Skip to main content

"Used Sabotage, But Didn't Know What You Called It"

Sabotage is for the workingman an absolute necessity. Therefore it is almost useless to argue about its effectiveness. When men do a thing instinctively continually, year after year and generation after generation, it means that that weapon has some value to them. When the Boyd speech was made in Paterson, immediately some of the socialists rushed to the newspapers to protest. They called the attention of the authorities to the fact that the speech was made. The secretary of the socialist party and the organizer of the socialist party repudiated Boyd. That precipitated the discussion into the strike committee as to whether speeches on sabotage were to be permitted. We had tried to instill into the strikers the idea that any kind of speech was to be permitted; that a socialist or a minister or a priest, a union, organizer, an A. F. of L. man, a politician, an I. W. W. man, an anarchist, anybody should have the platform. And we tried to make the strikers realize. "You have sufficient intelligence to select for yourselves. If you haven't got that, then no censorship over your meetings is going to do you any good." So they had a rather tolerant spirit and they were not inclined to accept this socialist denunciation of sabotage right off the reel. They had an executive session and threshed it out and this is what occurred.

One worker said, "I never heard of this thing called sabotage before Mr. Boyd spoke about it on the platform. I know once in a while when I want a half-day off and they won't give it to me I slip the belt off the machine so it won't run and I get my half day. I don't know whether you call that sabotage, but that's what I do."

Another said, "I was in the strike of the dyers eleven years ago and we lost. We went back to work and we had these scabs that had broken our strike working side by side with us. We were pretty sore. So whenever they were supposed to be mixing green we saw to it that they put in red, or when they were supposed to be mixing blue we saw to it that they put in green. And soon they realized that scabbing was a very unprofitable business. And the next strike we had, they lined up with us. I don't know whether you call that sabotage, but it works."

As we went down the line, one member of the executive committee after another admitted they had used this thing but they "didn't know that was what you called it!" And so in the end democrats, republicans, socialists, all I. W. W.'s in the committee voted that speeches on sabotage were to be permitted, because it was ridiculous not to say on the platform what they were already doing in the shop.

And so my final justification of sabotage is its constant use by the worker. The position of speakers, organizers, lecturers, writers who are presumed to be interested in the labor movement, must be one of two. If you place yourself in a position outside of the working class and you presume to dictate to them from some "superior" intellectual plane, what they are to do, they will very soon get rid of you, for you will very soon demonstrate that you are of absolutely no use to them. I believe the mission of the intelligent propagandist is this: we are to see what the workers are doing, and then try to understand why they do it; not tell them it's right or it's wrong, but analyze the condition and see if possibly they do not best understand their need and if, out of the condition, there may not develop a theory that will be of general utility. Industrial unionism, sabotage are theories born of such facts and experiences. But for us to place ourselves in a position of censorship is to alienate ourselves entirely from sympathy and utility with the very people we are supposed to serve.

Sabotage and "Moral Fiber"

Sabotage is objected to on the ground that it destroys the moral fiber of the individual, whatever that is! The moral fibre of the workingman! Here is a poor workingman, works twelve hours a day seven days a week for two dollars a day in the steel mills of Pittsburg. For that man to use sabotage is going to destroy his moral fiber. Well, if it does, then moral fiber is the only thing he has left. In a stage of society where men produce a completed article, for instance if a shoemaker takes a piece of raw leather, cuts it, designs it, plans the shoes, makes every part of the shoes, turns out a finished product, that respresents to him what the piece of sculpturing represents to the artist, there is joy in handicraftsmanship, there is joy in labor. But can anyone believe that a shoe factory worker, one of a hundred men, each doing a small part of the complete whole, standing before a machine for instance and listening to this ticktack all day long -- that such a man has any joy in his work or any pride in the ultimate product? The silk worker for instance may make beautiful things, fine shimmering silk. When it is hung up in the window of Altman's or Macy's or Wanamaker's it looks beautiful. But the silk worker never gets a chance to use a single yard of it. And the producing of the beautiful thing instead of being a pleasure is instead a constant aggravation to the silk worker. They make a beautiful thing in the shop and then they come home to poverty, misery, and hardship. They wear a cotton dress while they are weaving the beautiful silk for some demi monde in New York to wear.

I remember one night we had a meeting of 5,000 kiddies. (We had them there to discuss whether or not there should be a school strike. The teachers were not telling the truth about the strike and we decided that the children were either to hear the truth or it was better for them not to go to school at all.) I said, "Children, is there any of you here who have a silk dress in your family? Anybody's mother got a silk dress?" One little ragged urchin in front piped up, "Shure, me mudder's got a silk dress."

I said, "Where did she get it?" -- perhaps a rather indelicate question, but a natural one.

He said, "Me fadder spoiled the cloth and had to bring it home."

