Why Strategy and Tactics?
We think it is important to re-examine the difference between tactical and strategic discussions in the context of our struggles, and the importance of each one of them. The concepts of strategy and tactics come from military jargon. Strategy is used to define the general plan one will use to organize and structure the different combatants to reach the assigned goal: win the war against the enemy. Tactics refer to the different and concrete operations and moves that are necessary to advance in the realization of the general strategic plan.
Socialists and other revolutionary currents have taken and adapted those concepts to be able to differentiate between, on the one side, the concrete struggles we intervene in (the forms and methods of our actions), and, on the other side, the ultimate goal that orients and structures our activity: to bring about a socialist revolution. Ultimately, class struggle culminates in a class war, it is not just about winning a battle (a strike or defeating some reactionary law), it is a long-term struggle which implies a real confrontation of the relation of social forces, and not of ideas or feelings.
The advantage of these concepts is that they open up the scope to think about political action beyond strict immediate efficacy: one can set intermediate or partial strategic goals (like organizing a real mass strike to mobilize the working class) in relation to the goal of seizing power. And also one can evaluate which tactics to use in the struggle in relation to one’s strategic goals. It allows us to think about our methods of struggle not in absolute terms, but in relation to our aims.
When we say that, for socialists, our tactics are always subordinated to our strategic goals, we imply that we have a strategy beyond just taking “action”. We do not take action for the sake of it, or for the sake of recreation. On the contrary, we want our actions to be meaningful not just for us, but for other sectors of society and future generations.
This is a key point, because usually the pressure of the movement focuses the political discussion in the domain of tactics: “Which tactic will be better? Should we organize a boycott campaign or a media blast? Should we organize a strike or picket the boss’s house?” This pressure to only talk about tactics results from the need to achieve concrete gains in the struggle.
And this tendency has become even more true in the Occupy movement, where we often discuss to exhaustion which actions to take, when, where, how, but we never get to address the long term goals of our movement, our strategy, and the big steps our movement needs to take to bring about a broader mobilization of our class.
Therefore, the urgency today is not only to find the right tactics with and from the movement (one always learns from the movement, like the “Occupy” tactic has shown us), but even more, to put back into the conversation in the General Assemblies and organizing committees on the need to have a long term strategy (the destruction of capitalism) and short term strategic goals that will allow the consolidation of the Occupy movement in that direction. In this sense, the discussion of tactics in the GAs should be connected to short term strategic goals we identify: pushing forward the mobilization of specific labor sectors – immigrant workers, workers in social services, etc, bringing in new communities and sectors, taking actions that polarize the confrontation with the city administrations without focusing that polarization on the police, etc..
We are fighting here against an entrenched trend in the U.S. social movements of this past decade- that has become even more acute in the Occupy Wall Street movement- which is partially explained by the absence of a significant organized Left with presence in the different struggles of the working class and oppressed peoples. This was not the case in the ‘30s or ‘60s – ‘70s, when the strategic discussions were very vibrant and seemed crucial to the most active militants.
In some sense, the fact that the Occupy movement is born out of a specific tactic (the “occupation” of public space, which became initially an obsession to the point of refusing considering demands), shows the contradiction between the ambitious goals of our movement (to confront the 1%, to reclaim public space and also private ones) and the absence of a clear political direction. The Occupy movement is very radical in its tactics, but if this radicalism does not translate at some point into a concrete strategy towards revolution and the formulation of a political program of action, it will become an abstract, and therefore ineffective, radicalism.
“Action” with no strategy?
The question of defining the strategy of our movement cannot be itself a “long-term goal”, a discussion constantly postponed for the aftermath of our actions, or even worse, for after the exhaustion of our own energy and movement. Nor should we counter-pose “action vs organization”, or “action vs discussion”, as some often try to do. Without a conscious strategy of revolution, our actions and our whole movement are confined and limited by the already existing boundaries and framework imposed by the capitalist system.
