Non-Resistance, Abolitionism, and Anarchism: Connections in American Thought
As you may have noticed, the association of Barack Obama with Martin Luther King, Jr. has been extremely intense. "Martin marched so Barack could run"; "a dream fulfilled," etc. And though it makes sense to say that King's struggle culminated in an America where a black man could be elected president, there is also a rather fearsome irony involved. Martin Luther King practiced non-violence. He was, in the parlance of the nineteenth century, an "absolute non-resistant." Barack Obama, on the other hand, now controls a world-annihilating nuclear arsenal. He's administering two wars, and as he draws one down he's beefing the other up. Martin Luther King wrote the "Letter from Birmingham Jail." Barack Obama oversees a sprawling system of federal prisons and internment facilities. Martin Luther King was under surveillance by the FBI. Barack Obama is the FBI.
So what I want to say is that in some ways, the Obama presidency is indeed a culmination of King's dream. In other ways, it is a fundamental betrayal of that dream. And one thing we might ask, and it is a version of a question that peace activists and pacifists have been asking for centuries: Was King's non-violent resistance tactical or a matter of principle? Did Martin preach non-violence as the most effective tactic in the civil rights struggle, or did he preach it, for example, as a religious stricture? The answer, really - and this is probably the case with Gandhi as well - is "both." In 1966, King made the typical formulation. "I am convinced that for practical as well as moral reasons, nonviolence offers the only road to freedom for my people" (Washington, 127).
One place we can see this double approach to non-violence is in King's debates with such figures as Malcolm X: a debate which, remarkably, recapitulated debates in American peace movements of the nineteenth century with regard to the ethics of defensive war. Malcolm preached the necessity, in the face of state and vigilante racist violence, of armed self-defense. Martin held that, if nothing else, this approach was counter-productive: that arming black people would intensify rather than ameliorate white fears and resentments, and that an ethic of vengeance would lead America into a racial bloodbath rather than a racial reconciliation. Unlike Gandhi, King was trying to lead a minority in its claims against a majority: he did not think that an armed revolutionary struggle by black people could succeed. The best tactic to achieve a liberatory result was to appeal to the conscience of both black and white people, to take the moral high ground, to practice brotherhood and love in the face of oppression and violence.
But if part of the strategy of non-violence was an appeal to the conscience of those with racial or colonial power, then it was also a principled position, a view which King expressed many times. In part, non-violence was a position taken on religious grounds, as an absolute demand of God. King, like pacifists in the West for at least three hundred years previously, appealed to the Sermon on the Mount": "return good for evil," "turn the other cheek, "resist not evil," "love your enemies," and so on. In short King, like Quaker and Mennonite pacifists, like nineteenth-century radicals such as William Lloyd Garrison, Adin Ballou, and Leo Tolstoy, taught non-violence both as an effective tactic and as an absolute religious and moral obligation: an effective strategy for a liberation movement and an absolute demand of God and conscience.
So the presidency of Barack Obama is the culmination of King's nonviolent struggle insofar as that struggle was tactical: it is a sign that the struggle has begun to achieve its goal of a society in which black people can share in the power and resources in a more just way. But it is a betrayal of King's nonviolent struggle in so far as this struggle was committed to nonviolence on principled ethical and religious grounds, as the power that Obama now wields is absolutely incompatible with non-violence and in fact rests on force and coercion.
I propose to you that the principled rejection of violence - the claim that violence is always wrong, the basic stance of pacifism - entails anarchism. I define anarchism for present purposes as the position that the political state should not exist. And I define the political state as follows: a group of people who claim, and to an effective extent exercise, a monopoly of violence over a given geographical area. That is, roughly, a state is a group of people who declare themselves to be the only legitimate agents of violence in a particular place, and who to a significant degree enforce this monopoly. That is both necessary and sufficient for statehood, and it is as true in a democracy as it is in a dictatorship. I am not going to pause here really to defend this idea, or to give the full-dress argument that the political state is not a social contract or a voluntary association. I would simply ask you this: what if the governments of the United Sates foreswore the use of force for a year? What if they disarmed, completely and unilaterally? What if they abandoned their prisons or stopped taking money out people's paychecks or purchases without their consent? They would no longer be a government, nor be able to operate at all. Above all, they would lose the power of coercive taxation, and would, hence, cease to exist. Now if you think, for example, that people pay taxes voluntarily, I would ask you to examine the proposed staff of one Barack Obama. Like every other good American, Tim Geithner or Tom Daschle, and a crowd of other enthusiastic welfare-state liberals, paid the absolute least taxes they could, and only actually ponied up when caught, when their jobs were on the line.
