Fight about them or ignore them or suspend them in hopes of eliminating them?

Rough draft of a thing.

“The men of the future will yet fight their way to many a liberty that
we do not even miss.”
– Max Stirner

“Children belong neither to their parents nor to society. They belong
to themselves and to their own future liberty.”
– Mikhail Bakunin

Have you ever witnessed a conflict between two people on the left and
watched it escalate in a way that derails positive projects, or causes
long term interpersonal animosity, or both? I know I have. I recently
read an essay called “Lines in Sand” which gives a good description of
this problem. I argue in agreement with “Lines in Sand” that we need
to emphasize and improve at working with people despite our
differences. At the same time, I argue that “Lines in Sand” is wrong
for arguing that we should reject what the author calls a “hierarchy
of tactics.” Instead, in my view, having hierarchies of tactics allows
us to be even more effective in working with people.

The author describes a protest and militant action followed by
arguments that replay and deepen divisions between people.

There is “a protest against the police in the wake of yet another
shooting. Among the small crowd, there’s a group of homeless youth,
some anarchists in a black bloc, and others. (…) At one point,
someone tries to pull at least two of the homeless youth into the
street, where the black bloc are blocking traffic. Many if not most of
the people do not notice this incident. This upsets the homeless
youth, as they have decided to stay on the sidewalks for their own
safety; they have no shortage of opportunities to confront the police.
Despite this show of disrespect, at the end of the protest they talk
about having had an overwhelmingly positive experience standing up to
the police and starting long-lasting conversations about police
violence. Later, an argument develops between anarchists.”

Some people accuse all participants in the black bloc of acting
wrongly in trying to pull the homeless youth into the street, even
though this was only the action of one or two people. Others accuse
the people unhappy with the attempt to pull the homeless into the
street of being liberals. Each side digs in and no progress results
from the conversation.

The author continues saying that in situations like these “Two well
known games make communication impossible: the privilege game, and the
more-militant-than-thou game. In the first, any unorthodox idea about
how to confront oppression is said to be a product of privilege, and
an attempt to preserve oppressive dynamics. In the second, any
criticism of a militant or illegal action is said to be a move towards
reformism and pacification.

It seems clear that these boxes and arguments exist primarily to
rescue us from complicated situations: confronting disrespectful
behaviours rather than just denouncing them, or feeling judged by
those carrying out more risky actions, on the one hand; and on the
other, taking criticisms seriously and humbly, and understanding and
supporting other people’s tactics.”

I quote this at length because it speaks to my experiences. I’ve seen
this sort of conflict play out numerous times. No progress occurs. If
anything, people come out even more strongly committed to their views
as a result of the sort of ‘criticism’ made by the other side.
Furthermore, both sides are in a way right. Thus each side is in a way
wrong by refusing to see what’s right in the other side’s position.
This means that when each side digs in more strongly into their
position, they effectively get further away from other important

While I am not a Maoist, and while it sometimes makes many of my
fellow anarchists uncomfortable when I reference this quote, I think
Mao Tse-Tung puts this well: some people on the left “magnify
contradictions between ourselves and the enemy to such an extent that
they take certain contradictions among the people for contradictions
with the enemy and regard as counter-revolutionaries persons who are
actually not.” That is, people sometimes unnecessarily treat others on
the left as enemies of the left and enemies of the working class.

People can be right in their criticisms but express themselves in the
wrong way – in part by not recognizing elements of what is right in
the views they criticize – and as a result they do a disservice to
their correct criticisms. These sorts of disagreements are enemies of
our movement improving. Someone who is right in the wrong way is still
wrong, and is an enemy of correct ideas.

The essay continues, saying “We’re not all on the same page, and
there’s still worthwhile debates to be had (…) but hopefully we can
all see that there are plenty of people on the other side of these
debates who, even if they are making a real strategic mistake, are
struggling sincerely and have their hearts in the same place as ours,
which is often more important, because it’s much easier to see a
strategic mistake than to actually be right about it; therefore
excommunicating everyone we believe to be guilty of strategic mistakes
is more likely to result in hyper-fragmented sectarianism than in
good, effective strategies put into practice. It should also be easy
to see that so much of these arguments is a question of temperament.”

