Direct Action & Sabotage: Three Classic IWW Pamphlets from the 1910s

Direct Action & Sabotage: Three Classic IWW Pamphlets from the 1910s


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The pamphlets reprinted here were first published in the 1910s amid great controversy. Even then, the tactics of direct action and sabotage were often associated with the cartoonists’ image of the disheveled, wild-eyed anarchist armed with stiletto, handgun, or bomb—the clandestine activity of a militant minority or the desperate acts of the unorganized.

The activist authors of the texts in this collection challenged the prevailing stereotypes. As they point out, the practices of direct action and sabotage are as old as class society itself and have been an integral part of the everyday work life of wage-earners in all times and places. To the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) belongs the distinction of being the first workers’ organization in the U.S. to discuss these common practices openly, and to recognize their place in working-class struggle. Viewing direct action and sabotage in the spirit of creative nonviolence, Wobblies readily integrated these tactics into their struggle to build industrial unions.

Direct action is recognized as a valuable and effective tactic by many movements around the globe and remains a cutting-edge tool for social change. Whenever communities in struggle find more conventional methods of resistance closed to them, direct action and sabotage will be employed.

This new edition from the Charles H. Kerr Library contains “Direct Action and Sabotage” (1912) by William E. Trautmann, “Sabotage: Its History, Philosophy & Function” (1913) by Walker C. Smith, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s “Sabotage: The Conscious Withdrawal of the Workers’ Industrial Efficiency” (1916), edited and with an introduction by Salvatore Salerno.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781604864823
Publisher: PM Press
Publication date: 03/01/2014
Series: The Charles H. Kerr Library
Pages: 120
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, “The Rebel Girl” (1890–1964) was a labor leader, activist, and feminist who played a leading role in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Flynn was a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union and a visible proponent of women’s rights, birth control, and women’s suffrage.

Walker C. Smith was a leading member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), who wrote and edited socialist newspapers, philosophical tracts, pamphlets, satirical plays, and even verse. Smith regularly went on speaking tours to promote the cause of the Wobblies and recruit new members. Since Smith was a “noted IWW agitator,” police arrested him frequently for his union activities. Smith’s most famous pamphlet, Sabotage, was used by courts throughout the United States as evidence that members of the IWW union were guilty of criminal syndicalism for simply belonging to the union. Though Sabotage was probably Smith’s most widely distributed pamphlet, his most famous work was The Everett Massacre, a book intended to reveal the injustices committed against the working classes of Everett, Washington.

William Ernst Trautmann was a leading theorist and founding general secretary-treasurer of the IWW and one of six people who initially laid plans for the organization in 1904. Between 1905 and 1912 he mostly worked in the field as an organizer. In 1922 Trautmann published a novel, Riot, that drew on his experiences as an IWW activist during the Pressed Steel Car Strike of 1909 in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania.

Salvatore Salerno is the author of Red November, Black November: Culture and Community in the Industrial Workers of the World and has contributed articles to the Haymarket Scrapbook and many other publications. He is a professor on the Community Faculty staff of Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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Direct Action & Sabotage

Three Classic IWW Pamphlets from the 1910s

By Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Walker C. Smith, William E. Trautmann, Salvatore Salerno

Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company and PM Press

Copyright © 2014 PM Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60486-903-3


Direct Action and Sabotage

William E. Trautmann


A Street speaker, once being asked by a bystander, was pressed to answer whether the socialists approved of direct action and sabotage. "Oh no, no, they are opposed to it, they are denouncing it, it is an anarchist doctrine." Again the persistent bystander put the question. "What then is direct action, what is sabotage? It should be explained if so repulsive as a weapon of the workers in the warfare against the capitalist class." — "Destruction of human life by dynamite, of property with powder and other explosives, repetitions of McNamara outrages," was the cocksure reply. The crowd yelled approval, the craft unionists in that crowd nodded their heads as an impressive demonstration that the trades union principals were not to be held responsible for the McNamaras. A labor fakir or two yelled themselves hoarse exclaiming: "Gompers and the American Federation of Labor disapprove such methods as direct action and sabotage, it's the illegitimate organization, the Industrial Workers of the World, that preaches the use of direct action and sabotage, they ought to be outlawed." And a lonely member of the Socialist Labor Party added to it: "It's Haywood and his gang of anarchists who advocate 'Direct Action,' and other uncivilized methods, and therefore we of the Detroit Socialist Labor Party have repudiated them."