At any rate, I personally am being taxed, and I am not consulted in any real way on how the money that the government confiscates from me is spent. If it's spent to prosecute futile foreign wars, or to torture prisoners, or to bail out giant insurance companies and give bonuses to their executives, that is, basically, no business of mine. I do not control my own resources. And resistance, putting it mildly, is futile: me, the tiny philosophy professor, against a group of people with state-of-the-art weaponry, a sprawling system of internment facilities, the "greatest military machine the world has ever known," and so on. This is as true in an Obama as in a Bush administration, as true in Putin's as in Stalin's Russia, as true under the thumb of a military junta or a fascist dictatorship. The systems of government are surface adjustments, patinas, over the massive indubitable fact of all-pervasive force which is the actual origin and essence of state power, in every case.
Obviously, this is not some sort of academic objection. Before there were modern political states, and even before there was anything recognizable as governmental-style authorities, there were armed encounters. People made something like war on one another on a tribal or religious basis, in competition for land or other resources. But by modern standards these people were pathetic amateurs. To really get a good war going, you've got to have states. First of all, you have to have coercive taxation really to build an effective military machine. You have to have severely coercive command hierarchy: military discipline. The World Wars of the last century, for example, which expended human lives as though committing herbicide, could only have been a clash of governments. Poison gas, firebombs, napalm, heavy artillery, nuclear weaponry - violence on a species-extinguishing scale - is only possible under the auspices of the political state. This is true, we might also say, of real genocide, and where there is no government, there can be no Holocaust, no Killing Fields, no Rwanda, no Darfur. The wars and genocides of the last hundred years are not aberrations: they are the political state unfolding its essence in massive fatal force and universal coercion.
Since government is violence, non-violence as a principled ethical or religious position entails anarchism. Now on the other hand, if you are a principled non-resistant you also do not resist government authority by force of arms: to that extent, you acquiesce. Indeed, other passages of the Bible seem to counsel just that: as in rendering unto Caesar what is Ceasar's, or in Paul's advice to obey the authorities in Romans 13: "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God." Nevertheless, if you believe that violence is wrong, that there ought to be no violence, I propose to you that you are an anarchist.
That government rests on force, in every case, is the reason that pacifism entails anarchism. As the American reformer Henry Clarke Wright insisted, "WHAT IS SIN IN AN INDIVIDUAL IS SIN IN A NATION" (Ziegler, 66). That is, as Tolstoy and many others argued, if it is wrong for an individual to kill, it is wrong too for a state or nation to kill. In fact, pacifism is to a significant extent the historical origin of modern anarchism.
Let me do an aside on terminology: "pacifism" and "non-violence" as used in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are, with some nuances, the same thing as what nineteenth-century American subversives called "non-resistance," a term which originates in the Biblical injunction to resist not evil. No more than King or Gandhi did the non-resistants counsel sheer passivity or silence: they endorsed every form of resistance to violence and oppression short of violence and oppression themselves. But because Gandhi and King conceived non-violence precisely as a form of resistance, they thought the term "non-resistance" was infelicitous. Nonetheless, thee whole history I'm about to survey is of a piece.
