Strategy and Tactics

Calls which suggest "moral judgements" should be replaced by "strategy" misunderstand what it means to organise a movement from below.

We cannot, therefore, go along with people who openly claim that the workers are too ignorant to emancipate themselves but must first be emancipated from the top down, by the philanthropic big and petty bourgeois. Should the new party organ take a position that corresponds with the ideas of those gentlemen, become bourgeois and not proletarian, then there is nothing left for us, sorry as we should be to do so, than to speak out against it publicly and dissolve the solidarity within which we have hitherto represented the German party abroad. But we hope it will not come to that.

The liberals, being the ideologists of the bourgeoisie, perfectly well understand the advantages to the bourgeoisie of “practicalness, sober-mindedness and seriousness” on the part of the working class, i.e., of actually restricting its field of activity within the boundaries of capitalism, reforms, the trade union struggle, etc. Dangerous and terrible to the bourgeoisie is the “revolutionary narrow-mindedness” of the proletariat and its endeavour in order to promote its own class aims to win the leadership in a popular Russian revolution.

A Communist must never be opinionated or domineering, or think that he is good in everything while others are good in nothing; he must never shut himself up in his little room, or brag and boast and lord it over others.

A new drama from Labour’s headquarters, and the old question arises—what is the proper attitude of socialists towards the Labour Party? This question can be answered in different ways.

Many, many people, still tired from long days of canvassing in the pouring rain, phoning up strangers, long years of setting out chairs and typing up minutes and taking glasses back to the bar, too many arguments over too inconsequential a matter, are fed up. Too many subs gone to people who’ve done little to deserve them, who’ve actively struggled against us and our cause. Their answer is unequivocal: no more.

Leering, then, from somewhere in the background of struggle but the foreground of History, appear the little advocate-generals of another type of answer. Come, say the clever gentlemen, “Party membership isn’t a political aesthetic or moral judgement.” The Labour Party, we are reminded, “doesn’t care if you break up with it. It isn’t going to change its ways because you sulk and refuse to talk to it for a year.” Armed with an unbreaking dedication to the strategic necessity, our kindly commissars keep us on the straight and narrow—keep knocking on doors, keep voting for the NEC, keep following them on Twitter.

But what is a strategic necessity? What is a moral judgement? Who draws up the strategy? And who carries it out?

The French philosopher Michel de Certeau defined strategy as “the calculus (or the manipulation) of relations of force which becomes possible whenever a subject of will and power (a business enterprise, an army, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated.” (Perhaps an easier route into de Certeau’s thinking is through this video, which explains it through tarot.) “As in management,” he goes on, “all ‘strategic’ rationalisation begins by distinguishing its ‘appropriate’ place from an ‘environment,’ that is, the place of its own power and will.”

What does this mean for our discussion of the Labour Party? Strategy for de Certeau is of the institutions which produce the environments in which we live—it is concerned with power and with holding onto resources. Strategy takes a place—in our case the Labour Party—and focuses energies on protecting it and expanding its terrain. The strategist takes a top-down view and writes up the rules of the world—he drafts and redrafts the party’s constitution, he devises schemes for bringing people together (or keeping them apart), he thinks first-and-foremost of the Labour Party and its destiny in government.

De Certeau sets out some specific effects of strategy, whose relationship to the Labour Party can be seen quite clearly. The Labour Party “permits one to capitalise on acquired advantages, to prepare for future expansions and to give itself thus an independence in relation to the variability of circumstances. It is a mastery of time by the founding of an autonomous place.” We will recognise this in, for example, the desire to preserve an institutional memory, to be stronger next time.

“The partition of space permits a panoptic practice in which the look transforms strange forces into objects which one can observe and measure, therefore controlling and ‘including’ them in one’s vision.” The Labour Party strategist casts a glance over forces beyond it—a rent union, a mutual aid group, an anti-fascist initiative—and the force is incorporated into their schema. We will all have been in meetings where some dull up-and-comer has barely disguised the hopes which they’ve invested such forces with—not for the forces in themselves, but for what they might mean for the Labour Party (and their career within that).

