Simply because it is effective and it has a radicalising impact on those who practice it. As it is based on people acting for themselves, it shatters the dependency and marginalisation created by hierarchy. As Murray Bookchin argues, “[w]hat is even more important about direct action is that it forms a decisive step toward recovering the personal power over social life that the centralised, over-bearing bureaucracies have usurped from the people … we not only gain a sense that we can control the course of social events again; we recover a new sense of selfhood and personality without which a truly free society, based in self-activity and self-management, is utterly impossible.” [Toward an Ecological Society, p. 47]

By acting for themselves, people gain a sense of their own power and abilities. This is essential if people are to run their own lives. As such, direct action is the means by which individuals empower themselves, to assert their individuality, to make themselves count as individuals. It is the opposite of hierarchy, within which individuals are told again and again that they are nothing, are insignificant and must dissolve themselves into a higher power (the state, the company, the party, the people, etc.) and feel proud in participating in the strength and glory of this higher power. Direct action, in contrast, is the means of asserting ones individual opinion, interests and happiness, of fighting against self-negation:

“man has as much liberty as he is willing to take. Anarchism therefore stands for direct action, the open defiance of, and resistance to, all laws and restrictions, economic, social and moral. But defiance and resistance are illegal. Therein lies the salvation of man. Everything illegal necessitates integrity, self-reliance, and courage. In short, it calls for free independent spirits, for men who are men, and who have a bone in their back which you cannot pass your hand through.” [Emma Goldman, Red Emma Speaks, pp. 61–62]

In addition, because direct action is based around individuals solving their own problems, by their own action, it awakens those aspects of individuals crushed by hierarchy and oppression — such as initiative, solidarity, imagination, self-confidence and a sense of individual and collective power, that you do matter and count as an individual and that you, and others like you, can change the world. Direct Action is the means by which people can liberate themselves and educate themselves in the ways of and skills required for self-management and liberty. Hence:

“anarchists insisted that we learn to think and act for ourselves by joining together in organisations in which our experience, our perception and our activity can guide and make the change. Knowledge does not precede experience, it flows from it… People learn to be free only by exercising freedom. [As one Spanish Anarchist put it] ‘We are not going to find ourselves… with people ready-made for the future… Without continued exercise of their faculties, there will be no free people… The external revolution and the internal revolution presuppose one another, and they must be simultaneous in order to be successful.’” [Martha Ackelsberg, Free Women of Spain, pp. 32–33]

So direct action, to use Murray Bookchin’s words, is “the means whereby each individual awakens to the hidden powers within herself and himself, to a new sense of self-confidence and self-competence; it is the means whereby individuals take control of society directly.” [Op. Cit., p. 48]

In addition, direct action creates the need for new forms of social organisation. These new forms of organisation will be informed and shaped by the process of self-liberation, so be more anarchistic and based upon self-management. Direct action, as well as liberating individuals, can also create the free, self-managed organisations which can replace the current hierarchical ones. In other words, direct action helps create the new world in the shell of the old:

“direct action not only empowered those who participated in it, it also had effects on others… [including] exemplary action that attracted adherents by the power of the positive example it set. Contemporary examples… include food or day-care co-ops, collectively run businesses, sweat equity housing programmes, women’s self-help health collectives, urban squats or women’s peace camps [as well as traditional examples as industrial unions, social centres, etc.]. While such activities empower those who engage in them, they also demonstrate to others that non-hierarchical forms of organisation can and do exist — and that they can function effectively.” [Martha Ackelsberg, Op. Cit., p. 33]

Also, direct action such as strikes encourage and promote class consciousness and class solidarity. According to Kropotkin, “the strike develops the sentiment of solidarity” while for Bakunin it “is the beginnings of the social war of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie… Strikes are a valuable instrument from two points of view. Firstly, they electrify the masses, invigorate their moral energy and awaken in them the feeling of the deep antagonism which exists between their interests and those of the bourgeoisie… secondly they help immensely to provoke and establish between the workers of all trades, localities and countries the consciousness and very fact of solidarity: a twofold action, both negative and positive, which tends to constitute directly the new world of the proletariat, opposing it almost in an absolute way to the bourgeois world.” [cited in Caroline Cahm, Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism 1872–1886, p. 256, pp. 216–217]

Direct action and the movements that used it (such as unionism) would be the means to develop the “revolutionary intelligence of the workers” and so ensure “emancipation through practice” (to use Bakunin’s words).

Direct action, therefore, helps to create anarchists and anarchist alternatives within capitalism and statism. As such, it plays an essential role in anarchist theory and activity. For anarchists, direct action “is not a ‘tactic’… it is a moral principle, an ideal, a sensibility. It should imbue every aspect of our lives and behaviour and outlook.” [Murray Bookchin, Op. Cit., p. 48]

An Anarchist FAQ (11/17) | The Anarchist Library