Now some form of pacifism has emerged in a number of religious traditions: Taoism in ancient China, for instance, and Buddhism and Jainism in south Asia. Gandhi connected his own nonviolent resistance to such Hindu texts as the Bhagavad-Gita, which is interesting since that text appears to urge people to go to war. Some form of pacifism was present in early Christianity and some monastic orders of the medieval Catholic Church. But modern Western pacifism really originates in radical Protestantism. Anabaptists, Mennonites, and related groups began preaching non-resistance and opposition to war by the late sixteenth century, and by the seventeenth, some governments released the members of such sects from military service, or recognized some of them as conscientious objectors (though many other governments refused to). During the eighteenth century, the Quakers developed into a pacifist group over time: it took awhile for their position to crystallize. At first, like many such groups, they recognized a distinction between the war-making powers of the state and its internal police power. The former were certainly sinful; the latter, because it used violence to prevent harm, was regarded as defensible. By this justification, for example, William Penn could administer Pennsylvania compatibly with his Quaker principles.
But by the middle of the eighteenth century, some Quakers - such as John Woolman, who was active in early anti-slavery and Indian rights movements - began to argue that true Christian conscience rejected violence and force in all forms. The Quakers taught the doctrine of the "inner light," according to which each person was answerable essentially only to her own conscience, to God manifest in her own personality. Such a doctrine is at the heart of radical Protestantism - for example in philosophers such as Kierkegaard - and even to what we might call "post-Protestant" figures such as Emerson and Thoreau. It entails a kind of individualism, but it also entails a fastidious respect for the autonomy of others, and perhaps even to the doctrine that even killers - military officials or more informal murderers - are answerable to God or to themselves, but not to me. On the other hand, to violate and coerce other autonomous individuals is the essence of evil, and this entails non-participation in the state.
Woolman refused to vote or otherwise involve himself in politics on precisely this basis: seeing the essence of state power as violence, he held that a Christian was obliged to withhold all participation in it. Indeed, this is the form in which American anarchism first arose: as a debate about whether participation in politics was compatible with Christianity. This question split Protestant denominations such as Quakerism, and, early in the nineteenth century, split what is called the American peace movement. One founding figure of this movement was the hyper-Christian American businessman David Low Dodge. In the first decade of the nineteenth century he argued, as Quakers such as Woolman had before him, that human authority, exercised through force, was incompatible with the government of God; that human government was a barrier between us and God's rule: "If it is a fact that the nature and laws of [Christ's] kingdom are diametrically opposite to the kingdoms of this world, then the inference is irresistible that the kingdoms of this world belong not to the kingdom of our Lord, but to the kingdom of Satan" (quoted in Ziegler, 36).
The period from about 1820-1850 saw an explosion of what we might now think of as "leftist" reform movements in the United States: movements for the immediate abolition of slavery, feminism, and peace, for example. These all arose at roughly the same time and among roughly the same group of radicals: figures such as William Lloyd Garrison, the Grimké sisters, and the Quaker Lucretia Mott. Some of the radicals formed autonomous communities, such as Adin Ballou's Hopedale and John Humphrey Noyes's Oneida. Others agitated in and agitated the larger community. There is a tremendous range of figures from the effective to the merely eccentric, but one must, I think, look back on this generation of American reformers with gratitude. They have to their credit such things as the first public lectures given by women - indeed the first direct participation by women in American political discourse - and raising the consciousness of the whole country about the monstrousness of slavery and the horrors of racism. And they embodied the first American peace movement.
The contemporary political spectrum applies to that era only in a very strained way, and one thing we might point out is that the American reform movements of the nineteenth century emerged from evangelical Christianity. Perhaps the greatest of these figures, Garrison, who was a radical pacifist, an anarchist, the country's most visible abolitionist, an anti-racist, and a feminist, started out as something of a religious fanatic, and never stopped appealing to the teachings of Jesus. Adin Ballou, whose works Christian Non-Resistance and Practical Christianity were the best and most systematic expositions of nineteenth-century pacifism up until Tolstoy, was a highly eccentric Christian, but Christianity was the source of all his work for equality, peace, and reform. Of course, evangelical Christianity would now be associated largely with the political right.
