On the Outside Looking In: A Critique of Inside/Outside Strategy

Collage image depicting woman with binoculars looking at building. Layered over the building is an image of the world viewed through a smartphone.

By Alex Isa

“Yes, I would consider my inside/outside strategy toward corporations somewhat of a Robin Hood effect … I use their money, which becomes my money, to produce stickers, posters, stencils, etc. This strategy was, however, the result of my acceptance of the reality of things. One of the most jarring realizations this project has brought about for me is the complete inevitability of supply and demand economics in a capitalist society. “

-Shepard Fairey

How to (and whether to) engage with existing political institutions is a perennial topic hotly contested by groups and individuals in left organizing spaces. By performing well above expectations in the Democratic Party presidential primaries, Bernie Sanders revived the national outlook for left electoralism. However, electoral politics are simply one facet of what we refer to as the institutional left – “unions, non-profits, and those with institutional interests to protect and preserve.”

This brings us to the phenomenon of ‘inside-outside strategy’ (IOS). You’ve definitely heard this phrase used at political meetings and events, perhaps by people who have varying and contradictory understandings of the term.

Years before Trump’s win in the 2016 presidential election, a growing segment of the anti-capitalist left represented by groups like Democratic Socialists of America proclaimed in favor of an “inside/outside strategy.” According to one popular definition, inside/outside strategy might be defined as:

the creation of mass movements and alternative activities outside the centers of power that work in conjunction with clusters of interest — organized or individual supporters inside or along the periphery of the power structure. IOS is a strategic orientation that social movements and dissenters have historically used to influence society.

In the past two years, various segments of the anti-capitalist left have dusted off inside-outside strategy and repurposed it into a theory of revolutionary transformation. Starting with a brief history of the term and its historical uses, we will see why inside-outside strategy is flawed both in theory and practice.

The History of Inside/Outside Strategy as a Term

To understand the flaws of inside-outside strategy as a proposal for social transformation and struggle, we have to understand how it entered the lexicon of social movements. The basic idea is not necessarily new–something attested to by a long history of debates around electoralism and political participation, even during the peak of labor radicalism in the U.S. during the 20th century.

While it’s difficult to say with complete accuracy, one of the earliest works explicitly theorizing the relationship between an “inside” and “outside” strategy comes from a chapter in the 1991 book Mobilizing Interest Groups in America: Patrons, Professions, and Social Movements. The authors define “inside” strategy as lobbying activities and “outside” strategy as “[shaping] and mobilizing public opinion.” (103)

In this telling, the scope of change is nothing more than influencing public policy on individual issues. The protagonists of this process are simply “interest groups” led by political entrepreneurs who successfully find “patrons” in existing institutional structures. (196) For much of the 90s and early 2000s, appearances of this phrase unequivocally reflected and reified the typical elements of liberal political engagement:

  • Single-issue groups
  • Disconnected from any pretense of mass or class organizing
  • Make a few friends in government
  • Get some legislation passed
  • The system works and everyone goes home happy (emphasis on “going home”).

This inside-outside dyad was adopted by progressives as part of a long period of self-reflection on Jesse Jackson’s failed presidential bids as a Democrat in 1984 and 1988, paralleled by the growth of his Rainbow Coalition. For many years thereafter, progressives continued to express disappointment that Jackson demobilized the Rainbow Coalition and folded it into the Democratic Party campaigning apparatus. This July 2004 piece in The Nation looks back at Jesse Jackson’s presidential candidacy and the Rainbow Coalition:

To speak with Rainbow warriors now is to confront a persistent, deep disappointment that in the spring of 1989 Jackson decided against institutionalizing the Rainbow as a mass-based, democratic, independent membership organization that could pursue the inside-outside strategy he’d articulated vis-à-vis the Democrats and build strength locally and nationally to leverage power for progressive aims.

For all of the disappointment expressed by progressives, their ideal inside-outside strategy boiled down to a way to steer the Democratic Party and win elections. The promise represented by the Rainbow Coalition historically represented a vampiric transfer of social movement potential to renewed liberal hegemony in the form of a resurgent neoliberal Democratic Party in the 90s.

When it comes to the inside-outside dyad, “inside logic” continuously and inexorably seeks to subsume and colonize those of us who live and struggle outside of the halls of power–always to the benefit of a few, albeit a different few from the ones who are currently in power.”

