The “One-Man Revolution” of Ammon Hennacy

I had a fantastic vacation in Veracruz, but vacation though it was, I couldn’t leave The Picket Line behind entirely. Between adventures I’ve been reading The Book of Ammon — Ammon Hennacy’s autobiography, much of which seems to have been cobbled together without much editing from his journals, correspondence, and dispatches for the Catholic Worker and other publications.

Hennacy was a rare bird — a “One Man Revolution” of one man in a million. He wrote:

Love without courage and wisdom is sentimentality, as with the ordinary church member. Courage without love and wisdom is foolhardiness, as with the ordinary soldier. Wisdom without love and courage is cowardice, as with the ordinary intellectual. Therefore one who has love, courage and wisdom is one in a million who moves the world, as with Jesus, Buddha and Gandhi.

Hennacy aspired to be this one-in-a-million. When he was held in solitary confinement for several months as a conscientious objector during World War Ⅰ, he had little but a bible to keep him occupied. He ended up taking the Sermon on the Mount much more seriously than Christians typically recommend, and he decided to make that creed the North Star of his life.

He called himself a “Christian Anarchist” — “one who turns the other cheek, overturns the tables of the money-changers, and who does not need a cop to tell him how to behave.”

Despite the popular idea of anarchists as violent men, Anarchism is the one non-violent social philosophy.… The function of the Anarchist is two-fold. By daily courage in non-cooperation with the tyrannical forces of the State and the Church, he helps to tear down present society; the Anarchist by daily cooperation with his fellows in overcoming evil with good-will and solidarity builds toward the anarchistic commonwealth which is formed by voluntary action with the right of secession.

A Christian Anarchist does not depend on bullets or ballots to achieve his ideal; he achieves that ideal daily by the One Man Revolution with which he faces a decadent, confused and dying world.…

To not pay taxes is not my whole message but it is a part of the life of a rebel which I chose to act upon. For despite all talk you either pay taxes or you don’t.

The tax resistance bit is how I came to learn about Ammon Hennacy. He practiced voluntary poverty as his tax resistance method for the most part, although he did earn enough to owe money, which he then refused to pay. When the government instituted paycheck withholding, Hennacy quit his job and began working as a farm worker, being paid daily and usually in cash, in order to stay out of the grip of the tax collector:

…I explained the principle of voluntary poverty and non payment of taxes as I had learned them from Tolstoy and the CW. When I was working a man asked me “Why does a fellow like you, with an education, and who has been all over the country, end up in this out-of-the-way place working for very little on a farm?” I explained that all people who had good jobs in factories, etc. had a withholding tax for war taken from their pay, and that people who worked on farms had no tax taken from their pay. I told him that I refused to pay taxes. He was a returned soldier and said that he did not like war either, but what could a fellow do about it? I replied that we each did what we really wanted to.

He’d file accurate returns each year, “not wishing to have my non-payment of taxes confused by any other issue,” but “[i]n the space listed ‘AMOUNT OF TAX DUE’ I wrote ‘not interested.’ ”

Hennacy relates an amusing story of how the tax collector did catch up with him once. Hennacy was picketing the revenue office, and…

Mr. Schumacher, my tax man, came up and handed me a card which read:

Seized for the account of the United States on by virtue of warrant for distraint issued by the collector of internal revenue, district of Arizona, Deputy Collector… One poster for picket line.

Hennacy got some new signs printed up and continued his protest, but Schumacher later “good naturedly said that he had a bid of $5 for my signs from someone who wanted them as a souvenir.”

The farm work was hard, paid poorly, and workers were often cheated. Hennacy doesn’t much complain about his lot, though, as to him hard work is a virtue of its own. People who don’t earn their bread by the sweat of their brows — and this includes most clergy, capitalists, “salesmen, lawyers, bankers, politicians, policemen or soldiers” — he derides as parasites.

It’s sometimes hard to tell where Hennacy’s Christian Anarchism leaves off and his own personal eccentricities begin. There are many aspects to his philosophy, and not all seem either Christian or Anarchist.

Hennacy preferred action to theorizing, though while some of his actions (such as opening “Joe Hill Houses” or tax resistance) were “direct actions,” other favorites of his (such as picketing and fasting) seem more indirect and symbolic.

He saw welfare capitalism — big agriculture and war profiteers especially — as spectacularly shameful and as dooming capitalism entirely. But he had no love for socialists, one-world global federalists, or any of that nonsense. He once admitted some sympathy for the communists, though not because of their program or their tactics but simply because whenever he would picket against war and for justice, or hand out copies of the Catholic Worker or Conscientious Objector, people would curse him by calling him a “communist.”

He was a vegetarian — a term he defined to also exclude alcohol and tobacco. He opposed the payment or earning of interest. He distrusted doctors & medicine. He was a partisan for the traditionalist Hopi and derided those who compromised with the U.S. culture and government bureaucracy. He disapproved of cities and felt that decentralization and family farms were part of the solution to what ails the world.

