You see the beauty of my proposal is
it needn’t wait on general revolution.
I bid you to the one-man revolution —
The only revolution that is coming.
from Build Soil
Today, instead of dredging up something from the archives about historical tax resistance campaigns and movements, I want to spend some time looking at individual tax resistance in service of what Ammon Hennacy called the “one-man* revolution.”
Whether Hennacy got the name from Frost’s poem, or Frost from him, or whether each came up with it independently, I don’t know. The idea goes back much further than either, and in particular is especially pronounced in Thoreau’s thinking.
This idea is that, contrary to what the organizers of the world are always telling us, the key to curing society’s ills is not necessarily to organize at all. You don’t need a majority, or a critical mass, or a disciplined revolutionary vanguard. Just get your own house in order and commit yourself to your own personal revolution — that’s the most crucial and practical thing you can do.
“One-man revolution” is the answer to the question posed by radicals and reformers who feel overwhelmed by the task ahead. “What can one person do?” they ask (half-hoping, I suspect, that the answer will be “nothing, so don’t sweat it”). They think the revolution that will finally put things right is scheduled for later — when the masses see the light… when a crisis comes… when we find a charismatic leader… when we unite the factions under one banner… when… when… when…
The one-man revolutionary says: no, the revolution starts here and now. Your first task as a revolutionary is to overturn the corrupt, confused, puppet governor of your own life and to put a more responsible sovereign in its place.
As to what the policies of this new sovereign ought to be, well, that’s up to you. I’m not going to cover the details of how Hennacy’s and Thoreau’s one-man revolutions played out and what specific decisions they made along the way. Today instead I’m going to look at the reasons they gave for why the one-man revolution is practical and effective, in answer to the “What can just one person do?” skeptics.
These reasons can be roughly divided into five categories:
- With the one-man revolution, success is in reach. It may not be easy, but you can win this revolution with your own effort. Furthermore, whether or not you succeed, the struggle itself is the right thing to do.
- You don’t need to wait for a majority. You don’t need to water down your message to try to win mass appeal or group consensus. You can start immediately from a firm platform of integrity and honesty. This also makes you more self-reliant so that you can endure challenges better, which makes you more effective and far-reaching than those revolutionaries who always have to check to see if the rest of the pack is still with them.
- 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.
- The world sometimes is changed radically and for the better by the efforts and example of a single, one-in-a-million character. But the first step is not to set out to change the world, but to develop that character.
- By fighting the one-man revolution, you are not as alone as you may think you are: you “leaven the loaf” and cause all society to rise, you attract other one-man revolutionaries to your side, and you sow the seeds that inspire others.
You can win the one-man revolution
Ammon Hennacy’s theory of the one-man revolution crystallized, appropriately enough, while he was being held in solitary confinement. He’d been sentenced for promoting draft evasion during World War Ⅰ and then thrown in “the hole” for leading a hunger strike of prisoners to protest awful food. Because he refused to name names, he was kept there for several months.
Locked up alone in a cell 24/7, unable to communicate with his comrades in the prison or outside, given the silent treatment by the guard, and overhearing the day-in day-out torture of the inmate in the adjoining cell — this was not the most promising situation for a revolutionary.
The only book they allowed him was the Bible (and they even took this away and replaced it with a smaller-print version for no other reason but to inflict another petty torment in the dim light of his cell). In the course of reading and reflecting on what he read — particularly the Sermon on the Mount — he decided that the revolution could be fought and won even where he stood.
To change the world by bullets or ballots was a useless procedure. …the 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.
(A few days back I saw a bumper sticker that read “Jesus was a community organizer.” But if you read the Sermon on the Mount, you won’t see any organizing going on there at all — Jesus is urging people individually to get their lives in order so that their deeds will be like a light shining before others to inspire them. Do you see any “we must,” “we ought to,” “we should work together to,” or “once there are enough of us” in that sermon? Jesus isn’t addressing an organization but an assembly.)
You can start now, with full integrity
Lloyd Danzeisen expressed one of the advantages of the one-man revolution in a letter to Hennacy: “You are lucky and of course very wise to be a ‘one man revolution,’ for you do not have to discuss your action over and over again (with committees) but can swing into action.”
