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On Sabotage

The history of sabotage as a suppressed tool of the labor movement, and what it can bring to a new generation of climate activism. 

R.H. Lossin15 February 2021

On Sabotage

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“Property,” writes Andreas Malm, “will cost us the earth.” And so it is property that we must disassemble if the earth is to remain intact. Most social justice movements are committed to a particular philosophy of non-violence, according to which physical force is never justified, the destruction of property is politically counterproductive, and violence alienates potential allies. So to suggest, as Malm does, that it may be time to blow up a pipeline, is tantamount to heresy.

There are tactical reasons to embrace sabotage. It should be difficult, expensive, and even dangerous to poison a community’s water supply. Sabotage is also effective. As Malm shows, it has been central to many movements that have achieved significant social change. Suffragettes, for example, smashed a lot of windows.

So why are we convinced, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that sabotage is an unacceptable and ineffective tactic? One answer is that it threatens the very notion of private property—the bedrock of all of our social relationships. To commit an act of sabotage is to announce that you do not recognize the legitimacy of property rights; to expose the relationship between politics, morality, and the economic order; and to abandon the liberal illusion that discourse undermines (property-based) power relations. Because private property constitutes the very conditions of our material existence, its destruction exposes a limit to our collective political imagination. Sabotage reconfigures our sense of political possibility. It is therefore not so surprising that the word itself was criminalized and the organization that first championed its use in the United States, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), brutally repressed.

Very few workers went to jail for committing acts of sabotage but thousands were arrested for talking about it. The practice of sabotage was not new in the early twentieth century, but the word was, and there was something distinctly threatening about naming the disparate, rebellious practices of disgruntled workers. Sabotage gave an intellectual coherence and revolutionary meaning to activity that could easily be interpreted as irrational, impulsive, and apolitical. Much like the IWW itself, it organized the disorganized and legitimated what appeared illegitimate.

In an effort to legitimate an organization that was often dismissed as childish, immature, ineffective, disorganized and violent, New Left historians such as Philip Foner and Melvyn Dubofsky have made great efforts to distance the IWW from sabotage. “It is easy,” Foner writes “to be carried away by slogans, songs and stories of sabotage, and it is extremely difficult to separate rhetoric from practice.”[i] But it should be noted that this is only a problem if “separating rhetoric from practice” is the operational framework for analysis. Even if instances of sabotage by IWW members are difficult to locate and impossible to positively quantify, it is in no way misleading to give pride of place to an idea that was, if briefly, central to the writings, speeches and overall project of the IWW itself.[ii] There is simply too much evidence of sabotage—regardless of what it is called—to claim that it played a minor role in labor conflict. Workers were employing sabotage long before the IWW began to advocate it and they continued to employ it long after the word fell out of use. Proof of sabotage is notoriously difficult to produce (it is illegal, done in secret, and difficult to distinguish from mistakes and technical failures), but this does not mean it is a fiction.

Sabotage, as both a theory and a practice encompassed a critique of property, industrial progress, efficiency, and centralized bureaucratic control that enriched understandings of class conflict in the industrialized United States of the early twentieth century. It destabilized the well-established association between industrial efficiency and social progress by negatively reimagining that progress as something external to technological development and productive capacity. Indeed, it suggested that social progress would be achieved by the interruption of industrial progress, the disruption of production and the violation of property rights. Sabotage inverted one of modernity’s foundational myths: “the story of the industrial revolution . . . as the triumph of new techniques, and the inevitable march of progress.”[iii] According to Walker Smith, editor of The Industrial Worker, the word “sabotage” was so terrifying that the employer class did not even want to utter it for fear that the working class would learn what it was.[iv] This would appear to be true. Legal efforts to literally take the word out of circulation through the passage of state-level laws that made speaking or writing about “sabotage” a felony, began in earnest with the US entrance into World War I.