In From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor expertly captures how figures like Jackson presided over the institutionalization and neutralization of the revolutionary potential of the civil rights movement at a time when the carceral state reached ever greater heights under a nominally liberal administration.

Nonetheless, opposition to the neoconservative Bush presidency kept this idea alive, resulting in the formation of the Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) in 2004. One of their stated goals was to act as a progressive pressure group operating within the Democratic Party:

As a grassroots PAC operating inside the Democratic Party, and outside in movements for peace and justice, PDA played a key role in the stunning electoral victories of November 2006 and 2008. Our inside/outside strategy is guided by the belief that a lasting majority will require a revitalized Democratic Party built on firm progressive principles. [emphasis added]

This meant tailoring their actions to the contours of the existing political structure – fielding candidates in mostly unsuccessful bids for office, spending time and resources on procedural fights within the Democratic Party structure, and various lobbying schemes such as holding mid-day “brown bag lunch vigils” outside of the district offices of various members of Congress in the hopes of delivering a letter or flyer to the member of Congress or their staff. PDA also took credit for convincing Bernie Sanders to compete in the Democratic presidential primaries in 2015. In essence, groups like PDA condition their members to speak to “electeds” rather than the masses.

The other notable example of this strategy was the Working Families Party (WFP), a “fusion” political party that maintains a separate ballot line in elections due to unique New York state ballot laws, but often endorses the same candidate as the Democratic Party. This variety of inside-outside strategy is meant to gradually pull candidates in a more progressive direction, but in places like New York WFP will endorse unabashedly reactionary candidates like Governor Andrew Cuomo in order to reach the 50,000 vote threshold needed to maintain their ballot line. In order to keep the candle burning for the faintest glimmer of even mildly progressive change, organizations like WFP must deliver their supporters unto the altar of neoliberal capitalism in the here and now.

Until fairly recently, inside-outside strategy has meant working with and/or within the system to accomplish limited goals. That this strategy doesn’t conflict with the power structures of capitalism is highlighted in embarrassing fashion by a blog featured on the website of the World Bank. Yes, THAT World Bank!

In a post entitled “The Inside-Outside Strategy,” a World Bank employee makes a case for working with officials in the name of “pro-poor” reform:

The logic of the inside-outside strategy is unanswerable. If you start a reform within the government, it is wise to build wider support; and if you push for change from the outside you need to transform public opinion all right, but you also need to find allies within the state. In the real world, that is how things get done.

We can assume that, being a World Bank publication, this refers to the process of streamlining Structural Adjustment Programs.

In any case, it seems fairly clear that inside-outside strategy was conceived and executed as a program of liberal reform, one where politics is devoid of any understanding of class struggle and where working-class people have only the barest form of leverage via social and political “entrepreneurs” of the institutional left. These figures and institutions have a symbiotic relationship with the State and reinforce its hegemony while using left rhetoric.

More than their progressive forebears, DSA did the most to bridge the gap between liberal-progressive politics and the anti-capitalist left, more or less giving us the current incarnation of inside-outside strategy. In 2014, for example, a statement by the organization put inside-outside strategy in the following terms:

DSA also understands that unless the labor movement and the Left build the independent political capacity to challenge the mainstream leadership of the Democratic Party, from the inside and the outside, its embrace of pro-corporate, pro-austerity neoliberal economic and social policies will continue as well.

The current political moment has seen inside-outside strategy become an incoherent jumble of expectations, socialist in words but liberal in practice, aiming for Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism but trying to get there in a hot air balloon.

Take the Momentum Caucus of DSA, whose platform purports to critique inside/outside strategy while simultaneously arguing that “we should attempt to use the major parties’ ballot lines without confronting the major parties’ infrastructure.” Since then, ironically but to the surprise of few, it was discovered that Momentum developed organizing projects within DSA (like Medicare for All) with the intention of “folding” such projects into a Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign infrastructure.

Though advocates of this approach favor building a “mass left-wing formation” down the line, candidates who have racked up endorsements by DSA–whether they be “soft” endorsements where members significantly assist and boost campaigns or explicit endorsements–have hewed closely to Democratic Party leadership, boosted fundraising prospects for the Democratic Party as a whole, and have gladly accepted endorsements from politicians who unequivocally represent the capitalist class.

