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“War of Position”: Anti-Capitalist Attrition as a Revolutionary Strategy for Non-Revolutionary Times


Introduction

In non-revolutionary times, a revolutionary strategy has to acknowledge the distance that separates the preparatory phase from the crisis phase of anti-capitalist struggle. In a preparatory period, that is, when revolution is not yet a foreseeable prospect, the crucial tasks are to weaken the position of our adversaries (employers and the capitalist state) and to strengthen the position of our own side (the combined anti-capitalist forces). In a period of crisis, by contrast, the crucial tasks will include overthrowing the political and economic power of employers, displacing their elitist and authoritarian institutions with our own democratic and egalitarian ones, and consolidating popular rule against attempts by capitalism’s defenders to restore the rule of big business.

The distinction between "preparatory" and "crisis" phases of anti-capitalist struggle is important because a strategy that makes perfect sense if one is trying to achieve one set of tasks might be disastrously misguided if one is trying to achieve the other set of tasks. Arguably, this is a trap into which both Leninists and anarchists have repeatedly fallen, and which time after time has led small groups of radical activists into ever increasing isolation from mass movements and ever decreasing capacity to meaningfully engage with events in the real world.

The present period, evidently, is a non-revolutionary period. The forces of the Left are in disarray, whereas the strength, confidence and boldness of our adversaries have seldom, if ever, been greater. To turn this situation around will be difficult, but precisely for this reason the Left needs to think strategically about how to maximize our capacity to resist and challenge the power of employers and the state, with the ultimate and guiding aim of radical social transformation: a revolutionary replacement of capitalism with a new, democratic and egalitarian economic and political system. In this article, I want to outline what I call the "anti-capitalist attrition strategy," as an appropriate revolutionary strategy for the preparatory phase of this struggle.

I want to begin, though, with a word of caution. The conceit of the Old Left, that the struggles of the exploited and the oppressed against the capitalist system could be subjected to the kind of "command-and-control" regulation associated with military (or bureaucratic) hierarchies, has no useful role to play in the rebuilding of the Left. The point of strategic thinking is not to prepare ourselves to lead our forces into battle, like pawns in a chess game. Rather, we strategize because, as activist-participants in the midst of struggles that we have neither the capacity nor the desire to direct or control, we need to orient ourselves, and to equip ourselves with the intellectual resources to differentiate between what counts as a real advance and what counts a step in the wrong direction. What the strategy of anti-capitalist attrition offers us is not a "master plan," but a way of thinking more fruitfully about how to contribute to the struggles we participate in, both in the long term and the short term.

Attrition or Overthrow?

The notion of "attrition" in this context is a reference to the distinction, made famous by the military historian Hans Delbrück (1848-1929), between strategies of attrition and strategies of overthrow (or annihilation). A strategy of "overthrow" focuses on confronting the enemy and defeating it in decisive battles. A strategy of "attrition" seeks to avoid decisive battles, usually because these cannot (yet) be won, and seeks instead to exploit every opportunity to strengthen one’s own forces and weaken those of the enemy. Of course, it is not necessarily a matter of either/or. In the strategy of anti-capitalist attrition, for example, attrition is used in the preparatory phase, with the understanding that shifting into a strategy of overthrow will become an urgent necessity during the crisis phase.

It has to be said that the idea of deploying an attrition strategy for the anti-capitalist movement is burdened by a considerable amount of "baggage," historically. For one thing, the first explicit proponent of an attrition strategy for the radical Left was Karl Kautsky (1854-1938), who used it to argue against a political strategy for democratization (in Germany in 1910) proposed by Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919), which relied crucially on the use of militant mass strikes. In Kautsky’s view, attrition was the "prudent" approach, and Luxemburg’s supposed "overthrow" approach recklessly risked provoking a wave of state repression and thereby squandering the considerable gains that had been made over the years by the German Left. Thus, the term "attrition" was first introduced into strategy debates on the Left in order to justify a rejection of militancy in favour of a passive, electoralist strategy, like that proposed by Kautsky. Attrition meant not rocking the boat.

Later, Kautsky’s distinction (derived from Delbrück) was reinvigorated by Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), in his Prison Notebooks. Gramsci reformulated Kautsky’s distinction as a contrast between a "war of position" (attrition) and a "war of manoeuvre" (overthrow). [see FOOTNOTE #1] Unlike Kautsky, Gramsci did not use the distinction to argue against extra-parliamentary militancy. However, he did believe that the capacity of the ruling class in Western capitalist countries to rule through consent ("hegemony"), even more decisively than through force, meant that anti-capitalist struggle in those countries could not focus all its attention on a war of manoeuvre against the state (that is, the "seizure of state power," like that which took place in 1917 in Russia). Instead, revolutionaries had to win over the masses to an anti-capitalist political project by establishing an anti-systemic hegemony of the radical Left in place of the pro-capitalist hegemony that usually prevails. Although Gramsci here hits upon a crucial insight, which all anti-capitalist activists need to take seriously, some decades after his death his ideas encouraged a generation of "Eurocommunists" to focus all their efforts on a parliamentary-reformist strategy, no different from that of Kautsky, and thereby dissolved large sections of the ostensible far Left into the camp of parliamentary socialism.

