Thinking about strategy and winning

Strategy is about pitting your strengths against your opponents weaknessses. Strategy is a real plan to win, but it’s an actual plan. When the fine people of Detroit’s Students for a Democratic Society chapter and held our strategy planning meeting last year we brainstormed tactics that we thought would pressure our administration to give us a freeze on tuition. We brainstormed tactics and placed them on a timeline, as well as spots to plan the events and actions and such.

Looking back, I see now that what we didn’t really ask ourselves though was why we thought these tactics would work. Why was this protest strategic? Why was that petition drive going to build our power to win?

My feeling is that we didn’t really have a strategy. We had some tactics on a timeline. A strategy is an answer to the question “Why will we win?”

A strategy pits activists and allies strengths against opponents weaknesses. A cool conceptual tool I learned is to consider the social and political strengths of the constituency in which you organize, and the opposite weaknesses of the opponents, then look and pair up matches. For example, a university administration requires students, staff and faculty cooperation in the university for their legitimate hold on influence in the school (i.e., “power”). So a strength of the students and their allies is their ability to refuse cooperation. A strategy then would be for students to build alliances with faculty, staff and organize the thousands of uncommitted constituents (“neutrals”) to challenge the administrations legitimacy and find tactics that withdraw cooperation and offer legitimacy to new institutions (holding large educational events that criticize current education, envisioning participatory education; tuition strike; mass walkout; parallel street universities).

I feel like a strategy fits along something like this, “We will win because …”

  • … state legislators need our votes to keep office, and we will mobilize votes around a progressive platform for our issue.
  • … the administration of our university requires our cooperation for power, and we will organize people to not cooperate with them until we win.
  • … our bosses require cooperation and labor to keep their power and profits, we will organize workers to build power to interrupt and stop work to meet our goals.

It’s also important to considers our weaknesses against opponents strengths, and look for ways to build our weaknesses into strengths. For example, in Detroit SDS’s tuition freeze campaign a weakness was that we need to build and organize thousands of students to win, where as our opponents (the administration) is already organized to express influence. They can strike against us by preventing us from organizing tons of people; whether by repressive measures, or by giving us an unpopular reputation (encouraging a view of “anarchist hippies,” “an estranged minority,” etc.)

The same kind of framing and conceptualization is required for larger, longer-term envisioning of a revolutionary strategy. What are the weaknesses of our opponents? What are our strengths?

A strategy is often framed to be a step-by-step guide to victory. It’s more complicated than that, it’s a real plan to win that considers activist’s strengths against opponents weaknesses and informs us of options to undermine their weaknesses and build our political power.

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