Rebuilding the Antiwar Movement

Against the Current, No. 152, May/June 2011

Steve Bloom and Dayne Goodwin

FIRST, THANKS TO David Grosser for starting an important discussion in the pages of ATC (“Going Where the Millions Are,” ATC 150, January/February 2011). However, as two socialists who have been involved in antiwar organizing, we think the problem is more complex than he suggests. Further, the specific solution he calls for would mistakenly shift the focus of the movement away from mass action as a strategic orientation.

David writes: “Exclusive reliance on mass demos has failed . . . I am not saying that mass mobilizations are never an appropriate tactic. But they are only a tactic, one among many that range from writing letters to the editor to civil disobedience or a general strike.”

This misses a key reality: There has always been a divide between two essential strategic perspectives in the U.S. antiwar movement.

Some forces primarily aim to influence the opinion of those in power by writing letters and lobbying, making semi-patriotic appeals for what’s in the real “national interest” of “our country.” These forces also tend to orient toward electing “antiwar” Democratic politicians. Sometimes individuals who get disillusioned with this strategic perspective turn into super-radicals who want to launch an immediate “revolutionary” battle against those in power.

A second current organizes around the strategic perspective that working people can be mobilized into a mass antiwar movement because war is not in our interest.

This approach is based on principled support to the right of self-determination for other nations and the understanding that workers have the potential power to stop war. It orients toward grassroots education and building local activist organizations that can coalesce into a national movement. These forces aim for a nationwide antiwar coalition that can manifest independent political power in periodic, growing mass demonstrations.

We don’t know anyone in the movement who thinks we should rely exclusively on mass demonstrations. But they are a cornerstone. After the recent events in Cairo’s Tahrir Square it should not be hard to understand why. We can see how an ongoing strategy of mass mobilization foreshadows an event of this magnitude, far more than lobbying campaigns or acts of civil disobedience involving relatively small numbers of people (though civil disobedience can often play a positive supporting role).

The dynamic of mass actions is toward a mass strike, or general strike: mobilization of the power of the working class. The antiwar movement during the Vietnam War had grown to the verge of both massive demonstrations during the work week and of widespread strikes by soldiers when the ruling class decided to cut its losses and retreat from Vietnam.

While only modest mass actions are possible today, the mass action strategy is the way for working people to build a movement that can actually stop war. And even modest mass antiwar actions make the task of the warmakers more difficult.

Stating the Problem Correctly

In order to solve a problem we first have to identify it correctly. David presents an inaccurate history of the antiwar movement over the last decade. It is not true that there were large antiwar demonstrations shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and a basically linear decline ever since. Actually there were massive antiwar demonstrations in the months before the U.S. invasion, then a precipitous decline in protest size as people were demoralized that we hadn’t prevented the war.

Almost starting from scratch, however, antiwar activists slowly rebuilt the movement from summer 2003 to a peak in the fall of 2006 when many mistakenly put their hopes in election of a Democratic majority Congress. The peace movement plateaued for the following year but then steadily eroded into new hopes that an antiwar Democratic president was the solution. The antiwar movement remains basically stalled out since the election of “antiwar” president Barack Obama.

David writes: “The organized antiwar movement’s effectiveness declined, even while public opinion polls showed that antiwar sentiment among the public as a whole grew steadily.” And then: “A movement which declines while opportunities for growth are becoming more favorable is a peculiar one indeed.”

But revolutionary activists understand that there is always a lag between consciousness and action. The growth of mass antiwar sentiment does not lead directly to more favorable opportunities for the movement. Significant numbers must first move beyond simply having an opinion and begin to engage in active protest. No one has, so far, invented an organizational solution that can overcome the gap between these things.

There are many factors which create the lag between sentiment and action in the present case: the role of the media with its unanimous support for a bipartisan foreign/imperial policy, making most “ordinary citizens” feel as if they are powerless to change anything; the relatively low scale containment of the conflicts; the absence of a draft; the relative success of the “war at home” through the “global war on terror.”

Then we have the economic crisis, with personal survival becoming a preoccupation for many. And we cannot underestimate the success of the US ruling class’s gambit with Obama, as already mentioned.

If we need proof that the decline in activism David cites was generated by such objective factors, not by some false strategic orientation by the mass-action wing of the antiwar movement, we should note that four or five years ago there were vibrant local antiwar committees in thousands of communities across the USA. They organized weekly vigils, counter-military recruitment campaigns, public educational events and similar activities.

What’s left of this effort? Did its decline, which paralleled the decline in demonstrations, take place because, suddenly, the people who were engaged got sidetracked into the next mass mobilization? No, the entire base of antiwar activists shrank — those engaged in building national demonstrations and those engaged in local grassroots organizing (including many who were doing both things at the same time).

This is why David’s words about “mass organizing,” “base-building,” “broadening the movement,” “active local antiwar committees” and all the rest strike us as a kind of wishful thinking. Right now we just don’t have the troops. And if we did, it wouldn’t be hard to find ways to engage in both significant local organizing and national demonstration-building, each of which should depend on and support the other.

