ISR Issue 60, JulyAugust 2008
Which way forward for the antiwar movement?
Ashley Smith is a member of the ISR editorial board.
This is the text of a speech he delivered at the New England United
Regional Antiwar Conference, April 25–26, 2008, in Boston,
I HAVE been asked to
lay out the political rationale for a mass action strategy for the antiwar
movement. To do so we must begin with the horror the United States has
brought to the Middle East. The United States has nearly destroyed Iraq.
Its invasion and occupation of a country of 27 million people has led to
the deaths of well over 1 million Iraqis, the expulsion of 5 million
refugees and internally displaced civilians, and the near complete wreckage
of the economy. Nearly 70 percent of the population is unemployed.
The invasion and occupation outranks the worst horrors
of European imperialism as one of the great war crimes and examples of
state terror. The U.S. assault on Sadr City and Basra shows that with each
passing day they commit atrocity upon atrocity.
Far from fulfilling Bush’s neoconservative
fantasies of U.S. domination over the Middle East, the invasion has, in the
words of General William Odom, led to the “greatest strategic
disaster” in U.S. imperial history. Why? Because the Iraqi people
resisted the occupation and put a stop to the other regime changes from
Syria to Iran that the United States had planned.
The U.S. occupation is a failure. It is one of three
failed wars Bush has conducted—Iraq, Afghanistan, and his proxy war
carried out by Israel against Lebanon. The cost of these disastrous wars
has led Bush into enormous deficit spending that has exacerbated the
economic crisis the United States and the world have entered.
Like some cursed mortal from ancient Greece, Bush
suffers from a reverse Midas touch as everything he touches turns to lead.
His popularity has plummeted from nearly 90 percent in the aftermath of
9/11 to 28 percent today. The only politicians who are less popular are in
Congress; their approval rating hovers at about 22 percent. The majority of
Americans have turned against the war and the Bush agenda.
Yet neither Bush nor the Democrats have a plan for an
immediate withdrawal from Iraq. The war was not about weapons of mass
destruction, terrorism, liberation, or democracy. These were all
smokescreens for the real ambitions of U.S. Empire in the Middle East. In
truth, the Iraq War was part of a long-term and bipartisan plan to lock in
U.S. dominance over a unipolar world order. Their goal in the invasion of
Afghanistan and Iraq was to secure control over the key areas of the world
energy system in the Middle East and new energy sources in Central Asia.
By dominating these regions, the United States aimed
to lock in their advantage against rising energy-dependent competitors,
especially China. This imperial ambition explains their tenacity in the
face of the utter failure of their invasions and their overwhelming lack of
Complicity of Democrats and corporate media
Too often this imperialism is passed off as a product
of Bush and the neocons. In reality, the Democrats voted for these wars and
continue to vote for the funding, even going so far in the most recent
proposed bill to give Bush billions more than he requested. They also
opposed immediate withdrawal in favor of redeployment that would leave
thousands of “anti-terrorist” troops in Iraq, effectively
extending the occupation in the guise of ending it. And neither Hillary
Clinton nor Barack Obama could guarantee that they would be able to
implement this plan even by the end of their first term.
Even worse, the Democrats have often positioned
themselves to the right of Bush in the campaign against their next target
in their battle for Mideast imperial dominance—Iran. Hillary Clinton
promised to “obliterate Iran” if it attacked Israel. She
targeted not just the government but the entire nation, a threat that can
only be called genocidal. While not sharing Clinton’s Bushite
bluster, Obama has stated, “launching some missile strikes into Iran
is not the optimal position for us to be in” given the ongoing war in
Iraq. “On the other hand, having a radical Muslim theocracy in
possession of nuclear weapons is worse.” Obama has also promised that
military strikes on Pakistan should not be ruled out if “violent
Islamic extremists” were to “take over.” And both have
called for an increase of U.S. troops in occupied Afghanistan, the
occupation they view as good and right.
Far from dissenting with this bipartisan imperial
project of the so-called war on terror, the corporate media has loyally
parroted it. The corporate media has in fact been exposed as, for all
intents and purposes, state-controlled in a manner reminiscent of
Stalin’s Izvestia. As the New York Times reported, the Pentagon handpicked the military experts
that the major media outlets used for “informed” opinion in
support of the war on Iraq. One of the experts went so far as to say that
he felt like a Pentagon puppet carrying their line right onto the pages and
screens of the corporate media.
Antiwar public opinion
Despite this imperial unanimity of both corporate
parties and their media, the U.S. public has overwhelmingly turned against
the war and is increasingly moving to the left on most issues. Over 67
percent want to end the war. Sixty percent of troops want to be out of Iraq
by 2007. Twenty-three percent of Americans want an immediate withdrawal of
U.S. troops. And, as the Pew Research Center documents, workers have moved
dramatically to the left, the most left-wing they have been since the last
upsurge in the early 1970s. These facts conclusively dash the myth of a
“right-wing America” that even many on the left believe.
