This much is certain: Marxists have never favoured sabotage as a form of political action capable of advancing the class struggle towards the goal of ending capitalism.
The fate of sabotage in the Marxist imagination was more or less sealed by Engels’ and Marx’s assessment of Luddite machine-breaking during the onset of industrial capitalism in the 19th century (See Hobsbawn 1952). In his path-breaking account of the working class in Victorian England, Engels concluded of machine-breaking and factory destruction that, “This form of opposition was isolated, restricted to certain localities, and directed against one feature only of our present social arrangements. When the momentary end was attained, the whole weight of social power fell upon the unprotected evil-doers and punished them to its heart’s content, while the machinery was introduced none the less. A new form of opposition had to be found” (Engels 2009, 222). Two decades later, Marx would reiterate this assessment in Volume I of Capital, lamenting that the “enormous destruction of machinery” in England during this period served only to provide authorities with “a pretext for most reactionary and forcible methods” of quelling working class revolt. He continues: “It took both time and experience before the workpeople learnt to distinguish between machinery and its employment by capital, and to direct their attacks, not against the material instruments of production, but against the mode in which they are used” (Marx 1978, 404).
Thus, the essential lines of the Marxist position on sabotage were established. Sabotage indulges the appetite for immediate, local and temporary relief from the symptoms of capitalist exploitation by destroying its instruments. It reflects the irrationality of an immature, undisciplined working class prone to self-defeating action in the absence of political leadership informed by a deeper theorization of material conditions and the dynamics of history. This appraisal set the stage for a history in which sabotage became the bête noire of organized working-class movements committed to a Marxist-inspired political trajectory of unionization, strike, party, revolution, and state power.1 This antagonism was not limited to Europe and North America. In 1988, for example, the valiant South African trade unionist Nimrod Sejake decried the ANCs call for sabotage against the apartheid state and economy as “dangerous to the revolution, self-defeating and an act of desperation.” Advocating for strike tactics that would culminate in seizure, not destruction, of the means of production, Sejake argued that sabotage signalled “the inability of workers in that place or at that time to unite and use their collective power…sabotage is the method of individuals or isolated groups who divert attention away from the real task – which is to organise and mobilise the working class to use its full social power in mass actions” (Sejake 1988, 86-7).2
Sabotage has been largely disavowed by Marxists, but it has nevertheless persisted alongside related forms of direct, disobedient and disruptive action in the history of militancy and social struggles everywhere (see for example Fox Piven 2006; Scott 1985). Within the context of workers’ movements, sabotage has figured prominently in the anarchist, syndicalist and autonomist traditions in both theory and practice (see Pouget 1913; Negri 1979; Graeber 2009). Beyond workers’ struggles narrowly defined, sabotage has also been a core tactic in slave resistance, anti-colonial liberation struggles, indigenous militancy, the women’s movement, the militant liberalism of hackers and whistleblowers, and radical environmentalism.3 Saboteurial tactics used in these contexts have exceeded those historically associated with the specific acts of machine-breaking that drew the scorn of Marx and Engels, and have included forms—such as, for example, the general strike—that many would identify with the advance of the workers’ struggle. This suggests that those wishing to theorize the shape and potential of contemporary forms of militant political action would do well to pay more attention to the category of sabotage (and its analogues) than more narrow Marxist accounts might allow.
Among the many things to be learned from serious consideration of the history and philosophy of sabotage is that it cannot be reduced to violence and destruction, despite the tendency to do so by both the institutional left and the authorities of capitalist states. In 1916, legendary IWW organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn described sabotage as “the conscious withdrawal of the workers’ industrial efficiency” (Gurley Flynn 2014). The “conscious withdrawal of efficiency” can take many forms, most of which can be considered violent only from a perspective that equates disruption of capitalist value accumulation with violence. Indeed, as most critical accounts of sabotage have pointed out, if sabotage is the conscious withdrawal of efficiency, then capitalist business owners are the greatest saboteurs of all.4 This suggests that sabotage – the strategic disruption of established regimes of accumulating value and power by subtracting from their efficiency—might provide insight into the basic logic of politics in capitalist settings, across the multiple relationships of inequality that structure them.
