My investigation of the “one-man revolution” a while back has been picking up some attention here and there on the net. Unfortunately, these days a lot of this buzz is coming from various social media discussion fora that don’t give me a working referrer link I can use to eavesdrop on how the conversation is going.
But the article also started some back-and-forth at the wtr-s email list. In the conclusion to my Picket Line post, I’d regretted that there wasn’t much evidence of either Thoreau or Hennacy having to defend their enthusiastic case for the “one-man revolution” against an incisive critic. The wtr-s discussion fills in some of this gap.
Larry Rosenwald, who has been a strong advocate for more-strongly coordinated and organized action in the American war tax resistance community, put in his two cents, making a couple of good points:
- There are some good examples of real, positive change taking place through organized, collective effort, where it is hard to imagine a one-man revolution strategy having similar effects — for example, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Montgomery Improvement Association that kept it going; or the abolitionist movement.
- The assertion that “political revolutions that are not also accompanied by individual revolutions don’t make enduring radical change — they just change the faces of the clowns running the circus while leaving the corrupt structure intact,” is too strong. Sometimes even an ordinary political revolution promises to be worth the trouble, and it would be a mistake to wait for a perhaps more-perfect but also less likely “enduring radical change.”
Larry also echoed Pam Allee’s point that the one-man revolution and the organized political revolution don’t have to be antagonists: “a ‘both-and’ approach to solutions is preferable to an ‘either-or.’”
I think there’s a lot of truth in these points.
Thoreau, with his one-man revolution, turned out to be very influential, and I think it cannot be denied that through his essay on civil disobedience he has had an enormous effect on the world. But I think Gandhi was being ridiculous when he credited Thoreau for ending slavery in America.
It is difficult to know how much credit to give to one-man revolutionaries. The nature of how they do business rarely leads to dramatic large-scale victories of the handshakes-and-peace-treaties sort. Their influence is more subtle and less acute.
It is hard to imagine the success of abolitionism in the British Empire without the well-organized, persistent, patient, flexible abolitionist movement there. But on the other hand, it is hard to imagine the success of abolitionism in the American Quaker church without one-man revolutionaries like Benjamin Lay standing barefoot in the snow outside of the meeting house to dramatize the suffering of slaves still held by Quakers. But maybe this says more about my imagination than about the relative strengths of the tactics.
Some other criticisms of the one-man revolution that occurred to me:
- If being organized and coordinated is such a tactical drawback, how come the people who are organized and coordinated to do wickedness seem to be so successful? (My guess is that Hennacy/Thoreau would respond that it’s difficult to do good as an organized collective, but not so difficult to do evil that way. Doing good means hitting the bullseye; doing evil you can just land the arrow anywhere. If you’re aiming a bow by committee, you’re unlikely to hit your target, but if you’re aiming for evil, you might not care so much in what direction you miss or how much.)
- The one-man revolution can degenerate into a fakir-ish narcissism, concentrating on ever-finer gradations of self-perfection that have diminishing practical returns. I’ve covered a few cases here at The Picket Line of people who have gone on ethical perfectionism binges that seem to have ended up doing more harm than good — for instance the self-immolation of Jeff Knaebel or the catastrophic renunciation of the Boekes.
And I’m sure this doesn’t exhaust the list.
My sympathies lie more with the one-man revolutionary camp, but I’m not a very good organizer, so I wonder if I am being biassed by my own frustrations in trying to use organizing and coordinated action, and not by actual inherent flaws in the tactic.