The media, however, squelches these opinions as well
as the developing forces of the antiwar movement. For example, the
corporate media conducted a virtual blackout of Iraq Veterans Against the
War’s (IVAW) amazing Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan hearings.
In reality, the corporate media, we must recognize, is owned by the same
corporate power that led the war charge into Iraq.
Far from expressing this overwhelming antiwar
sentiment, the presidential candidates either oppose it or attempt to
co-opt it. John “McCentury” McCain threatens to keep U.S.
forces in Iraq for 100 years if that’s what it takes to “win.”
Now Obama and Clinton, in order to get elected, have
had to posture as antiwar. But, in truth, both oppose immediate withdrawal.
Both are for retaining “anti-terrorist” forces of thousands
after “withdrawal.” Both are hawks on Iran. Both are
unflinching advocates of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Both are
for increased intervention in Afghanistan. They are in fact presenting
themselves to the real power brokers, the American ruling class, as
competent managers of the empire. While they may have this or that tactical
difference with Bush, they share his commitment to U.S. dominion in the
world system. They boast that they can do this more effectively.
We have already tested the Democrats and found them
wanting. The American public swept them into power in Congress in 2006 with
the expectation that they would end the war or cut the funding. Instead
they have continued to fund the war and offered only verbal opposition to
As a result, an enormous gap has opened up between, on
the one hand, the people and, on the other, the corporate politicians and
the corporate media. The question we confront in this situation is what
strategy the antiwar movement should pursue to win our demand for immediate
withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.
The mass action strategy remains the only viable means
to win. It will take the mass mobilization of workers, soldiers, and
students in solidarity with the resistance of occupied people. Stephen
Zunes was right last night when he invoked the mass struggles that it took
to end the Vietnam War—rebellion of the troops, campus strikes, mass
demonstrations, and large-scale civil disobedience. Given the stakes for
U.S. imperialism in the Middle East, it will take an even more militant
mass movement to drive the United States out of the region.
Now the mass action strategy is very different from
the dominant liberal strategy in the antiwar movement and the common sense
of the vast majority of people opposed to the war. Co-chair of United for
Peace and Justice (UFPJ), Judith LeBlanc, describes this strategy as
“creating a peace bloc in Congress.” The argument is
essentially that yes, we should build the movement, yes, we should call
demonstrations—but all with an aim of electing Democrats who are
thought to be the vehicles, the means, of ending the war.
Inevitably then, the Democrats, who have been pro-war,
begin to shape the demands and protests of the antiwar movement. Demands
and issues and speakers that might offend the so-called peace bloc get
dropped. Protests that might step on the toes of the Democrats don’t
get called. During the elections the movement gets funneled into the
election in the vain hope that the Democrats will do what they say they
will not do—bring an immediate end to the war.
The main antiwar coalition, UFPJ, has thus demobilized
the movement. UFPJ opposed united mass demonstrations on the fifth
anniversary of the war, saying they would never work with the other antiwar
coalition, ANSWER. Nearly every e-mail I get from UFPJ is about phoning
Congress, voter registration and education, or lobbying.
The combination of the pull of the election on mass
antiwar sentiment and UFPJ’s liberal strategy of orienting on
Democrats has precipitated a crisis in the antiwar movement. At a national
level, it is really the weakest it has been since the beginning of the Iraq
War, in near collapse. Even at a local level there are real weaknesses in
antiwar organizations on campuses, in cities, and at workplaces. Thus there
is an enormous gap between consciousness and the organized movement.
We have to be honest and sober about that. But we also
cannot be bearers of doom and gloom or give up on building a mass movement.
We have to nurture the small, local coalitions in workplaces, among
soldiers, and on campuses. These are the first shoots of a future mass
We can organize excellent local antiwar actions and
educational events. We have the powerful examples of Winter Soldier and the
very successful regional conferences of the Campus Antiwar Network (CAN),
as well as conferences like the one we are holding this weekend. We have to
build on these new foundations in every way possible at the local level. At
the same time, we have to develop a strategy that can forge a stronger
In developing a new strategy there are some traps we
should avoid that will prevent the development of a new mass movement. Some
have wrongly argued that movement tactics like mass demonstrations are a
thing of the past and no longer work. They argue we need savvy media
strategies instead. Now I am in favor of using the media as best we can,
but as the New York Times article demonstrated, the corporate media is the voice box
of the Pentagon and the White House. It is occupied territory. The very
corporate backers of the war and the two mainstream parties own the media
and will be, on the whole, unfriendly to the movement we must build. This
should come as no surprise; they have been hostile to every progressive
social movement in history, at home or abroad.
