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Types of strategies

Different ways of making impact
8 min read
Last update: Aug 26, 2023

In this article, we explain that there are many ways of fighting for change. It is important to choose a campaign strategy for your movement that helps you achieve your goals.

There is a wide variety of strategies. Choosing a strategy is not an easy task. First, you need to determine what you want to achieve. Based on that, you need to develop a strategy that helps you get there.

The goal of Activist Handbook is not to promote one particular strategy. Instead, we aim to discuss each of them critically, to help you develop your own.

However, we are not completely impartial either. Based on the research of our contributors and the principles of Activist Handbook we do make certain recommendations.

We encourage you to edit and improve this page to add new perspectives!

Which strategy works?

What strategy helps you achieve your vision and goals? The honest answer: we do not know.

There is likely not one strategy that is the best. We need people doing lots of different things. Some people should go into politics, other people should be out on the streets. The combination is what makes us strong. It is like baking a cake: nobody would argue sugar is the best ingredient, so we should only use sugar.

We also need activists trying out new things and innovate. Just look outside: the world is on fire and we are massively failing. Even though many activists before us have tried their very best to make the world better, it is not good enough. And that is fine. We are still making progress. Sometimes we will not make a difference at all, and sometimes big change happens all at once. In many cases, we are making progress, but we just cannot see it. As long as we keep trying, we will keep getting better at making a positive impact.

Luckily, there have been many activists before you who have fought hard for justice. They have learned many hard lessons, and Activist Handbook is all about sharing those. You do not need to reinvent the wheel.

Strategic decisions

Activists have tried to develop various models for categorising types of strategies (for a comparison of various categorisations, read chapter 3 of Civil Resistance in the 21st Century by ICNC).

Each of these models focusses on questions that their respective authors found especially important. We have included a few of those questions below. The answers to these questions are not binary: often, your choice will be somewhere in between.

Once you start answering some questions, you will notice that answers to other questions will logically follow. For example, if you would have moderate goals and choose to use constructive actions, it would not make sense to start doing civil disobedience.

Moderate or radical goals?

Based on your vision, you know where you want to go. But it is a strategic choice for your campaign to either aim for small incremental change or for big change that addresses problems at their roots. In Rules for Revolutionaries (Rule 1), Bond and Exley argue that movements need big goals that match the scale of our challenges.

Constructive or disruptive actions?

Do you want to bring about change through disruption, or through constructive actions (such as persuasion and innovation). Carrot or stick? How disruptive do you want to be? Do you disrupt by not doing something (noncooperation) or by doing something?

In some countries, breaking the law can be a conscious choice for activists to draw attention to their cause. There, it can also be a choice to obey the law not to deter the general public.

In other countries, however, all or many forms of activism are criminalised. In those cases, to stay within the boundaries of the law is not a decision that activists have the privilege to make.

Direct or indirect action?

Read the chapter 'Tactics and Targets' from the Deep Green Resistance book to learn more about direct and indirect forms of action.

Target the system or culture?

Do you decide to target aspects of the system, such as political institutions, or do you want to change social norms?

Reform society or build alternatives?

Do you try to change society from within, or do you build alternatives that allow people to step out of society into a new one? An example of the former: ask the local municipality to build a community garden. An example of the latter: get some people from your neighbourhood together and turn an empty plot into a community garden yourself.

Decide top-down or bottom-up?

Who decides your vision and demands? Who determines what tactics your group uses? Do you choose to develop a strategy with a small group of experienced campaigners, or do you empower new activists to develop their own strategy?

United or diverse?

Do you have one single demand? And a very strict set of tactics you use? Or do you allow members to come up with their own tactics, as long as they stay within certain boundaries?

What are your principles and values as a group? Which things can individuals decide for themselves, and which things do all members need to adhere to?

Local, national or global?

What is the scale of your campaign? Do you want to bring about change within your local community, or do build an infrastructure that scales globally? Do you replicate the same thing everywhere, or do you adapt to local contexts?

Aboveground or underground?

Do you act in full transparency, or do you do things secretly? Do invest energy into staying anonymous? Do you hide your plans from the public and the police? Check out Deep Green Resistance to learn more about the difference between aboveground and underground groups.

