War of Position/War of Manoeuvre

The following was a discussion document I prepared for the Irish anarchist organisation, the Workers Solidarity Movement in January 2010, written to shift the organisation’s response to the economic crisis. It set out to state clearly that revolution in the current context was impossible, and the best that revolutionaries could do was to use the struggles that did arise as a basis for rebuilding. It was inspired by my readings of The Prison Notebooks and discussions with Gavin MG.

A cat studying military strategy.

“A crisis cannot give the attacking forces the ability to organise with lightning speed in time and space; still less can it endow them with fighting spirit. Similarly, the defenders are not demoralised, nor do they abandon their positions, even among the ruins, nor do they lose faith in their own strength or their own future.”

Antonio Gramsci, The Prison Notebooks

The Concept

The Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, used the terms ‘War of Position’ and ‘War of Manoeuvre’ to indicate two different phases in the class struggle, and thus the appropriate strategies for revolutionaries to take. The War of Manoeuvre is, for Gramsci, the phase of open conflict between classes, where the outcome is decided by direct clashes between revolutionaries and the State. War of position, on the other hand, is the slow, hidden conflict, where forces seek to gain influence and power.

Gramsci, writing during his imprisonment by Mussolini, sought to understand how it was that the Russian Revolution had succeeded and yet the European revolutionary movements had failed. He saw this as a result of a fundamental difference between Russia and the Central and Western European societies. “In the East, the State was everything,” and so, a direct conflict with, and victory over, the State was sufficient (we might of course dispute this belief). But “in the West, there was a proper relation between State and civil society, and when the State trembled a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed.” That is, a direct confrontation with the State was insufficient, as the legitimacy of State and capitalist society was protected by civil society. The State had hegemony, it had legitimacy, and the ruling class’s vision of the world shaped people’s consciousness, as the ‘common sense’ of that society. The war of position, then, is the struggle to gain positions of influence that can develop counter-hegemony for the socialist movement. For Gramsci, it was this that would be the decisive struggle, even though it would, in fact, take place ‘beforehand’.

The schema War of Position/War of Manoeuvre is useful for considering our situation. We should first clarify the phrases as we are using them.

War of Position is the struggle to gain decisive influence in society. To win this would mean that there are bases of significant self-organised class power and that a libertarian socialist vision is predominant in the working class.

War of Manoeuvre is the struggle of force. We modify it to mean any open struggle between classes, not simply revolutionary/counter-revolutionary struggles.

Our Situation

The capitalist crisis ended the period of partnership that has characterised Irish industrial relations and society at large since 1987. The Irish government decided to protect key sectors of the capitalist class with an enormous transfer of wealth and so could no longer sustain the minor concessions they had been making to guarantee industrial quiescence. They have attacked, and will continue to attack the social wealth possessed by the Irish working class to fund their bailout and have dropped the facade of partnership and bluntly told the union leadership to get with the programme.

This was presaged by a fierce ideological blitz, an almost constant series of attacks on the public sector and trade unions who were condemned for incompetence, corruption and, most of all, putting their greedy, sectoral self-interest over the good of the nation.

We would call the period since the bailout a war of manoeuvre, but very much like that of the 1991 Gulf War, in that there’s only one side fighting. The union leadership have put up little to no fight, desperately appealing to restart partnership and making symbolic and half-hearted gestures of resistance.

If the war of position is simply that, of taking positions of influence, that of manoeuvre is when this influence is mobilised overtly and coherently for a specific goal. It’s the exertion of strength.

The political and capitalist classes have shown that they understand this. There has been no qualms shown about mobilising and exerting force. The unions, on the other hand, have been much more reluctant to put their social power to work. The March 30th backdown was particularly indicative of this – ICTU hastily called off a national strike at the (empty) promise of negotiations from the government. This had been preceded by a 120,000 strong march in Dublin, which was a clear reminder of the residual capacity of the union movement.

What seems clear from this is that ICTU are only willing to utilise mobilisations as a show of force, not an actual imposition of force. Their goal is not victory, but partnership, and they are clearly afraid to engage in concerted militant action. This could be for a number of reasons, but the effect is the important thing.

This means that ICTU is, and will continue to be, incapable of fighting a war of manoeuvre. Bluntly put, we’re going to lose most of the upcoming struggles. The defeat may be lighter in some places than others, and it is possible that localised resistance will be able to safeguard some areas. Our problem then becomes: how do we use the current conflict as a way to improve our positioning in advance of the next one?

Fighting the War of Position

Anarchism, particularly platformist and especifista theory, emphasises the necessity of directed intervention in the class struggle to facilitate the self-organisation of the working class, so the ‘War of Position’ is not necessarily news to us. As platformists, this directed intervention is part of our DNA, it has been stated as the most important work of the revolutionary organisation. Although we tend to emphasise Theoretical and Tactical Unity as what we take from the Platform, this unity is of little importance if we are not focused on developing the class struggle. I believe that there are a couple of priorities in this:

1) To know where we need to be to build power
The first step in thinking about fighting a war of position is to identify what the important positions are; we need to know where we should be concentrating to gain influence. Part of this is our basic political principles – us ‘platformists’ see directed involvement in class-based organisations as our raison d’etre. But this is only a starting orientation; we won’t be able to progress until we move beyond that and develop our understanding of the society that we’re in now, mapping out where we need to be to build class power. This will involve some high-level assessment of the situations in unions, industrial sectors, community funding, media, etc., but also a large amount of membership becoming involved where they can and bringing back their experiences to the organisation as a whole.

We have a framework for building this understanding via the Sectoral Analysis and Orientation Papers, and it would be sensible to focus energies on developing these, with the union movement our first priority. These papers are an attempt to structure our knowledge to guide our involvement in campaigns and organisations. The best way to do this would be via a study group (or groups) which will feed back to the organisation regularly through articles and presentations. The analysis they bring together can then be formatted into an SAOP, and then used as the basis for our strategy.

2) Building Alliances
There’s been a lot of talk about the need for a united left recently, but the WSM has been largely missing from the debate. We should clarify our position on left cooperation and make that clear to other left organisations in a comradely way. I believe that the best position we can take is one of unity in struggle as a basis for progression, calling for left networking throughout unions, community groups, campaigns, etc., on the basis of building rank-and-file, cross-sector organisation in the unions in particular. We should also try and find ways to hold strategy forums for leftists to discuss upcoming struggles.

3) Preparing for intervention
We need to reimagine the organisation as primarily a platform for strategic involvement in struggle, and restructure it accordingly. My specific proposals are currently in formation, but, in brief, they involve:
a) Changing the branch from catch-all political unit to one specifically for debate and resource allocation
b) Diffusing the bulk of everyday activity to project groups, which would take on the specific tasks of intervention
c) Connecting the two elements by regional discussion and analysis which would mobilise b) to support the tasks of a) with feedback, debate and resources, while holding them accountable for their         use of resources (mainly referring to members’ time & money)
d) Providing overall direction to intervention by increasing the role for strategy formation, e.g. via SAOPs

About Dara McHugh

Dara is an amateur social critic and a professional pedant. He enjoys punctuation, science-fiction and beer.
This entry was posted in Critique of the Left, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.