Our differences with liberals
Progressive liberals at times tend to advocate for “action” without clearly spelling out their strategy. However, now that things are beginning to move, we are seeing that a diversity of strategies is  emerging in response to the need to fight austerity measures, budget cuts and how to approach the elections. Indeed, some forces of our movement are openly advocating for purely electoral “action” (like supporting bills raising taxes on rich people and oil corporations) as a way to fight austerity.
We, as socialists, support all economic reforms that benefit the working class, but we believe we need to address the root cause of the problem at the same time we are trying to fix it- not later, and not instead of trying to fix it. Thus, we believe it is a mistake tofocus the energy of the movement only on legislative action. We must use bills like the Millionaires Tax as a tool to counter the Brown administration efforts to force the poor to pay for the crisis. We must call on those coalitions and unions who now support Brown’s regressive tax proposal to reject the Democrat’s austerity framework by supporting the Millionaires Tax as part of a strategy to secure real political independence for the 99% . In the last instance, we believe it is a mistake to put our forces and our energies in changing the parliamentary institutions from within .  This is where our differences lie with the liberal forces that fight with us.
To adopt an electoral strategy as our way to fight back against the 1% leaves us confined to trying to address and solve the problems of the 99% within the very power structure that leaves the political power in the hands of the 1%.
Most of the leadership of the labor unions, non-profit organizations and student government bodies have contained the scope of political discussion of previous struggles to a tactical level, much like what is happening within the Occupy movement, by focusing all our energy on actions aimed at some small, “realistic” reforms. At the same time, they are trying to funnel the Occupy forces into the electoral machine, where we lose our real social and political power to change things.
Many Left-liberals agree with us that to even have small reforms passed in Congress or the legislature, we need to have mass direct actions and mobilizations, and that lobbying or voting without that will have no effect. But our difference with them is not only a pragmatic one (what is the best way to win reforms), it is first a strategic one: we do not do “direct action” (instead of traditional lobbying) to back a reformist strategy, to publicize our opinions in the corporate media and/or win popularity in the polls. We do not want to impress legislators so they vote for our bill. Instead, we organize mass actions because we want to build another kind of power, the power of the people- that is, the power of our class in order to replace the institutions that rule over us and the capitalist society we live in and to build a new one – this is our ultimate goal.
The reformists tell us that we can only address the issues one can “realistically” take action on (the budgetary allocation), and this in the long term does us a disservice. Because it refuses to take on the entire project of austerity, choosing instead to focus on each fight separately. This perspective ends up counter-posing the different issues and social sectors.
Let’s take an example: the UC advocates wanted money for education even though it would come at the expense of funding Community Colleges and K-12, and vice versa. It has been a struggle from below to unite all sectors of education, and now to unite education with social service unions and community groups organizing around housing issues. Traditionally, they have been “organized” to compete with each other for funding by their student leaderships! And it has been a struggle from below too to raise the issue of increasing revenue by taxing the rich instead of cutting each other! But the struggle continues and many other issues need to be addressed.
The reformist leaderships in our unions and other class organizations have for a long time declared that the only way to solve our issues is to change our system through little steps, and to do it relying on the system’s own mechanisms or its ability to be corrected by the people’s pressure, without challenging the fundamental capitalist nature of our democracy. Not only have they contained any mobilization within this framework, they have many times repressed and silenced those who did not agree with that implicit framing and wanted to formulate an alternative political strategy.
Today, in the current state of the economic system, if we confine ourselves to budgetary demands (where we will make the budget ourselves), to simply demand a relocation of resources or to control the budget, we are giving in to the austerity framework that the 1% created to regain its profits, we are accepting having to co-manage the crisis of the capitalists with them, and we are proposing that we can “solve” the budget problems ourselves in the way they want us to. And that means in practice that we will have to choose ourselves which social services we want to cut, whose labor we want to cut or furlough, etc.
