When is Armed Rebellion Appropriate?

Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.


One interesting question within political theory is the question of when armed rebellion against a government is justified. Most people that tackle this subject try to find some set of moral lines that a government must cross before it becomes illegitimate and thus armed rebellion becomes morally OK.

Being an anarchist I take a different tack. To me, since there is no such thing as a legitimate government and any organization that steals or commits acts of aggression against innocent people is behaving immorally, the question is one more of practicality than morality. The tax-man is another thief come to pick my pocket, and may morally be repelled with the same degree of violence directed toward any other thief. However, such violence may be unwise.

Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.

Sun-tzu – The Art of War

Anti-anarchist Political CartoonIn the late 19th century, as anarchism was coming into full flower, a significant faction of anarchists came to the conclusion that any government official, just like any extortionist or serial thief, could be attacked and even killed. They even encouraged such assassinations, reasoning that if government officials faced a high likelihood of death, they would quit their jobs, replacements would be hard to find and that the state would become paralyzed. They assassinated presidents and policemen, nobles and commoners. The “bomb throwing” anarchist had a major influence on history in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Far from weakening the state, their attacks strengthened it. Why? Because they did not consider the effect of their attacks on society as a whole. The vast majority of people didn’t think President McKinley was a gangster who needed killing. Rather they were horrified by the nihilistic abandon of the anarchists and terrified that such violence would be visited upon them. Rather than seeing the assassins’ targets as villains, the vast majority of people saw them as victims and the laws proposed to check the depredations of these anarchists were greeted with wide popular support.

The Palmer crackdowns of World War I, the laws suppressing political speech opposed to the war and government’s assumption of control over the economy were all justified as being necessary tools for government to protect the citizenry against the ‘anarchist threat’.

If fate means you to lose, give him a good fight anyhow.

William McFee

Soldier Shoots MotherOf course, just because a rebellion is doomed to failure does not mean that it should not be attempted. Take the brave Poles who fought heroically against the Germans in the Warsaw Ghetto. They had no chance of succeeding; the Germans had more artillery pieces than the Poles had bullets, yet with the exception of a handful of people like Mahatma Ghandi, most human beings would consider their rebellion and fight to the death to be honorable and praiseworthy.

So where do we draw the line? Why was President McKinley’s assassin wrong and Adolf Hitler’s would-be assassin right? Remember, the U.S. Army was happily slaughtering Philipinos and committing atrocities against civilian populations during the McKinley administration.

Photo of race riotTo me, the criterion that establishes the appropriateness of armed rebellion is the question of what impact the rebellion will have on society as a whole. Armed rebellion is rarely a good idea because it is very destructive to civil society. The violence expands as innocent people are harmed. People are forced to choose sides and choose reactively – driven to pick a side out of revenge or fear. Neighbor turns against neighbor, brother against brother, and the wounds of war are not easily healed. Often the victors establish a new more oppressive government to suppress their enemies than the one that was overthrown.

If we wish to live in a free society, then we must choose the actions that help bring about a free society. A free society is only possible when a preponderance of the people choose freedom, choosing not only to live peaceably with their fellows, but to leap to their neighbors’ defense when their neighbors are threatened. A free society is only possible if, when someone like Ron Reiner proposes to force people to send their children to his indoctrination centers and to force 1% of the population to pay for this operation, the idea is greeted with widespread derision and rejected out of hand. It means that people choose to respect their neighbors and they resist the impulse to loot their neighbors.

War is not its own end, except in some catastrophic slide into absolute damnation. It’s peace that’s wanted. Some better peace than the one you started with.

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Vor Game

Therefore, to muster an effective resistance, a person must choose a set of actions that help bring about a more peaceful society. Grabbing a rifle and shooting at those who oppress us as Carl Drega purported to do, no matter how tempting, is ultimately futile and counterproductive. Not only does it not attract people to one’s cause, but it provides the government with a opportunity to send out very persuasive propaganda to the effect that those who oppose the government are a menace to their neighbors and that the draconian measures that government officials take are needed to protect the citizenry from these dangerous non-conformists.

But we must also stand up against those who say that somehow this is all right, this is somehow a political act — people who say, I love my country, but I hate my government. These people, who do they think they are saying that their government has stamped out human freedom?

