The Leadership Structure and Strategic Coordination

The strategic plan should identify the leadership structure and the process that will be used to ensure the maintenance of effective strategic coordination.

For many reasons (not outlined here), struggles that involve more than one affinity group should use a decentralized and open leadership structure. However, this does not mean that everyone can attend meetings. It means that members of the leadership group are clearly identified and readily accessible. In practice, therefore, participation in this type of leadership should be measured by the capacity of the leadership structure and process to involve people through such mechanisms as representation and rotation. It should not be measured by the number of people who attend any given meeting and ‘clog’ the efficiency of its decision-making process.

Notwithstanding the substantial evidence that a decentralized and open leadership structure is superior to a centralized and clandestine one, it remains the case that precise strategic planning in a particular situation should be based on an accurate political and strategic assessment of the prevailing circumstances and a series of judgments about what will be possible at different times throughout the stages of a defense strategy in light of these circumstances.

For this reason, the nature of the leadership structure in a particular situation might diverge sharply from the open and decentralized form mentioned above. In circumstances characterized by brutal repression, for example, it might be strategically unwise to attempt to organize an open leadership. Nevertheless, while the prevailing political circumstances will have a decisive influence on the nature of the leadership structure adopted, activists would be wise to remember that secrecy and centralization should be employed only when they are considered to be functional imperatives, that is, when organization of the defense is impossible without them. Even then, Polish Solidarity activist Wiktor Kulerski argues, under the conditions of a modern police state, ‘a long-term, nationwide secret organization is not possible’. Given the compelling reasons for adopting a decentralized and open leadership whenever circumstances allow it, what form might this leadership take?

In the past, decentralized groups (of many different types) have experimented with various forms of coordination and there are three major options available for consideration: Groups may coordinate their strategy by using a federated council, a network facilitator or a demarchy.

A federation consists of several organizations, each of which retains control over its own affairs. It is designed to encourage participation at the grassroots level while allowing consultation and some decision making by a central body of elected delegates. If the federation is large, it may have several tiers. Given the problems frequently associated with a federal system (such as delegates ‘hardening’ into permanent representatives subject to factional influence and vote trading), variations on its basic character should be considered. For example, a federation might divide responsibility for its functions among several councils, and delegates from member organizations might be strictly rotated or chosen by lot after a predetermined period. This should equalize participation and share responsibility more completely.

A network consists of a multiplicity of small groups, each of which makes decisions for itself. It is designed to emphasize collective participation, local autonomy, and decentralization. For a network to function efficiently, it requires a facilitator: a group that has no policy positions of its own but is responsible for facilitating communication, coordination, and resource gathering within the network. Importantly, the network facilitator should provide a communications framework to expedite the flow of information; this framework should be capable of distributing urgent information efficiently when necessary. It may also support coalitions of groups that choose to work on one issue.

Demarchy is a system in which representative groups of people make sets of decisions within strictly limited domains on behalf of a larger population. It is decentralization by function. The only eligibility requirements for membership in any group are a particular interest in the issue – in this case, the various aspects of nonviolent defense – and a commitment to acquiring adequate knowledge and skill for the tasks of planning and implementing it. Under the principles of demarchy, representative groups would be chosen once a statistical characterization of the demographic features and the various interests to be represented from the larger population had been established; for example, if there were 50 percent women in the sample population, there would be 50 percent women in each of the representative groups. The representatives would be randomly selected from the various categories of representative volunteers. These volunteers would serve a fixed term before being replaced in a staggered rotation of the membership, which ensures continuity within the groups but prevents the entrenchment of particular cliques. The work of all groups would be subject to public scrutiny. In essence, small groups of volunteers – who are highly motivated, well informed on the issues, statistically representative of the wider population’s range of interests, rotated periodically and chosen by lot – would design the various aspects of the best possible nonviolent strategy and then supervise its implementation.