The failure of inside-outside strategy is that movement activists and supporters have failed to maintain accountability. We can see this rather prominently in the response of certain DSA members to critiques of Ocasio-Cortez when she expressed support for a “two-state solution” to resolve the continued civil and military oppression faced by Palestinians and offered to sit down with “leaders on both” sides. One op-ed defending Ocasio-Cortez’s upsetting blunder threw the premise of inside-outside strategy out the window entirely:

it would still be wrong to insist that DSA members are under an organizational discipline to adhere to them. The right to dissent and to express views different from those of the majority and the organizational center is a fundamental part of DSA’s democratic and socialist-feminist decision-making. DSA has taken a position to be actively involved in electoral politics, for example, but those who have a different view – including many signers of the petition against Ocasio-Cortez – are still free to express that perspective. We would have it no other way.

In practice, this seems like a cynical manipulation of “democratic” practices to keep those outside of power in a position of impotence, even when politicians claiming to represent them contradict movement ideals entirely.

Other attempts to defend this triangulation on Ocasio-Cortez’s part indicate that “inside” and “outside” are not at all equal partners in spite of claims to the contrary:

Because the value of an elected official, of an activist in the Advocate role, is to get things done close or in the halls of power. A senator or congressmember embracing BDS, would probably be doing so at the expense of their effectiveness in most other areas. It’s pretty clear that the lobbying power of those who support Palestinian rights is not very high, and in most of the country if you only want to vote for someone who agrees with that position, you won’t have anyone to vote for.

The fact that there was a perceived need to defend Ocasio from the “maximalists” and “Rebels” to her left, including dedicated DSA members, suggests that so-called Advocates and influencers (like Ocasio-Cortez) have an overriding role in shaping the agenda and defining priorities. Members of social movements, on the other hand, are expected to keep the candle burning and play a support role rather than develop forms of self-governance that might create anything beyond the State.

The idea that the current mix of democratic socialist candidates, including patricians like Cynthia Nixon and CEOs like Zak Ringelstein, could create the nucleus of a separate “mass party,” or that a mass party of these same political figures could offer an alternative vision to capitalism, does not conform to what we are seeing in real time. Thus, 4 years and a few electoral victories later, progressives and even democratic socialists have signaled hesitation in challenging the “mainstream leadership” of the Democratic Party as was promised in 2014.

No amount of premeditation seems to be successful in overcoming the gravity of State power. “We’ll do it right next time” becomes a perpetually unfulfilled rallying cry.

At any rate, DSA national has leaned into the press coverage, membership surges, and increased national profile brought along by major electoral victories and endorsements. In an e-mail dated June 28, National Director Maria Svart writes: “In the first 24 hours since the election results were announced, over 1000 people joined DSA. That’s bigger than the first day of the Trump bump – it turns out that in dark times, people want reasons to hope. Let’s keep these victories coming!”

Whatever the inconsistencies of the candidates they support, national leadership is happy to boast of new members and dues. It is almost certain that many of these members entered the organization with a very general and incomplete conception of socialism, heavily shaped by the measured statements offered on the electoral front. In this way, the “inside” part of this strategy wields tremendous influence and puts limits on the “outside” part where these are assumed to work in tandem.

There are more earnest attempts to conceive of inside-outside strategy as a way to build dual power, where the “outside” might consist of more radical, working-class, and horizontally-organized social movements, only seems to highlight the woeful inadequacy of these strategies in relation to the task at hand. Even when inside-outside strategy fails, the impression that it is succeeding creates a powerful perception that drives dues and membership, reflecting the agendas and assumptions of campaigns rather than movements. Beyond this, however, there is also a failure to theoretically recognize the nature of how power operates at various levels of society.

Iconic image of Detroit character from film "Sorry to Bother You." Earrings have been changed from "murder" and "kill" to "Popular Power."

The Problems of Inside-Outside Strategy: Some Theoretical Considerations

Nascent ideas of inside-outside strategy explained how single-issue interest groups of no particularly radical persuasion and a highly-professionalized structure could influence policy outcomes. Later, it became a way for outgunned progressives to “take back” the Democratic Party in the name of a more humane capitalism. Currently, we are at a stage where inside-outside strategy functions in the same way but in the service of purportedly revolutionary outcomes ranging from a social democratic welfare state to a breakaway left workers’ party.

