Why is the antiwar movement so weak?
October 12, 2007
ERIC RUDER analyzes the state of the national antiwar struggle and what lies ahead.
SINCE THE start of the Iraq war, antiwar sentiment has grown dramatically in the U.S. In 2003, 23 percent of the U.S. population thought the U.S. invasion was a mistake. Today, that figure stands at 58 percent.
Yet the antiwar movement had its largest mobilization before the war began, and more recent demonstrations have been smaller than those held several years previously, before public opinion had turned dramatically against the occupation.
On February 15, 2003, a few weeks before the invasion, as many as 1 million people marched through the streets of New York City–part of a weekend of protests worldwide that involved 10 million people in 600 cities.
Two and a half years later, on September 24, 2005, some 300,000 people marched in Washington at an event organized jointly by the two main national antiwar coalitions–United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) and Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER).
This fall, however, the antiwar movement has fragmented between competing calls for demonstrations. ANSWER’s Washington protest on September 15 drew just 10,000 people, and UFPJ didn’t even call a national demonstration, opting instead for regional mobilizations on October 27.
Why does the antiwar movement today seem weaker and more divided now, even though antiwar sentiment is stronger? And what can be done to take the struggle forward?
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ONE REASON has to do with the general political period in which today’s antiwar movement has developed.
Mainstream U.S. politics still bears the scars of a decades-long conservative dominance that began with the Reagan presidency in the 1980s. While opinion polls reflect a shift to the left in consciousness on key political questions, the level of social struggle has remained low, and the left is substantially weakened–both organizationally and in terms of its ideas–from the high points of the 1960s.
The movement against the Vietnam War grew up in a very different environment. It benefited enormously from the political atmosphere created by the 1960s civil rights movement.
Antiwar activists had the positive example to follow of building local grassroots organizing centers, which could feed into larger national efforts. The lunch counter sit-ins and integrated Freedom Rides showed the strength of combining civil disobedience tactics with mass action.
Also, civil rights activists found that they had to rely on their own strength as a movement instead of putting their hopes in politicians–because they were confronting a Jim Crow establishment in the South run by the Democratic Party, just as antiwar activists came up against a war run by the Democratic President Lyndon Johnson.
The civil rights struggle served as a model for how to organize and a setting for learning important political lessons. And above all, its success gave rise to the conviction that struggle did work.
Today’s antiwar movement needs to relearn those lessons, but doesn’t have anything like this kind of immediate experience to guide it.
Thus, when the U.S. government defied the massive protests of February 15, 2003 and launched the invasion of Iraq anyway, many of those who demonstrated drew the wrong conclusion that protest didn’t work–for the simple reason that there were no contemporary examples of a sustained, effective and grassroots movement to look to.
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THE PROCESS of rebuilding the antiwar movement has also been hampered by the weaknesses of the leading forces within it.
In its call for regional mobilizations on October 27, UFPJ stated: “To force a decisive change in government policy, we have to make the antiwar majority more active, more visible, more difficult to ignore. We have to stand up vigorously against the cynicism that says: there is nothing we can do.”
In reality, the sense that “there is nothing we can do” exists among UFPJ member organizations as a symptom of the coalition’s disorientation–to which leaders of UFPJ contributed by retreating from talk of a national mobilization this fall, and setting October 27 as a date for regional mobilizations, with Washington D.C. conspicuously absent from the list.
Meanwhile, the other main national antiwar group, ANSWER, has also found itself at a dead end. It has continued to make calls for national protests, but they are smaller and smaller.
ANSWER’s problems stem from its top-down methods that exclude other antiwar forces.
Few individuals or organizations outside its core want to work with it–no more so now after ANSWER’s sponsoring organization Workers World split into competing groups.
The mood was very different after the Democrats took control of Congress in the November 2006 elections.