The advantage of organizing and working together is superior numbers, and, in theory anyway, greater force. But there are many disadvantages. It takes a lot of time and negotiation to get a bunch of people to take action together, and usually this also involves finding some lowest common denominator of principle or risk that they can all agree on — which can mean watering down the core of what you’re fighting for until it seems less like a principle than a petty grievance.
What such a movement gains in quantity it may lose in quality, and the force it gains from numbers it may lose from the diffuse, blunted, half-hearted effort of the individuals that make it up, or from the fact that much of their energy is expended in the organizing itself rather than the ostensible goals of the organization.
The advantage of drawing a large crowd of half-hearted followers is rarely worth the effort. It is not too hard to sway a crowd of wishy-washy people by appealing to the half-truths they already believe and being careful not to attack any of the nonsense they adhere to. But what does this get you? A crowd of wishy-washy people who are just as vulnerable to falling for the next demagogue who comes along with patronizing speeches. Instead, Hennacy recommends, we should “appeal to those about ready to make the next step and… know that these are very few indeed.… We can live and die and never change political trends but if we take a notion, we can change our own lives in many basic respects and thus do that much to change society.”
Thoreau wrote of how when he was invited to speak he refused to water down his message to make it most palatable to his listeners. He wasn’t aiming for the sympathy of the crowd, but hoped to reach that one or two who were ready to be challenged: “I see the craven priest looking for a hole to escape at — alarmed because it was he that invited me thither — & an awful silence pervades the audience. They think they will never get me there again. But the seed has not all fallen in stony & shallow ground.”
Thoreau noted with approval that the abolitionist revolutionary John Brown had not gathered around him a large party of well-wishers and collaborators, but instead had been very selective about whom he let in on his plans:
The very fact that [Brown] had no rabble or troop of hirelings about him would alone distinguish him from ordinary heroes. His company was small indeed, because few could be found worthy to pass muster. He would have no rowdy or swaggerer, no profane swearer, for, as he said, he always found these men to fail at last. He would have only men of principle, & they are few.
He quotes Brown as saying:
I would rather have the small-pox, yellow-fever, and cholera, all together in my camp, than a man without principle.… Give me men of good principles, — God-fearing men, — men who respect themselves, and with a dozen of them I will oppose any hundred such men as these Buford ruffians.
A one-man revolutionary is more effective and harder to defeat
A one-man revolutionary — a “man of good principles” — is individually more effective and harder to defeat than that same person would be as part of a movement. This may seem paradoxical to people who are used to thinking in terms of “strength in numbers” or “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
This is for two related reasons:
First, because as a one-man revolutionary you are self-motivated, you do not get thrown into confusion if the lines of communication down the chain of command are disrupted, and you don’t lose momentum by looking about to check if your comrades are still with you or if they have retreated or surrendered.
And second, because this makes it difficult for your opponents to get a foothold in trying to persuade you with threats or with bribes to give up the fight.
For example, Hennacy tells of one of his captors trying to trick him:
Detective Wilson said that the young Socialists arrested with me for refusing to register had all given in and registered. (Later I found out that he had also told them that I had registered.) [But] I felt that if they gave in, someone had to stick, and I was that one.
The detective assumed that Hennacy valued his belonging more than his integrity, and so made a completely ineffective attack. Thoreau similarly noted that his captors had failed to understand his motives, assuming he valued his freedom from confinement more than his freedom of action:
I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through, before they could get to be as free as I was.… In every threat and in every compliment there was a blunder; for they thought that my chief desire was to stand the other side of that stone wall.
People often draw the wrong conclusion from the success of the “divide and conquer” tactic when used by governments against opposition movements. The lesson proved by this is not that unless we stay united we are weak, but that to the extent that our strength depends mainly on our unity we are vulnerable.
Without the one-man revolution, no other revolution is worth the trouble
The problem with the mass, popular, peasants-with-pitchforks sort of revolution is that it’s so unreliable. You put everything on the line, shed buckets of blood, endure betrayals and unfriendly alliances and hard compromises, and finally (if you’re lucky) cut off the king’s head and take charge… and then what? As often as not, you end up with something as bad as before.
