War, conscience, and war tax resistance as a movement

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Maybe because I was in Massachusetts over the weekend, the Colrain house seizure story from 1989 – 1993 was on my mind today. And then I remembered something I had neglected to do, which was to post a talk by longtime war tax resister and Massachusetts resident Larry Rosenwald. Larry was a panelist at the 25th anniversary Colrain reunion in November 2018. The panel topic was “The impacts Colrain might have had on the national WTR movement and thoughts on the current state of the WTR and the peace movement.”

By “Colrain” we mean not just a house seizure, but the four years of organizing, vigils and civil disobedience at the seized property under the banner “It’s wrong to confiscate homes in order to force people to pay for war.”

You can read about the seizure and actions and the reunion presentations, but this blog is really to get you to look at Larry’s talk and share your thoughts.

A lively discussion followed the panel presentations, which included Bill Ramsey, Joanne Sheehan and myself, but Larry (being a professor or just more organized) was the only one who came with written remarks to share. (A recording of the session has not surfaced.)

Larry had some provocative stuff in his presentation, such as:

…I can’t recall a moment in my more than thirty years of war tax resistance when such resistance has seemed so far from having political power. Given the Trump administration, one would have expected a significant rise in wtr, in numbers and intensity and demographic range. That hasn’t happened, and the non-happening is an earthquake.

In my judgment, the weak state of war tax resistance, in general and as a means of doing politics, is not temporary but permanent. I can’t see a future in which the war tax resistance at the center of the Colrain action, which has been my war tax resistance as well, exercises political power: that mode of war tax resistance is likely to survive only as what Randy Kehler tellingly called a spiritual exercise. It won’t stop feeling right for me and others to refuse to pay; but we won’t thereby be building a movement.

I don’t attribute the gloomy state of things to fear of the IRS – especially the currently underfunded IRS! I don’t attribute it to insufficient outreach to the young. I do to some extent attribute it to…. read the whole text here

demonstration photo war tax resisters

Photo by Ed Hedemann, 2004.

So, I hope you read Larry’s analysis, and then make your comments below – or somewhere. Send a letter-to-the-editor of NWTRCC’s newsletter. Come to a future NWTRCC gathering and bring your insights.  Email me and I’ll put it in a future blog. If you are in NYC and want to discuss this in person, be in touch! Larry has good reason to question the state of WTR, but do we stop there?

— Post by Ruth Benn

6 thoughts on “War, conscience, and war tax resistance as a movement”

  1. Ed Hedemann says:

    I appreciate Larry’s analysis of the state of the WTR movement and I hope it spurs more action and greater creativity. However, I take issue with the absolutism of his statement, “[T]he weak state of war tax resistance, in general and as a means of doing politics,is not temporary but permanent.” Perhaps he’s right but there have been many times in history that this or that movement (or tactic) has seemed dead, only to be revived as a result of something we hadn’t foreseen.

    Immediately following WW II, the War Resisters League was bursting with activism on a number of fronts, only to retrench into a minimalist state of existence during the Korean War and McCarthy era of the 1950s. Who knew that a combination of the civil rights and anti-nuclear testing movements of the late 1950s would combine with the opposition to the Vietnam War to build a vital and powerful movement?

    It seems that movements and activism go through cycles and perhaps we’ll see a resurgence of the antiwar and WTR activism in the future. Of course, we cannot rest on historical laurels and must be flexible to new circumstances, continue to recruit among the young, and be involved in other movements. Naturally, this does not obviate the need for continued war tax resistance for personal (though, for me, not spiritual or religious) reasons, AND to contribute that resisted money to organizations hurt by government priorities.

  2. Sue Barnhart says:

    I never made it back east to help in during the Coltrain house seizure, but I followed the movement closely and often considered going to help for awhile, but I was living 3.000 miles away. I agree with Larry about how exciting and uniting a time that was. And I also agree that being a war tax resister does seem clearer and perhaps easier then being a resister of all injustice and violence and resisting paying taxes towards any part of the government that involves injustices. And then there is the issue that I always wanted to be sure people knew I wasn’t a tax evader,but someone in good conscience that couldn’t pay for war. I good conscience maybe I shouldn’t be paying for a system that is so injustice to people of color, but it does make it harder to distinguish myself from a tax evader.
    I am excited by the Extinction Rebellion movement. In England I’ve read that the movement is suggesting people resist paying their taxes until the government does more to fight the climate crisis. Here in Eugene Oregon we are talking with folks involved with 350.0rg and Extinction Rebellion about how the US military is the biggest cause of the climate crisis and some environmentalists that do not live below the taxable income are considering become war tax resisters.
    And I am considering becoming more than just a war tax resister, may a injustice tax resister.

