Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory: “What’s Left?” March 2012, MRR #346

Victory is the main object in war. If this is long delayed, weapons are blunted and morale is depressed.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Call me old fashioned, but I think winning is important. At least once in a while. It’s why I no longer call myself an anarchist. And why I hang onto the moniker of left communist by the skin of my teeth.

I’m not going to waste space detailing my critique of the “beautiful losers” attitude of both these political currents, an attitude that prides itself with time and again “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.” I’ve done so in past columns, to no avail, and this sorry behavior just infuriates me because history is littered with the wreckage of too many crushed revolutions and too many corpses. In turn, recent modest successes by Occupy Oakland, which I described in my two previous columns, allow me to considerably narrow the focus of this discussion, allowing me the opportunity to be constructive and not give in to my outrage.

Sun Tzu minced no words when he wrote that victory is the main goal in war. A particular plan of action, involving collections of tactics, toward the goal of victory, is called a strategy. And tactics are the specific techniques that use weapons and personnel in various combinations to engage and defeat an enemy in battle. Goal, strategy to achieve goal, and tactics to implement strategy; it’s actually a simple hierarchy. It’s the same, whether playing a game of chess, defeating the Third Reich, or overthrowing the capitalist ruling class. And central to this whole affair is tactical and strategic flexibility in order to achieve your goal.

Occasionally, a natural disaster wipes out the enemy’s forces, or a spontaneous mass insurrection takes down the government, and you are left victorious by default. You still have to hold on to your victory, which still requires tactical and strategic flexibility. It’s the lack of this flexibility that, more often then not, brings about defeat. And nothing guarantees inflexibility more than an iron commitment to principle. Anarchists, and to a lesser degree, left communists were so committed to their libertarian principles that they preferred seeing their respective revolutions go down to smoking ruin rather than compromise those principles. We’ll return to this point later on in this column.

Occupy Oakland’s modest accomplishments—the reoccupation of Frank Ogawa Plaza a day after brutal OPD repression, the total shutdown of Oakland’s Port on November 2, the attempted communization of the TAS building that evening, and the partial shutdown of west coast ports on December 12—happened almost despite a movement riven over tactics. On one side, there were your classic peacenik types insisting on nonviolence and, on the other side, black-clad anarchos itching to riot. At one extreme, humor-challenged pacifists who inserted themselves between rioting anarchos and the Oakland Whole Foods, and who wanted to shut down everything, the whole march to the Port of Oakland, the instant the black bloc started breaking bank windows. At the other extreme, fashion-challenged black blocsters who insisted on “diversity of tactics,” to the point of shouting down any opposition at General Assemblies, and who were committed to “making revolution” by fucking shit up through the streets of downtown Oakland. These are the folks wedded to their principles at either extremity unwilling to compromise their tactics, who in fact are more than willing to shoot down the main event if they don’t get their way on particulars. Somewhere in between these poles (and aside from the opportunists like union/party hacks intent on policing demonstrators into faux nonviolent conformity, or the provocateurs of various persuasions interested in violence for other than revolutionary reasons) there are the people willing to be flexible, willing to be nonviolent at the moment, but also willing to resort to a little more aggression when necessary.

Boots Riley, of The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club fame, as well as a prominent organizer of Occupy Oakland, made the following excellent observation on his Facebook page with respect to pacifists threatening to bolt due to anarcho violence:

The truth is that while almost everyone I know in Occupy Oakland (including myself) thinks that breaking windows is tactically the wrong thing to do and very stupid, many people do not agree with non-violent philosophy. If you kicked those folks out then you would have a body of folks that wouldn’t have been radical enough to even call for a General Strike. Occupy Oakland, on the whole, has a radical analysis that leads us to campaigns that others wouldn’t and which also capture people’s imagination. For instance, as I’ve said before, Gandhi was vocally against strikes because physically stopping someone from what they want to do is violent. Occupy Oakland has called for a diversity of tactics–which is different than our New York comrades, however I don’t think that is supposed to mean that you use every tactic every time. We are so large here precisely because our actions have teeth. If the police blockaded at the port–we would have had 2 choices. The first would have been to let them stop us from getting there–with them thereby calling a victory against OO. The second choice was for us to quietly push through them with the shields we had in the front of the march and using our power in numbers to get through. That would, technically, not fall into non-violent philosophy. I think it is the fact that police knew that we had tens of thousands and we would push through there if necessary, that caused them to stay away. Also, everyone here seems to be inspired by Arab Spring, Greek movements, and other similar movements in Europe. None of those were non-violent in nature. The Egyptian folks burned down a police station, for instance. Everyone I know thinks that tactics like that here would cause the movement to be crushed, so those tactics are not on the table–I’m just pointing out that people are saying that this is emulating a movement which was pretty violent. But, I think the discussion is about tactics, not about adopting non-violent philosophy. On November 2nd, a large group of people with many contradictions successfully shut down the city in the biggest action with an overt class analysis in 60 years. People all over the world, all over the country, all over Oakland–are excited by this. If you are threatening to leave because, in the midst of this mass action some people broke windows and we are all trying to figure out how to work together, then you’re missing the point and you’ll be missing out on history. Don’t let the media frame the discussion. The average everyday person was empowered by what happened on November 2nd. Every movement has contradictions, we aren’t told about them so we think this movement should be different–there was violence during the Civil Rights movement. The pastor that had MLK’s job before him at Ebeneezer Baptist Church had just made all of his congregation buy shotguns. The NAACP had an ARMED chapter in North Carolina. You can wait 50 more years for your perfect movement, or you can realize that it’s here.

I thought it important to quote Boots in full regarding the need for tactical, and by extension, strategic flexibility. One thing he doesn’t touch on, but which is of equal importance, is the need to use experience, past practice, and history to determine which tactics, and what strategy, to apply under any given set of circumstances at any particular time. Gene Sharp wrote a powerful, three-volume magnum opus The Politics of Nonviolent Action, in which he details historical incidents of civil disobedience being used effectively against a variety of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, including Hitler’s Germany and the Soviet Union. And while nonviolence is underutilized as a method to achieve social change, there’s little doubt that it also has its limits. A strong argument can be made that, without Federal government intervention in Birmingham, Alabama and the rest of the south, the likes of Bull Connor would still be turning fire hoses and siccing German shepherds on the likes of Martin Luther King and fellow Civil Rights activists to this day.

Last column, I criticized insurrectionary anarchism for its rigid commitment to black bloc tactics when I discussed the occupation of the TAS building in Oakland on December 12. While I praised the attempt to communalize this space, I disparaged the hackneyed, formulaic confrontation with the OPD that resulted in a massive rout and wholesale arrest of those involved. During the mass antiwar demonstrations in San Francisco in March of 2003, when hundreds of thousands had taken to the streets to disrupt “business as usual” in the heart of the city, anarchos engaged in a number of black bloc breakaways that attempted to use the larger demonstrations as cover for their mayhem. On March 20, several hundred black-clad youth tried just such a breakaway march and were bamboozled by the SFPD which, with their own tactical rigidity, resulted in the breakaway being corralled and most of its members arrested. These examples of the inflexible engagement by anarchos in a set of unoriginal, dare I say tired actions, despite experience and history to the contrary, illustrate that insurrectionism has its limits as well.

I’ll leave the final word to Sun Tzu, from The Art of War: Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing.

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