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Go: For a Winning Anarchist Strategy
Written in Fall 2010 for a local anarchist Go meetup in Seattle. Thanks to everyone for your feedback.
A year later, after the Arab Spring, after the American Autumn, who would have guessed the hint of potential in the air would have exploded so abruptly and raised so many questions about our strategy going forward?
By Ray Jovana
Throughout history, people have joined together to fight exploitation and injustice. A thread of resistance can be traced from ancient Egyptian slave revolts to the WTO protests in Seattle, continuing in our present day struggles. Though we’ve had setbacks and losses over the millennia, we’ve also made many gains. As the powerful have adapted their strategies and tactics to hold onto their power and influence, we’ve been successful when we have also adapted, building on and learning from past successes and failures.
The game of Go is another struggle for power and influence, a strategic game where opponents try to expand and hold onto their areas of power and use them to limit the other’s. We can learn from and apply strategies from the game of Go to adapt and make our struggles more effective.
21st Century Anarchism
With the failure of authoritarian communism and the recent petering out of the anti-globalization movement, the 21st century is a time for a new beginning. Just as in 1910 few people could have predicted the upheavals that lay in store for them, this century will no doubt bring times where the unthinkable, impossible future suddenly becomes an undeniable present. This changing battle requires us to develop new strategies and abandon failed ideologies—without mindlessly reenacting past battles, but also without each generation starting anew and rejecting history. Instead, we need to develop a strategy of challenging power, honestly applying lessons from past resistance to the realities of our present day struggles.
In all the work we do, we need strategies for campaigns such as tenant/landlord and workplace struggles or fights targeting other institutions. We also need to connect these campaigns to large-scale, longer-term strategies and ultimately to a strategic framework for the entire revolutionary project of overthrowing the ruling class and establishing a free, just, and equal society.
In developing these strategies, we must remember that theory not grounded in practical struggle is sterile and useless, while action without strategy and reflection is an ineffective dead-end. This requires that we refuse to let our political ideology color our practical judgment. We must not believe that a tactic will be effective simply because we would like it to be or because our ideology tells us that it must be.
Instead, we must look at the playfield honestly, judging the strengths and weaknesses of ourselves as well as our adversaries. As the struggle unfolds, we must analyze the effectiveness of tactics based on direct experience. And to be effective, we must train ourselves and others to have the skills necessary to achieve our objectives including strategic thinking skills.
The Game of Go
Centuries before written history, a game was invented to help the Chinese aristocracy practice strategic thinking. This game is now commonly referred to as “Go”, from the Japanese name, or “Wei Qi,” the modern Chinese name, meaning literally, “the surrounding game.” Based on simple rules that have changed little over thousands of years, Go is a complex game. The style of play has constantly changed, with expert players building on the lessons from past players and constantly analyzing current and past games for insights into new strategies.
So what is the game of Go? Go is played on a board with a 19×19 grid (13×13 or 9×9 for beginners). Two players take turns placing black and white Go “stones” on the intersection points on the grid. Once placed, the stones cannot be moved. Each point has between two and four “liberties,” represented by the lines leaving the point. A stone with one or more liberty or connected to stones of the same color with liberties is considered “alive.” If a player fills in the liberties of their opponent’s stone, that stone is “captured” and is removed from the board. But capturing is not the most important aspect of the game. At the end of a game, each player will have surrounded different parts of the board in a way that their stones cannot be captured. These surrounded portions of the board are their “territory”; the larger determines the winner.
Go As a Revolutionary Tool
But Go is more than just a game. It can be a valuable tool for developing revolutionary anarchist strategy. Go has lasted for thousands of years because it is the boiled-down essence of real strategy, simple enough to move beyond transitory historical details, instead reflecting many general strategic concepts. At the same time, it is not so simple as to be irrelevant to real-world strategic problem solving. This allows us to map complex real-world problems to Go concepts and to use Go techniques to see fundamental strategic flaws or strengths. Go provides a language and a framework for discussing core strategic and tactical issues.
Compared with other games, we can see why Go can map better to real world struggles. In chess, the goal is to corner and kill the opponent’s king. In modern struggles, whether war between nations, political power battles, labor struggles, or the revolutionary struggle in general, opponents never have a single head or point of power. Instead, their power is determined by their political, economic, military, or social influence, and this power can change dramatically over time. These different spheres of influence can be mapped to points on a Go board, with success being determined by expanding territory. Capture can be important, but more as a tactic to gain territory than as an end in itself.
In the book, The Protracted Game: A Wei-Ch’i Interpretation of Maoist Revolutionary Strategy, Scott A. Boorman presents one such mapping. The edges of the board correspond to the lowest caste of peasants in feudal China. Towards the center, points correspond to higher positions in the social caste system, with the very center being the urban political class. While other factions fought directly for the single center point, Mao used the standard Go strategy of building territory first in the isolated corners, then along the edges. While others focused on one point, Mao and the communists focused on building territory, ultimately dominating the board.
For our purposes, a less precise mapping is likely to be more useful, just enough to provide a bridge between Go strategic concepts and the practical issue we’re addressing.
One of the ways that Go strategy has been passed down from generation to generation is in the form of simple proverbs. Each proverb summarizes a technique or idea. They are meant to suggest likely good moves but are not to be followed blindly. Once you start using Go to think about strategy, you will find that many Go proverbs can give insight into our struggles.
