On February 21, an author known as Mr. Underhill published an article in which he argues that revolution is not the appropriate method for achieving liberty. It was then republished at Liberty.me in a column by people who, judging by their other articles, should know better. In this rebuttal, I will argue that revolution is not only an appropriate method, but the only possible method.
Underhill begins by denouncing the stereotype of the bomb-throwing, omnicidal anarcho-communist, and rightly so. He then notes that some right-libertarians, such as Christopher Cantwell, also advocate violent revolution. (His dig at Cantwell for supporting Donald Trump is ill-informed, though better-informed criticism on this point is valid.) Most of the rest of the article denounces the tactic of armed rebellion on the grounds that it has historically resulted in a greater degree of statism.
Underhill begins with the English Revolution (better known as the English Civil War), and the use of this term to refer to the execution of Charles I and rule of Oliver Cromwell is a Marxist historical revision. Contrary to Underhill’s claim that a great part of the property in private hands was seized, Austin Woolrych notes that “painstaking research in county after county, in local record offices and family archives, has revealed that the changes in the ownership of real estate, and hence in the composition of the governing class, were nothing like as great as used to be thought.” While Cromwell was generally more oppressive than Charles I, Charles II was generally less oppressive than either Charles I or Cromwell.
Underhill’s description of the French Revolution is quite incomplete, and this leads to inaccuracies such as treating the rise of Napoleon as part of the French Revolution when in fact, he had to engineer a coup against the French Revolution in order to take power. Underhill also neglects to mention Napoleon’s positive achievements, such as the Napoleonic Code, the first abolition of the Spanish Inquisition, promotion of equal rights under law, and hastening the end of feudalism.
In his description of the Whiskey Rebellion following the American Revolution, Underhill actually undermines his argument by citing an example where a failure to engage in violent revolt led to a more powerful state. Had the rebels at their greatest extent marched against Washington’s forces, they stood a decent chance of defeating him in battle, which would have dealt a major blow to the power of the United States government, perhaps even a fatal one. Underhill also commits a factual error; the Whiskey Rebellion was not a non-violent affair. Some tax collectors were whipped, tarred, feathered, and run out of town. Three or four rebels were killed, along with two neutral civilians.
Instances like these are indeed why revolutionaries must seek to abolish state power rather than to wield it. Underhill attempts to rebut this idea with several fallacious arguments. First, he says that revolution against a powerful state historically does not succeed. The idea that something which has yet to happen must be impossible is a logical fallacy. If this idea were true, then there would be no innovation whatever and we would still be in the same state of affairs as our primitive ancestors. This sort of historical determinism is a sign that one lacks courage and imagination, especially the former. This argument is also a straw man because anarchists are not calling for revolution against a powerful state, but against weak states which only appear to be powerful. And even if this were not so, the idea that “peoples never rebel against a power which squeezes the life out of them and grinds them underfoot” is exactly wrong. The truth is as stated in the Declaration of Independence:
“[A]ll experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
Until conditions become such that survival demands revolution, most people are not in the proper mindset to overthrow a government. Notably, famines were precursors to both the French and Russian revolutions.
Speaking of the Russian Revolution, Underhill misunderstands this as well. Once again, he conflates two revolutions into one. The February Revolution deposed Tsar Nicholas II and established Menshevik rule, then the October Revolution deposed the Mensheviks in favor of Vladimir Lenin. While the original communist ideal is a stateless society, it is much different from the sort of anarcho-capitalist society that is the desire of those who truly seek liberty. Note also that anarcho-communism is only the final step, and although Karl Marx and Lenin did speak of violence, the elimination of the state in communist ideology was not universally understood as a violent transition. Friedrich Engels writes,
“The interference of the state power in social relations becomes superfluous in one sphere after another, and then ceases of itself. The government of persons is replaced by the administration of things and the direction of the processes of production. The state is not ‘abolished’; it withers away.”
Underhill fails to mention instances of violent political revolution which work against his argument. The Irish War of Independence neither increased the power of the British state in Ireland nor led to an Irish state more oppressive than the British state. The Romanian Revolution overthrew the despotic Ceausescu regime and led to much greater economic freedom. The case that historical revolutions result in growth of the state is further weakened by the fact that the state has generally grown regardless of whether revolutions occur.
A Different Revolution
With Underhill’s empirics refuted, let us consider the nature of a libertarian revolution. The word ‘revolution’ is defined as “a forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new system.” Historically, this new system has been another government, but this need not be the case. This definition leaves room for a stateless system which would be brought about by an anti-political revolution and maintained by a culture of resistance to any effort to reintroduce statism.