Others argue that instead of mass actions we need
small direct actions. Now I’m in favor of direct action and civil
disobedience as a tactic in certain circumstances. After all, mass and
illegal factory occupations helped build the trade unions in the 1930s.
Similar tactics of mass civil disobedience like the Montgomery bus boycott
and the wave of sit-ins built the civil rights movement. But direct actions
that are small, secret, and not oriented on winning over a sympathetic mass
audience can and will backfire. Moral witness can make us feel good but
fail to galvanize mass struggle.
Mass action alternative
These are not strategies but tactics. Our alternative
strategy to UFPJ’s must be independent mass action. Our movement must
be independent because the electoral cycle must not set our agenda. That
does not mean excluding forces and people who are going to vote for the
Democrats. Yet we must be clear that our movement’s goal is not
electing Democrats but the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces from
Iraq. The Democrats and the election cycle cannot shape our demands or
actions. We must fight for our demands no matter who’s in office, and
we must fight for our demands right through the election cycle.
Our organizing must aim for mass collective action.
Why? Because that is the lesson of history. Change always comes from below
through the mass mobilization of the exploited and oppressed. As Howard
Zinn has said, “the really critical thing isn’t who is sitting
in the White House, but who is sitting in.” Mass organizing is what
built the unions, won civil rights, ended the war in Vietnam, and won
abortion rights. Mass independent, collective struggle won everything we
cherish today. As the great Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass said,
“Without struggle, there is no progress.”
That strategy in turn shapes our tactics. Our strategy
of mass collective action must include a wide variety of tactics. We must
be incredibly flexible in tactics, always with a mind of leading the
activist minority to win over the sympathetic majority. So we should
organize mass, legal demonstrations in some circumstances. In others, mass
direct actions like those that shut down the World Trade Organization
meetings in Seattle in 1999 are vital.
But I want to defend the tactic of demonstrations in
particular since many have grown disillusioned with their utility.
Demonstrations help to build the base of the movement. In the process of
organizing for demonstrations, coalitions grow in size and sense of
purpose. The preparation offers an opportunity for coalitions to educate
new layers of activists in the politics of the struggle. On the
demonstrations themselves, activists new and old feel the power of their
forces. And after effective mobilizations, activists can reach out to
include wider layers of new activists, thereby building larger local
organization. In and of themselves, demonstrations are not adequate. But
they are a decisive component for building organization for even more
Lessons of the Vietnam era
To really understand the kind of mass struggle we must
aim to build, we should draw on the lessons of the movement against the war
in Vietnam. It was not the president or Congress that ended that war.
Instead it was the dynamic interaction of 3 militant mass struggles. The
mass civilian antiwar movement staged mass marches, mass civil
disobedience, and a wave of campus strikes that shut down the universities
and colleges of the United States.
On top of that, the U.S. troops revolted against the
war. As David Cortright’s Soldiers in
Revolt describes, civilian activists in
collaboration with vets and GIs set up coffeehouses where soldiers could
organize their antiwar movement and build Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
In Vietnam itself, the U.S. troops refused to fight, organizing
“search and avoid” missions and even threatening their officers
with fragmentation grenades to prevent officers from sending them into
combat. This GI rebellion essentially paralyzed the American military in
Finally, and most importantly, the Vietnamese people
themselves forged the National Liberation Front that fought for their own
emancipation. They proved, especially after the Tet Offensive in 1968, that
the United States and its puppet government had no support in
Vietnam, and that the people were committed to driving the U.S. out
of Southeast Asia. This three-dimensional, militant movement won the
liberation of Vietnam.
These three interrelated movements should also give us
ideas for devising the strategy of our movement. To be clear, the movement
of the 1960s is not a blueprint for today and we cannot simply reproduce
it. We must find our own way. But we can draw from its lessons.
In reality, we will need an even stronger mass
movement this time. Why? Because the geostrategic stakes for the United
States in Iraq are far higher than they were in Vietnam. Former Federal
Reserve Board Chair Alan Greenspan finally admitted the “unfortunate
truth”: It really is all about the region’s oil. Whoever
controls that oil controls the world economy. And the U.S. has no intention
of leaving Iraq or the Middle East as a whole. They want to lock in a
unipolar world order against rising global powers like China, as well as
eliminate regional challengers like Iran and Venezuela. We thus have an
even bigger fight on our hands than activists in the 1960s.
The movement today
We are, however, far from the kind of mass movement we
will need to win Iraq’s liberation. As I have said, the national
movement is in sorry shape. While there are inspiring flashes of local
struggle and organization, it too must be built or re-built.
