Political movements that are successful over the long-term are those which have clear principles, an understandable and increasingly popular program, a strategy appropriate to time and place, and tactics which embody and advance that strategy and program. Although these four things are interrelated, they are not the same.
The decade of the 90s has seen the emergence of three forms of political activity, three tactics, that have not been used by progressives, to any significant degree, for decades in the USA: fasting and hunger strikes; mass, non-violent, civil disobedience; and independent electoral campaigning outside of the Democratic and Republican parties.
All three of these tactics “push the envelope.” They go beyond petitioning, letters to the editor, letters to elected officials, public speaking, conferences, legal demonstrations, support for Democrats and the like. Fasting and non-violent civil disobedience both communicate urgency, the need for action to be taken and taken soon by those being targeted or appealed to. Electoral campaigns outside of the two dominant parties send a message that the time is now to break with the usual political orthodoxy and create something new.
It is a positive development that our various movements are engaging in these tactics. The courageous, militant yet non-violent disruption of the first day of the World Trade Organization’s meeting in Seattle last November 30th led to the actual suspension of the meeting for five hours and a series of other developments both inside and outside of the WTO conference that, taken together, led to a defeat for them and a victory for us. If this had not happened, “Seattle” would still be known primarily as a rainy city home to Boeing and Microsoft, rather than a watershed event in the struggle for global justice. The mass, peaceful, legal demonstration of 40,000 workers mobilized by the AFL-CIO, which happened on the same day as the non-violent blockade, as important as it was, would have been but a blip on the radar screen.
It is a positive development that Ralph Nader and Winona LaDuke will likely become the Green Party’s Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates and run a serious campaign. Without this campaign, faced with Gore, Bush and Buchanan, we would once again be subject to the kinds of lesser-evil rationalizations for why we should vote for conservative Democrat Gore that pull us backwards and sap our political vitality.
And it is a positive thing that many different movements over the decade of the 90s have used hunger strikes and fasting to advance their respective causes. This has been true for labor struggles, student struggles, efforts to free Leonard Peltier and say no to the honoring of Christopher Columbus, campaigns to end sanctions against Iraq and shut down the School of the Americas, for an end to cuts in welfare, food stamps and other desperately-needed survival programs, as well as for the human rights of prisoners. The voluntary willingness of some to go for days without food has had positive political impacts that in some cases have meant actual victories.
However, as essential as these new (really, quite old) forms of struggle are, they are not without potential drawbacks.
These forms of action are not a strategy in and of themselves. They are not the goal but means to a goal.
If our objective is a fundamentally different kind of society, one that is truly democratic and just, which preserves the environment and provides the basic necessities of life to all, which dramatically reverses destructive militarism and obscene disparities in wealth and power, then our tactics must, above all else, flow from the political understanding that, in the final analysis, *history is made by many millions of people acting in different ways but for the same purposes,* and our tactics must move us toward that objective.
On the face of it this seems to be a contradiction. Millions of people in the USA right now are *not* going to engage in civil disobedience or fast, and although millions will almost certainly vote for Nader/LaDuke, unfortunately it will not be enough this time around for them to assume power. Tens of millions will vote for Gore, the same for Bush, and one of them will end up in the White House come January 2001.
This is where principles and strategy come in.
Principles come into play when considering whether, in good faith, one can support someone as unprincipled and opportunistic as Al Gore. Strategy also comes into play–the Democratic Party can in no way be looked to as a vehicle for the kind of people’s movement desperately needed. We need independent electoral alternatives to help build that movement even if, at this particular point in time, they are relatively small
Similarly, if the WTO, IMF and World Bank are responsible for human and environmental devastation on a wide scale, more militant action can serve as a wake-up call to tens of millions of people who know little about these institutions. They can be educated and motivated to engage in other forms of action less risky but also important.
This is the ultimate test of the validity of any particular tactic: is it done in such a way that it affects a much broader mass of people and helps to build support for the particular cause? Fasting, non-violent civil disobedience and independent electoral campaigns have done that and can continue to do so. Indeed, without their use over the past several years our political reality in the year 2000 would be much less hopeful. Let’s build upon that political reality using all of the tactical options at our disposal to strengthen and deepen our movement for economic, social and global justice and democracy at its fullest.