The One-Man Revolution

(The Only One That’s Coming?)

You see the beauty of my proposal is, it needn’t wait on general revolution.
I bid you to the one-man revolution — The only revolution that is coming.
— (Robert Frost, from “Build Soil”)

Maybe, contrary to what the organizers of the world are always telling us, the key to curing society’s ills is not to organize at all.

You don’t need a majority, a critical mass, or a disciplined revolutionary vanguard. Just get your own house in order and commit yourself to your own personal revolution — it’s the most crucial and practical thing you can do.

“One-man revolution” is the answer to the question posed by radicals who feel overwhelmed by the task ahead. “What can one person do?” they ask, thinking the revolution that will finally put things right is scheduled for later — when the masses see the light… when a crisis comes… when we find a charismatic leader… when we unite the factions under one banner… when… when… when…

The one-man revolutionary says, no: the revolution starts here and now. Your first task as a revolutionary is to overturn the corrupt, confused, puppet governor of your own life and to put a more responsible sovereign in its place.

Ammon Hennacy and Henry David Thoreau believed the one-man revolution is practical and effective, and an answer to the “What can just one person do?” skeptics. Here’s why:

  1. With the one-man revolution, success is in reach. It may not be easy, but you can win this revolution with your own effort. And whether or not you succeed, the struggle itself is the right thing to do.
  2. You don’t need to wait for a majority. You don’t need to water down your message to win mass appeal. You can start immediately from a firm platform of integrity and honesty. This makes you more self-reliant so that you can endure challenges better, which makes you more effective and far-reaching than those revolutionaries who always have to check to see if the rest of the pack is still with them.
  3. Political revolutions that are not also accompanied by individual revolutions don’t make enduring radical change — they just change the faces of the clowns running the circus while leaving the corrupt structure intact.
  4. The world sometimes is changed radically and for the better by a single, one-in-a-million character. But the first step is not to set out to change the world, but to develop that character.
  5. By fighting the one-man revolution, you are not as alone as you may think you are: you “leaven the loaf” and cause all society to rise, you attract other one-man revolutionaries to your side, and you sow the seeds that inspire others.

You can win the one-man revolution

Ammon Hennacy’s theory of the one-man revolution crystallized, appropriately enough, in solitary confinement. He’d been sentenced for promoting draft evasion during World War I and then thrown in “the hole” for leading a hunger strike of prisoners to protest awful food. Because he refused to name names, he was kept there for several months.

Ammon Hennacy in 1957

Locked up alone 24/7, unable to communicate with his comrades, given the silent treatment by the guard, and overhearing the day-in day-out torture of the inmate in the adjoining cell — this was not the most promising situation for a revolutionary.

The only book they allowed him was the Bible (and they even replaced this with a smaller-print version to inflict another petty torment in the dim light of his cell). In the course of reading and reflecting on what he read — particularly the Sermon on the Mount — he decided that the revolution could be fought and won even where he stood.

To change the world by bullets or ballots was a useless procedure… [T]he only revolution worthwhile was the one-man revolution within the heart. Each one could make this by himself and not need to wait on a majority.

You can start now, with full integrity

Lloyd Danzeisen expressed one of the advantages of the one-man revolution to Hennacy: “You are lucky and of course very wise to be a ‘one man revolution,’ for you do not have to discuss your action over and over again (with committees) but can swing into action.”

The advantage of working together is superior numbers, and, in theory anyway, greater force. But there are disadvantages: It takes work to get people to take action together, and this also means finding a lowest common denominator of principle or risk that they can agree on — which can mean watering down the core of what you’re fighting for until it seems less like a principle than a petty grievance.

What such a movement gains in quantity it may lose in quality, and the force it gains from numbers it may lose from the diffuse, blunted, half-hearted effort of the individuals that make it up, or from expending energy on the organizing itself rather than the ostensible goals of the organization.

