Strategy And Tactics

On Tactics

We need a good framework for judging the usefulness of tactics and more discussion about strategy. Discussions about strategy are probably some of the hardest to have. Strategy is difficult to teach. It is almost always abstract. Instead of involving fixed objects taking on particular actions, it involves trajectories, power imbalances and timing.


The German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz gives a good definition of strategy:

“The conduct of War is, therefore, the formation and conduct of the fighting. If this fighting was a single act, there would be no necessity for any further subdivision, but the fight is composed of a greater or less number of single acts, complete in themselves, which we call combats... From this arises the totality of different activities, that of the formation and conduct of these single combats in themselves, and the combination of them with one another, with a view to the ultimate object of the War. The first is called tactics, the other strategy.”

So tactics are static; strategy is dynamic. Some tactics fit well with a certain strategy. Some tactics do not fit well with a certain strategy. In the movie “Braveheart,” the English king orders his longbowmen to fire into a melee between English and Scottish infantry. At first his generals are disturbed by how bad of a move this is, until it becomes clear the tactic of sacrificing some lower-class infantry fit with his strategic interests in decimating the Scottish infantry. This also generally fits with a theme in the movie of principles versus pragmatism and how those with principles are actually at a disadvantage in war.

A phrase that is used a lot in activist circles is a “diversity of tactics.” Any clear strategy is going to have a diversity of tactics. However it will also have to rule out some tactics as counterproductive. So we often see a debate about tactics reduced down to the usefulness of a particular tactic in a particular instance. This debate leads to both sides confusing, to return to Clausewitz, a “single act” with the “combination of [many acts] with a view to the ultimate object of the war.”

It is not about the justifiability of the individual action. Rather, the question is, how does the action fit with a chain of actions and build towards a general plan?

Politics by Other Means

Revolutionary industrial unionism was a strategy in 1905. For the sake of simplicity we’ll reduce this down to a monolithic idea of the IWW; this is bad history but a good thought experiment. Within the IWW there was a diversity of tactics within certain parameters: sabotage, the general strike, the sympathy strike, job conditioning, free speech fights, and revolutionary education and agitation.

There were also tactics that were ruled out: electoralism, contractualism and arbitration. A diversity of tactics did not mean “anything goes.” Tactics should be examined based on their usefulness to the broader struggle.

One tactic may fit an overall strategy better than another one. In the old IWW you could see this clearly. Free speech fights, while bringing prestige and attention to the organization, also put a lot of good organizers in jail. It’s hard to organize the job from jail. Tactically, it may have made sense, and it was part of a bigger plan to create more public space for organizing, but it also meant other tactics suffered as a result. There are stories of effective sabotage and stories where sabotage turned out to be a liability. Being in favor of a tactic in one context does not mean you have to be in favor of a tactic in another context. Why is this so? Because, as Clausewitz puts it, strategy is about advancing “with a view to the ultimate object of the War.”

This brings up a bigger question: what is the ultimate object of our war? No doubt as revolutionary unionists this means some kind of socialism. As folks who sit outside the traditional left this means a socialism that is based on free initiative and not state planning. As our struggles become more intense we will need more discussion on what this actually means.

Winning the Wobbly Way

If we evaluate our tactics based on our strategy and our strategy is a reflection of our politics, every step of the struggle needs to be seen politically. Do these actions promote the politics we claim to hold based on our views? I don’t think this is an absolute value. Some tactics may contradict some of our values but reinforce others—this may make them useful as secondary tactics. A good example is the phone zap: it is participatory but mostly by people outside the struggle on the job. It isn’t based on an appeal to the good nature of authority so it empowers those involved.

Here’s criteria for a good tactic that fits with our political vision:

1) The action is participatory. The action needs to have group participation and a division of roles that allows for a broad degree of genuine participation.

2) The action is autonomous. It does not appeal to the better nature of those who typically hold power but rather holds the threat of further disruption.

3) The action builds the confidence of those involved. When done right, even if you don’t get what you want, you should walk away feeling stronger. We want to avoid substitutionism, in which we substitute the power of an activist subculture in the community for the power of the direct participation of those affected.

The question is not whether we are in favor of a diversity of tactics. No doubt any clear strategy will have a diversity of tactics within it. The question is: what is our strategy and do these tactics fit with our aims?

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (December 2013)