demonstrates that Kennan couldn't have been that close to Sharp or he'd have pre-reviewed or written the original foreword, thus saving Sharp considerably time and money on a second print run when the first wasn't yet sold out. In fact they never met or even talked. Kennan was long since retired and although still giving guest lectures and possibly privately influential, he was nowhere close to the inner workings of The State Department by 1985.
Kennan is important though, he is regarded as the founder of 'political warfare' after he was instrumental in the CIA's first covert action, the campaign using 'non-lethal methods' and propaganda to stop the Communists winning the 1947 Italian election and gaining vital strategic ports on the Mediterranean. This was indeed the beginning of US interference in the elections of other countries which continues to this day - the Soviets followed by the Russians were equally active.
It's important to note though that when George Kennan announced the 'inauguration of political warfare', Gene Sharp was just 18 years old and had only recently left High School. Five years later, after consistently refusing the draft for Korea on moral grounds, he spent 9months in prison for his beliefs.
The Albert Einstein Institution resourced pro democracy activists (Marcie Smith allegation)
NO. Funds were frequently so low that no meaningful support could be given to activists but small grants were made for teaching materials and book printing. in 2004 Bob Helvey deferred payment on his own salary so that money could be freed up to fund a print run of From Dictatorship to Democracy requested by Ukrainians. Internal communications show continuous complaints about the perilous financial sate of the institution and the inability to fulfil its mission due to absence of funds. Funds were provided by the NED and IRI to activists for Albert Einstein Institution projects, for example in Burma, but the Institution was never able to fund groups in its own right.
Sharp says the State is bad and the source of all injustice (Marcie Smith)
NO. Just NO. He says that dictatorships are bad and a source of injustice but he doesn't believe that of all states. Furthermore he advocates establishment of alternative governments to be ready to take over in the event that a dictatorship falls so that a revolution is not hijacked by a military coup. This comment indicates a profound misunderstanding or just total ignorance of the work.
Sharp's work fetishises protest without a of strategic vision (Marcie Smith)
AGAIN NO. Quite the opposite, he tells everyone that protest without strategic vision is weak and likely to fail. Time and again he hammers home the importance of grand strategy and planning.
I’m a journalist first and foremost. The bulk of my career has been spent with the BBC most recently at Newsnight, a bastion of British journalism for more than 30 years and as a Duty Editor on the BBC Foreign desk. Although the BBC is funded by the state, unlike US broadcasters, we are mandated to be unbiased and there are strict rules governing that. Of course many people will scoff at the idea of BBC neutrality, but all I can say in response is that we try our best to uphold that principle and try hard to represent views we might personally not agree with in the same way that a lawyer might vigorously represent a client they knew to be guilty. That’s our job, and in the age of ‘fake news’ most of us are taking it even more seriously. When I started out to tell the Gene Sharp story I did so with this critical outlook, I didn’t pre-judge what I was going to find, but I wanted to know for sure if there was any truth to the CIA allegations on the internet. The bulk of the research for the book was done while I was a research affiliate at the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School so it has to achieve academic standards worthy of those beginnings. This is particularly important for me as a journalist because most of the time I work on a whole host of other political/international relations and security stories. In ten years I don’t want a smoking gun document to be released on Gene Sharp that makes my research look poor and calls into a question the veracity of the rest of the work I’ve done over my career.
There are more inaccuracies in the Marcie Smith reporting which I will counter at a later date but it's late and I need to do some more writing. I've afforded Marcie Smith the right to reply that she never gave Gene Sharp or The Albert Einstein Institution, requesting an off the record chat on the contents of her broadcast, but I received no reply. If anyone has any further comments or questions you can tweet me @arrowonthehill and I will do my best to respond to all reasonable requests.