Direct Action

views updated May 29 2018

Direct Action


By: Voltairine de Cleyre

Date: 1912

Source: de Cleyre, Voltairine. "Direct Action," 1912.

About the Author: Voltairine de Cleyre (1866–1912), once was one of the best-known anarchist women in the United States. A freethinker who was unwilling to accept a rigid definition of anarchism, she created her own style of anarchy that incorporated tolerance and feminism.


The theory of anarchism gained some popularity in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It arose partly in response to federal, state, and local government support for business at the expense of workers who demanded better working conditions and improved wages. Anarchists believed that formal government of any type was unnecessary and wrong in principle. Although largely forgotten today, Voltairine de Cleyre gained considerable fame for her writings in support of anarchism and the oppressed American workers.

De Cleyre, born into poverty in Michigan, became a freethinker in early adulthood. After a brief flirtation with socialism, she embraced and then abandoned many varieties of anarchism. Individualist anarchism first attracted de Cleyre because it promised that the essential institutions of commerce were good but were made bad by state interference. De Cleyre later disagreed with the economic views of the individualists and became a mutualist anarchist. She saw mutualism, under which organizations of workers would remove the need for an employer, as a combination of socialism and individualism. However, De Cleyre's pacifism prompted her to reject mutualism because it included self-policing. Finally, she decided to simply embrace anarchism without adjectives. She became an anarchist because she loved liberty and saw anarchism as the political philosophy that allowed the most freedom. To de Cleyre, anarchism was freedom from compulsion.

It was not freedom from violence. De Cleyre encouraged tolerance of a variety of methods of achieving liberty, including violent methods. The anarchists of her era argued passionately about peaceful methods versus confrontational tactics. While de Cleyre would not engage in violence, she excused workers who did, such as the McNamara brothers. In October 1910, the Los Angeles Times building was bombed because its owner, Harrison Gray Otis, opposed unions. Twenty-one people were killed by the explosion and fire. The McNamara brothers, J.J. and J.B., were arrested for the crime. Both men pleaded guilty. De Cleyre argued that each individual should choose the method that best expresses his or her self and condemn no one who chooses a different method.


From the standpoint of one who thinks himself capable of discerning an undeviating route for human progress to pursue, if it is to be progress at all, who, having such a route on his mind's map, has endeavored to point it out to others; to make them see it as he sees it; who in so doing has chosen what appeared to him clear and simple expressions to convey his thoughts to others,—to such a one it appears matter for regret and confusion of spirit that the phrase "Direct Action" has suddenly acquired in the general mind a circumscribed meaning, not at all implied in the words themselves, and certainly never attached to it by himself or his co-thinkers.

However, this is one of the common jests which Progress plays on those who think themselves able to set metes and bounds for it. Over and over again, names, phrases, mottoes, watchwords, have been turned inside out, and upside down, and hindside before, and sideways, by occurrences out of the control of those who used the expressions in their proper sense; and still, those who sturdily held their ground, and insisted on being heard, have in the end found that the period of misunderstanding and prejudice has been but the prelude to wider inquiry and understanding.

I rather think this will be the case with the present misconception of the term Direct Action, which through the misapprehension, or else the deliberate misrepresentation, of certain journalists in Los Angeles, at the time the McNamaras pleaded guilty, suddenly acquired in the popular mind the interpretation, "Forcible Attacks on Life and Property." This was either very ignorant or very dishonest of the journalists; but it has had the effect of making a good many people curious to know all about Direct Action.

As a matter of fact, those who are so lustily and so inordinately condemning it, will find on examination that they themselves have on many occasion practised direct action, and will do so again.

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 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.

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.

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 practices of it. However, most people are also indirect or political actionists. And they are both these things at the same time, without making much of an analysis of either. There are only a limited number of persons who eschew political action under any and all circumstances; but there is nobody, nobody at all, who has ever been so "impossible" as to eschew direct action altogether.

Those who, by the essence of their belief, are committed to Direct Action only are—just who? Why, the nonresistants; precisely those who do not believe in violence at all! Now do not make the mistake of inferring that I say direct action means non-resistance; not by any means. Direct action may be the extreme of violence, or it may be as peaceful as the waters of the Brook of Shiloa that go softly. What I say is, that the real non-resistants can believe in direct action only, never in political action. For the basis of all political action is coercion; even when the State does good things, it finally rests on a club, a gun, or a prison, for its power to carry them through.