  3. Walter Goodman says:

    I do not know Larry, but his spiel seems more about his personal experience and perspective than the state of the WTR movement. Yes, WTR has always been fundamentally about a personal choice, but my hopes have always been and remain very similar to what Ed has written about the history of WRL: that someone needs to keep alive the ideas and the practice of resistance to paying for violence and war, so that in the (hopefully not too distant) future they will be there to draw on. Since August 6, 1945, war has been a uniquely threatening force in the question of survival. And survival of our species is different from other questions of injustice– as genocide is to murder, species extinction is to genocide; it also renders meaningless all of human history, love, spirituality, classical music, you name it.

    Also, my understanding of conscience is very different. It encompasses collective conscience, which can be a uniting factor. It is not mostly negative, but inspires me and many others to take action. I get that Larry’s involvement in the Colrain movement was a high point for him, sort of like Woodstock was to a certain cultural strain. I was a WTR before, during and after Colrain, but never was involved in the Massachusetts events. My personal involvement in anti-war, environmental, housing, and alternative education, waxed and waned, but WTR was a steady component, because taxes are always due! As a movement, I see great potential in war tax resistance because of these and other factors. Please don’t allow your personal disappointment to affect the way you or others organize and resist.

  4. Where Sue Barnhardt ends her comment may be where we need to focus all future discussion of WTR and war resistance: war and climate are the twin pillars of our impending destruction, and no effort which addresses one of these and not the other should imagine that it has a compelling vision.

    Think of it: environmentalists who have no visible, and certainly no passionate, critique of America’s endless war system, which is the greatest polluting system in the world.

    And think of it: critics of the war system who imagine that if we address war someone else will address climate.

    There are no two bigger enemies of human flourishing than war and climate catastrophe.

    How do we unite the movements which oppose these two apocalyptic enemies of life?

    For starters, surely we need writers and speakers who articulate of vision of a world without war and a world with people who understand and love ecological interconnectedness.

  5. Larry Rosenwald says:

    Heaven knows I hope Ed’s right! And I teach my students that great progressive social transformations often go unpredicted, e.g., the fall of the Berlin Wall.

  6. Thanks to Larry for putting your thoughts in writing, and to Ruth for sharing them.

    I agree that there is little current mass awareness of even the possibility of war tax resistance — or war resistance, or even of anti-war activism except through electoral politics, where war policy is not a major win-or-lose issue in even national elections — and that the WTR “movement” as such is tiny.

    It’s worth thinking, as Larry has done and calls us all to do, about why this is so. I think many of the causes may not be specific to WTR, but may be part of the larger dynamic of why the current wars aren’t major issues, especially given that as recently (so to speak) as early in the 2008 Presidential campaign, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (not yet expanded to Yemen, Syria, etc.) seemed to be shaping up as potentially significant issues in the campaign, even in the absence of any significant organized anti-war “movement”.

    But I think it’s also important to recognize that the events in Colrain have, and may continue to have — especially if we work to preserve and pass on their memory — continued value, more than may now be apparent, as example and inspiration to present-day and future war tax resisters, and other potential resisters.

    Future generations can and should find their own tactics, make their own choices, and choose their own leaders. As I testified recently to the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service, the threats to human survival posed by both nuclear weapons (including those of the USA) and global warming are threats we (broadly speaking) old people have created. They will not be solved by young people following our lead, but by us allowing young people to lead us in ways we might not have anticipated or chosen.

    At the same time, knowing that others have been moved to particular sorts of action in the past — war tax resistance, draft resistance, whatever — can have an important role in catalyzing and empowering action by others, including younger people. It’s a lot easier to contemplate action, and to persist in the face of being ignored, repressed, or whatever, if one knows that others have made similar choices to act, and to persist in those actions, in the past.

    There is a tricky balance between sharing stories, including stories from our own youth, from which younger people can draw their own lessons, and ageist imposition of our own conclusions and theories of activism. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to preserve and pass on movement history, warts and all.

    There are many interesting parallels, of course, between resistance to the conscription of money (WTR) and resistance to the conscription of labor (draft resistance). At times, although much less so today, a significant factor in WTR has been a desire by those not subject to the draft to act in solidarity with resistance to the draft by those from whom labor for war, rather than or in addition to money, was being demanded.

    I’d welcome a chance to discuss these parallels with Larry and other WTRs.

    I was both inspired and empowered in my draft resistance by the example and personal mentorship of older generations of draft resisters from World War II, the Cold War, and the US war in Indochina, more than by any anti-draft or anti-draft “movement”. (This was especially so because the first and most important basis of my opposition to the draft, at the time, was its ageism, and because individual veterans of draft resitance were among the few who supported me in opposing the profound and pervasive ageisn within the anti-draft and anti-war movements at the time, which were dominated by people who thought they knew what lessons we younger people should learn from their movements against the US war in Vietnam.)

    In relation to Larry’s latest comments specifically about Colrain and post-Colrain WTR, I think there are parallels to post-1980 draft resistance and the draft resistance movement (1) in the persistence of spontaneous acts of resistance even in the absence of a large or widely visible movement, (2) in the importance of historical stories of past resistance in inspiring and empowering more recent resisters, (3) in the value of preserving and passing on this history, and (4) in the ways that largely sub-rosa (and subaltern), unorganized, and spontaneous individual acts have created the conditions for a potential movement today.

    A theme in the questions asked by the NCMNPS in their discussion of whether to recommend the continuation or expansion of draft registration or conscription, including their questioning of me as the sole witness from the resistance invited to testify, was what evidence of exists of the potential for resistance. That evidence lies both in the history of the anti-draft and draft resistance movements of the early 1980s, and in the continued widespread noncompliance with draft registration to this day. The significant possibility that, when it is forced by circumstances to finally confront the issue for the first time in decades in 2021, Congress will decide to end draft registration, is a direct consequence of (a) continued mass action by young people at a time when that action was largely invisible, unsupported by any substantial movement, and appeared to be having no effect whatsoever, and (b) a handful of individuals, scarcely enough to even be called a movement, who documented and preserved the historical and current record of those quiet individual actions.

    Both (a) and (b) obviously have their potential analogies in WTR.

    It was critical to my draft resistance, for which I got little support from much of “the movement” in the early 12980s (even when there was something that could be called “the movement”) that I found, in part through the help of older resisters, records of those who had gone before. I chose to follow some of their examples and learn form others of their examples to act differently myself, but they were also vital in letting me know that I was neither alone nor insane. This is key to empowerment, action, and movement growth.

    Those stories were not taught in mainstream history, and many of the written sources were hard to find. Even today, there is a remarkable lack of scholarship on draft resistance during the US war in Indochina, despite the emergence of evidence (including first-person memoirs) suggesting that it had far more impact than was apparent at the time. A number of draft resisters from that period have realized that if they don’t record, preserve, and promote awareness of this history, nobody else will do it for them, and the value of this history as a factor empowering future generations of resistance — which be much of its potential value — will be lost. This is the impetus behind projects like the current documentary film, “The Boys Who Said No”.

    There were decades when it appeared that the draft resistance movement of the 1980s might have been a failure. But it is having an effect today on the NCMNPS, and is likely to have an effect on Congress in 2021. It wouldn’t be having those effects if there weren’t at least a few people documenting and calling attention to the historical record. “History” is a cultural and literary phenomenon. it is made; it doesn’t make itself.

    Colrain, too, may turn out to have been more of a success and to have more value, through its echoes into the future, than is apparent today — but only if we preserve and pass on its history.

    (FWIW, I can’t recommend highly enough the analysis by James C. Scott in “Domination and the Arts of Resistance” and “Two Cheers for Anarchism” of the symbiosis between silent but more widespread subaltern modes of resistance such as desertion, malingering, etc., and open modes of confrontation that are typically more characteristic of smaller numbers of elites whose status empowers them to contemplate overt confrontation and privileges them to better withstand its consequences.)

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