This is the implication of Evan Calder Williams’ observation that sabotage “is not an operation with a definite content, but an exacerbated relation” (Calder Williams 2016). In Williams’ account, “sabotage is not just present in but is constitutive of capitalism,” and all that stands between sabotage that consolidates capitalist hegemony and sabotage that unravels it is a “fine thread of deviation” (Ibid.). To make sabotage the name for transformative political potential in the context of contemporary capitalism – across the multiple relations of inequality and domination characteristic of capitalist societies – is to affirm the tendency of systems to produce the energies and harbour the agencies of their own undoing. We might recall Marx and Engels here: “not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons… What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers” (Marx and Engels 1972). Marx also taught that in order for political action to be historically effective, it has to take forms appropriate to the material conditions with which it is confronted. Actually-existing capitalism no longer produces the forms of effective working class action – trade unions, strikes, working-class parties – associated with its earlier periods. Multiple social, economic and technological factors have contributed to this condition. But, what about the saboteurs – those who are positioned to pull fine threads of deviation in order to exacerbate relations (exploitation, racism, sexism, etc.) that already compromise the “efficiency” of the system in a decisive way? Those whose saboteurial actions might produce erosion, if not revolution, particularly under conditions in which capitalism relies for its functioning on articulated infrastructures that it cannot police or secure perfectly? These grave-diggers are, potentially, everywhere.
ReferentiesCalder Williams, Evan. 2016. “Manual Override.” The New Enquiry, March 21, 2016.
Dubois, Pierre. 1979. Sabotage in Industry. New York: Penguin 1979.
Engels, Friedrich. 2009. The Condition of the Working Class in England. Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks.
Fox Piven, Frances. 1985. Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Graeber, David. 2009. Direct Action: An Ethnography. Oakland: AK Press.
Gurley Flynn, Elizabeth. 2014. “The Conscious Withdrawal of the Workers’ Industrial Efficiency.” In Direct Action and Sabotage: Three Classic IWW Pamphlets from the 1910s, 89-115. Oakland: PM Press.
Hobsbawm, E. J. 1952. “The Machine Breakers.” Past & Present 1: 57-70.
Ihonvbere, Julius O. 1992. “Resistance and Hidden Forms of Protest Amongst the Petroleum Proletariat in Nigeria.” In Midnight Oil: Work, Energy, War, 1973-1992, edited by Midnight Notes Collective, 91-105. New York: Autonomedia.
Marx, Karl. 1978. Capital, Volume I. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. 1972. “Manifesto of the Communist Party.” In The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert Tucker. New York: Norton.
Negri, Antonio. 1979. “Capitalist Domination and Sabotage.” In Working Class Autonomy and the Crisis, edited by Red Notes. Red Note/CSE Books.
Pouget, Emile. 1993. Sabotage. Introduction by Arturo Giovannitti. London: Charles Kerr Co.
Noten1] See Dubois 1979, especially Chapter 3 “Theories: For and Against Sabotage”, 97-126.
2] It bears noting that while the ANC’s sabotage campaign undoubtedly contributed to bringing down apartheid, it did not succeed in the establishment of anything resembling a workers’ state.
3] A list of references to works representing each of these categories would be too long. For one example that crosses several of them, see Ihonvbere 1992.
4] Thus, in a famous passage, Thorstein Veblen (1921) describes the capitalist economy as “a voluminous running administration of sabotage”.
Darin Barney is the Grierson Chair in Communication Studies at McGill University. He is the author and editor of several scholarly works including, most recently, The Participatory Condition in the Digital Age (University of Minnesota Press: 2016). Barney’s current research focuses on materialist approaches to media and communication, infrastructure and radical politics.