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Depiction of the Belgian general strike of 1893. A general strike is an example of confrontational direct action.

Direct action is a term for economic and political behavior in which participants use agency—for example economic or physical power—to achieve their goals. The aim of direct action is to either obstruct a certain practice (such as a government's laws or actions) or to solve perceived problems (such as social inequality).

Direct action may include activities, often nonviolent but possibly violent, targeting people, groups, institutions, actions, or property that its participants deem objectionable. Nonviolent direct action may include civil disobedience, sit-ins, strikes, and counter-economics. Violent direct action may include political violence, assault, arson, sabotage, and property destruction.

Activities such as electoral politics, diplomacy, negotiation, and arbitration are not considered direct action because participants are elected or nominated, while practitioners of direct action operate with no public mandate.[citation needed]

Terminology and definitions

It is not known when the term direct action first appeared. Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset wrote that the term and concept of direct action originated in fin de siècle France.[1] The Industrial Workers of the World union first mentioned the term "direct action" in a publication about the 1910 Chicago strike.[2] American anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre wrote the essay "Direct Action" in 1912, offering historical examples such as the Boston Tea Party and the American anti-slavery movement, and writing that "direct action has always been used, and has the historical sanction of the very people now reprobating it."[3]

In his 1920 book Direct Action, William Mellor categorized direct action with the struggle between worker and employer for economic control. Mellor defined it "as the use of some form of economic power for securing of ends desired by those who possess that power." He considered it a tool of both owners and workers, and for this reason he included lockouts and cartels, as well as strikes and sabotage.[full citation needed]

By the middle of the 20th century, direct action expanded, and the term's meaning became more specific. [citation needed]

Canadian anarchist Ann Hansen, one of the Squamish Five, wrote in her book Direct Action that "the essence of direct action [...] is people fighting for themselves, rejecting those who claim to represent their true interests, whether they be revolutionaries or government officials".[4]


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20th century

Some sections of the anti-nuclear movement have used direct action, particularly during the 1980s. Groups opposing the introduction of cruise missiles into the United Kingdom employed tactics such as entering and occupying United States air bases and blocking roads to prevent the movement of military convoys and to disrupt projects.[citation needed]

Especially in the late 1980s and early 1990s, anti-abortion groups in the United States, particularly Operation Rescue, took direct actions.

Anti-globalization activists forced the Seattle WTO Ministerial Conference of 1999 to end early via direct action tactics and prefigurative politics.[5] Activists placed debris and their bodies between the WTO delegates and the building they were meant to meet in. Activists also engaged in property destruction to express their opposition to corporate culture.[citation needed]

21st century

On April 28, 2009, Greenpeace activists, including Phil Radford, scaled a crane across the street from the Department of State, calling on world leaders to address climate change.[6] Soon thereafter, they dropped a banner from Mount Rushmore, placing President Obama's face next to other historic presidents. The banner read: "History honors leaders. Stop global warming."[7] Also in 2009, following the Power Shift conference in Washington, D.C., hundreds blocked the gates of the coal-fired plant that powers the US Congress building.[citation needed]

Human rights activists have used direct action in the campaign to close the School of the Americas (SOA).[8] 245 SOA Watch protestors have collectively spent almost 100 years in prison, and more than 50 people have served probation sentences.

In the United States, direct action is increasingly used to oppose the fossil fuel industry, oil drilling, pipelines, and gas power plant projects.[9]


See also: List of direct action groups

Many campaigns for social change—such as those promoting suffrage, improved working conditions, civil rights, abortion-rights or anti-abortion, controls on gentrification, and environmental protection—claim to employ at least some types of violent or nonviolent direct action. Historical practitioners of direct action include supporters of the American civil rights movement, the global justice movement, women's suffrage, LGBT and other human rights movements, and certain environmental advocacy groups.[citation needed]

Anarchists organize almost exclusively through direct action,[10][11] which they use due to a rejection of party politics and a refusal to work within hierarchical bureaucratic institutions.[12][13]


Anarchists Against the Wall destroying fences at the Gaza–Israel barrier in 2007
Removing ballast from a train track to protest transport of nuclear waste by rail

Direct action protestors may perform activities such as:

Some protestors dress in black bloc, wearing black clothing and face coverings to obscure their identities.[17][18] Ende Gelände protestors wear matching white suits.[19]

One of Greenpeace's tactics is to install banners in trees or at symbolic places like offices, statues, nuclear power plants.[20]

Direct action protestors may also destroy property through actions such as vandalism, theft, breaking and entering, sabotage, tree spiking, arson, bombing, ecotage, or eco-terrorism.

