Saturday, March 1, 2014

On Strategy

There’s a lot of talk these days about strategy, and that’s great. A lot of people are getting fed up with the pointless activist treadmill. What’s the point of going through the motions of resistance if it doesn’t get us anywhere – it’s about time we started fighting to win!

But there’s some confusion about what thinking and acting strategically really means. Too often strategy is confused with tactics, leaving no connection to our larger goals. In the other direction we can become so focused on the distant horizon that we lose sight of the present, failing to connect our talk of strategy with the struggles we're engaging in right now.

So what is strategy?

Borrowing from Military Strategy

As a starting point for talking about strategy, I’m going to borrow the “levels of war” framework and “principles of war” from the United States Army Field Manual of Military Operations (FM 3–0).

Before I go further, let me clarify why I’m using an army field manual as a source. It isn’t because I hold up the U.S. military as model for us to follow. I don’t. Or even that I see the revolutionary project as a military one. It's not.

Frankly, the left has a long track record of working hard to bend reality to match ideology, and it can be hard to sift through writing on revolutionary strategy trying to decide which bits are worth keeping and which are dead-end wishful thinking or worse. Official military strategy writing has the advantage that its primary motivation is to be effective rather than to justify an ideology.

Of course, borrowing from authoritarian military theory requires a different sort of critical eye. Although much of the framework and abstract concepts related to strategy remain the same, our project has a fundamentally different objective and a fundamentally different means to achieve it. Thus we must be willing to reject parts that are incompatible with our project.

I’d add that there are a wide range of sources on general strategic concepts, from ancient works such as Sun Tzu’s The Art of War or even the game of Go.

Levels of Struggle

Let’s start by looking at the framework presented in United States Army Field Manual of Military Operations. The field manual lays out three “levels of war”: strategic, operational, and tactical. This can be a useful framework for adapting into “levels of struggle” for our own purposes.

These levels have some overlap and are sometimes simplified to just strategy and tactics and sometimes broken down further into finer levels. What’s important is that there is a spectrum of planning and action, each level blurring into and feeding into the next. Strategic plans drive operational plans which drive tactical plans. And it goes the other way, too--tactical actions contribute to operational objectives which contribute to strategic objectives.

At the highest level is strategy, sometimes broken out further into high or grand strategy at the top. In the military context, this highest level concerns high-level plans to win the war. In a revolutionary context, this would concern the working class organizing and acting to successfully carry out a revolutionary transformation of society.

At the bottom is the tactical level. In the military context, the lowest tactic level is concerned with small unit actions that contribute to larger battles. In the revolutionary context, this level is concerned with individual fights.

So far so good. 

One way we can get hung up is to fixate on one to the exclusion of the other. This often shows up through the balance (or imbalance) of theory vs action. Sometimes revolutionaries can go on about the intricacies of revolutionary theory as if we’re generals directing an army when we’re really an army of one arguing with other would-be generals. 

On the flip side, revolutionaries can swing the other way and focus on small action after small action. Sometimes there is no plan and the actions all fail. Other times there is a plan and even a lot of successes but no plan to build on victories to grow towards larger strategic objectives.

One bit of confusion is that when there is a plan for the small fights, this tactical plan is often referred to as the “strategy” for the individual fight. This is just being a bit loose with terminology, but it can mask the fact that in reality, there is no strategy, no plan to link up small fights into bigger fights and ultimately to the overall revolution.

The Operational Level

So, how do we bridge the gap from tactical to strategic? That’s where the operational level comes in. While tactical is concerned with small actions that contribute to battles, and strategic is concerned with winning the war, the operational level sits in the middle. Strategic plans are broken down into operational objectives that combine to contribute to strategic goals. Operational plans are developed that coordinate a series of tactical actions in time and place. Actions then reverse this chain—tactical successes combine to satisfy operational objectives. Operational successes contribute to strategic goals.

