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Some Key Strategic Issues

By Michael Albert

[The following is a lightly edited transcript of the 108th episode of the weekly podcast titled RevolutionZ.]

The great poet Maya Angelou said “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.” Perhaps the most obvious strategic observation one might make is that if you don’t try to win, odds strongly favor your losing. More generally, attitudes to winning and losing can be pivotal to movement’s immediate and longer term prospects in diverse ways.

What is in—and what should be in—our minds as we try to win a better world? That is the question. For one thing:

Winning Is Not Everything

The thing about winning is, it is pretty hard to say just what we mean. We strike for higher wages. We demonstrate to stop a meeting. We rally for a law. We disobey for a policy. We demand to end a war. We call it a victory if what we sought is accomplished.

The trouble is, to win the battle does not mean winning the war. To attain a step forward does not even guarantee that we are ready to win more steps forward. That a victory can lead to a debacle, is one thing, and is actually widely understood, though sometimes largely ignored. But we have something different in mind.

Suppose we hold massive gatherings at some site to stop a meeting of the IMF, or NATO, or whatever. We successfully interrupt the meeting, or maybe even get it canceled. We typically call this a victory and, to an extent, it is.

Or suppose we are in an electoral contest. We go to some state in our country for a presidential primary or some analogous vote, and we tally more dissident votes than anyone thought possible. Or we seek some office, and garner sufficient votes to win it.

We call these accomplishments a victory and, to a degree, they are.

So what does “winning isn’t everything” mean? In the first example, we cancel the meeting. Nice. But a canceled meeting is only a small setback for the institution we’re fighting. We might have won a small skirmish. There is a still a whole war ahead.

So did our participants come away empowered to seek more and other gains in the future? Did our organizational capacity increase? Did the broader public get positively informed? Are larger numbers of people than before interested in our efforts, and receptive to supporting and joining us?

Think back to movement examples from the past and consider, did movement commentary focus more on the proximate aim (for example stopping a meeting) or more on the lasting dynamics (for example, developing more activist infrastructure and support than before the events)?

In the second example, we tally lots of votes, or win an office. Nice. Winning includes that.

But again, one more progressive representative in a corporate-dominated government is not really our end-goal. So do those who worked on the campaigns come away empowered to seek more in the future? Do we leave new organizational infrastructure in our wake, able to galvanize new campaigns? Did the broader public, even beyond the immediate voters, get positively informed? Are larger numbers than before interested in our efforts?

If the answers to these types of question are negative, then the proximate victory for our campaign, demand, office seeking, or whatever, is relatively hollow. When planning, later discussing, or finally evaluating our experiences, to focus mainly on some proximate aim and whether it was accomplished, will likely be a delimiting and debilitating mistake. We are not reformists where each effort exists unto itself. We are seeking a new society. Each effort either contributes to that, or it has fallen short.

And by the same broad logic:

Losing Is Not Nothing

Take the same examples as above, or any others. We sit in, but are removed without shutting down our target. We occupy, but are removed without retaining hold on our turf. We run for office, but get a paucity of votes. We demand x, but fail to win x. And so on.

We lost our proximate aim, in each case. Not nice, but not necessarily nothing.

Did our efforts yield more supporters than before we started? In the broader public, did we induce increased receptivity? Were our participants and supporters uplifted, made more conscious and empowered–not at the moment, but into the future? Do we have better organization and understanding after than we had before the events? Have we prepared ourselves to mount stronger and deeper efforts in the future?

If the answers to these questions are yes, then the proximate loss is, actually, not a failure. In that case, losing is not nothing. Rather, losing, when these answers are positive, is hardly even an apt descriptor. On the main points, which is those bearing on the long haul, we won.

The phrase “you lose, you lose, you lose, you win,” comes from the German revolutionary, Rosa Luxembourg. What does it mean?

You lose. You fail to attain some immediate goal. Let’s say it is worse still, you not only miss the proximate goal, you don’t amass more support, you don’t generate raised consciousness, you don’t construct or strengthen your means to seek more. Still, though the loss can be devastating—as in stopping you cold and having no apparent positive benefits—it can also instead be a source of insights that inform your development, and by those lessons it can help lead to better outcomes in the future. That is one meaning of Luxembourg’s words. The second meaning is that you only need to win once. Never let a defeat, even a comprehensive defeat, serve as anything other than a spur to do better as soon as possible.