Drawing a large crowd of half-hearted followers is rarely worth the effort. It is not hard to sway a crowd of wishy-washy people by appealing to the half-truths they already believe and being careful not to attack the nonsense they adhere to. But what does this get you? A crowd of wishy-washy people who are just as vulnerable to falling for the next demagogue who comes along with patronizing speeches. Instead, Hennacy recommends, “appeal to those about ready to make the next step and… know that these are very few indeed.”

Thoreau wrote that he refused to water down his message to make it most palatable to his listeners. He wasn’t aiming for the sympathy of the crowd, but hoped to reach that one or two who were ready to be challenged: “I see the craven priest looking for a hole to escape at — alarmed because it was he that invited me thither — & an awful silence pervades the audience... But the seed has not all fallen in stony & shallow ground.”

Thoreau noted with approval that the abolitionist revolutionary John Brown had not gathered a large party of well-wishers and collaborators, but instead had been very selective about whom he let in on his plans:

I hear many condemn these men because they were so few. When were the good and the brave ever in a majority? Would you have had him wait till that time came? — till you and I came over to him?
The very fact that [Brown] had no rabble or troop of hirelings about him would alone distinguish him from ordinary heroes. His company was small indeed, because few could be found worthy to pass muster. He would have no rowdy or swaggerer, no profane swearer, for, as he said, he always found these men to fail at last. He would have only men of principle, & they are few.

He quotes Brown as saying:

I would rather have the small-pox, yellow-fever, and cholera, all together in my camp, than a man without principle.… Give me men of good principles, — God-fearing men, — men who respect themselves, and with a dozen of them I will oppose any hundred...

A one-man revolutionary is more effective and harder to defeat

A one-man revolutionary — someone “of good principles” — is more effective than that same person would be as part of a movement. This may seem paradoxical if you are used to thinking in terms of “strength in numbers” or “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

This is for two related reasons:

First, because as a one-man revolutionary you are self-motivated, you do not get thrown into confusion if the lines of communication down the chain of command are disrupted, and you don’t lose momentum by looking about to check if your comrades are still with you or if they have retreated or surrendered.

And second, because this makes it difficult for your opponents to get a foothold in trying to persuade you with threats or with bribes to give up the fight.

Hennacy tells of one of his captors trying to trick him:

Detective Wilson said that the young Socialists arrested with me for refusing to register had all given in and registered [for the draft]. (Later I found out that he had also told them that I had registered.) [But] I felt that if they gave in, someone had to stick, and I was that one.

The detective assumed that Hennacy valued his belonging more than his integrity, and so made a completely ineffective attack.

Thoreau similarly noted that his captors had failed to understand his motives, assuming he valued his freedom from confinement more than his freedom of action:

It costs me less in ev­ery sense to in­cur the pen­alty of dis­o­be­di­ence to the State, than it would to obey.
I saw that, if there was a wall of stone be­tween me and my towns­men, there was a still more dif­fi­cult one to climb or break through, be­fore they could get to be as free as I was.… In ev­ery threat and in ev­ery com­pli­ment there was a blun­der; for they thought that my chief de­sire was to stand the other side of that stone wall.

People often draw the wrong conclusion from the “divide and conquer” tactic used by governments against opposition movements. The lesson is not that unless we stay united we are weak, but that to the extent that our strength depends mainly on our unity we are vulnerable.

Without the one-man revolution, no other revolution is worth the trouble

The problem with the mass, peasants-with-pitchforks sort of revolution is that it’s so unreliable. You put everything on the line, shed buckets of blood, endure betrayals and unfriendly alliances and hard compromises, and finally (if you’re lucky) cut off the king’s head and take charge… and then what? As often as not, you end up with something as bad as before.

Tyranny doesn’t only infest the top of the org chart. The tyrant doesn’t cause tyranny, but is its most obvious symptom. Tyranny lives as tenaciously in the tyrannized as in the tyrant. This is why Thoreau was careful to say:

“That government is best which governs not at all;” and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.

