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Striking at the Roots of Power

Nonviolent struggle works by undermining the opponent's power at its source. A government's political power, for example, ultimately depends on the consent and cooperation of its citizens. Rulers of governments and political systems are not omnipotent, nor do they possess self-generating power. On the contrary, all dominating elites and rulers depend for their sources of power upon the cooperation of the population and of the institutions of the society they would rule. If the population rejects the rulers' right to rule and to command, they are withdrawing the general agreement, or group consent, which makes the existing government possible. This loss of authority sets in motion the disintegration of the rulers' power. That power is reduced to the degree that the rulers are denied authority. Where the loss is extreme, the existence of that particular government is threatened.

Facing Repression

When nonviolent struggle presents a serious challenge to the opponent, the opponent is likely to react with repression against the nonviolent actionists.

Faced with repression, nonviolent actionists have only one acceptable response: to overcome they must persist in their action and refuse to submit or retreat. Without willingness to face repression as the price of struggle, the nonviolent action movement cannot hope to succeed.

Facing repression with persistence and courage means that the nonviolent actionists must be prepared to endure the opponent's sanctions without flinching. The nonviolent actionists must be prepared to suffer in order to advance their cause. Some people may interpret this suffering in a metaphysical or spiritual sense, but this view is not necessary for the technique; it is sufficient if the volunteers understand that their withstanding repression will contribute to achieving their objectives.

Political Jiu-Jitsu

Political jiu-jitsu is one of the special processes by which nonviolent action deals with violent repression. By combining nonviolent discipline with solidarity and persistence in struggle, the nonviolent actionists cause the violence of the opponent's repression to be exposed in the worst possible light. This, in turn, may lead to shifts in opinion and then to shifts in power relationships favorable to the nonviolent group. These shifts result from withdrawal of support for the opponent and the grant of support to the nonviolent actionists.

Mechanisms of Change

When successful, nonviolent action produces change in one of the following ways:


The opponent has been inwardly changed so that he wants to make the changes desired by the nonviolent actionists.


The opponent does not agree with the changes (he has not been converted), and he could continue the struggle (he has not been nonviolently coerced), but nevertheless he has concluded that it is best to grant some or all of the demands. He may see the issues as not so important after all, the actionists as not as bad as he had thought, or he may expect to lose more by continuing the struggle than by conceding gracefully.

Nonviolent coercion

The opponent has not changed his mind on the issues and wants to continue the struggle, but is unable to do so; the sources of his power and means of control have been taken away from him without the use of violence. This may have been done by the nonviolent group or by opposition and noncooperation among his own group (as, mutiny of his troops), or some combination of these.


The opponent's sources of power are so completely severed or dissolved that the opponent simply falls apart as a viable entity. No coherent body remains, even to accept defeat. The opponent's power has been simply dissolved.

Source: Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, (3 Vols.), Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973; and Gene Sharp, The Role of Power in Nonviolent Struggle (monograph), Cambridge: The Albert Einstein Institution, (forthcoming).

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