And in these strategies, de Certeau identifies “a specific type of knowing, one which upholds and determines the power of giving itself a proper place”—here is the moral high ground of Twitter’s left-sensibles, who see at the foot of the hill a crowd of moral judgments.

De Certeau contrasts strategy with tactics, which he calls “the calculated action which is determined by the absence of a proper place”, which “must play with the terrain imposed on it, organised by the law of a strange force”. “It operates blow by blow,” de Certeau says, and “what it gains cannot be held.” If this deterritorialisation can be a source of weakness, it can also be a source of strength: “It poaches there. It creates surprises. It is possible for it to be where no one expects it. It is wile.”

Tactics are what we do in between the lines laid down by strategists. Where the strategist is concerned with holding and demarcating spaces, the tactician seizes on possibilities, moves around, nomadic—the YouTube video linked above uses the word ‘vagabond’. The strategist manoeuvres a standing army—the tactician is a guerrilla.

When the printer in the Labour Party office is used to print out material for a group engaged in direct action, that’s tactics. When a known abuser is removed from a position on the basis of some arcane rule, because the official procedures for dealing with abusers are inadequate, that’s tactics. When weary activists hop from their assigned committee room to a different one because the guy running their one was a dickhead, that’s tactics. Strategists think about how things are going to be down the line, building towards that, and tacticians deal with what they’ve got and strike where they can. Tactics, de Certeau argues, are “an art of the weak”.

How is this borne out in the discussion of our relationship to the Labour Party? On the one hand there are the strategists who, thinking primarily in terms of space, hope to capitalise on the successes of the Corbyn leadership and build back the left’s strength—it’s a case of persevering, continuing to struggle within the Labour Party with a long-term goal in mind. Or—because strategists don’t always agree on strategy—it’s a case of leaving the Labour Party (which is probably what they wanted to do all along) and getting on with building something else.

For tacticians, by contrast, it’s really a question of time—how much time we have put into the Labour Party already, how much time we can spare to do other things. For the tacticians, it’s not about what impacts we can have on the institutions as such, but what’s the best way of seizing on possibilities—what can we be doing to strike a blow right now, irrespective of the future? So, we see, the “moral judgements” denounced by the strategists are really the tactical moves of ‘the weak’ – those for whom writing rules and policy is not the prime driver, and probably not a possibility.

(Another way of approaching this is to think about the ways that strategy/tactics can be mapped onto the ethical/moral distinction which Tom Gann started to make here, morality dialectically related to ethics in the same sense that tactics are related to strategy.)

Stalin contended (with a slightly different understanding of the meaning of both terms) that ‘Tactics are a part of strategy, subordinated to and serving it.’ Lukács, too, tends to place strategy in command, although he uses the word ‘ethics’—and we might wonder whether our clever gentlemen are any more comfortable with ‘ethical judgements’ than ‘moral’ ones. He argues that for the revolutionary classes,

their tactics are not determined by short-term immediately attainable advantages; indeed, they must sometimes reject such advantages as endangering what is truly important, the ultimate objective. But since the ultimate objective has been categorised, not as Utopia, but as reality which has to be achieved, positing it above and beyond the immediate advantage does not mean abstracting from reality or attempting to impose certain ideals on reality, but rather it entails the knowledge and transformation into action of those forces already at work within social reality—those forces, that is, which are directed towards the realisation of the ultimate objective. Without this knowledge the tactics of every revolutionary class or party will vacillate aimlessly between a Realpolitik devoid of ideals and an ideology without real content.

Lukács sees political action shorn of strategy as dissolving into reformism – by failing to change the rules, tacticians are unable to break out of social reality. De Certeau, however, suggests that tactics point towards the gaps and limits of these rules, that tacticians are agile and ambitious to exploit the opportunities which those present. And this, too, is understood by Lukács—the point of strategy is not to posit some ideal, but to identify the ‘forces already at work within social reality’ which point beyond it. Tactics are one of these forces, the point where the strategy is implemented, reinterpreted and undone. A revolutionary strategy remains alive through a constant connection to the tactics of those whom it hopes to deploy and represent. By beginning with an overemphasis on strategy, and an inattention to tactics and ‘moral judgements’, the much-vaunted strategy of the sensible strategists is revealed to be nothing but the bad tactics criticised by Lukács: mere gestures of solidarity with the existing order.