Because this crisis is not a crisis of “management” of capitalism, it is a crisis of the capitalist system itself (and therefore of its managers), we do not want to “pressure” the system so it makes little changes for us, nor do we want to make those little changes ourselves – we want to change the whole framework and structure of our society, which is one of exploitation and oppression. And if we are going to seize power, through elections or other means, it is to challenge this economic and social structure (capitalism), not only to put more colorful band-aids on our bleeding wounds.
In this sense, we believe the Occupy movement has been a substantial step forward, shaking the pragmatist and bureaucratic framework that all these established leaderships have imposed upon the workers and social movements in the past years. It is a healthy reaction against the long-standing trend of imposed reformist strategies and it is aiming at a more radical transformation. It is about the 99% vs the 1%, not just about taxing the rich. It is an expression of discontent with the entire structure of capitalism and its consequences for overwhelming majority of people in this country. And it embodies hope for real change – and it in this that we find its revolutionary potential.
Our differences with Anarchists
The question of how strategy and tactics are understood is also a dividing line between us and anarchists. Some anarchist ( those who don’t believe that workers & the oppressed should seize state power in order to tear down the state) trends are arguing in our movement that what is truly revolutionary is to be contained in the immediate experience of our actions, in its intrinsic transformative dimension for consciousness, because they open up new relations with other people, our spaces, our society, etc. Therefore, they make tactics, accompanied with revolutionary phraseology, their strategy, such as making an occupation a long-term goal: “Occupy everything” “we will reclaim what is ours” etc. But occupation to do what? We do not organize occupations only to transform ourselves through communal life and transform spaces, because those “transformations” are not rooted in a solid and broader transformation of the real structure of society that determined us. For us, the occupation is an action that serves the means to organize a broader movement to destroy capitalism, to organize the 99% to take action against the 1% and to bring about a broader transformation, a revolution, that is the condition for the full and long-term realizations of the other transformations we are experiencing temporarily (like the Occupy encampments etc).
For the anarchists, there is a utopia in the horizon that is a dangerous one, because ultimately it ends either in a reformist co-management solution or in a bloodbath (literally or figuratively): “we will take a building and run it ourselves”; “we will occupy a school and provide education for everybody”, “we will radically transform the university”, “we will proclaim the Oakland Commune against the State”. The idea is that we will start small, and others will join because they will be inspired. It is the utopia of communism in a tiny island… in the middle of a capitalist ocean in the midst of a terrible economic crisis.
What will be the result of that? One outcome is that we will have to assume the local management of the crisis in a system that is not organized locally, but nationally and internationally. Capitalism is not a federation of freely associated capitalist communes. It is a world-system that organizes material life and production and relies on national States to do so. If we were to run the schools ourselves without dismantling first capitalism and its ferocious State, does that mean that until capitalism disappears we will be the ones laying off the teachers and closing schools because of budgetary cuts? Where is the difference then with the Liberals who operate within the parameters of the system?
Some voluntarists* will respond: “We will work for free in one school to provide education to everyone in a single neighborhood, and others will be inspired and will join”. And it is obvious that this Utopian project raises more questions than it solves: Who will pay our wages? How will we survive? What about the rest of the kids of the country? They should just start their own Commune? Should we not have a national plan for fully funded public education and build a movement for that goal, instead of limiting our movement to our local cities? Well, if this is our strategic goal, we believe we cannot address the needs of the 99% without dismantling the capitalist economy, that is to say without seizing the power from the bourgeoisie and expropriating all the immense resources it owns to socialize them for the people and run our society in a truly democratic fashion. To reach that goal, we need to start addressing what should be our intermediate strategic goals for the Occupy movement, we need to discuss our strategy beyond the possibilities of the outcome of one single action in one single city.