National Organization vs. National Coalition

David urges a shift from the traditional antiwar coalition on a national level to a common organization with a detailed and worked-out political program.

We believe this would be a mistake. It ignores the fundamental strategic divide in the movement, around the question of self-determination. The forces which want to work for “peace candidates” in the Democratic Party — candidates who cannot and will not support a perspective of self-determination because they accept the imperial imperatives of U.S. foreign policy — will, in such an environment, overwhelm those of us who insist on building a politically independent movement based on the interests of the working class and other oppressed social layers.

It is possible for pro-self determination forces to work with pro-Democratic Party forces on specific antiwar actions — both national demonstrations and local organizing. This takes the form of a “united front” around a very limited and specific set of demands where both wings of the movement converge. We cannot, however, work with them in unified organization which attempts to develop a generalized program. Here the majority would, at this stage, inevitably consist of those who want to campaign around the more “practical” issues.

A coalition structure also takes into account that on both sides of the divide over self-determination a wide range of programs, strategies, and tactics exist. A broad coalition around a few specific unifying themes allows us, at key moments, to get everyone together for common actions. There is no way to generate that level of unity through a detailed program and strategic plan.

Another aspect of this is also important. Major antiwar coalitions in recent years, such as United for Peace and Justice and International ANSWER, lacked a perspective of a broadly united movement. Each was satisfied to mobilize a particular antiwar constituency around their own strategic perspective. They generally ended up calling for competing dates, which demoralized many activists.

We have no doubt that this conflict contributed to the decline of the movement. But the problem did not flow from the idea of building mass demonstrations, nor from the coalition form of organization. It resulted from the limited scope of the coalitions that were envisioned and built, and the consequent war between them.

Today the United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC) has its own limitations, but it does seem to represent an advance from this point of view.

David contrasts the organizational approach of a group like the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) positively to the kind of coalition effort UNAC is attempting to develop. The “25%” campaign to reduce Pentagon spending with which David is involved would be a good accomplishment if it succeeds (though it does raise strategic questions for revolutionaries).

It’s worth considering, however, why CISPES remains a small cadre organization rather than a mass movement. The more closely one tries to define the program, the more narrowly we restrict the circle of activists willing to engage.

Lenin’s Perspective

Probably most ATC readers did not take time to check out the speech by Lenin from which David’s opening quote was extracted. But they should. Lenin is discussing how the Russian masses, who have gone through the experience of revolution and seen the effect of the First World War, cannot be taken in by pretty words and hopeful promises about peace with Germany. Their consciousness is too high for this to work.

Such a reference is hardly relevant to our present conversation. The consciousness of the masses in the USA is far from this level. More appropriate references from Lenin are likely to be found when he was writing from exile and relative isolation, rather than speaking as the leader of a victorious revolution. These alternative quotations would have quite a different emphasis.

The very headline of David Grosser’s article therefore misses the mark. Revolutionaries do not simply “[go] where the millions are,” and that was never Lenin’s advice. If the millions accept the basic assumptions of a U.S. imperial agenda and put their hopes in a Democratic president, we still continue to stand on our principles.

We can and should attempt to find ways of discussing with and talking to people in their millions if we can, or else in their tens of thousands, or even just in their hundreds — however many are prepared to listen. But we do not capitulate to a more backward level of consciousness in order to be “with the masses.”

Rebuilding the U.S. antiwar movement will take a great deal of local grassroots organizing. We have no argument with David Grosser on that level. It will take its share of mass demonstrations too. It will take time and new experiences. But most of all it will take a perspective that insists on a principled, anti-imperialist, pro-self determination politics. This is our starting point — but more than just our starting point — as we attempt to win masses of people to the kind of program and action campaign which can effectively oppose the U.S. ruling class and its global imperial agenda.

Steve Bloom is a member of Solidarity and an activist with a long history of work in the antiwar movement. During the Vietnam War he was on the staff of the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War. In 2002 he helped found a group called “Stand Up New York” which held a march and rally of 1000 on the first anniversary of 9-11. Subsequently he played a role on leadership bodies of both United for Peace and Justice and the National Assembly to End the War.

Dayne Goodwin joined a Logan, Utah community antiwar committee in 1967 and helped organize a Student Mobilization Committee chapter at Utah State University in 1969. These groups networked with similar local groups from Pocatello, Idaho to Provo, Utah and founded a regional antiwar coalition in 1970, the Wasatch Peace Action Coalition. In the spring of 1971 WPAC organized the largest antiwar demonstration in the regional center Salt Lake City during the Vietnam War. Dayne then worked on the staff of the Northern California Peace Action Coalition and has continued antiwar activism through the 1980s era of focus on Central America, participating in CISPES and founding the local Central America Solidarity Coalition, and through the last several decades of focus on southwest Asia. He is currently the secretary of the Wasatch Coalition for Peace and Justice centered in Salt Lake City.

ATC 152, May-June 2011