History has shown that some of the most dramatic and beneficial political changes of the twentieth century were achieved by radicals where moderates failed for generations. The Sinn Fein movement in Ireland, Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement in India, and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement are all great examples of successful nonviolent radicalism. In each case, when politics failed to move the needle, disobedience to unjust laws proved perhaps the most important political tool and last peaceful recourse for the disenfranchised.
The pioneers of civil disobedience were those who fought British Imperialism in the early to mid-twentieth century Ireland and India. The famed radical strategist Saul Alinksy saw history as a “relay of radical movements” whereby the “have-nots” seize power back from the “haves” to improve a sense of social equilibrium. Along these lines, the original disobedients can be thought to have inherited an old tradition.
In many respects, they were passed the ideological baton that began with the American Revolution and continues to find its way into the hands of alienated and oppressed populations around the world. The core idea that motivates all of these movements were those of the Enlightenment period and emphasized natural law, individualism and self-reliance as a means of motivating oppressed people to organize and strike back against their oppressors.
Libertarians are cast from the same mold; criticizing the close relationship between the state and large corporate interests, abuses of power, over-criminalization, opaqueness in government, and inequality before the law while demanding monumental changes rather than settling for table scraps from those in power defines a radical. Insofar as a significant portion of its adherents seek the liberation of the individual via the dismantling of political power, the modern libertarian movement can count itself an ideological heir of those who fought the British Empire a century ago.
Methodologically, active resistance seems to be manifesting a bit differently in the U.S., and not necessarily among those who are self-identified libertarians. The mass refusal to register firearms in Connecticut and the peaceful standoff with government officials on Cliven Bundy’s ranch were property rights-related examples of disobedience in the last few years. But libertarians have been strongly identified with the rise of bitcoin, cypherpunks, leakers and civil libertarian protest by the media and general public, and it is in those spaces that their most significant impact seems likely.
The comparisons with the aforementioned liberation movements made here are primary ideological in nature; however, methodological lessons abound. I don’t aim to show their ideologies are exactly alike of course, only to show common themes and lessons for frustrated libertarian radicals who are contemplating adopting the Fabian strategy as the likelier path to victory for libertarian ideas. The big takeaway here: Gradualism isn’t always more effective. Stick to your ideological roots and remain patient.
We can demonstrate how many radical non-violent movements through history:
We can demonstrate how many radical non-violent movements through history:
1. Are similar to libertarianism in that they demanded drastic changes to power relationships in order to reduce or eliminate prolonged injustices;
2. Have demonstrated that the most successful movements have appealed to a sense of outrage, opened the hearts of those who were otherwise apathetic, and capitalized on events that should have otherwise devastated them, infusing their ideas with moral authority through the sacrifices of their heroes and martyrs;
3. Ensured that the political and cultural impact of the successful movements were made an unassailable part of the national narrative, and thus were unlikely to see their legislative changes ever repealed;
4. Proved the success of nonviolent ideologies rooted in natural rights in achieving radical goals where conventional activism has failed;
5. Proved that liberation movements, when successful, lead to the best social and economic outcomes, while egalitarian movements often lead to oppression and poverty, succeeding where incrementalism or appeals to power failed.
I. The Sinn Fein (1905-1922)
The Sinn Fein were founded in Dublin in 1905. After many years of marginality in Irish politics, they rose to prominence in 1916 and led the Irish people to independence from Great Britain in 1922, after 700 years of exploitive foreign rule. Thereafter, the Sinn Fein remained one of the most powerful and respected parties in Ireland and continue to play a major role in Irish politics.
The founding of the Sinn Fein occurred at a low point in rebellious sentiments in Ireland when most of the population favored a push for home rule via the Parliamentary Party, which sought compromise and incremental changes in the way that the British ruled Ireland. Other groups, such as the Irish Republican Brotherhood, revived the militant anti-colonialism of the Fenian movement, calling for violent revolt against the British, despite the repeated failure of previous attempts in 1798, 1803, 1848 and 1867.
The Sinn Fein, whose name translates roughly to “we ourselves” from the Gaelic, were an Irish liberation movement that stressed self-reliance, independence, preservation of Irish culture and civil disobedience as the method of resistance against British rule. Rather than hope for compromise with the British Empire on the issue of home rule, the Sinn Fein called for a complete dissolution of the Act of Union and full independence for Ireland.
The Sinn Fein were the libertarian movement of their day in many ways: small and unknown, marginal publishers of newsletters and fiery orators, populated by middle- and upper-class Irishmen who, largely due to their radical ideals, dealt more in philosophy than politics. They also believed in the concept of natural rights, inalienable and separate from government fiat. Their policy “was revolutionary inasmuch as it sought to displace existing British institutions and substitute Irish institutions to which the Irish people would respond…” according to Robert Mitchell Henry (1873-1950), author of The Evolution of Sinn Fein.