Political revolutions, says Hennacy, “only changed masters.” — “We made a revolution against England and are not free yet. The Russians made a revolution against the Czar and now have an even stronger dictatorship. It is not too late to make a revolution that will mean something — one that will stick: your own one-man revolution.”
Tyranny is not something that only infests the top of the org chart. The tyrant doesn’t cause tyranny, but is its most obvious symptom. Tyranny lives as tenaciously in the tyrannized as in the tyrant. This is why Thoreau was careful to say (emphasis mine):
Not, “when the workers seize power” or “when we get money out of politics” or anything of that sort, but “when men are prepared for it.” We must prepare ourselves, one one-man revolution at a time, and when we have, we will get the government we deserve (self-government, if Thoreau is right and if we ever do deserve such a thing).
The revolution is not accomplished when the last faction still standing wipes the blood from its hands and sits down behind the presidential desk to issue its first decree, but “when the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office” — that is, when tyranny is purged from the bottom of the org chart.
Define success and failure carefully
Be careful how you define “success.” You can do everything you set out to do, but if you haven’t set out to do anything worth doing, you still fail. Even in mundane things, you’d be wise to keep your eye on a bigger picture. Thoreau mused in his journal:
If a man has spent all his days about some business by which he has merely got rich, as it is called, i.e., has got much money, many houses & barns & woodlots, then his life has been a failure, I think. But if he has been trying to better his condition in a higher sense than this — has been trying to be somebody, to invent something — i.e., to invent and get a patent for himself — so that all may see his originality, though he should never get above board — & all great inventors, you know, commonly die poor — I shall think him comparatively successful.
Success and failure have superficial and deep components that may contradict each other. John Brown set out to launch a rebellion that would end American slavery; the government stood its ground and defended slavery against the rebellion and had Brown hanged. Who was successful? Who won? A victory for evil is just a triumphant form of failure.
And a year and a half after Brown’s execution when Union troops set off to crush the confederacy of slavers, they were singing “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave — his soul is marching on!”
At the time of the Harpers Ferry raid, Brown was called insane by the pulpit, popular opinion, and the press (even — especially — the liberal, abolitionist press). Some gave as evidence for his insanity the most extraordinarily sane thing about him:
It is mentioned against him & as an evidence of his insanity, that he was “a conscientious man, very modest in his demeanor, apparently inoffensive until the subject of slavery was introduced, when he would exhibit a feeling of indignation unparalleled.”
You’d think with the example of Jesus hovering over Western Civilization, people would be skeptical of traditional notions of success: being captured and tortured to death by your enemies and having your followers scorned and scattered throughout a hostile empire doesn’t seem much like a victory. But Thoreau thought the response to John Brown proved that even after centuries of Christianity, “[i]f Christ should appear on earth he would on all hands be denounced as a mistaken, misguided man, insane & crazed.”
You don’t have to believe that history will eventually smile on you and turn your seeming defeats and setbacks into obvious victories. You don’t have to believe the nice-sounding but unlikely sentiment that Hennacy attributed to Tolstoy: “no sincere effort made in the behalf of Truth is ever lost.” You just need to remember that the seemingly small victories in an uncompromising one-man revolution can be more worthwhile (when seen from the perspective of what is worthwhile, not just what is expedient) than huge triumphs rotting within from compromise and half-truths.
Slavery in particular was such an unambiguous evil that it was one of “those cases to which the rule of expediency does not apply,” Thoreau said. He made this comparison: if the only way you can save yourself from drowning is to unjustly wrest a plank away from another drowning man, you must instead do what is just even if it kills you. If you are “victorious” in wresting away the plank, and thereby save your own life at the cost of another, you lose.
But even in cases not as extreme as slavery, he says, compromise and expediency are overrated: “there is no such thing as accomplishing a righteous reform by the use of ‘expediency.’ There is no such thing as sliding up hill. In morals the only sliders are backsliders.”
The one-man revolution is more about doing the right thing daily than achieving the right result eventually, so even if it seems that everything is going against you, you can be confident you’re on the right track. “[B]e as unconcerned for victory as careless of defeat,” Thoreau advises, “not seeking to lengthen our term of service, nor to cut it short by a reprieve, but earnestly applying ourselves to the campaign before us.”