I think there are two immediate points which arise from this:

Firstly, the strategists have a tendency to forget that their strategies are populated by people. To slam critics for making “moral judgements” is not really good enough, and sets them up as “opinionated and domineering”—the tacticians are denounced and demeaned, when they may be the very people who have expended the most energy on the ground. Of course, the division between these groups is not hard and fast—you could (and should!) be one moment a strategist, one moment a tactician—but those promoting themselves as the guardians of strategy should be cautious that they do not become divorced from tactics, whether that’s in the practices which they do themselves or in their relationship to those who do them on their behalf. And, if people making “moral judgements” are to be engaged with, it needs to be on their own terms—not with hopeless appeals to strategy, but by interrogating what’s insightful and useful in their tactics and using them to correct the strategy, in something approximating the mass line. What does it tell us that many people are exasperated and giving up on the Labour Party? In what ways does this carry an insight which points beyond the existing social reality? How can our strategy respond to that?

Secondly, and relatedly, an overemphasis on the importance of ‘strategy’ misses one of the most remarkable findings of our recent political history—the importance of tactics! Although undoubtedly Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in 2015 would not have been possible had he not been an MP, it’s difficult to argue that it was the outcome of a deliberate long-term strategy. Instead, a large number of people acted tactically (and morally) in the hopes of striking a blow at the Labour Party establishment and electing someone that represented them to the leadership. They weren’t acting in a disciplined manner, hoping to transform the structure and purpose of the Labour Party (however much we might wish they had been!)—they were acting within the incredibly tight constraints of a Labour Party leadership contest, seizing a possibility which had opened in a context which was otherwise extremely difficult. Even those who had already been in the Labour Party, and who saw membership as part of their strategy, responded to the leadership contest in an improvised, quick-footed manner (think about Lansman and the ‘Jeremy Corbyn for Leader’ campaign) which was more tactical than strategic. The previous strategy of much of the organised left inside and outside the party—both sceptical about the possibility of change at the top of it—was shown up by the tactics of the members and supporters, who demonstrated that the obstacles to the election of a left-wing leader could be overcome.

The successes of the 2017 general election, too, cannot really be put down to strategy—although inarguably it played some part. The revelations in the leaked report are demonstration enough that strategy’s role was a tortuous one, even if Momentum by that stage had seized the space for a strategy of its own. Instead, ordinary activists seized on the possibilities open to them, as they always do – turning leaflets into posters, disobeying instructions on where to canvass, driving each other around the country and sharing food and drink. These aren’t strategies—they’re tactics, and they’re based always on profoundly moral judgements about the responsibilities of living as a socialist.

The most exciting development of the last few months—onto which, rightly or wrongly, a number of people inside and outside the Labour Party have started to pin hopes—is also the outcome of tactics rather than strategy. The mutual aid groups have not followed some sort of Kropotkinite strategy (more’s the pity, the anarchist strategists say)—they’ve emerged at a specific time in response to specific problems. They’ve made use of the resources immediately in front of them (somebody who knows how to format a spreadsheet, someone with a car, someone who can get fifteen thousand leaflets printed). A group like Queercare, which has played an altogether outsized role in guiding the mutual aid groups, did not strategize in order to achieve that position, it took the content and expertise that it already had and started immediately meeting needs.

I am not dismissing strategy—I’ve probably spent more time than most in writing standing orders, calling for the Labour Party’s democratisation, and worrying about institutional memory. I’ve been on the committee of our local labour movement building, which is about as space-focused as you’re going to get! But the elevation of strategy above all else has become a pressing problem, at risk of losing sight of the value of responsiveness, autonomy and (by far the most important of these) looking after and listening to each other. In turn, the strategists’ strategy floats away from them like a balloon, is then caught in the branches of the realistic and the sensible.

A revolutionary strategy begins with the recognition that it is tried and tested with tactics, with the real movement of the people, with their hope and wit and frustration—with their “revolutionary narrow-mindedness”.

The people, always.


Daniel Frost (@d_j_frost)

Dan is a UCU member, and studying towards a PhD in the history of left-wing activism in Croydon at the University of Reading.