My original article at Gonzo Times can be found here

If Not Politics, what?: A Mini-Introduction to Direct Action

Most people that support the political system in any fashion (and even some who don’t) will tell you (even as an anarchist) that voting or working within the system is the way to go. Whether it’s the tired old line that it’s a “civic duty” (even though as Jason Brennan has argued we don’t need politics to be civilly virtuous) or that it would move “more towards liberty”. They make these two claims even though, to my knowledge, they’ve never done the sort of work people will say they did. And even when they do it’s not for long. Not only that but the system has only gotten worse since any good examples they may find. It’s become more inclusive and more centralized in its scope of power since then. So I question what use working within the system will do and at best say that it could in the short-term help some things but in the long term is of no real use to anarchists. Historical examples and Ron Paul be damned.

But with politics and the inside channels of the system not viable where does that leave us? Well as I’ve said before agorism is an approach that could work for some. But what if you’re into a more non-market approach that’s been done not only by the anarchist movement but has a pretty wide ranging history and has been applied in many different contexts? Direct action is such a strategy I believe. One of my main citations for this article will be Voltairine de Cleyre’s wonderful essay “Direct Action” as well as the Wikipedia article on it and sources therein, etc.

Explaining Direct Action

First off, what is direct action? I’ve previously discussed it and I’ve said de Cleyre is right in saying that in her essay “Direct Action” that,

“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. … 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. … 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.”’

Wikiepedia also has a pretty useful definition which I made reference to in the first two paragraphs of this post:

Direct action is activity undertaken by individuals, groups, or governments to achieve political, economic, or social goals outside of normal social/political channels. Direct action can include nonviolent and violent activities which target persons, groups, or property deemed offensive to the direct action participant. Examples of nonviolent direct action (often called nonviolent resistance or civil resistance) include strikes, workplace occupations, sit-ins, sabotage, graffiti, and hacktivism. Violent direct actions include property destruction, assault and murder.

By contrast, electoral politics, diplomacy and negotiation or arbitration do not constitute direct action. Direct actions are sometimes a form of civil disobedience, but some (such as strikes) do not always violate criminal law.”

I think the above definitions and examples are (for the most part) fair and I think the thing to take away from both quotes is that direct action is a type of action that one does of their own accord either by themselves or with others. They can do this action violently or peacefully and they can do it against persons or property and so on. The main thing to keep in mind however is that there is no asking of authorities whether it’s right and it’s outside of the usual political channels. The direct actionist relies on their consciousness, intuitive moral sense or perhaps just what is most preferable in a practical sense for the situation at hand. They do not consult the local mayor about whether giving food for free in a public park to people who may be starving is legal or nor. Nor do they ask their bosses if it’s alright if they go on strike or try to disinterest other people from buying their product like SeaSol does. And so on and so on.

Now where does direct action apply? Again, as I’ve discussed before ,

“…we should see quite quickly that almost all action is direct action and that life would be quite dull without it. Based on the definitions above provided by de Cleyre we can see that this is probably one of the main activities of the anarchist in his or her daily activities. For instance, workers may get at the heart of an issue through boycotting a business whose boss is thinking about firing them in an unfair way. Or a politician who supports a measure may receive tons of calls to their own office or letters to them, jailed people may get friendlier letters or financial support (which can also be mutual aid if the jailed repays them once they get out) and so on. All of these things have been done in the community of anarchists and it can continue to be done.”

 Not only of course within the communities of anarchists that currently and historically have existed but also within the larger history of labor unions, workers, the anti-nuclear movement, anti-abortion movement and so on. I’m not saying that just because direct action has taken place in the movements they are always fair just to be clear. My point is merely to explain that direct action can be and has served the cause of many different movements in many different situations making it a versatile strategy. And of course direct action such as things like Food Not Bombs can be started  as well as direct action against the boss can be discovered and the general reason why unions can be used in a libertarian context can be explained. All of this so as we can feel comfortable as libertarians doing these things and more perhaps.

But what sorts of actions are valid morally and tactically? In other words: which sorts of direct action will help the anarchist the most in their struggle against the state, the boss, the landlord and other sorts of hierarchies that they may oppose? Is it better to be violent? Non-Violent? What about a mix of both?

To me, this must be the next question we address.

Direct Action and The Struggle

So how does direct action apply to the struggle against unjust social relations, power, hierarchy and more? Well it depends on what sort of force one is opposing and how one is going to oppose it.

First, I’d like to start to discuss and suggest from my own limited experience and readings what targets may be worth choosing and which may not. From there the choice of doing it violently or non-violently remains. In those sections I will get not only into the practicality of  using violence with direct action but also the morals behind it.  I then want to conclude after those three things with some final thoughts on the usability of direct action and more.

