A.J. Muste — Peace Agitator

Nat Hentoff, in his book about A.J. Muste — Peace Agitator () — naturally included some comments about his tax refusal. Here is an excerpt:

[In Muste wrote The New York Times, saying in part:] “…[S]ince , I have refused to pay Federal income taxes because I felt I had to find every possible means to divorce myself from any voluntary support of the crowning irrationality and atrocity of atomic and bacterial war… I am by no means eager to go to prison; and I bear no ill will to any Federal officials or any one else. But adolescent and growing youth should not be conscripted for atomic and bacterial war. Young men like [imprisoned Quaker draft registration resister] Larry Gara ought not to be jailed for expressing their deepest religious convictions… Whether at liberty or in prison, where Larry Gara and these young men are, I belong.”

Copies of the letter were also sent to the Attorney General and to the Federal District Attorney in New York. Muste had been considering making an antiwar protest through refusing to pay taxes for some time before . He cited the long American heritage of tax refusals, including Thoreau’s comment in his essay, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience: “If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.”

Muste’s decision to act on his beliefs concerning tax refusal was set off by a disagreement within the Fellowship of Reconiciliation when Muste’s secretary decided she could not conscientiously pay Federal income tax and asked that the F.O.R. not withhold taxes from her pay. After several months of debate within the organization, which led to a referendum of the membership, the majority declared, as John Nevin Sayre has explained, that “the F.O.R. should not break the law except on an issue, such as the refusal to fight in a war, on which all its members agree. We in the majority felt that a person’s right not to pay taxes was a matter of individual conscience. We would support that individual, but not to the point of refusing to withhold his or her taxes.” Muste was on the losing side.

As an ordained minister, Muste did not have the problem of asking the Fellowship to stop withholding his taxes. Accordingly, in and , he has simply informed Federal authorities that he is not paying taxes or filling out his return. He was not questioned by Internal Revenue agents until , and he was not brought into court until . He was then charged with owing $1,165 in taxes from as well as additional penalties for “non-filing of returns, for fraud, for non-payment, and for substantially underestimating his tax.”

John Nevin Sayre and Norman Thomas appeared as character witnesses for Muste, although Thomas disapproved of Muste’s position. “I don’t think you do any good,” says Thomas, “by disrupting organized society. Besides, I doubt if anyone has such complete control over what he does with his money that he can be sure none of it goes to support government activities of which he disapproves. There are, after all, many hidden taxes in what you buy.”

Muste’s lawyer in his tax refusal campaign has been Harrop A. Freeman, Professor of Law at Cornell Law School. A tax expert, Freeman has also served as attorney for several conscientious objectors. In one of his briefs in the Muste case, Freeman noted: “Taxpayer has no funds. Counsel is not being paid, even for his expenses.”

Among Freeman’s points for his client were that “It is proper to consider the ‘purpose’ of a tax in deciding its Constitutionality… A person who refuses to make returns or pay taxes solely because of his religious conscience, which he deems protected by the First Amendment, does not incur fraud or other penalties… Petitioner is excused from paying taxes used for war by the First Amendment to the Constitution… Petitioner cannot be compelled to file returns or pay taxes for war purposes under the Internal Revenue Code by virtue of the Nuremberg Principles of International Law.” On that last issue, Freeman quotes the Nuremberg Tribunal’s reference to the Atlantic Charter in its statement of fundamental principles of law: “…the very essence of the Charter is that individuals have international duties which transcend the national obligations of obedience imposed by the individual State.”

Muste finally both lost and won his case in the Tax Court. In addition to the tax which the Internal Revenue Service had claimed was due as a result of its examination of F.O.R. payment records, it also pressed its claim that Muste owed further penalties for “fraud” since he had not made out any returns.

As Harrop Freeman explains, “Previous tax refusers had all lost their cases in the District Courts (criminal) and thus there seemed to be a rule that following one’s conscience was wrong or criminal. I felt that by going into the Tax Court, which is not handling criminal cases, we would get better treatment and that if we won the fraud issue, this would indirectly help to show that following conscience was not fraud (and perhaps then not criminal). The Tax Court held that A.J. was not guilty of fraud for following his conscience. He did not owe any penalties. It did hold that the tax itself was due. We decided not to appeal this because the fraud decision was in our favor and we might have lost an appeal.”

The Internal Revenue Service has threatened Muste with collection of that tax once since the Tax Court decision. There are only a couple of ways, however in which Muste’s funds can be attached. He doesn’t have a bank account, nor does he have any property which can be seized. Presumably, the Internal Revenue Service could try to collect the tax out of Social Security or out of a small pension Muste receives. The latter course, some lawyers feel, would be of doubtful validity.

If Muste is ever confronted with the clear choice between paying the tax or going to jail, there is every likelihood that he would choose prison. In a letter to the Collector of Internal Revenue, Muste wrote: “I do not recognize the right of any earthly government to inquire into my income — or that of other citizens — for the purpose of determining how much they or I ‘owe’ for the diabolical purpose of atomic and biological war.”

As usual, there is disagreement on tactics among pacifists who will not pay taxes. Some will not cooperate with Federal authorities at all. They do not come to court voluntarily, and when they are brought there, they stand mute. Muste respects that kind of absolutism, but does not adopt it himself “because in the main I regard certain institutions of so-called democratic societies as useful and necessary, and because I have wanted to make an effort to secure a judicial determination on the specific issue of whether or not conscientious objection to paying war taxes should be recognized by a democratic government.”

Muste also refuses to use the technique of keeping his income down to a point where not taxes are owed. “Keeping one’s income down to a subsistence level may be justified,” Muste observes, “on the grounds of self-discipline or asceticism, though it is not the pattern of life I have chosen or regard as superior to a less ascetic one. Besides, I do not see how one can in effect recognize that a government may determine one’s standard of living or how one can think that permitting government to do so constitutes a significant protest against war taxation.”

Muste’s uncompromising stand on payment of taxes has encouraged several other pacifists throughout the country to take a similar position. “It’s another example,” says one of them, “of how A.J. ‘leads’ the movement, and it also illustrates how he can draw attention to our point of view. When a man as respected as A.J. refuses to pay taxes it’s like Jeremiah walking down the street naked. People stop, look, and listen.”

Norman Thomas, by the way, went on to sign the Writers and Editors War Tax Protest in , so apparently Muste wore down his opposition to the tactic.