This is challenged by the election year, but not in
the fashion that much of the Left thinks. The pull of the election is
obvious. Yet at the same time, the election is raising
hope—expectations for change and a host of reforms from ending the
war to addressing social inequality, racism, and sexism. I do not have hope
in Obama to really address these realities, but I have hope in the people
who have hope in Obama.
We have to be patient and determined through the
election year and seize opportunities at the local level. It is simply not
true that we cannot do anything during the elections. For example, just
last week in Boston more than 600 students came to hear Noam Chomsky
lecture against U.S. imperialism. There are countless other example of
hopeful small actions and educational events that embody the future of the
Our key task is thus to rebuild the base of the
movement. We have to initiate local organizations through educational
events, actions, and all sorts of events from movie screenings to local
Winter Soldier hearings. While I support the upcoming National Assembly in
Cleveland, I do not think we are in a position to launch a new national
formation. Cleveland will be a chance for activists to share ideas and
initiate collaboration, but our key emphasis has to be on building the
infrastructure of the movement.
We need to organize and build antiwar organization
among students, workers, soldiers, and military families. We need to build
existing and new chapters of CAN, U.S. Labor Against the War, IVAW, and
Military Families Speak Out. We must build the base for a future mass
movement that will likely emerge in the aftermath of the presidential
elections. As in the struggle against the Vietnam War, those organizations
will be necessary to mobilize the social power to compel our rulers to get
out of Iraq.
Demands of the movement
A key part of rebuilding the movement is figuring out
the demands around which we must organize the coming struggle. I agree with
Max Elbaum, who argued last night that demands are a tactical question. We
must figure out which demands are necessary for the movement and will
galvanize popular opposition and action. In doing so, we should avoid the
trap of single-issue dogmatism on the one hand and on the other
ANSWER’s endless laundry list of demands. Neither is a guide to
building the movement.
Our central organizing demand must be the immediate
withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. But we should have important
subsidiary demands that are necessary for preparing the movement to
confront U.S. war plans. Thus, we must demand “no war on Iran,”
since they are clearly preparing for a future confrontation with Tehran.
We also must put forth a position against anti-Arab
racism and Islamophobia, as that clearly is the legitimating ideology of
the war and is responsible for horrific oppression of Arabs and Muslims. If
we hope to build bridges of solidarity with the peoples of the Middle East,
and if we hope to bring Arabs and Muslims into the U.S. movement, this is a
Finally, we must put forward class demands such as
“money for jobs and education, not for war and occupation.”
This can broaden the movement among sympathetic workers who see the United
States wasting $3 trillion on war and occupation while New Orleans gets
washed out to sea, their homes are foreclosed, and their jobs are lost
amidst the recession.
I also think it is important for the left wing of the
movement to argue for including opposition to occupation of Afghanistan,
even though we may lose the argument. We should be clear that the entire
“war on terror” is united in the minds of our rulers from
Afghanistan to Iraq, and we ought to oppose it across the
board—especially since the Democrats are campaigning for a surge in
Afghanistan. Moreover, we should argue for speakers on Palestine to show
how the Israeli occupation is a crucial component of U.S. dominion over the
Flashes of the future
While we have many challenges today, we can see the
first shoots of the new movement developing in smaller or larger scale
around us today. The Winter Soldier hearings captivated the entire antiwar
movement and projected a new and hopeful GI and vet resistance. The ILWU
(International Longshore and Warehouse Union) strike on May 1 represents a
huge development where workers in an historic union are striking against
the war to shut down all the ports of the West Coast, one of the busiest
areas of trade in the world. We will need such class power to liberate Iraq
from U.S. occupation. Also, new student activists in conferences and
actions this spring displayed exciting new stirrings of youth resistance.
These are early signs of forces stirring that have the social power to shut
down the U.S. war machine through mass militant protest.
Through the election year we must be patient but also
persistent and aggressive to cultivate each new shoot of resistance.
Whoever wins this election—and I think the Democrats are likely to
sweep every level of government—will have raised people’s
expectation for an end to the Bush regime as well as expectation for real
change. However, they will preside over an economic crisis, two failing
occupations, and deepening social inequalities inside the United States.
Today we must seize every opportunity to educate,
organize, and act locally to establish vehicles to mobilize the growing
sentiment for change; we must do so with the determination to provide an
alternative means for winning change when the Democrats either fail to
deliver or deliver inadequate solutions to the various crises we will
confront. We do not know the timing of when people will become frustrated
with the Democrats’ refusal to deliver what we want, when they will
look for our alternative. No one has a crystal ball, but we must organize
the bases of a future antiwar movement prepared to galvanize sentiment and
lead a mass and militant resistance to the U.S. occupation of Iraq.