Strategy and Tactics Leftist Organizing

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  • 7/29/2019 Strategy and Tactics Leftist Organizing


    STRATEGY AND TACTICSHow the left can organiseto transform society

    John Rees

  • 7/29/2019 Strategy and Tactics Leftist Organizing


    What makes change happen? What makes some people ghtto change the world while others remain passive? For thosewho want change, what sort of political organization couldmake it happen faster?

    Drawing on the experience of recent mass movementsand past revolutions, this booklet suggests ways in which theleft can maximize the effectiveness of all those who want totransform society.

    It looks at what has worked in the past and what has gonewrong. It concludes with a call to all those who want to changethe world to come together in a form of organization that canshape the outcome of the battles that lie ahead.

    About the author

    John Rees is a co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition andthe author ofThe Algebra of Revolution and Imperialism andResistance. He is on the Editorial Board of Counterre, and hewrites and presents the Timeline political history series. He is

    currently researching the Levellers and the English Revolution.


    www. .org

  • 7/29/2019 Strategy and Tactics Leftist Organizing



    Introduction: What is to be done? 5

    1. What are we aiming or? 7

    2. Whose strategy, whose tactics? 11

    3. Revolutionary organisation 15

    4. Sectarianism and liquidationism 19

    5. Political organisation and class struggle 23

    6. iming in revolutionary politics 27

    7. Seizing the key link 31

    8. What are cadre? 35

    9. Propaganda and agitation 39

    10. Te united ront 43

    11. Ultra-leism 49

    12. Marxism and the trade unions 53

    13. Te Marxist method 59

    Further reading 65

  • 7/29/2019 Strategy and Tactics Leftist Organizing


  • 7/29/2019 Strategy and Tactics Leftist Organizing



    What is to be done?

    What is to be done? is the essential question at the hearto Marxism. Strategic and tactical decisions are about just

    this question. How do we organise to act? What methods,what arguments, will best enable us to change the societyaround us in the ways we wish?

    Many people will say that there is so much more toMarxism than strategy and tactics. Marxism is a theoryo history, a philosophy, an economic theory, a politicaltheory, and so on. And o course this is true. But in

    Marxism the whole point o this vast panoply o analysisis to bring us to the point where we have the knowledge toact eectively. As Marxs amous 11th thesis on Feuerbachhas it, Te philosophers have onlyinterpretedthe world,in various ways, the point is to change it.

    So Marxism is distinguished rom all other sociologicaltheories and le-wing doctrines by its insistence on

    answering the What is to be done? question. Otherdoctrines, academic and political, may analyse andobserve the social reality around them, but it is Marxismscommitment to acting upon such analyses that marks itout.

    Tis commitment to the unity o theory and practicepoints toward some other undamental aspects oMarxism. It raises the question, or instance, o who isgoing to do whatever it is that needs to be done. Tat is, itasks this question: which class and what political actors inthat class are capable o making change happen?

    In asking this question, the question o agency, it mustthereore ask a urther question: rom what point o view

    should we analyse and observe historical development?

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    6 Strategy and tactics

    Tis question runs right to the heart o the debate betweenacademic sociology and Marxism, because it requires us

    to consider whether the truth about the society we live inwill be better revealed rom the standpoint o its centralexploited class, the working class, or rom a detached,neutral point o view.

    Strategic and tactical decisions are, then, at the hearto Marxism, and they rest on a much broader and deeperanalysis o the class structure o capitalist society and on

    ways o viewing the world that arise rom that society.Te early sections o this pamphlet take a brie look

    at these issues in order to provide a ramework or thediscussion o strategy and tactics. But the later sectionsalways reer back to this ramework, and it is always thepresupposition on which later discussion rests. Tere isalways the closest connection between general theory andstrategy and tactics in Marxism, even i the connectionsare not necessarily obvious.

    When, in 1902, Lenin took the title What is to be done?or what became one o his most amous pamphlets, hedid so at a time when the orces o the revolutionariesin Russia were scattered and weak. But his persistence

    in answering this question, at that time and aerwards,brought them to the point where they could play a decisiverole in the Russian Revolution. I revolutionaries are toplay a constructive role in the battles that working peopleace today, they must still have the strategic and tacticalcapacity to answer that same question.

