Avoiding Divide-and-Conquer Attacks Against Tax Resistance Movements

A challenge that many successful tax resistance campaigns have confronted has to do with divisions in the movement. Sometimes these are deliberate divide-and-conquer tactics by those who oppose the campaign. Other times, these are just the result of fractures in an unstable coalition, where most of the dividing pressure comes from within the campaign.

It can be important to the success of such a campaign that it maintain and demonstrate solidarity in the face of such challenges. Here are some examples of how a variety of tax resistance campaigns have tried to cope.

German constitutionalists

In Germany, the government attempted to break a tax resistance movement by offering to moderate its enforcement efforts against people who could show that they had limited means. Karl Marx, who was promoting the resistance at the time, saw this as a divide-and-conquer tactic and counseled people to disregard it:

The intention of the Ministry is only too clear. It wants to divide the democrats; it wants to make the peasants and workers count themselves as non-payers owing to lack of means to pay, in order to split them from those not paying out of regard for legality, and thereby deprive the latter of the support of the former. But this plan will fail; the people realizes that it is responsible for solidarity in the refusal to pay taxes, just as previously it was responsible for solidarity in payment of them.

Rebeccaites

The Rebeccaite movement in Wales was very successful in its bold campaign of destroying toll booths. But its diffuse, non-hierarchical, anonymous structure made it easy for people to hijack it for their own ends, and it wasn’t long before people and groups calling themselves “Rebecca” began issuing threats and enacting vigilante justice in a variety of causes, or sometimes in what seemed like merely personal grievances.

For example, having come to the help of the farmers by reducing the tolls they were charged when bringing their goods to market, a meeting of Rebeccaites decided they were justified in now demanding that these newly-liberated farmers and merchants lower the prices of their goods. Butter and beer would now be cheaper in Wales, and the Rebeccaites would make it so by force if necessary.

Things like this made the message of the movement confused, made it less sympathetic to potential supporters, and helped the authorities to recruit spies and people willing to testify against the rioters among those who otherwise might have been their allies.

Irish Land League

The Irish, suffering from famine and under the thumb of government-backed English absentee landlords, began a rent strike under the leadership of the Irish Land League.

The English encouraged the Irish to respond to their sad lot by emigrating to America and elsewhere. They would have been happy to depopulate the island and make it England’s livestock grazing pasture, and they were eager to diminish by attrition the political power of the native population. But, as Charles Stewart Parnell put it:

The Land League saw through this design, and defeated it by their advice to the people to resist being compelled to emigrate. It told them to refuse to pay extortionate rents — that is, rents they could not pay and at the same time feed their families; it told them to refuse to leave their homes unless forcibly ejected, so that winter might not find them without a shelter to their heads; and it told them to refuse to rent farms from which other tenants had been evicted.

British women’s suffrage movement

At the time the Women’s Tax Resistance League and allied organizations were trying to win the vote for women, most men couldn’t vote in Britain either. The vote at the time was largely restricted to propertied men, though there were ongoing campaigns for universal male suffrage.

By trying to get women to be treated equally as voters under the law, the women’s movement of the time was, thereby, fighting merely for the voting rights of propertied women, not for women in general.

Dora Montefiore reflected on this, and the divisions it threatened to provoke, when she reviewed her time in the movement in her autobiography, From a Victorian to a Modern:

The members of the I.L.P., of which there was a good branch in Hammersmith, were very helpful, both as speakers and organisers during these meetings, but the Members of the Social Democratic Federation, of which I was a member, were very scornful because they said we should have been asking at that moment for Adult Suffrage and not Votes for Women; but although I have always been a staunch adult suffragist, I felt that at that moment the question of the enfranchisement of women was paramount, as we had to educate the public in our demands and in the reasons for our demands, and as we found that with many people the words “Adult Suffrage” connoted only manhood suffrage, our urgent duty was at that moment to gain Press publicity up and down the country and to popularise the idea of the political enfranchisement of women.

I explained in all my speeches and writings that though it looked as if I were only asking for Suffrage for Women on a property qualification, I was doing this because the mass of non-qualified women could not demonstrate in the same way, and I was to that extent their spokeswoman. … The working women from the East End came, time and again, to demonstrate in front of my barricaded house and understood this point and never swerved in their allegiance to our organisation

Poll Tax rebellion in the U.K.

In Danny Burns’s reminiscences of the Poll Tax Rebellion, he reflects that there were constant tensions in the campaign between the locally-organized grassroots groups that were the real engine of the revolt, and the professional left/labor radical groups and politicians who kept trying to put themselves at the front of the parade.

When a number of people were arrested in a police riot during an anti Poll Tax demonstration at Trafalgar Square, some of the movement leadership distanced themselves from those who had been arrested in the riot — wanting to distinguish nonviolent tax resisters from those charged with resisting arrest or other such charges, and talking about holding “an internal inquiry” to “root out the troublemakers.” But when the defendants organized their own collective defense committee, the leaders of the All-Britain Federation tried to usurp them by launching their own defense fund and soliciting donations (the attempt failed).

Anti-war, anti-tax coalition building in U.S.

There have been some attempts at coalition building between the left and right in the United States, where the folks at the top keep the folks at the bottom facing off against each other that way so their pockets face outwards and are easier to pick. One example of such coalition building in the tax resistance movement was a “tea party” held in by the right-leaning group called the National Taxpayers Union, at which left-libertarians like Murray Rothbard and Karl Hess, and leftish war tax resisters like Bradford Lyttle spoke. The following year, leftist scholar and war tax resister Noam Chomsky, and conservative publisher Robert Kephart spoke at a National Taxpayers Union event.

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