“Hennacy, do you think you can change the world?” said Bert Fireman, a columnist on the Phoenix Gazette.
“No, but I am damn sure it can’t change me” was my reply.
If you want to change things you have to get 51% of the ballots or the bullets. If I want to change things I just have to keep on doing what I am doing — that is: every day the government says “pay taxes for war”; every day I do not pay taxes for war. So I win and they lose. The One Man Revolution — you can’t beat it.
Do not let your opponent set the norm. Generally a minority is jeered at because they are so small. It is quality and not quantity that is the measure. “One on the side of God is a majority” is the perfect answer which I have given dozens of times with success.
(In this last quote, Hennacy is paraphrasing Thoreau, who wrote that “those who call themselves abolitionists should at once effectually withdraw their support, both in person and property, from the government of Massachusetts, and not wait till they constitute a majority of one, before they suffer the right to prevail through them. I think that it is enough if they have God on their side, without waiting for that other one. Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.”)
One-in-a-million can move the world
Sometimes, a single one-man revolutionary really does change the world. Maybe the world was already ripe for changing, but it still needed a one-man revolutionary to break from the pack and make the change happen.
Hennacy says the self-transforming doers like Christ, the Buddha, Gandhi, or Joan of Arc, were far more radical than theorizers like Marx or Bakunin. Thoreau would agree (though his list — “Minerva — Ceres — Neptune — Prometheus — Socrates — Christ — Luther — Columbus — Arkwright” — was a little more ethereal):
We don’t progress by passively absorbing the inevitable bounty of history grinding away unconsciously on the masses, as the Hegelians might put it. Rather, says Thoreau, “The great benefactors of their race have been single and singular and not masses of men. Whether in poetry or history it is the same.” We should not be content to admire these heroes, or to await their arrival, but should be inspired by their examples to be heroic ourselves.
The gods have given man no constant gift, but the power and liberty to act greatly. How many wait for health and warm weather to be heroic and noble! We are apt to think there is a kind of virtue which need not be heroic and brave — but in fact virtue is the deed of the bravest; and only the hardy souls venture upon it, for it deals in what we have no experience, and alone does the rude pioneer work of the world.
Action from principle, — the perception and the performance of right, — changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with any thing which was. It not only divides states and churches, it divides families; aye, it divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine.
There is something proudly thrilling in the thought that this obedience to conscience and trust in God, which is so solemnly preached in extremities and arduous circumstances, is only to retreat to one’s self, and rely on our own strength. In trivial circumstances I find myself sufficient to myself, and in the most momentous I have no ally but myself, and must silently put by their harm by my own strength, as I did the former. As my own hand bent aside the willow in my path, so must my single arm put to flight the devil and his angels. God is not our ally when we shrink, and neuter when we are bold. If by trusting in God you lose any particle of your vigor, trust in Him no longer. … I cannot afford to relax discipline because God is on my side, for He is on the side of discipline.
We can’t all be Christ, Buddha, Gandhi, or Joan of Arc. (Steve Allen said that Ammon Hennacy fulfilled more of the role of a Lenny Bruce; Hennacy’s wife suggested Don Quixote.) It is only one-in-a-million who moves the world. But despite the odds we all should aspire to be this one in a million.
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.
Even if we fall short of this goal ourselves, by choosing this goal we not only choose the only goal worth choosing, but we adjust our standards so that if we are ever lucky enough to meet this one in a million, we will be more likely to recognize her or him. Most people are incapable of recognizing or comprehending the hero in real life — they lionize the dead martyred heroes of past generations, while joining the lynch mobs to martyr the heroes of their own.
It only takes a little leavening to leaven the loaf
By aiming at this standard, you also raise the standards of those around you, and so even if you cannot detect a direct influence, you improve society. The way Thoreau put it — “It is not so important that many should be as good as you, as that there be some absolute goodness somewhere; for that will leaven the whole lump.”†
By being virtuous in an out-of-the-ordinary way you encourage people to call ordinary vices into question and you force the devil’s advocates to show themselves by coming to the devil’s defense. Thoreau was convinced that one person was enough to leaven the loaf:
[I]f one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men whom I could name, — if ten honest men only, — aye, if one honest man, in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this copartnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefor, it would be the abolition of slavery in America.