So, there is some reason to fear that a contrast between a conflict of position/attrition and one of manoeuvre/overthrow tends to encourage (or simply reflect and make explicit) the degeneration of radical politics into one or another version of reformism.

To be sure, this can sometimes be true, as the cases of Kautsky and Eurocommunism illustrate. But here we need to distinguish between attrition as an approach to rebuilding the Left, when its forces are in disarray and marginal to mainstream politics, and attrition as an approach to deciding how to deploy the considerable forces of a strong Left when it is in a position to effectively confront the employers and the capitalist state. When Kautsky was arguing for attrition, the Left in Germany was stronger than the Left has ever been in any country in the entire history of the world, not excluding Russia in 1917. The idea of using an attrition strategy in that situation amounts to giving up on radical politics as such, in favour of a project of permanent reformist electoralism: what is sometimes called "Fabian socialism." But the mere fact that reformists can justify their political project in terms of the notion of "attrition" does nothing to change the fact that, during the preparatory phase of anti-capitalist struggle, a strategy of attrition is the only approach that the Left can reasonably take, just as a strategy of overthrow is indispensable in a crisis phase of the struggle. (For what it’s worth, in this matter I follow Lenin’s view of the relation between attrition and overthrow, as he expresses it in "The Historical Meaning of the Inner-Party Struggle in Russia," written late in 1910. See Collected Works, 4th English Ed., 1967, Volume 16, p. 383. As he was later to discover, he overestimated in 1910 the proximity between Kautsky’s view of "overthrow" and his own.)

There are two reasons why the anti-capitalist Left needs to think explicitly in terms of attrition, in the present, non-revolutionary period. The first reason is that the struggle between our forces and those of our enemies is an asymmetric one: simply put, they are stronger than us, so it is self-defeating to invite decisive confrontations (which is very different from saying that we should not engage in confrontational tactics). And the second reason is that the struggle is bound to be a protracted one: it will take many years, probably many decades, to put ourselves in a position where we can seriously think about enacting a strategy of overthrow. In a protracted, asymmetric conflict, the appropriate strategic framework is offered by the notion of attrition, or in Gramsci’s terms, a war of position.

Strategic Objectives of Anti-Capitalist Attrition

To adopt an attrition strategy for rebuilding the Left is to accept that the strategic tasks facing today’s anti-capitalists, in this preparatory phase of our struggle, are to be defined in terms of strengthening our side and weakening our opponents. Specifically, we aim to strengthen our political resources, our capacity to resist assaults, to challenge privileges, to win allies, and so on, and we aim to weaken such capacities in our adversary.

But what does a "strong Left" look like? What exactly are we aiming at?

It will be helpful, I think, to identify a few crucial strategic objectives, which jointly add up to a fairly clear idea of what rebuilding the Left means, concretely. In the context of an adversarial situation, like that between the anti-capitalist Left and the defenders of capitalism, it is to be expected that there will be a close correlation between factors that strengthen one side and factors that weaken the other. And it is just so in this case. The strength of our adversary – and our own weakness – in this struggle derives from three sources. The first source of capitalism’s strength is the relative social stability that creates a false impression of legitimacy, and makes the system appear invincible. The second source of its strength is the existence of widespread popular loyalty to the system, which extends not only to the government and the political system, but also to the economic institutions (private ownership of productive assets; profit-motivated production; etc.), and even to the cultural values of capitalism (consumerism; economic individualism; bourgeois ideals of ‘success'; etc.). The third source of capitalism’s strength is the lack of a unified force opposed to corporate rule, one which could pose a powerful challenge to the combined power of the capitalist class and its political representatives in the capitalist state.

Thus, to rebuild the Left, and in that sense to successfully carry out our tasks in the preparatory phase of anti-capitalist struggle, we need (1) to undermine the social stability of capitalist societies, (2) to undermine mass loyalty to the economic and political systems and cultural values of capitalism, and (3) to construct a powerful alliance capable in principle of mounting an effective challenge to corporate rule. That set of circumstances would signal the emergence of a strong Left, and an undermined, weakened ruling class. Anti-capitalist attrition, therefore, in the preparatory phase, identifies three strategic objectives: fomenting widespread civil unrest; subverting popular loyalty to the system; and building a powerful anti-corporate political alliance.