The Sinn Fein believed that a nation, like any other group of individuals, had a fundamental right to be independent from any other social group. “They may be forcibly deprived by another and stronger group of rights the exercise of which seems to the stronger to be inimical to its own interests; or rights may be surrendered in return for what may be judged to be a fair equivalent. But it is not held that rights can be extinguished by force or that, if a suitable opportunity should occur, they may not be regained either by force or by agreement.” They also emphasized the preservation of language and heritage and held that a nation can maintain its “moral and spiritual [independence]... long after it has forfeited its political and cultural independence.”
The Sinn Fein, having formed in the wake of the disastrous uprisings of the 19th century, vehemently opposed violence, if mostly for practical reasons. “We believe, said Arthur Griffith, its founder, “Ireland would be no match in the field for the British Empire. If we did not believe so... our proper residence would be a padded cell.”
The Sinn Fein also took strategic concepts from 19th century Irish politician and anti-colonialist John Mitchel (1815-1875). Mitchel believed that an obstructive form of civil disobedience practiced in parliament might at length help to exhaust the British and bind up the gears of the state. “Systematic passive opposition to, and contempt of, law might be carried out through a thousand details, so as to virtually supersede English dominion here and make the mere repealing statute an immaterial formality.” The Sinn Fein also pursued abstentionism, calling for the formation of a parallel parliament to exist in Dublin, and for all Irish MP’s to serve there rather than at Westminster.
The Sinn Fein’s obstinate “self reliance” policy contrasted sharply with the policy of patient constitutional agitation, in particular the quest for home rule by the Parliamentary Party (and embraced by moderates), which had proved as impotent as violence for many years, as the British continued to defend their stake in Ireland at all costs. “The belief that nothing was to be expected from Parliamentary action received later a striking confirmation: for when the Irish demand was whittled down to a bare minimum and all claim to independence expressly renounced, a pretext was found in the exigencies of English political relationships for refusing even that.”
Despite the persistent political frustration of the Irish and repeated abuses by the British occupiers, the Sinn Fein’s principled radicalism remained marginal and unpopular for most of its first decade of existence. They succeeded in winning only a few local elections and in 1910 the party conference was so poorly attended the members had difficulty filling leadership seats.
Fortunes changed for the Sinn Fein in the wake of the dramatic Easter Rising of April 1916. Angered by the proposed partitioning of Ireland and other legislative failures, Irish militants, organized by members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, stormed Dublin Castle during Easter celebrations in an attempt to overthrow the British government. After six days of battle, sixteen of the defeated rebel leaders were taken prisoner and unceremoniously executed without charge or trial.
The executions provoked outrage among the Irish people not seen in generations. “The conclusion drawn by nationalist Ireland” explained Henry, writing in 1920, “was that if they had been Englishmen they would have been tried by English courts and sentenced by the judgment of their countrymen: that if they had been Germans or Turks they would have been treated as prisoners of war: but that being Irish they were in a class apart, members of a subject race, the mere property of a court-martial. The applause of Parliament when the Prime Minister announced the executions was taken to represent the official sanction of the English people... It was resented in Ireland with a fierce and sudden passion: a tongue of flame seemed to devour the work of long years in a single night.” It became apparent to large swaths of the population very quickly that home rule, the Parliamentary Party and patient compromise so longed for with Britain would no longer be possible.
The impact of the failed uprising served to shake the Irish out of complacency and forced them to reassess their long relationship with Great Britain. It also sparked interest in the Sinn Fein, particularly after the media mistakenly identified them with the uprising. “People who had hardly heard of Sinn Fein before wanted to know precisely what it was and what it taught... Sinn Fein pamphlets began to be in demand: a month after the Rising it was hardly possible to procure a single one of them.” By February 1917, Sinn Fein’s newspaper presses were fired up again, appealing “no longer to a few enthusiasts but to a wide public eager to learn more of the only movement which promised anything definite.”
The pamphlets, such as Sinn Fein: An Epitome published in June 1920, detailed the struggle of the Sinn Fein and its use of civil disobedience against the hypocrisy of the Empire. Epitome tugged at the heart, describing “young Irish women with their faces turned toward Wormwood Scrubs, where their brothers and fathers were imprisoned without charge and without hope of trial,” noting that “many a man and woman paused during those days of the hunger-strike of the Irish political prisoners to ask themselves what manner of people these might be whose devotion to a principle led them to suffer such hardships rather than fail of their ideal… someone might have answered, that is Sinn Fein… yesterday a political theory, then an opposition party and today a democratic government which is actually functioning… as a great ethical principle and as the guiding star of men’s passions it is as old as the Irish people—as old as the human race itself. Its other name is Liberty.”
The blood of the Irish rebels spilled in Dublin had purchased a sense of purpose and unity among the Irish and ensured the primacy of Sinn Fein’s hard-line republicanism over attempts at moderation or home rule that enjoyed decades of political favor. Policy prescriptions previously thought unworkable or extreme exploded in popularity. “[Sinn Fein] offering the Constitution of 1782, [had] failed to carry… more than a few doctrinaire enthusiasts: agreeing to the constitution which the leaders of the Rising died for, it might (and did) carry the country with it.”
According to Robert Mitchell Henry, The Rising had also raised the bar for political action among the Irish. “If men had died for Ireland (men asked) facing the old enemy, what lesser sacrifice could be called too great?”
