Passive Resistance

Excerpted from the book;

Individual Liberty
Selections From the Writings of Benjamin R. Tucker
Vanguard Press, New York, 1926
Kraus Reprint Co., Millwood, NY, 1973.


How are you going to put your theories into practice? Is the eternal question propounded by students of sociology to the expounders of Anarchism. To one of those inquirers the editor of Liberty made this reply:

"Edgeworth" makes appeal to me through Lucifer to know how I propose to "starve out Uncle Sam." Light on this subject he would "rather have than roast beef and plum pudding for dinner in saecula saeculorum." It puzzles him to know whether by the clause "resistance to taxation" on the "sphynx head of Liberty on `God and the State'" I mean that "true Anarchists should advertise their principles by allowing property to be seized by the sheriff and sold at auction, in order by such personal sacrifices to become known to each other as men and women of a common faith, true to that faith in the teeth of their interests and trustworthy for combined action." If I do mean this, he ventures to "doubt the policy of a test which depletes, not that enormous vampire, Uncle Sam, but our own little purses, so needful for our propaganda of ideas, several times a year, distrainment by the sheriff being in many parts of the country practically equivalent to tenfold taxes." If, on the other hand, I have in view a minority capable of "successfully withdrawing the supplies from Uncle Sam's treasury," he would like to inquire "how any minority, however respectable in numbers and intelligence, is to withstand the sheriff backed by the army, and to withhold tribute to the State."

Fair and pertinent questions these, which I take pleasure in answering. In the first place, then, the policy to be pursued by individual and isolated Anarchists is dependent upon circumstances. I, no more than "Edgeworth," believe in any foolish waste of needed material. It is not wise warfare to throw your ammunition to the enemy unless you throw it from the cannon's mouth. But if you can compel the enemy to waste his ammunition by drawing his fire on some thoroughly protected spot; if you can, by annoying and goading and harassing him in all possible ways, drive him to the last resort of stripping bare his tyrannous and invasive purposes and put him in the attitude of a designing villain assailing honest men for purposes of plunder; there is no better strategy. Let no Anarchist, then, place his property within reach of the sheriff's clutch. But some year, when he feels exceptionally strong and independent, when his conduct can impair no serious personal obligations, when on the whole he would a little rather go to jail than not, and when his property is in such shape that he can successfully conceal it, let him declare to the assessor property of a certain value, and then defy the collector to collect. Or, if he have no property, let him decline to pay his poll tax. The State will then be put to its trumps. Of two things one, - either it will let him alone, and then he will tell his neighbors all about it, resulting the next year in an alarming disposition on their part to keep their own money in their own pockets; or else it will imprison him, and then by the requisite legal processes be will demand and secure all the rights of a civil prisoner and live thus a decently comfortable life until the State shall get tired of supporting him and the increasing number of persons who will follow his example. Unless, indeed, the State, in desperation, shall see fit to make its laws regarding imprisonment for taxes more rigorous, and then, if our Anarchist be a determined man, we shall find out how far a republican government, "deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed," is ready to go to procure that "consent," - whether it will stop at solitary confinement in a dark cell or join with the Czar of Russia in administering torture by electricity. The farther it shall go the better it will be for Anarchy, as every student of the history of reform well knows. Who can estimate the power for propagandism of a few cases of this kind, backed by a well-organized force of agitators without the prison walls? So much, then, for individual resistance.

But, if individuals can do so much, what shall be said of the enormous and utterly irresistible power of a large and intelligent minority, comprising say one-fifth of the population in any given locality? I conceive that on this point I need do no more than call "Edgeworth's" attention to the wonderfully instructive history of the Land League movement in Ireland, the most potent and instantly effective revolutionary force the world has ever known so long as it stood by its original policy of "Pay No Rent," and which lost nearly all its strength the day it abandoned that policy. "Oh, but it did abandon it?" "Edgeworth" will exclaim. Yes, but why? Because there the peasantry, instead of being an intelligent minority following the lead of principles, were an ignorant, though enthusiastic and earnest, body of men following blindly the lead of unscrupulous politicians like Parnell, who really wanted anything but the abolition of rent, but were willing to temporarily exploit any sentiment or policy that would float them into power and influence. But it was pursued far enough to show that the British government was utterly powerless before it; and it is scarcely too much to say, in my opinion, that, had it been persisted in, there would not today be a landlord in Ireland. It is easier to resist taxes in this country than it is to resist rent in Ireland; and such a policy would be as much more potent here than there as the intelligence of the people is greater, providing always that you can enlist in it a sufficient number of earnest and determined men and women. If one-fifth of the people were to resist taxation, it would cost more to collect their taxes, or try to collect them, than the other four-fifths would consent to pay into the treasury, The force needed for this bloodless fight Liberty is slowly but surely recruiting, and sooner or later it will organize for action. Then, Tyranny and Monopoly, down goes your house!

