Steve Williams

Strategy Makes Possible the Unimaginable

Strategy Makes Possible the Unimaginable
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By Steve Williams

“This is the most important election of our lives.” – Just about every opinion piece published in the last nine months.

We’ve all heard it that claim about the 2020 elections. Some of us are trying to influence the election results, and some of us aren’t. While I have an opinion about the election, I am convinced that we need a better way of addressing the differences if we want our movements to be better positioned to confront the existential challenges facing us.

Before continuing, I want to make clear who I mean when I say “we.” This article is written to leftists engaged in social movements throughout the United States. To define what I mean by leftist, I draw from Chilean activist Marta Harnecker who defined the Left as the broad “array of forces that oppose the capitalist system and its profit motive.” It’s that grouping that I’m mostly referring to when I say “we” in this article.

BACK TO OUR REGULARLY SCHEDULED PROGRAMMING…

Across the country, hundreds of organizers and activists are rolling up our sleeves and, even in the midst of the pandemic, we are identifying voters with the aim of delivering a people’s eviction notice to the self-styled white nationalist occupying the White House. Others of us are abstaining from electoral work and instead doubling down on efforts to build the movement infrastructure and momentum we need.

As in electoral years past, this difference prompted heated “debates,” polemics and name-calling about whether supporting the Democratic candidate is strategic. This year is no different.

Already, there have been letters written and circulated, denouncing other leftists, and there are still weeks until the election. As in previous years, all too many of this year’s “debates” produce more heat and conflict than they do light and clarity, especially given the political reality that left forces currently have insufficient power or organization to carry out the type of social transformation that is necessary.

One of my many hopes is that 2020 will mark the year that our movement begins to take on practices that help us to move past rhetorical free-for-alls and towards building a movement capable of achieving socialist liberation.

I am a member and co-founder of LeftRoots, an organization of movement organizers and activists which is built on the premise that if our movements deepen our understanding of liberatory strategy, we will finally be able to debate in a way that we will be more powerful regardless of the outcome on November 4 (or November 14 or whatever day we actually find out the results).

JOE BIDEN IS NO BERTA CACERES

A key challenge with the 2020 election for those of us on the Left is the infuriating reality that Joe Biden is the only realistic alternative to the megalomaniacal capitalist who has manipulated presidential power, rallying white nationalist and misogynist movements to advance the interests of reactionary capitalists.

Of course, there are some people in the pro-Biden camp who simply want to return to the transnational neoliberal model of managing racial monopoly capitalism. They are not leftists, and they are not part of this article’s “we.”

The nature of this country’s electoral system means that Joe Biden is the only realistic candidate capable of blocking Trump from a second term. That should not be a comforting fact to any of us. Joe Biden (and, for that matter, Kamala Harris) is a neoliberal politician who has made a career of serving the interests of the capitalist class. He is no one’s Berta Caceres.

This makes the decision to put time and energy into working on his election an uncomfortable one. Yet some of us will argue that it is strategic to get him elected with the hope that his being in office will create more optimal terrain for us to struggle on. Others will argue that it’s not strategic and instead a waste of limited resources and potentially a short-sighted betrayal of our integrity.

The problem is that it is impossible to assess whether any particular project or campaign is strategic if there is no strategy to win liberation. Such a strategy would give us grounds on which to assess which actions create scenarios that bolster our movement-building and which endanger it. Without it, we are just bickering.

CLOSE THE STRATEGY GAP

Throughout history and around the globe, successful movement have had this kind of cohering strategy for liberation. The “Path to Power” document that emerged out of the South African struggle against apartheid is a prime example.

We can’t avoid the fact that currently movements in the United States – for all of our strengths, insights and hard work – do not have anything resembling a liberatory strategy that theorizes how our different struggles can converge to become greater than the sum of their parts.

That’s true for a multitude of reasons. The owning class and the Right destroyed the institutions that might have trained young activists as strategists. The state arrested and exiled those who might have been our mentors. And anti-intellectualism blocked us from seeking out writings from our movement ancestors. Regardless the reasons, the lack of liberatory strategy is a damning weakness.

It’s a weakness that LeftRoots believes we can overcome, but only if we commit to it.

We will share in the coming months several resources aimed at doing our part to help us increase our strategic literacy.

Later this year, LeftRoots will publish a working draft of our Liberatory Strategy Toolkit. The toolkit offers a grounded definition of liberatory strategy as well as nine separate tools, including vision, structural and conjunctural analysis, scenario planning and hypothesis development. Our experience suggests that this framework will make strategy better and make it possible for more people to contribute to the development of strategy.

LeftRoots looks forward to using the toolkit with others so we can close the strategy gap.

THROUGHLINE FOR UNITY IN ACTION & EVALUATION OF DIFFERENCES

This month, LeftRoots will release a Situational Objective for this period. [It is now available here.] Situational objective is one of the nine components of the liberatory strategy toolkit, and it names the main task the movement must accomplish in order to transform the correlation of forces and make even more substantial victories possible.

