Sabotage: Violence, Theory, and Protest
The landscape of early 20th-century U.S. capitalism often resembled, quite literally, a battlefield. Before the widespread recognition of the right to strike and collectively bargain, when employers routinely sicced police and armed Pinkertons on gathering workers, labor activism took a form that, to contemporary eyes, perhaps appears irrational, hidebound, or disorganized: sabotage. Yet, far from a random series of impulsive acts, sabotage was—and can be—a systematic concept, containing within it a sophisticated analysis of class, property, power, and law. Alongside physical acts of sabotage, there emerged a vast literature of books, pamphlets, songs, and images that not only helped explicate sabotage theoretically, but also challenged the very ideals of capitalism’s “cult of productivity.” How can we understand the meaning and power of sabotage, not merely in the context of early 20th-century American capitalism, but also as a form and theory of protest? What can a study of sabotage teach us about changing norms surrounding private property, free markets, state power, and violence as a legitimate mode of protest and political practice?
In this course, we will explore the historical, philosophical, and political importance of sabotage. We will try to determine what sabotage is and how (or if) it can be distinguished from mere vandalism and other forms of violence; consider the relationship between coercion and worker control; critically examine the sanctity of private property; reflect on the role that immigration played in the formation and repression of the I.W.W. (the Wobblies); and use the I.W.W.’s philosophy of sabotage to think about the relationship between theory and practice. Readings will be drawn from an array of primary sources—from songs, images, and sabotage pamphlets to texts by progressive intellectuals such as Thorstein Veblen and Walter Lippmann and political socialists such as Eugene V. Debs—as well as from a number of historical accounts of progressive-era labor conflict. And, as we examine the ongoing use and importance of sabotage by workers and activists, we will ask: Why has sabotage disappeared from the twin discourses of worker organizing and labor history?
Course ScheduleTuesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
January 26 — February 16, 2021