The field manual reminds us that “a string of tactical victories does not guarantee success at the operational and strategic levels. Tactical success, while required to set operational conditions, must be tied to attaining the strategic end state. Wars are won at the operational and strategic levels; yet without tactical success, a major operation cannot achieve the desired end state.” (ch. 6)

Unfortunately, the operational level is where we are most lacking. Most of the discussions we are involved in or the actions we participate in fall at the ends of the spectrum—individual or small group tactics at one end, and high-level revolutionary theory at the other. We get excited about large mass mobilizations, but we participate and organize at the small group level with no ability to coordinate effectively for larger objectives.

Principles of Struggle

That said, what are some strategic principles that might be useful for bridging the gap between tactics and strategy?

The field manual lists nine principles (Appendix A: Principles of War and Operations):
  • Objective: direct every operation toward a clearly defined, decisive, and attainable objective
  • Offensive: seize, retain, and exploit the initiative
  • Mass: concentrate the effects of power at the decisive place and time
  • Economy of Force: allocate minimum essential power to secondary efforts [this will need to be modified for our purposes]
  • Maneuver: place the enemy in a disadvantageous position through the flexible application of power
  • Unity of Command: for every objective, ensure unity of effort under one responsible commander [this will need to be turned on its head for our purposes]
  • Security: never permit the enemy to acquire an unexpected advantage
  • Surprise: strike the enemy at a time or place or in a manner for which he is unprepared
  • Simplicity: prepare clear, uncomplicated plans and clear, concise orders to ensure thorough understanding

There’s a lot of good stuff here, along with some things that clearly don’t apply for us. I’ll briefly touch on each one.


This is a great set of criteria for every level from tactical to strategic. You can’t succeed if you don’t know what success even is, so it’s important that each action has a clearly defined objective. Decisive means that if you win, you will be left in a better position and your enemy in a weaker position. In choosing an objective, it’s important that you choose one that leads you closer to your higher level operational or strategic goals. And lastly, it has to be attainable—you have to honestly size up your strengths and weaknesses as well as those of your enemy so that you can choose an action that is within your current ability. This doesn’t mean that you focus only on easy wins, but there’s no point in walking into certain failure.


We can’t win if you’re always on the defensive. It’s important to find opportunities to struggle on our own terms, forcing our enemy to go on the defensive. Once we seize the initiative, it’s important to hold onto it and use it to our advantage. We’ll know we have the initiative if we find that we are choosing our actions, forcing the enemy to react, and then moving on to our next offensive action rather than getting bogged down in counter-reaction.

If we are forced to go on the defensive, it’s important to look for opportunities to turn things around, even if it means accepting a short-term loss to create space for a new offensive.


Concentrating efforts is critical for us. We are currently small and weak, but by concentrating efforts, we can gather what strength we have and focus at the same time and place to exploit our enemy’s weakness. As a general rule, the stronger side wins, but it’s the strength brought to bear in a specific struggle that counts.

Economy of Force

This is one principle that different for us. A national military has a relatively fixed size and needs to allocate resources efficiently to maximize effectiveness. For us, our strength and really our only hope for success is in growth.

We need to be careful to avoid wasting energy on secondary efforts that neither further our strategic goals nor build our strength, but the people that we organize have their own desires and goals. If we veto their ideas in the name of efficiency, we will drive them away and stifle our growth. It is not efficient to narrow our focus to the extent of stifling growth. And this is more than just a practical consideration of efficiency—bringing people together and empowering them to realize their dreams collectively is a fundamental principle of bottom-up grassroots struggle.


For us this is more of an abstract concept than the military concept of positioning soldiers physically for maximum advantage. Still, we need to seek out our enemy’s vulnerabilities in order to flank them. Much like a military has strong defensive lines in certain places where they anticipate attack, an employer or government builds up various defenses based on past actions that they found most threatening.

Just as we must concentrate our offensive strength, our enemy is concentrating their defenses leaving gaps and light defenses where they feel safe. For instance in labor struggles, there is a long history of fights within the structure of the NLRB. Employers often anticipate efforts to come at them from this direction and hire union busters that can put up a strong defense. Meanwhile there may be other vulnerabilities that we can maneuver to exploit.

