J.2 What is direct action?
Direct action, to use Rudolf Rocker’s words, is “every method of immediate warfare by the workers [or other sections of society] against their economic and political oppressors. Among these the outstanding are: the strike, in all its graduations from the simple wage struggle to the general strike; the boycott; sabotage in all its countless forms; [occupations and sit-down strikes;] anti-militarist propaganda, and in particularly critical cases,… armed resistance of the people for the protection of life and liberty.” [Anarcho-Syndicalism, p. 66]
Not that anarchists think that direct action is only applicable within the workplace. Far from it. Direct action must occur everywhere! So, in non-workplace situations, direct action includes rent strikes, consumer boycotts, occupations (which, of course, can include sit-in strikes by workers), eco-tage, individual and collective non-payment of taxes, blocking roads and holding up construction work of an anti-social nature and so forth. Also direct action, in a workplace setting, includes strikes and protests on social issues, not directly related to working conditions and pay. Such activity aims to ensure the “protection of the community against the most pernicious outgrowths of the present system. The social strike seeks to force upon the employers a responsibility to the public. Primarily it has in view the protection of the customers, of whom the workers themselves [and their families] constitute the great majority” [Op. Cit., p. 72]
Basically, direct action means that instead of getting someone else to act for you (e.g. a politician) you act for yourself. Its essential feature is an organised protest by ordinary people to make a change by their own efforts. Thus Voltairine De Cleyre’s excellent statement on this topic:
“Every person who ever thought he had a right to assert, and went boldly and asserted it, himself, or jointly with others that shared his convictions, was a direct actionist. Some thirty years ago I recall that the Salvation Army was vigorously practicing direct action in the maintenance of the freedom of its members to speak, assemble, and pray. Over and over they were arrested, fined, and imprisoned; but they kept right on singing, praying, and marching, till they finally compelled their persecutors to let them alone. The Industrial Workers [of the World] are now conducting the same fight, and have, in a number of cases, compelled the officials to let them alone by the same direct tactics.”Every person who ever had a plan to do anything, and went and did it, or who laid his plan before others, and won their co-operation to do it with him, without going to external authorities to please do the thing for them, was a direct actionist. All co-operative experiments are essentially direct action.[Direct Action]
“Every person who ever in his life had a difference with anyone to settle, and went straight to the other persons involved to settle it, either by a peaceable plan or otherwise, was a direct actionist. Examples of such action are strikes and boycotts; many persons will recall the action of the housewives of New York who boycotted the butchers, and lowered the price of meat; at the present moment a butter boycott seems looming up, as a direct reply to the price-makers for butter.
“These actions are generally not due to any one’s reasoning overmuch on the respective merits of directness or indirectness, but are the spontaneous retorts of those who feel oppressed by a situation. In other words, all people are, most of the time, believers in the principle of direct action, and practicers of it. . .”
So direct action means acting for yourself against injustice and oppression. It can, sometimes, involve putting pressure on politicians or companies, for example, to ensure a change in an oppressive law or destructive practices. However, such appeals are direct action simply because they do not assume that the parties in question we will act for us – indeed the assumption is that change only occurs when we act to create it. Regardless of what the action is, “if such actions are to have the desired empowerment effect, they must be largely self-generated, rather than being devised and directed from above.” [Martha Ackelsberg, Free Women of Spain, p. 33]
So, in a nutshell, direct action is any form of activity which people themselves decide upon and organise themselves which is based on their own collective strength and does not involve getting intermediates to act for them. As such direct action is a natural expression of liberty, of self-government for “[d]irect action against the authority in the shop, direct action against the authority of the law, direct action against the invasive, meddlesome authority of our moral code, is the logical, consistent method of Anarchism.” [Emma Goldman, Red Emma Speaks, pp. 62-63] It is clear that by acting for yourself you are expressing the ability to govern yourself. Thus its a means by which people can take control of their own lives. It is a means of self-empowerment and self-liberation:
“Direct action meant that the goal of any and all these activities was to provide ways for people to get in touch with their own powers and capacities, to take back the power of naming themselves and their lives.” [Martha Ackelsberg, Op. Cit., p. 32]
In other words, anarchists reject the view that society is static and that people’s consciousness, values, ideas and ideals cannot be changed. Far from it and anarchists support direct action because it actively encourages the transformation of those who use it. Direct action is the means of creating a new consciousness, a means of self-liberation from the chains placed around our minds, emotions and spirits by hierarchy and oppression.
Because direct action is the expression of liberty, the powers that be are vitally concerned only when the oppressed use direct action to win its demands, for it is a method which is not easy or cheap to combat. Any hierarchical system is placed into danger when those at the bottom start to act for themselves and, historically, people have invariably gained more by acting directly than could have been won by playing ring around the rosy with indirect means.
Direct action tore the chains of open slavery from humanity. Over the centuries it has established individual rights and modified the life and death power of the master class. Direct action won political liberties such as the vote and free speech. Used fully, used wisely and well, direct action can forever end injustice and the mastery of humans by other humans.
