Our Political Opponents Know How to Build Power. We Should, Too.

“We owe it to ourselves to understand our opponents much better than we do.”

Emma Tai

Bright yellow book jacket with the book title Practical Radicals: Seven Strategies to Change the World. The authors names, Deepak Bhargava and Stephanie Luce, are printed below the titled. list
Practical Radicals: Seven Strategies to Change the World was published in 2023. Image courtesy of New Press

How do oppressed people, facing far stronger opponents, sometimes win?”

That’s the opening question of the new book Practical Radicals: Seven Strategies for Changing the World, by Deepak Bhargava and Stephanie Luce. 

It’s also the question that Bhargava asked Luce when he reached out to her about teaching a course on strategy for organizers. At the time, Bhargava was coming off of sixteen years as the president and executive director of the national social justice organization Center for Community Change. At CCC, Bhargava had been a part of organizing efforts in low-income communities of color across the country, particularly on issues of economic and immigration justice, and was feeling the acute need for more rigorous training in strategy. Luce, a professor of labor studies at CUNY’s School of Labor and Urban Studies and professor of sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center, had written about and participated in low-wage worker movements around the world.

Those experiences shaped the course they launched at CUNY in 2020, Power and Strategy for Organizers,” which brought together 30 seasoned organizers for a series of readings and exercises across issue areas, historical moments and models for change. Luce and Bhargava also recruited guest lectures from movement leaders like Frances Fox Piven, Cristina Jiménez, Eliseo Medina and Maurice Mitchell.

Now, Luce and Bhargava have turned the lessons and materials from that course into Practical Radicals. The title comes from their intended audience: practical radicals,” or organizers who, as Bhargava and Luce put it, hold big visions for transforming society and are willing to do what it takes to win in the real world.” In writing it, the authors reflected not only on their own experiences in movements and in the classroom but also interviewed dozens of organizers, read works by practitioners and academics and researched the tactics and strategies deployed by political opponents. 

Combining the hard-earned wisdom of our movement ancestors, the rigorous theory of serious practitioners and academics and the functional tools organizers need to spring into action (including guided exercises for group facilitation), Practical Radicals is the book I wish I’d had 10 years ago. The seven strategies identified by Luce and Bhargava — base-building, disruptive movements, narrative shift, electoral change, inside-outside campaigns, momentum and collective care — are described with both precision and generosity. Case studies from Make the Road New York, the St. Paul Federation of Educators, the welfare rights movement, the Working Families Party, New Georgia Project, Occupy Wall Street, 350​.org, the Fight for 15 and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis are useful and often moving reminders that while we can’t all do everything, we all can do something. Good strategy is critical to figuring out what that intervention is for a specific formation, in its specific moment, with its specific resources.

Bhargava and Luce write that great strategists are made, not born.” It’s one of those deeply democratic ideas that work as both principle and tactic: Put simply, up against the rising tide of the authoritarian right and the existential threat of global warming, it’s going to take a lot more of us to win. With Practical Radicals, Luce and Bhargava — with their clear-eyed view of what it takes to win, their bold vision of what could be possible, and their deep sense of connection to those who have come before us — have made a necessary contribution to the project of making more great strategists.

Emma Tai interviewed Bhargava and Luce for In These Times shortly after the book’s publication. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Emma Tai: Let’s start by hearing from you about the origins of this book and the problem you’re trying to solve, or at least make some headway towards. How do you hope it will be used?

Deepak Bhargava: The motive for this project was feeling frustrated and almost angry about the state of strategy on the Left. The failure to be strategic manifested in a lot of different ways: making all kinds of short-term decisions that you then paid for — and you knew you would pay for — down the line; people refusing to make choices and having 20-part campaign plans with obviously scarce resources; defaulting to certain tactics that people were very familiar with, without regard to whether it would have an impact on the target or move the issue. So one part of it was frustration.

Another part of it was realizing that the lineage of all the different traditions of social change, which I think of as our collective inheritance, has really not been passed down in any systematic way. I’d had mentors, and I didn’t even have the language to understand how they were different from one another. 

It’s a miracle we ever win at all given the level of resources that are stacked against us. And we actually win a lot.

So this really began as wanting to clarify: How could we get way better at strategy? And how can we resuscitate these lineages and bring them up to the present day? It’s a miracle we ever win at all given the level of resources that are stacked against us. And we actually win a lot. So the upside was that there are these amazing people who, against all odds, have managed to make the world so much better. Let’s examine that genius and what it says about how to win.

Stephanie Luce: The book came out of a class. Deepak had this idea to teach Power and Strategy for Organizers” and approached me about teaching with him. I was feeling some of the same frustrations, seeing some concrete gains, like living wage campaigns or union victories that were important, that didn’t necessarily add up to more than the sum of their parts.