The Nature of the Problem
The primary reason why revolution is not only a feasible option but a required one is that no other method adequately addresses the problem. Those who bankroll political campaigns receive a far better return on investment than they would receive from any free market use of capital, and if they did not make such donations, their business rivals would. Wielding political power causes the same biochemical responses as drug abuse. There are people who carry weapons in the name of the state for the purpose of enforcing the edicts of politicians because they lack the skills and temperament to be productive members of society. There is a dependent class of people who have become accustomed to existing parasitically upon the productive members of society. In sum, the state is too valuable to give up for those who benefit from it, so they will not do so without a fight. As such, any strategy that does not deal with the fact that an institution based upon initiatory force will use force to counter attempts to remove and/or dismantle it is doomed to failure. In particular, various libertarians propose using electoral methods, agorism, cryptography, seasteading, civil disobedience, education, and peaceful parenting to end the state. Let us explore the faults of each of these methods.
Properly understood, libertarianism is antithetical to any kind of statism, but is particularly opposed to democracy. To quote Hans-Hermann Hoppe, democracy promotes shortsightedness, capital waste, irresponsibility, and moral relativism. Whereas a monarch (or any other private property owner with allodial title) owns the capital stock of the property, elected officials serve as temporary stewards. This means that while an allodial title holder is incentivized to care for property to preserve it as an inheritance and capital good, an elected official is incentivized to plunder property while he or she can. Democracy encourages moral relativism by replacing objective ethics with an appeal to the masses. The results of the electoral process are all around us, and they are unquestionably disastrous. To quote Albert Einstein, we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we (or our forefathers) used when we (or they) created them. Democracy as a strategy for libertarians either requires uncomfortable truths to be more popular than comforting lies, or for hundreds of anarcho-capitalists to win elections under false pretenses. Even if the matter could be reduced to a simple referendum on the continued operation of the state apparatus, it would still require a majority of voters to support it in order to be successful.
Agorists and crypto-anarchists have the idea that using black and gray markets instead of state-approved markets can starve the state of funds and cause its demise. This method ignores limitations of scale; there are some industrial endeavors which simply cannot be performed entirely outside of Leviathan’s watchful eye. Perversely, a black market can even be counterproductive toward the goal of libertarian revolution, granting people the means to suffer evils rather than allowing them to face the stark choice of revolution or death. We have also seen that the state is faster to react to agorist and crypto-anarchist activity than Konkin thought; the example of Ross Ulbricht is instructive here. Finally, agorism is actually not a non-violent strategy as originally conceived. Konkin wrote that in the final stage of his strategy, black-market agencies use force to defend against the state, and this is the sort of violent revolution being defended here.
Some libertarians believe that escaping to the oceans will save us from statism. (The far more starry-eyed idea of colonizing space for libertarian purposes also belongs here.) The idea is to colonize the oceans by building permanent dwellings on the high seas outside of the territory claimed by any government. This would create an anarchist control zone that allows anyone to make an effort to live there, escape the state, and build a better future for oneself and one’s descendants. This is all well and good, but it fails to account for the response of governments. Governments do not have a track record of going gently into the night or of tolerating existential threats. If history is any guide, then the response by governments to seasteads that are brain-draining, talent-draining, youth-draining, and investment-draining their territories will be to initiate the use of force against them. When a government warship approaches a seastead and makes demands, the residents will have three options: they can give in, which defeats the purpose of the seastead; they can refuse and be sunk, which also defeats the purpose of the seastead; or they can defend themselves against the warship, thus resulting in a violent revolution.
Another method of resistance is civil disobedience, in which people refuse to obey laws until force is brought to bear. Civil disobedience is a better option than democracy, in that less than a voting majority could stop a government. But the historical examples frequently cited, those of the struggle for Indian independence from the British and the American civil rights movement, were anything but civil. In both cases, multitudes of demonstrators were violently victimized by government agents. Remaining peaceful in the face of violent oppression only ensures that aggressors are empowered, victims are weakened, and onlookers are given an example of government violence as a solution to the “problem” of disobedience. As taking civil disobedience to its logical conclusion requires the protesters to tolerate lethal violence being used against them while not fighting back or fleeing, most large attempts at civil disobedience result in either a defeat of the disobedient or an escalation to violent revolution.