A variation on demarchy is a ‘policy jury’. A policy jury is a method of citizen participation in which randomly selected people are paid to attend a series of meetings, usually for about five days, in order to learn about the major viewpoints on a specific issue and to make recommendations about what should be done. The juries are chosen so that they represent the larger population in terms of sex, age, education, race, and political attitudes. In large geographical areas, several juries may be used, and there is usually a second-level jury, made up of delegates from the original juries, to resolve disagreements and make final recommendations.

If a federation is used, each organization within it could work on one or more components of the strategy – for example, strategic planning, communications, the constructive program, a specific campaign – while separate councils of delegates, each responsible for one component, works to achieve consensus on that component within the federation as a whole. If a facilitated network is used, each group within it could work on one or more components while the network facilitator communicates the progress of each group to the others. If a demarchic approach is used, several groups would need to be formed, each with the responsibility for planning and coordinating one component of the strategy. Of course, a combination of these (and other) approaches could be used. Federations and networks of various types exist already and, in some cases, have played a part in past attempts to resist military aggression nonviolently, but more advanced models, together with practice in the use of demarchy, will enhance the capacity of grassroots groups to coordinate the planning and rapid implementation of a nonviolent defense.

The historical experience contains clear lessons on how to prevent the defeat of a nonviolent struggle through the elimination of any ‘leaders’. Such a struggle requires an unequivocal commitment to nonviolence, clearly defined strategic aims, and a widely understood strategic plan. It requires thorough preparation and an efficient communications system. Finally, it requires a decentralized organizational structure (with the capacity to develop locally relevant campaigns and tactics) and a decentralized leadership. This last point involves developing leadership capacity in as many people as possible and sharing leadership functions widely. According to Gandhi, each satyagrahi should become their own ‘general and leader’. This is important given the possibility that a ruthless opponent might dispatch squads of soldiers to detain, torture, exile, or kill civilian leaders.

Good nonviolent leadership requires people who have an understanding of, and deep commitment to, nonviolence. In addition, good leadership requires the maintenance of effective strategic coordination and the capacity to retain the initiative. How are these achieved?

Strategic Coordination

Strategic coordination requires leaders:

(i) who keep the strategic aims in focus, develop strategy and take a long-term view;

(ii) who monitor the level of energy for the resistance, generate ideas and enthusiasm when necessary and draw people into the struggle;

(iii) who draw attention to how people are feeling and who draw conflicts out into the open;

(iv) who keep the struggle grounded in reality and who define its limits; and

(v) who keep everyone connected by facilitating communication and interaction.

Retaining the Initiative

A vitally important strategic consideration is how to seize and retain the initiative. In Gandhi’s view, good leaders always choose the time and place of ‘battle’. They always retain the initiative in these respects and never allow it to pass into the hands of the opponent. But retaining the strategic initiative is not a straightforward task. During the 1952 Defiance Campaign in South Africa, for example, the apartheid regime used provocateurs to provoke riots; as a result, the initiative was lost to the government. Retaining the initiative requires ongoing assessment of the strategy and the careful selection of tactics. Four considerations are vital.

First, the strategic plan should include only tactics that are designed to achieve the strategic aims; the campaign should not respond automatically by offering resistance to specific objectives of the opponent. For example, in response to a bout of repression (including a ban on public political activity) directed at opponents of the Uruguayan dictatorship in 1983, activists organized a street demonstration. This demonstration was brutally repressed. Concerned that another street demonstration would achieve only limited participation while playing into the military’s strategy of terrorizing the population, the organizing group – Servicio Paz y Justicia (SERPAJ) – regained the initiative by organizing a tactic more likely to reinforce the will and power of the resistance. The tactic involved a fifteen-day fast (undertaken by two priests and a pastor) followed by ‘an hour of national reflection’, at the end of which time people were asked to turn off their houselights in silent protest. At the appointed time, the entire city went dark. To retain the initiative, the strategic aims must be kept clearly in focus and the temptation to respond automatically to each new provocation of the opponent elite must be resisted.

