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The key problem with identifying successful strategies is that the context of historical resistance is different from the present. Their goals were often different as well. There’s a difference between destroying or expelling a foreign power, and forcing a power to negotiate or offer concessions, and dismantling a domestic system of power or economics. Such differences are the reason we’ve used relatively few anticolonial movements as case studies; their context and strategy are too different.

Resistance groups often fall prey to several major strategic failures. We’ll discuss five big ones here:

  • A failure to adhere to the principles of asymmetric struggle.
  • A failure to devise a consistent strategy and goal.
  • An inappropriate excess of hope; ignoring the scope of the problem.
  • A failure to adequately negotiate the relationship between aboveground and underground operations.
  • An unwillingness or inability to use the required tactics.

The first of these is a failure to adhere to the principles of asymmetric struggle. Yes, most resisters want to fight the good fight, and an out-and-out fight can be tempting. But that can only happen where resisters have superior forces on their side, which is almost never. The original IRA engaged in and lost pitched battles on more than one occasion.

In occupied Europe, writes M. R. D. Foot, “whenever there was a prospect that a large partisan force could be set up, people started asking for heavy weapons” instead of the submachine guns they were usually delivered. But artillery was always short on the front lines of conventional conflict, its presence drastically cut the mobility of a resistance group, and ammunition was hard to come by. “Bodies of resisters who clamoured for artillery were victims of the fallacy of the national redoubt … and of the old-fashioned idea that a soldier should stand and fight. The irregular soldier is usually much more use to his cause if he runs away, and fights in some other time and place of his own choosing.”16

Former Black Panthers have identified a similar problem with BPP strategy, specifically with their habit of equipping offices and houses to use as pseudofortresses. Explains Curtis Austin, “Using offices inside the ghetto as bases of operations was also a mistake. As a paramilitary organization, it should not have made defending clearly vulnerable offices a matter of policy. Sundiata Acoli echoed these sentiments when he noted this policy ‘sucked the BPP into taking the unwinnable position of making stationary defenses of BPP offices.… small military forces should never adopt as a general action the position of making stationary defences of offices, homes, buildings, etc.’ The frequency and quickness with which they were surrounded and attacked should have led them to develop a policy that would have allowed them to move from one headquarters to another with speed and stealth. Instead, the fledgling group constantly found itself defending sandbagged and otherwise well-fortified offices until their limited supplies of ammunition expired.”17

Early Weather Underground and SDS strategy similarly ignored the importance of surprise in planning actions by advertising and promoting open conflicts with the state and police in advance. This was criticized by other groups at the time. Writes Ron Jacobs, “From the Yippies’ vantage point, the idea of setting a date for a battle with the state was ridiculous: it provided the police with a greater capacity to counter-attack, and it also took away the element of surprise, the activists’ only advantage.… Pointing out the differences between the planned, offensive violence of Weatherman and Yippie’s spontaneous, defensive version, Abbie Hoffman termed Weatherman’s confrontations ‘Gandhian violence for the element of purging guilt through moral witness.’ ”18 (This analysis is interesting, if perhaps surprising and a little ironic, given the Yippies’ propensity for symbolic and theatrical actions.)

A most notable example of this problem was the “Days of Rage” gathering in Chicago in 1969. According to Weatherman John Jacobs, the intent of the Days of Rage was to confront the forces of the state and “shove the war down their dumb, fascist throats and show them, while we were at it, how much better we were than them, both tactically and strategically, as a people.”19 Jacobs told the Black Panthers that 25,000 protesters would be present.20 However, only about 200 showed up, met by more than a 1,000 trained and well-equipped police. In a speech the day of the event, Jacobs changed tack and argued for the importance of fighting for righteous and moral (rather than tactical or strategic) reasons: “We’ll probably lose people today … We don’t really have to win here … just the fact that we are willing to fight the police is a political victory.”21 The protesters then started something of a riot, smashing some police cars and luxury businesses, but also miscellaneous cars, a barbershop, and the windows of lower- and middle-class homes22—not a great argument for superior strategy and tactics. The police quickly dispatched the protesters with tear gas, batons, and bullets. In the following days, almost 300 people were arrested, including most of the Weather Underground and SDS leadership. The Black Panthers—who were not afraid of political violence or of fighting the police—denounced the action as foolish and counterproductive. The Weather Underground, at least, did seem to learn from this when they went underground and used tactics better suited to an asymmetric conflict. (How effective their tactics were while underground is another question.)

All of this brings us to the second common strategic problem of resistance groups. Although their drive and values may be laudable—and although their revolutionary commitment is not in question—many resistance groups have simply failed to devise a consistent strategy and goal. In order for a strategy to be verifiably feasible, it has to have an endpoint that can be described as well as a clear and reasonable path or steps that connect the implementation of the strategy to the endpoint.

Some people call this the “A to B” factor. Does a proposed strategy actually lay out a reasonable path between point A and point B? If you can’t explain how the strategy might work or how you can implement it, you certainly can’t evaluate the strategy effectively.

