What is the Inside/Outside Strategy?

The inside/outside strategy is a way to understand how the disparate currents of the labor and social movements could converge, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. In particular, the IOS appreciates that negotiations with power holders are weak without the direct pressure that disruptive actions bring to bear. Martin Luther King wrote:

”The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

The IOS also attaches great importance to the deeply-rooted local projects that foreshadow  the day when the people regain independence through control over food, water, power, art and work. The IOS aims to build solidarity, discover synergies, and improve coordination through a more inclusive and comprehensive view of political activity.

The IOS shifts our attention to power: how power works and how we, the people, may one day govern ourselves.

The IOS depends on 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.

Strategy is a means of empowerment; a plan or method for getting things done; a way of answering the question: How? Strategy is the planned use of tactics, an instrument of power and its design depends upon its goals.

Strategy is useful not only because we need a plan but also because it allows us to have a more revealing perspective than issues alone, a more useful vantage point from which to observe and engage movement activity.

IOS can also provide a better understanding of how past movements gained power for marginalized groups. IOS can reveal the hidden synergies and deep connections behind what often appears as chaos and worthless conflict within the movement. We need to move beyond either/or choices to both/and agreements. In this way the IOS can help us learn from each other. What is more important than that?

Today, the IOS is applied as a conscious strategy most commonly to targeted campaigns seeking some defined goal. The Progressive Democrats of America and the environmental movement provide important recent examples of the IOS we will return to later. For the purposes of this essay however, we will explore what IOS might look like as an overall strategy in a movement for social transformation.


Since at least the early 20th century dissident or marginalized groups have employed pressure to reshape the established structures of power using a two-pronged approach. The “outside” movement becomes a home for activists to exchange information, develop strategy, publicize their agenda, plan protest and engage in the indispensable work of long-term organizing and movement building. Until we see movement building and the not-so-simple act of organizing as core activities we will never approach even the threshold of IOS.

In recent years the “Battle for Seattle,” the initial opposition to the Iraq War, Occupy, Ferguson and the struggle of minimum wage and contingent workers gave us a good glimpse of what an outside movement looks like.

Protests and demonstrations understandably get our attention and draw media coverage but will remain limited and episodic unless based on organizing projects that empower people. At the heart of the movement is the most challenging work: the local economic, social and environmental projects that empowers people by disrupting and reconstructing power in lasting ways.

The “outside” comes in many forms: the organizing, mobilization, protest, disruption and revolt we typically think of as social movement activity.  Alternative economic activity or other community work we might think of as “prefigurative” is another increasingly important form of outside action. Prefigurative refers to projects that try to create ecological and social relationships, work settings, or democratic processes we need today and would like to see become commonplace in the future.

Prefigurative politics is a kind of direct action that circumvents power centers to establish a better world in “the here and now” without relying upon winning elections or passing legislation. Worker owned enterprise, food and energy co-ops and collectives, community gardens, individual or collectively owned solar power are good examples. Civic organizations of all kinds build and rebuild communities exploited by reckless corporations. Food, water and energy projects independent or partially off the grid, are all examples of outside politics. Detroit has become a national focal point for transformative community projects.

There is a growing fusion between prefigurative and social change activism. The struggle over GMOs and the global protests against Monsanto demonstrate what activism might increasingly look like. Judging by the history of the mid-20 century the fusion of social change models with prefigurative politics holds broad mass appeal and immense revolutionary potential.  Its messy, but that’s where the magic is.

For both social change and prefigurative projects real power lies in large-scale involvement, even if that involvement is local and seemingly dispersed. When tens of millions control their own work, water, power and food, or conduct civil disobedience and protest or contest public space or restore a sense of community then the outside will have the power to make inside work matter. According to some estimates tens of million of American already participate in some form of activism.


Perhaps the most effective position straddles the line between in and out. The dissident caucus, rank and file organization or working group has a rich history in the US.  Teamsters for a Democratic Union, fought what was one of the most corrupt unions in the country. The Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) aimed at the racist policies of the automakers and the failure of the UAW to champion the cause of black workers that were often the majority in auto plants. There were many such efforts started during the mid-20th century.

In recent time, women, people of color, youth, LGBTQ, contingent workers, immigrants, or political dissidents form caucuses and working groups to push their movements and organizations toward better politics, sometimes even capturing the leadership.

Political efforts, like the Working Families Party, combines protest and organizing to prod from the left, usually in concert with the liberal Democrats, sometime in opposition to machine Democrats. The Labor Party hesitated to run its own candidates and ended up following Connecticut’s Legislative Electoral Action Program to attempt to organize a party within a party. While the Labor Party’s model failed we must learn from failure as well as success.

Where collective inside positions are absent the insider can work more informally. The inside position, properly played, is not that of a sell-out, careerist or token. Powerful appeals to career or straight-out discipline often succeed in pushing the insider to settle into business as usual. The inside role is incredibly difficult to play and one of the most damning limitations on the IOS — particularly in the absence of a credible and disruptive outside movement.

The insider position—be that inside of Congress, unions or interest and advocacy groups—requires risk and courage to be in or near the centers of power but to remain loyal, not to the machine, but to political project of transformative social change. Martin Luther King set the bar high with his three evils of racism, materialism/poverty and militarism.

An insider that does not work toward the big changes has reduced the IOS to clever tactic. The insider with “eyes on the prize” works to funnel resources to the outside, legitimizes the mass movement’s work and articulates its vision. The effective insider does not try to control or limit protest but welcomes unruly activism as the best possible bargaining chip.

Risk to the insider’s position can be managed by successful organizing and close and regular association with the outside movement — movements that the power center often find necessary to pay lip service to if not actually serve. Progressive legislators, activists in advocacy organizations and independent- minded union leaders and staff are positioned to pick up the insider role.

Good luck.

Richard Moser writes at befreedom.co where this article first appeared.