This Is an Uprising

How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century


By Mark Engler

By Paul Engler

Formats and Prices




$15.99 CAD



  1. ebook $11.99 $15.99 CAD
  2. Trade Paperback $18.99 $23.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around February 9, 2016. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

There is a craft to uprising — and this craft can change the world

From protests around climate change and immigrant rights, to Occupy, the Arab Spring, and #BlackLivesMatter, a new generation is unleashing strategic nonviolent action to shape public debate and force political change. When mass movements erupt onto our television screens, the media consistently portrays them as being spontaneous and unpredictable. Yet, in this book, Mark and Paul Engler look at the hidden art behind such outbursts of protest, examining core principles that have been used to spark and guide moments of transformative unrest.

With incisive insights from contemporary activists, as well as fresh revelations about the work of groundbreaking figures such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Gene Sharp, and Frances Fox Piven, the Englers show how people with few resources and little conventional influence are engineering the upheavals that are reshaping contemporary politics.

Nonviolence is usually seen simply as a philosophy or moral code. This Is an Uprising shows how it can instead be deployed as a method of political conflict, disruption, and escalation. It argues that if we are always taken by surprise by dramatic outbreaks of revolt, we pass up the chance to truly understand how social transformation happens.




IN THE STRANGE world of Internet bookmakers, it is possible to bet on almost anything—and that includes the question of who will next win the Nobel Peace Prize. Given the arcane and secretive politics surrounding the prize, predicting a winner is always chancy. However, over the past several years, one of the odds-makers’ favorite picks has not been a head of state, a major nongovernmental organization, nor a charismatic resistance leader but rather a soft-spoken Boston academic in his eighties. His name is Gene Sharp.

In 1953, when Gene Sharp was a twenty-five-year-old war resister, one of his proudest possessions was a letter from Albert Einstein. At the time, Sharp, the son of an itinerant Protestant minister in Ohio, had recently finished a master’s degree in sociology at Ohio State University. He moved to New York City with a plan to write a book about Mohandas Gandhi. However, he soon found himself in a federal detention center, arrested for refusing to cooperate with the Korean War draft.

Before going to trial, Sharp struck up a correspondence with Einstein, who had gained renown as a peace activist in his later years. Einstein wrote to the young pacifist: “I earnestly admire you for your moral strength and can only hope, although I really do not know, that I would have acted as you did had I found myself in your situation.” Sharp ultimately served nine months and ten days in prison in Danbury, Connecticut, for draft resistance, a stint he regarded at the time as an important political stand.1

Decades later, he had a very different view of his solitary act of defiance. “I don’t think it did a damned thing to get rid of the war system,” Sharp told one interviewer. In 2010, he stated that his stand had been utterly ineffectual, except “in keeping my sense of personal integrity together.”2

Over the years, Sharp had not given up on the idea of nonviolent action. But he had gone through a sort of conversion—one that would shape his career and ultimately reverberate through social movements in dozens of countries. His understanding of nonviolence had become anything but ineffectual.

Today, Sharp is known as a theorist and author of seminal works on the dynamics of nonviolent conflict. In addition to the “Machiavelli of nonviolence,” he has been called the “dictator slayer” and the Clausewitz of unarmed revolution. His circumstances are humble: he runs his research outfit, known as the Albert Einstein Institution, out of the ground floor of his row house in East Boston, and the organization has just one other staffer. For the most part, Sharp has labored for decades in quiet obscurity—well respected within a small field of study but virtually unknown outside of it.

At the same time, Sharp’s work has had an unusually broad impact. His pamphlet From Dictatorship to Democracy, a ninety-three-page distillation of his core teachings and a handbook for overthrowing autocrats, has been translated into more than thirty languages. The slim volume has a habit of turning up in hot spots of global resistance. Originally written in 1993 to help dissidents in Burma use nonviolent action against the ruling military junta, the book became a valued possession of Serbian students seeking to overthrow the regime of Slobodan Milosevic. It circulated among activists during uprisings in Georgia and the Ukraine in 2003 and 2004. And it was downloaded in Arabic amid mass protests in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011.

The Iranian government has denounced the book and its author by name. In the summer of 2005, two independent bookshops in Russia were burned down after stocking the newly available Russian translation of Sharp’s pamphlet on their shelves. (“I still keep a half-burned copy on a shelf in my office,” one opposition leader told the Wall Street Journal.)3 Particularly after the Arab Spring, Sharp’s renown has grown. He was the subject of a feature documentary, entitled How to Start a Revolution, released just as the Occupy movement was taking shape in 2011.