This too is correct. We need to start from an emphasis on other
people’s sincerity and approach people in an open-handed manner. If
we’re not willing and able to do that then it’s better not to approach
people at all. If we approach people in the wrong way with our
criticisms we encourage their worst qualities.

The essay continues and here I disagree in part.

The author writes that “The first step is to abolish any hierarchy of
tactics. The riskier and more exciting tactics are not the most
important ones, and not the only ones deserving direct support.”

I disagree with the first sentence; I’ll come back to this in a
moment. I agree with the second sentence: militancy alone is not all
that matters. Militancy and radicalism are not identical. Sometimes
the most militant action is the most radical action, but not always.

The author writes that we have no hope of “relationships of solidarity
with a broad network of people in struggle if we hold on to this
arrogant, utilitarian view” in which militancy is all that matters.

“In the protest I mention above, not only the black bloc but all the
people present deserved direct support for the type of involvement
they chose. The less militant were not simply the bottom of a pyramid
holding up the more militant. As someone who works at a drop-in center
with those homeless youth put it, for some people present it was
revolutionary to take the streets or attack the police; and for the
homeless youth it was revolutionary to take a public stand against the
police and yell at them, because of how different this power dynamic
is from their everyday experience. Risk is different for every person
involved, based on their standing in various social hierarchies.
Oppressed people are not fragile, vulnerable, or unable to participate
in dangerous, violent resistance, as many spokespeople of
anti-oppression politics have claimed, again and again, implicitly and
explicitly. However, different people do face different choices in the
exact same situations, and we all need to be aware of that.”

The author clarifies that what makes the homeless youth yelling at the
police was that this action gave the youth “a sense of their own
power. Many people might scoff at the limited scope of this
“revolutionary” victory, but we should consider that riots are often
claimed as minor victories on the basis of how they make people feel.
This should not be underestimated: if we feel weak and demoralized, we
will never win.

No single tactic should ever be expected, on repetition, to lead to
revolution. Every successful tactic simply opens new doors, that
require other tactics in order to walk through. Homeless kids yelling
at the police undoubtedly open a door that leads in the right
direction. Being able to fight the police and beat them in the streets
is a subsequent door through which all revolutionary struggles must be
able to pass. The simple act of yelling at police can be claimed as
revolutionary, but only if we are willing to build off of what is won
and look for the next steps that lead to a social transformation that
actually deserves the name “revolution.””

Here as above, I quote these passages in full because they make
important points. Confrontations prepare people for future
confrontations. The Bakunin and Stirner quotes at the beginning of
this commentary make that same point – the exercise of freedom within
the limited freedom we have now can help prepare us to exercise
greater freedom in the future. In addition, fighting for more freedom
can change people in at least two ways. One, it cultivates the
capacity to fight even more. Less intense and shorter fights can build
up people’s confidence and competency for longer term and more
intense fights. Two, it cultivates a desire to fight in the future –
fighting for freedom can make unfreedom intolerable and make expanded
freedom an urgent felt need for people. These are part of the
syndicalist tradition which the Workers Solidarity Alliance identifies
with – we believe that these things often happen when workers fight
employers on the job. Clear these thing happen in other fights in
other contexts too.

I reference those Stirner and Bakunin quotes for another reason, which
starts to come back to the issue of a hierarchy of tactics. There is
in fact a hierarchy of better and worse tactics. In his essay “Between
Infoshops and Insurrection” Joel Olson argues that some “forms of
oppression (…) have been more significant than others to the
structuring of U.S. society.” That is to say, in our society “various
forms of hierarchy are themselves hierarchically organized.” Often
people reject this view because they confuse morality with power. It
is true that “no one form of oppression is morally “worse” than
another. But this does not mean that all forms of oppression play an
equal role in shaping the social structure.” Olson illustrates this
point that while animal cruelty and child abuse are widespread and
morally repugnant, they did not play the same role in shaping the
history of the U.S. government and American capitalism as did white