But how? Obviously, a workable strategy with direct practical implications has to be developed by activists "on the ground," by applying broad strategic principles to the concrete circumstances in which they work. So, here, I’ll only address the practical implications of the anti-capitalist attrition strategy in very general terms.

Fomenting Civil Unrest

Let’s start with the first strategic objective: fomenting civil unrest. This is something that the Left knows how to do, in principle, however difficult it may be in practice. In general, we do it by building broad and militant social movements of grassroots opposition to the system and its adverse effects on people. At the tactical level, that is, at the level of methods used to attain strategic objectives, we can single out three elements of the attrition approach to movement-building and spreading social unrest:

  • Grassroots Popular Mobilization: First, note that a crucial implication of framing the issue of movement-building in terms of "fomenting civil unrest" is that we are not looking for "a seat at the table." The project of anti-capitalism cannot be advanced, ultimately, by allowing our forces to get bogged down in the political process of capitalist-state politics. On the contrary, we want to sharpen the antagonism that divides the anti-capitalist forces of the Left from the pro-capitalist forces of the Right. From this it follows that our approach to politics will focus on extra-parliamentary politics, above all, grassroots popular mobilization. An attrition strategy must guard carefully against winning so-called "gains" that in fact have the effect of strengthening our adversaries by allowing some of our forces to be co-opted into the "mainstream" political process, in pursuit of the deluded aim of "working for change from within." We need to fight from outside the system, even as we make demands on it.
  • Strategic Dispersal, Tactical Concentration: Second, the anti-capitalist attrition strategy should motivate us to combine strategic dispersal with tactical convergence. Building oppositional social movements that are effective requires tactical convergence (a concentration of oppositional forces, taking action in "united fronts," for maximum impact). On the other hand, if the organizational and political unity of the Left is too complete, the task of weakening and containing it is made too easy for the authorities: if they neutralize one or two organizations (or tactics), by whatever means, the movement can be derailed indefinitely. But a movement with multiple organizations, pursuing multiple tactics, and working on multiple fronts, is much harder to defeat – as long as it is capable of timely tactical convergence, i.e., coming together for united action in support of particular demands with broad appeal. Successful movement-building requires that we work on getting the balance right between strategic dispersal (organizational multiplicity) and tactical concentration (united-front action).
  • Tactical Militancy. Third, when we pursue an attrition strategy, we seek to avoid decisive confrontations, by which I mean "betting the farm" on an all-out struggle against an opponent more powerful than ourselves. But that does not mean that it disavows confrontation as such. Far from it. It demands an appropriate use of militancy, whenever its use can strengthen our side and weaken theirs, above all in the context of mass protests or strikes. Such tactics can have important positive effects, notably these three: building the confidence and boldness of the anti-capitalist opposition, polarizing the political debate in society around a certain issue, and provoking outbursts of self-defeating state repression. These benefits can be crucial in helping us to build movements, but also to attain the other strategic objectives of the attrition strategy.

Subverting Mass Loyalty

Now let’s consider methods for pursuing the second strategic objective of the attrition strategy: subverting mass loyalty to the system. Here we need to separate out the three kinds of subversion that the attrition strategy urges us to pursue simultaneously: economic, political and cultural.

  • Economic Subversion: On the economic front, the task of subversion implies winning people away from their attachment to the profit-driven, market economy – which they may see as inevitable, and upon which they almost certainly depend for their survival and/or well-being. Today, in particular, this requires that we go beyond vague ideals about equality and democracy. We have to draw people into actually existing, viable alternatives. This means taking very seriously the task of building up the so-called "social economy" (also known as the "solidarity economy"): workers’ co-operatives, consumer and housing co-operatives, experiments in "participatory economics," small-scale barter economies, and other forms of democratic and egalitarian economic activity operating in the margins and interstices of contemporary capitalism. Marx rightly saw in co-operatives the seeds of a new, radically democratic and egalitarian alternative to capitalism, and today’s Left needs to do much more to promote them as a living alternative to profit-motivated economics.
  • Political Subversion: On the political front, the task of subversion implies, in the short term, drawing people into forms of civic engagement that lie beyond the mainstream political process, notably participating in movement activism, as opposed to voting and joining electoral political parties, and in the long term, cultivating the emergence of alternative, parallel political institutions, beyond the control of capital and the state, such as popular assemblies or councils, like those that have accompanied so many of the major social upheavals of modern times. In short, the Left must offer modes of civic participation which compete effectively for the loyalty and identification of masses of people: a politics that is oppositional rather than integrative.
  • Cultural Subversion: On the cultural front, the task of subversion implies the cultivation of a counter-culture of values, lifestyles and social practices that tend to cut against both acquiescence in the rule of the market and identification with its characteristic values. A clear example of a subversive lifestyle would be the anti-consumerist lifestyle of "simple living." Any such lifestyle or value system will be vulnerable to co-optation, as capitalists seek to exploit the ostensible alternative as a vehicle for selling a line of products tailor-made to cater to its participants. But this just implies the need for constant vigilance and ongoing attention to the problem of sustaining anti-capitalist consciousness in spite of pressures toward co-optation and assimilation (‘counter-subversion’).