The only time they get a silk dress is when they spoil the goods so that nobody else will use it; when the dress is so ruined that nobody else would want it. Then they can have it. The silk worker takes pride in his products! To talk to these people about being proud of their work is just as silly as to talk to the street cleaner about being proud of his work, or to tell the man that scrapes out the sewer to be proud of his work. If they made an article completely or if they made it all together under a democratic association and then they had the disposition of the silk -- they could wear some of it, they could make some of the beautiful salmon-colored and the delicate blues into a dress for themselves -- there would be pleasure in producing silk. But until you eliminate wage slavery and the exploitation of labor it is ridiculous to talk about destroying the moral fiber of the individual by telling him to destroy "his own product." Destroy his own product! He is destroying somebody else's enjoyment, somebody else's chance to use his product created in slavery. There is another argument to the effect that "If you use this thing called sabotage you are going to develop in yourself a spirit of histility, a spirit of antagonism to everybody else in society, you are going to become sneaking, you are going to become cowardly. It is an underhanded thing to do." But the individual who uses sabotage is not benefiting himself alone. If he were looking out for himself only he would never use sabotage. It would be much easier, much safer not to do it. When a man uses sabotage he is usually intending to benefit the whole; doing an individual thing but doing it for the benefit of himself and others together. And it requires courage. It requires individuality. It creates in that workingman some self-respect for and self-reliance upon himself as a producer. I contend that sabotage instead of being sneaking and cowardly is a courageous thing, is a good job, how many of you would risk it to employ sabotage? Consider that and then you have the right to call the man who uses it a coward -- if you can.

Limiting The Over-Supply of Slaves

It is my hope that the workers will not only "sabotage" the supply of products, but also the over-supply of producers. In Europe the syndicalists have carried on a propaganda that we are too cowardly to carry on in the United States as yet. It is against the law. Everything is "against the law," once it becomes large enough for the law to take cognizance that it is in the best interests of the working class. If sabotage is to be thrown aside because it is construed as against the law, how do we know that next year free speech may not have to be thrown aside? Or free assembly or free press? That a thing is against the law, does not mean necessarily that the thing is not good. Sometimes it means just the contrary: a mighty good thing for the working class to use against the capitalists. In Europe they are carrying on this sort of limitation of product: they are saying, "Not only will we limit the product in the factory, but we are going to limit the supply of producers. We are going to limit the supply of workers on the market." Men and women of the working class in France and Italy and even Germany today are saying, "We are not going to have ten, twelve and fourteen children for the army, the navy, the factory and the mine. We are going to have fewer children, with quality and not quantity accentuated as our ideal who can be better fed, better clothed, better equipped mentally and will become better fighters for the social revolution." Although it is not a strictly scientific definition I like to include this as indicative of the spirit that produces sabotage. It certainly is one of the most vital forms of class warfare there are, to strike at the roots of the capitalist system by limiting their supply of slaves and creating individuals who will be good soldiers on their own behalf.

Sabotage a War Measure

I have not given you are rigidly defined thesis on sabotage 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 invent, the more sabotage they are going to develop. Sabotage is not, however, a permanent weapon. Sabotage is not going to be necessary, once a free society has been established. Sabotage is simply a war measure and it will go out of existence with the war, just as the strike, the lockout, the policeman, the machine gun, the judge with his injunction, and all the various weapons in the arsenals of capital and labor will go out of existence with the advent of a free society. "And then," someone may ask, "may not this instinct for sabotage have developed, too far, so that one body of workers will use sabotage against another; that the railroad workers, for instance, will refuse to work for the miners unless they get exorbitant returns for labor?" The difference is this: when you sabotage an employer you are sabotaging somebody upon whom you are not interdependent, you have no relationship with him as a member of society contributing to your wants in return for your contribution. The employer is somebody who depends absolutely on the workers. Whereas, the miner is one unit in as society where somebody else supplies the bread, somebody else the clothes, somebody else the shoes, and where he gives his product in exchange for someone else's; and it would be suicidal for him to assume a tyrannical, a monopolistic position, of demanding so much for his product that the others might cut him off from any other social relations and refuse to meet with any such bargain. In other words, the miner, the railroad worker, the baker is limited in using sabotage against his fellow workers because he is interdependent on his fellow workers, whereas he is not materially interdependent on the employer for the means of subsistence.

But the worker will not be swerved from his stern purpose by puerile objections. To him this is not an argument but a struggle for life. He knows freedom will come only when his class is willing and courageous enough to fight for it. He knows the risks, far better than we do. But his choice is between starvation in slavery and starvation in battle. Like a spent swimmer in the sea, who can sink easily and apathetically into eternal sleep, but who struggles on to grasp a stray spar, suffers but hopes in suffering -- so the worker makes his choice. His wife's worries and tears spur him forth to don his shining armor of industrial power; his child's starry eyes mirror the light of the ideal to him and strengthens his determination to strike the shackles from the wrists of toil before that child enters the arena of industrial life; his manhood demands some rebellion against daily humiliation and intolerable exploitation. To this worker, sabotage is a shining sword. It pierces the nerve centers of capitalism, stabs at its hearts and stomachs, tears at the vitals of its economic system. It is cutting a path to freedom, to ease in production and ease in consumption.

Confident in his powers, he hurls his challenge into his master's teeth -- I am, I was and I will be --

"I will be, and lead the nations on, the last of all your hosts to meet,
Till on your necks, your heads, your crowns, I'll plant my strong, resistless feet.
Avenger, Liberator, Judge, red battles on my pathway hurled,
I stretch forth my almighty arm till it revivifies the world."