The wave of nationalist enthusiasm “which no appeal to policy or prudence could withstand” swept the Sinn Fein into power in the next national elections and unified several different factions under their banner. The next five years in Ireland would be ones of great suffering and eventual victory. The Irish Republican Army came under the direction of the Sinn Fein’s political leadership, and waged an effective guerilla campaign against the British while the Assembly grew in political strength. Vicious reprisals by British “Black and Tans” led to even further widespread support for the rebels, but it was the heroism of those who employed civil disobedience that won the hearts of the international community, placing enormous pressure on the British to give up their colony.
The Sinn Fein’s policy of civil disobedience, designed to make the country ungovernable and turn sympathies against the British, had two prongs: abstention, to build confidence in self-governance, and encouragement of individual non-compliance with unjust and de-humanizing laws. Sinn Fein MP’s (Members of Parliament) elected in 1918 convened the first Dail Eireann (Assembly of Ireland) in 1919. Rather than serve in London, the MP’s refused to recognize the right of Britain to rule Ireland, and created an “illegal” parliament, encouraging popular recognition of independence.
Civil disobedience in its most effective role took the form of hunger strikes. Begun among prisoners in Mountjoy Prison in April 1920, several IRA members began the strike to demand “prisoner of war” status. They were joined by dozens of other IRA prisoners in prisons across Ireland.
On October 25, 1920, imprisoned IRA leader, playwright and Lord Mayor of Cork Terence MacSwiney died following a seventy-four day hunger strike. Thousands attended his funeral in Cork and his death further galvanized the country, which had followed his agony and decline in the newspapers. His protest and death, reported as far away as the San Francisco Examiner, also brought international attention to the cause of Irish independence, leading Americans to boycott British goods. Protests across Europe and Australia and pressure from South Americans on the pope to intervene in Ireland also occurred. “One day the consciousness of the country will be electrified with a great deed or a great sacrifice and the multitude will break from lethargy or prejudice and march with a shout for freedom in a true, a brave, and a beautiful sense,” Terence MacSwiney prophesied years before his fateful hunger strike. He fulfilled his own prediction.
The Sinn Fein’s strategy to “make Ireland ungovernable” worked effectively as their political jiu jitsu led to ever worsening hatred of the British. A combination of civil disobedience in political life, political support for the IRA’s guerilla war, the Crown’s own excessive violence and weakened hand following the First World War led to British capitulation by the summer of 1921. By the end the disobedience campaign had such an impact even large swaths of the British population supported Irish independence.
The lesson of the Sinn Fein’s battle for independence is clear: for radicals, violence alone will not win the day, nor will patient debate, appeals to power or parliamentary procedure. Only a firm, unwavering reliance on principles rooted in self-reliance and natural rights and the willingness to suffer hardships courageously can inspire populations to demand seismic political changes. Only then are heroic, even mythological narratives created that become an enduring legacy for future generations, and ensure that the changes wrought are permanent.
II. Gandhi, Satyagraha and Indian Independence (1914-1947)
MacSwiney’s hunger strike had been a great inspiration for the Indian Independence Movement, who were, like Ireland, fighting to rid themselves of British rule. Indian freedom fighters Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi had read MacSwiney’s work and counted him among their influences. In 1924, four years after MacSwiney made international headlines by dying for Ireland in a hunger strike, Gandhi took up the same strategy in India. Gandhi went 21 days without food in an attempt to force reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims, who had begun warring while he was in prison.
Finding the hunger strike an effective political tool, he took it up several times in 1932, 1933 and perhaps his most famous in 1947-48 to end religious conflict that was killing thousands.
Little needs to be said here about the greatness of Gandhi, one of the pioneers of civil disobedience as a political weapon. Gandhi understood a few crucial points that were well known among twentieth century political actors but seem to be largely forgotten in the West: to initiate seismic political changes, you must maintain moral authority, never show any hostility toward your opponents, and throughout maintain holistic spiritual purity through self-denial and humility.
Gandhi showed us, more than anyone else, exactly how powerful sacrifice can be. Gandhi followed in MacSwiney’s footsteps, allegedly foretelling his own murder. As with MacSwiney, his death accomplished the change in public opinion that he fell short of in life: Interreligious violence that had sprung up in the power vacuum created by the British’s absence virtually ceased overnight after his murder in January 1948; violence that claimed half a million lives in just one year. India has been a relatively peaceful and democratic society since.
“We can’t rebel against the government unless we first rebel against ourselves,” Gandhi had told his followers. He understood a fundamental human problem of political action: People are willing to be party to their own enslavement in order to maintain a peaceful status quo. Energizing them into action requires sacrifice on the part of their moral leaders, in India’s case, the practitioners of Satyagraha.
Satyagraha, Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence, which translates to “truth force” or “love force” carries with it some distinctly libertarian ideas. It incorporates elements of both the “knowledge problem” and the non-aggression axiom, although taken a step further into moral obligation to others than libertarianism demands. According to Gandhi:
In the application of Satyagraha, I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion. For what appears to be truth to the one may appear to be error to the other. And patience means self-suffering. So the doctrine came to mean vindication of truth, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on oneself.
