Their Tactics and Ours

Whenever a new movement erupts onto the scene of history, questions over the efficacy of violence vs. non-violence, direct action, diversity of tactics are hotly debated. But what makes a particular tactic appropriate or inappropriate, successful or unsuccessful? What can we learn from the past experience of the class struggle? And are the answers to these questions fixed and applicable to all times and places?

When it comes to tactics, clarity is of vital importance for revolutionary Marxists. After all, the political and organizational decisions we take today can shorten or lengthen the road to the socialist revolution. To that end, we should soberly analyze the arguments made for and against various tactical approaches, and draw a balance sheet of the results achieved in real-world practice.

What do we mean by tactics and strategy?

When Marxists refer to tactics, we refer to the plan of a given activity, which can range from hosting a panel discussion, blocking an intersection, demonstrating in the street, occupying a factory, to the details of storming the tsar’s Winter Palace and seizing political power. And although some tactics are clearly more effective than others, there is some truth in the Biblical adage, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”

It is not for nothing that tactical flexibility is one of the defining characteristics of Bolshevism. This article will examine how Marxists determine the appropriateness of a tactic for a given situation. We will argue that the selection of appropriate tactics is not a question of principle, but rather, flows from historical context and conditions, the class balance of forces, and above all, the class nature of a movement.

As the military theoretician Carl von Clausewitz explained, tactics are how we choose to orient our forces for a specific “combat” or “action.” Strategies, by contrast, are an amalgamation of tactics directed toward the achievement of a broader strategic goal. The aim of that broader goal, in combination with the objective and subjective situation, will determine the selection of a general strategic orientation. In the case of a Bolshevik organization with the strategic goal of winning the working class to a revolutionary program and the socialist revolution, orienting to the universities or turning towards industry to win new members and positions of influence may be sub-strategies building towards that ultimate objective, with a variety of tactics implemented to achieve more limited goals.

National Day of Action in Defense of Public Education
Orienting to the universities or turning towards industry to win new members and positions of influence may be sub-strategies building towards the ultimate objective: socialist revolution. / Image: Fibonacci Blue, Flickr

The aims and priorities of organizations and movements range widely. Some may focus on winning minimal reforms or concessions from the ruling class while remaining within the limits of capitalism. Others, like the International Marxist Tendency, seek the emancipation of the working class through the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by socialism. These different aims, which themselves reflect different class interests, will dictate different strategic orientations. Likewise, the selection of tactics at each juncture must also be aimed at achieving the desired aims. All of this requires going beyond the immediacy of the moment and the “next step,” and considering how our tactics fit into the broader chain of constantly interpenetrating and often contradictory cause and effect.

How do Marxists determine our tactics?

We live in a world of infuriating injustice, bigotry, and arbitrary abuse of power. Nonetheless, Marxists cannot base questions of morality and ethics on sentimentality or an ahistorical notion of good and evil, right and wrong. We must root our understanding of morality within a materialist framework.

As Trotsky argues in Their Morals and Ours, the only moral, ethical, and by extension, correct and consistently materialist tactical framework is that “the ends justify the means.” Despite the illusions of the religious, no eternal guide for what and what not to do has been bestowed upon humanity by a higher power. No morality exists outside of human history and the development of human society. For Marxists, the victorious socialist revolution as the end objective justifies the means. However—and this is very important—even this is not the final word.

Why? Because the ends themselves must also be justified. But how are we to know what is “justified”? Must we resort to an a priori moral justification for our ends? To put it simply, no. Rather, we can engage in a materialist examination of human history.

Capitalism, with its nation-state and irrational market economy, reached an impasse long ago. The only way forward for humanity is the overthrow of capitalism, an end to artificial borders, and the establishment of a rationally and democratically planned economy. On the basis of workers’ democracy, this would lead to a massive development of the means of production and labor productivity, and a far-higher quality of life for all. This is an objective and measurable process that can be understood by anyone, irrespective of their subjective religious or moral beliefs. It is historical-materialist analysis that dictates the strategic goal of the revolutionary victory of the proletariat and the socialist revolution.

