On Strategy and Tactics

As a concept, strategy has an exalted lineage, starting from Sun Tzu, through Machiavell to Clausewitz, to name the three most-widely recognized names. While those writers offered some useful insights, I start my exploration here with Gene Sharp, a contemporary theorist and practitioner, who thought very systematically about strategy and tactics in non-violent movements. I’ll be talking a lot about Sharp on this blog, as has written extensively on these topics, but for now, I want to sketch out some broad definitions that will inform a lot of what is to come.

For Sharp, there is a critical distinction to be made between strategy and tactics. Starting with strategy, Sharp actually refers to two levels: grand strategy and strategy. The language in Sharp’s How Nonviolent Struggle Works is a bit vague, but with a bit of interpretation can be quite useful. According to Sharp, grand strategy is “the broadest conception which serves to coordinate and direct all the resources of the struggle group toward the attainment of the objectives of the conflict.” In the US context, we can substitute words like “movement” or “political struggle” for “conflict.” This means defining the broadest objectives of a movement or political campaign.

Strategy, on the other hand, refers to a “plan of action” for a campaign: how best to achieve the ends of the grand strategy. It includes notions about “when to fight and how to utilize various specific actions to advance the goals of the grand strategy.” These, in turn, are usually based on a assessment of the relative strengths and weaknesses of a movement and its opponent(s). In other words, grand strategy constitutes a framework about what goals to pursue and who is pursuing them, while strategy is more about how to pursue those goals.

This may sound a bit complicated, so let me simplify a bit using some examples. A grand strategy might be something like increasing voting and voting rights, especially of minorities. Strategies, then, could be things like restoring the Voting Rights Act, pursuing a Supreme Court decision, changing public opinion, and advancing a legislative agenda. >

Moving from the general to the specific, tactics are the specific means used–often daily or even hourly–to further strategies and ultimately the grand strategy. Tactics are basically what people do, whether it is marching, phoning members of Congress, interacting with local newspapers and TV stations, protecting vulnerable people and populations, or blockading building entrances, among many others. Tactics, by definition, can be changed and adjusted as needed to meet a fluid situation.

The distinction between strategy and tactics is a very important one because it is fairly easy for protestors to get wrapped up in specific tactics, thereby losing sight of the overall strategy to realize their objectives objectives.

Occupying a space is an example of a tactic that can be confused with a strategy. Instead of having a strategy about how to build strength in a sustainable way, a group that turns occupying a location into an end in and of itself–in effect, into a strategy–necessarily limits its objectives and its ability to build support. Similarly, protests and rallies are common tactics used by social movements the world over. But one-off events that bring people together without having a concept about how to sustain activity tend to be of limited value. Such one-offs are examples of tactics without a strategy.

I am going to leave it here for now. But there will be a lot more to come about Sharp and others who have thought about how to best advance progressive causes.

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