In the sections that follow, we will indicate why anarchists are in favour of direct action and why they are against electioneering as a means of change.
Simply because it is effective and it has a radicalising impact on those who practice it. As it is based on people acting for themselves, it shatters the dependency and marginalisation created by hierarchy. As Murray Bookchin argues, “[w]hat is even more important about direct action is that it forms a decisive step toward recovering the personal power over social life that the centralised, over-bearing bureaucracies have usurped from the people . . . we not only gain a sense that we can control the course of social events again; we recover a new sense of selfhood and personality without which a truly free society, based in self-activity and self-management, is utterly impossible.” [Toward an Ecological Society, p. 47]
By acting for themselves, people gain a sense of their own power and abilities. This is essential if people are to run their own lives. As such, direct action is the means by which individuals empower themselves, to assert their individuality, to make themselves count as individuals. It is the opposite of hierarchy, within which individuals are told again and again that they are nothing, are insignificant and must dissolve themselves into a higher power (the state, the company, the party, the people, etc.) and feel proud in participating in the strength and glory of this higher power. Direct action, in contrast, is the means of asserting ones individual opinion, interests and happiness, of fighting against self-negation:
“man has as much liberty as he is willing to take. Anarchism therefore stands for direct action, the open defiance of, and resistance to, all laws and restrictions, economic, social and moral. But defiance and resistance are illegal. Therein lies the salvation of man. Everything illegal necessitates integrity, self-reliance, and courage. In short, it calls for free independent spirits, for men who are men, and who have a bone in their back which you cannot pass your hand through.” [Emma Goldman, Red Emma Speaks, pp. 61-62]
In addition, because direct action is based around individuals solving their own problems, by their own action, it awakens those aspects of individuals crushed by hierarchy and oppression – such as initiative, solidarity, imagination, self-confidence and a sense of individual and collective power, that you do matter and count as an individual and that you, and others like you, can change the world. Direct Action is the means by which people can liberate themselves and educate themselves in the ways of and skills required for self-management and liberty. Hence:
“anarchists insisted that we learn to think and act for ourselves by joining together in organisations in which our experience, our perception and our activity can guide and make the change. Knowledge does not precede experience, it flows from it. . . People learn to be free only by exercising freedom. [As one Spanish Anarchist put it] ‘We are not going to find ourselves. . . with people ready-made for the future. . . Without continued exercise of their faculties, there will be no free people. . . The external revolution and the internal revolution presuppose one another, and they must be simultaneous in order to be successful.'” [Martha Ackelsberg, Free Women of Spain, pp. 32-33]
So direct action, to use Murray Bookchin’s words, is “the means whereby each individual awakens to the hidden powers within herself and himself, to a new sense of self-confidence and self-competence; it is the means whereby individuals take control of society directly.” [Op. Cit., p. 48]
In addition, direct action creates the need for new forms of social organisation. These new forms of organisation will be informed and shaped by the process of self-liberation, so be more anarchistic and based upon self-management. Direct action, as well as liberating individuals, can also create the free, self-managed organisations which can replace the current hierarchical ones. In other words, direct action helps create the new world in the shell of the old:
“direct action not only empowered those who participated in it, it also had effects on others. . . [including] exemplary action that attracted adherents by the power of the positive example it set. Contemporary examples. . . include food or day-care co-ops, collectively run businesses, sweat equity housing programmes, women’s self-help health collectives, urban squats or women’s peace camps [as well as traditional examples as industrial unions, social centres, etc.]. While such activities empower those who engage in them, they also demonstrate to others that non-hierarchical forms of organisation can and do exist – and that they can function effectively.” [Martha Ackelsberg, Op. Cit., p. 33]
Also, direct action such as strikes encourage and promote class consciousness and class solidarity. According to Kropotkin, “the strike develops the sentiment of solidarity” while for Bakunin it “is the beginnings of the social war of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. . . Strikes are a valuable instrument from two points of view. Firstly, they electrify the masses, invigorate their moral energy and awaken in them the feeling of the deep antagonism which exists between their interests and those of the bourgeoisie. . . secondly they help immensely to provoke and establish between the workers of all trades, localities and countries the consciousness and very fact of solidarity: a twofold action, both negative and positive, which tends to constitute directly the new world of the proletariat, opposing it almost in an absolute way to the bourgeois world.” [cited in Caroline Cahm, Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism 1872-1886, p. 256, pp. 216-217]
Direct action and the movements that used it (such as unionism) would be the means to develop the “revolutionary intelligence of the workers” and so ensure “emancipation through practice” (to use Bakunin’s words).
Direct action, therefore, helps to create anarchists and anarchist alternatives within capitalism and statism. As such, it plays an essential role in anarchist theory and activity. For anarchists, direct action “is not a ‘tactic’. . . it is a moral principle, an ideal, a sensibility. It should imbue every aspect of our lives and behaviour and outlook.” [Murray Bookchin, Op. Cit., p. 48]
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