Does this then mean that all means are justified in the pursuit of this end? Not at all. In fact, the exact opposite conclusion follows because means and ends are not isolated phenomena. Rather, they exist within a complex web of dialectical interrelation. As best as we can determine, we must only pursue means that genuinely work towards our end. Some means, which appear in a narrow or immediate sense to work towards our end, ultimately undermine it. Thus, simply stating that “the ends justify the means” does not mean that all means are automatically justified.

The seizure of power by the proletariat and the building of socialism will require a fundamentally different approach in comparison to the bourgeois revolution that preceded it. Capitalism is an anarchic system; it does not require conscious planning or organization on a systemic scale. The potential for capitalism to become the dominant mode of production ripened organically within the womb of the old society. Once the existing economic and political parameters could no longer contain the vast productive potential unleashed by nascent capitalist property relations, the bourgeoisie led the mass of petty bourgeois, semi-proletarian, and peasant layers in a protracted and more or less chaotic struggle against the feudal order.

This will not be the case for the proletariat if it wishes to succeed in its battle against the bourgeois order. The centralized power of the capitalists and the need for a rational and democratic economic plan under socialism will require colossal organization and engagement by the workers before, during, and after the revolution. Above all, it will require a farsighted revolutionary leadership committed to class independence and the total overthrow of the old property relations. While the rise to power of the bourgeoisie necessitated a multi-class alliance of the masses to combat the old regime, the proletariat can only rely on its own forces. In the words of Marx, “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.”

The united working class is the only force capable of overthrowing capitalism. / Image: public domain

The task of the socialist revolution is not to create a new class order, but to consign class society to the dustbin of history, once and for all. The emancipation of the working class represents, therefore, the emancipation of the whole of humanity from exploitation, oppression, and alienation. This cannot be achieved by leaving a portion of humanity in chains. As the working class cannot rely on any external power to do the job for it, it must develop, maintain, and extend the maximum unity of its forces and function as an emancipatory advanced guard for all exploited and oppressed layers in society.

What does all of this mean when it comes to tactics? As a short-hand rule of thumb, it means the following: anything that strengthens the unity of the working class and increases its consciousness and confidence in itself and its ability to transform society is moral and may be appropriate in the right circumstances. Anything that runs counter to this is not. And if a tactic that appears to work towards a desired end does so by sowing division within the working class, weakens its resolve, or encourages it to look towards external saviors, it is not a tactic that is consistent with the Marxist method.

With the above as a baseline, let us look at some of the main debates over tactics that recur time and again in the movement.

Direct action

Activists often refer to the need for “direct action.” “We must do something, even if it accomplishes nothing!” goes the cry. This flows from the tendency of small groups to lose all sense of proportion and to attempt to substitute themselves for the masses. Throughout history, from the Russian Narodniks to black bloc anti-fascists, small, radical groups have believed that through their “heroic” actions they can kick-start the dormant masses into action. The central idea behind this tactical approach is the “propaganda of the deed.”

To be sure, many of these individuals and organizations have been incredibly self-sacrificing and courageous. However, from the perspective of tactical efficacy, individual, adventurous actions typically lead only to further isolation and alienation from the masses in whose name these forces claim to act. Even in the best-case scenarios, where the masses are not turned off by gratuitous publicity stunts or individual terrorism, these acts do not inspire the masses to self-organization and emancipation. Rather, they are encouraged to leave things to their heroic liberators.

What is certain is that these kinds of tactics will result in crackdowns, typically not only against the small group or individual that conducted the action, but often against the left as a whole or the oppressed more broadly. The ruling class rarely lets slip opportunities for punitive or propagandistic attacks. Most importantly, the act of throwing a can of soup on a painting or a pie in a CEO’s face does not threaten the system in the slightest. At the extreme end of the spectrum of “successes” in the usage of this tactic, the Narodniks successfully killed Tsar Alexander II and an anarchist assassinated President McKinley. Did these actions result in the collapse of the tsarist regime or the end of capitalism in America? The question answers itself.

