A Rejoinder on Antiwar Strategy

Against the Current, No. 153, July/August 2011

David Grosser

LET ME FIRST restate as concisely as I can the main points of my essay “A New Strategy for Antiwar Organizing: Going Where the Millions Are” (ATC 150, January-February 2011).

First, despite its current low ebb, antiwar activists can rebuild the movement because the wars and occupations are, in fact, already opposed by a majority of the population. Rebuilding the movement requires mobilizing that up-to-now inactive opposition. However, the movement’s continued exclusive reliance on periodic “mass” mobilizations in a few big cities (like the recent April demonstrations in New York and San Francisco) is poorly suited to that task.

Developing a more effective program for mobilizing those millions will require experimentation, debate and self-criticism on the part of the left. Until we reach out to and engage the uninvolved, we will not know what program and tactics will be effective. But as a starting point, partly based on my 20 years as a CISPES activist, I briefly put forward some ideas (call them guesses if you want) on what the movement needs.

The highest priority, I suggested, is to dedicate more resources to building grassroots level committees actively organizing in their communities while, at the same time, unifying those committees as much as possible in nationally-coordinated campaigns. With that said, let me turn to the objections raised by Steve Bloom and Dayne Goodwin in the previous issue (ATC 152, May-June 2011).

Steve and Dayne reject my argument because, in their view, I reject “mass action” and by closing the door on mass action, I open the door to liberalism. Where do they see this? They seize on the following statement, and quote it out of context. I wrote, “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.” Thus, they claim, I obscure “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 grass-roots 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.”

However, reading what follows the passage that they quote reveals that I was making a completely different point. “Tactics, mass demos included, are a means to accomplish an end — in this case…forcing the United States to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan.” I was not rejecting mass action in favor of appeals to the ruling class’ humanity, but rather I was questioning the effectiveness of mass demos as currently practiced by the antiwar movement at building the mass action that everyone sees as key to forcing an end to the wars.

Steve and Dayne continue, “We don’t know anyone in the movement who thinks we should rely exclusively on mass demonstrations. But they are a cornerstone.”

But as I tried to show in my essay, rhetoric aside, mass demos are the overwhelming priority of the movement as presently constituted. Moreover, and this is the real crux of the debate, the movement is carrying them out as an end in themselves and without giving much thought to how to build a movement that has any effective unity, staying power or capacity to mobilize beyond a small sliver of the potential anti war public.

Through a rhetorical sleight of hand, Steve and Dayne conflate my criticism of the current movement’s excessive reliance on national demos with a categorical rejection of mass action in toto. Just to be clear, we all agree on the necessity of mass action to end the wars. We disagree, however, on how to build a movement capable of mobilizing sufficient numbers of people to make “mass” action a reality, not just a label that expresses our wishful thinking dressed up as political strategy.

Abstract rhetoric about “mass action” aside, the adequacy of the movement’s current strategy of mass demos is the nub of our disagreement. We agree that the movement is currently pretty weak but disagree on why. Steve and Dayne say that the movement’s current malaise is entirely attributable to objective conditions. They point to

“… policy, making most &ldsquo;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 U.S. ruling class’s gambit with Obama [diverting movement activists into supporting Obama’s 2008 Presidential campaign].”

I don’t dispute this impressive list of distractions but as I noted in my essay, despite them, the majority of the population stubbornly turned against the wars anyway. And they did so without hearing much from the antiwar movement. What do Steve and Dayne make of that?

“(R)evolutionary 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.”

No one indeed — and with Steve and Dayne’s method, no one will try either! Apparently it is up to the uninvolved, themselves to “first move beyond simply having an opinion and begin to engage in active protest.” In the meantime, as far as Steve and Dayne are concerned, the correct revolutionary practice is to keep doing the same thing and wait.

Well, maybe they’re right — we’re doing all we can and someday, without any new or different attempt on our part to reach out to the anti-war “silent majority” they’ll come to us. Then we will be able to effectively pressure for an end to the wars.

Unfortunately that strategy, if you can call it that, has had the opposite effect. Former activists have left the movement in large numbers. Many are organizing in other sectors, many more are inactive, and some, myself included, are trying to find more effective ways to contest the wars.

So we come to the second issue — what to do? I made some brief recommendations at the end of my essay, which Steve and Dayne, as well as David Finkel, all recognize were based in significant part on my experience in CISPES. They all reject what they see as my call to turn the antiwar movement into an organization like CISPES.

In the more detailed discussion of the two, David Finkel, despite acknowledging the many strengths of CISPES’s past work, also reminds us of key differences between today’s political situation and that of the 1980s. There are neither the forces on the ground in the war zones today around whom the movement could unite in support, he asserts, nor, if they existed, give the same kind of close contact and direction that the Salvadoran revolutionaries were able to give us in the 1980s. Thus any attempt to turn the antiwar movement into a “solidarity” organization on the CISPES model is unworkable.

I don’t disagree. But the reader should note that the major obstacles to applying the CISPES experience, that David identifies, have to do with creating a “solidarity” relationship with forces on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That was not the part of the CISPES experience that I advocated for the antiwar movement today.

The history of CISPES has yet to be written and is not well known (grad students take note!) So discussing what it has to teach us today is difficult. I hope brief consideration of one issue — CISPES’ relation to the Central America solidarity movement as a whole will help clarify my position.*

CISPES was not the whole solidarity movement (which was quite broad at the time) and did not try to be. We had our specific program and organizing model, and I drew heavily from that organizing model in my recommendations for what to do today. We also joined with a wide range of forces for national initiatives when it made sense. Examples include: coalitions to defeat appropriations for U.S. aid to the Salvadoran junta and the Nicaraguan Contras (a yearly occurrence); national demos similar to the antiwar demos we’re debating here (early 1980s and 1987); a mass blockade of the Pentagon (1988), etc.

CISPES did not try to capture these coalitions but did try to be a “pole” in them that promoted the kinds of politics I advocated for the current antiwar movement.

Similarly, because CISPES had a large number of trained staff and activists, we were able to work positively with activists from all segments of the movement, not necessarily to incorporate them all into CISPES, but definitely to promote the kinds of organizing that would strengthen the movement as a whole.

I was actually in a local El Salvador sister city group in the ‘80s — it wasn’t a CISPES committee, but the CISPES Regional Director was always available to help us plan program, hold skills trainings. etc. Our work benefited immensely from the help he made available to us, and that is what made me want to join CISPES in the first place.

No one is playing a similar role in the current antiwar movement and it is weaker, much weaker, for it.

So, in conclusion, should the whole of the antiwar movement be converted into an organization like CISPES — no. If I overstated that case, I acknowledge David’s criticism.

Would the antiwar movement be stronger if there were a bloc within it that organized in a manner like CISPES, advocated for that type of organizing in the movement as a whole, and united with whatever forces in the movement were open to that kind of organizing? I think the answer is emphatically yes.

* You can read a short history of CISPES by Van Gosse: “CISPES: Radical, Pragmatic, and Successful” (originally in Crossroads Special Issue on El Salvador Solidarity, Spring 1994) here: http://www.vangosse.com/political-writing.html. And two other essays of his that briefly discuss CISPES role in the movement as a whole “`The North American Front’: Central American Solidarity in the Reagan Era,” in Reshaping the U.S. Left: Popular Struggles in the 1980s (Verso, 1988) and “Active Engagement: The Legacy of Central America Solidarity,” NACLA Report, March/April 1995 can be downloaded here: http://www.vangosse.com/scholarly-writing.html.

July/August 2011, ATC 153