Strategy Is a Craft

Strategy Is a Craft

An interview with Deepak Bhargava and Stephanie Luce.

Protesters demonstrate at Zuccotti Park on the second anniversary of the start of the Occupy Wall Street movement. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

In their new book, Practical Radicals: Seven Strategies to Change the World, Deepak Bhargava and Stephanie Luce argue that progressives need a strategy upgrade. As they explain, “We wrote this book because we think that the practice of rigorous strategy on the Left has deteriorated in recent years.” This development, they believe, stands in contrast to tendencies among conservatives, who since the 1970s have committed themselves to a comprehensive—and premeditated—drive to broaden their coalition, win control of key social institutions, and wield state power.

Bhargava and Luce are credible observers of such trends, having each spent decades in progressive movements. Bhargava is among the most prominent community organizers in the United States today. He spent more than two decades with Community Change (formerly the Center for Community Change), including sixteen years as its leader, working on issues of economic justice, immigrant rights, and campaigns at the intersection of organizing and electoral change. Luce is a professor at the City University of New York’s School of Labor and Urban Studies. Perhaps best known for her long-standing work in the living-wage movement, she has authored multiple books including Fighting for a Living Wage and (with Robert Pollin) The Living Wage: Building a Fair Economy.

In 2020, Bhargava and Luce began teaching a graduate-level class for mid-career organizers at CUNY’s Leadership for Democracy and Social Justice institute. They called the course Power and Strategy. They found that, for movement leaders, having ample space to think about strategy was a novel experience: “Organizers rarely get the opportunity to step back and reflect on their work and the broader movement, because they’re in a grind of crises and campaigns,” they explain. “This contrasts with what we have learned about how Right-wingers train leaders at business schools and in the military, which emphasize strategy and vision rather than technical know-how.”

Practical Radicals is an attempt to help remedy this gap by bringing insights from their class to a wider audience. Luce and Bhargava treat strategy as a craft that can be learned, and they aim to strengthen the strategic muscles of movement participants. A key part of this is grounding people in the “diverse lineages of social change.” Typically, young organizers enter into an organization and are schooled in that group’s methodologies and theories of how progress is achieved. It is uncommon for them to have a chance to learn the viewpoints of other groups. This dynamic, Luce and Bhargava believe, can feed a “cultish tendency to exalt a particular practitioner or approach, while denigrating others.”

The authors argue that “transformational change requires a mixture of creative strategies, working together harmoniously.” To this end, they highlight seven different organizing models that they believe must be deployed in conjunction with one another. Base-building, championed by unions and community organizers, focuses on building up organizations through person-to-person bonds. Disruption leverages the ability of poor people’s movements to interrupt the orderly functioning of the status quo. Momentum-driven organizing works to capitalize on moments of widespread unrest and absorb the energy of mass protests. Groups oriented toward narrative shift attempt to win over hearts and minds to an alternative vision. Still other organizations may focus on electoral change or inside-outside campaigns, which combine the work of supportive inside operators with pressure from outside movements. Finally, groups dedicated to collective care emphasize the importance of mutual aid and community support in allowing movements to endure over the long haul.

Practical Radicals profiles groups that embody the principles of each model, including Minnesota’s St. Paul Federation of Educators and New York’s Make the Road (base-building), Occupy Wall Street (narrative shift), the Working Families Party (electoral change), and Gay Men’s Health Crisis (collective care). The authors also highlight how movements of the past employed these approaches, with different segments and organizations playing distinct roles that contributed to overall success.

By looking at the strengths and weaknesses of each organizing lineage, and challenging practitioners to think about how their own methods connect with a larger web of activity, Bhargava and Luce hope to cultivate “organizers who hold big visions for transforming society and are willing to do what it takes to win in the real world.”

We recently spoke with them about their book. Our conversation is edited for length and clarity.

 

Mark Engler: Early in the book, you write: “Deepak was always interested in theory and history, unusually so for a U.S. movement practitioner,” while “Stephanie was always deeply engaged in organizing work, unusually so for an academic.” Can you elaborate on this divide between theory and organizing and how it has appeared in your own lives?

Deepak Bhargava: For most of my movement career, I was in community organizing spaces that were part of what you might call the very pragmatic left. We thought big changes were required, but we were a little exhausted by the extensive abstract discussions that happened among some activists. Our impulse was to say, “We just need to get down to work and organize people.”