Gandhi noted that the purpose of Satyagraha was to “convert, not to coerce, the wrong-doer.” Success is thus defined as cooperation towards a just end, rather than a political “win.” He also spoke of means and ends as inseparable, rejecting the use of violence or the “victory, by any means necessary,” mentality of some who had practiced passive resistance in the West, on the grounds that using coercive or violent means will embed injustice in whatever ends are attained, exacerbating the cycle of injustice that plagues so many societies. In this way, the practitioner’s authority is rooted in moral force instead of violence, and has the potential to reduce antagonisms within a society without harming the antagonists.
Gandhi developed a set of very particular rules and mores for Satyagrahis to follow, including mandatory spinning, chastity and abstinence from alcohol. With these we are unconcerned, since different disobedience movements employed different particulars in their belief systems. What is interesting and relevant is the commonality among them, and the parallels to libertarian beliefs. The notion of the moral abhorrence of coercion, and the acknowledgement of coercion’s role in perpetuating injustice; the belief in natural rights that oblige disobedience to unjust laws; finally, and most pertinently, the almost mystical ability of this approach to inspire entire populations to mass action is a historical fact.
Foundations of Indian Liberty: Satyagraha in Action
The Jallianwala Bagh massacre of April 13, 1919 (also known as the Amritsar massacre) has been characterized as the turning point in the history of British India, the event that lost Britain her 'jewel in the crown' and eventually her empire. The event, condemned by Winston Churchill, nevertheless produced and escalation of tension and insults against Indian subjects and shattered the notion that Indians were British subjects with the same rights as the British themselves, much in the way the Easter Rising created that same clarity for the Irish.
The massacre was a watershed moment for Gandhi personally as well as a crucial starting point for Indian independence. The massacre and subsequent praising of its perpetrators in the British Army forced Gandhi to conclude that India’s only hope of social justice lay in achieving full self-government. After the massacre he famously proclaimed “the impossible men of India shall rise and liberate their Motherland.” The outrage it provoked likewise propelled Gandhi from minor figure experimenting with Satyagraha to a major national leader.
The Tribune of India described the massacre as a “milestone in the struggle for freedom which brought Mahatma Gandhi on the scene in his capacity as a leader of the masses whose presence inspired millions of people for three decades.
“In the annals of our freedom struggle the Jallianwala Bagh massacre occupies an unforgettable place. Overnight, men and women resolved to defy the British might. For Gandhiji, the incident was a turning point. He became a ‘rebel’ and realised the futility of achieving freedom through British cooperation. The seeds of his ‘do or die’ movement were thus sown then and there.”
According to libertarian blog Reason for Liberty: “When Amritsar unrest started, the British had one rebel city in front of them, when JBM took place they had many rebel cities in front of them and by 1920-22 (Non-cooperation movement) they had whole nation against them.” The massacre provided both the justification and momentum for the Indian independence movement and galvanized an otherwise largely lethargic and timid populace into action.
The event continues to resonate with Indians nearly a century later. According to the Tribune: “On this fateful day every year, Indians revive the anguish and bitterness that followed the carnage in which hundreds of lives were mowed down with a ruthlessness that does not have many parallels in civilised society.” The site, Jallianwala Bagh, became a national place of pilgrimage. Soon after the tragic happenings of the Baisakhi day, 1919, a committee was formed with Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya as president to raise a befitting memorial to perpetuate the memory of the victims, who were already considered martyrs in the cause for independence.
Noted the Tribune: “History bears ample testimony to the fact that the ill-conceived and unwarranted 1919 military operation proved to be a catalyst for bringing the doom of the British Raj as it created an unbridgeable gulf between the British Government and the Indian people, leaving the British with no other option but to transfer power to the Indians.”
Gandhi capitalized on the anger against British rule with the first concerted civil disobedience campaigns, the non-cooperation movement that began in the 1920’s. The Salt March of 1930 was among his most famous successes. The march began with a mere 78 people, greeted by throngs of 30,000-50,000 at the 48 villages and 4 provinces they marched through to protest the salt tax. Gandhi went to sea to make illegal salt, a highly symbolic and dangerous act that challenged British authority. The British responded by arresting 60,000. The end result was not changes in law, but in widespread support and media attention, and the building of national self-confidence and a broad-based move towards Indian independence.
Gandhi’s Libertarian Ideology
Mohandas Gandhi was nothing if not consistent. Gandhi’s actual political philosophy is seldom discussed precisely because he was an anarchist who believed government should be dissolved in favor of a cooperative agrarian economic model that prevented stratification of classes and political power. This has been discussed in relation with modern libertarianism at the blog Reason for Liberty. “We the contemporary libertarians have managed to figure out that the State is the aggressor, but what we have not managed to figure out is how to fight this aggressor. Everything Gandhi did was against state. Every Ghandian principle becomes libertarian if you consider it a libertarian principle applicable against an aggressor with twisted right and wrong.”
It is well known that Gandhi was motivated by a desire to see India gain independence from the British Empire. Beyond that, his experience with governments seemed to have led him to a deep abhorrence for the institution, and an embracing of individualism, self-reliance and spontaneous order, part of a moral system he called the Swaraj, which translates literally to “self-rule.”