The conversion that Sharp underwent not long after his stint as a draft resister—the epiphany that would guide his later research and teaching—revolved around a simple idea: that nonviolence should not be simply a moral code for a small group of true believers to live by. Rather, Sharp came to argue that nonviolent conflict should be understood as a political approach that can be employed strategically, something that social movements can choose because it provides an effective avenue for leveraging change. Out of this principle has emerged the modern study of “civil resistance,” devoted to understanding how unarmed social movements are able to stage uprisings of dramatic consequence.

The conversion experienced by Sharp was a consequential one. Yet it is not altogether uncommon within the history of nonviolent social movements. Over the past century, many great innovators have arrived at the same conclusion: nonviolence must be wedded to strategic mass action if it is to have true force in the world. Martin Luther King Jr., born within a year of Sharp in the late 1920s, was one of those innovators. In King’s case, it would take years of political evolution to fully appreciate the use of nonviolent conflict as a means of political struggle and to commit to schemes such as Project C. But, in the end, it was his mastery of this technique—not merely his personal courage or spiritual conviction—that would secure his place in American history.

Gene Sharp spent the first years of his political life immersed in a mainstream current of the pacifist tradition, and he has spent much of the rest of his career declaring independence from it. Upon his release from prison in 1954, Sharp worked briefly as an assistant to prominent radical pacifist A. J. Muste. He then contributed to the weekly publication Peace News in England before moving to Oslo and researching how teachers during World War II successfully used nonviolent tactics to resist the imposition of fascist schooling in Norway. His investigations into nonviolence would ultimately lead to a doctorate at Oxford and to a nine-hundred-page treatise called The Politics of Nonviolent Action, published in 1973. Widely regarded as a classic, the work remains in print and is available in a three-volume edition.

By the time he had published this work, Sharp had begun to distance himself from the peace groups with which he used to associate. Pacifism—moral opposition to war and violence—has existed for hundreds if not thousands of years and can trace its roots to the core texts of major world religions. These roots continued to show in Sharp’s time as a young researcher. Proponents of nonviolence regularly emphasized its moral and spiritual dimensions.4

In the 1950s and 1960s, Sharp found himself veering in a different direction. Reading through old newspaper coverage of Gandhi’s 1930 resistance campaign in India, he made a troubling discovery, one that he considered omitting from his writing. He found evidence that most participants in that satyagraha, as Gandhi called the campaign of defiance, did not embrace nonviolence out of a sense of moral commitment. Instead, they chose to employ nonviolent struggle because they believed it worked. The discovery was troubling for Sharp because it contradicted the cherished convictions of many people he knew—adherents to what is now known as “principled nonviolence”—who believed that the practice requires deep ethical resolve. As Sharp explained in a 2003 interview, he puzzled over what to do:

I wondered: Should I put that down? Better just leave it out!

But I put it down. And later it dawned on me that, rather than that being a threat, it was a great opportunity, because it meant that large numbers of people who would never believe in ethical or religious nonviolence could use nonviolent struggle for pragmatic reasons.5

Sharp’s decision to record his discovery altered the trajectory of his research. Ultimately, he would become a leading proponent of the position sometimes known as “strategic nonviolence.” While he continued to personally believe in nonviolence as a “philosophy of life,” he grew increasingly unconcerned about whether others did. He began arguing to his pacifist colleagues that people turn to war and violence not because they are wicked or hateful. They resort to violence because they do not see any other option for resolving intractable conflicts. It made little sense, he reasoned, to try to win these people over with “moral injunctions against violence and exhortations in favor of love.” It was far more fruitful to show how a strategy of nonviolent conflict could be an effective alternative to armed struggle—perhaps even a superior alternative.6

In books such as Gandhi as a Political Strategist, a collection of essays written between 1959 and 1970, Sharp sought to establish the independence leader not as an otherworldly mahatma, but as a shrewd and calculating tactician. He similarly battled the common beliefs that strategic nonviolence somehow involves avoiding conflict and that it can only be used in democracies. Instead, he set out to show that, far from being passive, nonviolent action could be “a technique of struggle involving the use of psychological, social, economic, and political power” and that it can be used even against viciously repressive regimes.7

Just like armed struggle, Sharp argued, nonviolent conflict involves the “waging of ‘battles,’ requires wise strategy and tactics, and demands of its ‘soldiers’ courage, discipline, and sacrifice.” Perhaps for this reason, he has claimed, those with military backgrounds have sometimes been quicker than peace activists to catch on to his ideas. In later years, one of his closest collaborators has been a retired US Army colonel, Robert Helvey, who became fascinated with the inner workings of nonviolent uprisings after seeing Sharp lecture at Harvard.8

