Ends and means

Submitted by Matthew on 20 April, 2011 - 12:29

After the March 26 TUC demonstration, we began a discussion around tactics, politics and organisation with an “open letter to a direct-action activist”. In future issues of Solidarity we will feature further comment, from members of Workers’ Liberty and others, on the issues involved. The piece below is from an activist who blogs at The Great Unrest (www.thegreatunrest.net).


The relationship between our political goals and the means we use to achieve them is fraught with difficulty. There’s good evidence of this in the recent debates about “direct action” and the “black bloc” (which has largely been conflated with the act of rioting itself).

On the one hand, we can fixate on one particular way of doing things to the exclusion of better possibilities; on the other hand, we can valorise “diversity of tactics” as if it were an end in itself. When people have forgotten what should be self-evident truths it’s often necessary to straighten them out by reminding them of seemingly banal ways of looking at the topic.

With that in mind, we need to stop thinking in terms of tactics as a singular — or else infinitely diverse — way of achieving a singular goal. The left needs to incorporate appropriate tactics depending on the challenge that we face in a particular situation. We need to ensure that our line of march on one front doesn’t contradict our line of march on another front. Activists need to think in terms of winning immediate struggles and in terms of their long-term political objectives (be they bringing down the current government, ensuring socialist revolution, smashing the state, or whatever).

All of this should hopefully mean more dialogue about ends, rather than the recent fixation on means. I get the impression that a lot of political friction derives from a misunderstanding of the relationship between means and ends and the nature of those means and ends. Take the example of good-hearted workers or students who ask class-struggle militants why they don’t take up a career in politics; the naïve assumption is that the official political channels can be turned to whatever ends one would desire, that they don’t contain built-in biases and limitations. The question sounds faintly absurd to those of us who think that the problems of British politics are systemic and class-based, and that the state serves largely to further the interests of the capitalist class, because it is this perspective that reveals the misfit between intentions and methods in this instance. The problem is to explain our political objectives in the long and short term, and our understanding of the relationship between different available means and the ends we seek, to those who don’t share our perspective in the anti-cuts movement, the student movement, or whatever. It would be fair to say that the AWL have a good record on this relationship (and I speak as a non-member), and they’re not the only political organisation who do, but I don’t want to encourage complacency or let other Marxist groups off easily.

This puts us on a better footing to critique each other as comrades, serves us in setting reformists straight when we enter into dialogue them, allows a better grasp of our strategy and tactics to the people we work with in broader coalitions, and finally forces us to come to grips with a relationship that is important even just for the sake of us developing the right approach and realistically assessing our ideas. You have to wonder, for instance, if other left groups would be as keen to fetishise general strikes if they had to explain how a one-day stoppage in the public sector would relate to stopping the cuts, bringing down the government, or whatever it is they seem to think this would be an integral part of — could it be detrimental to this goal if it was a flop, for instance?

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