One rather common mindset is to regularly look at self and see only perfection, finding whatever you can to praise and defending it unto death. A nearly opposite mindset is to regularly look at self and recognize and enjoy achievement but, mostly, look for flaws and vigorously correct them. This seems trivial and obvious. We are not perfect. We get better only by finding faults and making corrections. But, in practice, it is not so easy to do. Ego gets in the way. Defensiveness and insecurity get in the way. Jockeying for status gets in the way. So does a feeling that admitting weaknesses and flaws will somehow undermine potential, whereas keeping quiet about or even hiding weaknesses and flaws, and reporting only positive attributes while even exaggerating them—will enhance potentials.

Wrongheaded, it is, but also prevalent. Consider a large scale instance. People who were active in the 1960s movements often talk about the 1960s, sometimes writing about them. When doing so, especially for public consumption, there is a tendency to get very agitated that critique will hurt prospects to seek change in the future. A rose tinted picture will inspire. Shoot the bringer of bad reports. But this is nonsense.

If reports are accurate they convey real information. If reports reveal inadequacies, they convey useful information that can inform changes. If, in fact, there were no big flaws, or few, as many chroniclers like to believe, then that would be very bad news. We did not win a new world. If we did everything optimally, without problems of our own, how could anyone later do anything better?

Finding a real flaw is good, not bad, whether we are looking at past actions, organizations, or ideologies. A growth-oriented approach doesn’t trash what is worthy, but it doesn’t shy away from truthfully reporting flaws, either. This is the road to enhancing strengths and removing weaknesses.

In reporting and addressing problems, however, there is a pitfall that needs to be avoided. It is addressing everything but that which we can actually affect, whining about it, we might almost say, all to no avail, or, even worse, replacing addressing what we can fix. To be more specific, think of activists as having a certain amount of time and energy available to focus on understanding some problems, and trying to address them.

Everything insightful helps, arguably, but some things have a greater likelihood of mattering than others. Bemoaning, for example, that authorities—police and others—will oppose one’s actions gets nowhere. It is whining. So is, for example, bemoaning that mainstream media will not honestly—or at all—report our endeavors. One can certainly analyze these facts to death, but it leads nowhere, save perhaps into depression. What matters, instead, is thinking through viable routes forward despite media and the authorities acting on their agendas.

One of the most frequent and constant–rightly–worrisome conditions of activist efforts which will apply, as well, to those guided by ideas like those here, is our composition. On the one hand, are there enough people involved to succeed? On the other hand, is the background of the people involved diverse enough and balanced enough among different sectors of people for success to actually capture the desires of all those impacted?

Worrying about this often entails people trotting out the facts of the situation, and bemoaning them, ad infinitum. Maybe this occurs just at the level of society’s ills—society is racist, sexist, classist—and, as a result, we don’t have enough blacks, women, or workers.

Sometimes it goes another step, due to society’s oppressive features, people in different constituencies are under different time pressures, have different expectations, feel different burdens, have different confidence, and so on, and so turn out to provide leadership in different proportions. So far, though, the observations, however insightful, are merely bemoaning root causes.

Another step which takes the whole discussion in a different direction is to ask, What are we doing that is hurting turnout from under-represented sectors, whatever they may be, in the movement, or, even better, what might we do that would increase turnout from under-represented sectors? This has hopes of accomplishing gains, not just bemoaning problems, for overcoming whatever types of imbalance our efforts may be suffering.

I was in a row boat with Tom Hayden, one of the Chicago Eight, literally on Golden Pond when I first heard a phrase that stuck with me now for over forty years. He said: Do Not Snatch Defeat from the Jaws of Victory.

We understand society’s power to restrain and even crush dissent, and, when that fails, to co-opt its efforts. The logic is simple. If movements seek some goal—x—and elites want to block attaining x, then they will work hard to do so, surreptitiously, overtly, covertly, every which way that they can get away with without unintentionally strengthening our dissent.