And at the time we started the class, we were coming out of this wave of upsurges — Occupy, Bernie, the Movement for Black Lives — and starting to see the massive resistance they were facing. I saw this disconnect between these big upsurges and these concrete gains and how they were all fitting together. How are we thinking four or five steps ahead for what the opposition is going to do? So I certainly saw a need for getting more serious about strategy and how we talk about it with one another.

ET: Thanks — I really appreciate the framing that it’s a miracle that we ever win at all. I actually want to return to that idea because the central organizing language of the book is the idea of overdogs” and underdogs.” It seems clear that you are people who think that precise terminology is essential to good strategy. I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about how you developed and decided to use that terminology. Is there a particular intellectual or organizing tradition that informed that thinking? 

SL: We went back and forth a lot about the terms. Underdogs felt like a way to write about this in a more general sense because we weren’t talking about a specific category; sometimes it’s workers, sometimes it’s a community of neighbors, but that context matters. 

And in that context, the underdog is the one that is being held down by the overdogs — a coalition that is keeping the status quo in place. But at the same time, overdogs are not necessarily always an enemy. Some of them we may need to work with as allies in the short term, like a small business, for example.

We wanted to avoid the term enemy” because it’s not always clear who the enemy is. And oppressor” and oppressed” didn’t quite work, because there’s not enough agency there. And so overdogs” was a way of thinking about, in a specific context, who are the people fighting for liberation and what is the coalition of forces keeping that liberation from coming to be?

ET: It seems like you’re saying that the utility of the overdog/​underdog terminology is that it gives us some ability to make highly contingent choices, which is what our choices always are anyway. Because sometimes the point of strategy is to have a very precise analysis of who’s on what side and who can be peeled off. 

I did struggle with whether identifying us as underdogs” ends up reifying a cultural aversion to power on the Left. That’s something that I feel has been a throughline in my organizing life: the idea that our opponents are actually afraid of us because we are the many, and we should move like we can make them afraid. Our opponents don’t move like they think that we are underdogs. They move like they are planning to permanently defeat us because of the potential of our power.

"The overdogs have an overwhelming advantage at most times in human history."

DB: That’s a good point. My thinking about that is that at most times, if you were to objectively look at the realities of power — not potential power, but actual power — then the overdogs have an overwhelming advantage at most times in human history. But you’re totally right that [our] potential power is frightening to [them], and it’s what motivates them to do many of the sinister things we talk about in the book. 

ET: As I was reading your book, I started making notes of the various assumptions that you lift up that don’t seem to serve us in the project of becoming the best organizers and strategists we can be. There are a lot of them that you point out in this book: that there’s one right way to organize, that power is inevitably corrupting, that good ideas sell themselves, that we can do everything and hard choices aren’t required, that narrative shifting is a substitute for base building.

I think that our field does not spend enough time being honest about when we made a mistake, how we misread a situation and then when we changed our minds. And I’m wondering if you could talk about a lightbulb moment” you had when you realized that an assumption that you had wasn’t right and if that showed up in this book in any way.

DB: I spent many years working on immigration. And in the efforts to pass federal legislation to provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people, I think there was an implicit assumption that in the [Republican] coalition against us, the business class that wanted cheap labor was going to be able to outweigh the nativist, white supremacist mass base. And multiple times, that assumption proved incorrect. They actually were shouted down on some occasions by a mass base that had much more influence over lawmakers. Many of us operate with the theory that corporations call the shots, but actually, they were not the dominant players on this issue. And that was a big strategic miscalculation.

I think progressives have a chronic tendency to overestimate our power — to not look honestly at really how much power we have and what the sources of our power are. But what I took from that is that there is often not a deep enough investigation into the nature and sources of overdog power. We make a whole set of assumptions, about who the opponents are and what their motives are, that are not often backed up with real evidence or data. We owe it to ourselves to understand our opponents much better than we do.

Stephanie Luce smiles while siting in an office chair and wearing oval tortoise-framed glasses and a black blazer. Her hair is shoulder-length, straight and brown.
Deepak Bhargava smiles while wearing a black button-up and rectangular wire-framed glasses. A monstera plant and book shelves are in the background. He has a salt-and-pepper beard.
Stephanie Luce (left) is a professor of labor studies at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. She authored the book Labor Movements: Global Perspectives and Fighting for a Living Wage. Deepak Bhargava (right) is a distinguished lecturer at CUNY’s School of Labor and Urban Studies, coeditor of the book Immigration Matters: Visions, Strategies and Movements for a Progressive Future and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. Photos courtesy of New Press

ET: Why do you think we have a chronic tendency to overestimate our power?

DB: At a human level, it is hard to sit with not being very powerful, especially if you have ambitious visions for changing the world. Because if you really look at it and see how far we are from that ability to change the world, it demands a whole lot of discipline and patience, and it takes you away from the satisfactions of the short-term campaign that will fix everything. It’s a very sobering thing to do.

