In Paris and the Social Revolution (), Alvan Francis Sanborn briefly surveyed the history of conscientious tax resistance that preceded Tolstoy’s interest in the subject, from Thoreau through William Lloyd Garrison’s non-resistants, to more recent resisters:
When that great and original child of nature, Thoreau, the Hermit of Walden, protested against the collection of taxes in Concord town, he little suspected, probably, that he was prefiguring a revolutionary movement which, before the century was over, was to alarm the sleek and the smug of the Old World and the New; and yet, whether Thoreau realised it or not, his attitude was the anarchistic attitude and his act an act of the propagande par l’example.
The attitude of the American anti-slavery champion, William Lloyd Garrison, was also essentially anarchistic.
“Garrison,” says Tolstoy, “as a man enlightened by Christianity, starting out with a practical aim, — the struggle against slavery, — understood very soon that the cause of slavery was not a casual, temporary seizure of several millions of negroes by the Southerners, but an old and universal anti-Christian recognition of the right of violence of some people over others. The means towards the recognition of this right was always the evil, which people considered possible to outroot or to lessen by rude force; that is, again by evil. And, realising this, Garrison pointed out against slavery, not the sufferings of the slaves, not the cruelty of the slave-owners, not the equal rights of citizens, but the eternal Christian law of non-resistance. Garrison understood that which the most forward champions against slavery failed to understand, — that the sole irresistible means against slavery was the denial of the right of one man over the liberty of another under any circumstances whatever.
“The Abolitionists attempted to prove that slavery was illegal, unprofitable, cruel, degrading, and so forth; but the pro-slavery champions, in their turn, proved the untimeliness, the danger, and the harmful consequences which would arise from the abolition of slavery. And neither could convince the other. But Garrison, understanding that the slavery of the negroes was but a private case of general violence, put forth the general principle with which it was impossible to disagree, — that no one, under any pretext, has the right of ruling; that is, of using force over his equals. Garrison did not insist so much on the right of slaves to be free as he denied the right of any man whatever, or of any company of men, to compel another man to do anything by force. For the battle with slavery he put forth the principle of the battle with all the evil of the world.”
In an Picket Line entry I wrote about how Garrison and his New England Non-Resistance Society grappled with the tax resistance issue. I’ve since found another Garrison quote (from his magazine The Liberator):
It is argued, that “if voting under the Constitution be a criminal participation in slavery, the paying of taxes under it is equally so.” Without stopping to show that there is a fallacy in this argument, we reply, that, in the common use and understanding of the terms, no seceder will ever again pay taxes to the Government while it upholds slavery. He may consent peaceably to yield up what is demanded of him, but not without remonstrance, and only as he would give up his purse to a highwayman. He will not recognize it as a lawful tax — he will not pay it as a tax — but will denounce it as robbery and oppression.
The refusal of the citizens of the little French commune of Counozouls to pay their taxes because they were deprived of their hereditary right to supply themselves with wood from an adjacent forest, and the “passive resistance” of the nonconformists in England to the enforcement of the new education act, and of the French Catholics to the expulsion of the monastic orders, are recent instances of probably unconscious propagande par l’example.
Tolstoy has made a clear and full statement for the purport of the propagande par l’example.
“Taxes,” he says, “were never instituted by common consent,… but are taken by those who have the power of taking them.… A man should not voluntarily pay taxes to governments either directly or indirectly; nor should he accept money collected by taxes either as salary or as pension or as a reward; nor should he make use of governmental institutions supported by taxes, since they are collected by violence from the people.”
He holds military service in similar abhorrence:—
“Every honest man ought to understand that the payment of taxes which are employed to maintain and arm soldiers, and, still more, serving in the army, are not indifferent acts, but wicked and shameful acts, since he who commits them not only permits assassination, but participates in it.”
Tolstoy returned often to the subject of tax resistance, both as a tactic and as a principle. He was influenced by Étienne de la Boétie’s The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude and believed that the trick to ending evil and oppression was to fully stop participating in it, rather than to resist it forcefully. Refusing to voluntarily pay taxes was one way of doing this. At the same time, he saw taxation as itself an example of theft and violence and injustice.
He wrote a series of sketches called “The Wisdom of Children” in which he tried to demonstrate that a naïve, child-like view of social arrangements often held more truth than the more sophisticated points of view we learn as we become adults. One of these sketches dealt with taxation:
Bailiff. (entering a poor cottage. Nobody is in except Grushka, a little girl of seven. He looks around him.) Nobody at home?
Grushka. Mother has gone to bring home the cow, and Fedka is at work in the master’s yard.
Bailiff. Well, tell your mother the bailiff called. Tell her I am giving her notice for the third time, and that she must pay her taxes before Sunday without fail, or else I will take her cow.
Grushka. The cow? Are you a thief? We will not let you take our cow.
Bailiff. (smiling.) What a smart girl, I say! What is your name?
Bailiff. You are a good girl, Grushka. Now listen. Tell you mother that, although I am not a thief, I will take her cow.
Grushka. Why will you take our cow if you are not a thief?
Bailiff. Because what is due must be paid. I shall take the cow for the taxes that are not paid.
Grushka. What’s that: taxes?
