Sedition, Subversion, Sabotage: A Long-War Strategy For The Left

| Strategize!

Above photo: Children at a protest in Baltimore, Maryland. From

As the viciousness of capitalism engulfs ever more of us, our yearnings for change are approaching desperation. The system’s current leader, Barack Obama, has shown us that the only change we can believe in is what we ourselves create.

To do that, we need to know what is possible in our times and what isn’t. The bitter probability is that none of us will see a society in which we’d actually want to live. Even the youngest of us will most likely have to endure an increasingly unpleasant form of capitalism. Despite its recurring crises, this system is still too strong, too adaptable, and has too many supporters in all classes for it to be overthrown any time soon. We’re probably not going to be the ones to create a new society.

But we can now lay the groundwork for that, first by exposing the hoax that liberal reforms will lead to basic changes. People need to see that the purpose of liberalism is to defuse discontent with promises of the future and thus prevent mass opposition from coalescing. It diverts potentially revolutionary energy into superficial dead ends. Bernie Sanders’ “long game” campaign is really only a game similar to that of his reformist predecessor, Dennis Kucinich, designed to keep us in the “big tent” of the Democratic Party. Capitalism, although resilient, is willing to change only in ways that shore it up, so before anything truly different can be built, we have to bring it down.

What we are experiencing now is the long war the ruling elite is fighting to maintain its grip on the world. The current phase began with the collapse of Keynesian capitalism, which flourished from the 1950s into the ’70s, when the primary consumer market was in the capitalist headquarter countries of North America and Western Europe. Corporations were able to stimulate domestic consumption and quell worker discontent there by acceding to labor’s demands for better wages and conditions. That led to a 30-year bubble of improvement for unionized workers, predominantly male and white, that began to collapse in the ’80s as capitalism gradually became globalized.

Then to maintain dominance Western corporations had to reduce labor costs in order to compete against emerging competition in low-wage countries such as China, India, Russia, and Brazil. Also international consumer markets became more important than the home market, but reaching them required low prices. So capitalist leaders reversed hard-won reforms, forcing paychecks and working conditions in the West down. And they tried to keep control of crucial Mideast oil resources by tightening their neo-imperialist hold on that region: overthrowing governments, installing dictators, undermining economies.

This aggression generated armed resistance: jihadist attacks against the West. Our response has been the current holy war against terror. All of this horrible suffering is just one campaign in capitalism’s long war for hegemony. Any dominator system — including capitalism, patriarchy, and religious fundamentalism — generates violence.

Since we are all products of such systems, the path out of them will include conflict and strife. Insisting on only peaceful tactics and ruling out armed self defense against a ruling elite that has repeatedly slaughtered millions of people is naïve, actually a way of preventing basic change. The pacifist idealism so prevalent among the petty-bourgeoisie conceals their class interest: no revolution, just reform. But until capitalism and its military are collapsing, it would be suicidal to attack them directly with force.

What we can do now as radicals is weaken capitalism and build organizations that will pass our knowledge and experience on to future generations. If we do that well enough, our great grandchildren (not really so far away) can lead a revolution. If we don’t do it, our descendants will remain corporate chattel.

Our generational assignment — should we decide to accept it — is sedition, subversion, sabotage: a program on which socialists and anarchists can work together.

Sedition — advocating or attempting the overthrow of the government — is illegal only if it calls for or uses violence. Our most important job — educating and organizing people around a revolutionary program — is legal sedition, as is much of our writing here on Popular Resistance.

For subversion we could, for example, focus on institutions and rituals that instill patriotism in young people. School spirit, scouts, competitive team sports, and pledges of allegiance all create in children an emotional bond to larger social units of school, city, and nation.

Kids are indoctrinated to feel these are extensions of their family and to respect and fear the authorities as they would their parents, more specifically their fathers, because this is a patriarchal chain being forged. It causes us even as adults to react to criticism of the country as an attack on our family. This hurts our feelings on a deep level, so we reject it, convinced it can’t be true. It’s too threatening to us.