It is not for abstract moral reasons that we reject adventurist tactics such as assassinations or individual terror. We are not pacifists, but we need to ask the question: Do these tactics achieve their intended ends? Under most conditions, absolutely and definitely not. While this argument holds for violent adventurist actions, it is equally true for many modern, nonviolent acts premised on maximizing “shock value” to draw media or public attention.

Weather Underground
The Weather Underground is a perfect example of a petty-bourgeois terrorist organization that accomplished little beyond getting their own members imprisoned. / Image: far out, Flickr

Broadly speaking, we can divide so-called direct action into three general types: ultraleft actions by radical individuals and small groups; liberal pressure campaigns aimed at pressuring the ruling class into changing its policies; and mass, working-class action, including mass demonstrations, strikes, factory occupations, and general strikes. Each of these approaches has a definite class content. The first two, are petty-bourgeois in essence, and the political tendencies they represent, ultraleftism and opportunism, are two sides of the same coin. Only the final variant is truly worthy of the term direct action, as only it has mass forces and the potential for real success behind it.

The tactics chosen and the specific form that “direct action” takes cannot be separated from the question of the broader class struggle and politics. Tactics ultimately have a political character and reflect the class character of the movement, or more precisely, its leadership. They either facilitate the realization of the “ends” referred to above, or they do not. Neither the ultraleft nor the opportunist form of direct action relate to the workers as conscious actors, i.e., in a way that encourages their democratic participation in the struggle, develops their strength and self-awareness of their potential power as a class. While the ultraleft does not engage them at all, the liberals use them as props. Both are paternalistic attitudes and neither draws the workers into active and participatory struggle.

Groups advocating these tactics often borrow extensively from each other, both when it comes to the milquetoast nature of the goals they seek, and the forms their action takes. Particularly over the recent period, we have seen many well-funded liberal organizations borrow extensively from the tactical toolbox of petty-bourgeois radical activists, both due to their own tactical bankruptcy, but also to appear more radical in the eyes of the radicalizing youth. In practice, many groups seamlessly combine ultraleft tactical adventurism with class-collaborationist electoral reformism. Such apparent inconsistency is, in fact, entirely consistent with their petty-bourgeois outlook.

The reality of movements, including mass movements, is that they ebb and flow. The emergence of social movements is dictated not by the actions of individuals or liberal organizations, i.e., by subjective actors, but rather, by the hammer blows of objective, material forces on the working class and other oppressed layers. However, the victory or defeat of movements absolutely depends on leadership, on the subjective factor. The masses cannot be kept in a state of white-hot activity forever, and the ultimate victory of the working class requires a revolutionary leadership guided by an understanding of Marxist theory.

This is why we must keep the longview of history, theory, and perspectives in mind when building a revolutionary Marxist organization. The same activist leaders who glorify impotent, transient direct actions, fall into despair when the movement ebbs, while scoffing at the work of the Marxists engaged in building a politically and organizationally independent revolutionary tendency for the long haul.

Diversity of tactics

An idea that has grown in popularity over the past few decades is “diversity of tactics.” This usually centers on the idea that a protest movement should not limit itself to the boundaries of nonviolence. However, in practice, the idea of “diversity of tactics” has been used within protests to shield advocates of all tactics from criticism. This can take the form of various contingents or sections of a protest engaging in wildly different tactics. There may be “zones” or schedules for different tactics, separated by time and space. This was certainly the case at various BLM protests over the recent period and has been embraced by many “anti-globalization” and other activists for decades.

In practice, this hyperatomized and individualist approach is a form of relativist postmodernism and manifests as “you do you!”—even if this weakens the movement as a whole. In reality, the cover of so-called diversity of tactics serves only to prevent a real discussion of united and democratically determined tactics to which all participants are bound by voluntary agreement.

With diversity of tactics, no one can be held accountable for failed tactics. Some tactics may expose those in struggle to a level of danger that they did not sign on for, thus discouraging participation by certain individuals and groups that may be at greater risk. For example, tactics that invite police repression and arrests are sure to discourage the participation of undocumented immigrants in a march for their rights.