I worked at ACORN as one of my first movement jobs. ACORN was disciplined about base-building and self-financing. But there was not enough shared agreement about race, class, gender, or U.S. political economy, or even about the component parts of the necessary progressive governing coalition.

Throughout my career, I’ve always had interest in those questions, both in what academics had to say about them and also about what was happening in other parts of the world that could inform movement practice in the United States. That interest was not always shared by the more pragmatic-styled organizers that I spent time with. People were coming out of left formations where they felt like there was too much insularity and not enough attention to building a mass base. I generally shared that assessment, but I think this became a case of overcorrecting. People moved too much away from necessary discussion about how to get to the promised land—and even what the promised land is.

Paul Engler: Stephanie, how did you experience this divide from the other side, as an academic?

Stephanie Luce: I didn’t think I was going to become an academic. I just kept reading and studying and found myself there. Yet I felt really frustrated when people would dismiss activists as just doers and not thinkers. For example, I was invited to speak on panels about a living wage, and when I would suggest other activists to join, they would be dismissed. The attitude was: “No, we want intellectuals on this panel.” And my feeling was that we can’t really understand any of these issues without talking to practitioners.

The two worlds felt very divided. But things have gotten better in the last ten years. Also, I find that academics in some other countries are more engaged in politics and social movements. The United States is unusually divided, and it’s interesting to think about the reasons for that. Partly it’s due to the professionalization of organizing here, and partly due to barriers within the academy.

Mark Engler: You mention that your experience teaching the Power and Strategy class that shaped Practical Radicals reaffirmed your sense that movements need to create more space to think about strategy.

Bhargava: The people in our class were fellows at Leadership for Democracy and Social Justice who had been selected in a very competitive process. They generally had ten to fifteen years of campaign and organizing experience, across a whole variety of movements, working in different parts of the country and on different issues. So they gave us a little snapshot of the state of movement work in the United States.

That snapshot was incredibly heartening in the sense that we saw the diverse talents of all these organizers doing amazing things. And at the same time, it was concerning. Due to the way their roles are set up, these people are often—by necessity—spending their time on very short-term, reactive campaigns.

We argue in our book that strategists are made, not born. We argue that there are a set of practices that movements and institutions can adopt to support their people becoming better strategists. For many people—not all, but many—those supports are not there currently.

Paul Engler: You quote a training organization for conservatives called the Leadership Institute, whose motto is, “You owe it to your philosophy to learn how to win.” Why do you think the right has been more focused on strategy than the left? And what do you think that underdogs can learn from studying their adversaries?

Bhargava: Their turn to strategy really came out of a sense of existential crisis at the end of the 1960s. They felt the world as they had known it had ended. That gave them a kind of mandate for radical reinvention. Out of that came all these institutions that they’ve now fostered for decades.

Paul Engler: In Practical Radicals you describe an infamous memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce written by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell in 1971. You write that Powell “laid out a plan to capture key institutions such as the media and universities to reverse the spread of radical ideas that challenged capitalism and white supremacy.”

Luce: The 1970s was a period when the business class, which had often been divided along sectoral lines, was realizing, “We can’t win power unless we work together.” There’s a lesson there about how we can spend a lot of time fighting each other, rather than understanding that winning power is about finding shared interests and identities that allow us to fight together.

Mark Engler: You write that we need to “reject methodological sectarianism” and instead draw on a variety of organizing lineages and theories of change. But at the same time, you say that you’re not arguing for an “anything goes” approach to strategy. How do you balance being open to different approaches while insisting that we need to be hard-headed in deciding how to spend our time and resources?

Bhargava: The models that we discuss in the book each have their own internal logic. That logic really needs to be understood and appreciated on its own terms.

When there are unproductive conflicts in our movements, they’re often because a practitioner in a different tradition will look at the work of a colleague and say, “That’s totally useless,” or “Why would you go about it that way?” Your book, This Is an Uprising, talks about the conflict between disruption and base-building. Or think of the conflict between inside-outside strategies—trying to make the most of what’s possible in a given historical moment—and narrative shift strategies—in which it can take decades to change a whole paradigm.