Pranks may also be considered a form of direct action. Examples of direct action pranks include the use of stink, critter, and paint bombs.[21] Protestors may pie their targets.[21] The Yes Men practice nonviolent direct action through pranks.[22][23]

Some direct action groups form legal teams, addressing interactions with the law enforcement, judges, and courts.[24]

Violent and nonviolent direct action


Definitions of what constitutes violent or nonviolent direct action vary. Sociologist Dieter Rucht states that determining if an act is violent falls along a spectrum or gradient—lesser property damage is not violence, injuries to humans are violent, and acts in between could be labelled either way depending on the circumstances. Rucht states that definitions of "violence" vary widely, and cultural perspectives can also color such labels.[25]

American political scientist Gene Sharp defined nonviolent direct action as "those methods of protest, resistance, and intervention without physical violence in which the members of the nonviolent group do, or refuse to do, certain things."[26] American anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre wrote that violent direct action utilizes physical, injurious force against people or, occasionally, property.[3]

Some activist groups, such as Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front, use property destruction, arson, and sabotage and claim their acts are nonviolent as they believe that violence is harm directed toward living things.[25]

Nonviolent direct action

See also: Anarcho-pacifism, Gandhism, and Nonviolent resistance

Gandhi, Salt March 1930

American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who used direct action tactics such as boycotts and sit-ins, felt that the goal of nonviolent direct action was to "create such a crisis and foster such a tension" as to demand a response.[27]

Mahatma Gandhi's methods, which he called satyagraha,[28] did not involve confrontation and could be described as "removal of support" without breaking laws besides those explicitly targeted. Examples of targeted laws include the salt tax and the Asiatic Registration Act.[29][30][31] His preferred actions were largely symbolic and peaceful, and included "withdrawing membership, participation or attendance in government-operated [...] agencies."[32] Gandhi and American civil rights leader James Bevel were strongly influenced by Leo Tolstoy's 1894 book The Kingdom of God Is Within You, which promotes passive resistance.[33]

Other terms for nonviolent direct action include civil resistance, people power, and positive action.[34]

Violent direct action

See also: Propaganda of the deed

Examples of violent direct action may include rioting, lynching, terrorism, political assassination, freeing political prisoners, interfering with police actions, and armed insurrection.[citation needed]

Insurrectionary anarchism, a militant variant of anarchist ideology, primarily deals with direct action against governments. Insurrectionist anarchists see countries as inherently controlled by the upper classes, and thereby impossible to reform. While the vast majority of anarchists are not militant and do not engage in militant actions,[35] insurrectionists take violent action against the state and other targets. Most insurrectionary anarchists largely reject mass grassroots organizations created by other anarchists, instead calling for coordinated militant action to be taken by decentralized cell networks.[36] Insurrectionists call for the creation of anarchist mass societies through the seizing and invasion of land from the state, such as in EZLN or Rojava.

Fascism emphasizes direct action, including the legitimization of political violence, as a core part of its politics.[37][38]


While radical activism has been effective as part of the civil rights movement,[39] forceful or violent environmental sabotage (FVES) can have a "negative impact on voter attitudes toward all environmental organizations", though that effect is contingent on the organizations' prior record.[40]

In polls conducted in the United Kingdom, two thirds of respondents supported non-violent environmental direct action, while a similar percentage believed defacing art or public monuments should be criminalized.[41]

The question of engaging in radical protest is known as the "activist's dilemma": "activists must choose between moderate actions that are largely ignored and more extreme actions that succeed in gaining attention, but may be counterproductive to their aims as they tend to make people think less of the protesters."[42]