Olson argues that we need to try to avoid confusing “a moral
condemnation of all forms of oppression with a political and strategic
analysis of how power functions.” This means being aware “that in
certain historical contexts, certain forms of hierarchy play a more
central role in shaping society than do others.” We should not assume
“that because all forms of oppression are evil and interconnected that
fighting any form of oppression will have the same revolutionary

Over all, Olson’s argument is about identifying large-scale issues or
structures of oppression in our society, which is about long terms
goals and strategies rather than tactics. Still, his arguments are
powerful and suggest an analogy for understanding hierarchies of
tactics. “Lines in Sand” argues for the moral equivalence of people
who take up different tactics, saying “there are plenty of people on
the other side of these debates who, even if they are making a real
strategic mistake, are struggling sincerely and have their hearts in
the same place as ours.” This is important. But the moral equivalency
of these people – that everyone is sincere and has their heart in the
right place – does not mean that all tactics are equally effective.
Some people who are sincere are still “making a real strategic
mistake.” We need to have goals for our tactics and evaluate our
tactics according to those goals, this determines which tactics are

I suggest that there are two general types of tactics, or we might say
there are two general types of strategies, with tactics that fit with
each. First, there are better tactics for altering power relationships
and carrying out actions. Second, there are better tactics for
improving people and getting people to want action. Consider the
example which “Lines in Sand” uses, the action against police for
killing someone. In terms of altering power and carrying out action,
it seems like the black bloc tactic was a better one for confronting
the police about the killing. The author suggest that this was more
effective than the homeless youth’s approach of yelling from the
sidewalk. The person or people from the black bloc who tried to get
the youth into the streets tried to get the youth on board with a
tactic that was more effective in terms of power relationships. At the
same time, in terms of tactics for improving people and getting people
to become long term radicals, the better tactic was to respect the
actions of the youth. For this sort of tactic, the attempt to pull the
youth into the street was a mistake.

There is an important relationship between these two ways to
understand the hierarchy of tactics. For one thing, it’s important to
notice the difference between them. Altering power relationships and
successfully carrying out actions is not the same thing as altering
people and getting people to want action. These are different and we
should evaluate them differently. An action or campaign can be
successful in one way but fail in another — we may fail to disrupt
business as usual, but more people come away with a higher commitment
than we had before, which sets us up for the next confrontation. Or,
we can successfully disrupt business as usual but learn little or grow
little (or worse, lose people due to burnout or repression).

Think about music and learning to play for a moment. There are better
and worse ways to play the drums, and better and worse ways to learn
to play the drums. These are parallel to the relationship between
tactics to alter power relationships and tactics to alter people.
There are better and worse ways to conduct and win a conflict, just
as there are better and worse ways to play the drums – better and
worse drummers. There are better tactics for improving people. These
are like learning and teaching the drums. As “Lines in Sand” says, we
want “relationships of solidarity with a broad network of people in
struggle.” We want a lot more people play the rhythms of revolution.
In teaching someone or one’s self something, it is rarely successful
to simply pointing out failures. Focusing solely on how some effort
failed is not a very good way to get more people to improve. Insulting
and attacking people for their failures is even worse.

In struggles, we need to not be unnecessarily antagonistic, as “Lines
in Sand” argues – we should not play the games which the article
discusses. Our goal is to engage with people in ways that help more
people get better ideas and be more committed to the struggle. In a
recent essay, Don Hamerquist talks about what he calls some “general
principles for the relationship of communists to the mass struggles of
working people” detailed in the Communist Manifesto. One of these
principles is that we “should ‘represent’ the interests of the future
in the movements of the present.” In terms of the Stirner and Bakunin
quotes at the opening of this essay, the people we interact with in
movements “belong to themselves and their own future liberty.” We want
to interact with them in ways the help them orient toward and develop
their future liberty (which ultimately is a collective, social
liberty), and to make them desire that liberty more strongly and to
desire fight for it. In struggle and others discover new forms of
liberty we weren’t aware of and we begin to fight for these.