The question to ask is, are the narrative people doing what they say they’re doing well or badly? Are the inside-outside people doing what they’re trying to do well or badly? And then there’s a next step in the conversation: is there a way of making them synergistic rather than being in conflict?

That’s hard work. It demands precision. And it means admitting that there are other ways of getting from point A to point B than you might yourself be pursuing.

Luce: I’ve seen a lot of places where people make assumptions about other kinds of work. They might dismiss labor, because they assume it’s all white men. Or they might dismiss electoral work, because they think it’s just about electing Democrats. In both cases they’re not really taking the time to understand the nuances and realities behind those models.

We have to ask, “Within an ecosystem, what are the roles for different strategies and organizations at a given moment in time?” This is not about competing with other strategies, but about determining what roles to play depending on where we are in a given movement cycle.

Paul Engler: What are the advantages of this sort of strategic thinking, as opposed to just using whatever strategy emerges organically as activists deal with the problems in front of them?

Bhargava: I don’t think there’s a path to victory without a real deepening of the craft of strategy among many, many more people. The problems we face are so complex and large that it seems implausible to me that we would be able to tackle them by an improvisational approach.

When strategy becomes the province of ever smaller groups of people, inside organizations and movements, that is really unhealthy. It’s not just wrong, but it’s undemocratic. When more people are capable of having robust discussions about how to win, the result is almost always a better plan to win. Training in strategy strengthens our collective ability to wage the struggle, builds ownership for it, and results in better ideas.

Luce: When I was in the faculty union at the University of Massachusetts, I had an experience that really shifted my perspective on strategy. We were in the middle of contract bargaining, and somehow the conversation shifted beyond just what we could win right then to the long-term implications: “If we take a 3 percent raise now, are we a stronger union? Have we built a movement? What might that enable us to do better next time around?” We shifted our thinking to how we might actually connect bargaining with our defense of public higher education, with our students’ demands, and with our community fight to defend the public good. I realized it wasn’t necessarily about getting the best contract right now. It was about a longer vision.

Coming out of that we formed the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, which put out a plan for making higher education free and accessible to all, as well as other demands for democratizing education.

Bhargava: The classic example is the U.S. civil rights movement. The Rustin movie that recently came out is frustratingly mediocre, but it does show the extent to which that movement brought together many different organizing models. You have the deep base-building approach of Ella Baker, who also used skilled disruption and nonviolent civil resistance, and then you have Bayard Rustin using inside-outside politics, negotiation, and electoral politics.

There wasn’t a grand council where the interplay of all of these strategies were developed or shaped. But movement leaders did have relationships with one another. Rustin and Baker ended up on different sides of some things, but they had a generative, long-term relationship working together. And there were places, such as the Highlander School, where people met and talked across organizing traditions.

Mark Engler: At a few points in the book, you point to an aversion to power among progressives. Where do you think that aversion comes from, and how does it affect our ability to strategize?

Luce: Some of it comes from seeing power abused over and over—whether it’s corruption from politicians, or union and organizational leaders wielding power in an unjust and hierarchical way. But there’s another element that comes from a real fear of winning: it’s much easier to take the high road and be clear about your decisions if you don’t have to make the compromises needed to win power and govern. Governing almost by definition means compromise. And that means making complicated, difficult decisions. If you’re not winning and not running things, you’re not pulled into that difficult morass.

Paul Engler: You mention a 2022 essay that has gotten a lot of attention called “Building Resilient Organizations,” written by Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party. One of the things Mitchell does is point to the danger of “maximalism.” What is maximalism, and how does it affect us?

Bhargava: Maximalism is a notion that any deviation from a position of asking for the absolute, most progressive, furthest left position constitutes a kind of betrayal. It’s a widespread tendency that has its origins in fear: fear of having to take responsibility for making hard decisions, fear of having the responsibility to make compromises to keep a coalition together or to be in a fight for lasting power. It’s a longing for the security of a small but deeply aligned tribe, in which your identity and your beliefs are affirmed. That’s a really human desire; we all have to find that kind of affirmation. But it is not the work of social change, or politics.

We talk a lot about the need to build a recruitment culture—one with a deep commitment to social justice but also a real appetite to engage with people who are not part of the tribe. We have to bring everyday people into the movement, even when they have views that are different from the organizers. There’s no way to build the kind of majorities we need without this ethos. And seeing a move away from that has been worrisome.