Violent or non-violent?

Defensive or offensive? Against things (sabotage) or people? Verbal or physical? Or not at all? And why? Because of strategic (does it work?) or moral reasons (should we do it?).

Please note, there is an ongoing discussion on Activist Handbook of whether violence as a strategic activist approach or tactic should be considered at all, or even acknowledged / discussed as a historic reality. To contribute to this discussion please use the comments section on this page.

External resources



Archived text

The section below needs to be integrated into the rest of the article.

There are many ways to differentiate between types of campaign strategies. We decided to use two factors: focus on the system (institutions) or communities (people) and whether strategies are more on the radical (disruptive) or lenient (reformative) side of things. You can find a visual representation of this typology below.

The reason we didn’t like any of the existing ways to distinguish between strategies is that they heavily focus on political activism and institutional strategies. People building community workshops and giving free classes in sign language are rarely seen or identify themselves as activists.

Learn more about the tactics that you can use for each of these strategies:

You don’t necessarily have to stay within just one of the categories, but make sure that the strategies and tactics you chose don’t clash with each other. If you’re trying to build relationships with the people in your social environment, being seen as “radical” is not a good move. On the other hand, if you really want to make big and fast changes by building alternatives, you are wasting time if you focus primarily on policy making and lobbying, and expecting the government to introduce these alternatives.

Seven types of strategy

1. Conventional activist strategy, including political / organisational / educational / NGO-type

(required for global systems change[s] -see evidence base. Example: Greenpeace)

2. Nonviolent direct action (NVDA) & mass civil disobedience

(required for global systems change[s] -see evidence base. Examples: Extinction Rebellion / MLK) See also Levels and types of non-violent civil disobedience

3. Sabotage (infrastructural) / property damage with no direct harm to life

(worth considering in context -see evidence base. Examples: pulling down statues of racists [ref: 2020] / disabling fracking equipment)

4. Violence -defensive or threat of violence

(may have occasional uses -see evidence base. Examples: Black Panthers / EZLN)

Please note, there is an ongoing discussion on Activist Handbook of whether violence as a strategic activist approach or tactic should be considered at all, or even acknowledged / discussed as a historic reality. To contribute to this discussion please use the comments section on this page.

5. Violence -offensive

(not recommended)

6. Dual Power, as pursued by Social Ecology theory

(‘Building the new society in the shell of the old, without permission’. Could include elements of 1-5, depending on application. Examples: EZLN / Rojava Revolution [Democratic Confederation of Northern Syria])

7. Political Non-cooperation

Oppressors feeds on the integrity of respected and popular activists that support their ambitions such as in politics where a people's activist can comment about his affiliation to a particular politician or political party, and as a result drive support for the party. When activist chooses to mobilize themselves and speak against the oppressive activities of a regime, it weakens the people support for such political party, which could lead to political transformation championed by a new and true political party. This idea could be limited in causing the expected political change if such activist is unpopular. Even the popular could need to work with chain of progressive group to effect such change. However, this strategy could weaken the power of an oppressive regime. Blacks Lives Matter activist helped undermine white supremacists and Trump negligence of amplifying support to proffer justice to the killing of Floyd. This weakened his regime and automatically became a political advantage to the democrats and Biden in the last election in the United States.

We should probably create a specific section within the strategy chapter to discuss non-violence in activism (see content below).

(Non-)violence in activism

1) Satyagraha; 'holding firmly to truth' / moral or ‘principled’ non-violence.

Satyagraha is a form of non-violent resistance that was conceptualised and practised by Gandhi. Please add links.

2) Strategic non-violence.

Defined as different to principled non-violence, strategic non-violence is used because it has been understood to work i.e. to be more effective than violence at achieving lasting, large-scale social change.

3) Non-violent property destruction and sabotage / the Shambala Warrior prophesy.

Is it possible to cause property destruction and / or sabotage from a deep place of peace and compassion for those that would benefit from the damage?

Here is one perspective: the Shambala Warrior prophesy. The essence of this Tibetan Buddhist prophesy is that deeply compassionate and well-trained people will enter the centres of power and dismantle the ‘weapons’ that are destroying the planet (these don't have to be literal weapons; they could be destructive machines related to fossil fuels).

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