Sabotage made its way into the American vocabulary by 1907 at the latest—two years after the founding convention of the IWW was held in Chicago.[v] It appeared in both Solidarity and the Industrial Worker for the first time in 1910. In 1913 it was the subject of a 13-part article. A whole set of direct action tactics were brought together under the rubric “sabotage” and given an intellectual coherence and revolutionary meaning they had heretofore lacked. It also transformed the lack of a union contract into an asset. Unlike trade-unionists, IWW members were not hamstrung by agreements that obligated workers to, in effect, protect employer property.

At the level of individual actions sabotage was an impossibly capacious category. Quoting a pamphlet on its English predecessor the “Go Canny,” Pouget wrote that it consisted in “systematically applying the formula: ‘Bad wages, bad labour.’” The following example from an 1889 railwaymen’s strike—which Pouget claimed was the first manifestation of sabotage as sabotage in France—was an open threat by the union to “put the locomotives in such a condition as to make it impossible to run them.”[vi] Sabotage was, in one example, precisely what it is typically understood to be: “a little sand or emery in the gear of those machines which like fabulous monsters mark the exploitation of the workers,” to render them “palsied and useless.”[vii] In another example, sabotage was merely pickets to prevent the circulation of trains. Or the changing of patterns before a strike in a fur factory. Printers could send uncorrected proofs to print and mix up cases of type. Wasting materials was another means of sabotage, reportedly practiced by Parisian bill posters who added tallow candles to their paste and used twice as much as was necessary. Painters could dilute and condense colors and anyone in a service industry or professional position could practice open mouth sabotage by announcing to consumers the “frauds and trickeries” of their employers.

Workers could clock in and out for fellow workers; or the time clock itself might “have the unaccountable habit of getting out of order.”[viii] Sabotage could thus be a secret show of solidarity amongst workers. It could also be symbolic and even whimsical. Smith gives us an account of a farmer who, having replaced a striking crew, visits his farm to find that the union men he had unknowingly hired had planted “1000 young trees . . . upside down, their roots waving to the breeze as mute evidence of solidarity and sabotage.” Or, a “gang of section men working on a railroad” might respond to a cut in their wages by having “two inches cut from the scoops” of their shovels and return to work with the proclamation “short pay, short shovels.”[ix] It was reported that during a strike in California's Imperial Valley, “every car on the local sidetrack Tuesday night, had its air hose cut. IWW labels were also pasted on every glass of the many paned windows of the passenger depot.”[x]

Apocryphal or not, the examples were both vindicating and plausible. Whether carried out by a group or an individual “by reason of his strong class desires,” sabotage was an expression of working class solidarity and “working class solidarity is simply the result of a consciousness of power.”[xi] In self-reinforcing fashion, practicing sabotage allowed workers to experience this power. So although “sabotage may mean the direct destruction of property” or “indirect destruction through organized inefficiency” or, conversely “may proceed from a greater degree of efficiency than is desired by the employing class” the thing that made it sabotage and not vandalism was its “power to solidify labor.” The practice itself gave way to “a consciousness of economic might [that] springs from the knowledge . . . that employers have no force save that given by the labor of the slave class.”[xii]

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Jack Miller, an itinerant agricultural laborer, explained how sabotage could be used by workers to control the length of their workday. For Miller, the distinction between the “conscious withdrawal of efficiency” and the destruction of property was immaterial. Interrupting the rhythm of machinery by disabling it was the withdrawal of efficiency. “Sabotage meant the conscious withdrawal of worker efficiency. You might be working on a threshing machine. If you threw the bundles fast and in a certain way, there would be a lot of waste. Teeth in the machine might get broken off and the stacker could get clogged. The farmer saw that he would get less wheat in twelve hours than he could get in eight if we were working with more efficiency.”[xiii]

Flynn likewise argued that sabotage was “the withdrawal of worker efficiency” in any form: “Sabotage means either to slacken up and interfere with the quantity, or to botch in your skill and interfere with the quality . . . or to give poor service.”[xiv] But in the end, sabotage could not be precisely delineated. There could be no program of sabotage properly speaking because it was always contingent. “I have not given you a rigidly defined thesis on sabotage,” Flynn wrote: “...because sabotage is in the process of making. Sabotage itself is not clearly defined. Sabotage is as broad and changing as industry, as flexible as the imagination and passions of humanity. Every day workingmen and women are discovering new forms of sabotage, and the stronger their rebellious imagination is the more sabotage they are going to develop.”[xv] To lay out a program of sabotage would be as pointless as laying out a program for production in all industries or defining invention once and for all.