Not, “when the workers seize power” or “when we get money out of politics” or anything of that sort, but “when men are prepared for it.” We must prepare ourselves, one at a time, and when we have, we will get the government we deserve.

The revolution is not accomplished when the last faction still standing wipes the blood from its hands and sits down behind the presidential desk to issue its first decree, but “when the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office” — that is, when tyranny is purged from the bottom of the org chart.

Define success and failure carefully

Be careful how you define “success.” You can do everything you set out to do, but if you haven’t set out to do anything worth doing, you still fail. Even in mundane things, keep your eye on a bigger picture. Thoreau mused in his journal:

If a man has spent all his days about some business by which he has merely got rich, as it is called, i.e., has got much money, many houses & barns & woodlots, then his life has been a failure, I think. But if he has been trying to better his condition in a higher sense than this — has been trying to be somebody, to invent something…— I shall think him comparatively successful.

Success and failure have superficial and deep components that may contradict each other. John Brown set out to launch a rebellion to end American slavery; the government defended slavery against the rebellion and had Brown hanged. Who was successful? Who won? A victory for evil is just a triumphant form of failure.

And after Brown’s execution when Union troops set off to crush the confederacy of slavers, they were singing “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave — his soul is marching on!”

At the time of the Harpers Ferry raid, Brown was called insane by the press (even — especially — the liberal, abolitionist press). Some gave as evidence for his insanity the most extraordinarily sane thing about him:

It is mentioned against him & as an evidence of his insanity, that he was “a conscientious man, very modest in his demeanor, apparently inoffensive until the subject of slavery was introduced, when he would exhibit a feeling of indignation unparalleled.”

You’d think, with the example of Jesus hovering over Western Civilization, people would be skeptical of traditional notions of success. Being captured and tortured to death by your enemies and having your followers scorned and scattered throughout a hostile empire doesn’t seem much like a victory. But Thoreau thought the response to John Brown proved that “[i]f Christ should appear on earth he would on all hands be denounced as a mistaken, misguided man, insane & crazed.”

You don’t have to believe that history will smile on you and turn your seeming defeats and setbacks into victories. You don’t have to believe the nice-sounding sentiment that Hennacy attributed to Tolstoy: “no sincere effort made in the behalf of Truth is ever lost.” You just need to remember that small victories in an uncompromising one-man revolution can be more worthwhile (when seen from the perspective of what is worthwhile, not just what is expedient) than huge triumphs rotting within from compromise and half-truths.

The one-man revolution is more about doing the right thing daily than achieving the right result eventually, so even if it seems that everything is going against you, you can be confident you’re on the right track.

“Hennacy, do you think you can change the world?” said Bert Fireman, a columnist on the Phoenix Gazette.
“No, but I am damn sure it can’t change me,” was my reply.
If you want to change things you have to get 51% of the ballots or the bullets. If I want to change things I just have to keep on doing what I am doing — that is: every day the government says “pay taxes for war”; every day I do not pay taxes for war. So I win and they lose. The One Man Revolution — you can’t beat it.
Do not let your opponent set the norm. Generally a minority is jeered at because they are so small. It is quality and not quantity that is the measure. “One on the side of God is a majority” is the perfect answer which I have given dozens of times with success.

(In this last quote, Hennacy is paraphrasing Thoreau, who wrote that “those who call them­selves ab­o­li­tion­ists should at once ef­fec­tu­ally with­draw their sup­port, both in per­son and prop­erty, from the gov­ern­ment of Mas­sa­chu­setts, and not wait till they con­sti­tute a ma­jor­ity of one, be­fore they suf­fer the right to pre­vail through them. I think that it is enough if they have God on their side, with­out wait­ing for that other one. More­over, any man more right than his neigh­bors con­sti­tutes a ma­jor­ity of one al­ready.”)

One-in-a-million can move the world

Sometimes, a one-man revolutionary really does change the world. Maybe the world was already ripe for changing, but it still needed a one-man revolutionary to break from the pack and make the change happen.

