Here are two short essays that update the Introduction to the Inside/Outside Strategy
What is Strategy?
Strategy is a plan — a proposed course of action. Strategy demands the analysis of current conditions and statements of desired goals. But, the primary focus of strategy is “how.” How do we work the transition between what is and what ought to be?
An effective strategy proposes how existing consciousness, resources, and capacities can achieve a range of political ends. Strategy tries to answer the hardest questions of all: what to do next and how to do it? While strategic thinking often relies on one political theory or other it is not the same exact thing as theory — its nothing as orderly or elegant as that.
Inside/Outside Strategy (IOS) is an approach to organizing and movement building that emphasizes learning from and coordination with resistance movements that have political positions you do not completely agree with. IOS is an inclusive rather than an exclusive approach. A “both/and” attitude can help us resolve the static binaries and false choices that divide us and waste our energies. IOS is an alternative to the endless arguments and fragmentation that characterize the conventional left-wing pursuit of the “correct line.” IOS is particularly useful in organizing mass movements, coalitions, big-tent political parties, and revolutions.
Effective organizations regularly use a strategic planning process. While there are variations all include an assessment of the various forces in play; yourself, allies and adversaries; a shortlist of goals; the selection of tactics and demands; and most crucially — matching the tactics and tasks to the organizational resources already in hand. In the spirit of experimentation, the results must be evaluated, criticized and the plan revised. But always, we start from where we are — not where we’d like to be or hope to be.
Strategy is permanently provisional. Strategy is a work in progress, an unending discussion open to revision based on practice and the constantly shifting political context. Strategy does not provide certainty but is a guide to action. But the sad fact remains that much activism is simply reactive or willfully avoids strategic work.
The IOS Remains A Coherent Strategic Framework For An Incoherent World
In 2014, when I started writing about IOS, I was hard-pressed to find good sources and examples — the discussion was just getting underway. A lot has changed since then. IOS has become a topic of discussion among strategy-minded activists.
IOS reaches its greatest potential as an overall strategy for social transformation. It can be applied to a wide variety of situations and movements. Still, most discussions of IOS focus narrowly on the relationships between social movements or organizing on the one hand and electoral work on the other.
IOS emphasizes experimentation in practice rather than doctrinal rigor or ideological clarity as a way of rebalancing a movement drunk on polemics and the hangover of analysis paralysis. IOS gives priority to engagement with the millions rather than debates between or within organizations.
Personal experience is the best teacher by far and that is why job #1 is to encourage people to take action. Real change becomes possible when millions act on the stage of history and not before. And when the millions move they will burst every comfortable category the “left” prizes so dearly. Change will not be orderly.
The mixed reaction of the US and French left to the Yellow Vests is just one example of our inability to deal with the contradictions unfolding before us. It reminds me of Lenin’s observations of the 1916 Irish Revolution.
“To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression…against national oppression, etc.-to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are for socialism”, and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism”, and that will he a social revolution!
Whoever expects a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.
The socialist revolution…cannot be anything other than an outburst of mass struggle on the part of all and sundry oppressed and discontented elements. Inevitably, sections of the petty bourgeoisie and of the backward workers will participate in it—without such participation, mass struggle is impossible, without it no revolution is possible….”
Let’s start working on the world as we find it not as we wish it to be. That in no way means we accept the world the way it is. But, it does mean we are working toward a strategy that is far more effective than moral outrage or ideological precision.
It’s not that raising consciousness is a waste of time — it is vitally important. We need to bring the empire into view first and foremost because that is where the crisis cooks the hottest. Yes, we need the ideological struggle but tempered and trained by the complicated political context we find ourselves in. And, there is nothing more full of contradictions than revolution — nothing.
Deal with that or we deal ourselves a losing hand.
- While the concept of “working with the world the way we find it,” is most often associated with Saul Alinsky it is a really just a practical application of the most useful insight Marx and Engels ever offered: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”
The Inside/Outside Strategy (IOS) claims we need to work both inside and outside the dominant order to win. Most critiques of IOS correctly point to the shortcomings and dangers of working within the system. But, this weakness is also a reflection of the lack of powerful outside movements to recruit and discipline inside actors. If the outside isn’t working the inside isn’t working either. That said, far too many hopes, dreams, and dollars have been invested in inside work — elections in particular.