And these assurances by the "intellectual" fountain heads of the labor movement are passed unchallenged, and travel all over the country as indisputable facts. They form the basis for discussions and resolutions, and in the official records of many a body of workers these terms of "direct action" and "sabotage" are inscribed as meaning something that must be tabooed.

The matter is thus settled, until papers occasionally bring it to the notice of millions, for instance, that striking mine workers, in that or the other district, got the mine engineers and pumpmen to strike with them, and that as a result mines were flooded and could not be operated for weeks.

"Oh, that's right," says the street shouter this time; "all workers must quit together, and when Mr. Capitalist sees that there are no workers to protect property against deterioration by other than human efforts then he will soon squeal and give in." And in this apparent contradiction lies the admission that few only understand what "direct action" and "sabotage" really mean, what they imply, what forces are needed for their operation, what results are expected to be attained by the use of these methods, and it is only hoped that this treatise of the subject will be enlarged by others who are as staunch advocates of these methods as the author of this pamphlet is.


"The economic power of the capitalist class, used by that class for the oppression of labor ... in the nature of things can not be radically changed, or even slightly amended for the benefit of the working people, except through the direct action of the working people themselves, economically and politically united as a class."

— From the Preamble of the S.T. and L.A.

In this true statement of objects, the S.T. and L.A. proclaimed itself as the first labor organization which advocated direct action as the principal, as the only, method by which the economic power of the capitalist class could be radically changed or even slightly amended by the workers organized as a class.

But if the workers are supposed to organize as a class it presupposes that there must be another class. The latter, by the very nature of things, seeks to prevent this radical change or slight amelioration of conditions based on their economic power. This class, the capitalists, are secured in their economic power by the ownership of land, mines, factories and transportation utilities. These possessions, though, have no value in themselves. Human labor power must be applied to these economic resources before they yield value, and thereby also assure power to one class to determine the relationship of the other class who invest their labor power in these industrial possessions. This human labor power is obtained from the millions of toilers, for wages. Wages, though, only represent a small proportion of the value of a product created by the application of human efforts. The job of the workers in these economic possessions is the privilege to work for wages, and the job itself is an inseparable and indispensable part of the economic possessions of the employing class, and consequently also of their economic power.

This direct ownership of economic resources and control of economic power would oft be open to dispute. Therefore, infringements upon that domain of power must be prevented at all hazards. For this object political institutions are maintained and used to protect this industrial power of the capitalist class, with the aid of courts, police, militia, jails and legislative institutions.

The applied labor power of the working class is the most indispensable part of that economic power wielded by the employing class. Without that there would be no production, and without production there would be no economic power at all.

The workers instinctively, and millions now consciously, feel that they alone contribute to the making of this economic power for the class of non-producers. And they, consequently, strive to wrest that economic power away from the employing class, with means and methods that are either direct or indirect.

In these endeavors the workers meet, as a matter of course, the fierce opposition of the owners of economic resources and the wielders of economic power. And as the political institutions are operated to protect the latter in their power they use them to subdue any attempt to question, or efforts to infringe upon their domain of possessions and economic supremacy. They use the indirect methods of the agencies of legislation and institutions for the execution of their mandates and laws. Parliaments, courts, militia, police are used to prevent successful withdrawal, if possible, of the human laboring forces, which form the most indispensable part of their economic power, from the operation of the mechanical or other devices. Or they use them in the maintenance of their economic possessions to offer jobs to those who would not infringe upon their absolute domain, and who patiently acknowledge the employer's sovereignty over the life conditions of the millions who must have a job to live, the job, which though, forms the basic source of economic power for the oppression of the many, by the few.