"Passive resistance," said Ferdinand Lassalle, with an obtuseness thoroughly German, "is the resistance which does not resist." Never was there a greater mistake. It is the only resistance which in these days of military discipline resists with any result. There is not a tyrant in the civilized world today who would not do anything in his power to precipitate a bloody revolution rather than see himself confronted by any large fraction of his subjects determined nat to obey. An insurrection is easily quelled; but no army is willing or able to train its guns on inoffensive people who do not even gather in the streets but stap at home and stand back on their rights. Neither the ballot nor the bayonet is to play any great part in the coming struggle; passive resistance is the instrument by which the revolutionary force is destined to secure in the last great conflict the people's rights forever.


The idea that Anarchy can be inaugurated by force is as fallacious as the idea that it can be sustained by force. Force cannot preserve Anarchy; neither can it bring it. In fact, one of the inevitable influences of the use of force is to postpone Anarchy. The only thing that force can ever do for us is to save us from extinction, to give us a longer lease of life in which to try to secure Anarchy by the only methods that can ever bring it. But this advantage is always purchased at immense cost, and its attainment is always attended by frightful risk. The attempt should be made only when the risk of any other course is greater. When a physician sees that his patient's strength is being exhausted so rapidly by the intensity of his agony that he will die of exhaustion before the medical processes inaugurated have a chance to do their curative work, he administers an opiate. But a good physician is always loath to do so, knowing that one of the influences of the opiate is to interfere with and defeat the medical processes themselves. He never does it except as a choice of evils. It is the same with the use of force, whether of the mob or of the State, upon diseased society; and not only those who prescribe its indiscriminate use as a sovereign remedy and a permanent tonic, but all who ever propose it as a cure, and even all who would lightly and unnecessarily resort to it, not as a cure, but as an expedient, are social quacks.


The power of passive resistance has been strikingly illustrated in Russia (1905-6). She has had three "general strikes," and only the first one was truly, magnificently successful. It was absolutely pacific; it was of the sort that Tolstoy has been urging for years. Workmen, clerks, professional men, even government employees and dvorniks (janitors converted into spies and informers), simply dropped their tools, briefs, documents, and what not, and refused to carry on the activities of industrial and political life. The result, on the government's side, was panic. A constitution was granted; a whole series of reforms - on paper - followed.

The second strike was called when the circumstances were unfavorable and the causes distinctly doubtful in the opinion of the majority of the government's enemies. It failed, and the consequent bitterness and apprehension led to a third strike, with an appeal to arms at Moscow. That appeal was most unfortunate; the revolutionary elements had overestimated their strength, and greatly underestimated that of the autocratic-bureaucratic machine. The army was loyal, and the "revolution" was crushed. Now the government has regained its confidence, and is reviving the Plehve tactics. It is suppressing not merely revolutionary bodies and manifestations, but liberal and constitutional ones as well. Reaction is admittedly a strong probability, and the really substantial victories of October may be forfeited.

Of course, human nature is human nature, and it were both idle and unfair to blame the distracted and exasperated Russian radicals for the turn events have taken. Witte has not been honest; the Bourbons were at no time in actual fear of his liberalism. Quite likely any other body of men would have acted as the Russian intellectuals and proletariat committees have acted. Still the fact remains that, had the policy of strictly passive resistance been continued, and had not the strike and boycott weapon been too recklessly used, the cause of freedom and progress in Russia would today rejoice in much brighter prospects. Whatever reform Russia shall be shown by developments to have secured she will certainly owe to the peaceful demonstration of the "Red Sunday" and to the passive strike.

Passive resistance and boycotting are now prominent features of every great national movement. Hungary having been threatened with absolutism, and being, probably, too weak to risk war with Austria, what does she do? Her national leaders talk about a boycott against Austrian products and passive resistance to the collection of taxes and the recruiting of troops. In some localities the resistance has already been attempted, with results as painful as demoralizing to the agents of the Austrian government. The boycotting of Austrian products may or may not be irrational, but this tendency to resort to boycotting is a sign of the times.

Of the superior effectiveness of passive resistance to arbitrary and invasive policies it is hardly necessary to speak. It may be noted, however, that the labor memoirs of the British Parliament seem to appreciate the full power of this method of defence. The Balfour-clerical education bill, a reactionary measure, has largely been nullified in Wales by the refusal of its opponents to pay the school rates. The labor group demands legislation throwing the burden of school support and maintenance on the national treasury. Under such a system, passive resistance to the school act would be rendered almost impossible, for national taxation is largely indirect. The reactionaries perceive this, and are not at all averse to the proposal. Local autonomy in taxation and direct local rates are very advantageous to passive resisters, and labor is short-sighted in giving up the advantage.


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