What Do We Mean by ‘Militancy’?

In his famous 1963 speech to the March on Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr., explicitly embraced “the marvellous new militancy” of the anti-racist struggle of those years. Praising its sensitivity to what he called “the fierce urgency of Now,” he went on to contrast this militancy favorably with “the tranquillizing drug of gradualism” that continued to plague the more reformist wing of the movement (King 1963a). By 1968, the year of his death, King’s radicalism and openness to militant forms of protest had, by all accounts, only intensified. And yet, in his final speech, on the night before his assassination, he reiterated his longstanding view that “we don’t need any bricks and bottles, we don’t need any Molotov cocktails” (King 1968a). Can these views be reconciled? Can one oppose “bricks, bottles and Molotov cocktails,” but welcome protest “militancy”? After all, it seems that it is precisely images of bricks, bottles and Molotov cocktails that many of today’s radical activists call to mind when they hear the word, “militancy.”


King, apparently, must have had something else in mind when he described the “new militancy” as “marvellous.” But what, exactly, did he mean by “militancy”? And is there any sense of the word “militant” that we today can all recognize as part of a shared political vocabulary — a common language within which to conduct needed conversations about the kinds of protest tactics that we want to promote in the context of the coming struggles against “austerity” and “retrenchment”?

In looking for a common language or shared vocabulary for talking about militancy, the question is not really, “what did King mean by militancy?” Rather, the question is, what do we need to be able to say, and to think, when we invoke this term? If we are conducting a debate about militancy, then what exactly are we arguing about?

The importance of this quest for a common language flows from the need to distinguish between two very different sorts of political disagreement over militant tactics. Sometimes debates about militancy are carried out between people who disagree about whether or not we should pursue militancy at all. There are some activists who reject militancy as such, on the grounds that it is too adversarial or divisive. Other debates, by contrast, unfold within a consensus that militant struggle is often defensible, or even “indispensable” (King 1967b), so that the disagreement is not about whether to engage in militant protest at all, but only about the specific forms of militancy that ought to be used under various circumstances. These two kinds of debate need to be carefully distinguished from each other.

King’s debate with other, more riot-friendly anti-racist activists in the 1960s is an excellent example. He rejected bricks, bottles and Molotov cocktails, but he embraced the radical tactic of the general strike (or “general work stoppage,” as he called it). He disavowed violence, but insisted on the need for illegal “direct action” against what he dubbed “the white power structure” (King 1963b). He also explicitly rejected capitalism (King 1963c; King 1967a), and demanded a “restructuring [of] the whole of American society,” in part because “the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together” (King 1967a). It was for these reasons that he insisted, “we need organizations that are permeated with mutual trust, incorruptibility and militancy,” adding that “militant organization” was “indispensable…to our struggle” (King 1967b). When he rejected riot-style tactics, therefore, it was not out of a rejection of radicalism in favor of gradualism, nor was it out of a rejection of militancy in favor of legalistic and non-confrontational forms of protest. Notwithstanding widespread attempts by today’s “opinion-makers” to depict him as a voice of moderation and reconciliation, King was in fact a radical anti-capitalist who embraced militancy, and who wanted to intensify conflict in order to stimulate far-reaching social change. But not just any form of militancy would do, for King. He preferred general strikes and illegal direct action (such as sit-ins and injunction-defying marches) over riots and sabotage. But these preferences are suitable material for a debate within the ranks of radicals advocating militancy, not a debate between radicals advocating militancy and non-radicals who reject militancy altogether.


It is worth pointing out that debates of this kind are not best understood in terms of a contrast between “more” and “less” militancy. Looking closer at some of King’s favored tactics, we see clearly that they are in no way “less militant” than the ones he rejected.

“You may have to escalate the struggle a bit,” he told a large crowd of striking workers and their supporters in March of 1968, just two weeks before his death. “If they keep refusing…, I tell you what you ought to do, and you are together here enough to do it: In a few days, you ought to get together and just have a general work stoppage in the city of Memphis….And you let that day come, and not [any of you] in this city will go to any job downtown. When [none of you] in domestic service will go to anybody’s house and anybody’s kitchen. When…students will not go to anybody’s school, and…teachers, and they will hear you then. The city of Memphis will not be able to function that day. All I’m saying is, you’ve got to put the pressure on.” He added: “If we will believe this, we will do this; we will win this struggle and many other struggles” (King 1968b).