Sharp’s analysis of nonviolent struggle could be notably unflinching. He recognized that if the target of a campaign is a tyrannical regime, repression can be severe. “There must be no illusions,” he wrote. “In some cases nonviolent people have not only been beaten and cruelly treated but killed . . . in deliberate massacres.” Nor did Sharp promise success: “The simple choice of nonviolent action as the technique of struggle,” he explained, “does not and cannot guarantee victory, especially on a short-term basis.”9

That said, Sharp documented how unarmed uprisings could produce remarkable and sometimes counterintuitive results. Whereas violent rebellions play to the strengths of dictatorships—which are deft at suppressing armed attacks and using security challenges to justify the creation of a police state—nonviolent action often catches these regimes off guard. Through what Sharp calls “political jiu-jitsu,” social movements can turn repression into a weakness for those in power. Violent crackdowns against unarmed protests end up exposing the brutality of a ruling force, undermining its legitimacy, and, in many cases, creating wider public unwillingness to cooperate with its mandates. Niccolò Machiavelli recognized this dynamic as early as the 1500s. Of the leader who seeks to impose his rule on a mass of hostile people, he wrote: “the greater his cruelty, the weaker does his regime become.”10

For Sharp, nonviolent efforts could not be limited to acts of noble sacrifice. They needed to have real political impact if they were to be worthwhile. And this insistence on effectiveness was another way in which he broke with previous traditions of pacifism and principled nonviolence.

Earlier strains of peace activism regularly involved small groups of individuals “bearing witness” or “speaking truth to power.” Typical tactics included conscientious objection, war tax resistance, and refusal to participate in air raid drills. Although participants in these actions acknowledged that they might appear isolated or quixotic, they prided themselves on setting a positive example for others. Since the Vietnam era, some in this lineage have undertaken more extreme acts of moral witness. Advocates in the Ploughshares Movement and members of the Catholic Worker Movement—founded by Christian pacifists Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin—have attempted to enact the biblical injunction to “beat swords into plowshares.” In their opposition to war and nuclear arms, these religious activists have burned draft files, poured blood on the decks of battleships, and crossed onto military facilities with the intent of crippling nuclear missiles by hammering on their nosecones.

Such protests have been imbued with a spirit of moral righteousness, and they have been averse to political calculation. Although participants sometimes faced long jail sentences, they put little emphasis on conceiving of how their bold acts of defiance might advance a concrete strategy for change. A saying popular in Catholic Worker circles summed up the approach: “Jesus never told us to be successful,” movement participants would say, “only to be faithful.”11

If the twenty-five-year-old Gene Sharp, who was willing to spend time in jail as an act of personal conscience against war, might have been sympathetic to such thinking, the Sharp who published The Politics of Nonviolent Action two decades later wanted nothing to do with it. In such writing, Sharp repeatedly challenged the notion that good intentions were sufficient to create change. As he wrote in one of his later books, “Feeling good, not engaging in violence, or being willing to die, when you have not achieved the goals of your struggle, does not change the fact that you have failed.”12

What was remarkable, from Sharp’s point of view, was the number of times nonviolent struggle had in fact prevailed, sometimes against hardened opposition. Advocates of principled nonviolence often talked of the goal of “conversion,” or winning over the heart of the enemy. Sharp contended that, although such changes of conscience may be desirable, they were not necessary. To win, activists did not need to express love for their adversaries or make hated opponents see the errors of their ways. In fact, insistence on converting the enemy could be counterproductive, Sharp believed. He argued that “the demand for ‘love’ for people who have done cruel things may turn people who are justifiably bitter and unable to love their opponents towards violence.”13

Once again, Sharp’s perspective would be far more practical. If a dictator can be made to resign through popular protest, the question of how this undemocratic ruler feels about losing his grip on power need not be a main concern of the social movements that compel his ouster. Sharp approvingly quoted civil rights leader James Farmer: “Where we cannot influence the heart of the evil-doer, we can force an end to the evil practice.”14

Sharp’s disagreements with pacifist groups did not end well. The arguments they produced, he reports, were “long and frustrating.” When he was unable to make headway, Sharp resolved to chart his own path. As he gained influence as a theorist, he came to eschew the term “nonviolence” altogether, believing that it was too ambiguous and too loaded with connotations of passivity and religious belief. Instead of using the word as a noun, Sharp began employing it only as an adjective, referring to “nonviolent action” or “nonviolent conflict.” This would prove an influential move. Recently, some academic researchers studying strategic nonviolence, influenced by Sharp, have made a further break in terminology. They now discuss campaigns of unarmed popular action simply as “civil resistance,” a formulation that is notably free of pacifist associations.15

Unlike Gene Sharp, Martin Luther King Jr. was not shaped early on in the pacifist tradition. King’s introduction to nonviolence—both principled and strategic—would be a gradual one.

