The Definition and History of Direct Action

Editors note: this text was written as an introduction to a French-language translation of the Earth First! Direct Action Manual. It has been slightly edited for publication here.

by Max Wilbert

The term “direct action” was first widely used by the revolutionary union IWW, or the Industrial Workers of the World, in 1910. It refers to the practice of working directly to achieve social change, rather than using politically-mediated methods such as voting or petitions.

A liberal approach to solving social and ecological problems calls for education, lobbying, and voting. In contrast, direct action calls for people to take matters into their own hands.

The power of direct action lies in its ability to get results. As the saying goes, “direct action gets the goods.” But this is an oversimplification. In any given campaign, a range of different actions could be considered ‘direct action.’ Some people use the term to refer purely to non-violent direct action, mostly various methods of blockades, disruptions, and sit-ins.

But people’s history is a long chronicle of direct action—most of it much more radical and militant than modern conceptions of direct action.

  • Instead of only railing against slavery in rhetoric, John Brown gathered comrades, took up arms, and carried out the raid on Harper’s Ferry.
  • After failing to win change for decades through aboveground organization, Nelson Mandela and the ANC took up arms and began to sabotage the Apartheid economy and assassinate its foot soldiers.
  • Rather than relying on gradualism, the Cuban revolution began with daring attacks on military barracks.
  • With the total failure of political change would save their land, Vietnamese communists organized to fight and win against French and then American military aggression.
  • The UK movement for women’s suffrage, following decades of inaction, escalated to arson and sabotage.
  • The Deacons for Defense and the Black Panther Party both took up weapons to defend their communities against racist vigilantes and police violence.

From the famous bus boycotts that skyrocketed Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights movement to prominence, to the mass direct action occupation at La Zad and Hambach Forest, to the Zapatistas and the Bolsheviks and the revolution in Rojava, our movements have largely been defined by direct action.

Therefore, for any book to present itself as a “direct action manual” is something of a misnomer. It’s impossible to encompass all of what direct action is in one book. However, this book is valuable, which is why I am writing this introduction.

The main power of direct action is its potential effectiveness. But another secret of direct action’s success lies in its ability to empower people. Modern society is profoundly alienating, and the democracies that dominate the world are participatory in name only. Global empire is ruled by the wealthy, for the wealthy, and the average person has little power. Edward Ross wrote in 1905 that “Nowadays the water main is my well, the trolley car my carriage, the banker’s safe my old stocking, the policeman’s billy club my fist.” Our autonomy, our sense of individual and collective power, has been systematically undermined and destroyed.

One of the few places we can begin to find a sense of our own power is when we rise up—like the angry Black youth who rose up in Ferguson, MO in 2014, or the Yellow Vest movement in France. Action can beget action.

But we also must be cautious about direct action. Spontaneity has limited utility within our movements. Revolutions generally succeed because individuals plan, organize, and train for them. Then, these people are able to take advantage of breaks in normality. To rely on direct action as some sort of superior tactic, without considering when and where and how it must be applied, and for what goal, is to simply waste time. And too many believe that non-violent direct action will succeed without considering legal fees, lawyers, fundraising, and the fact that it’s hard to organize when you’re in jail. When direct action inevitably results in getting arrested, it gives up the initiative that is so critical to winning any conflict.

With that said, direct action can also be at its strongest when applied spontaneously. The 2011 documentary film Just Do It: A Tale of Modern Day Outlaws, represents a strong argument for the value this approach has for building movement capacity and individual bravery.

A variety of situations, methods, and approaches fall under the umbrella of direct action. Direct action is a broad term, with a divergent range of philosophies and tactics falling underneath it.

I emphasize the militant and revolutionary basis of direct action because there is a tendency to underplay this within mainstream social movements. Society glorifies the non-violent resistance of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Color Revolutions, while ignoring movements that have used force.

The modern Earth First! movement sometimes falls into reification of direct action for its own sake. In general, the movement doesn’t have a clear revolutionary strategy. While Earth First! gave birth to the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), its modern incarnation tends to emphasize non-violence and defensive blockades.

The diversity of approaches our movement brings to direct action can be exploited. In 2013, there was a leak of documents from the private intelligence company STRATFOR, which has worked for the American Petroleum Institute, Dow Chemical, Northrup Grumman, Coca Cola, and so on.

The leaked documents revealed one part of STRATFOR’s strategy for fighting social movements. The propose dividing activists into four groups, then exploiting their differences to fracture movements.