With that explanation out of the way let’s discuss which targets direct actionists should focus on and which they should not.

Preferred Targets of Direct Action vs. Non-Preferred

As I’ve already mentioned the history of direct action applies to many different contexts but which one should be the most preferred of them? Well first to limit the scope of action a bit I think we should start with goals that while perhaps legitimate in of themselves, may not be worth investing too much energy on.

But to begin with I don’t think it’s fair to either make or take these ideas universally or try to really, because there are so many different circumstances for different people.

For example, it may be more beneficial in some people’s lives to oppose what more directly affects them then some more abstract things like other people’s needs. What I mean by that is that if you’re living in a pretty bad situation economically then whether the protest down the street brings justice for the recent victim in police brutality goes right or not might not matter as much as how you’re gonna pay for your next meal. If you’re ever to get out of a situation like this you can reflect on that and think, “maybe people’s basic needs should be better met on a larger scale before we start asking for political change from within.” For example things like starting Food Not Bomb chapters, free schools to give kids a better education, practice better parenting so you can not only improve yourself but your family and so on.

Really what I’m trying to drive home here is that direct action could be a great way to target the basic needs instead of the more abstract needs that agorism might aim for or even if it aims at those needs it may charge money or something else that makes it more restrictive to the poor. Obviously the hope for me as an agorist is that if this is the case to use direct action so people’s basic needs are better met and then we can expand upon that through education, agorism and more.

What examples are there of direct action achieving basic needs though? Well I’ve already pointed out that Food Not Bombs does a lot of work for feeding people who need it. Other examples such as the IWW have done good work historically, as de Cleyre noted,

“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. … The Industrial Workers 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.”

“These workers have, in one form or another, mutually joined their forces to see what betterment of their condition they could get; primarily by direct action, secondarily by political action. … All of them have been organized for the purpose of wringing from the masters in the economic field a little better price, a little better conditions, a little shorter hours; or on the other hand to resist a reduction in price, worse conditions, or longer hours. None of them has attempted a final solution of the social war. None of them, except the Industrial Workers, has recognized that there is a social war, inevitable so long as present legal- social conditions endure. They accepted property institutions as they found them. They were made up of average men, with average desires, and they undertook to do what appeared to them possible and very reasonable things. They were not committed to any particular political policy when they were organized, but were associated for direct action of their own initiation, either positive or defensive.”

Another example of direct action that helps the basic needs is shown by de Cleyre through the IWW. It’s increasing the worker’s life and their life expectancy on the factory floor with better wages and working conditions proportional to their true costs of labor. It is these things that help the working class see the benefits of anarchism. Where the state fails the anarchist is there to better provide the service and do it in such a way that is mutually beneficial. This sort of direct action not only helps show the practical side of anarchism to those that claim it is made of utopians but also its moral side. It shows that the anarchists are not the twirly mustached bomb throwing hooligan but human beings like them with compassion. It gives a stark contrast between the anarchist and the prevailing system of state-capitalism.

Such is the power of effective direct action when it focuses in on the right targets.

And the right targets I think are those most explicitly desired or needed by the communities that you’re around. Whether it be food, a union, security in the form of a neighborhood watch group that doesn’t actively collude with the police but acts within its own community I think direct action is most effective when it’s seeking to end a certain existing and clear problem. This isn’t to say that direct action is incapable from going further but that at present this may be one of the ideal places to try and as I’ve pointed out things like Food Not Bombs, the IWW and other things have historically taken advantage of this fact.

Should we use Violent Tactics?

The next question though is that if we’re trying to achieve basic needs first so we can get further along how do we do so? Should we be aggressive? Agitate in a physical manner? A bit of pushing? Should we kill someone for our beliefs? The question of violence I think is one of gradualism. It may be a bit of pushing or roughing up of scabs or verbal or physical threats (something de Cleyre opposed in her essay and I do as well for the record) or perhaps it’s the attempted or successful assassination of a popular industrialist/politician who has done terrible things or has had a part in them. Whatever it is, all of this has to do with violence in one way or another so how do we deal with the idea of using violence to further direct action?

Well first we should concern ourselves with where the violence is being enacted, what sort of violence and whether it’s people or property certain people claim to own. So, for example the Wikipedia article talks about,

“Groups opposing the introduction of cruise missiles into the United Kingdom employed tactics such as breaking into and occupying United States air bases, and blocking roads to prevent the movement of military convoys and disrupt military projects.”

Here, in this case the “violence” was supposedly against the property that the British military claims to own. But then, how legitimate is this claim? As anarchists we can’t see any sort of state-military site to be anything except open for use and occupancy, homesteading, whatever you want to call it. The military is using the site to use violence against others and is a direct sub-class of the state’s existence and is one of it’s biggest arm in destroying cultures and people. Thus I see no reason to treat this so called “violence” or occupancy of the military site as immoral in any fashion.

