‘Sabotage’ by Austin Lewis from International Socialist Review. Vol. 11 No. 4. October, 1910.

‘Sabotage’ by Austin Lewis from International Socialist Review. Vol. 11 No. 4. October, 1910.

NEW factor is arising to complicate or perhaps to simplify the labor struggle. It has a slang French name, because it arose first in France in a practical form, and because there is at least one French paper “La Guerre Sociale” devoted to its propaganda. Sabotage is in brief the destruction of the property of employers by employees in pursuance of a definite revolutionary policy.

Austin Lewis.

Such property may belong to the Government or to an individual. All capitalistic property is indeed the object against which the French anti-militarists under the leadership of Gustav Hervé direct their efforts.

Soldiers are called upon to destroy the arms and the equipment of the government, and to render useless the materials of war as far as they can venture to do so. They are directed to lose necessary mechanical parts of the rifles and guns, and to throw out of gear the myriad mechanical contrivances upon the harmonious relations of which the success of any army may depend.

In short Sabotage is a means by which the anti-militarists aim at the crippling of militarism through the destruction or disarrangement of the military machine at the hands of the soldiers.

To most, the propaganda of Sabotage will appear fantastical and indeed horrible, for this crippling of the military machine will naturally seem to be entirely traitorous and in all ways abominable.

The shocked discoverer of such will however console himself with the reflection that so utterly immoral and so despicable and detestable a course of conduct could not possibly find sufficient adherents to make it dangerous. It will appear to him as a manifestation of abnormality, as evidence of degeneracy, which may perhaps find some few crazy adherents, as did the “propaganda of the deed” but which could never be sufficiently powerful to be dangerous.

There the uninformed would be wrong, for Sabotage on the anti-military side has made great strides and has found many disciples, particularly in the ranks of the French army. Material of war has been destroyed on many occasions and in one notable instance the regimental flag was thrown down and trodden under foot by a marching regiment.

The anti-military propaganda is carried on by means of pamphlets and leaflets which are distributed among the soldiers of the European armies and are extensively read. They are not without their effect. For, instances of Sabotage have multiplied and what might be called the proletarian peace propaganda in contra distinction to that of the Hague and the agitation in which Mr. Andrew Carnegie is such a conspicuous figure makes considerable headway. It is reported that the British Navy is not exempt from the results of this agitation. It is stated on good authority that guns on board British ships have been tampered with by the crews, and that it was found necessary to suspend the crew of one warship because of the effects of this propaganda.

So far nothing of the sort has been reported in this country. The Socialists agitation however among the crews of the warships is pretty constant and it is well known that the crew of more than one United States vessel is thoroughly permeated with Socialist doctrines, and that a flourishing Socialist group exists on board. In fact, at the Socialist dances and picnics near the Bay of San Francisco, the presence of blue jackets has ceased to be a noticeable phenomenon, so common has it become.

Of course, it will be readily conceded that the mere fact of Socialist propaganda does not of itself imply Sabotage, but it does certainly imply the development of the peace propaganda among the proletariat in military service for this is an essential of the Socialist movement.

This matter of Sabotage in pursuance of the anti-military propaganda finds some justification at the hands of those who might at least be expected to condemn it. Some allowance, must of course be made for the fact that the troubles of our neighbors are regarded philosophically even by the most altruistic of us, and in the present condition of world-politics the average Briton or German can view the destruction of French arms even with a mitigated enthusiasm. The foreign apologist, particularly if he is an American or a Briton, bases his defense of Sabotage upon the fact that military service is compulsory and that the conscript is obliged to serve against his will and without his consent. He is held to the work and is practically a slave while in the service and hence his destruction of the machines of war is not to be regarded with wonder. In short, the inhabitant of the voluntary service country declares that there is no contract between the private soldier and the government and hence the destruction of arms, while deplorable is not altogether unreasonable particularly in view of the peace propaganda.

But there are deeper reasons. The destruction of arms is in pursuance of a definite propaganda against militarism and represents effort to aid a specific class, the proletarian class, and is a defiance of one‘s own country in favor of one’s own class, even though the members of that class belong to a country other than that of the Sabotage manifestant and in deed may by force of circumstances be— come an invader of the country of the manifestant.

It is class against patriotism, it is not a peace demonstration in its essence; for the manifestants would unquestionably fight in a revolutionary attack upon the dominant capitalism. It is a demonstration against the power of capitalism, as represented in the government, and in favor of the proletariat.

Viewed from this aspect Sabotage cannot appear as the unreasonable destructive act of the fanatics but becomes at once invested with the dignity of a great movement, even if the method appears shocking and tends to violate our pre conceived notions of what is ethical.

The motive is everything. If the motive of the Sabotage manifestant be such as has been above set forth, his actions are justified in terms of his motive; he develops a new ethical sanction, and has a new conscience, to-wit: a class conscience. an international class conscience, in place of the usual patriotic, national conscience which has hither to been general.