U.S. President Bill Clinton, Remarks at Emily’s List Event, May 1 1995


To create a free society, we must persuade our neighbors to seek freedom. We must persuade them to adopt our aims as their own. This is done through speech and writing, by setting a public example through acts of civil disobedience. Examples of these forms of resistance includes such steps as

  • Videotaping police operations and publishing them on youtube.
  • Inventing new technologies that make bad laws impossible to enforce.
  • Befriending law enforcement officers and persuading them to question the bad laws they enforce.
  • Organizing mass movements that publicize the pro-freedom cause.
  • Flouting unjust laws in a manner that elicits public contempt for them.

The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations. This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.

John Adams

What is needed is a propaganda war, and these are the tools of the effective propagandist. Most people do have a rudimentary emotional sense of justice and the most effective forms of resistance are ones that evoke it. The goal is to have everyone, including government officials, rally to one’s cause.

Is violence never appropriate? Hardly. Violence is appropriate when both of the following conditions are met:

  1. Child killed in the bombing of the Alfred Murrah Federal BuildingThe violence must be proportionate to the aggression being resisted. The violence cannot be overly destructive or murderous. It must rather be at the minimum level to end whatever aggression one is defending against. Should the aggressor end his aggression and withdraw, the violence must end. This latter point is very important, since the only way a peaceful and freer society is going to happen is if the rebellion ends with the survivors willing to live peaceably with each other. And, of course, the violence cannot be aimed at innocent individuals. The picture to the right is not ‘collateral damage’ – it is murder!
  2. The violence will not make things worse. This requires that one of the following two conditions are met,
    1. The majority, or a sizeable minority of the populace supports the rebels’ aims but refuses to act out of fear. In the early 1920’s, as the Bolsheviks sought to establish control over the Russian empire, the GRU prosecuted a terror campaign against the citizenry. At any time of day there could be a knock on the door, or an agent seizing hold of a victim on the street or in their workplace. The victims would be bundled off to be tortured and, all to frequently, shot without even the pretense of a show trial to justify their murder. One Russian writer who witnessed this reign of terror commented that had one in ten households met the GRU agents with clubs and knives, it would have stopped the organization in its tracks. The GRU counted on fear and its ability to prevent its victims from acting in concert to enable their murderous campaign.
    2. When one faces certain death like the Poles facing deportation to Treblinka. In this case one has absolutely nothing to lose.

But if those criteria are not met, then violent rebellion is probably counterproductive and should be avoided. In the vast majority of cases, these criteria are simply not met.

I am an anarcho-capitalist living just west of Boston Massachussetts. I am married, have two children, and am trying to start my own computer consulting company.
  • http://dangerouslyidealistic.blogspot.com/ UCrawford

    Outstanding post.

  • http://www.belowthebeltway.com Doug Mataconis

    Ditto what UCrawford said.

  • http://poppychop.net/ Nitroadict

    Excellent post & a terrific counter to the brewing frustration with the left regarding a possible “armed” revolution. The GRU reference is also excellent; I for one always found Russian history particularly intriguing.

  • http://www.kaligulawired.com Kaligula

    Konkin/Agorist Counter-Economics…

  • http://www.freedomdemocrats.org Kaligula

    Sorry, i just noticed Brad’s thursday’s open thread…

  • http://thelibertypapers.org/ Brad Warbiany

    Well said, and I think the Sun-Tzu and John Adams quotes you included have incredible force.

    If the revolution is won before it is fought, it may never be “fought” at all.

  • http://www.1000needles.blogspot.com David Wilson

    You state that there is no legitimate government. I happen to agree; in fact I made this point in my philosophy of law class the other night when I asked why it was justifiable in the first place for a third party to carry out retribution on behalf of another (one of the basic functions of even a minimal state). My inquiry went unanswered.

  • http://www.1000needles.blogspot.com David Wilson

    And yes, I do agree, this is a valuable post!

  • http://pith-n-vinegar.blogspot.com/ Quincy


    Tremendous piece of writing. Well done!

  • Ben

    Great post. And what a jackass quote from Bill Clinton.

  • RegularRon

    Great post, and I second the jackass quote from Comrade Clinton.