The second problem of the anarchist strategy, beyond its utopianism about the possibilities of operating localized revolutionary transformations within the capitalist territory, or, as they put it “liberating spaces from Capital”, is the question of the reaction of the bourgeois class and its armed forces towards our movement. What will the capitalist class do when we Occupy the factories? Should we not have a coordinated plan to disarm the bourgeoisie or be ready to defeat it before we “reclaim” their property? We believe, like many anarchists, that the State is our enemy and needs to be confronted. But we believe that confronting the State and destroying it goes way beyond fighting with the police in riot gear. We need to organize a powerful social uprising that will be able to confront and defeat the State, that is our strategy. And this is why we do not choose to polarize our confrontation with the State at every single action, because we know that our class is still disorganized and that we will be defeated. If an action of broadly perceived unfair repression can galvanize a movement once, the succession of defeats (like multiple waves of arrests) does not build movements, rather they kill them. We cannot rely on the repression of our class to defeat our enemy, we need to have a strategy of our own!
What is clear for us is that a movement that does not reach at some point a clear consciousness of its revolutionary strategy and does not fight for political power, will always be confined to the limitations of operating within a system that is killing us. This movement will unfortunately never advance to anything more than a spectacle of mobilizations, actions and occupations, with maybe, some concrete victories or concessions won along the way. To not have a conscious revolutionary strategy- a political consciousness of our goals- means de-facto to be locked within a reformist framework that is imposed to us by the very system we want to defeat or to leave ourselves and our movement without any defense against the capitalist state.
What is our strategy as socialists?
However, we must go a little bit further in the question of strategy, because to merely assert that our strategy is socialist revolution is too vague, and many people agree with that “in theory”. We want to see how this theory applies to our struggle. For socialists, it is clear that our strategy is to destroy capitalism and to build a socialist economy and a democratic society, but the “how we do it” matters to us, and it matters to us now, not only later in the struggle, because it affects the way we build our movements of resistance to capitalism. So we are going to try to outline roughly, the main differences we have with Liberals, Anarchists and also from the Stalinists regarding our strategy:
- We refuse to pay for the crisis of capitalism, which means that we also refuse the economic and political framework the 1% or the ruling class uses to perpetuate that world economic system that is destroying our lives. While we support any electoral reform that will bring a material improvement to our class, we refuse to confine our struggle to the limits imposed by capitalism, and to the reforms “accepted” or “tolerated” by the 1%. Ultimately, we want to take the political power away from the 1% and build a new type of society, and we know that we cannot defeat capitalism through the ballot box, so we need to start raising this issue now, and in a serious way.
- We do not want a small group (be it a party or a guerrilla army or a bureaucratic faction) to seize power “in the name of the working class”, because we know what is the result of that form of autocratic “socialism”. We do not accept either Castro’s Cuba nor Venezuela under the thumb of Chavez as our model of society . We want to bring the working class itself, through its base democratic organizations (like the soviets or other), to seize power.
- We know, contrary to the Anarchists, that in the course of the revolutionary fight, the bourgeoisie as a class needs to be expropriated and dissolved and the capitalist State needs to be destroyed, which means concretely the establishment of another political power (a workers’ government) to fill the vacuum of power until capitalism is eliminated from the Earth. History has shown that revolution is not an act or a coup, but more like a permanent process, and until the material basis of the capitalist class is totally removed, this class will seek to regain power to destroy all our achievements. This is why workers need to seize power: to keep and protect the material gains of any revolution and expand it all over the world.
- We know, contrary to the Anarchists and “Left Communists”, that in order to bring about that kind of revolution, the working class needs to be politically organized. One reason for that is that our class is very heterogeneous and does not develop a political consciousness out of struggle in an homogeneous way. This is why we need to have a revolutionary Party that will mobilize our class as a whole and also will defend a revolutionary program to radicalize the struggles and put on the table the so-called “impossible” question of genuine workers’ power. But contrary to Stalinists, we believe that Party must not only be democratic inside, but also operate in a democratic way inside the working class organizations, not dictating or lecturing our fellow co-workers and community members, but convincing and leading by example. We also believe the working class has the right (especially under socialism) to have several Parties to express their opinions.
These four aspects of our strategy are not a detail. They are central, because they are the fundamental questions that split the “Left” yesterday, and continue to do it today. And, therefore, they define the way we intervene in the movement, the intermediate strategic goals we pursue, the tactics we prefer, etc.