Mark Engler: It seems like you’re pointing to a rise of “purity culture” on the left, and the feeling that there can be litmus tests for people entering into movement spaces.

Bhargava: Yes. To be clear, I think those are hard questions. There are conditions that we all probably think are important in terms of having respect for other people across lines of difference and identity. However, if you have an optimistic view about people’s capacity to grow and to evolve over time, then that requires you to include them. You don’t exclude them just because they’re not where you want them to be right now. And change is even more possible in the context of collective action and engagement with other people.

Conservatives have done this well. They’ve had wide on-ramps, and brought people along in their views over time, as opposed to a narrow funnel, which demands a high level of ideological alignment at the beginning.

Paul Engler: You argue that there needs to be strategic coordination between organizations. But it seems that efforts to create coalitions can sometimes result in groups pursuing a least-common-denominator approach, and that it is hard to pursue bold strategy while also trying to coordinate a lot of different people. How do you reckon with that tension?

Bhargava: We’re arguing for a cultural turn. We’re arguing that we should collaborate not just on the basis of short-term campaigns or immediate common interests, but on the basis of a shared power analysis and shared theory of how to win.

With all the emergencies we have going on, that is a difficult orientation to sustain. But where it has been done, we have seen it pay dividends. If people had just come together around one election cycle, or around one bill, I don’t know that places like Arizona or Georgia would have experienced the titanic shifts that they’ve had. There’s been enormous progress on this long-term approach at the state level. And we have more skilled and resourceful national leadership in key institutions across movements than we’ve had in a very long time.

We also have the makings of what could be a labor upsurge, which would unlock many other possibilities if it can be sustained and built. And we have a huge generational opportunity in climate activism, as well as in activism around gender and reproductive rights and LGBTQ equality. There are a lot of building blocks in place that could allow for massive strides forward.

Mark Engler: In your class, you have students create their own thirty-year plan for change, similar to what the right did with the Powell Memo. Can you talk about this exercise?

Luce: We have to admit that we don’t ever have the time to play it all the way through. This is an activity that we suggest students take back to their organizations. We don’t have a pile of memos from people in our class who have solved everything!

Reading the Powell Memo, you’re stunned by the level at which the right took seriously the threat that they felt at that time. They were thinking strategically about the institutions they wanted to control and the narratives they needed to change.

Giving organizers the freedom to think about what we want thirty years down the road, or even ten years down the road, is liberating, because you don’t really get to do that in your day-to-day work. Sometimes you have to really prod people to do this type of visioning exercise, because their sense of what we might be able to accomplish is pretty narrow. I think that’s because they haven’t been invited to think big. And putting together that kind of big vision is hard. You have to think about where you would need to organize, and what institutions you would need to take over in order to get where you want to go. It can seem impossible at first, but the students get into it.

Paul Engler: What would your own thirty-year strategy look like?

Bhargava: One thing that became clear to us when interacting with organizing directors from unions, environmental organizations, and community groups is the extent to which they are living in very week-to-week, month-to-month time horizons. So I think we need pretty substantial shifts in how those pivotal people spend their time and what they are given the ability to think through. Even if it’s not developing a thirty-year plan for the entire movement, we all would be better off if some of those incredibly gifted people could elevate the horizon of their vision several notches above where it is now and find time to do creative thinking about what the path forward should be. So rather than an idea approach, I’d say I have a talent approach, or a leadership approach, or a people-based approach.

Mark Engler: Is there a core takeaway from your book that you’d like readers to depart with?

Luce: There are a lot of great people thinking through these issues—people who are hungry for big-picture strategy conversations. We are hoping that our book can help guide some of those conversations. It’s not meant as the answer. And I want to give respect to people that are doing the hard work out there in the field.

Bhargava: This is really a book about lineages. It’s a book that I wish I had in my twenties, to understand the different ways to go about changing the world. My wish for organizers and activists today is to be grounded in these incredible lineages of struggle, which are a source of insight and strength and wisdom. Even as we reinvent or renew some aspects of those lineages, they can be a source of comfort and power.


Mark Engler is a writer based in Philadelphia and an editorial board member at Dissent. Paul Engler is founding director of the Center for the Working Poor, in Los Angeles, and a co-founder of the Momentum Training. They are co-authors of This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century (Nation Books), and they can be reached via www.democracyuprising.com.