The capitalist class uses the "indirect" method of political repression to check, if possible, direct actions on the part of the workers, that is, the withdrawal of their labor power and also their efficiency, from the workshops, the mines, land, etc. Only when he is assured of the use of that political agency in his behalf will he resort also to the direct action method, to wit: Throw the disgruntled workers out by a lockout.

Concluding from these observances that these political institutions and their consistent use for the purpose for which they were created, are the sole causes for the abuses and wrongs the workers suffer in the places of production, political reformers would advocate the capture of the political institutions. It is the easiest way of resisting the cruel abuse of political power. The workers, in large numbers, are told to base their hope in the change of the economic conditions on the application of indirect means, so to reach thereby, so they are told, the foundation of the economic power of the employing class. Political institutions in the control of the working class, and used for their own purposes, are hailed as the instruments by which the economic possession and industrial power of the capitalist class can be infringed upon and finally be overthrown. The conquest of political power is therefore, according to these statesmen, a prerequisite for effectually contesting the domain of economic power of the employers of labor, the job-owning class.

But political institutions are dependencies of economic possessions, and the political actions and the struggle for political positions for avowed purposes are therefore "indirect actions." For the materialization of such "indirect actions" organized efforts are necessary, and these organized efforts find their expression and combined strength in political organizations. The political organization of the working class, for instance, if it is to be a class organization, would therefore be a reflex only of the desire to gain control of the political institutions, the object being to wield them for purposes diametrically opposed to the economic interests of those holding the economic power by their possession of the means of production, exchange and the means of employment of wage labor, which, as shown before, constitutes the most indispensable part of the economic possessions of the capitalist class.

But in observing actual conditions and occurrences the workers perceive how the capitalists shut down plants, either by lockouts and or by compulsory suspensions as consequences of industrial panics, or as the result of the concentration process in industries and their management. In these cases the economic possessions deteriorate in value, even are void of any market value, as long as factories are not kept running and machines and other devices are not longer operated by human hands and supervised by human ingenuity.

Is it any wonder, therefore, that from the days that production by collective combination began, the workers became conscious of the important part they formed in the process of production? The job in the workshops, mines, farms and transportation instruments was the indispensable factor in the economic power of the capitalist class. The withdrawal from the job, the suspension of operation, the withdrawal of efficiency from that position of employment were therefore methods that suggested themselves as more direct, as aiming straight to the point and curtailing the economic power of the capitalist class, and thereby also reducing the efficiency of the political institutions wielded by them for the protection of their interests.

Those direct action methods are grouped and determined in their application according to the conditions in the various industries and industrial combinations. But not always are "direct actions" inaugurated for the social protection and advancement of the working class. The capitalists, quite often, knowing the immense power that the wage workers place in their own hands for the oppression of the working class, engage the direct actions of workers for the furthering of their own plans. Only when "direct actions" are applied in efforts to undermine the economic power of the employing class, are they essentially and socially useful and beneficial, no matter whether they are "direct actions" of individuals, or of combinations of workers.


The suppression of the rights of free speech, free assemblage and combination breeds the determination to apply direct action methods in their most violent forms. And their application is justified by such conditions, inevitably. The Russian individualist who uses explosives, responsible only to himself as an individual, may be abhorred by many, but still his action must be judged by the results he aims to achieve. If ultimately, after a long series of such violent and destructive direct actions they result in the removal of agencies of suppression and oppression his direct action is socially useful.

But when the Russian autocracy uses agents and hirelings to impose on these individuals responsible to themselves only, and exploits them, unconsciously to themselves, for the furtherance of their own obscure and criminal designs, then the results, stamp such acts as anti-social direct actions.

In the possessions of the United States Steel Corporation, Jones and Laughlin, and others, the workers are denied, absolutely, the right to seek redress against appalling wrongs by organized efforts. The methods of repression are worse than those applied in most backward countries. Individual self-help is therefore an inevitable method to look for redress and the righting of wrongs.

