Strategy and tactics

Jack Conrad shows that tactics must constantly vary if strategy is to advance

In their approach to No2EU and the Labour Party the Morning Star’s CPB, SPEW and the ISG manage to combine the opposite categories of opportunism and sectarianism into a single political position. All kowtow before Bob Crow. All compromise internationalism, republican demo-cracy and socialism. All yearn for a Labour Party mark two. All dismiss the Labour Party mark one. The CPGB’s Mike Macnair has neatly summed up this deviation from Marxism by coining the phrase ‘third period Bernsteinism’.

Let me show how communists should approach organisations such as No2EU, by discussing strategy and tactics.

What is meant by strategy and what is meant by tactics? A variety of sources can be quoted.

According to the Concise Oxford dictionary, strategy is the “art of so moving or disposing troops or ships or aircraft ... designed to impose upon the enemy the place and time and condition for fighting preferred by oneself”.

For Carl von Clausewitz: “Strategy forms the plan of the war; and to this end it links together the series of acts which are to lead to the final decision: that is to say, it makes the plans for the separate campaigns and regulates the combats to be fought as such.”1

Leon Trotsky says by “strategy, we understand the art of conquest: ie, the seizure of power”.2 The “most important function of political strategy”, explains Joseph Stalin, “is to determine the main direction which ought to be taken by the working class movement, and along which the proletariat can most advantageously deliver the main blow at the enemy in order to achieve the aims formulated in the programme”.3

Nor would it be out of place to quote another generalissimo - Mao Zedong: “The task of the science of strategy is to study those laws for directing a war that govern a war situation as a whole.”4

Applying all this to our own circumstances, we can say that political strategy refers to fulfilling the working class programme of human self-liberation and, we should add, what social strata or forces can or must, at various stages, be won as auxiliaries or reserves to help realise that end. Strategy is the battle plan of the working class, a plan which combines together all resources and all forces and gives them direction in each engagement, in each battle, as we pursue our goals.

Tactics, on the other hand, involve the many and varied forms of struggle employed: ie, conditional support and critical support. Tactics serve strategy. Tactics are therefore the weapons used by the working class. Only by combining correct strategy and correct tactics can communists win the unity of the left, earn the trust of the masses and bring about our historic aims.

Strategy also locates the main enemy that needs to be attacked and overpowered by the working class and what secondary opponents must be defeated, neutralised or taken advantage of at various stages. Correspondingly the working class leadership strives to unite its forces and win over allies. In this way our resources can be moved and concentrated in space and time.

For example, the Russian Revolution went through a number of distinct stages or phases, each of which required from the Bolsheviks a definite strategy and strategic orientation.

Tactics are subordinate to strategy. Because circumstances and opportunities are constantly shifting, opening and closing due to the alignment of forces, etc, tactics must change constantly. Laughably the CPGB has been accused of not applying consistent tactics when it comes to elections. For example, we put internationalist and democratic conditions on supporting No2EU, but we unconditionally supported the Socialist Alliance in 2001.

But what is advantageous one day can become disadvantageous the next. New tactics and slogans therefore replace old tactics and slogans. Whereas strategy is determined by striking at and overthrowing the main enemy, tactics are designed to achieve more limited objectives. Strategy is akin to fighting a war; tactics are about winning a particular battle, a skirmish or merely how particular weapons are used.

Depending on the moment, tactics can encompass the most diverse forms and combinations. So when the political struggle reaches fever pitch new forms of struggle are demanded and are produced. The Russian Revolution surely provides the best example of tactical growth - eg, underground papers, discussion circles, economic strikes, boycott of elections, participation in elections, parliamentary faction, political strikes, soviets of workers, peasants and soldiers, red guards, insurrection.

Strategy implies a leadership which can take advantage of contradictions in the enemy camp. To ignore or play down such questions is profoundly mistaken. The working class should aim to take the maximum advantage of conflicts within the capitalist class and the political establishment.

Hence in distinguishing the Labour Party from the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats our Draft programme points to the necessity of splitting the Labour Party’s base - which is working class - from its leadership, which is bourgeois and thoroughly reactionary. To lump together the Labour Party, the Tories and the Lib Dems as indistinguishable is to commit a strategic blunder of the first order.

Tactics must conform with and advance strategic ends. Tactical leadership therefore consists of having a working knowledge of all tactical forms and ensuring that they are used properly and at the appropriate moment so as to maximise the results for the cause of the working class. We must through propaganda and well aimed tactics convince the advanced section of the working class that the leadership of the Labour Party is an agent of capital and that what is needed is a Communist Party, not countless bureaucratic socialist sects or hopeless halfway house parties.