This means that on the one hand we have to take people as we find
them. On the other hand, as radicals we can’t leave people as we find
them or worse, reinforce the elements that keep them how they are.
(For an excellent discussion of this balancing act in practice, see
the essay “The Debate on Strategy in the Anti-Budget Cuts Movement” at
the Gathering Forces web site.) Our goal has to be to make people
different. In order to do so, we have to avoid the sorts of
antagonistic behavior that “Lines in Sand” describes. At the same
time, “Lines in Sand” is wrong to say we abandon all hierarchies of
tactics. There are better and worse tactics. “Lines in Sand”
implicitly recognizes that there are better and worse tactics – the
better tactic for the homeless youth was to stay on the sidewalk and
to yell at the cops. Getting in the street would have been worse. But
staying on the sidewalk and keeping silent would have been worse too.
The best tactic, “Lines in Sand” implies, is the one that transforms
people the most – the one that most develops people toward their
future freedom. As I said, this future freedom is what we orient
toward as radicals – we meet people where they currently are in order
to begin to push people to begin to push themselves beyond where they
currently are.

Our orientation toward the future can sit uncomfortably with our
democratic sensibilities in the present. One version of a democratic
sensibility involves consent – people affected by a decision should
get to make the decision. That’s a sound principle. Like many sound
principles, it has its limits. We have to get people as they
currently are at to start to take actions which will make them
different. This is not a fully transparent process or something that
is always subject to a fully clear and formally democratic process. If
someone is not yet who they could and should be, and who they could
and should be is a lot better than who they are, then, really, they
may not be fully qualified to make the decision not to achieve their
potential. To put it another way, we don’t pose this as a direct
decision: “would you like to start a process which will lead to you
becoming a class conscious revolutionary dedicated to the struggle
over the long term?”

I disagree with “Lines in Sand” about hierarchies of tactics. There
are better and worse tactics, in my view, as I argued. To use the
metaphor in the title of “Lines in Sand,” we should not draw silly
lines and get into unnecessary confrontations. That said, there are
still differences present. Some people have better ideas than others,
some people are more experience than others. We should not treat these
differences as division. We should step over these lines in order to
meet people where they are. But these lines are real. We want to meet
people where they are in order to get them move to a better place. We
can only do this if we recognize that some lines – those that define
hierachies of tactics – are real. By recognizing and deliberately
crossing these lines we can perhaps start to wash away lines that
should be washed away.

While I disagree with “Lines in Sand” about hierarchies of tactics,
the essay has an important point about how we handle these hierarchies
of tactics. From the second perspective I discussed earlier, that of
building people’s capacity for and interest in radical action, we
sometimes need to be willing to compromise and accept tactics that are
less effective. Sometimes, even though we know it is better to be in
the streets, we need to respond respectfully to some people’s decision
to stay on the sidewalk – so that they will eventually join us in the
streets on some occasion.

To put this another way, we have to handle mistaken ideas in the best
possible way, which is to say, in the way which best corrects mistaken
ideas and spreads correct ideas. That rarely means writing people off
and breaking our relationship with people due to their mistakes. We
have to walk with people through their mistakes in order to help them
move toward better ideas and onto better paths. We have to walk with
people in a way that helps them to adopt more effective tactics for
challenging power and in a way that builds their commitment to the
fight. In a sense, we can think of hierarchies of tactics as a
progression of development. We want to help people develop to gain a
clearer sense of how to create and assess tactics, so that they become
our full equals in struggle.

The essays I talked about are all available online –

Lines in Sand
Part 1 You Have to Do It My Way

Part 2 “So Fucked Up”

Part 3 Suggestions for real solidarity

all three together:

Gathering Forces, The Debate on Strategy in the Anti-Budget Cuts Movement

Don Hamerquist, Lenin, Leninism, and some leftovers

Joel Olson, Between Infoshops and Insurrection U.S. Anarchism,
Movement Building, and the Racial Order

Mao Tse-Tung, On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People