    I remember, after the OK city bombing when all thoughs sweeping laws were being passed.I had a sticker on my car that said “I love my country but fear my Government”. And I still hold to that belief. I had a few people question me about that sticker and calling me “Un-American”. It’s moronic that the sheep will celebrat the 4th of July, but not understand what happened to get to that celebration.

    But to answer your question, “When is Armed Rebellion Appropriate?”..First and foremost, you would have to “win the hearts and minds” with atleast a quarter of the people. Secondly, the State would have to do something truly alarming to the beer drinking, nascar watching moron, so atleast we have the people waking up. And last but not least, be armed to the teeth and to be prepared for a lasting Rebellion. Cause it couldn’t be just a few days.

    A side note…I do watch Nascar. Was not meant to take offense.

  • http://www.thelibertypapers.org/author/stephen/ Stephen Littau

    I would caution anyone who would want to begin or support an armed revolution against the government to study the French Revolution. There is always a chance that such actions can make matters worse, even if the revolution is successful. The French Revolution did not have the same success as the American Revolution. I would say that the outcome of the American Revolution is the exception, not the rule.

    Even as bad as our government is at times (which we write about here on nearly a daily basis), we are still very free relative to most of the world. Freedom always yields to tyranny; it’s only a question of how rapidly it is allowed to happen. As a practical matter, we can only hope to slow this creeping tyranny to a level where we can work within the system. Armed revolution should always be the very last resort.

    Great post Tarran!

  • http://www.belowthebeltway.com Doug Mataconis


    I would caution anyone who would want to begin or support an armed revolution against the government to study the French Revolution. There is always a chance that such actions can make matters worse, even if the revolution is successful. The French Revolution did not have the same success as the American Revolution. I would say that the outcome of the American Revolution is the exception, not the rule.

    Excellent point. I’ve often wondered what it was that made the American Revolution different from the French Revolution, the Revolutions of 1848, the Russian Revolution, or any of the countless number of third-world revolts against colonialism after World War II.

    It’s more, I think than just the fact that the American Colonies in the 18th Century were blessed with some incredibly wise men, though they clearly were. I think it comes down to the philosophical basis that they were working from.

    The American revolutionaries had Smith and Locke and the writers that followed them. The French had who ? Voltaire ? In 1848 it was Marx. In Russia it was Marx and Lenin. And, in the third-world it was Marx, Lenin, and Ho Chi Minh.

    When you build your revolution on a foundation of sand, it’s bound to fail in the end.

  • http://www.thelibertypapers.org/author/stephen/ Stephen Littau

    I just finished with Atlas Shrugged the other day (what an excellent book!). I can’t help but wonder if the non-violent tactics John Galt and his fellow “men of the mind” used to change the system would work? Imagine if a large number of entrepreneurs, industrialists, investors, inventers, etc. went on strike in hopes that the entire economy went to hell? If such a thing could be organized, I think that it would not take very long before we would see sweeping changes in attitudes toward achievement, free markets, individualism, and wealth distribution/creation.

  • http://poppychop.net/ Nitroadict

    Actually, RP did mention The Remnant in one of his videos, and further mentioned people being left behind that would be able to rebuild, although beyond that he didn’t mention anything specific. But yes, I also think it’s an interesting and potentially effective idea; I’d imagine it would definitely rally up the agorists.

    I sadly have yet to read the book, but have read summaries of it. I still have an immense back log of books piled up on my desk as it is, although as of late, some of her quotations are convincing me to possibly put the fountainhead & AS higher up in the queue…

  • http://www.thelibertypapers.org/author/stephen/ Stephen Littau

    Nitroadict, 2 words: audio book :)

    I listened to Atlas Shrugged about 1 hour a day at work on audio book (the abridged edition; 10 1/2 hours on 10 discs).

    If you can listen at work or if you are taking a long road trip, this is the ideal time to listen. I simply do not have much spare time to read otherwise.

  • http://poppychop.net/ Nitroadict

    Indeed, I recently decided to take the plunge with Rothbard via audio-book (For A New Liberty), and while I think reading would allow for more retention, it definitely is a time saver.

    I’m thinking I might read The Fountainhead before reading AS, though. If there is an audio-book version of it, what version would you recommend?

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  • dean

    Stephen Littau,

    You should check ot The Free State Project: