Peace Requires Anarchy

The “Monkey Master” Fable


Following is an excerpt from Gene Sharp’s essay From Dictatorship to Democracy, pages 17-18 (PDF pages 25-26 of 102).

Whence Comes The Power?

Achieving a society with both freedom and peace is of course no simple task. It will require great strategic skill, organization, and planning. Above all, it will require power. Democrats cannot hope to bring down a dictatorship and establish political freedom without the ability to apply their own power effectively.

But how is this possible? What kind of power can the democratic opposition mobilize that will be sufficient to destroy the dictatorship and its vast military and police networks? The answers lie in an oft ignored understanding of political power. Learning this insight is not really so difficult a task. Some basic truths are quite simple.

The “Monkey Master” fable

A Fourteenth Century Chinese parable by Liu-Ji, for example, outlines this neglected understanding of political power quite well:

In the feudal state of Chu an old man survived by keeping monkeys in his service. The people of Chu called him “ju gong” (monkey master).

Each morning, the old man would assemble the monkeys in his courtyard, and order the eldest one to lead the others to the mountains to gather fruits from bushes and trees. It was the rule that each monkey had to give one-tenth of his collection to the old man. Those who failed to do so would be ruthlessly flogged. All the monkeys suffered bitterly, but dared not complain.

One day, a small monkey asked the other monkeys: “Did the old man plant all the fruit trees and bushes?” The others said: “No, they grew naturally.” The small monkey further asked: “Can’t we take the fruits without the old man’s permission?” The others replied: “Yes, we all can.” The small monkey continued: “Then, why should we depend on the old man; why must we all serve him?”

Before the small monkey was able to finish his statement, all the monkeys suddenly became enlightened and awakened.

On the same night, watching that the old man had fallen asleep, the monkeys tore down all the barricades of the stockade in which they were confined, and destroyed the stockade entirely. They also took the fruits the old man had in storage, brought all with them to the woods, and never returned. The old man finally died of starvation.

Yu-li-zi says, “Some men in the world rule their people by tricks and not by righteous principles. Aren’t they just like the monkey master? They are not aware of their muddleheadedness. As soon as their people become enlightened, their tricks no longer work.”


For several examples of other great thinkers’ similar insights regarding this major source of government power, see the How to Achieve A Free Society section of the Quotes page.

Also recommended is Gene Sharp’s 2011 documentary How to Start a Revolution.

Author: PeaceRequiresAnarchy

“A consistent peace activist must be an anarchist.” – Roderick T. Long

4 thoughts on “The “Monkey Master” Fable

  1. I know the analogy is meant as an anarchist metaphor, but it sounds exactly like something a Communist would say.

  2. Robert, the metaphor is meant to help people understand an important source of political power.

    “What kind of power can the democratic opposition mobilize that will be sufficient to destroy the dictatorship and its vast military and police networks?”

    Many people (including many libertarians) seem to think that governments have power primarily because they have the greatest ability to use force–they have a “vast military and police networks” and a lot of guns, tanks, fighter jets, and other weapons. But the reality is that in order to continue to hold onto their power they must still have the voluntary obedience, cooperation, and support of the bulk of the people they rule, as this metaphor shows. The old man still had the same ability to ruthlessly flog the monkeys, but since he lost the voluntary obedience of most of the monkeys he lost his power.

    I recommend this related post by Mark Stoval:

    Gene Sharp is not an anarchist or even a libertarian as far as I am aware.

    Why does the metaphor sound like something a communist would say?

  3. Well a Communist would say that the rich elite or the bourgeois are the master in the story while the proletariat are the monkeys who work all day, yet don’t get to keep their money. Communism and libertarian rhetoric have a lot in common. They argue more or less the same except have opposite targets.

  4. I see your point now, Robert, and in a way the communist or Marxist version of the metaphor would be correct.

    Just as this story is correct in saying that if enough people regard a dictator as unjust and disobey it then the dictator will lose its power, so to would a capitalist employer lose control of his factory (for example) if the people working for him decided that it was wrong for him to profit without laboring on the machines and if the workers thus decided to take control of selling the goods the factory produces themselves and taking 100% of the money.

    The capitalist would lose control of his factory and would no longer make money and the factory would be effectively worker-owned, regardless of anyone’s opinion on the justice of the situation.

    However, I would argue that an important difference between the anarchist vs marxist version of the story is that when a single monkey decides he doesn’t want to pay the old man any fruits he is ruthlessly flogged, whereas a “disobedient” worker who confiscated some of the goods the factory produced for himself rather than let the capitalist have the goods would simply be fired. In other words, for the anarchist the tyrant “owns”/controls the whole world (or country), whereas for the marxist the tyrant “owns”/controls a much smaller piece of property, such as a factory. So telling the factory worker “if you don’t like, it you can leave” seems much more reasonable than telling the anarchist “if you don’t like it, you can leave” since leaving a single company is a lot easier than leaving a country. Also, the worker can buy his own land and start his own rights-respecting worker-owned factory, whereas the anarchist cannot just go buy another country and start a libertarian rights-respecting country.

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