Suppose, however, that they fail. They have to give in. They must grant x. What do they do?

Consider labor movement victories for union rights, or higher wages, or better work hours, and so on. Or consider green victories for pollution laws, clean up efforts, and so on. Or feminist victories for fairer wages, affirmative action, abortion rights, and so on. Or anti-racist victories for affirmative action, civil rights legislation, restraints on police, etc.

Or peace victories, curtailing violence, even winning peace. Whatever it may be, elites are not dumb. They play to win. But when they lose, they try to make the best of it. This takes two forms.

First, they take credit for the humane change that movements won. They pass a law or enact a policy, or whatever, and they say they are doing it despite, not because of, the movement. It is their largesse, despite the movement’s insanity, that has enacted change, they say. The reason they do this is simple.

They understand that if they can usurp credit from the movement to themselves, they can turn the tide of the events causing the movement to feel alienated, weak, and timid, and can even gain kudos for themselves, with the broad public. Indeed, by claiming credit for progressive changes, politicians can even steal loyalty from movements. People begin to believe that they must keep those politicians in power in order to keep the gains that have been made and gain further, instead of realizing that they can rely on movements.

Movements should expect this. Movements should not see politicians and other officials claiming credit for what the movements have forced them to do, and become frustrated and alienated and ill disposed to persist. The aim in the first place wasn’t to elicit elite praise. The aim was to win the change—which was achieved—and to develop the capacity to win more changes. So movements should not snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by letting elites alienate, disparage, and diminish them. Movements, should, instead, clarify the truth and prove it by pushing ahead even more strongly.

The second way elites try to make the best of a bad situation is to try to coopt, corrupt, or later reverse the situation. They will oppose unions with incredible vigor and violence, but, when unions clearly are inevitable, they will start to engage with them, seeking to buy them off, distort their agendas, etc. You can see it at every level. Elites may vigorously support a dictator, for example, Mubarak in Egypt, until he clearly is doomed, then they prioritize, instead, infiltrating and engaging with the opposition they were trying to forestall, seeking to delimit its aims, and in time to corrupt its priorities and means. If movements win wage increases against strenuous opposition, elites lick their wounds only briefly. They then raise prices and prepare to get back the advantage by any means available.

Elites play to win, and never stop playing. The movement response has to be to take a comparably long view, plus seek a steady accrual of movement members, allies, and means—or any gains movements achieve will be perverted or rolled back.

Of course, the ultimate logic is that, in time, if movements are to defend even prior modest gains, much less attain full liberation, they must transform the society whose old institutions are the source of the roll back pressures. Amilcar Cabral, the great Cape Verdean revolutionary, used to say, “tell no lies, claim no easy victories.” This has diverse meanings.

“The truth is always revolutionary,” the Italian revolutionary, Gramsci, said, and that is one meaning. But Cabral’s version was that we should not only be honest with others, but also with ourselves. To pat ourselves on the back in the deluded belief that doing so will enhance our appeal, or because we will then feel better, is mistaken. Worse, claiming that we are making great progress—having victories—when we are not, is a self delusion that precludes assessing our own weaknesses to correct them. It is a road to our failings multiplying and diversifying and enlarging—even as we are celebrating up to the point of full and total defeat. It may seem that this is so utterly obvious that no one could possibly miss the point. But that would be mistaken.

Consider peace activism. As one graphic instance, demonstrations around the world prior to the invasion of Iraq numbered in the many millions, let’s say twelve million, as many reports at the time concluded. As time went on, there were other demonstrations. Each time, many would claim victory due to the hard-won turnout. But these turnouts were not “easy victories,” but harsh defeats, in truth, because the numbers involved were declining, dramatically, when they should have been rising. Nothing should have been a higher strategic priority, in the moment, than to understand the decline in antiwar turnout, and in finding its causes to reverse them.

One could give numerous similar examples, but let’s take just one more, from Venezuela. The Bolivarian movement there, with each new election, has celebrated not just winning, but a giant victory for the movement. Yet in many of these elections the margin of victory declined rather than climbed, and certainly did not climb as it ought to have given that the movement is in office. So the movement claimed “easy victory,” while ignoring the real attrition and its causes and implications.