Few are aware that, as a young preacher, King once sought official license to carry a concealed handgun. In his 2011 book Gunfight, UCLA law professor Adam Winkler notes that, after King’s house was bombed in 1956, the clergyman applied in Alabama for a concealed carry permit. Local police, loath to grant such permits to African Americans, deemed him “unsuitable” and denied his application. Consequently, King would end up leaving the firearms at home.16

The lesson from this incident is not, as some members of the National Rifle Association (NRA) have tried to suggest, that the Nobel Peace Prize winner should be remembered as a gun-toting opponent of firearms regulation. Rather, the fact that King would request license to wear a gun in 1956, just as he was being catapulted onto the national stage, illustrates the profundity of the transformation that he underwent over the course of his public career.17

Although this transformation involved an adoption of principled nonviolence and personal pacifism, that is not the whole of the story. More importantly, for those who are interested in how nonviolent campaigns can have political consequence, King’s evolution also involved a hesitant but ultimately forceful embrace of direct action: broad-scale, confrontational, and unarmed. Just as Sharp’s conversion would profoundly impact how nonviolence is studied, King’s developing appreciation for the strategic dimensions of nonviolent conflict would have lasting consequence for how it is put into practice.

The campaign that first established King’s national reputation, the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott, was not planned in advance as a Gandhian campaign of nonviolent resistance. At the time, King did not have a clear sense of the strategic principles behind such a campaign. Rather, the bus boycott came together quickly following the arrest of Rosa Parks in late 1955, taking inspiration from a similar action in Baton Rouge in 1953.

Still a relative newcomer to Montgomery, King was elected by his fellow ministers and community leaders as the president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, formed at the start of the boycott to oversee the campaign. He was chosen in part because he was not identified with any of the established factions among the city’s prominent blacks. King was surprised by his selection and reluctant to assume his new role and its burdens. Indeed, the risks were considerable: soon he was receiving phone calls on which unidentified voices warned, “Listen, nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you. Before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.” After such threats resulted in the bombing of King’s home in February 1956, armed watchmen guarded against further assassination attempts.18

At this point, King’s embrace of the theory and practice of nonviolent action was still tentative. In his talks before mass meetings, King preached the Christian injunction to “love thy enemy.” Having read Thoreau in college, he described the bus boycott as an “act of massive noncooperation” and regularly called for “passive resistance.” But King did not use the term “nonviolence,” and he admitted that he knew little about Gandhi or the Indian independence leader’s campaigns. As biographer Taylor Branch notes, out-of-state visitors who were knowledgeable about the principles of unarmed direct action—such as Rev. Glenn Smiley of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Bayard Rustin of the War Resisters League—reported that King and other Montgomery activists were “at once gifted and unsophisticated in nonviolence.”19

In a famous incident described by historian David Garrow, Rustin was visiting King’s parsonage with reporter Bill Worthy when the journalist almost sat on a pistol. “Watch out, Bill, there’s a gun on that chair,” the startled Rustin warned. Rustin and King stayed up late that night arguing about whether armed self-defense in the home could end up damaging the movement. Rustin believed it could; King was uncertain.20

Although today’s NRA members might prefer to forget, it was not long before King came around to the position of Rustin and Smiley, who argued for the removal of the firearms. Smiley would make visits to Montgomery throughout the civil rights leader’s remaining four years there, and King’s politics would be shaped by many more late-night conversations.21

In 1959, at the invitation of the Gandhi National Memorial Fund, King made a pilgrimage to India to study the principles of satyagraha. He was moved by the experience. Ultimately, he never embraced the complete pacifism of A. J. Muste, Sharp’s former employer; in the Black Power years, King made a distinction between people using guns to defend themselves in the home, on the one hand, and the question of “whether it was tactically wise to use a gun while participating in an organized protest,” on the other. But, for himself, King claimed nonviolence as a “way of life,” and he maintained his resolve under conditions that would make many others falter. Although Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) staffers, fearing that their leader could be assassinated, often implored police and federal authorities to ensure public safety at civil rights gatherings, King regularly refused to travel with an armed guard, and he showed a sometimes-disturbing acceptance of the idea of that he might someday be killed.22

