“Political leadership is a matter of program, strategy and tactics, and not the color of those who lead it, their oneness of origin with their people, nor the services they have rendered.”
– CLR James, The Black Jacobins
I have discovered, over the course of my years as an organizer for positive social change, that it is important that members of an organization or movement learn to distinguish between principles, program, strategy and tactics. An inability to do so often leads to internal division and, sooner or later, a falling away of support and energy.
Within the activist global justice movement of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, for example, and sporadically since, there are those who have taken the position that their right to throw rocks and bottles at police or break the windows of banks and corporations was a principle that others needed to accept. But these kinds of actions are not a principle; they’re a specific tactic. The fact that they were put forward as a principle, under the guise of allowing a “diversity of tactics,” doesn’t change what they really are.
In my opinion, they’re a counter-productive tactic. In the words of singer and activist David Rovics in a recent column, “whatever tactics you’re using to organize resistance groups of any kind, the tactics need to be ones that don’t completely alienate the general public (very much including the “liberals”). And the general public tends to be freaked out by groups of people committing acts of violence (or forms of property destruction that seem violent to them).”
I began thinking about these issues over the last week as a result of criticism by South African activist Patrick Bond of one part of my mid-February Future Hope column, “Climate and Political Tipping Points.” Bond criticized my support for a specific piece of climate legislation, the CLEAR Act, introduced by Senators Maria Cantwell and Susan Collins, as inconsistent with what I had written about in the first part of the column. In that earlier part, I wrote about the continuing need for “strong action toward a desperately-needed, clean energy economy.”
Based upon what Patrick has written over the years, I think we’re probably pretty close as far as principles and program. I think we both support the need for revolutionary changes in our energy systems and in society as a whole toward governments and economies that are about justice, respect for the Earth and human freedom. I think we both prioritize the building of grassroots-based organizations that empower people as they fight for their survival and justice needs. I think we want to see the emergence of societies that move past the corporations-are-dominant model to a new model that is truly democratic and liberating, a “power to the people” model, in terms of both how we get our energy and how we do our politics.
But we seem to have some disagreements about strategy, and I know that he is representative of a sector of the climate movement that I consider to be an absolutely essential sector. It’s the one that pushes the more radical solutions (“radical” as in getting at the root or foundation of the problem) and supports the tactics of civil disobedience and direct action.
I’m not opposed to any of these approaches; indeed, as far as direct action, I’ve played a leading role over the last five years in organizing, and have been arrested at, some such actions: my ledge-sit in 2006 at the headquarters of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration; a blockade of the State Department in 2007 during a meeting of the world’s leading carbon polluters; the No War, No Warming civil disobedience actions in 2007 and 2008, and the mass shutdown of the Capitol Coal Plant in 2009. I go to trial on May 11 for a “Green Jobs Now; Get to Work” banner hang inside the Hart Senate Office Building last fall.
There are other, more moderate sectors of the climate movement who don’t support these more aggressive tactics. I am working with many people in these sectors in efforts to get the best possible climate legislation passed by Congress and the White House this year – which I consider to be the CLEAR Act, hopefully strengthened through an amendment process – believing that this is strategically key if we are to have any hope of avoiding climate catastrophe.
I don’t believe it is enough to advocate for the more radical climate solutions and engage in direct action in support of these solutions. Unfortunately, this wing of the climate movement is nowhere near strong enough to have the kind of political impact we need right now.
More to the point, if we are talking about a broadly-based mass movement of millions of people working and acting for a clean energy revolution in the USA and tens of millions worldwide – which is what we need, given the power of the fossil fuel interests – we need a process whereby, over time, more and more people see that relatively moderate measures aren’t enough. People need to learn, through their own experiences, through interaction with others who see the need for more fundamental changes, and, regrettably, through the impacts of more and more destructive floods, droughts and storms, that stronger steps need to be taken.
In order for that broadly-based movement to maintain momentum and keep building, victories need to be won. And our heating-up atmosphere and oceans also need victories, even if they are not the ultimate victories that can get the human race off fossil fuels and back in balance with our Mother Earth.
Immanuel Wallerstein has written about the need for “movements to internalize the sense that the social transformation they are seeking will not occur in a single apocalyptic moment, but as a continuous process, one continually hard-fought…. In such a context, intramovement diplomacy becomes a very useful expenditure of energy. It will make possible the combination of daring leaps and structural consolidation, which could make plausible a progressive transformation of the world-system.”(1)
Those of us in the climate movement who are motivated not by what Obama and the Democratic Party leadership want, but by the needs of our peoples and the earth, would do well to heed these words and interact with each other accordingly.
(1) “Antisystemic Movements” in the book “Transforming the Revolution.”