Diversity of tactics or unity in action?

March 26, 2012

Paul D’Amato looks at an important debate among activists in today's struggles.

ONE CONCEPT that people active in the Occupy movement will have encountered is "diversity of tactics."

What does the phrase mean? Without knowing its history, one might think it expressed something pretty obvious--that our movement has an arsenal of tactics that can be flexibly applied, as conditions change, to achieve our objectives. But that is not how the term has come to be used.

The "diversity of tactics" idea emerged in the global justice movement after the 1999 Battle of Seattle against the meeting of the World Trade Organization. It was an attempt to bridge the gap between the "Black Bloc" (black-clad and masked anarchists who wanted to break windows, trash cars and, in some cases, engage in street fighting with the police); those who wanted to engage in "nonviolent direct action," like sitting in to block entrances; and those who wanted to engage in peaceful protests and marches.

The idea was that everyone would "respect" each other's tactics and keep their actions separate from those of the other "wings" of the movement. Some anti-globalization demonstration even secured agreements that created multiple zones of protest in which different tactics could be deployed without, so the theory went, threatening other actions.

Protesters march outside a meeting of the IMF and World Bank in Washington, D.C.
Protesters march outside a meeting of the IMF and World Bank in Washington, D.C. (Matthew Bradley)

As a communiqué of the Anti-Capitalist Bloc, a grouping of anarchists and libertarian socialists organizing for the April 16, 2000, protest against the IMF and World Bank meetings in Washington, D.C., wrote:

We believe that the most effective protest is each group autonomously taking action and using tactics that they feel work best for their situation. We do not advocate one particular tactic, but believe that the greatest diversity of tactics is the most effective use of tactics. We are critical of ideologically motivated arguments that oppose this. This is why we do not believe that it is organizationally principled for any one group to set the guidelines for the protests or claim ownership of the movement.

"Diversity of tactics," then, is actually a way to short-circuit a discussion of tactics--everyone is "autonomous" and can therefore choose his or her tactics "freely." Any attempt to hold groups accountable for their actions to the movement as a whole is a "violation" of autonomy.

The "diversity of tactics" principle also prevents the discussion of broader strategic goals to which tactics might be related. As longtime global justice activist Starhawk recently put it, "I'm reluctant to accept a framework of diversity of tactics, because...once we accepted diversity of tactics, we actually stopped discussing both tactics and strategy."

But tactics without strategy--and worse, the elevation of tactics to the level of principle--leads to their fetishization.

TACTICS HAVE no meaning outside their relationship to strategy. To quote the famous theorist of war, Carl von Clausewitz, "[T]actics is the theory of the use of military forces in combat. Strategy is the theory of the use of combats for the object of the war." Translated into nonmilitary terms, tactics describes the methods used to achieve success in a particular action; strategy describes the use of these actions to achieve a particular objective.

What has been foremost in debates around tactics in the movement, unfortunately, is not how they strategically fit together to build the movement and achieve certain goals (indeed, according to some activists, the movement should not have any goals). Rather, the discussions tend to degenerate into moral debates on the merits of pacifism versus violence.

The circularity of the argument over tactics reflects the fact that pacifists and the Black Blockers are opposite sides of the same coin.

Pacifists are in principle against any tactics that involve violence. They elevate nonviolent tactics to the level of principle. To a consistent pacifist, a movement or a revolution under attack has no right to employ forcible methods to defend itself against the violence of the state aimed at destroying it. A pacifist, for example, might condemn the Egyptian revolutionaries defending Tahrir Square with bricks and rocks against Mubarak's armed thugs in the "Battle of the Camel" in February of 2011 because any use of violence is morally impermissible.

Black Bloc anarchists, on the other side of the coin, also raise tactics to the level of principle. They have no strategic conception of what tactics are for, precisely because for them, the tactic--street fighting (or, more often, window smashing, which can hardly be considered violent in the strict sense of the term)--is itself the purpose. They define themselves by the use of certain tactics (and clothing). They do not view tactics as part of a strategic orientation, because the tactic is itself the goal.