According to Swaraj.org:
The call for Swaraj represents a genuine attempt to regain control of the 'self' - our self-respect, self-responsibility, and capacities for self-realization - from institutions of dehumanization. As Gandhi states, "It is Swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves." The real goal of the freedom struggle was not only to secure political azadi (independence) from Britain, but rather to gain true Swaraj (liberation and self-rule).
Gandhi also recognized the dependence of both owners and workers on each other in a just economic system. Via Reason for Liberty:
“It can be easily demonstrated that destruction of the capitalist must mean destruction in the end of the worker and as no human being is so bad as to be beyond redemption, no human being is so perfect as to warrant his destroying him whom he wrongly considers to be wholly evil. We invite the capitalist to regard himself as trustee for those on whom he depends for the making, the retention, and the increase of his capital. Nor need the worker wait for his conversion. If capital is power, so is work. … Either is dependent on the other. Immediately the worker realizes his strength, he is in a position to become co-sharer with the capitalist instead of remaining his slave. If he aims at becoming the sole owner, he will most likely be killing the hen that lays golden eggs. Inequalities in intelligence and even opportunity will last till the end of time. A man living on the banks of a river has any day more opportunity of growing crops than one living in the arid desert.”
Gandhi recognized inequalities will always persist. He was, however, deeply skeptical of government as a tool of social “improvement” and valued individualism highly:
“I look upon an increase of the power of the State with the greatest fear, because although while apparently doing good by minimizing exploitation, it does the greatest harm to mankind by destroying individuality, which lies at the root of all progress. We know of so many cases where men have adopted trusteeship, but none where the State has really lived for the poor. …
“The socialists and communists say they can do nothing to bring about economic equality today. They will just carry on propaganda in its favor and to that end they believe in generating and accentuating hatred. They say, when they get control over the State, they will enforce equality. Under my plan the State will be there to carry out the will of the people, not to dictate to them or force them to do its will.
“It is my firm conviction that if the State suppressed capitalism by violence, it will be caught in the coils of violence itself, and will fail to develop non-violence at any time. The State represents violence in a concentrated and organized form. The individual has a soul, but as the State is a soulless machine, it can never be weaned from violence to which it owes its very existence.”
Gandhi was a believer in spontaneous order as well:
“We find the general work of mankind is being carried on from day to day be the mass of people acting as if by instinct.”
Influenced by Western traditions in part due to the time he spent in Britain in his youth, Gandhi was also a believer in individualism, and the use of reason to underwrite a person’s morality. According to Professor T.N. Madan, Honorary Professor of Sociology at New Delhi University:
One of Gandhi's outstanding contributions to social and political thought, I suggest, was the conception of altruistic individualism within a cultural setting that was generally considered group- centred… In regarding reason and moral sense as the primary sources of good conduct, Gandhi asserted the right of the individual to arrive at judgments and, if necessary, to defend them against collective opinion, whether traditional or contemporary. His excoriation of the practice of untouchability was not merely an assertion of his own individual right to make moral judgments — indeed he considered this an obligation — but more importantly the assertion of the moral worth of every single human being, irrespective of his or her ascribed social status. Such moral worth is the basic premise of good society; whether it is enhanced or eroded depends on the dialectic of social pressures and individual agency.
Gandhi’s Swaraj principles are so libertarian, there are too many libertarian ideas from him to list here. He not only believed in asserting individual rights against the coercion of the state, he evidently believed in market processes and private property to best meet man’s needs and scorned the use of parliamentary systems in attempting to achieve social ends. He was hostile to centralized authority of any kind and believed strongly in individualism and self-rule. “If we become free, India becomes free and in this thought you have a definition of Swaraj. It is Swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves.”
It is worthy to take a moment to note the similarities between Gandhi’s Swaraj and the Sinn Fein’s emphasis on self-reliance. Such emphasis, particularly coupled with the concept of natural rights, is necessary to inspire an inert and defeated population to action against an increasingly rapacious government. As the American founders discovered in the 18th century, so the Irish and the Indians found when dealing with the hostile forces of the British Empire. In all cases, the British proclamation of the enjoyment of rights as British subjects by those under their rule was farcical and entirely at the pleasure of the rulers. Whenever conflict arose, those rights seemed to dissolve quickly into coercion and bloodshed as the British fought to maintain unquestioned supremacy.
Even during the worst of times, however, Gandhi maintained his principles, angering some by extending his notion of power and Swaraj to the history of colonization. While acknowledging the British Empire's cynical intentions in India, he places the responsibility of the disaster of colonization on the India people. “It is truer to say that we gave India to the English than that India was lost... to blame them for this is to perpetuate their power.” Because power resides in the people and they can only lose it by relinquishing their own power (often through coercion by others), petitions to the government get a new meaning with Gandhi. “A petition of an equal is a sign of courtesy; a petition from a slave is a symbol of his slavery.”