But things that are clearly moral may still be practically questionable. I’m unsure whether the protest was meant to be long lasting or not but if it was meant to be  I doubt it attained that goal due to the superior arms of the British military and the British government in general. It wouldn’t lead to a long term protest or anything really meaningful perhaps except some arrests. It’s possible of course you could get some press from this but as Rob Sparrow says in “Anarchist Politics & Direct Action“,

“As I suggested earlier any protest where protester’s are acting entirely for the sake of media attention or – as actually often occurs – are even being directed in their activities by the media is not a case of direct action. Such “media stunts” do not themselves seek to address the problems which they highlight and are instead directed to getting other people (usually the government) to solve them. Thus in as far as we are concerned to be practicing direct action we should shun this sort of involvement with the media. We should not “perform” for the cameras or reporters.”

Indeed this is the problem with what a lot of the folks in Keene NH and what they call call civil-disobedience…though that’s a topic for another time I suppose. To further the point that Sparrow is making however, this act seems to just be inviting media attention rather than actually solving anyone’s problems. And if anything attacking the military site while perhaps praiseworthy on some level is foolhardy on another and leads to more legal and physical problems then it solves it seems to me.

So obviously not all property damage or occupation is immoral from an anarchist position and it heavily depends on what the property is used for and where it came from and what the opinion of the direct actionist is on property to begin with. But what about people? This seems less conditional really but let’s examine a well known case among anarchists, namely the attempted assassination of the industrialist Henry Frick by Alexander Berkman. But what would cause Berkman to want this?

As Emma Goldman wrote,

“A few days after our return to New York, the news was flashed across the country of the slaughter of steel-workers by Pinkertons. Frick had fortified the Homestead mills, built a high fence around them. Then, in the dead of night, a barge packed with strike-breakers, under protection of heavily armed Pinkerton thugs, quietly stole up the Monongahela River. The steel-men had learned of Frick’s move. They stationed themselves along the shore, determined to drive back Frick’s hirelings. When the barge got within range, the Pinkertons had opened fire, without warning, killing a number of Homestead men on the shore, among them a little boy, and wounding scores of others.”

It was clear then that Frick was responsible for the slaughter of workers and others. Anarchists, as being part of the workers movement were of course outraged. Alexander Berkman personally sought to end Frick’s life for his deed,

“The question of moral right in such matters often agitated the revolutionary circles I used to frequent. I had always taken the extreme view. The more radical the treatment, I held, the quicker the cure. Society is a patient; sick constitutionally and functionally. Surgical treatment is often imperative. The removal of a tyrant is not merely justifiable; it is the highest duty of every true revolutionist. Human life is, indeed, sacred and inviolate. But the killing of a tyrant, of an enemy of the People, is in no way to be considered as the taking of a life. A revolutionist would rather perish a thousand times than be guilty of what is ordinarily called murder. In truth, murder and Attentat [a political killing] are to me opposite terms. To remove a tyrant is an act of liberation, the giving of life and opportunity to an oppressed people. True, the Cause often calls upon the revolutionist to commit an unpleasant act; but it is the test of a true revolutionist—nay, more, his pride—to sacrifice all merely human feeling at the call of the People’s Cause. If the latter demand his life, so much the better.

Could anything be nobler than to die for a grand, a sublime Cause? Why, the very life of a true revolutionist has no other purpose, no significance whatever, save to sacrifice it on the altar of the beloved People. And what could be higher in life than to be a true revolutionist? It is to be a man, a complete man. A being who has neither personal interests nor desires above the necessities of the Cause; one who has emancipated himself from being merely human, and has risen above that, even to the height of conviction which excludes all doubt, all regret; in short, one who in the very inmost of his soul feels himself revolutionist first, human afterwards. ”

Now I sympathize with Berkman in this case and I’m not going to try to demonize him too much but either way let’s look at the effects of these actions,

“Berkman’s attempt upon Frick’s life did not succeed on any level. Frick made a full recovery. Neither the Homestead strikers nor any other segment of American labor saw the assassination as “propaganda of the deed.” Quite the opposite. Berkman recorded his dismay in Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist at discovering that the strikers reviled him for having, in their eyes, given their opponents a weapon to use against them. Aside from Goldman and a few other radicals, no one supported Berkman’s deed. Nor did it cause others to rally around the strikers’ cause. By November even the most determined members of the Amalgamated gave up. A few hundred got their old jobs back. Many of the others were blacklisted and had to find other kinds of work.” (All of these quotes by the way come from here .)

