Saturday, June 4, 2011

Some Should Do One, Others the Other

A friend writes:
In August 1968 I was on an SDS trip to Cuba, one of about 30 student activists from around the US. One day we went to the mission of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam in Havana (it had been called the National Liberation Front but had recently taken on a new name). We decided to see if the NLF, as we called them, could settle some debates in the US antiwar movement. After exchanging pleasantries with the representative of the PRG/NLF, we had the following exchange.

SDS students: We have a debate in the antiwar movement. Some of us think we should organize militant, obstructive demonstrations that are openly in support of victory for the NLF. Others argue we should organize much larger, peaceful, legal demonstrations around the demand of immediate US withdrawal from Vietnam. Which should we do?

PRG/NLF rep: Some of you should do one, and others should do the other.

SDS students: We have another debate in the antiwar movement. When a male antiwar activist gets a draft induction notice, some of us think he should refuse to serve, either going to jail or going to Canada. Others of us argue that he should quietly go into the military to organize among the soldiers for an end to the war. Which should we do?

PRG/NLF rep: Some of you should do one, and others should do the other. And when an antiwar activist goes into the military and ends up in Vietnam, there are ways to arrange contact between the activist and the local NLF fighters.

After that exchange, I began to see why the NLF was so successful in their struggle to force the US out of Vietnam.
Here is a parable for the Left! How many pointless debates about tactics could be avoided if someone just said, "Some of you should do one, and others should do the other." Except in the case of a specific, finite resource, and a decision-making body able to allocate it, the merits of one approach aren't an argument against another.

Peaceful demonstrations, or direct action? Challenge foreclosures in court, or block them in the street? Work within the Democrats, or build a third party? Support organizing and contract fights by AFL-CIO unions, or help build rank-and-file insurgencies? Try to shift the Obama administration from the inside, or pressure it from the outside? Debate the economics mainstream, or build a heterodox alternative? Nationalize the banks, or shoot the bankers? Fight for women's access to male-dominated professions, or for greater social recognition of traditionally female activities? Well-funded public universities, or an end to credentialism? Green capitalism, or cooperatives? Theory, or practice? Recycle, reuse, or reduce? Some of us should do one. And others should do the other.


  1. I should add, the point isn't just that one tactic doesn't exclude another. It's that, at least as far as left politics goes, "inside" and "outside" approaches are actively complementary. The reformers get no traction unless there's an angry mob pounding on the doors. And the mob can't win any lasting victories unless there's someone on the inside to translate their demands into new laws and budget items.

    Eric Hobsbawm has a very nice statement of this principle somewhere, but I can't seem to locate it.

    1. Also Lenin, who wrote that the Bolsheviks should elect members to the Duma and organize in the street. An anecdote I also cannot find.

  2. This is one area where the Right is often more pragmatic. Attack liberal elitist universities and experts, but also fund right-wing think tanks and ensure a future supply of conservative experts!

    On the Left, we're much more likely to argue about who has the 'true' answer to a given problem. I've always thought this is because much of the Left is filled with people whose biggest goal is to demonstrate a superior moral conscience. We have a lot of people who are trying to show themselves and others that they are morally enlightened, and are only secondarily concerned with getting things done. Since the only real audience for that sort of moral peacockery is the rest of the Left, we have a lot of pointless internecine conflict about who the 'real' heroes are, coupled with a dismissal of those who are somehow unsound.

  3. I take issue with shooting the bankers being an alternative to nationalizing the banks. Not entirely clear that based on American predispositions, these are more complements than substitutes.

  4. Well, yeah. Didn't you read my comment above? All these pairs are complements.

  5. Yeah I agree to a large extent. Sometimes though, resources are finite. When it comes to the idea, for example, of building a third party (and to be clear I'm not sure whether that idea is feasible or not at this point), it is crucial for success to get as many people to do that, and not the other (staying within the Democratic party).

    1. There are minor parties that need cohesion and lifeblood. The Green and Libertarian parties are overlapping more and other lefty parties and independent types could garner a real shift if they focus on the corruption of money in politics.

  6. What's your definition of feasible?

  7. Josh - this reminds me, I should read your blog more often. Also reminds me of a Ho Chi Minh poem that ostensibly concerns our favorite pass time, the dialectics of chess. It's not exactly the same principle, but reminds me of this NLF representative in so far as there is no one piece, position, or strategy that is predetermined to lead to success:

    Lessons of Chess

    We learn to play to wile the hours away.

    We learn the pieces, learn their places,

    Learn to put them through their paces,

    And such tactics as it takes to win the day:

    Plan with care, look far ahead,

    Make every move a forceful one,

    But never count on force alone,

    A pawn well-piled could turn the tide.

    For weakness there is scant allowance,

    So turn every weakness into strength.

    Advance and withdraw with equal finesse,

    For victory hangs in the balance.