Hennacy said that his “work was not that of an organizer but of a Sower to sow the seeds.”
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 way to do this, if we are sincere, is to change ourselves!
When they are ready for it [my emphasis again — ♇], the rich, the bourgeois intellectual, the bum, and even the politician and the clergy may have an awakening of conscience because of the uncompromising seeds of Christian Anarchism which we are sowing.
You have a plan to reform the world? As the saying goes: “show me, don’t tell me.” Thoreau:
The Reformer who comes recommending any institution or system to the adoption of men, must not rely solely on logic and argument, or on eloquence and oratory for his success, but see that he represents one pretty perfect institution in himself…
I ask of all Reformers, of all who are recommending Temperance, Justice, Charity, Peace, the Family, Community or Associative life, not to give us their theory and wisdom only, for these are no proof, but to carry around with them each a small specimen of his own manufactures, and to despair of ever recommending anything of which a small sample at least cannot be exhibited: — that the Temperance man let me know the savor of Temperance, if it be good, the Just man permit to enjoy the blessings of liberty while with him, the Community man allow me to taste the sweets of the Community life in his society.
Too many reformers think they can reform the rottenness of the system the people are sustaining without changing the rottenness of the people who sustain the system. “The disease and disorder in society are wont to be referred to the false relations in which men live one to another, but strictly speaking there can be no such thing as a false relation if the condition of the things related is true. False relations grow out of false conditions. … It is not the worst reason why the reform should be a private and individual enterprise, that perchance the evil may be private also.”
So often we hear of a Big Plan that, were it enacted as designed, would solve the Big Problems. But the problem with the big plans is that they never seem to get enacted, or if they do, they never seem to work as designed, as the same problems show up in new guises. Meanwhile the planners waste their time and energy and don’t change what is changeable. Tolstoy put it this way:
If a man drinks, and I tell him that he can himself stop drinking and must do so, there is some hope that he will pay attention to me; but if I tell him that his drunkenness forms a complex and difficult problem, which we, the learned, will try to solve in our meetings, all the probabilities are that he, waiting for the solution of the problem, will continue to drink. The same is true of the false and intricate scientific, external means for the cessation of war, like the international tribunals, the court of arbitration, and other similar foolish things, when we with them keep in abeyance the simplest and most essential means for the cessation of war, which is only too obvious to anybody. For people who do not need war not to fight we need no international tribunals, no solution of questions, but only that the people who are subject to deception should awaken and free themselves from that spell under which they are. This means for the abolition of war consists in this, that the men who do not need war, who consider a participation in war to be a sin, should stop fighting.
An alcoholic who spoke with Hennacy had much the same sentiment: “the AA fixed me up. You are right in not wanting to change the world by violence; the change has to come with each person first.”
The present American peace movement, stubbornly paying for the imperial armies it says it opposes, reminds me of drunks meeting in a tavern at happy hour to organize a prohibition movement that will solve their alcohol problem.
Your one-man revolution isn’t as lonely as it may seem
Hennacy and Thoreau also had faith that if you begin the one-man revolution, this will attract like-minded souls to you and you to them, and that you will find yourself working in concert with comrades you never knew you had:
Thoreau: “Men talk much of cooperation nowadays, of working together to some worthy end; but what little cooperation there is, is as if it were not, being a simple result of which the means are hidden, a harmony inaudible to men. If a man has faith, he will cooperate with equal faith everywhere. If he has not faith he will continue to live like the rest of the world, whatever company he is joined to.”
Hennacy: “In reading Tolstoy I had gained the idea that if a person had the One Man Revolution in his heart and lived it, he would be led by God toward those others who felt likewise.… This was to be proven in a most dramatic way, and was to usher me into the second great influence of my life: that of the Catholic Worker movement.”
The One-Man Revolution
So what do you have to do to be the exemplar and sow the seeds?
- Accept responsibility, and act responsibly.
- Build yourself a glass house and start throwing stones.
Accept responsibility, and act responsibly
Most political action amounts to “who can we find to take responsibility for this problem” — the One Man Revolutionary asks “what can I do to take responsibility for this problem?”