Unity of Command

As bottom-up democracy is fundamental to our fight, this principle is clearly at odds with our fundamental principles. At the same time, it is true that we are weaker when we are working at cross purposes to ourselves. We must turn this concept upside down. With free discussion and negotiation across our organizations we must try to unify our efforts and setup structures keeping us accountable to ourselves.


While we should strive to stay on the offensive, we need to be careful to avoid missteps that open us up for attack. Remember, we want our enemies to be frustrated that they are on the defensive and unable to get the advantage over us. Sometimes it’s beyond our control, but we should anticipate it and have a plan to defend and later re-seize the initiative.


If we are on the offensive and flexible enough to maneuver, we can strike the enemy at a time or place or in a manner for which he is unprepared. Part of this means that we should remember that one of our strengths is our creativity. We shouldn’t get hung up on one tactic or target. Once we get predictable, our enemy will eventually regroup and come up with stronger countermeasures.


This is a key principle. Though we aren’t giving top-down orders, we need to democratically come up with a plan that everyone involved understands. The simpler the plan, the more people we can get involved and the more the individuals acting can take ownership of the struggle and drive it through to success.

This is one of the problems with arcane theoretical discussions on the left. Even if the analysis is correct, it is of little use if it can’t be understood by the large numbers of people we wish to have involved in the struggle. In order to grow, we need to reach people where they are at and help them to be effective without extensive professional training or blind obedience to orders too complicated for them to understand.

Applying Strategic Principles

So how can we apply these principles to our organizing and struggles?

First, we have to recognize where we are and where we hope to get to. In the U.S., we aren’t quite starting from scratch, but we’ve just begun to take our first few steps. At present, the IWW has a few thousand members, with no more than a couple hundred in any one city—most cities just have small groups from 5-30 members. Organized class struggle anarchists are at most a few hundred across the U.S., with no cities having grown beyond the small group level. Over the past few years several Solidarity Networks have been organized based on the model of SeaSol. Though some have impressive circles of hundreds of supporters, none have more than 100 active members.

The rest of the revolutionary left consists of an assortment of small authoritarian sects, foundation-funded non-profits, and bizarre cults. None are larger than the IWW and with rare exceptions, none are particularly relevant to anti-authoritarian revolutionaries beyond their influence within the insular activist scene.

The numbers are small but steadily growing, but more important than numbers, over the past 10-20 years there has been growth in ability and maturity of praxis. Still, our capabilities are primarily at the small group level, and we have had very limited success in coordinating struggle at a higher level between groups.

Where we hope to get to can be glimpsed at large mobilizations such as the WTO protests in Seattle and more recently the large Occupy mobilizations. The numbers involved belie the strength we hope to build, though. This presents the distinction between mobilizing and organizing. In the large mobilizations, unorganized workers showed up by the tens of thousands and acted together for common aims, but just as they arrived unorganized, they acted and returned home unorganized. Still, everyone who came out saw a glimpse of what is possible if we can get organized.

Only by organizing thousands in multiple cities can we hope to build the sort of strategic power needed for bottom-up revolutionary change. And part of that is finding ways to coordinate small groups according to the principles of struggle I outlined above.

But how do we get from here to there? At the high level, discussion of strategy needs to be grounded according to the principles of Objective and Simplicity. But more importantly, the primary theoretical need is bridging the operational gap between strategic and tactical. We need a theory of 1000 and a plan to get there grounded in our present-day small group realities.

At the tactical level, we need to continue to grow and learn. And again, we need to find ways that tactical successes can be used to bridge the gap to strategic plans from below. We need to apply the principles of Objective, Offensive, Mass, and Maneuver to turn tactical successes into operational advances and organizing growth.

In this way, we can begin to think and act more strategically, turning tactical victories into strategic advances and ultimately winning the struggle!