Here again, is a similarity with Sinn Fein’s conceptualization of natural rights—rights don’t come from government, but from within. Therefore, rights continue to exist when they cannot be openly expressed due to coercion. This is a crucial intersection for libertarians. Radical ideologies must inculcate oppressed and apathetic populations with a sense of self-worth in order to provoke an activist spirit. The concept of natural rights was important during the colonial period, when colonized people believed rights were rare morsels tossed to them on the whim of their superiors. Gandhi sought to rob Britain of their power to determine the law as a sort of demystification of white rule.
Gandhi, not being able to realize his anarchist “oceanic villages” system with Indian liberation in 1947, settled on minarchism:
Gandhi recognized that there would be a national government, and his anarchic, oceanic circle would not yet be possible. Nevertheless, he used the terms of nationalism to move towards the ideal of Anarchy. He advocated for a minimal level of State organization to fund some education programs and to promote his economic concept of trusteeship. Hence, Gandhi was a compromising Anarchist.
In the end, Gandhi proved to be on the right side of history. Remembered as one of the greatest advocates for the downtrodden that the human race has ever produced, the radical anarchist who had been repeatedly imprisoned, classified as a terrorist by the British parliament and derided as a threat to law and order, was described by former U.S. Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall as “a spokesman for the conscience of all mankind.”
As with the Sinn Fein, Gandhi won by using civil disobedience, underwritten by his individualist philosophy and religious ethos, to build confidence within long-oppressed people and break the myth of impotence while assuring British authorities that he would not endorse violent reprisals. The technique won the admiration of both the oppressed and oppressors, winning Indian independence and serving as a template for a new disobedience movement in the U.S., one that proved that disobedience need not be against a foreign power, nor involve widespread loss of life.
III. Civil Rights Movement in the U.S.: The Ideology and Strategy of Martin Luther King Jr. (1955-1965)
America’s most significant contribution to the school of civil disobedience was the fight for equal rights for African Americans, culminating in two landmark pieces of legislation: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which effectively ended statutory discrimination in the U.S. It’s most famous voice, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is also remembered as a martyr whose achievements are considered a sacred part of the American political narrative. The violence endured by King, the Freedom Riders, the Children’s Crusaders and many other activists propelled them to victory in just ten years of activity after enduring centuries of slavery and over a century of horrific discrimination.
Dr. King acknowledged that Gandhi’s struggle, which he had first learned about from a lecturer at Howard University in the 1940’s, was the primary influence on his ideas. In his college days, King searched for a “method whereby social evil could be removed from society.” Having read the works of social philosophers such as Marx and remaining unmoved by the communist argument, King was deeply moved by Gandhi’s peaceful strategy and strict moral code, which dovetailed well with his Christian values.
One of Dr. King’s greatest insights, derived from his reading of Gandhi’s idealism, was that only radical change, not patient, incremental change, was going to accomplish his goals. “I think the word ‘gradualism’... is so often an excuse for escapism and do-nothingism which ends up in stand-stillism. I think we must move on toward this great goal… we must re-examine this whole emphasis that the approach to desegregation must be gradual rather than forthwith or immediate” King stated in a 1957 television interview. No generation wants to be the one to endure a painful shake-up in the status quo, a fact Dr. King and his generation knew too well.
King, like Gandhi, believed that the morality and methodology of civil disobedience were parts of a single system, one that he believed in the power of to change hearts and minds by social disruption. “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue,” he stated in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
As King notes in his famous “Letter,” when his protests started creating serious tension, white and black conservatives alike balked, imploring him to “wait” and chiding him for wanting social change to happen “too fast.” As with the Sinn Fein and Indian Liberation movements, the Civil Rights radicals found themselves up against considerable resistance from the mainstream of political thought when the status quo of peace—even a peace that masks gross injustice— was threatened. Many black church leaders opposed radicalism in favor of using the court system, fearing reprisals by whites.
But central to King’s success was radicalism at its finest: shaking people out of racial apathy by exposing government evils and drawing out latent hatred within both the state and civilian population, then using non-violent resistance to foster guilt in southern whites and drum up sympathy from the rest of the country. Civil rights groups like the Freedom Riders sought out to confront racists in order to deliberately provoke violence, hoping the publicity would show that desegregationists had the moral high ground. “The Freedom Riders typified one of the standard contradictions within the civil rights movement... on the one hand it’s nonviolent... on the other hand they’re really courting violence in order to attract publicity that will forward the cause... so you have these mixed motives” said Julian Bond, former head of the NAACP.
Jesse Jackson agreed: “Every time the blood of the innocent was spilled, every time a worker was martyred, it exploded interest in our struggle.” Dr. King saw the strategy as an effective way of exposing discomfort among bigots in the South with their own attitudes…”I think it arouses a sense of shame among them in many instances… it does something to touch the conscience and establish a sense of guilt.”
Dr. King also saw the value in deliberately receiving abuse for a cause. “Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive,” he exhorted his followers in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Deliberate suffering for political ends, no matter how worthy, seems a foreign concept to most people, rich and poor alike. Regardless, it was essential to the success of the Civil Rights Movement.