“Radicals, idealists, realists and opportunists [are the four categories],” the leaked documents state. “The Opportunists are in it for themselves and can be pulled away for their own self-interest. The Realists can be convinced that transformative change is not possible and we must settle for what is possible.  Idealists can be convinced they have the facts wrong and pulled to the Realist camp.  Radicals, who see the system as corrupt and needing transformation, need to be isolated and discredited, using false charges to assassinate their character is a common tactic.”

Through foundation funding, ideological hegemony, and various means of disruption and infiltration, popular mass movements are usually shaped by the ruling class in one way or another, usually in such a way to blunt their teeth.

Here’s another quote from the STRATFOR leaks that underlines this: “Most authorities will tolerate a certain amount of activism because it is seen as a way to let off steam. They appease the protesters by letting them think that they are making a difference — as long as the protesters do not pose a threat. But as protest movements grow, authorities will act more aggressively to neutralize the organizers.”

And that’s what we’ve seen.

The ideology of non-violence has been championed by people like Srdja Popovic, who rose to prominence as a leader of the Optor! Movement against Serbian president Slobodan Milošević. Optor! Is regularly championed as the perfect example of social movements—despite the fact that it operated alongside a U.S. bombing campaign and a full-scale civil war, and with perhaps $41 million is U.S. funding.

But there is even more to this story. Srdja Popovic’s wife worked for STRATFOR and Popovic himself has worked closely with the CIA to for example, attempt to overthrow Hugo Chavez. Non-violence has become a key tool in the U.S. efforts to overthrow socialist nations and secure geopolitical power and access to resources such as oil. Popovic’s popularity and access to TED talks and Harvard faculty positions reflects this institutional support.

Popovic’s academic collaborator in this project is Erica Chenoweth, another Harvard University faculty member and leading researcher on non-violent resistance movements. Chenoweth has become prominent in social movement circles for co-publishing (with Maria J. Stephan of the U.S. State Department) a study on the efficacy of non-violent resistance. Her research has been championed by countless NGOs worldwide and forms the basis of strategic doctrine at organizations like Extinction Rebellion and 350.org.

Chenoweth’s study is overly simplistic. It does not define violence, and it doesn’t differentiate between campaigns against a colonial occupation and those fighting internal dictatorships. It doesn’t account for the vast majority of movements which incorporate both violent and non-violent wings. The existence of the “radical flank” complicates analysis of these issues. Chenowith fails to account for pre-revolutionary conditions, arguing instead that method (non-violent resistance) and mass participation are the main determinant of success.

To make a clear distinction between non-violence and violence is to miss the point completely. Social movements succeed or fail partially through the strength of their moral suation, but more importantly through their ability to effectively mobilize force, resist repression and co-optation, and strike effectively at strategic targets. Specific methods are less important than the big-picture strategy guiding our operations, and the firm will and organizational structure to resist distraction and compromise.

As Mik’maq warrior Sakej Ward tells us, “Don’t confuse the non-violent ‘peaceful warrior; with the wise warrior. The ‘non-violent peaceful warrior’ detests violence and conflict to the point of rejecting the teachings of war. The wise warrior knows conflict exist on a much broader spectrum than simply two ideas of peace and war. The wise warrior sees the vast ground between the two. That warrior understands conflict on multiple levels and can utilize many different paradigms, strategies, tactics and tools that exist between peace and war but is also wise enough to know that he/she must still master the ways of war.”

Even Gene Sharp, the CIA-funded non-violent theorist who Popovic learned from, describes non-violent resistance as a form of warfare, just as Clausewitz called war a “continuation of politics by other means.”

Only when liberals abandon the mythology of non-violence can they begin to grapple with the methods required to achieve our goals by any means necessary. In 1948, U.S. State Department Director of Policy Planning George Kennan wrote that “[The United States has] about 50 percent of the world’s wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population… Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships, which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity…”

This is the naked face of empire: violent, devious, cunning, relentless in pursuit of power and willingness to destroy the planet and exploit people. We must be equally cunning if we are to stand a chance of victory. This isn’t a time for amateurs. This historical moment is calling for us all to become skilled, to train, to study.

The Earth First! direct action manual is a starting point for this process. Study this book and learn its methods. Test them, as I have done (in the drawing on the front cover, I’m one of the people on top of the excavator at a disruptive direct action against the Utah Tar Sands project in 2013). And be prepared to escalate further. Time is short, and everything is heading in the wrong direction. Our future depends on our ability to become the people who are needed, and to take matters into our own hands.

Good luck.

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