Working inside does not mean climbing the career ladder, joining some political machine, or aiming no higher than mere reform. Inside work, done well, means identifying the conflicts and divisions within the power structure and pushing on them. It means intensifying the struggle, working around obstacles and organizing outside the centers of power. Inside work does not have to mean giving up on revolutionary change. It should mean just the opposite.
But one part of the concrete conditions we cannot ignore is the reality that different people and tendencies will, in fact, work different angles. Some might focus either too far inside or too far outside the existing order for our tastes but we should aim toward greater synergy and coordination between the two. The trick is to learn to keep one foot in each world. Walk the razor’s edge.
For those critical of working within the Democratic Party, for example, our task is to build up our capacity for mass movements, local communal projects, and third parties. Organizing projects are far more important than winning the debate about where to concentrate forces.
“Inside” the Academic Labor Movement
I quit my job as a tenured professor and spent the next 15 years as a union organizer for the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers. My main focus was on organizing the part-time and non-tenure track faculty who were the most exploited of the teachers. The were the targets of a punishing austerity that cleared the way for the corporatization of higher education. As a staff member I was “inside” the union but in order to do the job I had to take on a complicated three-front struggle.
The first front –the struggle for adjunct rights and against the two-tiered labor system — was the most important. When I started in 1998, the adjunct movement was coming into its own. I had a movement I could relate to, advocate for and help to organize. Without that outside force, there would have been nothing and no ground for an insider like me to stand on.
The adjunct faculty had been — and still are — dispossessed: unions rarely represent them well and often comply with workplace rules that actually hurt them. Adjuncts work for poverty wages, lack health care and are always fifteen minutes away from total humiliation. Sometimes students are their only true allies.
The second front was confronting management. Higher education managers adopt the ways and means of the corporation. Their arrogance and cruelty are so vicious it’s hard to make sense of.
Management understands what union officials usually don’t; the adjuncts are a crucial source of cheap labor and a wedge to weaken the entire workforce. To the bosses, adjuncts are a class enemy to which they will give no quarter. University management — liberals all — led the race-to-the-bottom replacing good jobs with bad, transferring wealth to the top and saddling generations of students with bad debts and dismal futures.
The last and most challenging front was dealing with conservative union officials that represented a small, influential, but deeply misguided segment of the tenured faculty. With some very notable and very honorable exceptions many of the official types, both elected leaders (many union elections are uncontested) and staff, avoided the issues or dragged their feet — a few were outright sellouts.
Very few union leaders play an effective inside role because they want to control the more radical rank and file rather than leverage their power. Instead, the savvy inside leader tells the boss: “I cannot control these people so if you don’t want a strike you better start throwing concessions our way.” But since control over members is tied to their own power most union officials squander rank and file pressure.
As the percentage of hires off the tenure-line grew year after year — replacing the secure with the vulnerable — a cultural shift eased the faculty’s surrender to the new order. The tenured faculty were all too eager to turn tenure from a right designed to defend academic freedom into a privilege rewarding hard work, intellectual prowess and merit.
What is “merit” other than the morality of the so-called “free market?” And, it has a powerful appeal. Who doesn’t want a merit badge? Why do you think so many academic radicals still believe that the free-market is a description of reality? Once privilege and merit replaced workplace rights the tenured faculty behaved much as other privileged groups do when tempted by the comforts of merit and the delusions of class collaboration.
Three Fronts in a War of Maneuver
Now, don’t take this analogy too far, but back when unions had real power they did not just fight scabs on the picket line. They sent their very best organizers into the shop to talk with and educate the strikebreakers, who were, after all, just workers in desperate need of a decent wage and class consciousness.
Whether its labor unions or the Democratic Party, don’t go “inside” unless you are ready to fight on three fronts and deal with the intense contradictions that struggle requires. Keep the shifting relationships between inside and outside foremost in your mind. If the connections weaken or break, you weaken or break.
Should people work inside or outside? A good organizer usually encourages people to follow their own political instincts. When moved by the courage of their own convictions, people are more likely to do something — anything — and that activism will always be the best teacher.