Lastly, the strategy of relying upon education and peaceful parenting to defeat the state is essentially a surrender. To fall back upon this option is to write off a solution as impossible in our lifetimes, thus passing the problem on to our progeny. While it is true that if children were raised to initiate the use of reason rather than the use of force, the state would cease to function due to a lack of people willing to act on its behalf, statists will also be breeding and raising their children violently while libertarians try to raise a better next generation. This is also the worst solution in terms of the number of people required for success. Long before this strategy alone would succeed, a democratic effort would be successful, and the other methods all work before voting the state out of existence would.
None of this is to suggest that the above methods are useless. But at best, they will not defeat the state by themselves. At worst, they ease some of the pain of oppression, which gives people less incentive to end it. Their purpose, if any, must be to weaken the state and grow the population and resources of libertarians to such an extent that revolution becomes feasible, then to aid a revolutionary effort. In preparation for revolution, the electoralist should seek to elect politicians who will obstruct the passage of laws and budgets. The agorist or crypto-anarchist should find ways to sell illegal goods and services that directly target the state, such as forbidden arms and political assassinations. The seasteader should research ways to sink government warships and down government aircraft. The protester should plan events which can cripple infrastructure that is vital to the state but not to the general population. The educator should show people why the use of self-defense against government is no less legitimate than the use of self-defense against a common criminal. The peaceful parent should raise children to view the state as an alien parasite worthy only of destruction.
An Artificial Vacuum
Those who study physics will learn that nature abhors a vacuum. This is often said in politics as well; when a powerful leader is overthrown or a state fails, other actors seek to take for themselves the power that those people and institutions once had. Another lesson from physics is essential to understand what must be done in order to end the state. While it is true that no perfect vacuum exists, it is also true that a partial vacuum which is sufficient for practical purposes may be artificially maintained by the continuous application of force. The political equivalent of this is the goal of a libertarian revolution. Just as matter is forcefully expelled from a vacuum chamber, the state must be forcefully expelled from a libertarian-controlled area. Once this is done, there will be attempts by government agents (as well as warlords, terrorists, mafiosos, and lone wolf criminals) to re-enter the resulting stateless society in order to establish a new coercive enterprise, just as atoms attempt to re-enter a vacuum chamber and restore atmospheric pressure. These people must be physically removed from the society by the continuous application of defensive force, just as atoms must be continually pumped out of the vacuum chamber. Notably, libertarians have two advantages over the physicist using a vacuum pump. First, a vacuum pump cannot destroy atoms, but a libertarian can kill an aggressor. Second, the physicist will never turn the entire universe outside of the vacuum chamber into a vacuum, but libertarians can come close enough to turning the entire world into a libertarian-controlled area to be able to live all but free from aggressive violence while standing by to eliminate any new threat.
This method has advantages over the methods described above. Whereas peaceful parenting requires a vast majority, democracy requires a majority (or at least a plurality), and the other methods require large minorities, the people who carry guns on behalf of the state for the purpose of enforcing the edicts of rulers is rarely more than 1 percent of the population in modern nation-states. There are many historical examples of larger forces being defeated by smaller forces, so defeating the enforcement classes may not even require 1 percent of the population. Whereas the other methods either fail when force is brought to bear or deteriorate into violent conflict, a libertarian revolution deals with the problem of state aggression directly by not only defending against it, but by subjecting aggressors to a taste of their own medicine. Whereas the other methods require peacefully convincing a large number of people to support a movement, a libertarian revolution only requires convincing them not to oppose it so strongly as to bring overwhelming force to bear against it. The revolutionaries can operate almost entirely in secret, while at least some government agents and buildings must be identifiable in order to carry out their functions. While a statist revolutionary movement would require an overt presence, people who simply wish to rid their communities of statism do not. And contrary to Underhill, peace talks are not inevitably required at the end of such a conflict; in fact, the approach of an anti-political revolution followed by a culture of resistance makes such talks impossible. At the conclusion of a decentralized revolution, there is no leader with whom the statists may negotiate for peace. They must simply stop committing crimes under color of law and make restitution for the crimes they have committed or be physically removed from the libertarian-controlled area.
Naturally, such a bold approach will invite criticism. Let us address some of the most common objections to libertarian revolution.
The enemy is too technologically superior to defeat militarily.