It seems dead obvious when put in these terms, but a real A to B strategy is often missing in resistance groups. The problems may seem so insurmountable, the risk of group schisms so concerning, that many movements just stagger along, driven by a deep desire for justice and in some cases a need to fight back. But this leads to short-term, small-scale thinking, and soon the resisters can’t see the strategic forest for the tactical trees.

This problem is not a new one. M. R. D. Foot describes it in his writings about resistance against the Nazis in Occupied Europe. “Less well-trained clandestines were more liable to lose sight of their goal in the turmoil of subversive work, and to pursue whatever was most easy to do, and obviously exasperating to the enemy, without making sure where that most easy course would lead them.”23

It’s good and courageous to want to fight injustice, but resisters who only fight back on a piecemeal basis without a long-term strategy will lose. Often the question of real strategy doesn’t even enter into discussion. Jeremy Varon wrote in his book on the Weather Underground and the German Red Army Faction that “1960s radicals were driven by an apocalyptic impulse resting on a chain of assumptions: that the existing order was thoroughly corrupt and had to be destroyed; that its destruction would give birth to something radically new and better; and that the transcendent nature of this leap rendered the future a largely blank or unrepresentable utopia.”24 Certainly they were correct that the existing order was (and still is) thoroughly corrupt and deeply destructive. The idea that destroying it would inevitably lead to something better by conventional human standards is more slippery. But the main problem is the profound gap in terms of their strategy and objective. They had virtually no plan beyond their choice of tactics which, in the case of the Weather Underground, became largely symbolic in nature despite their use of explosives. Their uncritical “apocalyptic” beliefs about the nature of revolution—something shared by many other militant groups—almost guaranteed that they would fail to develop an effective long-term strategy, a problem to which we’ll return later on.

It’s very interesting—and hopefully illuminating—that a group like the Weather Underground did so many things right but completely fell down strategically. We keep coming back to them and criticizing them not because their actions were necessarily wrong, but because they were on the right track in so many ways. The internal organization of the Weather Underground as a clandestine group was highly developed and effective, for example. And their desire to bring the war home, their commitment to action, far surpassed that of most leftists agitating against the Vietnam War.

But as Varon observed, “The optimism of American and West German radicals about revolution was based in part on their reading of events, which seemed to portend dramatic change. They debated revolutionary strategy, and their activism in a general way suggested the nature of the liberated society to come. But they never specified how turmoil would lead to radical change, how they would actually seize power, or how they would reorganize politics, culture, and the economy after a revolution. Instead, they mostly rode a strong sense of outrage and an unelaborated faith that chaos bred crisis, and that from crisis a new society would emerge. In this way, they translated their belief that revolution was politically and morally necessary into the mistaken sense that revolution was therefore likely or even inevitable.”25

All of this brings us to a third common flaw in resistance strategy—an excess of hope. Obviously, we now know that a 1960s American revolution was far from inevitable. So why did the Weather Underground and others believe that it was? To some degree, this sort of anchorless optimism is a coping mechanism. Resistance groups are up against powerful foes, and believing that your desired victory is somehow inevitable can help morale. It can also be wrong. We should remember former prisoner of war James Stockdale’s “very important lesson”: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”26

Another factor is what you might call the bubble or silo effect. People tend to self-sort into groups of people they have something in common with. This can lead to activists being surrounded by people with similar beliefs, and even becoming socially isolated from those who don’t share their ideas. Eventually, groupthink occurs, and people start to believe that far more people share their perspective than actually do. It’s only a short step to feeling that vast change is imminent. This is especially true if the goal is nebulous and difficult to evaluate.

The false belief that “the revolution is nigh” is hardly limited to ’60s or leftist groups, of course. Even World War II German dissidents like Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, a conservative but anti-Nazi politician, fell prey to the same misapprehension. Writes Allen Dulles: “Despite Goerdeler’s realization of the Nazi peril, he greatly overestimated the strength of the relatively feeble forces in Germany which were opposing it. Optimistic by temperament, he was often led to believe that plans were realities, that good intentions were hard facts. As a revolutionary he was possibly naïve in putting too much confidence in the ability of others to act.”27

Significantly, but perhaps not surprisingly, his naïveté extended not just to potential resisters but even to Hitler. Prior to the July 20 plot, he firmly believed that if only he could sit down and meet with Hitler, he could rationally convince him to admit the error of his ways and to resign. His friends were barely able to stop him from trying on more than one occasion, which would have obviously been foolish and dangerous to the resistance because of their planned assassination.28 Of course, Nazi Germany was not just a big misunderstanding, and after the failed putsch, Goerdeler was arrested, tortured for months by the Gestapo, and then executed.

The fourth common strategic flaw is a failure to adequately negotiate the relationship between aboveground and underground operations. We touched on this on a number of occasions in the organization section. Many groups—notably the Black Panthers—failed to implement an adequate firewall between the aboveground and underground. But we aren’t just talking about organizational partitions and separation; the history of resistance has showed again and again the larger strategic challenge of coordinating cooperative aboveground and underground action.