Sabotage in pursuance of the anti-military propaganda may therefore be a sign of the growth towards a realization of the identity of class interest by the international proletariat, a practical illustration of that tendency of the proletariat to base its actions upon an identity of interest and thus worth many parliamentary discussions and many Congresses in favor of international peace. For it is obvious that the proletariat and particularly the armed proletariat has in its own hands the question of peace and war. Thus Sabotage while not literally fulfilling the biblical prophecy with respect to making agricultural implements out of weapons of warfare at least tends to render the latter useless.

As to Sabotage against the instruments of production in the hands of the employing capitalists, how does such a propaganda appeal to the average citizen? He views it with even greater loathing than he does Sabotage of military equipment, and the reasons for such dislike are very obvious. Sabotage constitutes an attack upon private property, which is the most sacred thing in the eyes of the law and in the estimation of the ordinary person. The destruction of such property is necessarily therefore a heinous crime. More over the practice of Sabotage becoming common the very existence of the capitalist class is at stake. If disputes between capitalists and workmen are to involve the destruction of machinery and the material dislocation of plants and equipment, it is obvious that the capitalist class is placed hors de combat at the very beginning of the struggle. For organized action on the part of the employees prior to a strike or lockout could render the whole plant practically worthless even if it fell into the hands of scabs.

Now the destruction of machinery and of equipment in times of strikes is no new thing; every strike of any magnitude always involves a certain degree of violence directed against the property of the capitalists. It could not be otherwise as long as men are men and subject to emotion. But there is a very marked difference between reckless and individual acts of rage directed against property in time of excitement and industrial disturbance and what is contemplated in Sabotage. Sabotage is a cool, preconcerted and organized destruction of property in the pursuance of a definite end, as a means of war, and for a specific purpose.

In fact the term destruction used in connection with Sabotage may not be and indeed in the vast majority of in stances is not applicable, for Sabotage may easily imply merely the rendering of machinery used in capitalistic production in effective for that specific purpose and thus may be simply regarded as a sort of auxiliary to the boycott. As the latter is intended to prevent the capitalist from using available human material in capitalist production except upon such terms as seem good to the workers at a given time, so sabotage is intended to prevent the use of machinery, products of labor, except on terms agreeable to the working class.

It will be thus readily seen that there is a world of difference between the modern notion of sabotage in labor disputes and the machine smashing which marked the beginning of the modern industrial epoch. They are not based on the same grounds. Their object is different, the one was the desperate act of beaten men, the other might be a means of victory in the hands of a winning class.

Such a view of the employment of sabotage evidently recommends itself to “La Guerre Sociale” as appears from recent advice given in that paper. A strike of railroad men pending, the journal in question states that a mobilization would be ordered in the neighborhood of the strike; the railroad men in the reserves would thereupon be called to the colors, and being under military orders and in uniform would be compelled to engage in the operation of the road under conditions against which they had rebelled.

Under these circumstances “La Guerre Sociale” after giving some advice as to how the men should conduct themselves in the event of this military demonstration added that they should leave the machinery “in good order.” The implication is obvious. The question is was the advice under the circumstances vicious and immoral? It seems to the writer that in the given state of facts the advocates of Sabotage might successfully make out a case.

When we leave the realm of abstract ethics and come to actual cases we find that beyond any doubt the condition of machinery at the time of a strike might be determinative of the issue of the struggle. This is particularly true of mining and other industries where mere abstention from care of machinery may cause such a dislocation as to effectually cripple a plant and render a speedy settlement of the trouble necessary from the employer’s standpoint. Thus Louis Duchez writing recently of the United Mine Workers strike says “If the men in Illinois and every other State had come out to a man; if no union man had been per mitted to work while the strike was on; and no non-union man to the extent of our power, either; if we had disregarded property rights to the extent of permitting machinery below to cover up with water and be destroyed, if we had looked after our own interests instead of the operators, long before this the strike would have been won, and we would have had an organization twice as large as it is today. and many, many times more powerful and effective. If we had pursued these tactics the unorganized would have come out in large numbers with us.” The importance of passive Sabotage at least is here fully recognized.

It would be hard for those who approve of anti-military Sabotage to find arguments against industrial Sabotage. The argument in one case is as good as in the other. If there is an absence of contract in the one case there is in the other also. for compulsion to work for an employer whether one will or not is a mark of the position of the latter-day proletariat.

However, such questions are settled not by abstract ethics or by abstract legality, but by practical utility and if it once dawns upon organized labor that Sabot age is an effective instrument in furthering the objects of labor organization there is little doubt that we shall see its employment very widely extended.

The International Socialist Review (ISR) was published monthly in Chicago from 1900 until 1918 by Charles H. Kerr and critically loyal to the Socialist Party of America. It is one of the essential publications in U.S. left history. During the editorship of A.M. Simons it was largely theoretical and moderate. In 1908, Charles H. Kerr took over as editor with strong influence from Mary E Marcy. The magazine became the foremost proponent of the SP’s left wing growing to tens of thousands of subscribers. It remained revolutionary in outlook and anti-militarist during World War One. It liberally used photographs and images, with news, theory, arts and organizing in its pages. It articles, reports and essays are an invaluable record of the U.S. class struggle and the development of Marxism in the decades before the Soviet experience. It was closed down in government repression in 1918.

PDF of issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/isr/v11n04-oct-1910-ISR-gog-Corn-OCR.pdf

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