What is direct action?

By Allen Myers

The name of this paper refers to something that has a long tradition in movements for social change. In its most fundamental sense, direct action is the idea that, if you want something done, you should go and do it yourself, not wait for someone else to do it for you.

Despite its mythology about “initiative” and “self-reliance”, capitalist society doesn’t really encourage doing things yourself. Initiative in making money is okay, but for most goals, we’re strongly encouraged to let someone else do it for us. Thus, if a factory near your house is polluting your environment, and you and your neighbours march in and close down the factory, it’s likely to be you, not the factory owner, who will end up in jail. Or are you and your co-workers underpaid? Again, if you march into the manager’s office and top up your wages out of the office safe, you can guess who the police and the capitalist media will accuse of being thieves.

Working through the system

What we’re taught, almost from birth in capitalist society, is that we should try to solve any problems we may have by “working through the system”. So, instead of directly closing down the polluting factory, you and your neighbours should hire a lawyer (two or three if you can afford it) to file legal challenges and lobby the government and generally do their best until all your money is gone, and you and your neighbours have all been killed by the pollution. Or, to obtain a wage large enough to live on, you shouldn’t strike, but should wait until the next parliamentary election and then vote for a party that, if it is elected to government, will — maybe — think about repealing the previous governing party’s ban on respectfully asking the boss to be charitable.

The problem with trying to solve problems by “working through the system” is that most problems are caused by the system; working within it generally multiplies problems rather than solving them. It is particularly fruitless to rely on parliament, because parliament always has a guaranteed majority of representatives who identify far more with the polluters and bosses than with the people who elect the politicians.

So direct action — doing things for yourself instead of hoping that some “representative” will do it for you — has long been deservedly popular in movements seeking progressive change. One might even wonder why it is that direct action is not more widely used.

Collective action

At least part of the answer to that question is that it is possible to engage in direct action in unproductive, or even counter-productive ways. The hypothetical examples above were about collective action, not individual action. This is because collective direct action is far more effective than individual or small-group direct action.

If you, all by yourself, pound on the door of the polluting factory, the owners may or may not let you in, but they will certainly be able to prevent you closing down their polluting operations. On the other hand, if 1000 or 10,000 neighbours bang on the door, the owners will probably keep it locked, but together you can block supplies entering and products leaving the factory, and you might get some media coverage that will encourage a public boycott of the company or pressure a government official into enforcing a law or regulation that was there all the time.

Sparks

It is sometimes argued by people who are attracted by small-group direct actions that they can spark a response by broader layers that masses of people can be inspired by a brave individual confronting the bosses or their government or police. While the sight of a few protesters being dragged off to jail can easily discourage political action rather than encouraging it, there can be an element of truth to such arguments.

“Sparks” can sometimes ignite something larger — provided the basis for that something larger has already been created. Consider the example of Rosa Parks, the African-American woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who in December 1955 was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, as required by the state’s racist segregation laws. In response, the city’s black population conducted a year-long bus boycott that succeeded in desegregating Montgomery’s buses. (Along the way, this powerful movement caused a federal district court and then the US Supreme Court to notice for the first time that Alabama’s bus segregation laws were unconstitutional.) This was one of the first victories of the US civil rights movement, and it spurred on that movement.

The mass campaign touched off by Rosa Parks’ brave act of defiance didn’t come from nowhere, however. She was part of a Montgomery movement against segregation that had been under way for some time, involving the Women’s Political Council and the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which was headed by Edgar Nixon, a militant trade unionist in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (also known as the Pullman Porters Union).

The direct action that is advocated in Direct Action is the thought-out collective direct action that can win.

[Allen Myers is the assistant editor of Direct Action and a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party.]