Costly property damage and machine wrecking were certainly among the many practical meanings that sabotage could have. Mike Davis argued that the reason for “continued agitation around the idea of the workers’ right to employ retaliatory property destruction as a tactic, whether actually used or not, was to demystify the sanctity of property and teach workers the methods of protracted struggle.”[xvi] Sabotage, even when only threatened “taught an invaluable lesson in political economy.”[xvii] What IWW pamphleteers and orators did by advocating sabotage was to translate the socialist claim that workers should own the means of production into the simple claim that they did own them and could therefore act on this presumption with justification. Property destruction was more than justifiable retaliation—in this scheme it was the assertion of preexisting, if not legally recognized, property rights. It might have been “legal for the bourgeoisie to keep [the instruments of production] in accordance to its own laws” but they had in fact been pilfered from the working class. “If it is just and right to force the capitalist to grant us certain concessions by withdrawing our labor and remaining inactive, why is it not equally just to render equally inactive our own machines, made by our own selves?”[xviii]

Sabotage was, as Davis points out, a critique of property relations, but it was also a set of recommendations. It was a form of strong-arming that could be implemented when strikes failed and workers returned to work. It offered a type of rebellion that was sometimes more desirable than a walkout if replacement workers were readily available and could be implemented by individuals and small groups in the absence of widespread organization. Its most visible iterations are not, therefore, an accurate means of assessing its occurrence.

Sabotage was certainly not the way to win the class war, but it was more than a pedagogical tool. The Industrial Worker repeatedly encouraged it and occasionally gave specific instructions. One small item suggests that emery or any other gritty substance such as sand or glass will cause bearings to heat, and soap or washing powder will disable a boiler. It warns that putting lye in a boiler will only “benefit the boss by removing the scale.”[xix] Presumably this is meant to correct a piece of circulating misinformation and it does not seem unreasonable to infer that disabling boilers was a common enough practice that at least one worker had screwed it up. The Industrial Worker also gleefully reported that the Socialist Party’s recent membership clause banning sabotage was violated when arc light wires of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company were cut during an electrical workers strike in San Francisco.[xx] The paper reported incidents of stalled trains with boilers full of oil, encouraged lumber workers to spike timber, and insisted that the threat spiking posed to the sawyers was invented by someone who had never seen a sawmill.

Sabotage was, in the final analysis, justified as a legitimate response to an inherently illegitimate system of property claims. “Imagine,” wrote Louis Moreau in 1911, “the accidental breaking of machinery or costly tools. Bum work. . . . Deliberate blunders, delays, blockading of the means of transportation: in fact thousands of devices can be used to create havoc. . . . If we cannot get all we produce, why let others have it?”[xxi]

The avoidance of sabotage as a subject and the near disappearance of the word from labor history (replaced by “direct action”) seem to bear out Smith’s pronouncement that it is so dangerous that it can’t be mentioned. Sympathetic historians have unconsciously repeated and reinforced the systematic state repression of the philosophy of sabotage by attempting to distance the organization from its advocacy. Variously proclaiming that it played a minor role, entirely ignoring it, attributing its advocacy to a handful of violent anarchists at the fringes of the organization and, most insidiously, declaring that it was “merely” speech rather than a practical tool for economic organization and resistance. In a sense this could be seen as an internalization of the logic of the prosecution and thus maintained what Kristin Ross has dubbed a “police conception of history,” the repetition of the injunction to move along because there is “nothing to see here.”