Constructing an Anti-corporate Alliance

Finally, we need to identify some basic methods for pursuing the third strategic objective of the attrition strategy: constructing an anti-corporate alliance, capable of posing a real threat to capitalism. The first thing to do is to specify the appropriate "constituency" of such a political project. The forces of anti-capitalism are now few in number, but we need to gain influence among a constituency much broader than ourselves. Here we need not innovate: the Left has traditionally identified as its audience a broad sector of the populace, consisting of the membership of working-class organizations, classically including unions and co-operatives, and their "natural allies" in those democratic and egalitarian community organizations working within civil society to achieve social and environmental justice, and political and economic democracy. This constituency has the two advantages of being both potentially receptive to anti-capitalist (or at least anti-corporate) politics, and potentially powerful in the threat that it can pose to the status quo. So, what we need to do is mobilize this constituency to build a powerful anti-corporate alliance of labour and community organizations. But, no less important, we need also to ensure that radicals, of varying political stripes, are able to operate within these labour and community organizations, and to have a certain influence within them, which will naturally tend to be greater in times of significant social upheaval, and weaker in other periods.

The value of such a labour/community alliance for the anti-capitalist project is clear. But what, tactically speaking, can we do to build it? Here’s two crucial elements of the answer to that question.

  • Social Movement Unionism: First, within the labour movement, we need to challenge the "economistic" narrowness of "business unionism," by organizing at the grassroots level within unions for a "solidarity" or "social movement" unionism, which focuses not only on bargaining for wages and benefits, but also on a broader political agenda for democratizing the economy, and for promoting social movements against racism, sexism, poverty and environmental destruction.
  • Class-struggle Social Movements: Second, within the wider civil society social movements (feminism, environmentalism, etc.), we need to promote a consistently anti-corporate, pro-worker consciousness, as an indispensable aspect of Left politics. Thus, for example, we need to make the case for a class-struggle feminism, a class-struggle anti-racism, and a class-struggle environmentalism, and so on. Doing so will both enhance the effectiveness of these movements on their own terms and sharpen the antagonism that divides these movements from the economic and political elites of capitalism.

Conclusion

A strategy of the kind proposed here – which is suitable for a period of protracted, asymmetric conflict against a powerful ruling class – cannot overthrow capitalism. That requires a specific strategy for defeating the employer class and the capitalist state in a decisive struggle to resolve a profound social crisis in favour of the anti-capitalist Left. But the strategy of anti-capitalist attrition can serve as a long-range strategic orientation for radicals in the contemporary period: a framework for setting goals, choosing tactics, and assessing gains and losses.

{Send feedback to SJ DArcy, at "radicalism@gmail.com"}

 


FOOTNOTE[1] Unfortunately, Gramsci’s introduction of "war of manoeuvre" as a name for the strategy of overthrow invites confusion. The contrast between attrition strategies and overthrow strategies is all too easy to confuse with the very different contrast between a "war of attrition" and a "war of manoeuvre" as these terms are used by many contemporary military strategists (see, e.g., John Mearsheimer, "Maneuver, Mobile Defense, and the NATO Central Front," International Security, Winter 1981/82, Vol. 6, No. 3; and William Lind, "Military Doctrine, Force Structure, and the Defense Decision-Making Process," Air University Review, XXX, No. 4, May-June 1979). World War I, with its famous trench warfare, was mainly fought using strategies of annihilation (overthrow), not attrition in Delbrück’s sense. Yet, in the idiom of contemporary military strategists, it was a war of attrition. To writers like Mearsheimer and Lind, a "war of attrition" is – like Delbrück’s strategy of annihilation – primarily focused on seeking out and conducting decisive battles, in a mutual test of strength. When they say "war of maneuver" (or manoeuvre), on the other hand, they have in mind attempts to use bold and unexpected movements to strike suddenly at an adversary’s "Achilles heel," leading to a rapid breakdown of the enemy’s morale and system of command and control, etc., so that victory may not go to the largest and most well-equipped (hence strongest) side in the conflict. In any case, because the strategic discourse of the Left has been shaped mainly by the usage familiar from writings by people like Kautsky, Gramsci, Luxemburg and Lenin, in this article I adopt their Delbrückian vocabulary, even if it is somewhat passé in strategy circles today.

 

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