Nahuel Moreno, an Argentinian socialist, summarized in our view what the strategic goals of socialists are: “Trotskyists have only two strategies until the seizure of power: to promote the permanent mobilization of the working class and its allies until reaching a socialist October revolution and together with that, to strengthen our party so as to be able to conduct that revolution, transforming it into a party with mass influence.”** We believe that it is important to restate this because in our movement, and especially in the vanguard, where there are so many self-defined “anti-capitalist” activists that want to “shut down the system”, there is not a clearly formulated strategy that shapes their anti-capitalist consciousness: many will plunge into direct action with the sincere hope that one day a very popular building occupation will begin to crack the foundations of the repressive State, others have a mystified understanding of the possible achievements of a General Strike (even if it was followed by 99% of the population) that will immediately precipitate the fall of the bourgeoisie, others believe that we must seize power by radical and democratic means from within the bourgeois institutions, others have still hopes that a huge mass movement will scare the Democratic Party so that it will start conceding to our demands, etc.
Different Anarchists tendencies tend to fetishize some tactics (“direct action”, building occupations, the “General Strike”, the “Wild-Cat Strike” etc), because they do not see revolution as a long term struggle that will follow an uneven course and will require serious political organization beyond the efficacy of spontaneous actions. They do not have a strategy to fight for power, nor to effectively mobilize the 99% because they have even refused, in some sites, to have demands. In reality, they prefer to have only politics for a very enlightened vanguard that is already convinced of the failures of capitalism, whereas we want to involve broad sectors of the 99% in our struggle, and this is why we believe that demands are crucial.
We do not believe that “revolution” or “communism” or “the Commune” will be the result of the radicalization of a very-well organized action, or of the accumulation of a sufficient number of actions led by a small vanguard. And we combat that obsession for “action, action, only action with no strategy or demands”, because we believe that our actions need to have a political content and goal, that is clear to the ones who participate and to the others we want to mobilize. Our actions need to be tied to the conscious organization of our class. The problematic result of the current “strategy” is generally to burn out of entire layers of activists that get demoralized after various cycles of action-repression-action-repression, or action-defeat, or even victories (like stopping one eviction or re-integrating a laid-off worker) upon which they cannot expand because they were, at that moment, isolated from the rest of the working class.
Because of this confusion and mix of ideas, we Trotskyists need to advocate not only in theory but in practice for the “permanent mobilization of our class”, which means, first, the continuity of our struggle and action during the electoral period (confronting the pragmatist argument of the liberals: “yesterday it was the time to strike, now it is the time to campaign and vote to make a real change happen”); and second, for the idea that our Occupy movement needs to extend itself to new sectors of the class so it becomes truly representative of the 99%, not only in slogans, but in action, giving some social content to our mobilization.
Yet, because, in the course of each struggle, our actions will get defeated many times before we can win, building only our movement (Occupy or other) is not enough to win. We need to build on our experience of struggle. And this also applies at the macro-level of the history of social and political struggles. That is to say, we need to build a political organization that can accumulate and share those experiences and also that can use our victories to create new ones, by publicizing them. To do so, we need a national revolutionary organization, and an international one. The question for us is not if we need a political organization for the working class or not, the question is which one: With which program? With what structure?
The need of a political organization is first of all a need that emerges out of our struggle: in order to be able to truly mobilize our class, and to do it independently and against corporate leaderships (like the Democrats) or opportunist ones (like many unions bureaucrats, radical liberals or non-profit pacifist-style-professional leaders) we need to build a revolutionary organization of the working class, that is multi-racial and democratic and has its roots in key sectors of our class. We cannot wait until the end of this movement to build that political leadership, because we experience daily the need of a revolutionary political Party to lead the struggle.
*Voluntarists are those who use , or rely on voluntary action to maintain an institution, carry out a policy, or achieve an end.
** The Transitional Program Today, “Principles, Strategy and Tactics” 1980.