But there is something to see. By avoiding sabotage we not only willfully ignore large amounts of writing, we suppress an argument about the relationship between violence and property that remains useful and reinforce the liberal consensus that protest must be nonviolent—that property destruction is always illegitimate. Sabotage was not simply another word for direct action but a carefully articulated, radical critique of capitalist social relations that was inseparable from its existence as a tactic. Among other things, sabotage provided, and more important, enacted, a critique of private property.

When climate activists shut valves and destroy pipelines, when they set fire to heavy machinery owned by oil companies, they assert their rights to this infrastructure and their rights to the land and air and water that it is destroying. It is what I have referred to elsewhere as “prefigurative expropriation”; a momentary, but informative and empowering challenge to the economic system of private property and the morality that it produces. Sabotage, as its earliest proponents understood, is a powerful threat to the owning class and this is precisely what the climate movement needs.


[i] Foner, History of the Labor, Vol. 4, 162.

[ii] As a continuous and secret form of shop-floor rebellion and control sabotage was difficult to locate and prove. In a rare book-length study of industrial sabotage in France, sociologist Pierre Dubois settled for indirect evidence, writing that the first sign of sabotage may be a “proliferation of controllers and repair workers” and the second “large-scale wastage of raw materials.” Even blatantly destructive sabotage such as machine wrecking is hard to trace as the culprits may remain unknown and companies may decline to prosecute. Again, Dubois suggests that sabotage might be inferred from “the amount of time machinery is in use, records of quality, [and] reprimands for defective work.” Sabotage is a form of worker resistance that evades managerial control at a practical and a discursive level. Pierre Dubois, Sabotage in Industry, trans. Rosemary Sheed (New York: Penguin, 1979), 13–14.

[iii] Maxine Berg, The Machinery Question and the Making of Political Economy, 1815–1848 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 9.

[iv] Walker Smith, Sabotage: Its History Philosophy and Function (Chicago: I.W.W. Publishing Bureau, 1913), Section VII. Retrieved from October 1, 2015.

[v] “Urge Workmen to Sabotage,” Detroit Free Press, April 28, 1907.

[vi] Pouget, Sabotage, 20.

[vii] Ibid., 44.

[viii] Ibid., 10.

[ix] Ibid., 11.

[x] Thom M. Dodson, “Sabotage is Working,” Industrial Worker, November 16, 1911.

[xi] Smith, Sabotage, 13.

[xii] Ibid., 14.

[xiii] Stewart Bird, Dan Georgakas, and Deborah Shaffer, Solidarity Forever: An Oral History of the I.W.W. (Chicago: Lake View Press, 1985), 39.

[xiv] Flynn, Sabotage, 5.

[xv] Ibid., 29.

[xvi] Davis, “The Stopwatch and the Wooden Shoe,” 83.

[xvii] Ibid., 84.

[xviii] Pouget, Sabotage, 13.

[xix] Industrial Worker, July 3, 1913.

[xx] Industrial Worker, June 12, 1913.

[xxi] “The Weapon Which Wins,” Industrial Worker, February 23, 1911.


R.H. Lossin writes about labor, libraries, technology, contemporary art, and American radicalism. Her work has appeared in The Nation, New Left ReviewSalvageBoston ReviewJacobinArt AgendaThe Brooklyn Rail, and New York Review Daily. She holds a PhD in Communications from Columbia University and teaches at The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.

This article is an extract from a longer piece, "No Interests in Common: Sabotage as Structural Analysis", forthcoming in The Journal for the Study of Radicalism vol. 15, no. 1. It is part of the Verso Roundtable on How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire. You can find the rest of the series here

How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire by Andreas Malm is one of our January and February Book Club reads: a carefully curated selection of books that we think are essential and necessary reading. All our Book Club memberships are 50% off for the first 3 months. Find out more here.

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