In addition, all of these figures - and here we might throw in the transcendentalists - were radical individualists, with a doctrine analogous to the Quakers' inner light. All of them taught the primacy of conscience, an absolute respect for human personality. Feminism and anti-racism in their nineteenth-century forms follow from this: human individuality must be respected in whatever sort of body it appears. And so does pacifism: no violation of the human individual is more extreme than doing violence, or coercing persons in violation of their own consciences. And again, anti-statism follows immediately: the state cannot exist at all without coercion, without violating individual conscience and compromising autonomy and personhood. Here again, the political spectrum has undergone a radical shift, and modern leftism - for one thing under the influence of Marx - is characterized by various forms of collectivism, and holds the agents of history to be things like classes or genders rather than individuals. If there are any individualists in today's American politics, they are Ron Paul libertarians rather than mainstream leftists, who are, if nothing else, agreed in their enthusiasm for state solutions for all social problems.
At any rate, radical Protestantism and individualism made Garrison into what was termed in the parlance of the time an "absolute non-resistant." He rejected violence not only in aggressing against others but in self-defense, and like the most radical pacifists before him, such as David Low Dodge, who founded the American peace movement, he rejected not only aggressive but defensive war. Indeed, Garrison was often threatened with violence, and an anti-abolitionist mob in Boston once grabbed him, put a noose around his neck, and paraded him through the streets. On this as on every other occasion, he conducted himself consistently with his principles. Garrison wrote as follows:
[W]hoever feels unable or unwilling to forgive all manner of injuries, and the worst of enemies, has no right to rank himself among the followers of Christ; the attempt of men to govern themselves by external rules and physical penalties is and ever must be futile; and from the assumption, that man has the right to exercise oppression over his brother, has proceeded every form of injustice and oppression with which the earth has been afflicted. (Ziegler 74)
And Garrison's constitution for the New England Non-Resistance Society, composed in 1838, made the anarchist implications explicit, and was quoted a half century later by Tolstoy: "No one who professes to have the spirit of Christ, can consistently sue a man at law for redress of injuries, or thrust any evil-doer in prison, or fill any office in which he would come under obligation to execute penal enactments - or take any part in military service - or acknowledge allegiance to any human government" (Ziegler 75). Or again: "As to the governments of this world . . . they are all Anti-Christ; . . . they cannot be maintained, except by...military power; all their penal enactments being a dead letter without military power to carry them into effect, are virtually written in human blood. The followers of Jesus should instinctively shun their stations of honor, power, and emolument, at the same time...offering no physical resistance to any of their mandates, however unjust or tyrannical" (Kraditor 87).
All of Garrison's positions flow from his total commitment to the immediate abolition of slavery, which was at the heart of his moral witness. Slavery was for Garrison the most urgent moral and religious issue of his era, because it was the most explicit possible violation of personhood; it turned human beings into property, treated them as inanimate objects, ignored their moral claim on us as fellow children of God, as independent centers of moral life. Slavery, for Garrison, was the emblem and essence of all human evil, as it was also for decidedly non-pacifist abolitionists such as John Brown. But then everything that Garrison fought against could be understood as a version of or a symptom of slavery. The feminists of the era - including Garrison, who split the American Peace Society over the issue of women's participation - held that the relations between men and women were attenuated forms of slavery, that husbands claimed property in their wives, for example. Gender oppression was not compatible with human moral autonomy. War, likewise, treated people as objects, was a systematic failure to value personhood.
And the state itself was a slave-master. The radical abolitionist Nathaniel Peabody Rogers, in 1843, wrote, "A politician is but a man driver, a human teamster. His business is to control men by the whip and the goad. His occupation would be unlawful and inexpedient toward even the cattle."
Garrison traveled around burning copies of the Constitution, which - because it to some extent legitimized slavery - he called "a pact with the devil." That turned him against the American government and as he drew out the implications, against all governments. Thoreau formulated this argument in "Civil Disobedience." The government of Massachusetts, though it prohibited slavery, enforced the fugitive slave law, forcing even opponents of slavery to participate in it. Slavery was protected under the law of the United States. But in fact, governments in virtue of their essence claim property rights in persons: are constantly in the business of forcing people to act in violation of their own consciences, by conscripting them into wars, by taxing them in support of policies they rejected, by baling them up into collective agents whose will and conscience purportedly supersede the will and consciences of the individuals composing them. Thoreau formulated the point beautifully:
Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents on injustice. A common and natural result of an undue respect for the law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed. . . . They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power? Visit the Navy Yard, and behold a marine, such a man as an American government can make, or such as it can make a man with its black arts--a mere shadow and reminiscence of humanity, a man laid out alive and standing, and already, as one may say, buried under arms with funeral accompaniment.