We don’t progress by passively absorbing the inevitable bounty of history grinding away unconsciously on the masses, as the Hegelians might put it. Rather, says Thoreau, “The great benefactors of their race have been single and singular and not masses of men. Whether in poetry or history it is the same.” We should not be content to admire these heroes, or to await their arrival, but should be inspired by their examples to be heroic ourselves.

Ac­tion from prin­ci­ple, — the per­cep­tion and the per­for­mance of right, — changes things and re­la­tions; it is es­sen­tially rev­o­lu­tion­ary, and does not con­sist wholly with any thing which was. It not only di­vides states and churches, it di­vides fam­i­lies; aye, it di­vides the in­di­vid­ual, sep­a­rat­ing the di­a­bol­i­cal in him from the di­vine.

It is only one-in-a-million who moves the world. But despite the odds we all should aspire to be this one in a million. Hennacy:

Love without courage and wisdom is sentimentality, as with the ordinary church member. Courage without love and wisdom is foolhardiness, as with the ordinary soldier. Wisdom without love and courage is cowardice, as with the ordinary intellectual. Therefore one who has love, courage, and wisdom is one in a million who moves the world, as with Jesus, Buddha, and Gandhi.

Even if we fall short of this goal, by choosing this goal we not only choose the only goal worth choosing, but we adjust our standards so that if we are ever lucky enough to meet this one in a million, we will be more likely to recognize her or him. Most people are incapable of recognizing or comprehending the hero in real life — they lionize dead martyred heroes of past generations, while joining the lynch mobs to martyr the heroes of their own.

It only takes a little leavening to leaven the loaf

By aiming at this standard, you also raise the standards of those around you and thereby improve society. The way Thoreau put it — “It is not so im­por­tant that many should be as good as you, as that there be some ab­so­lute good­ness some­where; for that will leaven the whole lump.”

By being virtuous in an out-of-the-ordinary way you encourage people to call ordinary vices into question, and you force the devil’s advocates to come to the devil’s defense. Thoreau was convinced that one person was enough to leaven the loaf:

[I]f one thou­sand, if one hun­dred, if ten men whom I could name, — if ten hon­est men only, — aye, if one hon­est man, in this State of Mas­sa­chu­setts, ceas­ing to hold slaves, were ac­tu­ally to with­draw from this co­part­ner­ship, and be locked up in the county jail there­for, it would be the ab­o­li­tion of slav­ery in Amer­ica.

You have a plan to reform the world? As the saying goes: “show me, don’t tell me.” Too many reformers think they can reform the rottenness of the system the people are sustaining without changing the rottenness of the people who sustain the system. Thoreau:

The Reformer who comes recommending any institution or system to the adoption of men, must not rely solely on logic and argument, or on eloquence and oratory for his success, but see that he represents one pretty perfect institution in himself…
I ask of all Reformers, of all who are recommending Temperance, Justice, Charity, Peace, the Family, Community or Associative life, not to give us their theory and wisdom only, for these are no proof, but to carry around with them each a small specimen of his own manufactures, and to despair of ever recommending anything of which a small sample at least cannot be exhibited: — that the Temperance man let me know the savor of Temperance, if it be good, the Just man permit to enjoy the blessings of liberty while with him, the Community man allow me to taste the sweets of the Community life in his society.

So often we hear of a Big Plan that, were it enacted as designed, would solve the Big Problems. But the big plans never seem to get enacted, or if they do, they never seem to work as designed, as the same problems show up in new guises. Meanwhile the planners waste their time and energy and don’t change what is changeable. Tolstoy put it this way:

If a man drinks, and I tell him that he can himself stop drinking and must do so, there is some hope that he will pay attention to me; but if I tell him that his drunkenness forms a complex and difficult problem, which we, the learned, will try to solve in our meetings, all the probabilities are that he, waiting for the solution of the problem, will continue to drink. The same is true of the false and intricate scientific, external means for the cessation of war, like the international tribunals, the court of arbitration, and other similar foolish things, when we with them keep in abeyance the simplest and most essential means for the cessation of war, which is only too obvious to anybody. For people who do not need war not to fight we need no international tribunals, no solution of questions, but only… this, that the men who do not need war, who consider a participation in war to be a sin, should stop fighting.