For most high-tech attackers, there exist low-tech defenses which can be effective. Proper uses of terrain and stealth can blunt the advantages of government forces, as can hiding among the civilian population. If government forces resort to their usual methods, the result would be a large amount of civilian blood on the state’s hands, and if abroad examples of blowback are anything to go by, this will motivate surviving relatives of the dead civilians to join the effort to end the state. The most destructive government tactics, such as weapons of mass destruction and large-scale carpet bombing, are out of the question if statists care about winning because these destroy their own infrastructure and sources of sustenance. Also, a domestic deployment could endanger family members and friends of the soldiers, leading to loss of morale, disobedience of orders, and defections to the anarchist cause. Finally, a soldier who fights overseas hardly ever faces reprisals after the war by those who were victimized. But if a government fielded its military domestically, it would be much easier for the details of a person’s military service to be recorded and publicized by alternative media, resulting in a soldier having to watch out for revenge-seekers for the rest of his or her life even if the revolution fails.
Engaging the enemy on their terms will certainly end in disaster, but engaging them on our terms has a much more favorable outlook. Note that one could also argue that the enemy is too technologically superior to defeat peacefully. The whole argument reeks of nihilistic laziness.
Libertarians will be viewed as terrorists.
This is a concern to a certain degree. The actions of revolutionaries must be carefully planned to avoid unnecessary collateral damage, as collateral damage plays into the state’s hands. The side that is viewed as terrorists and oppressors, as well as the side that is viewed as heroes and saviors, are determined mostly by who wins. Might does not make right but it does make outcomes, and history is written by the victors.
The public is likely to resist a libertarian revolution.
This is not nearly the concern that it appears to be. While electoral results may make it seem like there is strong opposition to libertarian anarchism, the ultimate reason that people are voting on ballots is that they fear the consequences of voting with bullets. If the option of voting with ballots is taken away from them, then the public is left with the options of either living peacefully or trying to perform the crimes of the state themselves, and their current behavior shows that they fear the latter.
If you force liberty upon people, they are not really free.
The only time that force can legitimately be used within the non-aggression principle is in an act of defensive violence to stop aggressors, reclaim stolen property, make criminals perform restitution, etc. Thus, forcing liberty upon people would only occur when people commit aggressions and are met with defensive force. As such, forcing liberty upon people is compatible with the non-aggression principle. Furthermore, let us remember that because the non-aggression principle is a logical construct, it is subject to logic in the form of consistent application. In the case of statists, anarchists may impose liberty upon them because statists impose statism upon anarchists, thereby estopping themselves from complaining that force is being used to impose a way of life upon them.
If libertarians can do this, then so could someone else, like a group of statist communists.
This is true, and it demonstrates that the nation-state model of providing security is woefully inadequate. This is actually an argument in favor of ending the state monopoly on military defense in favor of market competition.
What protects your revolution from the next one?
The only thing that can; a population that is willing to fight, die, and most importantly, kill in order to defend its way of life against anyone who would try to establish any kind of new dominion over them.
How will co-option be prevented?
This is certainly a concern, as intelligent statists know that the best way to defeat opposition is to lead it themselves. The only way to be sure is to have a truly decentralized revolution with no top-down leadership. If libertarians look for a charismatic leader against the state, then we will get him, and we will yet again fail to solve the problem because we will demonstrate a lack of understanding of the problem.
Why don’t you start shooting?
The personnel and resources necessary for victory are not yet assembled. Moving too soon plays into the state’s hands. A losing revolution will only give the state more cause to grow and sour the reputation of libertarianism.
How will one know when it is time?
It has been time since the first states began. But the meaning of this question is more likely to be, how will one know that the personnel and resources necessary for victory are available? If enough people are willing to carry out a libertarian revolution, then more people than that will be helping the revolutionaries but not taking up arms, and more people than that will be speaking favorably of revolution without taking action toward that end. The signs of the times will therefore be obvious.
The state is the most evil institution ever devised by humans, and its demise is required in order for humanity to survive and prosper. It makes war upon us, regardless of whether we make war upon it. While some of its agents can be reasoned with, others speak only the language of force, and they must be communicated with in their native tongue. If our enemies will use force and we will not, then we will lose conflicts and negotiate from a position of weakness. If we are to negotiate, let us negotiate from a position of strength. If we are to resist, let us do so boldly. If we are serious about ending the state, let us do what is required for success.
- Austin Woolrych (2002), Britain in Revolution, 1625–1660. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 794.
- “Withering Away of the State.” In The Encyclopedia of Political Science, edited by George Thomas Kurian. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2011.