Sophia Burns on ambulance-chasing and revolutionary strategy

I generally think that the radical left in the US does very little in the way of strategic thinking, so its always nice to read pieces like “Chasing Ambulances” and “Strategize, Don’t Moralize”, both written by Sophia Burns, a radical out in the Pacific North-west.

“Chasing Ambulances” critiques the common leftist practice of bouncing around different hot-button issues that are sparking protests and rallies, in an effort to spread the good word of revolution or whatever and find new recruits.  This is often weird and alienating and annoying to the people who are actually organizing the events and who have been engaged in long-term organizing around a particular issue or community.  And even when leftists aren’t being weird and opportunistic, there is still a tendency to put out all manner of resolutions and endorsements and whatnot as a way to “support” a cause — and it usually ends at that, which makes it highly questionable what the actual point of them is.  Burns argues that instead of running around and chasing after causes, leftists ought to instead be actual organizers, and engage in base-building in specific communities, with a long-term strategic perspective.  Sounds obvious, but then again, look at all the different cliques and sects running around in urban centers of the US that can be found at the fringes of any protest action, but have no meaningful organizing activity of their own, aside from trying to recruit people and raise awareness of socialism or whatever.

However, I would nuance this line of argument by saying that there are leftists who can and are engaging with flare-ups in social movements, like the ongoing teachers’ strikes, in what seems to be an effective and fruitful manner.  This engagement isn’t based on trying to recruit or preach, but on mutual communication and on the basis of learning.  There are plenty of radicals in education and academia who can and are connecting with the West Virginia wildcat teachers on the basis that they, too, are facing similar styles of exploitation and subjugation.  And of course it certainly helps that radical organizations like the IWW have been actually helping out in West Virginia.

“Strategize, Don’t Moralize” is a more explicit discussion of the need for revolutionary strategy, and a critique of the common leftist practice of debating about tactics in the abstract, divorced from context or strategy.  For example, its ultimately meaningless to talk about whether punching Nazis is good or bad in the abstract; you have to discuss it in the context of specific goals, which themselves must be connected to a larger strategy.  For revolutionaries, this strategy of course needs to be oriented around the prospect of revolution, which requires the synthesis of many different tactics — direct action, mutual aid, etc. — that have appropriate times and places to implement.  Without a coherent strategy, then leftists are left debating and implementing tactics in a vacuum, and arguing ideas without implementing practices, and thus remaining marginal to both the masses and to political and social relevance.

Burns doesn’t explicitly connect this line of argumentation with the one about ambulance-chasing, but the connection should be clear: when leftists aren’t acting in accordance with an explicit long-term strategy, then the impulse to abstractly moralize means that their actions are dictated by the issue of the month, and the need to “be correct” or “take the right position” on all manner of topics that, in the end, they have no concrete ability to influence.  The war in Syria is an excellent example of this.  Everybody is so damn caught up in yelling at each other about the correct line on Syria that nobody has stopped to realize that none of them have any power whatsoever to influence the situation in the first place, so the debate is ultimately irrelevant.  Instead of this style of moralizing, we need to take a step back and think about how to get from point A (being irrelevant to the situation in Syria and global capitalism/imperialism as a whole) to point Z (being a serious revolutionary force capable of intervening against imperialism).

Strategize and build power, don’t run after ambulances!


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