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Back to issue 26

International Socialist Review Issue 26, November–December 2002

The antiwar movement: A great beginning

THE OCTOBER 26 protests in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. against war with Iraq, called by International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), marked a major step forward for the antiwar movement. One hundred fifty thousand people turned out in Washington, and half as many in San Francisco—with tens of thousands more joining demonstrations in cities across the U.S. These protests came on the heels of the October 6 day of action called by Not in Our Name (NION), that drew out tens of thousands across the country, including 25,000 in New York’s Central Park. These numbers prove that a growing minority of people in the U.S. not only object to Bush’s war on Iraq, but are ready to do something about it. The size and breadth of the emerging antiwar movement reflect the widespread unease about Bush’s war plans across broad sectors of the population. The demonstrations have involved people from all walks of society—including students who have already begun organizing on the campuses, but also trade unionists, church members, veterans of the Vietnam antiwar movement, and many others who have never before attended a demonstration.

The size of the new movement already far surpasses that of the movement against the war in Afghanistan, which—after an initial spurt of peace activism immediately after September 11—retreated in the face of Bush’s quick victory over the Taliban. The difference this time around is that many people who believed that Bush was fighting terrorism in Afghanistan are not taken in by the claims of an imminent Iraqi threat. Many more are alarmed by the new Bush Doctrine, with its talk of preemptive wars and regime changes.

Politically, the movement reflects the involvement of broad forces, spilling into the mainstream for the first time since Vietnam. The movement includes opponents of U.S. imperialism, but is dominated by liberal opposition to the war—illustrated on October 26 by the large number of activists who carried placards that read, “Peace is Patriotic.” It includes a wide array of individuals and organizations on the left, but they are outnumbered by those remaining loyal to the Democratic Party. Some in the new movement view a new UN Security Council resolution as a fig leaf for the U.S. to wage another war on Iraq, but many more harbor the hope that UN inspectors can avert war. Similarly, some oppose attacking Iraq as a key element of the “war on terrorism,” while others oppose a war on Iraq as a distraction from the war on terrorism. On October 26, Reverend Jesse Jackson criticized the current plans for Iraq as an “unnecessary war,” but he defended the 1991 Gulf War as a “necessary war.”

Some who are understandably impatient for a mass radicalization in U.S. society might be frustrated by the fact that the new movement is dominated by liberal ideas. To be sure, the movement as a whole as yet lacks a clear framework for building opposition to the coming war on Iraq, and—formally, at least—is politically to the right of last year’s movement. This is not, however, a step backward. It represents a major—and necessary—step toward the building of a mass movement, involving a much wider layer of activists than in the past. It is, in other words, a development we should welcome. Recent protests have mobilized people well beyond existing antiwar and radical networks. Though there has been no organized labor presence in the demonstrations, the Washington State Federation of Labor, the California Teachers Association and the largest United Parcel Service Teamster local in the U.S. (Local 705 in Chicago), among others, have all passed antiwar resolutions. Representatives of New York City Labor Against War (NYCLAW) spoke from the platform on October 26 and thousands of individual union members attended the rally. A representative from the West Coast International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) was cheered when he led a chant against the Bush administration’s attacks on the dockworkers and on Iraqis.

Organizationally, the antiwar movement is still in formation. None of the existing national antiwar organizations, whether ANSWER, NION, or the various pacifist groupings yet has the legs to carry a truly national movement. Various liberal and left-liberal forces have begun to organize an alternative national coalition to ANSWER, which they criticize as an undemocratic front for the Workers World Party. Leslie Cagan, an activist during the Vietnam antiwar movement and spokesperson for the National Campaign for Peace in the Middle East, the main liberal coalition formed during the 1991 Gulf War, has already taken “the very initial steps toward bringing greater coordination and cohesion to this antiwar movement. Representatives from NOW, the National Council of Churches, Global Exchange, and a who’s who of progressive Beltway advocates were present at the launch of a new national antiwar network. A broader effort,’ Cagan called it, that could finally tap into churches, trade unions, and campuses—where we could really get the numbers,’” the Village Voice reported. Cagan seems not to have noticed—though October 26 made it abundantly clear—that campuses, trade unions, and churches are already mobilizing. In fact, more than 300 students from 40 campuses gathered after the march at George Washington University to take the initial steps to pull together a network of campus-based antiwar groups.

It’s worth remembering a development during the last Gulf War in 1991 that we may see repeated again. Then, two national antiwar coalitions emerged, one controlled by the International Action Center (IAC)—the precursor to ANSWER; the other, the liberal-controlled National Campaign for Peace in the Middle East. The two rival groups called competing national demonstrations just one week apart in January 1991, with the start of the war only weeks away. The Workers World-led protest called for U.S. troops out of the Gulf. The Campaign also supported withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Gulf. But in the name of building the “broadest” movement, the Campaign insisted on demanding an Iraqi pullout from Kuwait, and pandered to organizations such as Sane-Freeze (the predecessor of today’s Peace Action) that supported UN sanctions against Iraq as an “alternative” to war. (Twelve years later, with more than a million Iraqis killed by the sanctions, it is now clear how wrong-headed support for sanctions turned out to be.)