The resistance was necessary to expose both racism and perverse government interests; not only the interest of local governments to preserve their racial feudalism, but the interest of the federal government to keep things quiet and preserve the status quo, no matter how unjust. Much of the violence against the Freedom Riders, including a firebombing of their bus and a vicious mob beating in May 1961, happened with the complicity of the local police and authorities. The FBI, under the direction of the Kennedy administration, knew of the threats to the protesters but declined to intervene. Undeterred, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) sent a second wave of demonstrators to Birmingham later in the year. Their beatings and the assault of photojournalists drew in King along with increased public interest in civil rights, culminating in federal intervention and the opening of a dialogue between King and Attorney General Robert Kennedy.
The Kennedy brothers, focused on the Soviet threat, had previously been extremely reluctant to intervene in civil rights issues and considered the protests a mere nuisance. Civil disobedience in Birmingham forced their hand. It also forced the Kennedys to proclaim to the world that they sided with civil rights against the mobs in Birmingham. The national media attention created waves of hundreds of freedom riders pouring into Jackson, Mississippi, many of whom deliberately went to hard labor at Parchment Prison for their actions. The Interstate Commerce Commission, under pressure from the Department of Justice desegregated interstate bus travel shortly thereafter. More importantly, it also shattered the myth of impotence for African Americans. President Kennedy finally called on congress in 1963 to ban Jim Crow laws. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, used public sympathy generated by successful disobedience incidents such as the Children’s Crusade in May 1963 (during which fire hoses were turned on children) to pass the monumental Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The Civil Rights Movement, like the Indian Liberation Movement, had its share of heroes, martyrs and villains. One of its most striking villains was the psychopathic Eugene “Bull” Connor, Birmingham, AL Commissioner of Public Safety. A rabid racist and devout segregationist, Connor’s brutal tactics won a great deal of national support for civil rights. Connor believed the entire social order and the survival of civilization itself, depended on segregation. So much so, that he was willing to turn the city’s police dogs and fire hoses on full blast against a protest of children. Thanks to civil disobedience, Connor is remembered as an international symbol of racism and brutality. His aggressive tactics backfired when the spectacle of the brutality being broadcast on national television served as one of the catalysts for major social and legal change in the southern United States and helped in large measure to assure the passage by the Congress of the Civil Rights Act.
The last great victory of the Civil Rights Movement also came about as a result of public outrage over violence against protesters. Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, SNCC leader John Lewis led a voting rights march in Selma, Alabama that drew a fury of violence. State troopers attacked the marchers and Lewis suffered a fractured skull. The violence and subsequent public sympathy gave President Johnson the last thrust of momentum he needed to pass the Voting Rights Act, which was signed in to law August 6, 1965. Johnson noted during remarks on the day of the signing:
And then last March, with the outrage of Selma still fresh, I came down to this Capitol one evening and asked the Congress and the people for swift and for sweeping action to guarantee to every man and woman the right to vote. In less than 48 hours I sent the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to the Congress. In little more than 4 months the Congress, with overwhelming majorities, enacted one of the most monumental laws in the entire history of American freedom.
That quote from President Johnson speaks volume about not only the success of Civil Rights radicalism, but the success of the American Left in general. For decades, the Left has advanced its agenda by exploiting depressions, wars, and national tragedies, appealing to the public’s sense of empathy to advance their own brand of radicalism that redefined the role of the federal government over the last century.
Empathy is unquestionably a powerful force in politics. Dr. King’s use of Gandhi’s strategic nonviolence was powerful and effective, creating tension without warfare, and forcing acknowledgement without violence. Like Gandhi, King’s strategy, which showed respect for the oppressor as well as demanding it for the oppressed, built a bridge between whites and blacks so effectively that the very idea of segregation for any reason is anathema today. Former opponents of integration, such as former governor of Alabama John Malcolm Patterson, have long since rescinded their segregationist views. The twisted, self-serving ideas that were once considered integral to social stability by many whites have long-since fallen out of favor, even if underlying pathologies have not disappeared entirely.
It is also important to note that liberation from an oppressive government is the only sort of constructive radical change that is possible through civil disobedience. Radical egalitarianism has often either ended in disaster or just fizzled out. The Civil Rights movement in the U.S. for example successfully pushed for statutory equality for African Americans. Dr. King’s subsequent fight to make up for past oppression with taxpayer-funded reparations, however, failed to materialize, largely because it threatened to infringe on the rights of others.
Dr. King’s movement is a great example of how one man’s dream overcame the Public Choice problem: government self-interest and public apathy was overcome by appealing to the heart and the moral sense of the public.
Otpor! and Other Subsequent Movements
Following the colossal success of the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., civil disobedience largely fell out of favor in the U.S., becoming a tool of myriad small movements that never gained much political steam or public empathy. Environmentalists and anti-nuclear activists have still employed similar tactics for decades and with some success, but to little broader public notice.
Internationally, however, resistance movements sprang up in dozens of places. The Solidarity movement in Poland is credited with setting the wheels in motion that led to the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union. The famous “tank man” of Tiananmen Square became an enduring symbol of resistance to oppression to millions. Most recently, the self-immolation of Tunisian small business owner Mohamed Bouazizi in December 2010 set off the Arab Spring protests.