This linkage is also the basis of the all-American trick of substituting personal emotion for political thought.

Breaking this emotional identification is crucial to reducing the widespread support this system still enjoys. Whatever we can do to show how ridiculous these institutions and rituals are will help undermine them.

For instance, teachers could refuse to lead the pledge of allegiance, or they could follow it with historical facts that would cause the students to question their indoctrination. When a teacher gets fired, the resulting legal battle can taint the whole sacrosanct ritual and challenge the way history is taught in the schools.

Subversive parenting means raising children who won’t go along with the dominant culture and have the skills to live outside it as much as possible.

Much feminist activism is profoundly subversive. That’s why it’s opposed so vehemently by many women as well as men.

Spiritually, whatever undercuts the concept of God as daddy in the sky will help break down patriarchal conditioning and free us for new visions of the Divine.

Sabotage is more problematic. It calls to mind bombing and shooting, which at this point won’t achieve anything worthwhile. But sabotage doesn’t need to harm living creatures; systems can be obstructed in many ways, which I can’t discuss more specifically because of the police state under which we currently live. They are described in my book Radical Peace.

We’ll be most successful by using both legal and illegal tactics but keeping the two forms separate. Illegal direct action is sometimes necessary to impair the system, impede its functioning, break it in a few places, open up points of vulnerability for coming generations to exploit. This doesn’t require finely nuanced theory or total agreement on ideology, just a recognition of the overriding necessity of weakening this monster, of reducing its economic and military power. It does require secrecy, though, so it’s best done individually with no one else knowing.

As groups we should do only legal resistance. Since we have to assume we are infiltrated and our communications are monitored, illegal acts must be done alone or in small cells without links to the group. Security is essential. Police may have the identity of everyone in the group, but if members are arrested and interrogated, their knowledge will be very limited. The principles of leaderless resistance provide the most effective defense for militants.

Using these tactics, we can slow down this behemoth, curtail its expansion, make it a less effective murderer. The government will of course try to crush this resistance. But that very response can eventually seal its doom because it increases polarization and sparks more outrage. People will see the rich have not only taken away our possibility for a decent life, but now they are taking away our freedom. Then the masses revolt.

When the police and military have to attack their own people, their loyalty begins to waver. They realize they too are oppressed workers, and they start disobeying their masters. The power structure grinds down, falters, and falls. At this point the revolution can succeed, hopefully with a minimum of violence. Then the people of that generation, with the knowledge and experience we have passed on to them, can build a new society.

This is not a pleasant path of action, and those whose first priority is pleasantness are repelled by it.

That’s why reformism is so popular: it’s an illusion that appeals to cowards. But when their backs are to the wall, which will inevitably happen, even they will fight back. And there’s something glorious in that revolutionary fight even in its present stage — much more vivid and worthwhile than the life of a lackey.


William T. Hathaway is an adjunct professor of American studies at the University of Oldenburg in Germany. His new book, Lila, the Revolutionary, is a fable for adults about an eight-year-old Indian girl who sparks a world revolution for social justice. Chapters are posted on A selection of his writing is available at

  • mwildfire

    Okay, so anyone not into violent resistance, not into throwing around Marxist terms, is a coward who only wants mild reforms to preserve the system? Bullshit. The insistence on violence, on demonizing people by class as though anyone who has too much money is an unreformable enemy, is itself limited reformism–we need a broader revolution than that, one that REJECTS violence and domination and seeks ways for humanity as a whole to find the best possible ways to run our social and economic structures. This piece also ignores the overwhelming environmental crises of our times, not only climate change but the killing of the oceans, overpopulation by one species at the expense of virtually all others, and the resource depletion that will radically change life for our children, never mind our great grandchildren. The assumption that what we’re fighting for is a middle-class life for everyone, with a nice car and college educations and a big house, etc., will doom our grandchildren to a life of struggle on a desecrated world, and quite possibly our great grandchildren to non-existence. We need a broader vision of both the future we want, and the path to get there; one that has a place for those ex members of the ruling class who choose to join us (some of them ARE unreformable sociopaths). And one which recognizes that humanity is but one species among millions–our plan must have room for the others, too.