Our position then—shared by many on the left—was for a united march, not sectarian wrangling. But we also argued that, while the movement should not condone Saddam Hussein’s actions, making Iraq’s expulsion from Kuwait a condition of unity conceded the right of the U.S. to intervene, and therefore weakened the movement.

“We must not lock ourselves into demanding Iraq’s withdrawal, a position that, if taken to its logical conclusion, will have us justifying a horrendous war,” wrote Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights in 1990.

The same logic applies today to those who insist that the antiwar movement advance the “positive” notion of supporting UN weapons inspectors in Iraq. Again, this concedes the right of the U.S. to position its plans to attack Iraq as “disarmament” when UN weapons inspections inevitably fail. The U.S. and British “Desert Fox” bombing of Iraq in December 1998 showed that the U.S. is quite capable of staging a confrontation over inspectors as an excuse for war.

We favor the building of coalitions that genuinely reflect the full spectrum of organizations and politics in the movement rather than the machinations of generals without forces. In this respect, there is no doubt that ANSWER is inadequate to the task. Its top-down approach to organizing a coalition in which a handful of self-selected individuals makes all political and tactical decisions is an obstacle to building a democratic, broad-based movement. We hope that future demonstrations will be supported and organized by all forces opposing a U.S. invasion of Iraq.

But the key question facing our movement right now is how to build the movement’s base in each locality. This will be the driving force behind the movement, and will ultimately decide its political character on the ground.

Activists in cities and on campuses across the country are now building a broad antiwar movement, united around a simple set of demands—no war, no sanctions. They must continue to build using debates, teach-ins, rallies, and days of action to attract and challenge their peers to take a stand and to get involved. These committees should be able to embrace anyone who supports these demands, whether they are socialists who oppose U.S. imperialism in principle or Democratic Party sympathizers who believe that the UN can be a force for peace.

Building a movement based upon uniting disparate forces does not mean burying differences, but arguing them through, as allies in a common struggle. In such an environment, there is ample room to both debate differences and measure the success of various strategies and political views. By definition, therefore, the movement must be open to all opponents of the war, and it must be genuinely democratic—representing all the forces involved in building it. As in all past wars, while both the war and the movement against it progress, many activists will move leftward, shedding various illusions as they go along. The political framework and organizational forms will emerge only as the movement develops—and these will change as the character of the movement changes and grows. The antiwar movement is still in its early stages—as is the “war without end” that Bush and Co. have pledged to carry out against the rest of the world. The war on terrorism—and the movement against it—may well end up defining this generation.

LIBERALS AND THE MOVEMENT

Renegades, false friends, and mistaken allies

IN THE more than one year since the September 11 attacks, the left has faced one of its greatest challenges in decades. While it is still recovering from the hard right turn in mainstream politics that Bush and Co. engineered, the emerging antiwar movement has helped to give the left an opportunity to regain its voice.

No doubt that’s bad news to the likes of Christopher Hitchens, the ex-socialist columnist for the Nation who announced his secession from the magazine and left in October.

For anyone who followed Christopher Hitchens’ “Minority Report” column in the Nation over the last year, Hitchens’ decision to quit the magazine shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Since last September 11, Hitchens devoted a number of columns cheering on Bush’s “war on terrorism” and denouncing those on the left who didn’t.

Not wanting to go quietly, Hitchens spent most of his last column building the case for war against Iraq—insisting that arms inspections are a waste of time, that Iraq can’t be “contained,” and asserting a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq. As his parting shot, he even denounced the Nation as “the voice and echo chamber of those who truly believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden.”

It takes quite a leap to accuse the Nation of being soft on Osama bin Laden. Last year, it became the main liberal magazine touting the war on terrorism as a “just war.” These facts mean little to the likes of Hitchens, who will find much more fame and fortune parading as an ex-leftist on the talk show circuit than standing up against Bush’s war.

Time will tell whether Hitchens follows in the footsteps of David Horowitz, the one-time 1960s radical turned McCarthyite today. But we can only say “good riddance” to him.

Despite the efforts of Hitchens and other Vietnam-era radicals who’ve signed on to Bush’s war on terrorism—from Salon’s David Talbot to the New York Observer’s Ron Rosenbaum—a genuine movement against the impending war in Iraq has spread to many parts of the country. This emerging movement demonstrated its strength October 26, when hundreds of thousands turned out to protest the war in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and dozens of other cities around the country.