This has a lot to do with building mutual support and solidarity. The Weather Undeground in its early years was notably abysmal at this. Their attitude and rhetoric was aggressively militant. The organization, in the words of its own members (written after the fact), had a “tendency to consider only bombings or picking up the gun as revolutionary, with the glorification of the heavier the better,” an attitude which even alienated other armed revolutionary organizations like the BPP.29 Indeed, the Weather Underground would deliberately seek confrontation for the sake of confrontation even with people with whom it professed alignment. For example, in one action during the Vietnam War, Weather Underground members went to a working-class beach in Boston and erected a Vietcong flag, knowing that many on the beach had family in the US armed forces. When encircled, instead of discussing the war, they aggressively ratcheted up the tension, idealistically believing that after a brawl both sides could head over to the bar for a serious chat. Instead, the Weather Underground got their asses kicked.30

Now, there’s something to be said for pushing the limits of “legitimate” resistance. There’s something to be said for giving hesitant resisters a kick in the pants—or at least a good example—when they should be doing better. But that’s not what the Weather Underground did. In part the problem was their lack of a clear and articulable strategy. In his memoir, anarchist Michael Albert relates a story about being asked to attend an early Weather Underground action so that he could see what they do. “About ten of us, or thereabouts, piled into a subway car heading for the stop nearest a large dorm at Boston University. While in the subway, trundling along underground, one of the Weathermen, according to prearranged agreement, stood up on his seat to give a speech to his captive audience of other subway riders. He nervously yelled out ‘Country Sucks, Kick Ass,’ and promptly sat down. That was their entire case. It was their whole damn enchilada.”31 What are people supposed to get from that? By contrast, no one reading the Black Panther Party’s Ten Point Plan would be confused about their strategy and goals.

But the Weather Underground’s most ineffective actions in the aboveground vs. underground department were those that actually harmed aboveground organizations. Their actions in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) are a prime example. SDS was a broad-based organization with wide support, which focused on participatory democracy, direct action, and nonviolent civil disobedience for civil rights and against the war. Before the formation of the Weather Underground, a group called the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM), led by Bernardine Dohrn, later a leader of the Weather Underground, essentially hijacked SDS. They gained power at a 1969 national SDS convention and expelled members of a rival faction (the Progressive Labor Party and Worker Student Alliance). They hoped to push the entire organization into more militant action, but their coup caused a split in the organization, which rapidly disintegrated in the following years. In the decades since, no leftist student organization has managed to even approach the scale of SDS.

The bottom line is that RYM took a highly functional aboveground group and destroyed it. The Weather Underground’s exaltation of militancy got in the way of radical change and caused a permanent setback in popular leftist organizing. What the Weather Underground members failed to realize is that not everyone is going to participate in underground or armed resistance, and that everyone does not need to participate in those things. The civil rights and antiwar movements were appropriate places for actionists to try to build nonviolent mass movements, where very important work was being done, and SDS was a crucial group doing that work. Aboveground and underground groups need each other, and they must work in tandem, both organizationally and strategically. It’s a major strategic error for any faction—aboveground or underground—to dismiss the other half of their movement. To arrogantly destroy a functioning organization is even worse.

There is a fifth common strategic failure, which in some ways is the most important of them all: the unwillingness or inability to apply appropriate tactics to carry out the strategy. Is your resistance movement using its entire tool chest? A resistance movement that is fighting to win considers every operation and every tactic it can possibly employ. That doesn’t mean that it actually uses every tool or tactic. But nothing is simply dismissed without consideration.

The Weather Underground, to return again to their example, was a group which began with an earnest desire to fight back, to “bring the war home,” and express genuine solidarity with the people of Vietnam and other countries under American attack by taking up arms. Initially, this was meant to include attacks on human beings in key positions in the military-industrial complex. Indeed, before they went underground, as we’ve already discussed, the Weather Underground was eager to attack even low-level representatives of the state hierarchy, specifically police. Shortly after going underground, they changed their strategy.

The turning point in the Weather Underground’s strategy of violence versus nonviolence was the Greenwich Village townhouse explosion. In the spring of 1970, an underground cell there was building bombs in preparation for a planned attack on a social event for noncommissioned officers at a nearby army base. However, a bomb detonated prematurely in the basement, killing three people, injuring two others (who fled), and destroying the house. After the explosion, the Weather Underground took what you could call a nonviolent approach to bombings—they attacked symbols of power like the Pentagon and the Capitol building, but went out of their way to case the scenes before detonation to ensure that there were no human casualties.

Rather ironically, their post–Greenwich Village tactical approach again became largely symbolic and nonviolent, much like the aboveground groups they criticized. Lacking connections to other movements and organizations, and lacking a clear strategic goal, the Weather Underground’s efforts were doomed to be ineffective.