SABOTAGE. A term borrowed from French syndicalists by American labor organizations at the turn of the century, sabotage means the hampering of productivity and efficiency of a factory, company, or organization by internal operatives. Often sabotage involves the destruction of property or machines by the workers who use them. In the United States, sabotage was seen first as a direct-action tactic for labor radicals against oppressive employers. The first organization to openly proclaim sabotage as a tactic, though by no means the only labor group to employ it, was the Industrial Workers of the World, known as the Wobblies. A Wobbly translated Sabotage by French syndicalist Émile Pouget and promulgated the various means of sabotage offered in the book and used by European radicals since the 1830s.
Though the Wobblies were the loudest advocates of sabotage tactics, such as playing dumb or tampering with machines, no state or federal authority ever established legal proof that they actually instigated sabotage. In fact, one historian has asserted that the American Federation of Laborers was linked more closely with industrial violence. Nevertheless, the Wobblies' association with syndicalism and socialism terrified industrialists, antisocialists, and other Americans who feared "red" infiltration of American society.
During World War I, American concern about sabotage turned to the military when operatives supported by the German government blew up the munitions supply terminal at Black Tom Pier on the New Jersey side of New York Harbor. Germany was hoping to coerce the United States into the war, a tactic that also involved the torpedoing of the Lusitania. The bombing at Black Tom in July 1916 and a second explosion at a shell manufacturing plant eight miles north in December broadened the definition of saboteur beyond socialists and anarchists.
In the 1950s, sabotage seemed to serve the purposes of workers as well as enemy nations when Americans believed that the Soviet Union was infiltrating United States labor and community organizations. In November 1950 the Herald Tribune reported that sardine cans discovered on a merchant marine ship were actually filled with how to manuals for short-circuiting electrical lines, burning vital transformers, and other forms of industrial sabotage.
In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, sabotage moved from the factory to cyberspace, as hackers frequently infiltrated computer systems to destroy data or embarrass companies. In one of the costliest acts of sabotage in American history, a computer programmer at a New Jersey engineering firm in 1998 allegedly planted a "computer bomb" that deleted software critical to the company's operations, leading to the loss of more than $10 million in sales and contracts. In the spring of 2001 hackers broke into California's electricity grid. There was little damage, but the system's vulnerability was apparent and embarrassing. Computer hackers, much like their syndicalist forerunners, developed their own antiauthoritarian culture based on infiltrating America's key computer systems. Though sabotage was originally a tactic promoted by intellectual subversives attacking specific economic and governmental systems in Europe, in America it became a tactic used by activists operating in numerous areas of society and for many different reasons.
Dreyfus, Suelette. Underground: Tales of Hacking, Madness, and Obsession in the Electronic Frontier. Kew, Australia: Mandarin, 1997.
Dubofsky, Melvyn. We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World. Abridged ed. Edited by Joseph A. McCartin. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
Witcover, Jules. Sabotage at Black Tom: Imperial Germany's War in America, 1914–1917. New York: Algonquin, 1989.
Sabotage is a deliberate act of destruction or work stoppage intended to undermine the activities of a larger entity, whether it is a business, government, or some other organization. The practice of sabotage, which has roots in the labor movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, gained military and political application during the world wars and thereafter. It has also been a part of covert operations, often undertaken by agents provocateur.
There were isolated examples in earlier times, but probably the first case of organized—albeit apparently spontaneous—sabotage involved the Luddites of late eight eenth century England. Confronted by nascent industriali zation and eager to hold on to their jobs, the Luddites destroyed labor-saving machinery. In 1910, striking French railway workers destroyed wooden railway ties or shoes, known as sabots, and from this act the word was coined. Ironically, a concept associated with labor movements was also used against organized labor by factory owners who hired agents provocateurs, infiltrators whose aim was to incite the local union to acts that would attract the attention of police.
In World War I, the Germans allowed Bolshevik leader V. I. Lenin to enter Russia through their territory, their intention being to sabotage the Russian leadership and pull the country out of the war—a gambit that succeeded. Although the Axis powers attempted to use sabotage against the United States, the most successful act of sabotage in World War II was the British and Norwegian effort to destroy the Germans' supply of heavy water, thus dashing Hitler's plans to build an atomic bomb.
During the postwar era, anticolonial movements in what came to be known as the developing world often used sabotage to remove Western influence. These acts ranged from the passive resistance to British rule by Indians under the leadership of Mohandas K. Gandhi, to the destruction of railway lines by revolutionaries fighting against the Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique. Communist-backed groups often used sabotage, although in Communist countries, any hint of real or imagined sabotage directed against the ruling system met with swift and severe punishment.
█ FURTHER READING:
Julitte, Pierre. Block 26: Sabotage at Buchenwald. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971.
Sayers, Michael, and Albert Eugene Kahn. Sabotage! The Secret War against America. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1942.
Witcover, Jules. Sabotage at Black Tom: Imperial Germany's Secret War in America, 1914–1917. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 1989.
Soviet Union (USSR), Intelligence and Security
sabotage [Fr., sabot=wooden shoe; hence, to work clumsily], form of direct action by workers against employers through obstruction of work and/or lowering of plant efficiency. Methods range from peaceful slowing of production to destruction of property. In 1897, French workers adopted sabotage as a general strategy. It was also used by the syndicalists (see syndicalism) and by the Industrial Workers of the World in the United States. It has been condemned by Communists and Socialists as counterrevolutionary because it often results in a wave of repressive measures. The term has also been used, notably by Thorstein Veblen, to refer to limitation of output by businessmen to enhance profits by maintaining scarcity of goods. In wartime it connotes nonmilitary enemy activity, by either foreign agents or native sympathizers, especially the physical damage of vital industries.
See also guerrilla warfare; terrorism.
See E. Pouget, Sabotage (1910, tr. 1913); S. B. Mathewson, Restriction of Output among Unorganized Workers (1931); E. Feit, Urban Revolt in South Africa, 1960–1964: A Case Study (1971).
The willful destruction or impairment of, or defective production of, war material or national defense material, or harm to war premises or war utilities. During a labor dispute, the willful and malicious destruction of an employer's property or interference with his normal operations.
The objective of sabotage is to halt all production, rather than to destroy or imperil human life. The original act of sabotage is thought to have occurred not long after the introduction of machinery when someone slipped a workman's wooden shoe, called a sabot, into a loom in order to stop production. Sabotage is a crime.
sab·o·tage / ˈsabəˌtäzh/ • v. [tr.] deliberately destroy, damage, or obstruct (something), esp. for political or military advantage. • n. the action of sabotaging something.