A brief history of modern libertarian engagement with the study and practice of nonviolent action.

Grant Babcock
Philosophy & Policy Editor

Grant Babcock is the Philosophy and Policy Editor of Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org and a scholar of political philosophy. He is especially interested in nonviolent action, epistemology of the social sciences, social contract theories and criticisms thereof, and finding libertarian‐​compatible responses to cultural problems.

The study and practice of nonviolent action goes back centuries. Today I’m going to examine a small section of that tradition: the relationship of nonviolence to the modern libertarian movement that emerged in the second half of the twentieth century.

One can’t talk about the modern libertarian movement without talking about Murray Rothbard. He was hugely influential, both academically and as an activist, in shaping libertarianism as we know it today. My own libertarianism is strongly influenced by the work of Rothbard, and as such I was quite interested to read his opinions on nonviolence as a libertarian tactic. As far as I can tell, Murray Rothbard engaged with nonviolence twice. In the March 1983 issue of The Libertarian Forum, he unleashes a scathing diatribe against a current of Gandhi “cultism” in the libertarian movement which he feared would draw activists away from the Libertarian Party. To be quite frank, it isn’t really worth reading unless you’re interested in decades‐​old movement squabbles. One of the “cultists,” Libertarianism.org’s George H. Smith, described Rothbard’s argument this way in issue five of The Voluntaryist : “[S]erious criticism requires knowledge of the subject matter and a willingness to present it accurately. Rothbard doesn’t even come close.”

The other instance of Rothbard’s writing on nonviolence I’ve come across is his 1975 introduction to Étienne de La Boétie’s 1576 essay, “Discourse on Voluntary Servitude.” La Boétie’s essay is a seminal text every libertarian should read in full. He identifies the source of political power as obedience, and argues that disobedience destroys political power. Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org hosts two excerpts from the “Discourse” if you are pressed for time, but I recommend the full essay with Rothbard’s introduction. Here’s a brief taste of La Boetie’s eloquence and insight:

He who thus domineers over you has only two eyes, only two hands, only one body, no more than is possessed by the least man among the infinite numbers dwelling in your cities; he has indeed nothing more than the power that you confer upon him to destroy you. Where has he acquired enough eyes to spy upon you, if you do not provide them yourselves? How can he have so many arms to beat you with, if he does not borrow them from you? The feet that trample down your cities, where does he get them if they are not your own? How does he have any power over you except through you? How would he dare assail you if he had no cooperation from you? What could he do to you if you yourselves did not connive with the thief who plunders you, if you were not accomplices of the murderer who kills you, if you were not traitors to yourselves?

Rothbard’s introduction positively glows with admiration. He calls La Boétie “the first libertarian political philosopher in the Western world.” He says La Boétie offers “vital insights” into the problem of how to get “from a world of tyranny to a world of freedom,” being “the first theorist to move from the emphasis on the importance of consent, to the strategic importance of toppling tyranny by leading the public to withdraw that consent.”

Having endorsed more or less without reservation the entirety of La Boétie’s analysis, one would think Rothbard would conclude that libertarians ought to embrace disobedience as their primary strategic tool. Yet he is lukewarm on this point. Rothbard concludes from his reading of La Boétie that “the primary task of opponents of modern tyranny is an educational one,” that libertarians should attempt “to demystify and desanctify the State apparatus” and to expose state attempts to manufacture the popular consent it requires. But surely the point of such education would be to eventually mobilize the ruled population in an effort to disintegrate the ruler’s apparatus of control? Mere awareness of the state’s illegitimacy will not suffice to destroy it. The reason theorists of nonviolence from La Boétie to Gene Sharp have advocated for educating people on the role that consent plays is to enable them to withdraw that consent, i.e., to stop cooperating. All mere education would do is make people aware that they were ruled by a criminal gang rather than benevolent, wise statesmen, and that the source of the rulers’ power was the cooperation or acquiescence of the ruled. But the point is to then get rid of the criminal gang! Yet, Rothbard writes:

La Boétie was the first theorist of the strategy of mass, nonviolent civil disobedience of State edicts and exactions. How practical such a tactic might be is difficult to say, especially since it has rarely been used.

This is an astounding conclusion, given what has gone before. If La Boétie is right–and Rothbard seems to think so–then “the strategy of mass, nonviolent civil disobedience of State edicts and exactions” is clearly the most practical strategy. One of the attractive features of Rothbard as a thinker is that he typically unflinchingly followed his arguments where they took him, and embraced those conclusions, “extreme” or no. Yet here he hems and haws.

A group of libertarians calling themselves “voluntaryists” (a name adopted from historical antecedents of the libertarian movement) were far more sympathetic to La Boétie’s conclusion. This was the group Rothbard had in the crosshairs for his 1983 diatribe in The Libertarian Forum. They studied Sharp and other theorists of nonviolent resistance, looking for tools in the fight against the state.

A review of Sharp’s The Politics of Nonviolent Action appeared in first issue of The Voluntaryist, and the third issue featured a review of his Gandhi as a Political Strategist. Both reviews were written by Carl Watner.

