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A Critique of Strategy

Published in the 1st edition of The Woodbloc (@the_woodbloc), a paper written by and written for the people

The question of tactics and organization remains a crucial question for the left today as we struggle to radically transform the world, as we struggle to abolish the old and construct the new. Indeed, we cannot avoid asking the critical questions posed by all genuine revolutionaries: What kinds of organizational forms, tactics, and modes of cooperation will allow us to become protagonists of history, so that we not only endure history, but actively intervene so as to make it?  

The anti-authority, anti-institutional, purely ‘spontaneist’ position is, in my view, a nonstarter. Historically speaking, no revolutionary effort has succeeded on the basis of abstractly rejecting the problem of organizing and giving form to a mass movement. Organization does not simply happen ‘spontaneously’. Organizing is a process, a colossal effort not merely to keep a movement alive, but to allow it to develop, to become richer and richer as it takes hold of and remakes reality by giving expression to existing social, political, and economic contradictions. And as this process unfolds, we not only change the world, but ourselves. This, in fact, is the meaning of praxis in the Marxist sense of the term: We can only change reality by adequately understanding reality in its many-sided, contradictory character.  

But even this statement needs to be qualified. Correct understanding in and of itself is no guarantee of achieving our aims. For theory must be substantiated in practice. The aims we develop through the rational comprehension of a practical problem––the prospects of success and the prospects of failure, or sometimes even situations in which we stand to gain and to lose something––cannot be separated from reality itself as a process. Thought forms a part of and can help clarify reality, but reality is not reducible to thought. We can try to organize perfectly, devising plans and actions grounded in correct theory, and yet still discover that things did not turn out as we had intended. But this is not to be lamented; failure is inevitable and it can become the occasion for correcting our theory and practice. More lamentable is realizing you failed because you had neither goals nor any sense of organization to begin with. More on this later…  

Today, many radicals on the left posit a false opposition between organization and spontaneity. Typically, spontaneity is treated as the superior pole of the opposition.

Intuitively, this makes sense. Spontaneity is perceived as creative and ‘horizontalist’, allowing for a greater degree of autonomy and flexibility. Organization, on the other hand, is often associated with stultifying order, bound to authority, norms, and an excessively rationalist approach to political action that leaves little room for spontaneity. I would like to propose, however, that we must overcome this limited standpoint. In order to develop tactics and strategies adequate to the present situation, we must think of the relationship between organization and spontaneity dialectically. Let me elaborate.  

Spontaneity on its own is not identical with a greater degree of autonomy/creativity. Similarly, organization on its own is not identical with a greater degree of success in practical terms. Rather, spontaneity and organization are relative to each other. One presupposes the other and, in practice, they must sustain each other. Thus, forms of organization simply imposed on people from above––that is, not arrived at through the conscious self-activity of those engaged in social and political struggle––are bound to fail. At the same time, spontaneous actions without organization and without theoretical comprehension, without the resolve and strength necessary to sustain a prolonged radical struggle, are bound to dissipate beneath the weight of a world which presents obstacles to radical change at every turn, particularly in the form of state repression.  

Just the other day, a protest here in Eugene ended in defeat, if not humiliation. The protest took place on Indigenous Day of Rage––in solidarity with the struggles of Indigenous people against the genocidal logic of settler-colonialism. The march began with the placing flowers at the base of a new mural depicting, among other subjects, Charlie Landeros, a radical activist murdered by the EPD, and passionate denunciations of the U.S. government’s dispossession of indigenous peoples’ bodies and lands. Then, as we approached campus, the march suddenly came to a halt. People looked at each other confusedly, as though waiting for a solution to miraculously drop from the sky. Yet nothing happened. Someone valiantly spoke up and expressed their exhaustion: “I am tired of marching endlessly. What are we going to do? ” they asked. In fact, I had been wondering about this since the march began. A comrade, perhaps noticing my infirmity, asked me if I was okay. In the midst of a march grounded in disorganized spontaneity, with no established goals and strategies, with no collective planning and coordination, I felt stifled, even alienated; I did not feel ‘autonomous’. I felt unsafe as we dispersed and a parade of pig cars suddenly emerged from the shadows, as though to taunt us with their victory. While the protest encouraged ‘autonomous’ action, the conditions for autonomous action, which can only be collectively coordinated, were entirely absent.  

So, the classic question: What is to be done? It is difficult to say, because the future cannot be predetermined in advance. Only praxis––the unity of theory and action––can reshape the world in the process of struggle itself. At the same time, praxis is only an approximation, offering no guarantees in overcoming the gap between the world as it is and the world we demand. One thing, though, needs to be made clear: Autonomy is not a free-for-all sequence of actions, a chaotic event in which everyone does what they want, in which anything goes. Autonomy, in the genuine sense of the word, means subordinating ourselves to common goals and formulating strategies and tactics toward their concrete realization. This does not prevent spontaneity, but provides the latter with the kind of solidarian infrastructure it requires to blossom and possibly redraw the very boundaries of our struggles. Anything less is doomed to failure. In a famous letter, Marx once said the following: “The reform of consciousness consists only i n making the world aware of its own consciousness, in awakening it out of its dream about itself, in explaining to it the meaning of its own actions.” We must wake up from the comfortable mistiness of the spontaneist dream.

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