  • Jon

    I do not think at all the the Great Transformation (i.e. collapse of the imperial order) will take generations. The system and its supply line is unsustainable, and that means it will end. You say:

    “When the police and military have to attack their own people, their loyalty begins to waver. They realize they too are oppressed workers, and they start disobeying their masters. The power structure grinds down, falters, and falls. At this point the revolution can succeed, hopefully with a minimum of violence. Then the people of that generation, with the knowledge and experience we have passed on to them, can build a new society.”

    This is very much the scenario at the end of the War against Vietnam when US soldiers en masse refused to fight and morale (as defined by the officer class) was negligible. This CAN be the same scene if US military personnel are ordered to fight their own citizens. The contradiction of such orders and “upholding and defending the Constitution” on behalf of American citizens will be acute. Pay attention to how fast the late USSR came down as a unified entity. We need to study that history! We also need to demand that police be educated in the precious Bill of Rights. “Training” is not the same thing as “Education.”

  • DHFabian

    I’m not aware of any leftist presence in the US today. If there were a left, they would be shining a spotlight on our poverty crisis as proof of the grave shortcomings of our deregulated corporate state. They would speak out of they saw any negative consequences to our current socioeconomic agenda. Today, even liberals so strongly believe in the success of the corporate state that they think everyone is able to work, there are jobs for all, therefore no need for poverty relief. Capitalism triumphs!

  • DHFabian

    We’ve been demonizing people by class (to a dangerous degree) for years — the poor. No one is fighting “a middle class life for everyone.” We utterly turn our backs on those who are not of current use to employers, and many of the unemployable. We no longer regard them as people, deserving of the most basic human rights (per the UDHR) of food and shelter. That’s just the way it is. What changes would people want? The middle class want to keep the policies that brought us to this point, but they want different results. Right. No interest in the “common good” has been evident in years. This is a “survival of the fittest” nation. As for America’s contribution to climate change, we’re all for implementing any necessary changes, as long as they don’t personally effect us.

  • DHFabian

    Consider the broader picture. Right now, we are watching as the rich do to the middle class what the middle class already did to the poor. If we had a revolution, who would fight whom?

  • mwildfire

    Who’s this “we”, white man? If you mean, like, “the majority attitude of most Americans,” unfortunately I have to agree. But there are plenty of exceptions. And I think that majority opinion is carefully cultivated by those who own the media.

  • mwildfire

    DH, do you read this daily bulletin? Have you not noticed that it points to the actions of the left in this country, as well as elsewhere, daily…and that it constantly speaks out about the negative consequences of rule by the rich? Yes, we’re a minority. But we are not a tiny minority and we are not silent.

  • Jon

    DH Fabian, As the former middle class becomes deprived of their comfort (need I cite the ways?) they will become more “proletarianized” to use a Marxist term and disgusted with the ruling class, which is why the Occupy paradigm of 1% vs 99% resonated so unexpectedly well. I think the approval rating of Congress is somewhere less than 10%, which says a lot.
    I don’t expect this disenfranchised class to LEAD the struggle, but can offer assistance and materials support as the truly dispossessed do the real leading, and I think we have a chance to disintegrate the empire in much the same manner as the decrepit (despite initial promise) USSR did. That would be the best scenario. Secession without armies ought to be considered a useful strategy. It is time to yank the corporate charters of the worst offenders on the grounds of crimes against humanity, just to start, and devolve whatever useful function they may have had to new, smaller companies. The “security state apparatus” also needs to go by rejecting funding. Just a few quick thought. Visualize marching dozens of top bankers off to prisons as they did in Iceland.