Objections to the “One Man Revolution”

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 biased by my own frustrations in trying to use organizing and coordinated action, and not by actual inherent flaws in the tactic.

The other day I was out doing some errands and I noticed a nail in the bike path. I’d been working on my “one-man revolution” post and thought about how folks of various political bents might advise me as to my civic responsibilities on such an occasion:

Call 911 and report that some criminal is throwing nails in the streets (probably a Mexican).
Write a letter to the editor calling on the city to hire more unionized street sweepers.
Collect petitions to put a measure on the ballot that would mandate that all nails sold in the city be manufactured from biodegradable recycled cardboard.
Try to explain to people that if we privatized the roads, things like this wouldn’t happen, as the owners of the roads would have a profit motive to keep the roads clean of any debris that might expose them to liability or cause their customers to leave them for a competitor’s better-maintained roads.
one-man revolutionary
Stop and pick up the nail.

Here are some additional quotes that I cut from earlier drafts of my “one-man revolution” post, but that you might find interesting or inspiring if you enjoyed the quotes that did make the cut:

Every man is the lord of a realm beside which the earthly empire of the Czars is but a petty state… And, O ye Reformers! if the good Gods have given ye any high ray of truth to be wrought into life, here in your own realms without let or hindrance is the application to be made.


If organizing thousands of people into a group promising to do good, or pledging themselves to revolutionary action is practical, then I am not practical… I did not need a committee to coordinate or regulate me, for I can organize myself. This is what a one-man revolution is supposed to do.


I told my young friend that he could always get a crowd to applaud mild criticism of war and for the lowering of taxes and raising of wages, but that this same crowd would really follow the blazing torch of super demagogues… Yes, men by themselves are not so bad, but in a crowd or in a political campaign where they wear “labels” they are only suckers. I pointed out that spiritual power was the greatest force in the world, and that beside it all the two-penny political victories did not mean a thing. Too many of us dissipate our energy by being “for all good causes,” attending meetings and passing resolutions, organizing and presenting petitions — all this effort to change others, when if we really got down to it we could use this energy to change ourselves. This can be done by spiritual means and it does not wear one out but is invigorating. We become tired radicals because we use our weakest weapon: the ballot box, where we are always outnumbered, and refuse to use our strongest weapon: spiritual power.


I admit at the start that myself and those like me are not going to win, for the whole trend is toward the welfare state and bigger and better churches. The trend is not toward individual responsibility and the voluntary poverty and simple life of the early Christians — all the more reason we should keep on trying, though.


[W]hen you plant, or bury, a hero in his field, a crop of heroes is sure to spring up.


What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend my­self to the wrong which I con­demn.