Lose Your First Fifty Games as Quickly as Possible
One such proverb for beginners is “lose your first 50 games as quickly as possible.” Many beginners play slowly, over-analyzing their moves, but with no experience to draw on. Rather than playing quickly and learning from their mistakes, they are stuck in a paralysis that prevents them from gaining the experience they need. The fact is that if you don’t know what you are doing, you will lose. The important thing is to learn from it, and not take risks larger than you are willing to lose.
Don’t Throw an Egg at a Wall
Another that is especially relevant for anarchists, almost literally, is “don’t throw an egg at a wall.” This Korean proverb is more commonly known as “play away from thickness” and cautions against playing stones too close to your opponents’ strength, as well as playing a useful distance away from your own strength. In Go, if your opponent has a strong wall that you have no hope to cut or capture, playing close to the wall guarantees the capture of your stone and actually strengthens your opponent. The same can be said for misguided anarchists tossing an egg against a wall of riot cops only to be knocked to the ground and arrested. The converse is also true: playing too close to your own strong group is a wasted “safe” move that does little to gain territory.
Strengthening Your Own Weak Group Makes Your Opponent’s Weaker
Stating the strategic advantage of solidarity is the proverb “strengthening your own weak group makes your opponent’s weaker.” When targeting your opponent’s weakness for attack, your own weaknesses expose you to counter attack. If you can strengthen them first, your attack will be more successful. In the labor movement, this lesson appears when you have divisions in your ranks, with vulnerable workers exposed to attack. If you can strengthen the vulnerable workers before the fight, the boss will have less ability to fight back, ultimately making your offensive more successful.
A core strategy in Go is to start in the corners and edges, and then jump out to the center to connect separate groups of stones. It is easiest to create solid territory in the isolated corners. Next, territory can be made on the edges—but it is more difficult. Finally, especially if a group of your stones is weak, jumping out to the center can allow them to connect with others, increasing the chances for survival. As in the previous proverb, connecting your weak groups strengthens them, putting them in a better position to attack their common foe.
In the real world, small isolated groups, like weak groups of stones on the board, must establish a base or coordinate with other groups to survive and be effective. A base is an organizational and social network capable of sustaining itself in spite of attacks and setbacks. In addition to being self-sustaining, the network would allow expanding the fight to new territory. But even with a solid base, there is a risk of “living small”, or staying isolated with just enough structure and support to keep going but with no ability to go on the offensive. Keeping groups connected and working together can prevent this.
In the real-world this could apply to many situations, connecting groups across race and gender lines, connecting a variety of groups in the same city where struggles intersect such as class struggle and environmentalist groups targeting the same corporation, or connecting demands such as feminist groups endorsing labor struggles for shorter work hours and childcare benefits.
A Poor Man Must Pick Quarrels
One proverb that is especially interesting in light of the asymmetrical nature of our fight is “a rich man should not pick quarrels.” The parallel is that if you are a poor man, then you should most certainly pick quarrels. As you play a game, if you notice that you are well ahead of your opponent in territory, you will want to avoid complicated fights and instead solidify your gains. Meanwhile, if you are behind and playing safe moves that solidify the status quo, you are bound to lose. The only way you can win is to make bolder moves, attacking your opponents’ weaknesses in an effort to deny them the opportunity of solidifying their gains.
In Go, a handicap is used to balance games between players of differing ability. The better player plays white and gives their opponent enough extra stones to compensate for the difference in ability. Black starts out with stones already placed at the key points on the board. They start out a rich man, and their job is to safely and simply hold onto everything they began the game with. White, matching the asymmetry of our struggle, begins the game as a poor man who has no choice but to pick quarrels.
Unfortunately for us, while our struggle is asymmetrical, it is not because we are coming to the game with greater experience and natural ability than our adversary. Still, in many ways, the powerful are slow to respond to new tactics. Their strength is the stability of the system they control. As marginal activists organizing from scratch, we are approaching an opponent who is firmly entrenched, seemingly in control of the whole board. Our task is to disrupt that stability and expose weaknesses that give us further openings.
The game of Go is based on simple rules and is easy to learn, but as you play and improve your skill, it becomes a complex game with great depth of strategy. As 21st century Go players, we have easy access to a wealth of information, built up from countless generations of players, each generation building on the accomplishments of previous generations and devising new patterns and styles of play.
Likewise, as anarchists we have much to learn from present and past struggles, though we often lack in objectively evaluating past strategies and devising new ones. Go gives us an opportunity to look at strategy boiled down to its bare essence and to apply the lessons we learn to our revolutionary praxis.
The Go proverbs and strategies mentioned above are just a beginning. In print and online, there exists a wide variety of resources on Go strategy, much of it useful for general strategic thinking. We can combine these concepts with our practical experience and knowledge of historical struggles to gain insights for practical strategy. As we improve as Go players, we will continue to develop a strategic intuition and a language and framework for analyzing real-world strategy.
Go: An Introduction – by Andreas Fecke
A comic providing a simple introduction to the game of Go: here
The Way to Go: How to play the Asian game of Go – by Karl Baker
A more thorough introduction to the game: here
A free 9×9 Go game – play against a computer: here
KGS Online Go Server – play against other people: here
Online Go problems: here