In my experience, actually, working-class people are sober in that way. That is to say, they understand intuitively that the forces arrayed against them are vast, and they make a whole set of practical accommodations to get through life in light of that. But then you come along with the organizer who says, actually, we can be powerful. And that’s true, we really can, but I think we can get seduced by the promise and get taken a little far out over our skis. I certainly have been.

ET: I really resonate with that. It makes me think of the classic Labor Notes workshop [on Overcoming Apathy”]: It’s not that people don’t care, it’s that they think it won’t work. And every lived experience you have suggests that it won’t. It’s not an unreasonable conclusion.

DB: A lot of the things that keep people in the struggle long-term are not necessarily short-term victories. We delude ourselves that we’ve got to win that tiny thing, because that’s why people are here. In truth, all the long-term community leaders I’ve known are here out of love, out of community, out of the sense of bondedness to each other. And they’re capable of weathering the ups and downs. It may be sometimes the activist and organizer ego that has trouble weathering the ups and downs.

ET: That’s totally right. It presumes that people need to be assured of victory to make sacrifices, and I think that underestimates what people are actually capable of. Stephanie, what about you? What’s your lightbulb moment?

SL: There are so many of them. But one that comes to mind is, in the labor movement, we see a lot of debate and passing resolutions that didn’t seem to have a lot of meaning to me. But when I began doing more international work, I met many workers around the world who watched really carefully what people were saying in the United States about certain issues. It was very important to their organizing and their sense of solidarity. And I began to take more seriously that what we say matters.

That came into the class and the book in us really pushing for a deeper understanding of what narrative shift work is about, which is how people make meaning. It’s not just words on the paper, but how we understand our collective struggle.

"It’s not just words on the paper, but how we understand our collective struggle."

ET: I really appreciated the chapter toward the end about conflict, and resetting the expectation that organizing should be free of internal conflict — that this is work that involves hard choices, about which people, serious organizers who share values, will actually disagree. What is your advice to organizers, organizations, movement groups and large movement ecosystems as they navigate through this? And in your experience, what are the conditions that are required for conflict to produce better strategy and deeper alignment, as opposed to greater division?

SL: Maybe this one is too obvious, but the goal isn’t no conflict — that’s not going to be the outcome. My advice would be to assume conflict will happen and could even get more intense, so just be prepared for how we will handle that conflict. A lot of it depends on really solid communication and long-term trust building. We refer to Maurice Mitchell’s article a lot in the book — the idea that the goal is to set up the containers for that conflict rather than the goal being no conflict.

DB: One insight I had from writing this book with Stephanie was the importance of distinguishing between a group where you’re building a really deep shared analysis versus a more tactical short-term alliance. Both of them are valid. But I think sometimes we are arguing unproductively because we share very different understandings of the current situation, and we’re operating in good faith out of our own analysis but haven’t achieved a common one. So that argues for a certain kind of slowing down sometimes to arrive at the common analysis, which is not our habit mostly.

Sign up for our weekend newsletter
A weekly digest of our best coverage

ET: Mike Parker at the Richmond Progressive Alliance wrote this really good piece that argues that people in an organization, even if they have a minority position, need to be able to see a path to how their position could become the majority position. They know what the rules are. 

SL: There’s a documentary called The Take, about the factory takeovers in Argentina, where they’re talking about worker cooperatives. They talk about how it can be really challenging to run a workplace by democratic rule, but if you’re doing it all the time, you learn that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. And you’re more comfortable with losing because maybe the next time your position will win. That practice of ongoing democracy is a way to get more comfortable with conflict, because it’s happening frequently.

ET: Right. It’s almost a form of resilience. You can lose an argument with your comrades and not take your ball and go home, because you understand that our fate is linked together.

Your book makes brilliant use of examples outside of our immediate moment. For example, I wasn’t organizing when the Gay Men’s Health Clinic was around; I didn’t know about them, and I learned about their example from your book. What is your wish for how organizers can build a practice of taking themselves out of their context, whether it’s an international context like what you’re talking about in South America or a historical context like the Civil War or the AIDS crisis? And what is your wish for how institutions that support organizers can help make that a reality? 

DB: I have two wishes for organizers. My first wish is that they be rooted in lineage, to see themselves as part of a really long tradition of hundreds or thousands of years before us and after us. 

"If you take yourself seriously, that means you really invest in your own strategic capacity."

That lineage is the source of all kinds of wisdom and magic tricks and ideas and inspirations. It is what we have, you know? We don’t have that much money. What we have is those traditions, and they’re really a source of power for us. When things are totally desperate and dark, as they were in the AIDS crisis — and there is no campaign, there is no power, there’s no strategy, there’s no way in those early years of the pandemic to turn things around — there was something people found to do that then paved the way for a next wave of people to achieve historic breakthroughs. They made a choice to turn to each other in the worst crisis imaginable for the gay community.