See also


  1. ^ Ortega y Gasset, José (1957). The Revolt of the Masses. W. W. Norton. p. 74. "When the reconstruction of the origins of our epoch is undertaken, it will be observed that the first notes of its special harmony were sounded in those groups of French syndicalists and realists of about 1900, inventors of the method and the name of 'direct action.'"
  2. ^ The I.W.W.: Its First Seventy Years, 1905–1975, Fred W. Thompson and Patrick Murfin, 1976, p. 46.
  3. ^ a b de Cleyre, Voltairine (1912). Direct Action  – via Wikisource.
  4. ^ Hansen, Ann. Direct Action: Memoirs of an Urban Guerrilla. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2001. ISBN 978-1-902593-48-7, p. 335
  5. ^ Fians, Guilherme (March 18, 2022). "Prefigurative politics". In Stein, Felix (ed.). Open Encyclopedia of Anthropology. doi:10.29164/22prefigpolitics. hdl:10023/25123. S2CID 247729590.
  6. ^ "First Day on the Job!". April 28, 2009. Retrieved 2013-08-09.
  7. ^ "Greenpeace Scales Mt Rushmore – issues challenge to Obama". Christian Science Monitor. July 9, 2009. Archived from the original on 2012-11-20. Retrieved 2013-08-09.
  8. ^ Gill, Lesley (2004). "Targeting the "School of the Assassins"". The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press. pp. 200–242. ISBN 978-0-8223-3392-0.
  9. ^ Lachmann, Richard (December 10, 2020). "Direct Action Can Beat Fossil Fuels When Democrats Won't". Truth Out. Archived from the original on 2020-12-10.
  10. ^ "Anarchism". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. 2018.
  11. ^ Graeber 2009, pp. 224–225.
  12. ^ Manicas, Peter T. (1982). "John Dewey: Anarchism and the Political State". Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society. 18 (2): 133–158. JSTOR 40319958.
  13. ^ Spicer, Michael W. (December 1, 2014). "In Pursuit of Liberty, Equality, and Solidarity in Public Administration". Administrative Theory & Praxis. 36 (4): 539–544. doi:10.1080/10841806.2014.11029977. S2CID 158433554.
  14. ^ Rich (July 14, 2014). "Making Lock-ons with Greenpeace • V&A Blog". V&A Blog. Retrieved 2023-02-14.
  15. ^ "2 German climate activists still hold out in tunnel in Lutzerath". Retrieved 2023-02-14.
  16. ^ "The eviction of Lützerath: the village being destroyed for a coalmine – a photo essay". The Guardian. January 24, 2023. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2023-02-14.
  17. ^ Lennard, Natasha (January 22, 2017). "Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer Punched--You Can Thank the Black Bloc". National Post.
  18. ^ "Black Bloc anarchists emerge". BBC News. January 28, 2013.
  19. ^ "Shut shit down ! An Activist's Guide of Ende Gelände". Ende Gelände. Retrieved 2023-02-14.
  20. ^ Bromwich, Jonah Engel (January 25, 2017). "Greenpeace Activists Arrested After Hanging 'Resist' Banner in View of White House". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2023-02-14.
  21. ^ a b direct action manual (PDF). earth first!. pp. 295–306.
  22. ^ "The Monkey-Wrench Prank: An Interview With Tim DeChristopher". Mother Jones. Retrieved 2023-08-14.
  23. ^ Dwyer, Devin (October 23, 2009). "Liberal Pranksters Use Stunts to 'Fix the World'". ABC News. Retrieved 2023-08-14.
  24. ^ Earth First!. Direct Action Manual! (PDF). pp. 10, 11.
  25. ^ a b Dieter Rucht. Violence and New Social Movements. In: International Handbook of Violence Research Archived 2014-07-07 at the Wayback Machine, Volume I. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2003, pp. 369–382.
  26. ^ Sharp, Gene (1980). Social Power and Political Freedom. Porter Sargent Publishers. p. 218. ISBN 0-87558-091-2.
  27. ^ King, Martin Luther Jr. (April 16, 1963). "Letter from Birmingham Jail". Archived from the original on 2011-08-26. Retrieved 2009-05-25.
  28. ^ Gandhi, M. K. (2012). Nonviolent Resistance (Satyagraha). Mineola, New York: Dover Publications.
  29. ^ M.K. Gandhi, Satyagraha in South Africa, Navajivan, Ahmedabad, 1111, pp. 94, 122, 123 etc.
  30. ^ Gandhi, M. K. "Pre-requisites for Satyagraha" Young India 1 August 1925
  31. ^ Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand (February 24, 1919). "Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi: Volume 17" (PDF). New Delhi: Publications Division, Government of India. p. 297. Retrieved 2022-03-12. in the event of these Bills becoming law and until they are withdrawn, we shall refuse civilly to obey these laws and such other laws as a Committee
  32. ^ Majmudar, Uma (2005). Gandhi's Pilgrimage of Faith: From Darkness to Light. SUNY Press. p. 175. ISBN 978-0-7914-6405-2.
  33. ^ Christoyannopoulos, Alexandre (2010). Christian Anarchism: A Political Commentary on the Gospel. Exeter: Imprint Academic. p. 19
  34. ^ "Nonviolent Action Defined". Global Nonviolent Action Database.
  35. ^ Finnell, Joshua; Marcantel, Jerome (2010). "Understanding resistance: An introduction to anarchism". College & Research Libraries News. 71 (3): 156–159. doi:10.5860/crln.71.3.8341.
  36. ^ Loadenthal, Michael (2015). The Politics of the Attack: A Discourse of Insurrectionary Communiqués (PDF) (Ph.D.). George Mason University. ProQuest 1695806756.
  37. ^ Payne, Stanley G. (1995). A history of fascism, 1914-1945. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. p. 106. ISBN 0-585-25197-5. OCLC 45733847.
  38. ^ Breuilly, John (1993). Nationalism and the state (2nd ed.). Manchester: Manchester University Press. p. 294. ISBN 0-7190-3799-9. OCLC 27768107.
  39. ^ Haines, Herbert H. (October 1984). "Black Radicalization and the Funding of Civil Rights: 1957-1970". Social Problems. 32 (1): 31–43. doi:10.2307/800260. JSTOR 800260.
  40. ^ Farrer, Ben; Klein, Graig R. (February 17, 2022). "How Radical Environmental Sabotage Impacts US Elections". Terrorism and Political Violence. 34 (2): 218–239. doi:10.1080/09546553.2019.1678468. hdl:1887/3238773. ISSN 0954-6553. S2CID 210558240.
  41. ^ Timperley, Jocelyn; Henriques, Martha (April 21, 2023). "The surprising science of climate protests". BBC. Retrieved 2023-08-25.
  42. ^ Davis, Colin (October 21, 2022). "Just Stop Oil: do radical protests turn the public away from a cause? Here's the evidence". The Conversation. Retrieved 2023-08-25.


Further reading