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    1. What are we aiming for?

    Te phrase strategy and tactics is military in origin.Armies have strategic war aims and they adapt their tacticsto overcome the problems they ace in battle in ways thatmove them towards their strategic goal.

    Te great Russian revolutionary Leon rotsky wrote:By tactics in politics, we understand, using the analogy omilitary science, the art o conducting isolated operations.By strategy, we understand the art o conquest, i.e. theseizure o power.

    Indeed, rotskys very distinction between tactics andstrategy, which Lenin shared, was borrowed rom theGerman military theorist von Clausewitz. One o thereasons this denition became important to Lenin androtsky was that it allowed them to insist that tactics aresubordinate to strategic goals.

    Beore the crisis in the Second International causedby the First World War, in which most o the socialist

    movements leaders abandoned internationalism andsided with their own ruling classes in supporting thecarnage in the trenches, this way o looking at strategy andtactics was not common.

    Beore the war we did not, as a rule, make this distinction,writes rotsky. In the epoch o the Second Internationalwe conned ourselves solely to the conception o social

    democratic tactics. Nor was this accidental.It was not accidental, in rotskys view, because the

    Second International had in reality abandoned the goalo socialist revolution. All that was le or it was a serieso tactical activities unrelated to the goal o revolution aiming, in act, at simply reorming the existing system.

    Tus, the social-democratic parties had trade union

    tactics, parliamentary tactics, municipal tactics, and

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    8 Strategy and tactics

    so on, but the question o combining all orces andresources all sorts o troops to obtain victory over the

    enemy was never really raised in the epoch o the SecondInternational, insoar as the task o the struggle or powerwas not raised.

    Tis question was re-imposed on the movement rstby the 1905 Revolution in Russia, and then again by theoutbreak o war in 1914 and the Russian Revolution o1917. Aer that, the worldwide revolutionary turmoil o

    the post-war years persistently raised the issue o politicalpower or the working class everywhere rom Germany in1918 to China in 1926 through to Spain in 1936.

    Tat is why this era is so ruitul or a study o strategyand tactics but similar questions are raised in everyserious class struggle and every revolution.

    In these circumstances, military analogies like strategyand tactics will always be valuable, because politicalanalysis and warare have something crucial in common.Tey are both great simpliers: they demand a ocus on theessential and a ruthless relegation o the inessential.

    One o the most dicult tasks in deciding strategyand tactics is to draw out o the mass o inormation and

    events that swirl around us what our key goals should beand what basic methods we should adopt to achieve them.Tis, inevitably, means treating as secondary many acetso the situation that to others may seem vital.

    Tis same business o prioritisation is o course centralin warare. One cannot, either strategically or tactically,aord to waste resources on those ronts that are not

    essential. One has to abstract rom the chaos o war thoseronts that are essential and concentrate orces at them.

    But this process o abstraction the selection o criticalareas o activity then has to be tested in practice. Is it truethat i we concentrate orces at this point we can make abreakthrough? Aer making an assessment, there is onlyone way to nd out try it and see!

    Lenin liked to quote Napoleons advice: Lets engage in

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    Strategy and tactics 9

    battle and then well see. At a certain point, all theoretical,strategic, and tactical disputes can be resolved only in

    practice.Or as rotsky put it when condemning the barren

    scholasticism o endless debate:

    It would be analogous to wrangling over theadvantages o various systems o swimming whilewe stubbornly reused to turn our eyes to the river

    where swimmers were putting these systems intopractice. No better test o the viewpoints concerningrevolution exist that the verication o how theyworked out during the revolution itsel, just as asystem o swimming is best tested when a swimmerjumps into the water.

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  • 7/29/2019 Strategy and Tactics Leftist Organizing


    2. Whose strategy,

    whose tactics?