To move forward strategically communists must at every turn of events locate what Lenin called the “particular link” in the chain. If that link is grasped “with all one’s might” the conditions are prepared for advancing to the next link and solving a host of other associated problems and moving toward eventual strategic success.5

In our conditions the “particular link” can be summed up in one phrase: ending the division of the left into countless amateurish and narrow-minded sects through unity around a revolutionary programme. In other words a Communist Party that can sink deep roots in the working class. Without building such a party, popular outrage against parliamentary corruption, disenchantment with turbo-capitalism, widespread fear of unemployment, pay cuts and public spending austerity, will inevitably run into various dead ends: the result can only be dissipation, demoralisation and demobilisation.

Tactically, unlike Labourites and anarchists, we positively rule nothing in and nothing out. In principle all forms of struggle should be considered. Marxists certainly know full well the value of conditional demands, swift manoeuvres, exploiting conflicts between our opponents and temporarily support for what in his ‘Leftwing’ communism, an infantile disorder Lenin called “temporary, vacillating, unstable, unreliable and conditional” allies.6 Our call for a Labour vote on June 4, because the Labour Party remains a bourgeois workers’ party - that is if No2EU’s lead candidates fail to support the CPGB’s internationalist and democratic conditions - obviously come to mind.

Unilaterally renouncing “temp-orary” and “conditional” manoeuvres, deals, allies and options is like an army refusing to train in the use of all the weapons and means of warfare. Obviously any such army is behaving in a manner that invites defeat. If, on the contrary, communists set themselves the goal of mastering all methods of struggle, which is only possible in practice through the expanding self-movement of the working class itself, we become a real threat to our enemy and victory thereby comes within our reach.

A barrier to this is, of course, presented by those from within our ranks, both the inexperienced and the hardened dogmatists alike, who shun or dismiss “temporary, vacillating, unstable, unreliable and conditional” alliances as wrong in principle.

Communist politics requires an ability to locate those compromises and calls for support that are appropriate and necessary and those which are inappropriate and express opportunism. Put another way, there are compromises and compromises, and calls for support and calls for support. Each must be judged concretely, taking into account the circumstances that pertain.

As a parable Lenin gave the example of someone who hands over money and a firearm to bandits under duress, with a view to ensuring their later capture and execution, and a man who hands weapons and money to bandits so as to “share in their loot”.7 The Bolsheviks had done the former with imperial Germany. The 1918 Brest-Litovsk treaty concluded an unequal peace - Germany was handed 60 million people, 32% of Russia’s arable land, 75% of its coal and oil production, 33% of its factories and 26% of its rail network. A necessary retreat. The Bolsheviks had a gun to their head. Tomorrow, however, they hoped for a German revolution. On the other hand the social democratic majority in Germany had done the latter. They had willingly voted for the kaiser’s war budget and supported the national war effort. They hoped to benefit from the slaughter.

Closing one’s eyes to the necessity of manoeuvres, rejecting electoral support for sworn opponents, attempts to fence oneself off from contamination by voting for a bourgeois workers’ party are profoundly mistaken. Communists have no interest in forming a league of the pure - we must be able to engage in all fields of struggle.

In this combative spirit Lenin wanted the newly formed CPGB to stand in selected parliamentary elections. He also urged our party to support Labour into government and apply for affiliation. The underlying idea was quite simple. Communists in Britain were small in number and found great difficulty in gaining a hearing from the mass of the working class. The Communist International, Comintern, later gave such tactics the general name of the workers’ united front. The tactic - in its various manifestations and applications - was designed to unite the organised working class in an alliance around various specific issues. At every stage communists retain the right to criticise and are obliged to exercise that right. Through practical experience and the educative effect of our propaganda communists emerge, faster or slower, as the undisputed leadership.

As an aside, we should emphasise that the CPGB has consistently opposed auto-Labourism. Likewise, we argue against auto-anti-Labourism. A correct attitude towards the Labour Party is vital. The Labour Party still has the majority of trade unions affiliated to it and commands the loyalty of the mass of those who consider themselves working class partisans. The Labour Party is therefore a key strategic question in Britain. Labourism cannot be wished away; it has to be positively superseded.

Of course, our goal is not the revival of the Labour left. Circumstances cry out for an all-Britain revolutionary party which organises within its ranks five, six or seven million members. But to write off the Labour Party as a field of struggle today is paradoxically to give up on that mass Communist Party. Ends require their means.


1. C Clausewitz On war Harmondsworth 1976, p241.
2. L Trotsky The challenge of the left opposition 1923-25 New York 1980, p204.
3. JV Stalin Works Vol 5, Moscow 1953, p166.
4. Mao Zedong SW  Vol 1, Peking 1967, p183.
5. VI Lenin CW  Vol 27, Moscow 1977, p274.
6. VI Lenin CW  Vol 31, Moscow 1977, p71.
7. Ibid  p38.