A little known fact is that the Arab Spring was coordinated by student protest organizations who had been training for years under leaders of the successful Serbian nonviolent resistance movement Otpor! (Resistance!) that was instrumental in overthrowing Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. Otpor! had themselves been inspired by a manual on nonviolent resistance called “From Dictatorship to Democracy” by American scholar Gene Sharp, who had in turn been inspired by Gandhi’s independence movement. Sharp realized that nonviolent disobedience was a powerful and under-utilized tool that could be used anywhere in the world to break down institutional and popular support for dictatorships. By employing a coordinated strategy, Sharp noted, leaders could harness frustration and direct it productively without inciting violence.
Movements like Otpor! that have sprung up in the last four decades to fight dictators around the world tend not to be underwritten by a specific ideology, but embrace more general democratic principles. There are still lessons to be taken. Otpor! for example, managed to achieve its goal of a democratic Serbia with legitimate elections without an identifiable leader, functioning with a loose inner circle that divided tasks based on an agreed upon overall strategy. This indicates that a disobedience movement does not need an iconic, messianic leader to pull people together, at least insofar as activists agree on both the strategy and the goals. It does further bolster the idea that goals must be narrowly tailored and specific.
In advanced, western societies that already have legitimate elections but struggle against ignorance or inertia, a specific ideological underpinning including natural rights is likely more necessary in order to justify opposition to the established laws. In this way, one can justify an attack on unjust government activities without claiming the entire government is unjust. It is also a crucial tool to prevent hostility from bubbling over and improving political unity behind positive, inclusive and democratic ideas.
“Nonviolent struggle is reserved for the particular area of activity where people would otherwise feel they were required to use violence. A lot of our theories of just war, etc. are based upon an assumption that violence is the most effective thing you can do… that violence is really the most powerful. That is another claim that I deny,” noted Gene Sharp. “Nonviolent struggle is growing in the world because it is rooted in an understanding of the nature of political power. Political power is not intrinsic to the people who hold it,” he claimed, noting that political power rests on the support of institutions such as academia, the police, the military, business and religious leaders, etc. In a hegemonic world full of advanced, well-armed powers capable of brutal retaliation against uprisers, violence becomes too costly as a means of effecting radical political changes when electoral politics and the judicial system fails to achieve it. Nonviolence is the last, best tool to achieve that change.
This notion is empirically supported by the research of University of Colorado political scientist Erica Chenoweth. Her study of political movements around the globe that took place between 1900 and 2006 revealed that nonviolent campaigns were twice as successful in removing dictatorships as violent ones, and that they were 15% less likely to see a relapse into violent conflict. She also found that it only took 3.5% of a country’s population to rise up and successfully overthrow an oppressive government, while armed conflict took considerably more. In part this is because of the ability of nonviolence to include women, elderly and youth as well as ambivalent segments of the population. The research showed that nonviolent struggle has been improving in effectiveness over time, while violent struggle is declining.
Civil disobedience has been employed for years to great effect all over the globe, and has a rich history of success in the West. Yet its impact has been marginalized in both academic and political thought, a mere footnote in events between wars and elections, and thus remains poorly understood. Libertarians have perhaps the best opportunity in a generation to revive it in the West.
Note: This is excerpted from the paper "Radical Libertarianism in Historical Context: The Case for Civil Disobedience" (2013) that can be found here.
Note: This is excerpted from the paper "Radical Libertarianism in Historical Context: The Case for Civil Disobedience" (2013) that can be found here.
 Henry, Robert Mitchell. The Evolution of Sinn Fein. 1920. p 247.
 The Evolution of Sinn Fein, 39-41.
 The Evolution of Sinn Fein, 41.
 This “death by a thousand paper cuts” strategy was identified by Gene Sharp and practiced by Saul Alinksy as a method of civil obstruction.
 The Evolution of Sinn Fein, 53.
 The Evolution of Sinn Fein, 42.
 Brian Feeney. Sinn Fein: A Hundred Turbulent Years. pp 52-54.
 The Evolution of Sinn Fein, 222.
 The Evolution of Sinn Fein, 227.
 A few Sinn Fein members did participate in the Easter Rising, but it was neither organized nor endorsed by the party in any official sense.
 The Evolution of Sinn Fein, 223-224.
 Sinn Fein: An Epitome. 1920. Published by Friends of Irish Freedom, National Bureau of Information, Washington DC.
 The Evolution of Sinn Fein, 225.
 The Evolution of Sinn Fein, 228.
 MacSwiney, Terence (1879-1920). Principles of Freedom. Published posthumously in 1921.
 Blog of Vinay Lal, Assoc. Professor of History, UCLA. http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/southasia/History/British/Crawling.html
 Tribune of India. May 13, 2000. http://www.tribuneindia.com/2000/20000513/windows/mail.htm
 Cal Peace Power, Vol. 2, Issue 1, Winter 2006. http://www.calpeacepower.org/0201/gandhi_anarchist.htm
 OneIndia News, 5/22/2013. http://news.oneindia.in/2013/05/22/gandhi-was-declared-terrorist-declaration-sold-cheap-1222573.html
 King, Martin Luther. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” April 16, 1963.