    Every organisation has strategy and tactics. Armiesobviously have strategies and tactics. So do corporations,

    NGOs, charities, trade unions, governments, and politicalparties. But the strategy and tactics you adopt depend onthe kind o organisation you are in. Moreover, dierencesin strategy arise because o the diering class base o the

    various organisations in society.So although it seems obvious that discussion o strategy

    and tactics should be about the most immediate and

    pressing campaigns in which we are involved, in act, suchdiscussion must start much urther back. It must beginmuch deeper in the social structure.

    We, o course, are interested in the working class and itscapacity or resisting the system. So let us look at some othe key characteristics o workers in capitalist society.

    Workers are an exploited and oppressed class. Tey

    have to work or a wage which represents only part o thewealth that their work produces the rest creates protsor the owners o the actories, oces, mines, transportsystems, inormation technologies, power industries,supermarkets, and all the other accumulated economicwealth o society.

    Tis subordination has its counterpart in the ideasthat workers hold, at least some o the time. Economicand political subordination breeds passivity and atalism.Some o the clichs we learn early in lie express this: thepoor are always with us, there will always be the rich manin his castle and the poor man at his gate, so its been, soit will always be.

    It is not surprising that many workers accept these ideas,

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    12 Strategy and tactics

    at least partially. Teir economic subordination involvesbeing told when to work and when not, how hard to work

    and at what, what they will be paid, and how much theywill have to pay or what they produce when it reappearson the market.

    Tis lack o control over the productive core o society what Karl Marx called alienation does not encourageideological independence.

    Every conservative, rom the heads o corporations to

    the leaders o the ory Party, relies on the passivity inducedby powerlessness. It provides soil within which acceptanceo the status quo takes root.

    So is our situation hopeless? Are we in an Orwellian1984-like nightmare where a completely divided andatomised working class is constantly disoriented andimmobilised by the propaganda o our rulers? Is this notthe ory dream o a working class without the capacityor revolt? I this were true, our discussion o strategy andtactics would be a short one. No strategy is possible whereno resistance takes place.

    But alienation is only hal the picture. Te system alwaysinduces revolt as well as passivity. Te exploitation and

    oppression that working people and other groups suerhave always provoked resistance, revolt, and revolution.Tere always comes a point where some group o workerssomewhere decide that enough is enough and that theymust take some kind o action.

    But i the ory dream o absolute passivity amongworking people is untrue, we must not think that its

    opposite, the anarchist dream o perpetual and spontaneousrevolt among workers, is true either.

    In reality, there is always a battle between where workersinterests lie in combating the system and where theirconsciousness is at any given time which involvesacceptance o the system at least to some degree.

    Some critics o Marxism say that this distinction

    between workers interests and their consciousness is

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    Strategy and tactics 13

    an articial one invented to explain away that act thatworkers ought to oppose the system but oen go along

    with it. How can you say, the critics ask, that workers haveinterests dierent rom the views they express?

    But this is really not a dicult idea to deend. Ineveryday lie, we all accept that individuals interests canbe dierent rom their consciousness. Look at people whosmoke cigarettes. We, and they, know where their interestslie. Tey lie in giving up smoking, because, as it says in

    large letters on every packet o cigarettes, Smoking Kills.Yet their consciousness does not register this act and theygo on smoking.

    We think we have some insight into why people behavelike this: peer group pressure, advertising, amily example,stress, and so on. And many o the same social pressures,on a much greater scale, exist to persuade people not tostrike, join a union, riot, or make revolution.

    Te result is that most workers, most o the time,have what the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci calledcontradictory consciousness. Tey accept certain thingsabout the system while rejecting others. Tey may beanti-racists, but admire the Queen. Or they may be great

    trade-union militants, but believe in immigration controls.Te variety o such contradictions is endless.Te aim o socialists must be to raise the level o

    consciousness and combativity among workers. Tey mustnd a way to act with workers in such a way that the moreconservative elements o this contradictory consciousnessare reduced and the more progressive strengthened.

    Tis is what socialist strategy and tactics are all about:inding those organisations, slogans, and ideas thatcounteract conservatism and passivity among workersand instead encourage them to ght back.

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  • 7/29/2019 Strategy and Tactics Leftist Organizing


    3. Revolutionary organisation

    Leon rotsky once said that ve workers that he met earlyin his political lie told him everything he needed to knowabout the need or socialist organisat...