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Strategy and tactics – what’s the difference?

This article is over 12 years, 6 months old
In the first part of our new series Ben Wray looks at debates in the socialist movement in the 20th century
Issue 2161
Eduard Bernstein
Eduard Bernstein

Military scientists originally defined the difference between strategy and tactics.

But activists in the socialist movement have also had to grasp the distinction in order to take struggles forward.

Tactics are concerned with the isolated battle.

For instance, workers can use the tactics of strike, occupation and work to rule to fight for better pay in their workplaces.

Strategy, in contrast, refers to the use of a combination of tactics to achieve an end goal.

For revolutionary socialists this goal is the creation of a socialist society based on need rather than a capitalist one based on profit.

The working class – the majority of society – would replace the capitalists as the people who make the important decisions.

Specific struggles raise wider strategic questions – how do they affect the overall political progression of the working class?

Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, who led the Russian Revolution of 1917, insisted on the distinction between strategy and tactics.

The answer to why they did this lies in the political context of early 20th century Europe.

The battle for working class representation defined the 19th century.

This included the right to vote, to free assembly, to freedom from censorship and to form trade unions.

Many workers understood that this battle would culminate in an all-out class war against the capitalism that sought to deny them their rights.

But for a layer of left wing intellectuals at the turn of the century, the class struggle was essentially about “socialists” winning their place in parliament.

The leader of this movement was the German socialist Eduard Bernstein.

Bernstein cited the example of Alexandre Millerand, a French socialist who had become a minister in Pierre Waldeck-Rousseau’s Republican government in 1899.

According to Bernstein, this meant that the capitalist class had lost the battle to keep workers out of government.

Pretty soon, he argued, socialist governments would pass reforms to benefit workers and society would “evolve” into socialism.

For people such as Bernstein the end goal is nothing, while the movement is everything.

Revolutionaries like Lenin and Trotsky understood that winning seats in parliamentary elections is desirable if it raises workers’ political consciousness.

However, the activities of socialists in parliament must be subordinated to the overall tasks of the working class.

The parliamentary socialists understood tactics differently.

They were concerned only with winning the isolated battles.

This is why Germany’s Social Democratic Party, the SPD, kept a sharp division between its areas of activity.

In the run up to the First World War, SPD MPs capitulated to patriotism by voting for the war.

They put the retention of their influence in parliament before the overall interests of the working class.

Millions perished as socialists subordinated any long-term commitment for their short-term aims.

Lenin and Trotsky took the opposite approach.

At the beginning of the war, millions of workers across Europe enlisted for their nations’ armies.

But their feelings and ideas changed as they experienced the brutal reality of trench warfare.

Consciousness is highly uneven within the working class at any given time. There was always a minority who understood the imperialist nature of the war.

Lenin understood that this minority had the potential to raise the political level of the whole working class.

This could only happen, however, if the minority took organisational form in a revolutionary party.

Lenin realised that the Bolshevik Party’s anti-war position would make it initially unpopular among the masses in the Russian empire.

However, this would pay off strategically as the crisis created by the war would move people towards the policies of the Bolsheviks.

So strategy and tactics refer to the complexities of relating the aims of a revolutionary party to the political awareness of millions of workers.

Tactics must always be subordinated to the overall strategy to ensure that revolutionaries’ political interventions match up with their socialist goals.

Next week I will look at the revolutionary party and united fronts.

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