An alcoholic who spoke with Hennacy had much the same sentiment: “the AA fixed me up. You are right in not wanting to change the world by violence; the change has to come with each person first.”

Your one-man revolution isn’t as lonely as it may seem

Hennacy and Thoreau also had faith that if you begin the one-man revolution, this will attract like-minded souls to you — comrades you never knew you had:

Thoreau: “Men talk much of cooperation nowadays, of working together to some worthy end; but what little cooperation there is, is as if it were not, being a simple result of which the means are hidden, a harmony inaudible to men. If a man has faith, he will cooperate with equal faith everywhere. If he has not faith he will continue to live like the rest of the world, whatever company he is joined to.”

Hennacy: “In reading Tolstoy I had gained the idea that if a person had the One Man Revolution in his heart and lived it, he would be led by God toward those others who felt likewise.… This was to be proven in a most dramatic way, and was to usher me into the second great influence of my life: that of the Catholic Worker movement.”

The One-Man Revolution

What do you have to do to be the exemplar and sow the seeds?

  1. Accept responsibility.
  2. Build a glass house and throw stones.

Accept responsibility

Most political action amounts to “who can we find to take responsibility for this problem” — but the One Man Revolutionary asks “what can I do to take responsibility for this problem?”

Not that everything is your responsibility, or that the world is looking to you to solve all of its problems. But you should at least examine your life to see what problems or solutions you are contributing to. Can one person make a difference? You are already making a difference — what kind of difference are you making?

It is not a man’s duty, as a mat­ter of course, to de­vote him­self to the erad­i­cat­ion of any, even the most enor­mous wrong; he may still prop­erly have other con­cerns to en­gage him, but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it prac­ti­cally his sup­port. If I de­vote my­self to other pur­suits and con­tem­plat­ions, I must first see, at least, that I do not pur­sue them sit­ting upon an­other man’s shoul­ders. I must get off him first, that he may pur­sue his con­tem­plat­ions too
A man has not ev­ery thing to do, but some­thing; and be­cause he can­not do ev­ery thing, it is not nec­es­sary that he should do some­thing wrong.

In Thoreau’s time, the evils of slavery and of wars of conquest were sustained by the allegiance and support of the ordinary people around him, many of whom congratulated themselves for their anti-war, anti-slavery opinions.

I quar­rel not with far-off foes, but with those who, near at home, co-op­er­ate with, and do the bid­ding of those far away, and with­out whom the lat­ter would be harm­less
I have heard some of my towns­men say, “I should like to have them or­der me out to help put down an in­sur­rec­tion of the slaves, or to march to Mex­ico, — see if I would go;” and yet these very men have each, di­rectly by their al­le­giance, and so in­di­rectly, at least, by their money, fur­nished a sub­sti­tute. The sol­dier is ap­plauded who re­fuses to serve in an un­just war by those who do not re­fuse to sus­tain the un­just gov­ern­ment which makes the war…
Those who, while they dis­ap­prove of the char­ac­ter and meas­ures of a gov­ern­ment, yield to it their al­le­giance and sup­port, are un­doubt­edly its most con­sci­en­tious sup­port­ers, and so fre­quently the most se­ri­ous ob­sta­cles to re­form. Some are pe­ti­tion­ing the State to dis­solve the Union, to dis­re­gard the req­ui­si­tions of the Pres­i­dent. Why do they not dis­solve it them­selves, — the union be­tween them­selves and the State, — and re­fuse to pay their quota into its trea­sury?
If a thou­sand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a vi­o­lent and bloody meas­ure, as it would be to pay them, and en­able the State to com­mit vi­o­lence and shed in­no­cent blood. This is, in fact, the def­i­ni­tion of a peace­able rev­o­lu­tion, if any such is pos­si­ble.