Not that everything is your responsibility, or that the world is looking to you personally to solve all of its problems. But you should at the very least examine your life to see what problems or solutions you are contributing to with it. Can one person make a difference? You are already making a difference — what kind of difference are you making?
It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him, but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too.
In Thoreau’s time, the evils of slavery and of wars of conquest were sustained by the active allegiance and support of the ordinary people around him, many of whom nonetheless congratulated themselves for their anti-war, anti-slavery opinions.
I have heard some of my townsmen say, “I should like to have them order me out to help put down an insurrection of the slaves, or to march to Mexico, — see if I would go;” and yet these very men have each, directly by their allegiance, and so indirectly, at least, by their money, furnished a substitute. The soldier is applauded who refuses to serve in an unjust war by those who do not refuse to sustain the unjust government which makes the war…
Those who, while they disapprove of the character and measures of a government, yield to it their allegiance and support, are undoubtedly its most conscientious supporters, and so frequently the most serious obstacles to reform. Some are petitioning the State to dissolve the Union, to disregard the requisitions of the President. Why do they not dissolve it themselves, — the union between themselves and the State, — and refuse to pay their quota into its treasury?
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 be 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.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that because the one-man revolution is in your heart that it can just stay there, locked up inside, without leaking out into the world around you.
As to conforming outwardly, and living your own life inwardly, I have not a very high opinion of that course. Do not let your right hand know what your left hand does in that line of business. I have no doubt it will prove a failure.
The one-man revolution doesn’t necessarily require living in opposition to society and the status quo, but it does require holding fast to justice and virtue. When society and the status quo are opposed to justice and virtue, as they so often are, this puts them in opposition to you as well.
Build yourself a glass house and start throwing stones
Your friends and even your enemies will come to your aid when you try to hold yourself to a high standard. All you have to do is to make yourself vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy. People love to point out hypocritical moralists, in part because some hypocritical moralists are hilarious, but also in part because it helps people excuse their own failures to hold themselves to high standards. If you build yourself a glass house and throw stones from it, everyone will volunteer to keep you on the straight-and-narrow.
I have… put myself in a glass house. If so I must needs take whatever stones come my way. I have the right by my life of integrity to criticize, but I must also take whatever criticism comes my way in all good humor.
[A] spoiled and arrogant priest wanted to know if I was “holier than thou.” I told him I hoped by Christ I was, for if I wasn’t I would be in a hell of a fix. I used this blunt method to deflate his spurious piety.
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.”
When your standards for yourself rise, so do your standards for other people (otherwise you really are being arrogant). Thoreau, criticized for demanding too much from people, said he could not “convince myself that I have any right to be satisfied with men as they are, and to treat them accordingly, and not according, in some respects, to my requisitions and expectations of what they and I ought to be.”
While both Thoreau and Hennacy strike me as stern with others, and maybe not always fun to be around (as Hennacy would say: “I love my enemies but am hell on my friends”), they were anything but joyless. Thoreau’s vigorous, enthusiastic love of life and the world are legendary, and Hennacy’s character too was eager, life-affirming, and generous (even in its criticisms).
Utah Phillips came home from the Korean war a drunken brawler, checked in to Hennacy’s Catholic Worker hospitality house in Salt Lake City, and eight years later checked out again, sober, a pacifist, and an anarchist. He remembered Hennacy this way:
He was tough without being hard — tough without that brittle hardness that some tough men have that would shatter if you struck it too hard. “Love in Action,” Dorothy Day called him — Dostoyevsky’s words: “Love in action is harsh and dreadful compared to love in dreams.”‡
Neither Thoreau nor Hennacy had any tolerance for bliss-bunnyishness, but both were cheerful; both knew how to be dutiful without being dour. Thoreau:
To march sturdily through life, patiently and resolutely looking grim defiance at one’s foes, that is one way; but we cannot help being more attracted by that kind of heroism which relaxes its brows in the presence of danger, and does not need to maintain itself strictly, but, by a kind of sympathy with the universe, generously adorns the scene and the occasion, and loves valor so well that itself would be the defeated party only to behold it; which is as serene and as well pleased with the issue as the heavens which look down upon the field of battle. It is but a lower height of heroism when the hero wears a sour face.