LeftRoots’ leadership adopted this situational objective that we’ll be releasing soon after weeks of studying and assessing the current conjuncture. That assessment is essential because it builds towards the argument that:

The primary contradiction of this moment is between the interests of Trumpism’s reactionary authoritarianism bloc, anchored in white supremacy, and a multi-class pro-democracy bloc, spurred by initiative from the driving and key forces. Given this, we propose that the central objective of this moment is to defeat Trump electorally, and to halt the advance of the most dangerous forces of Trumpism, in 2020.

The conclusion of the Situational Objective is not ground-breaking. It echoes positions other people and organizations have argued months ago. But in this case, the what is no more important than how it establishes the why.

Drawing a throughline that begins with an analysis of the crises playing out in the structure of racial monopoly capitalism and in the present conjuncture, the Situational Objective builds on a framework (outlined in the liberatory strategy toolkit) that sets the context for why this objective is strategic now and names what new objective will need to be accomplished to further advance our struggles for liberation.

Seeing strategy this way, as a process of resolving key contradictions and achieving transformative objectives, pushes us away from rigid doctrine. The Situational Objective argues that working to defeat Trump and get Biden elected is strategic now, even though it might not have been strategic in a different set of circumstances.

It’s important to mention that several members disagree with the Situational Objective’s assertion that it is strategic to work on behalf of Biden’s candidacy. That members disagree is not a problem, and in fact, lines up with our organizational purpose.

LeftRoots’ view is that eventually our movement ecosystem will need organizations, each of which are united around a liberatory strategy. We call these organizations cadre organizations. But at a time when most social movement activists – LeftRoots members included – are unclear about what strategy we are aligned with, the first task is to develop and sharpen our strategic clarity.

This means we have to do our work differently if we are to produce thousands of skilled liberatory strategists in our movements – rather than relying on the brilliance and hard work of a small core.

That’s what LeftRoots members been trying to do since our founding in 2014. We have done self-study, group training, collective reflection work – giving each other support and holding ourselves accountable along the way. We’ve done this for the sake of preparing ourselves and others to craft and carry out the kind of strategy these times demand.

It’s not been easy, and it’s not always been clear if we’re on the right path. But what happened in the organization’s recent debates about the Situational Objective gives me hope that we’re beginning to make progress.

Because the Situational Objective is grounded in the members’ shared unity around the need for socialism and the need to organize people’s power and is framed in the toolkit’s explicit framework, members were better able to name where there was unity and where there was difference. That newfound clarity made it possible for members to hold difference on how to relate to the 2020 election without falling into name-calling and questioning others’ integrity. The strategic throughline transformed our organizational debate.

This – plus a healthy dose of members acting with genuine emotional intelligence – made the organization debates about the Situational Objective the most insightful and productive that I have ever been a part of, and honestly, a stark contrast to some of the group’s earlier debates. I believe our movements can see this kind of advance if we get clearer about liberatory strategy.

DANGEROUS TIMES DEMAND MORE THAN LUCK

This fall, LeftRoots members will look to achieve the Situational Objective we’ve named.

We’ll partner with organizations across the country to turn out the vote to get Biden elected and doing that in a way that strengthens our movements. We will craft and put out messages that assert our independence from the Democratic Party’s official line, and we will plan for scenarios in which a defeated Trump refuses to relinquish power. Even members who disagree with the Situational Objective will be throwing down because they know that the evaluation of our praxis will reveal new knowledge that we can all use to sharpen or correct strategy in the future.

We will also be sharing and having discussions about the Situational Objective and the Liberatory Strategy Toolkit. Please visit LeftRoots.net if you’d like to participate in those discussions.

These are dangerous times, no matter who wins the 2020 elections. The climate’s capacity to sustain human life will still be in jeopardy. The COVID-19 pandemic will still be unfolding. The economy and most people’s ability to make ends meet will be in tatters. The capitalist class will continue to exploit their monopolistic control of the tools of repression to crack down on any challenge to their continued reign.

Whether we like it or not, it’s not an exaggeration to say that what we do in the next couple of years will shape centuries to come. Our forces need to get stronger than we’ve been, faster than we imagine possible. Liberatory strategy will make that possible.

The forces lined up against us are too numerous, too well-financed and too organized for us to rely on luck alone. We need to be lucky, yes. And we need liberatory strategy, and we need liberatory strategists – now more than ever.

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02 Comments

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  • Carl+Davidson
    Carl+Davidson September 21, 2020 at 8:05 pm

    I have a friendly question: What happened to tactics?

    Strategy and tactics, to my thinking anyway, are a dynamic duo, where one gives us the big picture of friends and adversaries, the balance of forces, and such. The other, guided by the former, helps us in particular battles, where we deploy ‘ten against one’ to make breakthroughs piece by piece.

    Here are the old tried but still true orientations. Strategy: United and develop the progressive forces, win over the middle forces, isolate and divide the backward, and crush our adversaries batch by batch. Tactics: Wage struggle on just grounds, to our advantage, and with restraint (don’t go on strike the day before pay day).

    So I agree with nearly all of this piece, but I find myself substituting ‘tactics’ for ‘strategy’ in a few places, especially those dubbed ‘situational.’ Whaddya think?

    • Deborah M Moran
      Deborah M Moran September 23, 2020 at 9:08 pm

      I totally agree with a key mission, vision, with a stagey and tools at your disposal.

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