Now every school child in the United States has had the direct action of certain non-resistants brought to his notice by his school history.

In the period of agitation and excitement preceding the revolution, there were all sorts and kinds of direct action from the most peaceable to the most violent; and I believe that almost everybody who studies United States history finds the account of these performances the most interesting part of the story, the part which dents into the memory most easily.

Among the peaceable moves made, were the non-importation agreements, the leagues for wearing homespun clothing and the "committees of correspondence." As the inevitable growth of hostility progressed, violent direct action developed; e.g., in the matter of destroying the revenue stamps, or the action concerning the tea-ships, either by not permitting the tea to be landed, or by putting it in damp storage, or by throwing it into the harbor, as in Boston, or by compelling a tea-ship owner to set fire to his own ship, as at Annapolis. These are all actions which our commonest textbooks record, certainly not in a condemnatory way, not even in an apologetic way, though they are all cases of direct action against legally constituted authority and property rights. If I draw attention to them, and others of like nature, it is to prove to unreflecting repeaters of words that direct action has always been used, and has the historical sanction of the very people now reprobating it.

George Washington is said to have been the leader of the Virginia planters' non-importation league; he would now be "enjoined," probably by a court, from forming any such league; and if he persisted, he would be fined for contempt.…

Among the various expressions of direct rebellion was the organization of the "underground railroad." Most of the people who belonged to it believed in both sorts of action; but however much they theoretically subscribed to the right of the majority to enact and enforce laws, they didn't believe in it on that point. My grandfather was a member of the "underground;" many a fugitive slave he helped on his way to Canada. He was a very patient, law-abiding man in most respects, though I have often thought that he respected it because he didn't have much to do with it; always leading a pioneer life, law was generally far from him, and direct action imperative. Be that as it may, and law-respecting as he was, he had no respect whatever for slave laws, no matter if made by ten times of a majority; and he conscientiously broke every one that came in his way to be broken.

There were times when in the operation of the "underground" that violence was required, and was used. I recollect one old friend relating to me how she and her mother kept watch all night at the door, while a slave for whom a posse was searching hid in the cellar; and though they were of Quaker descent and sympathies, there was a shotgun on the table. Fortunately it did not have to be used that night.…

The other day I read a communication in the Chicago Daily Socialist from the secretary of the Louisville local Socialist Party to the national secretary, requesting that some safe and sane speaker be substituted for Bohn, who had been announced to speak there. In explaining why, Mr. Dobbs makes this quotation from Bohn's lecture: "Had the McNamaras been successful in defending the interests of the working class, they would have been right, just as John Brown would have been right, had he been successful in freeing the slaves. Ignorance was the only crime of John Brown, and ignorance was the only crime of the McNamaras."

Upon this Mr. Dobbs comments as follows: "We dispute emphatically the statements here made. The attempt to draw a parallel between the open—if mistaken—revolt of John Brown on the one hand, and the secret and murderous methods of the McNamaras on the other, is not only indicative of shallow reasoning, but highly mischievous in the logical conclusions which may be drawn from such statements.

Evidently Mr.Dobbs is very ignorant of the life and work of John Brown. John Brown was a man of violence; he would have scorned anybody's attempt to make him out anything else. And once a person is a believer in violence, it is with him only a question of the most effective way of applying it, which can be determined only by a knowledge of conditions and means at his disposal. John Brown did not shrink at all from conspiratorial methods. Those who have read the autobiography of Frederick Douglas and the Reminiscences of Lucy Colman, will recall that one of the plans laid by John Brown was to organize a chain of armed camps in the mountains of West Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, send secret emissaries among the slaves inciting them to flee to these camps, and there concert such measures as times and conditions made possible for further arousing revolt among the negroes.…

…And yet history has not failed to understand John Brown. Mankind knows that though he was a violent man, with human blood upon his hands, who was guilty of high treason and hanged for it, yet his soul was a great, strong, unselfish soul, unable to bear the frightful crime which kept 4,000,000 people like dumb beasts, and thought that making war against it was a sacred, a God-called duty, (for John Brown was a very religious man—a Presbyterian).

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.