Thoreau's argument, made in relation to the Mexican-American war, was that though we have no obligation to stop the government from injustice, oppression, and violence, we are obliged not to lend it our aid. We are responsible, that is, for our own participation. On this basis, he withheld his poll tax and was imprisoned for one night, the famous occasion of the essay "Civil Disobedience."
Ballou's book Christian Non-Resistance made this position explicit in 1846.
[I]f a political compact, a civil or military league, covenant or constitution, requires, authorizes, provides for, or tolerates war, bloodshed, capital punishment, slavery, or any kind of absolute injury, the man who swears, affirms or otherwise pledges himself to support such a compact, league, covenant or constitution, is just as responsible for every act done in strict conformity thereto, as if he himself personally committed it. . . . The army is his army, the navy his navy, the militia his militia, the gallows his gallows, the pillory his pillory, the whipping post his whipping-post, the branding iron his branding-iron, the prison his prison, the dungeon his dungeon, and the slaveholding his slaveholding. When the constitutional majority declare war, it is his war. All the slaughter, rapine, ravages, robbery, destruction and mischief committed under that declaration, under the laws of war, are his. . . . There is no escape from this terrible moral responsibility but by a conscientious withdrawal from such government. (17-18)
As all these figures - Garrison, Thoreau, Lucretia Mott, Adin Ballou - saw, state power was incompatible with human moral autonomy and was the fundamental agent of evil in the world. And it is no coincidence that the first explicitly secular anarchist movement in America emerged from the same atmosphere of individualism, pacifism, and transcendentalism. It included figures such as Josiah Warren, Lysander Spooner, and William Greene.
The American reform movements of that period essentially disintegrated by the time of the Civil War. The radical abolitionists split on the issue. Some maintained their pacifism and anarchism, while others thought that even violent and coercive measures were justified in order to achieve the end of slavery. Lysander Spooner held both that the slaves should be freed by force and that the southern states had the right to secede, an indication of how difficult it was to be a consistent anti-authoritarian in 1861. By the time a new set of radical movements emerged toward the end of the nineteenth century, they emerged in a completely different context: in the heart of industrial capitalism of the most exploitative variety. They emerged in the context of waves of European immigration to America. And they emerged under the influence of European leftism and anti-capitalism: they emerged under the influence of Marx.
For one thing, these factors entailed that the leftist movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were not religious in orientation. They entailed collective action rather than an emphasis on individual conscience: the mechanisms were labor organizing and mass agitation of the sort practiced, for example, by Emma Goldman. They entailed, often, violence rather than pacifism, and the anarchists of that era were largely discredited by their own actions, a long series of assassinations and bombings.
On the other hand, the Protestant-style individualism and non-resistance of the early American reform movements were not without their lasting effects. Garrison and Adin Ballou's works on non-resistance were read by Leo Tolstoy, and Tolstoy and Ballou corresponded. Tolstoy formulated beautiful statements of the Christian pacifism, and explicitly drew the anarchist conclusion. Tolstoy's works were, in turn, fundamental for Gandhi. And Gandhi was fundamental for King, who returned the whole thing in a lovely circle to the American context, to the context of Protestant Christianity, and to the context of every movement for the respect of human personhood: anti-racism, anti-imperialism, peace, and so on. King, however, did not draw the anarchist implications, and welcomed state intervention to achieve desegregation, for example.
Perhaps King's basic commitment to non-violence was fundamentally tactical after all. Or perhaps, like some American non-resistants facing the Civil War, he found his commitment to social justice could in some contexts outweigh his commitment to non-violence. If so, perhaps we can say after all that he marched so Barack could run.