The size of the marches forced even the New York Times and Washington Post to admit that antiwar sentiment was much wider than Beltway pundits wanted to admit. One would think left-of-center writers might hail this. Not so.

In the November 1–7 LA Weekly, the Nation’s David Corn launched a vicious attack on the Washington protest:

In a telling sign of the organizers’ priorities, the cause of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the taxi driver/radical journalist sentenced to death two decades ago for killing a policeman, drew greater attention than the idea that revived and unfettered weapons inspections should occur in Iraq before George W. Bush launches a war. Few of the dozens of speakers, if any, bothered suggesting a policy option regarding Saddam Hussein other than a simplistic leave-Iraq-alone. Jesse Jackson may have been the only major figure to acknowledge Saddam’s brutality, noting that the Iraqi dictator “should be held accountable for his crimes.” What to do about Iraq? Most speakers had nothing to say about that. Instead, the Washington rally was a pander fest for the hard left.

Most of Corn’s blast focused on the Workers World Party, the socialist organization that forms the core of International ANSWER, the main organizer of the Washington demonstration. Liberals have attacked another antiwar umbrella, Not In Our Name, for the role that the Revolutionary Communist Party plays in it.

Radicals and socialists have every right to organize antiwar opposition. In fact, they have a duty to organize against the impending war. What’s more, there’s nothing wrong with trying to link the war with other pieces of the Bush assault—from union-busting on the West Coast docks to attacks on civil liberties. In fact, such linkages can be a way to broaden and deepen antiwar sentiment. And if liberals can’t make up their minds about whether to oppose Bush, they shouldn’t be denouncing socialists who take the lead to build an antiwar movement.

Corn’s blast was a textbook example of McCartyite redbaiting that covered for a position that can hardly be called antiwar. If Corn thinks the rally should have given more attention to “the idea that revived and unfettered weapons inspections should occur in Iraq before George W. Bush launches a war,” then it’s a wonder why he didn’t join the few dozen people attending the simultaneous prowar rally organized by the right-wing nuts from FreeRepublic.com. When it comes to this issue, Corn is no better than Hitchens.

Then there are liberals who oppose the war and set themselves as advisers to the movement.

Liza Featherstone, writing in the Nation, drew a distinction between last year’s opposition to the war against Afghanistan and the developing opposition to a war with Iraq:

At first, the “war on terrorism” seemed to bring out the worst in the left—sectarianism, racial tensions, dour moralism, posturing, self-marginalization, and badly muddled analysis.Of course, not all the recent antiwar organizing has been this appealing and sensible. Even the smartest groups are making some questionable decisions, continually harping on the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, a fait accompli that was enthusiastically supported by most Americans.

To Featherstone, it seems as if the sins of last year’s antiwar movement can be boiled down to the fact that it actually opposed the war in Afghanistan, rather than accept it as a “just response” to the September 11 attacks. While there are certainly many people joining the antiwar movement today who supported the U.S. attack on Afghani-stan, that is no reason for the antiwar movement to treat the two wars separately. The Bush administration certainly doesn’t.

Last year, Bush and his “chickenhawk” advisers manipulated peoples’ grief and outrage at the September 11 attacks into support for an attack on one of the poorest countries in the world. After scoring a quick victory in Afghanistan, the Bush administration set its sights on Iraq. The war in Afghanistan and the planned war in Iraq are two phases of the same war. An antiwar movement does itself no favors if it pretends otherwise. It has nothing to offer to the many millions whose opposition to “regime change” in Iraq has made them question the shaky U.S.-imposed regime change in Afghanistan.

Nor can the war on terrorism be separated from a war against Iraq, as Global Exchange director and antiwar activist Medea Benjamin suggested in a USA Today op-ed: “We must also remember that our goal right now should be to break up the terrorist network that attacked us on September 11, not be a unilateral global vigilante.”

Though Global Exchange is one of the few global justice groups to have rightly called for mobilizing against the war, they are wrong to accept the Bush administration’s war on terrorism. Benjamin—who took a leading role in organizing against the war in Afghanistan last year—should know better than to encourage one form of U.S. military action while opposing another. U.S. imperialism can’t wage a “just war” in some cases and not in others. Washington is perfectly capable of concocting “evidence” to tie Iraq to the “terrorist network.” If antiwar activists fall into a trap of distinguishing between “good” and “bad” phases of the “war on terror,” they risk paralysis if the U.S. manages to tie Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda, or if they claim to find biological agents stashed away in some corner of Iraq.

Debates about these questions and others will be crucial to building a stronger and more effective movement. We need to build a movement that is open to all who want to oppose the war. But we shouldn’t make concessions to arguments that will actually undermine our ability to build a stronger and more principled opposition to Bush’s war without end.

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