Most of the anarchists in the U.S. in the early twentieth century were either individualist or revolutionary. De Cleyre is unusual in that she combined the two forms. She was part of a long libertarian tradition in the nation. As de Cleyre occasionally noted in her writings, she joined the founding fathers in stressing the sanctity of the individual. The majority of anarchists, though, did not have deep American roots. Although de Cleyre was native-born, anarchism particularly appealed to immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. These Italians and Russians tended toward revolutionary anarchism and they are the ones who engaged in campaigns of bombings and shootings against industrialists and political leaders. The anarchists, as de Cleyre did, argued passionately about peaceful methods versus confrontational tactics.

The assassination of President William McKinley by anarchist Leon Czolgosz in 1901 was a confrontational tactic that ultimately doomed the anarchist movement. The murder confirmed the public image of anarchism as a foreign menace. While anarchists continued to write and organize, the audience for anarchist thought declined. Many anarchists were deported in 1919 as dangerous aliens. The Red Scare of the 1920s effectively halted all anarchist activity. By this time, de Cleyre was dead. The short span of her life is generally blamed as the reason why she has been overlooked in histories of the anarchist movement in the U.S., unlike her far-better-known contemporary Emma Goldman.



Avrich, Paul. An American Anarchist: The Life of Voltairine de Cleyre. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978.

DeLamott, Eugenia C. Gates of Freedom: Voltairine de Cleyre and the Revolution of the Mind. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2004.

Marsh, Margaret S. Anarchist Women, 1870–1920. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1981.

Direct Action

views updated May 17 2018

Direct Action


Direct action is a method and a theory of confronting objectionable practices and/or effecting social change using readily available means. Such action is usually contrasted with indirect forms of social and political participation such as voting. Protest demonstrations, mass rallies, strikes, boycotts, workplace occupations, and riots constitute examples of such action.

The first mention of the term is in the realm of labor struggles. In his book Direct Action (1920), William Mellor defined direct action as the use of some form of economic power for the securing of ends desired by those who possess that power (p. 15). Mellor considered direct action a tool of both employers and workers. Accordingly, he included within his definition lockouts as well as strikes. Since the late twentieth century, however, direct action has come to be increasingly associated with challenges to established societal practices and institutions by marginalized groups.

The power of direct action depends largely on its contentiousness, or the extent to which it bypasses or violates the routine conflict resolution procedures of a political system. Whereas such action can be used by recognized actors employing well-established means of claim making, substantial short-term political and social change more often emerges from the congruence of newly self-identified political actors with innovative forms of claim making. Most campaigns for social changenotably those seeking to expand the suffrage, protect civil rights, and improve working and living conditionsemploy direct action repertoires.

Direct action outside of the political process is usually juxtaposed to institutionalized, routine, and/or regularized forms of social and political participation. Accordingly, one of the most commonly drawn distinctions is whether such action is carried out in a peaceful or forceful manner. Violent direct action, it is often assumed, is more contentious than nonviolent direct action because the former exhibits a high threshold of social transaction costs. Nonviolent direct action, on the other hand, has proved effective in highly repressive settings due to its unpredictability and transformative power.

Nonviolent direct action has been developed into a theory of civil disobedience by civil movements around the world. Pioneered by the American author Henry David Thoreau in his 1849 essay Civil Disobedience, it encompasses the active refusal to obey the laws of a government or an occupying power without resorting to physical violence. It has been used effectively by nonviolent resistance movements in the fight for independence in India, in South Africa in the fight against apartheid, and by the civil rights movement in the United States.

The mechanisms that make direct action contentious are then complex. First, there are social actors who are limited in the forms of action that are available to them, and expressions of discontent that are strictly bound to specific social or economic groups. Secondly, the political opportunities that countries make available and the resources that citizens bring to bear on this form of politics vary greatly around the world.

As of 2005, more than half of the worlds nations held regular multiparty elections, more than at any time in history. As societies democratize, political opportunities increase, making direct action more routine. With the spread of democratization, some have argued, the protest demonstration has become a modular form of direct action available to multiple groups.

SEE ALSO Civil Disobedience


Bond, Douglas, J., Craig Jenkins, Charles L. Taylor, and Kurt Schock. 1997. Mapping Mass Political Conflict and Civil Society: Issues and Prospects for the Automated Development of Event Data. The Journal of Conflict Resolution 41 (4): 553579.

Carter, April. 1971. Direct Action and Liberal Democracy. New York: Harper.

Mellor, William. 1920. Direct Action. London: L. Parsons.

Sharp, Gene. 1973. The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Boston: Porter Sargent.

Tarrow, Sidney G. 1994. Power in Movement: Social Movements, Collective Action, and Politics. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

José A. Alemán