In working-class unity there is strength, while disunity strengthens only the class enemy! The refusal to be bound by agreements taken by and in the interests of the majority is yet another manifestation of petty-bourgeois individualism.

It is not uncommon for small, radical groups—some even calling themselves “Marxists”—to try to split larger mass demonstrations and marches, often at an intersection, to deceive protesters into “more a radical action” secretly planned by the smaller grouping. This often leads to disorientation and confusion among unwitting and sometimes unwilling protesters, with many completely unaware of who the group is, what they represent, and what is even going on. While the political or tactical division of a demonstration or march is not, in principle, inadmissible under all circumstances, it is something that participants, including the protesters themselves, should be aware of. Workers and youth should not be deceived in this way, and no one can be tricked into the socialist revolution. And it should come as no surprise that at times, agents provocateurs utilize these very tactics to divide and weaken the movement.

Black bloc protestors at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. / Image: Jake Mohan, Wikimedia Commons

More principled theoretical advocates for diversity of tactics argue that movements cannot allow themselves to be shackled to one tactic or another, which is correct. However, these theorists will usually focus on a false “violence vs. nonviolence” binary. Some even argue that violence itself is the only recourse for the most oppressed, while nonviolence is a “privilege,” in the language of the academic left. This is the view expressed by Nora Ziegler in an article published in Ceasefire Magazine:

Many people will use both violent and nonviolent practices at different times in order to resist oppression. However, the totalizing and exclusionary tendencies of power are polarized in such a way that there are large groups of people who will almost only have recourse to violence, and groups who mostly enjoy the privilege of nonviolence. I argue that this is precisely the situation that must be transformed through a diversity of tactics that recognizes the interdependence of violence and nonviolence.

The real distinction in the realm of tactics is not between violence and nonviolence, but rather, between mass action and individual action, between proletarian methods of struggle and petty-bourgeois individualism. 

The author is correct to recognize that different conditions may make violent or nonviolent tactics more appropriate or likely to succeed. However, this is not a function of the relative “privilege” of those involved. If we look at history, it is clear that reactionary movements, composed of “privileged” layers, have at times achieved political power through the use of violent means, while the oppressed have at times wrested reforms from their oppressors using relatively “nonviolent” methods. It is not an either/or question.

The success or failure of any particular movement and the appropriateness or efficacy of a particular tactic is not dictated by a calculation of the “privilege” of the participants in it, nor on an ahistorical consideration of the relative merits of an allegiance to either violence or nonviolence, but rather, the historical conjuncture, balance of class forces, mood of the masses, its leadership, and even the world situation, etc.

Many advocates for diversity of tactics and direct action elevate tactics to a question of principle. The ultimate and immediate goals, demands, and even the oppressed themselves disappear, and demonstrations or other actions are seen merely as opportunities to reveal their chosen tactics. Similarly, violence versus nonviolence is transformed into a question of eternal principle. Marxists, however, do not simplistically counterpose violence to nonviolence. Under different conditions, both can be transformed into an aid or an impediment to the growth and development of the struggle of the working class.

Conspiracy, subterfuge, and secrecy

Another form of tactical fetishism can be seen in the way some activists overemphasize secrecy, operational security, and conspiratorial methods in a way that is out of proportion to the current stage of struggle and the needs of the movement. Under current conditions in the US, if overemphasized, these methods can prevent movements from drawing in broader layers of the working class.

Revolutionary movements have certainly made good and necessary use of conspiratorial methods under certain conditions, and it goes without saying that we should take the security of revolutionary and workers’ organizations seriously. However, an obsession with these methods for their own sake puts form before function and serves to undermine the growth and breadth of a movement.

To show the negative consequences of this approach concretely, we can point to conspiratorial methods employed during various protests over the past few years. In certain cities, information about when and where protests were to occur during the BLM struggle was communicated only through closed communiques via the app Signal. In several instances, false locations were given to protesters by the leadership through these channels with the real location sent out only minutes before the protests were to begin. Those in the loop of the unelected and unaccountable Signal group were discouraged from communicating the change in location to others at the protest.