The Black Bloc has nothing in common with the street fighting in Tahrir Square or in Alexandria during the weeks before the fall of Mubarak. The Egyptian revolutionaries were engaging in a necessary tactic to defend the revolution against counterrevolution--and the tactic brought millions into the streets.

The street-fighting anarchists, on the other hand, see every demonstration as an "opportunity" for street fighting, and in principle, they see no reason to connect their tactic to conditions that arise organically out of the class struggle itself.

The Black Bloc is sectarian and elitist, setting itself apart from the movement by its style of dress, its masks and its attitude to other protesters, whom Black Blockers often denounce as an undifferentiated mass of "liberals."

Black Bloc anarchists don't see movements as something they involve themselves in, and build in solidarity with others, but as opportunities to employ their "tactics." Thus, an article posted on the Portland Occupier website--titled "Occupy the Black Bloc!" by Arlo Stone--describes movements such as Occupy as "incubation opportunities for black bloc to form and destroy property."

In more traditional anarchist parlance, what the Black Bloc engages in is a variant of "propaganda of the deed." Breaking windows of corporate-owned buildings and challenging cops is meant to "expose" the inherent violence of the state. "When we smash a window," explained an article in defense of the black bloc by the ACME collective shortly after the Battle of Seattle, "we aim to destroy the thin veneer of legitimacy that surrounds private property rights."

By any standard, this is pretty poor propaganda. It alienates the Black Bloc from the wider movement, and judging from the way the media has exploited images of property destruction at demonstrations in order to discredit protests, the propaganda effect seems to be more favorable to the other side rather than to ours. Moreover, as one anarchist sympathetic to the Black Bloc recently wrote ("Some thoughts inspired by the Oakland General Strike") of window breaking:

The economic damage is minimal. Often times, we break windows because we want to feel like "something is happening." We don't want to stand around waving signs and chanting while our world burns to a crisp. Yet in terms of impact on capitalism, all we did was create a market for more windows...Shutting down the Port of Oakland cost at least $8 million in shipping...

It's funny to think that those sitting around having a drum circle in front of the port did massively more damage to the capitalist beast than anybody who went home after the smashing was done.

MARXISTS DO not elevate particular tactics to the level of principle, but consider tactics to be, when used properly, links in a chain of actions that lead a struggle to success. For us, the successful use of tactics cannot be divorced from our conception of how movements, and ultimately revolutions, win.

Struggles cannot be successful without the active participation of large numbers of people. The emancipation of the working class, wrote Karl Marx, must be the act of the working class, not the act of a minority of self-selected leaders who fight on its behalf or substitute themselves for the mass--and certainly not by small brigades of young men in masks throwing rocks at corporate windows.

As Ahmed Shawki wrote, in the context of the 2001 mass demonstrations against the G8 summit in Genoa, Italy:

The question of tactics, of violence and nonviolence, must flow from the aims of the movement. The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky once said that if all it took was to yell "Charge!" in every battle, no matter what the balance of forces is, no matter the terrain, no matter who the enemy is, or no matter who's on your side, then any idiot can be a revolutionary general. Those who run the system have shown that they will respond violently against our movement. We can't go around simply talking about doing our own thing and expect that there won't be a price to pay.

Marxists don't equate the violence of the oppressor with the violence of the oppressed; the former is overwhelming, widespread and systematic. To expect a purely peaceful social revolution--particularly in the U.S., against what Martin Luther King once called "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today"--is to live in a fantasy world.

But at the same time, we don't fetishize violence or street fighting. For us, the most important question is how to build a movement that draws into it masses of workers and the oppressed.

We therefore can't accept, under the guise of "decentralization" or "diversity of tactics," the idea that anyone is free to do anything in our movements. Of course, on one level, this is always true. No one can really stop fools from behaving like fools. But no serious social struggle, whether it is a strike, an occupation, an anti-eviction campaign or a mass march, should consider the question of what to do and how it should be done settled by declaring "diversity of tactics."

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