My second wish for organizers is that we take ourselves way more seriously as people who aspire to power. And if you take yourself seriously, that means you really invest in your own strategic capacity. You believe that it’s important that you understand these different traditions and that you learn new tools, as opposed to just viewing yourself as an interchangeable cog. We aren’t. We’re actually each super important. The other side does this: They have business schools and McKinsey and the Army War College and all these institutions that tell people to take themselves seriously in the struggle for power.

And then for institutions, my big wish is to invest in the strategic capacity of everyday people. Strategy has to be democratized, and the idea that we’re going to be saved by any small group of people figuring out something, facing this amount of complexity and this amount of difficulty, is not right. The temptation to hold strategy to a small group is very high. It seems expedient. But it actually is one of those things that cost us enormous amounts down the line. To me, that means investing in study, investing in political education, investing in teaching about lineage, investing in giving people the opportunity to have some kind of exchange with people from around the world who are in similar situations. 

To win, we are going to need many, many, many more people who are capable of articulating and developing that investment in people’s capacity, which I think has eroded for all kinds of reasons and needs to be rebuilt.

SL: We’re lucky because our class brings in organizers and activists from many sectors: labor, housing, environment, racial justice. It’s just beautiful to watch people learn from one another and be able to ask, How is organizing done in your field?” and to see their worlds expand with that kind of cross-sectoral analysis of the world. 

We make this argument in the book for what we call strategy hubs, which is where people come together across sectors and across lineages, to learn from one another. It provides the excitement of learning something new, it gives inspiration for new tactics and strategies, and it helps us hold each other accountable to different kinds of movements. Those strategy hubs could be a space to really help step out of that.

ET: My last question is something that we talked about a little bit earlier, about how wins are not guaranteed. One of the things that I thought a lot about this past year was Antonio Gramsci’s idea of pessimism of the mind, optimism of the will” — the idea that it is sobering to look at how much power we have, how many forces are aligned against us, and to find the courage and the determination to do it anyway.

What is your suggestion for organizers who are struggling with difficult choices, internal conflict, long hours and sometimes apparently insurmountable odds? Why is it worth doing anyway?

“I don't know if the odds are good, but I'm going to go down fighting.” I'm a fighter, and I don't want those overdogs to win without a fight."

SL: I think we have no choice. I often think to myself, I don’t know if the odds are good, but I’m going to go down fighting.” I’m a fighter, and I don’t want those overdogs to win without a fight. 

But I also think that whatever happens, our survival depends on our collectivity. We can’t survive it as individuals. And if that means mitigating the worst impacts of what’s to come in terms of climate disasters, or mitigating the very worst in terms of rising authoritarian threats, those collective structures are going to be a form of survival and hope. They might launch us toward liberation, but they might also just be there and be what we need to survive the worst times. 

I keep going because I wake up every day thinking, I’ve got to keep fighting. I don’t have a choice.”

DB: At the end of the book, we talked about this as being this moment of rupture, and that many possible futures are coming into view. Some of them are really dark and really scary and, in some ways, many of them are alive right now. They’re not the future — they’re being lived by many, many people, the dark ones and some of the good ones, in some at least incipient ways. So how exciting to be alive at a moment when the die is not cast, right? The next decade is the decade that will set the terrain of struggle for the next 50 or 100 years. And how lucky are we that we get to be part of that? 

It’s possible that we can prevail. But maybe we don’t, and maybe it gets rough, but we’re still carrying that torch in the lineage. And what may seem like failures today will seem like the path-breaking, risk-taking thing to the people who come after. We don’t know. We’re super small in a big, big arc. But we have to carry that torch. It’s our sacred responsibility to do that. And we can find joy in that sense of place.

Please consider supporting our work.

I hope you found this article important. Before you leave, I want to ask you to consider supporting our work with a donation. In These Times needs readers like you to help sustain our mission. We don’t depend on—or want—corporate advertising or deep-pocketed billionaires to fund our journalism. We’re supported by you, the reader, so we can focus on covering the issues that matter most to the progressive movement without fear or compromise.

Our work isn’t hidden behind a paywall because of people like you who support our journalism. We want to keep it that way. If you value the work we do and the movements we cover, please consider donating to In These Times.

Emma Tai is a Chicago-based organizer and former executive director of United Working Families, a membership-based progressive political organization that unites working families around economic, political and racial justice issues.

Illustrated cover of Gaza issue. Illustration shows an illustrated representation of Gaza, sohwing crowded buildings surrounded by a wall on three sides. Above the buildings is the sun, with light shining down. Above the sun is a white bird. Text below the city says: All Eyes on Gaza
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.