In September 1962, when King was addressing a convention, a two-hundred-pound white man, the twenty-four-year-old American Nazi Party member Roy James, jumped onto the stage and struck the clergyman in the face. King responded with a level of courage that made a lifelong impression on many of those in the audience. One of them, storied educator and activist Septima Clark, described how King dropped his hands “like a newborn baby” and spoke calmly to his attacker. King made no effort to protect himself even as he was knocked backward by further blows. Later, after his aides had pulled the assailant away, King talked to James behind the stage and insisted that he would not press charges.23

Believers in pacifism often contend that such principled nonviolence represents the high point in a person’s moral evolution. They argue that those who merely use unarmed protest tactically—not because they accept it as an ethical imperative—practice a lesser form of nonviolence. Gandhi advanced this position when he claimed that those who forgo violence for strategic reasons employ the “nonviolence of the weak.” King echoed the argument when he wrote that “nonviolence in the truest sense is not a strategy that one uses simply because it is expedient in the moment” but rather is something “men live by because of the sheer morality of its claim.”24

Despite such admonitions, the opposite case can be made: in holding up King as an icon of individual pacifism, we fail to see his true genius. Like Sharp, the civil rights leader made his greatest impact when he championed campaigns of widespread disruption and collective sacrifice.

In time, Martin Luther King Jr. would embrace strategic nonviolence in its most robust and radical form, and this stance produced the historic confrontations at Birmingham and Selma. But it is important to remember that these events came years after his baptism into political life in Montgomery and that they might easily not have happened at all.

Following the success of the Bus Boycott, King sought out ways to spread the Montgomery model throughout the South. He knew there were strategists who had immersed themselves in the theory and practice of broad-scale confrontation, but he acknowledged that this organizing tradition had yet to take root in the civil rights movement. In early 1957, King met James Lawson, a savvy student of unarmed resistance who had spent several years in India. As biographer Taylor Branch relates, King pleaded with the young graduate student to quit his studies: “We need you now,” King said. “We don’t have any Negro leadership in the South that understands nonviolence.”25

Despite his desire to employ tactics of nonviolent struggle, the idea of waging widely participatory campaigns of direct action fell far outside of King’s organizational frame of reference, and in many ways he remained a reluctant convert to mass action. Founded not long after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference was conceived as a coalition of ministers. It thought of itself, in the words of one historian, as the “political arm of the black church.” As Ella Baker biographer Barbara Ransby writes, typical church institutions were none too bold in their push for civil rights, and “the majority of black ministers in the 1950s still opted for a safer, less confrontational political path.” Even King and his more motivated cohort “defined their political goals squarely within the respectable American mainstream and were cautious about any leftist associations.”26

Frustrated that the SCLC’s program in the first years involved more “flowery speeches” than civil disobedience, the militant Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham warned that if the organization did not become more aggressive, its leaders would “be hard put in the not too distant future to justify our existence.”27

The next major breakthroughs in civil rights activism would come not from the SCLC’s hesitant ministers but from the student lunch-counter sit-ins that swept through the South starting in spring of 1960, and then from the 1961 Freedom Rides. In each case, when young activists implored King to join them, the elder clergyman—himself just in his early thirties—stalled and equivocated. King told the students that he was with them in spirit. They pointedly shot back, “Where’s your body?”28

According to John Lewis, then a leader in Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), King replied to such challenges with irritation, making reference to the site of Jesus’s crucifixion: “I think I should choose the time and place of my Golgotha,” he said.29

When King’s SCLC did get directly involved in a major campaign of strategic nonviolence, the organization was drawn into an effort that was already under way—the movement in Albany, Georgia, starting in late 1961. Even then, the SCLC did not fully commit until after King and Ralph Abernathy were swept up in an unplanned arrest.30


On Sale
Feb 9, 2016
Page Count
368 pages
Bold Type Books

Mark Engler

About the Author

Mark Engler, a writer based in Philadelphia, is an editorial board member at Dissent, a contributing editor at Yes! Magazine, and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books).

Paul Engler is founding director of the Center for the Working Poor, based in Los Angeles. He worked for more than a decade as an organizer in the immigrant rights, global justice, and labor movements.

Learn more about this author

Paul Engler

About the Author

Paul Engler is founding director of the Center for the Working Poor, based in Los Angeles. He worked for more than a decade as an organizer in the immigrant rights, global justice, and labor movements.

Learn more about this author