To add to this Wikipedia notes that wages were actually halved in addition to the fact that people had died, Berkman failed the attempt and did not even die “a true revolutionary” but instead lost 14 years of his life and many of his resources to the legal system. To me while the practicality of damaging unjustly owned property may not be too high sometimes it seems, especially in this case, that the tactic known as “propaganda of the deed” is not one to be performed back then nor now.

Again, I’m not unsympathetic to Berkman or what he thought was the right thing to do here. Clearly Frick was not a good person for the things he did and did not associate with movements of a moral sort if the brief accounts I’ve read thus far are assumed to be true. But nonetheless I must admit that I don’t see much hope in stopping the prevailing oppressive system just by killing the powerful people who are in charge of it or in this case benefit from it.

This is because the system is mostly assisted by the people under it having the idea of it. As I’ve discussing in my two parter of “What’s the Enemy” (here and here) it”s the idea of the state and the other social systems that directly and indirectly enforce and reinforce oppression on other people that is the problem.

As Bob Black says in “My Anarchism Problem”,

“The real enemy” is the totality of physical and mental constraints by which capital, or class society, or statism, or the society of the spectacle expropriates everyday life, the time of our lives. The real enemy is not an object apart from life. It is the organization of life by powers detached from it and turned against it. The apparatus, not its personnel, is the real enemy.”

We need to be outcompeting these ideas and social-systems with better ones as anarchists. Killing the people at the top of them doesn’t do much when we’re trying to make ourselves look as good as possible and more fundamentally it doesn’t do much when the people in the rest of the group still think the idea that motivates the group itself is still legitimate. It’ll just have a different boss but it’ll still be reinforcing the same system you hate. In the end you’ll be rotting with your hate in a jail cell for who knows how long (Berkman actually only got out when he did because of pressures from labor forces, etc.) and wasting tons of time and resources.

Clearly then I don’t think such actions are conducive towards attaining a free society or direct action. While at best they may be moral sometimes, I usually see violence unnecessary towards achieving a freer society.

Should we use Non-Violent Tactics?

I think the answer then becomes clear that non-violent tactics are the best ways of more likely having both the moral and the practical higher ground against the state. I think to show that non-violent action works or at least has a propensity to work I shall simply quote de Cleyre at length in a few of her passages.

“The case which everyone instantly recalls is that of the early Quakers who came to Massachusetts. The Puritans had accused the Quakers of “troubling the world by preaching peace to it.” They refused to pay church taxes; they refused to bear arms; they refused to swear allegiance to any government. (In so doing they were direct actionists, what we may call negative direct actionists.) So the Puritans, being political actionists, passed laws to keep them out, to deport, to fine, to imprison, to mutilate, and finally, to hang them. And the Quakers just kept on coming (which was positive direct action); and history records that after the hanging of four Quakers, and the flogging of Margaret Brewster at the cart’s tail through the streets of Boston, “the Puritans gave up trying to silence the new missionaries”; that “Quaker persistence and Quaker non-resistance had won the day.”‘

“Some thirty years ago I recall that the Salvation Army was vigorously practising 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 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.”

“Among the peaceable moves made, were the non-importation agreements, the leagues for wearing homespun clothing and the “committees of correspondence.” ‘

There’s a few others too, such as the Underground Rail Road and more but I think MLK summed it up when he said,

“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

Thus the goal of the non-violent direct actionist should be to arouse suspicion and questioning within a community of whether their getting what’s best for them currently. Whether that’s through showing what the alternatives are, blocking the ones that exist or just trying to start up like the Salvation Army was it can be a wide variety of actions in many different contexts and as de Cleyre points out above they’ve worked and on a massive scale as well.

Final Thoughts

I am certainly willing to expand on my thoughts on non-violent direct action for those curious but I think I’ve done enough for now to explain the advantages of direct action in general as is. Of course there are negatives too depending on how you apply it or where but I think as de Cleyre said,

“It is by and because of the direct acts of the forerunners of social change, whether they be of peaceful or warlike nature, that the Human Conscience, the conscience of the mass, becomes aroused to the need for change. It would be very stupid to say that no good results are ever brought about by political action; sometimes good things do come about that way. But never until individual rebellion, followed by mass rebellion, has forced it. Direct action is always the clamorer, the initiator, through which the great sum of indifferentists become aware that oppression is getting intolerable.”


“Well, I have already stated that some good is occasionally accomplished by political action — not necessarily working-class party action either. But I am abundantly convinced that the occasional good accomplished is more than counterbalanced by the evil; just as I am convinced that though there are occasional evils resulting through direct action, they are more than counterbalanced by the good.”

Clearly direct action is one of the many things anarchists like.