Today, the term direct action conjures up images of Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and the anti-war movement that were tired of waiting for their oppressors to give up their power and stop what they were doing. It may even bring to mind street demonstrations or civil disobedience actions where people deliberately get arrested. Originally, however, direct action was an anarchist cry and it meant the direct action of workers against their employers, through sabotage of the workplace, slowdowns, strikes, and other forms of economic harm. This is different than what came to be known as civil disobedience. In anarchist direct action, there was no moral rule to be arrested, or to not harm property (a monkey wrench in an assembly line is direct action to slow down production) as there has been in civil disobedience. Tired of waiting for politicians to get around to passing laws that would make working conditions better, workers began to form unions, and to find ways to hurt the profits of the businesses that had them in their grip. Since corporations and the business people who lead them only really cared about profits, anarchists thought that the best way to bring these people to the negotiating table, was not to write a letter to Congress or to endlessly appeal to the better nature of the business person, but to put economic pressure on them. Direct action, as anarchists understood it, was not tied to terrorism or to today’s rules about the civility of protest.
Mikhail Bakunin at that time stated, “Over the last nine years, the International [Marx's organization] has developed more than enough ideas to save the world—if ideas alone can save the world—and I defy anyone to invent a new one. It is no longer the time for ideas but for deeds and acts.” Bakunin had in mind that the proletariat would unite and begin to take economic action against their employers. It had nothing to do with terrorism or violence against people.
Today, the world is in dire need of a renewed commitment to direct action, broadened and freed from the hackneyed protest movements of the past few decades that demand people submit to the police and act according to the script the “leaders” demand. The only people who have so far risen to that challenge are the anarchists. In particular, the anarchists associated with environmental movements such as Earth First!, like Edward Abbey, or animal liberation groups have shown what a nonviolent (that is, not harming people) movement committed to direct action should look like.
Articles for further reading:
King, Tiffany “Puppets, Pageantry and Protest Politics: White People and the Anti-War Movement.” In Our Culture, Our Resistance: People of Color Speak Out on Anarchism, Race, Class and Gender, edited by Ernesto Aguilar: http://www.illvox.org, 2004.