UFPJ had kept a low profile before the 2006 vote–as in 2004, when it rejected holding an explicitly antiwar mobilization, instead joining protests against the Republican National Convention in New York City, while tailoring its message to fit in with the pro-war campaign of John Kerry.
Nevertheless, the Democrats’ victory was seen by UFPJ as a vindication of its strategy of “[building] a bipartisan peace bloc in Congress that can set the date for troop withdrawal and force Bush and the Pentagon to end the occupation,” Judith Le Blanc, a UFPJ national co-chair and leader of the Communist Party USA, wrote in the People’s Weekly World.
But this strategy makes the movement a hostage to the politicians. Thus, when the “peace bloc in Congress” caved last May and voted for the Bush administration’s demand for $120 billion in war funding, the renewed confidence of UFPJ activists turned to demoralization. At the UFPJ national assembly in July, delegates expressed a sense of isolation, despite the reinvigoration of local activism following the November election.
Many activists felt betrayed by the Democrats’ failure to stand up to the Bush administration, but UFPJ’s failed strategic orientation–of tailoring its activities and mobilizations to a Democratic Congress it expects to at least limit, if not end, the Bush administration’s ability to prosecute the war–remained unexamined and unchanged.
The problem has emerged in an even more extreme form locally in Chicago. To plan the October 27 protest, the UFPJ affiliate Chicagoans Against War and Injustice (CAWI) held invitation-only organizing meetings that excluded other antiwar organizations.
The movement was presented with an already decided plan for a demonstration that included a speaking invitation for Chicago Mayor Richard Daley–an insult to the hundreds of antiwar marchers illegally arrested by Daley’s police on the first night of the war in 2003, and anyone who faced the intimidation tactics of riot cops at protests since.
CAWI leader Carl Davidson, a former figure in Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s, not only defended the invitation to Daley, but argued that the antiwar movement in general, and the left in particular, needed to “set certain things aside” in order to build alliances with Democrats and even Republicans willing to go against the Bush White House.
What is the antiwar movement expected to set aside? Essentially, anything that the politicians might object to–even if that means conceding on basic demands for an immediate and complete U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
This is the exact wrong way to go about trying to end the war. The key is building a strong grassroots movement, independent of both the Democrats and Republicans, with the power to force the politicians of both parties to abandon their support for the war.
This understanding is especially important now as leaders of the Democratic Party prepare not to end the war but “take it over” from the Bush administration after the 2008 election. At a recent debate, all three of the party’s top presidential contenders–Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards–refused to say they would have withdrawn U.S. troops from Iraq after a full four years in office.
The emphasis of the antiwar movement shouldn’t be on alliances made at the top of the political system in “building a bipartisan peace bloc in Congress,” in LeBlanc’s words–but on building a struggle from below.
That, after all, is the lesson of the 1960s and ’70s struggles–that mass action at the grassroots compelled both Democrats like Lyndon Johnson and Republicans like Richard Nixon to answer to the demands of the social struggle.
What’s needed now is a focus on building local bases of antiwar activism around basic points of unity. These local formations–at colleges and high schools, in neighborhoods and cities, on military bases and in workplaces–provide the best way to help people overcome their sense of isolation, in activities like teach-ins, speakouts and pickets, that bring opponents of the war together. And these local bases in turn can serve as the building blocks for larger national events.
The guiding principles for the movement can be simple and straightforward–like the three demands of Iraq Veterans Against the War: immediate withdrawal; a commitment to health care and other services for returning veterans; and payment of reparations to the Iraqi people for the damage inflicted by the U.S. occupation.
Strategically, the movement needs to understand that three inter-related ingredients are required to end the war–the resistance of Iraqis to the occupation, a domestic antiwar movement stepping up the pressure at home, and a revolt of U.S. soldiers that can undermine the ability of the U.S. to continue the war effort.
The interplay of these elements ended the U.S. war in Vietnam. Today, there is no shortcut to building an antiwar movement that again helps bring these different dimensions together.