In such celebrations of victories that really are evidence of decline—or at least less gain than ought to be present—lessons are rarely assembled, and rectification of reasons for decline are barely, if at all, proposed. The other side, meanwhile, notices the trajectory, not the final tally, and goes back to work.

Organizing Mindsets

Turning to another issue, apocalyptic organizing is a widespread and very understandable problem. Indeed, many act like it is a virtue, and use the inclination to exaggerate, rather than trying to overcome it. What it means is that we organize as if the world will literally end if what we are doing is not perfectly successful. We organize as if full victory must come now, or disaster unfolds forever. We organize as if the lives of people will be lost, if we don’t do whatever we have set out to do—or what someone else has set out for us to do, right now.

It isn’t that the dangers and costs are necessarily unreal. Sometimes they are quite real. It is the mode of trying to motivate people—not by what can be achieved, not by the clarity and wisdom of the aims and the validity and prospects of the means, but simply by repeating and sometimes even exaggerating the magnitude of the issues at stake.

More, we sometimes organize as if what we are urging is not only, without question, priority one, is not only the only moral thing to do but, also, as if our doing it will solve all problems, end injustice forever, and so on. We have no long view. We have no patience. We are constantly urgent. We act like the world is heading for a cliff and if the person we are trying to reach, or we ourselves, don’t jump in and grab it, it will go over. We lose track of multiform variables and focus only on some proximate aim which, in worst cases, is sometimes even rhetorically inflated to the point of being delusional. This is the opposite of a sober and careful approach. It is the opposite of an informed sense of proportion. It is the opposite of honesty, sometimes.

Apocalyptic organizing may attract some reckless folks to act, but it does not build lasting and informed commitment and insight. Nor does it retain a sense of what success really is, and thus attention to the many variables that one must address to win lasting gains. If every appeal of this sort over the past fifty years was accurate the world would have literally expired many times over. Similarly, if every event or action that was organized on the grounds it would win gigantic change in and of itself—so that only a fool would refrain—had the attributes it claimed, then we would have won gigantic change, over and over.

But the fact is, the world hasn’t ended, and gigantic change on the heels of single projects has never occurred. What has occurred, instead, is people learning to discount movement rhetoric, including becoming skeptical of the integrity of movement organizers, and, on the other hand, movement people themselves, vested in their own rhetoric, becoming despondent when promises fail to materialize.

At the same time, what makes it hard to be patient and sober rather than apocalyptic about reality, is that we also need to be audacious. It is a hard combination. Audacity requires that we repeatedly challenge widely accepted norms. It means that we seek ends that seem distant. It means we stare at tremendous obstacles and ask, simply, which route will get us through, however long it may take. Audacity is the underdog who never for a moment gives the slightest thought to surrender, but who also never denies the real conditions at hand.

What is hard is to be audacious, but admit reality. One aspect of audacity is not about behavior, but about thought. It is a kind of method. Take for granted that there is to be eventual total victory and a new world will be won. In our case, take for granted that in the future we will attain a society with a transformed economy, polity, kinship, and culture, and with ecological stewardship and internationalism.

Okay, now comes the mental trick, the mindset that can help, a lot. One way to think strategically is to think forwards. Carefully assess current conditions. Assess the assets the movement has—consciousness, members, and organization. Assess desires that exist. And, in light of it all, formulate demands or program or projects aimed to utilize assets, account for desires, and move forward.

However, another way to think strategically is to work backward. Ask what is most likely to exist shortly before final victory. What structures will need to be in place? What mindset attained? What membership committed? Then, go back another step, and another. One won’t get the path perfectly envisioned, of course—even less so than thinking forward—but with this approach, one can begin to discern milestones that must be attained, and even the broad character of paths by which they might be attained.

Take victory as a given, and think backward. Take current conditions as a given—presenting them accurately—and think forward. Both are part of being strategic.

The next point is simple, but important, though perhaps redundant of things said already, so we will keep it very brief. We undertake a campaign, a project, a struggle, a construction. We are audacious but flexible. We are steadfast, but we also have to realize what ought to be obvious: we might not succeed in the immediate effort.