Second, retaining the initiative requires strategic coordination (explained above). This includes the capacity to maintain nonviolent discipline and to share costs for the duration of the struggle. In addition to the considerations mentioned earlier, this might require use of the ‘relay effect’: When excessive pressure is being applied against one section of the resistance responsible for a particular function, another group or groups may assume responsibility for that function. In this way, important activities can continue without undue interruption, because they are being performed by the group best able to do so at the particular time. For example, during the Czechoslovakian resistance to the Warsaw Pact invasion in 1968, a succession of media channels was used to convey resistance information. When newspapers were censored, newsreels, theaters, and humorous magazines were used. As these fell under the threat of censorship, leaflets and chain letters were used in order to relieve the pressure on other channels. By exercising the discipline and self-control necessary to use the relay effect, the resistance was able to improve its durability and to avoid having important functions isolated and destroyed. To retain the initiative, strategic coordination is vital.

Third, retaining the initiative requires strategic flexibility. This can be easily lost and can happen for a variety of reasons, including attachment to a symbol. In nonviolent defense, a symbol is important insofar as it represents important values and norms. It provides a unifying reference point, reminding defenders what is being defended and why. But it is important to remember that it is not the symbol itself that is being defended. A symbol, by definition, represents something else. Consequently, activists should not become transfixed by a particular symbol, no matter how important it may seem. If they do, the defense will lose its strategic flexibility. For example, there is compelling evidence to suggest that Tiananmen Square – including the statue known as the ‘Goddess of Democracy’ – had become a strategically immobilizing symbol for the Chinese pro-democracy movement in 1989. Despite the strategic advantages of shifting the focus of the struggle elsewhere, the square itself had acquired a magnetizing influence over the activists; this was starkly illustrated by the oath, taken by several thousand students a few hours before the massacre, to ‘defend Tiananmen Square with my young life.’ The square, rather than what it represented, had become the focus of the struggle. More importantly, the movement had failed to maintain the important distinction between its political purpose (democracy) and its symbols (including Tiananmen Square), on the one hand, and its strategic aims and goals, on the other. In the strategic sense, the square, like any symbol, was important only insofar as it could be used to mobilize particular social groups (students, workers, and intellectuals) to support the pro-democracy struggle in a strategically focused manner; control of the square itself was strategically irrelevant. Similarly, during the Soviet coup in 1991, the Russian White House was strategically important only insofar as it was a suitable symbol for mobilizing individuals and groups to resist the coup; control of the building itself was strategically irrelevant except insofar as a mistaken belief in the importance of this control may have led to loss of the building having an adverse affect on the will and power of the defenders to resist. In summary, it is important that defenders do not become transfixed by a symbol, and, as noted earlier, it is possible to choose a type of symbol that minimizes this risk. Belief in the importance of a particular symbol (as distinct from what it represents) can lead to three undesirable strategic outcomes: It can lead activists to defend a strategically irrelevant point; it can make it difficult to shift the focus of the resistance, if a shift is negatively interpreted to be a retreat; and it can lead activists to believe that they have suffered a defeat if a symbol is ‘lost’. Each of these outcomes, and particularly the last, can undermine both the will and the power to resist, at least in the short term, as the 1989 setback to the Chinese pro-democracy struggle graphically highlighted. If the initiative is to be retained, strategic flexibility is essential.

Fourth, retaining the strategic initiative requires ongoing assessment of the political situation in order to gauge the suitability of particular tactics. For example, in circumstances characterized by severe repression or in which the atmosphere is temporarily inflamed, a tactic involving direct confrontation with the opponent elite will increase the risk that they will resort to the use of extreme violence – which will brutalize their soldiers – and might endanger the immediate continuity of the defense. In these circumstances, a different tactic, perhaps one involving a high degree of dispersal, should be chosen. To retain the initiative, the defense must keep the strategic aims clearly in focus, it must exercise strategic coordination and flexibility, and it must continually assess the political situation.

Separately from all of the functions identified above, the leadership must also monitor its own capacity to perform each of these functions and, in the early stages, to facilitate widespread debate about the strategy itself. By asking local groups to identify and consider the merits of different strategies, as well as their requirements for success, the leadership will facilitate the development of a cohesive and comprehensive strategy as well as the commitment necessary to carry it out.

Source of this document: https://nonviolentstrategy.wordpress.com/strategywheel/leadership/