One actual occurrence, out of hundreds that occur every year in the possessions of these corporations, will illustrate the point quite clearly. A former graduate of the Moscow university was compelled to escape the fangs of the Bloody Czar. Shortly after landing in America, he found employment in the Pressed Steel Car Company plant at McKees Rocks. The second strike in 1910 forced him out of employment. R ... ... went to Chicago and got a job in the Rolling mill of the United States Steel Corporation in Gary, Ind. There, as a common laborer, despite a university education, working twelve hours a day, he encountered the ill-will of an ignorant straw boss. The ignorant brutes employed by the corporations as overseers and bosses cannot bear to see an intelligent-looking face among the hordes of humanity who patiently and meekly bow to their tyrannic, overbearing commands and appalling impositions. The boss would make it hard for this worker, sneer at him, call him epithets to which the steel workers are getting well-nigh accustomed (they don't mind them any more). But this boss being treated by R ... ... with silent contempt, threw one day, by sheer accident, a heavy hammer on R ... ...'s feet. Laid up in Gary's Corporation hospital for weeks, and lucky to get out alive from that slaughter house, he went back to work and was, without protest on his part, assigned to the same job he occupied before, and under the same foreman. The latter would continue his abuses, until one day the foreman stood again in the gangway on which the workers drive on cranes the white heated ingots into the roll. He was purposely obstructing the road to force R ... ... who was due with his steel block, to switch aside when passing him. But the latter, purposely not noticing the boss drove the heavy ingot against the brute, and accidently the ingot fell upon the foreman, as accidently as he threw the hammer on the victim's feet, only that the last mentioned accident cost the foreman's life. Was this an act socially justifiable or not?

Let it be considered, according to best information and close personal observation, that half of these fatal accidents in the mills, in which human rights are completely ignored and suppressed, are the result of "individual direct actions." But it is certain also, that these actions suggest to thousands the application of more effective combined protest and resistance. And as the organized revolt is only the result of the series of individual direct actions, the latter under such conditions and in similar cases must be classified as socially beneficent and are therefore "social direct actions."

But, conversely, when human lives are sacrificed as a result of a combination of interests who further plans which, in the long run, are detrimental to the working class as a whole, though groups of them may derive immediate benefits, then the conclusion is different. When the Fuller Construction Company, backed by the Steel Trust, squeezed its competitors to the wall by using the Craft Unions of their employees, and their officials, to apply occasionally the most "explosive and violent direct action methods" it was, from the viewpoint of class-conscious workers, anti-social direct action. And when after this task had been accomplished, the Steel Trust set out to annihilate that same union that had been once so useful to them, and when the latter combined with other groups of manufacturers to stem the wave of destruction, and when, as a result thereof, the dynamite explosions blew out the life of workers who were not parties to these contests between former allies and later rivals, then this result must be judged from the effects it created on the entire working-class struggle to obtain possession and control of the job. The means, the end were detrimental, anti-social, criminal, and must therefore be classified under antisocial "direct actions."

In all these cases, however, we see "direct action," be it social or anti-social in character, applied by individuals. The destructive violent tendencies they often develop, are the results and the revolt against anti-social conditions. Whenever and wherever the industrial situation necessitates the amassing of large bodies of workers in given places, the individual is soon submerged in that great mass. But this mass would remain stagnant, stoic, were it not for the "actions" of individuals in a series of attacks against unbearable conditions. They are the yeast in the leaven preparing the cells for an amalgamation into compact material. In the long run these "individual direct actions" shatter the stability of capitalist absolute control of the job, the source of their economic power. Conversely, the self-assertions of individuals comes to an end when the masses begin to move. The masses in their claims struggles against wrongs and repressions beget the mass efforts and mass organizations.


Excerpted from Direct Action & Sabotage by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Walker C. Smith, William E. Trautmann, Salvatore Salerno. Copyright © 2014 PM Press. Excerpted by permission of Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company and PM Press.
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Table of Contents


Introduction — Salvatore Salerno,
Direct Action and Sabotage (1912) — William E. Trautmann,
Sabotage: Its History, Philosophy & Function (1913) — Walker C. Smith ,
Sabotage: The Conscious Withdrawal of the Workers' Industrial Efficiency (1916) — Elizabeth Gurley Flynn,
About the Editor and Authors,

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