A great cheerfulness indeed have all great wits and heroes possessed, almost a profane levity to such as understood them not, but their religion had the broader basis of health and permanence. For the hero, too, has his religion, though it is the very opposite to that of the ascetic. It demands not a narrower cell but a wider world.
I’ve tried here to put forward the strongest affirmative case for the practical effectiveness of the one-man revolution, at least as it can be found in Hennacy’s and Thoreau’s writings.
They make a strong and persuasive argument, I think, but not an airtight one. I wish more evidence was preserved of them in dialog with incisive critics of the one-man revolution, to hear how they would respond to the best arguments against it.
But what keeps the argument for a one-man revolution from persuading people is not, I think, the strength of the counter-arguments, but just the fact that to accept the argument is not enough — it demands much more than a “Like,” and much more than most people think they have to give. To be persuaded is to be overwhelmed, to take the first step off the path and into uncharted territory, and only a few of us have the courage to take that step.
* Can we all be mature here and recognize that in Frost’s and Thoreau’s and Hennacy’s time words like “man,” “men,” “he,” “his,” and “him” could either be intended by the author to stand exclusively for males or for people in general depending on the context, which the discerning reader (I think) can still be trusted to understand?
† The “a little leavening leavens the whole lump” metaphor appears in several places in the Bible. Usually, the leavening represents corruption and the metaphor is something like the more modern “one rotten apple can spoil the whole barrel.” But Jesus used the metaphor in a much more positive way, saying that “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
Thoreau’s “ten honest men” also hearkens back to the Bible, in this case the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. When God threatened to destroy the cities, Abraham asked him if he would still be willing to destroy them if there were fifty righteous people there who would be destroyed with the rest. God said in that case, he’d back off. Then Abraham said, what about 45? how about 40? 30? 20? 10? He managed to negotiate God down to ten before God got sick of the act and walked away. Alas, there weren’t even that many righteous people, so God torched the place.
For that matter, Thoreau’s note that in his speech to a mostly-shocked crowd “the seed has not all fallen in stony & shallow ground” also has Biblical roots, as does his “do not let your right hand know what your left hand does” remark. Even if you’re not a Christian, you almost have to be familiar with the King James Bible just to acquire the vocabulary of metaphors you need to understand the centuries of English-language literature that came after.
By using phrases like these and drawing on the stories they evoked in his audience, Thoreau is reminding them that his arguments, while challenging, are rooted in a tradition they can understand and already are familiar with. As good Christians, they have probably already tried to imagine the Kingdom of God as being like a little yeast leavening a whole loaf, or whether or not they are the sort of good ground on which the seeds of good teaching would land and flourish, or whether if angels came to destroy their town they would be among the ten righteous people who could argue for them to spare it.
‡ This comes from The Brothers Karamazov, where it is delivered by a saintly monk named Zossima. He is talking with a woman who is going through a spiritual crisis, and who has fantasized about going into a religious order and becoming a Mother Theresa kissing-the-wounds-of-lepers sort. Zossima says that such things are nice thoughts to have because “some time, unawares, you may do a good deed in reality,” but they’re just daydreams of saintliness, not the real thing.
If you do not attain happiness, always remember that you are on the right road, and try not to leave it. Above all, avoid falsehood, every kind of falsehood, especially falseness to yourself. Watch over your own deceitfulness and look into it every hour, every minute. Avoid being scornful, both to others and to yourself. What seems to you bad within you will grow purer from the very fact of your observing it in yourself. Avoid fear, too, though fear is only the consequence of every sort of falsehood. Never be frightened at your own faint-heartedness in attaining love. Don’t be frightened overmuch even at your evil actions. I am sorry I can say nothing more consoling to you, for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage. But active love is labour and fortitude, and for some people too, perhaps, a complete science.
The quotes from Thoreau and Tolstoy in this essay I have linked to my
Life Without Principle,
A Plea for Captain John Brown,
The Price of Freedom,
Reform and the Reformers,
Resistance to Civil Government,
Sir Walter Raleigh, and
Slavery in Massachusetts
“Carthago Delenda Est” (Tolstoy).
The quotes from Ammon Hennacy come from his autobiography,
The Book of Ammon,
an earlier edition of which
(that doesn’t include all of the quotes) can be found on-line in scanned
PDF form at