Is breaking a window more militant than organizing a general strike? Is damaging property more militant than using economic disruption (or what King [in 1968a] calls “the power of economic withdrawal”) to ensure that “the city of Memphis will not be able to function”? Surely this is altogether the wrong way to think about it.

In any case, what we need, in order to have these kinds of debates among radical activists, is a shared understanding of the terms of this discussion. What is militancy? What are some of its basic forms? And what reasons might we have for embracing or opposing certain kinds of militancy, in certain contexts?

I want to advance toward this kind of shared understanding by offering three things. First, a proposed definition of militancy. Second, a list of what I think are the four basic “modes of militancy.” And finally, a reminder of the need to assess the merits of a proposed militant tactic along two axes, namely, its moral acceptability and its strategic efficacy.


If we are interested in finding a definition that does not pre-judge the outcomes of our debates about the merits of particular uses of militancy, but instead facilitates informed discussion about that question, then we need to find a definition that is quite broad, and relatively flexible. It should cover things like the general strike tactic proposed by King, but also many of the tactics that he rejected, such as window-breaking, a tactic in recent years associated with the “black bloc” formations within global justice protests.

It may look like no sufficiently general account of militancy, broad enough to cover both King’s general strike and the black bloc’s window-breaking, is likely to be found. But I think we can, in fact, identify a general concept of militancy that enables us both to highlight what these tactics have in common and to insist on noting what distinguishes them from one another.

As a general definition of militancy, I would propose this: an action or activity is “militant” just so long as it is (a) grievance-motivated, (b) adversarial, (c) confrontational and (d) collectively carried out. Lacking any of these traits, a political act may be many things, for good or ill, but it is not militant.

Let me explain each of these four basic traits of militant protest activity.

(a) Militancy is “grievance-motivated” in the sense that it is not solely recreational (thrill-seeking, like some non-protest vandalism, say), nor solely opportunistic (personal-gain-seeking, like some non-protest looting, for instance), but is rather motivated in some large part by a desire to protest against something, to press demands for change. Militancy, in short, is a type of political protest.

(b) Militant action is “adversarial” in the sense that its targets are not treated by the protesters as potential allies or partners, open to being convinced or won over, but rather as (at least for the time being) intransigent adversaries, to be pressured and if possible defeated by means of struggle.

(c) Militancy is “confrontational” in the sense that, rather than avoiding conflict and seeking accommodation and compromise, it seeks to initiate or intensify conflict. In King’s words, militancy “seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue” (King 1963b). Forms of political action that do not try to “foster tension” in this sense or to create what King calls a “crisis-packed situation” (King 1963b) are not properly seen as “militant,” whatever else they may be.

(d) Militancy, finally, is “collectively carried out” in that it is not, or at least not in the typical cases, performed by individuals acting alone, but by participants in social struggles, acting in concert with their fellow protesters. Sometimes individuals may be said to perform militant actions “on their own,” in some sense, as long as they are doing so in the context of and as part of a wider social struggle or movement, such as when Rosa Parks was jailed for defying the law and a police officer’s order by refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger, an act undertaken partly in a personal capacity, but partly in her capacity as an anti-racist activist and a participant in the Civil Rights Movement (since Parks was Secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP). Cases like this, clearly, are in some sense still forms of collective action, consistent with the present account of militancy.

Militancy, to sum up, may be defined as grievance-motivated, adversarial and confrontational collective action.


As the selectiveness of King’s embrace of militancy suggests, militant action comes in a variety of types or “modes,” as I will call them. I think four modes of militancy can be clearly identified, which can be undertaken discretely, or combined in various ways.

Note that the intention here is to present these modes of militancy in value-neutral terms, setting aside (for now) the question of whether or in what circumstances they may be justifiable to deploy.

(1) Symbolic defiance: In this mode of militancy, the protester communicates defiance by means of ‘symbolic’ or ‘theatrical’ acts, the import of which is to convey publicly one’s rejection or refusal to recognize the legitimacy of some person, practice, policy or institution that is upheld as authoritative by the powers that be. An example would be the public burning of draft cards, or staging a march in open defiance of a court order prohibiting it.