Don’t think that because the one-man revolution is in your heart that it can just stay there, locked up inside, without leaking out into the world around you.

The one-man revolution doesn’t necessarily require living in opposition to the status quo, but it does require holding fast to justice and virtue. When the status quo is opposed to justice and virtue, as it so often is, this puts it in opposition to you as well.

Build a glass house and throw stones

Your friends and even your enemies will come to your aid when you hold yourself to a high standard. All you have to do is to make yourself vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy. People love to point out hypocritical moralists — in part because some hypocritical moralists are hilarious, but also because it helps people excuse their own failures. If you build a glass house and throw stones from it, everyone will volunteer to keep you on the straight-and-narrow.


I have… put myself in a glass house. If so I must needs take whatever stones come my way. I have the right by my life of integrity to criticize, but I must also take whatever criticism comes my way in all good humor.
[A] spoiled and arrogant priest wanted to know if I was “holier than thou.” I told him I hoped by Christ I was, for if I wasn’t I would be in a hell of a fix. I used this blunt method to deflate his spurious piety.
At times those who do not want to have their inconsistencies pointed out say in a super-sweet voice to me “judge not, lest ye be judged.” I reply, “O.K., judge me, then.”

When your standards for yourself rise, so do your standards for other people (otherwise you really are being arrogant). Thoreau, criticized for demanding too much from people, said he could not “con­vince my­self that I have any right to be sat­is­fied with men as they are, and to treat them ac­cord­ingly, and not ac­cord­ing, in some re­spects, to my req­ui­si­tions and ex­pec­ta­tions of what they and I ought to be.”

Both Thoreau and Hennacy strike me as stern, and maybe not always fun to be around (as Hennacy would say: “I love my enemies but am hell on my friends”), but they were anything but joyless. Thoreau’s vigorous, enthusiastic love of life is legendary, and Hennacy’s character too was eager, life-affirming, and generous (even in its criticisms).

Utah Phillips came home from the Korean war a drunken brawler, checked in to Hennacy’s Catholic Worker hospitality house in Salt Lake City, and eight years later checked out again, sober, a pacifist, and an anarchist. He remembered Hennacy this way:

He was tough without being hard — tough without that brittle hardness that some tough men have that would shatter if you struck it too hard. “Love in Action,” Dorothy Day called him — Dostoyevsky’s words: “Love in action is harsh and dreadful compared to love in dreams.”

Neither Thoreau nor Hennacy had any tolerance for bliss-bunnyishness, but both were cheerful; both knew how to be dutiful without being dour. Thoreau:

To march sturdily through life, patiently and resolutely looking grim defiance at one’s foes, that is one way; but we cannot help being more attracted by that kind of heroism which relaxes its brows in the presence of danger, and does not need to maintain itself strictly, but, by a kind of sympathy with the universe, generously adorns the scene and the occasion, and loves valor so well that itself would be the defeated party only to behold it; which is as serene and as well pleased with the issue as the heavens which look down upon the field of battle. It is but a lower height of heroism when the hero wears a sour face
A great cheerfulness indeed have all great wits and heroes possessed, almost a profane levity to such as understood them not, but their religion had the broader basis of health and permanence. For the hero, too, has his religion, though it is the very opposite to that of the ascetic. It demands not a narrower cell but a wider world.

In conclusion

I’ve tried here to put forward the strongest affirmative case for the practical effectiveness of the one-man revolution as it can be found in Hennacy’s and Thoreau’s writings.

They make a strong and persuasive argument, but not an airtight one. I wish more evidence was preserved of them in dialog with incisive critics of the one-man revolution, to hear how they would respond to the best arguments against it.

What keeps the argument for a one-man revolution from persuading people is not, however, the strength of the counter-arguments, but just the fact that to accept the argument is not enough — it demands more than a “Like,” and much more than most people think they have to give. To be persuaded is to be overwhelmed, to take the first step off the path and into uncharted territory, and only a few of us have the courage to take that step.