The highlight of Watner’s first review is his discussion of how well‐​adapted Sharp’s tactics are to libertarian purposes, especially anarchist libertarian purposes:

By attacking governmental legitimacy, nonviolent techniques not only minimize bloodshed and loss of life and property, but actually go much farther than traditional violent revolution in demystifying an desanctifying the governmental apparatus. This is why, once a totally stateless society is achieved, it will become vastly more difficult for a state to re‐​establish itself… Any pretender to the throne would not only have to physically overcome a defiant populace but would also have to establish his legitimacy to rule. On the other hand, political activity by anarchists (such as working within the framework of the Libertarian Party) or the formenting of violent revolution is not only counterproductive but contrary to the very essence of anarchism. Anarchism will never come about if people have to be coerced into becoming anarchists.

Non‐​anarchist proponents of nonviolence are often accused of lawlessness or anarchism; to escape this charge, they try to come up with justifications for disobeying the state under certain limited circumstances while retaining a theory of state legitimacy. Disobedience is a tool that can be used against “good,” “legitimate” governments as well as bad, illegitimate ones. It can be used to attack just laws and unjust laws. Furthermore, whenever nonviolence is employed, and for whatever narrow purpose, it weakens the government’s ability to enact its will more broadly. If you think the state has some legitimate functions, this is a potentially negative side effect that must be considered and mitigated if possible. Anarchist proponents of nonviolence have no such problem: One can ethically disobey the state because there was never any obligation to obey it to begin with. Weakening the state generally is a feature for the anarchist, not a bug.

In his review of Sharp’s Gandhi as a Political Strategist, Watner discusses the practicality of nonviolence:

Much of Gandhi’s success was based on his realization that the ends he sought were irretrievably linked to the means he used to attain them. Nonviolent resistance, for him, was the only way to promote peace and oppose injustice simultaneously. It was the only way to unite the means with the ends. Satyagraha [Gandhi’s brand of nonviolent action] was at the same time the most practical and the most moral approach for achieving social change. Neither Sharp nor Gandhi accept the dichotomy that the moral and practical approaches to societal change are really different.

Watner’s analysis here lines up with my remarks about Rothbard above. As I discussed last time, Sharp reframed the discussion of nonviolence from being about ethics to being about strategy. Watner points out that ethics and strategy may not be so independent. If a libertarian society is going to work, people need libertarian tools to deal with problems. Nonviolent strategies are consistent with libertarianism. If the public learns nonviolence in the effort against the state, those skills will help a libertarian society fend off statist takeovers and, as I discussed in Libertarian Papers , allow people to struggle for social change on important issues without violating the rights of the opposition.

Interest in nonviolent methods, and Sharp’s analysis, has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, especially in the wake of the “Arab Spring” uprisings. In 2011, Sharp gave an interview to Reason, and one of the things they discussed was the potential tie between libertarian politics and nonviolence.

Reason: Do you think there tends to be a natural link between strategies that rely on nonviolent, decentralized activity and an interest in relatively nonviolent and decentralized political systems? Or are those just separate categories, and if they overlap in a Venn diagram it’s a coincidence?

Sharp: I’ve never focused on that particular question, unfortunately. It’s a very relevant question. Maybe some other people would take that up as an issue to examine. It would be important. Nonviolent strategy is very compatible with decentralization and small government. But I don’t know if it’s always that way.

I think Sharp is unnecessarily hedging here. In The Politics of Nonviolent Action he talks about local governments refusing to cooperate with national governments, up to and including outright secession. He talks, more generally, about the importance of intermediate institutions between the state and the citizenry that can shield people from harm and allow them to organize. He talks about the importance of building up institutions to supplant state services so that current and potential resisters are less dependent on the state for their wellbeing. Certainly, nonviolence is not “always” practiced in the context of political decentralization, but Sharp’s work on the subject strongly suggests that it helps, at least in certain circumstances. No only can libertarianism be advanced by nonviolence, libertarian institutions provide conditions favorable to nonviolent action.

Libertarians have engaged and continued to engage with the tradition of nonviolence. For greater depth, and a look into what the future might hold, I want to leave you with some suggested further reading. Bryan Caplan’s 1994 article, “The Literature of Nonviolent Resistance and Civilian‐​Based Defense,” discusses many of the sources I’ve talked about as well as many others. Caplan sees a role for scholars in the classical liberal/​libertarian tradition to contribute to the nonviolence literature:

Classical liberals may learn from — as well as contribute to — the nonviolence literature. Besides its intrinsic interest, it may point the way to answers to several difficult issues within the classical liberal tradition. Despite their distrust of state power and interventionist foreign policy, classical liberals have had a difficult time envisioning specific alternatives to violence to combat tyranny. The literature of nonviolent resistance is filled with penetrating insights in this area. And, while classical liberals frequently long for alternatives to both electoral politics and violence, specific suggestions have been sparse. These are merely a few gaps that the nonviolence literature may fill. On a more aesthetic note, many of the historical examples of nonviolence are beautiful illustrations of the power of voluntary institutions to supplement or replace the role of the state.

If you’re interested in nonviolence and want to know where to start reading, Caplan’s piece would serve very well.