He said “I love my enemies but am hell on my friends”:

[I]t has seemed that those with whom I have the most controversy are those who claim to accept the ideals of peace and brotherhood, and even at times, anarchism, yet who follow from such a distance when it comes to practicing these ideals that I feel it is my duty as one who goes a long way to call the bluff of those who say “Lord, Lord” and “peace, peace” in exultant tones which mean very little.… At times those who do not want to have their inconsistencies pointed out say in a super-sweet voice to me “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” I reply “O.K., judge me, then.”

He valued honesty and openness over secrecy and subterfuge — he’d write to the police chief ahead of time and say he’d be coming to town to picket “subversively.” Often, they’d tell him that he couldn’t, or that it wouldn’t be safe, or that he’d need a permit. He’d always do it anyway. “I’m not disturbing the peace,” he’d say, “I’m disturbing the war.”

Orthodox anarchists who like to hide in alleys, whisper in saloons about the great damage they will do to the capitalist, or get social security checks which are not due them and think they have done something, do not like my Gandhian frankness in dealing with officialdom. The idea is I am not “asking” the officials anything. I am “telling” them what I am going to do.

The most focal value of Hennacy’s was his “One Man Revolution:”

[T]he only revolution worthwhile was the one-man revolution within the heart. Each one could make this by himself and not need to wait on a majority.

We really can’t change the world. We really can’t change other people! The best we can do is to start a few thinking here and there. The best way to do this, if we are sincere, is to change ourselves!

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… 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.

A reporter once asked him: “Hennacy, do you think you can change the world?” He shot back: “No, but I am damn sure it can’t change me.” That personal victory, the one-man revolution, at times seemed to be all he was aiming at. The other book I brought down to Mexico with me was William Hubben’s Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzche, and Kafka, and there’s a passage in it that seemed to pinpoint the sort of person Hennacy was driving himself to become:

Like Kierkegaard and Tolstoy, Nietzsche neither expects nor wants to find disciples. He wants new “single ones” at a time when the average mass man no longer counts.

(Hennacy does not refer to Nietzsche or to Kierkegaard in his autobiography, but does quote extensively from Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor” and writes of Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You that “I felt that it must have been written especially for me, for here was the answer already written out to all the questions that I had tried to figure out for myself [while imprisoned] in solitary. To change the world by bullets or ballots was a useless procedure.”)

Hennacy never aimed for mass appeal, and he specifically criticized radicals who would try to water down or frame their messages to appeal to a wider audience. But he wrote a lot, and he lectured and debated a lot, and he picketed a lot, and this all was for some audience. Although he said, “I sure don’t want any Ammonites following me around,” he did title his book The Book of Ammon and he did seem at times to be a prophet in search of disciples. (His young daughters once responded to a question about him by saying “We are very proud of our Daddy because he did not go to war and kill people, but we get tired of hearing him brag about it.”)

Over time, the tone of his explanatory leaflets changed from “Why am I doing this?” to “Why aren’t you doing this?”

WHY AM I PICKETING? Well, why aren’t you? Do the A-Bomb and the H-Bomb make you sleep any better at night? Do you trust our politicians to protect us from destruction in an atomic war? Does it make good sense to foot the bill by paying income taxes?

I am not paying my income tax this year, and I haven’t done so for the last seven years. I don’t expect to stop World War Ⅲ by my refusal to pay, but I don’t believe in paying for something I don’t believe in — do you?

Do you believe that anyone ever “won” a war? Or that any good can come from returning evil for evil? I don’t believe it! And I don’t believe I need preachers or policemen to make me behave, either.

I do believe in personal responsibility, and that’s why I am picketing. Why aren’t you?

Do you pay your income tax because you are afraid of the sacrifice that trust in God and opposition to the state may involve? I decided long ago that, while all of us must die, I could choose something worthwhile to live and die for. You might as well die for what you do believe as for what you don’t believe. Remember that Johnson said to Boswell, “Courage is the greatest virtue, for without it you cannot practice the other virtues.

If you want a better world you will not get it by trying to make men out of Congressmen through writing them letters, by voting for any politician since they all believe in war, or by expecting very much of a World Government composed of these same ignoble politicians. Neither will the mocking of God by saying prayers for peace while making munitions and paying taxes for war be of much avail. That kind of prayer bounces back!

If you want to think a little further about this, here are the first steps (you will know in your heart what is right for you); Study the Sermon on the Mount, and the lives of such dedicated men as St. Francis, George Fox, Tolstoy and Gandhi. Try to make whatever you do coincide with Christ’s teachings. Ask yourself whether returning evil for evil in courts, legislatures, prisons and war is not denying Christ. If your answer is yes, then stop doing it.…

To sum up: REFUSE to register for the draft or military training! REFUSE to buy war bonds! REFUSE to make munitions for war! And when you get around to it, REFUSE to pay taxes for war!

Reading this book isn’t a bit like reading Mother Jones or Reason or watching a Michael Moore documentary or reading 99% of the political blogs out there. It’s no exposé of the evils They are perpetrating, but instead it’s the story of one man who is trying to turn his back on those evils and start walking the other way. The challenge Ammon Hennacy makes is not to “the system” or “the government” or to any particular politicians or evildoers, but to those of us who read his words and who haven’t turned our backs on evil yet.