Such a tactic may result in the police being fooled and having to realign their forces. However, what effect does this have on the participation among the protest forces themselves? The effect is entirely negative. As we explained after St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley was acquitted of murder:

[Some leaders] draw the conclusion that the state can only be challenged via subterfuge and conspiratorial methods. But this misses the point. While the working class must use all kinds of methods in the struggle against the ruling class, an atomized and disorganized working class is relatively powerless against the ruling class and its state as long as we do not bring the full brunt of our social power to bear. This is why they isolate protesters into “free speech” cages and herd us into “kettles.” The working class has enormous power, but we must move in massive numbers, filling the streets not with 100 people or even 1,000 people, but with 100,000 or a million.

Further, the negative effect that overly conspiratorial tactics wreak on participation is not experienced evenly. Even in cases where these tactics were employed by Black-led organizations, which was the case in the above example, overreliance on technology and the obscuring of protest locations will generally have the greatest effect on those with reduced access to technology, i.e., the poorest and most oppressed in society.

Lenin arriving in Petrograd
When the working class takes to the streets en masse, the capitalists and their police forces can do little to stop us. / Image: public domain

The balance of forces and a sense of proportion

Until the capitalist system is consigned to the history books, movements will rise and fall, ebb and flow. Failure to understand this fact of the class struggle and mass psychology can only result in tactical and strategic errors and overestimations, regardless of intentions. For example, at the time of the Stockley verdict protests, we saw movement leaders, inspired by the high tide of a protest movement, schedule “100 days of 100 actions”—even though the movement had already begun to ebb.

In another version of this error, for decades, small leftist organizations have made a hobby of declaring “general strikes” with little-to-no regard for the real mood of the working class or the stage of struggle. In some cases, calls for general strikes may be based on a well-meaning naivete. But a general strike cannot simply be declared by individuals or small groups on behalf of the working class. No organization on the left today has the size and authority to convene a genuine general strike—only the mass forces of organized labor could seriously call and prepare for such a momentous action. Without a sense of proportion and recognition of basic material conditions as a starting point, one can arrive at all kinds of fanciful tactical declarations.

The Marxist approach

It is with the above in mind that the IMT engages in debates over tactics and strategy. While marching alongside workers and youth in struggle, striking collective blows against our common class enemies, we maintain our political and organizational independence, and reserve the right to criticize ideas and tactics we view as incorrect, in a comradely and constructive way.

As Marxists, we must keep our finger on the pulse of the working class and other oppressed layers. What is the mood? What is the current political and economic situation? What is the state of mind of the ruling class? Is it united or divided? How long has it been since the last great exertion of mass energy? We must constantly examine and reexamine these aspects and more, and try to understand them in their motion, contradictions, and interconnections. We cannot afford any fetishizing of tactics. Only through a balanced, dialectical, and materialist appraisal can we hope to develop a strategy and tactics that can bring an end to this wretched system.

Bolshevism means implacable firmness on questions of theory and principle combined with absolute tactical flexibility. Aside from the question of class independence, we cannot elevate any particular tactic or even strategic orientation to the question of a principle to be applied regardless of the concrete circumstances. We cannot allow debates over tactics to be reduced to a question of violence vs. nonviolence, conspiracy vs. openness, and so on.

Our appraisal of tactics within the movement must flow from our end of maximizing working-class unity, consciousness, and confidence. The broadest layers of the working class should be able to participate in protests or other activities with as few barriers to entry as possible. The formation of longer-lasting formations and structures, e.g., a mass workers’ party, unions, factory and strike committees, movement coordinating committees, and ultimately workers’ councils (soviets) is far more important than most fleeting “actions.”

Structures that allow for democratic debate and decision making present an opportunity for the workers and youth in organizations and coalitions to judge and correct errors and to weigh various political tendencies and banners. Individual battles may be won and lost, but what is ultimately critical for the victory of the class war is “the ever expanding union of the workers” and the revolutionary leadership necessary to make conscious the unconscious will of the workers to change society.


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