However, we function so that whether we succeed or not at our proximate aim, we learn, we leave gains, and we contribute to a long term process, albeit perhaps less than we had hoped. But we cannot guarantee that everything we try will work, and that every insight we have will prove accurate and operationally sound. Because we can achieve, we try to achieve. Because we will win, long term, we try to be sure our efforts contribute to that long-term success. However, we do not assume we are right. We do not assume our every thought is wisdom for the ages. We do not assume every disagreement with us demonstrates ignorance without limit.

We are eager and we try. We are humble and we learn. This is not easy. We won’t always succeed at this mindset any more than we will always succeed at every other aim we have. But, if we try, and if we support one another trying, we will succeed in mind and practice more often than not.

Fight to Win

Another strategic insight about mindset addresses a slogan that has existed a long time on the left, at least the American left, and probably in variants elsewhere, too: “be on the side of the angels.” It is horrible, not because it means we should do good, be ethical, etc., but because angels are dead. The slogan conveys an expectation of defeat. Be on the side of the angels communicates that I will go down fighting, but I will go down—I will lose. The associated mindset eliminates the need to be strategic. It eliminates the need to hone one’s skills and talents. It eliminates the need to correct one’s errors. Why should I bother with all of that if I am going to lose anyway? All one needs to do is to be sure one knows that one is good, others know one is good, and whatever will be will be. This stance by a movement says to those assessing the movement that it is not about, and does not expect, to win. So, unless one is masochistic, why join?

Another of these seemingly trivial insights is that Looking in the Mirror Is only Preening

This is just more of the same. Its advocate says, I want to be able to get up in the morning and look at myself in the mirror and smile. I want to respect myself. There is nothing wrong with that, except, again, the implicit, and even explicit, message that self respect is just a matter of having the right values. If I have those, then I am ethical, I am moral, I can look at myself without seeing a monster.

But what about actually affecting the world? How about that I should need to know not only that I have made ethical choices, but also wise choices from the point of view of contributing to social justice, wise from the point of view of contributing to creating a new world? If I don’t believe such a world is winnable, obviously I cannot have that as a criteria for self respect. If I do believe another world is winnable, I can.

The slogan correlates with people not believing they will win, but just feeling a need to be virtuous in a losing cause. Again, this stance says to those assessing a movement that it is not about and does not expect to win. So, unless one is masochistic, why join?

More of the same arrives at the conclusion that fighting the Good Fight is surrendering. Believing one will lose, and exuding that belief, and, even more so, acting in ways consistent with it, comes in many forms—but it is always deadly.

Suppose you are going to play one-on-one basketball with Lebron James or you are going to have a running race with Usain Bolt, or a sing-off with (a reincarnated, no less) Ella Fitzgerald. You are going to lose any such contest, clearly. If you train hard, you are going to lose. If you study and strategize, you are going to lose. If you discover weaknesses you have, and work to fix them, you are going to lose. In fact, whatever you do, you are going to get obliterated. So what do you do?

Well, you might sensibly, in this case, worry about something you can affect. How will I look? What will be my posture? What will be my stance after losing? What will

I wear? Will my smile maintain my friendships? And so on. I will address stuff I can affect which can, in turn, have implications. I will fight the good fight, looking good, trying to feel good, trying to help some others feel good, even as I lose.

But as for training hard, studying hard, strategizing, and correcting my weaknesses, I could do all that vigorously and endlessly and I would still lose pretty much identically as if I did none of it—and so, why waste time on all that?

Fighting the good fight means looking good, feeling good, exerting fully, trying to put up a good show, as you inevitably lose. It obviates any need for trying to win… because you simply cannot—and it is regrettably a prevalent stance of opponents of injustice, one that must be left in history’s dustbin or it will guarantee that our projects wind up there instead.

All the above is simple to say and easy to ignore or dismiss as obvious—but not so simple to implement…

[Try to support our podcast. We do need the help. That said, and maybe I ought to say it more often, this is Michael Albert signing off until next time for RevolutionZ.]

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