Bailiff. What a nuisance of a girl! What are taxes? They are money paid by the people by the order of the Tsar.
Grushka. To whom?
Bailiff. The Tsar will look after that when the money comes in.
Grushka. He’s not poor, is he? We are the poor people. The Tsar is rich. Why does he want us to give him money?
Bailiff. He does not take it for himself. He spends it on us, fools that we are. It all goes to supply our needs — to pay the authorities, the army, the schools. It is for our own good that we pay taxes.
Grushka. How does it benefit us if our cow is taken away? There’s no good in that.
Bailiff. You will understand that when you are grown-up. Now, mind you give your mother my message.
Grushka. I will not repeat all your nonsense to her. You can do whatever you and the Tsar want. And we shall mind our own business.
Bailiff. What a devil of a girl she will be when she grows up!
More directly, Tolstoy wrote:
I remember the utterance of a Russian peasant, who was religious and, therefore, truly liberal. Like Thoreau, he did not consider it just to pay taxes for things which his conscience did not approve of, and when he was asked to pay his share of the taxes, he asked what the taxes which he would pay would be used for, saying, “If the taxes shall be used for a good thing, I will at once give you not only what you demand, but even more; but if they shall be used for something bad, I cannot and will not give a kopek of my own free will.”
Of course, they lost no time with him, but broke down his closed gate, carried off his cow, and sold it for the taxes. Thus in reality there is but one true and real cause of taxes, — the power which collects them, — the possibility of robbing those who do not give the taxes willingly, and even of beating them for a refusal, of putting them in prison, and of punishing them — as is actually done.
In “The Kingdom of God is Within You” — a text that proved very influential to later Christian anarchists, pacifists, and to Gandhi — Tolstoy explicitly advocated tax resistance, and imagined the state to be essentially helpless before conscientious tax resisters:
What importance, one might think, can one attach to such an incident as some dozens of crazy fellows, as people will call them, refusing to take the oath of allegiance to the government, refusing to pay taxes, to take part in law proceedings or in military service.
These people are punished and exiled to a distance, and life goes on in its old way. One might think there was no importance in such incidents; but yet it is just those incidents, more than anything else, that will undermine the power of the state and prepare the way for the freedom of men. These are the individual bees, who are beginning to separate from the swarm, and are flying near it, waiting till the whole swarm can no longer be prevented from starting off after them. And the governments know this, and fear such incidents more than all the Socialists, Communists, and Anarchists, and their plots and dynamite bombs.
The subjects of a state are all bound to pay taxes. And every one pays taxes, till suddenly one man in Kharkov, another in Tver and a third in Samara, refuse to pay taxes — all, as though in collusion, saying the same thing. One says he will only pay when they tell him what object the money taken from him will be spent on. “If it is for good deeds,” he says, “he will give it of his own accord, and more even than is required of him. If for evil deeds, then he will give nothing voluntarily, because by the law of Christ, whose follower he is, he cannot take part in evil deeds.” The others, too, say the same in other words, and will not voluntarily pay the taxes.
Those who have anything to be taken have their property taken from them by force; as for those who have nothing, they are left alone.
“What! didn’t you pay the tax?”
“No, I didn’t pay it.”
“And what happened—nothing?”
Tolstoy defended his views, including his attitudes toward taxation, as those demanded of people who would be followers of Jesus. So he was of course asked to explain his understanding of Jesus’s “Render unto Caesar” koan. He responded this way:
In reply to the question as to whether [Jesus] shall give the established tax upon entering Capernaum, He says distinctly that the sons, that is, His disciples, are free from every tax and are not obliged to pay it, and only not to tempt the collectors of the taxes, not to provoke them to commit the sin of violence, He orders His disciples to give that stater, which is accidentally found in the fish, and which does not belong to any one and is not taken from any one.
But in reply to the cunning question as to whether the tribute is to be paid to Cæsar, He says, “To Cæsar the things which are Cæsar’s and to God the things which are God’s,” that is, give to Cæsar what belongs to him and is made by him, — the coin, — and to God give what is made by God and is implanted in you, — your soul, your conscience; give this to no one but God, and so do not do for Cæsar what is forbidden by God. And this answer surprises all by its boldness — and at the same time by its unanswerableness.
[Tolstoy’s footnote: “Not only the complete misunderstanding of Christ’s teaching, but also a complete unwillingness to understand it could have admitted that striking misinterpretation, according to which the words, ‘To Cæsar the things which are Cæsar’s,’ signify the necessity of obeying Cæsar. In the first place, there is no mention there of obedience; in the second place, if Christ recognized the obligatoriness of paying tribute, and so of obedience, He would have said directly, ‘Yes, it should be paid;’ but He says, ‘Give to Cæsar what is his, that is, the money, and give your life to God,’ and with these latter words He not only does not encourage any obedience to power, but, on the contrary, points out that in everything which belongs to God it is not right to obey Cæsar.”]
When Christ is brought before Pilate, as a mutineer who has been perverting the nation and forbidding to give tribute to Cæsar (Luke ⅹⅹⅲ. 2), He, after saying what He found necessary to say, surprises and provokes all the chiefs with this, that He pays no attention to all their questions, and makes no reply to any of their questions.
For this arrangement of the power and disobedience to it, Christ is sentenced and crucified.