Even as inside-outside strategy was repackaged and painted red for a newer generation of radicals, various interpretations of this idea reflect an unclear sense of the relationship between existing political structures and social movements. What’s more, they don’t even demonstrate a good understanding of the distinct manifestations of power and how they operate.

The definition of inside-outside strategy quoted earlier comes from a series of 2016 posts on the blog Be Freedom, some of which was reprinted in other outlets like Counterpunch. The author advocates creating mass movements whose aim is to bring about change by working in conjunction with “clusters of interest” within and on the periphery of power structures, then gives a disparate array of examples from mainstream politics to labor unions. From this point of view, these are all seemingly valid arenas of struggle. While many people who identify as progressive see no contradiction here, a bit of digging reveals a huge conceptual problem therein.

If we start from the standpoint that all legislative bodies, courts, labor unions, political parties, and UNICEF are equally valid entry points for transformative mass movements to exercise power, what are the exceptions? One of the problems with the advocacy of IOS on the left is the lack of proscribed limits.

What has been jarring these last two years is that some socialists have internalized this as a system of belief to the point where they can enthusiastically root for District Attorneys and Judges in their electoral efforts. In the case of Larry Krasner, some viewed his victory as a step forward and a platform for further movement building based on reforms such as ending cash bail and civil asset forfeiture. In the interim, however, this means supporting someone who oversees mass incarceration and prosecutions that plainly violate freedom of expression.

The power of belief being what it is, supporters can’t necessarily be moved to critically interrogate these deficiencies or offer any broad vision other than improving things in a piecemeal fashion, punching left and managing expectations.

This was made abundantly clear during the debate on House Joint Resolution 1, the bill passed by House Democrats–including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley– during the government shutdown to restore funding to the Department of Homeland Security and, by extension, Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Surprisingly, supporters of AOC and even leftists representing more critical tendencies pushed back against left criticism of the vote and stressed the need for the newly-elected representatives to build their political clout and momentarily put aside their promises to “abolish ICE.”

When it comes to the inside-outside dyad, “inside logic” continuously and inexorably seeks to subsume and colonize those of us who live and struggle outside of the halls of power–always to the benefit of a few, albeit a different few from the ones who are currently in power. This means that the socialist or democratic socialist label can be rather easily used to exploit people’s expectations in the most cynical way possible to gain and hold power.

If the revolution suddenly demands that we give our votes and support to Representatives, Senators, Sheriffs, District Attorneys, and Presidents, should we ask socialists to sign up for the U.S. Army? ICE? Get a “democratic socialist” nominated as Secretary of Defense? We’ve only seen the beginnings of such developments, such as progressive candidates offering to “abolish ICE” by replacing itwith a similar organization controlled by the Justice Department. Naturally, supporters of such politicians might downplay these positions or defend them after the fact, much in the same way liberals (and oddly enough, some leftists) defended Obama and the “long game” of his presidency: A long game that inevitably concluded to the benefit of the ruling class and the demoralization of the working class.

We can even take this idea to its most absurd limit: why not start a business and use that a way to make the world a better place? Of course, most of us recognize this as a joke. The functioning of capitalist economic institutions guarantees the highest allowable degree of exploitation. What exempts the State from this logic, reflection of capitalist economic development and class conflict that it is? If building socialism means occupying State power—administering prisons, defending borders, and nationalizing the bourgeoisie—then it is not any form of socialism with strategic or ethical value.

Advocates of inside-outside strategy misunderstand the nature of power, and consequently make fatal errors of judgement that will limit our collective political imagination and reduce the most vibrant movements in our workplaces and communities to servants of their supposed representatives in the machinery of government.

From an anarchist perspective, our approach to social change is to build popular power – a process where we use our time and resources to create “independent institutions and organizations of the working class to fight white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism.” This means looking to our neighbors and coworkers in our political struggles and not politicians who promise to enact change from on high. All of the press releases and bully pulpits available to left politicians and bureaucrats are absolutely inconsequential compared to the popular power we can build.

Alex Isa is an educator, scholar, and member of Black Rose/Rosa Negra in Miami.

If you enjoyed this article we recommend reading the related content “The Limits of Hegemony: A Review of Hegemony How-To” and our reader on left electoralism, “Socialist Faces in High Places: Elections & the Left.”