(2) Physical confrontation: In this mode of militancy, the protester engages in some kind of physical conflict with adversaries or authorities. Examples would include street fighting with police officers or neo-nazis, or trying to force one’s way through police lines or into a public building to which protesters are being denied access.

(3) Property destruction: In this mode of militant action, one destroys or damages property, for instance, by sabotaging construction machinery, or destroying a statue, or breaking a window.

(4) Institutional disruption: In this mode of militancy, one focuses on disrupting the functioning of some institution, as for example when workers withdraw their labour in order to shut down a business, or protesters occupy the office of a public official to prevent that official from carrying out his or her job, or when a sit-in disrupts a retail store or a bank branch from conducting its business.

This list of the four basic modes of militancy – symbolic defiance, physical confrontation, property destruction, and institutional disruption – is meant to be basically exhaustive. All, or almost all cases of militant protest should be classifiable in terms of at least one, and sometimes more than one, of these four modes. In extraordinary and atypical cases, there may be rarely used forms of protest – such as the assassinations once carried out by Germany’s Red Army Faction or the campaigns of personal harassment and intimidation undertaken by the animal rights group, “Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty” (SHAC) – that arguably also fall under my definition of militancy. However, these tactics are so far outside the mainstream menu of tactical options entertained by today’s radical activists that, for the present purposes, they can safely be ignored.


What I hope this definition demonstrates is that there is a common notion of militancy –namely, grievance-motivated, adversarial and confrontational collective action – that is (or ought to be) shared by people like King as well as people like Luca Casarini, prominent participant in Italy’s ‘Tute Bianche’ and ‘Disobbedienti’ movements that sprang up as part of the global justice movement at the turn of the present century. It should be shared, too, by the black bloc protesters of the US and the UK in recent decades, by striking union members in South Korea, and by participants in the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil, and so on. Whatever the differences that divide these activists, tactically and strategically, and sometimes even morally, they do not really mean different things by “militancy.”

But we want this common vocabulary, not so that we may conceal or gloss over our differences. On the contrary, what we want is the chance to debate and to think through these differences, with lucidity and frankness. This brings me to my final point.

One of King’s most interesting insights about militancy is that it raises issues of two distinct types, whenever we are faced with a choice of tactics (King 1966). The first kind of question that activists have to consider is strategic: do we have reason to believe that a given tactic will strengthen our movement and enhance our capacity to resist and ultimately prevail in the struggle against injustice, or do we on the contrary have reason to expect that it will leave the movement weaker, more isolated and less able to mobilize people to fight for justice and democracy? This line of inquiry has to be distinguished from the second kind of question, which is not strategic, but moral: can we, in good conscience, act in this way, even if we believe that it will “work” for us by advancing our aims? For instance, can we, morally, set fire to a building (an instance of the “property destruction” mode of militancy) if we are unable to rule out the possibility that the building may have security guards or cleaning staff inside? If the answer is “No!,” then regardless of our assessment of its strategic efficacy, such an action must be taken off the table and removed from our tactical repertoire, at least until the relevant circumstances change.

King’s critique of “bricks, bottles and Molotov cocktails” took up both of these questions, the moral as well as the strategic. Perhaps his answers to these questions (roughly: that “rioting” tactics are both ineffective and morally indefensible [see King 1967a]) was correct, or perhaps his answers were mistaken. I leave that aside, here.

Regardless, few activists would disagree that these are the right questions to be asking, for all of us who – like King, in his own particular way – are radicals who recognize that militancy is indispensable, but who want to think seriously about when and how to use it well.

(The author, Steve D’Arcy, is a climate justice activist in London, Ontario, Canada. He is currently completing a book, entitled Languages of the Unheard, about the ethics of militant protest.)


King, ML. 1963a. “I Have a Dream.” In King 1992.
King, ML. 1963b. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In King 1992.
King, ML. 1963c. Strength to Love. New York: Harper & Row.
King, ML. 1966. “Non-violence: The Only Road to Freedom.” In King 1992.
King, ML. 1967a. “Where Do We Go from Here?” In King 1992.
King, ML. 1967b. “Black Power Defined.” In King 1992.
King, ML. 1968a. “I See the Promised Land.” In King 1992.
King, ML. 1968b. Address to Striking Workers and their Supporters, in Memphis Tennessee, on 18 March 1963.
King, ML. 1992. I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches the Changed the World. Edited by James M. Washington. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.


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