Why Is the Antiwar Movement Stalled?

In two words: the left

by , July 28, 2010

A recent gathering of the remnants of the antiwar movement, sponsored by something calling itself the United National Antiwar Conference, underscores the reasons why there is almost no effective organized opposition to the present administration’s occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. One has only to look at the conference program to see why the antiwar movement remains marginal, at best: a keynote address by perennial leftist icon Noam Chomsky, who was paired with Donna Dewitt, a left-wing labor official, and also featuring workshops – reflecting some of their primary concerns – on “Health Care is a Human Right,” “Deepening the Base & Building Bridges between the Climate Change, Peace & Economic Justice Movements,” and – most telling of all – “The Rise of Right Wing Populism & the Tea Party: Do We Need a Right-Left Coalition?”

That this question is in dispute tells us how misguided, and out of it, these people are. It also shows how immoral and narcissistic they are: while Afghans, Iraqis, and Pakistanis are being blown to bits, they are wondering whether we ought to be building a broad-based movement that transcends their petty sectarian concerns, or whether what passes for the antiwar movement should be their own personal sandbox.

The panelists were Medea Benjamin of Code Pink; Kevin Zeese, co-founder of Voters for Peace; Chris Gauvreau of Connecticut United Against the War and the National Assembly to End U.S. Wars and Occupations; and Glen Ford, representing Black Agenda.

Now, I did not attend this conference, and have no idea what the upshot of the discussion was; however, Benjamin and Zeese have expressed their support for such a coalition (the former somewhat tentatively, and the latter with more conviction). On the other hand, one can easily imagine that Ford, who has called the Ron Paul movement and the tea partiers “racists,” and advocates of “white nationalism,” and Gauvreau, a leftist who spent much of this speech mouthing all the expected slogans, see a left-right coalition as a deadly threat to “their” movement. What’s interesting, to me at least, is that the cited Gauvreau speech, made at an antiwar demonstration last year, opens with the speaker bemoaning the fact that “It has been difficult to build this demonstration.” The reason, he averred, is because the media keeps telling us the war in Iraq is winding down or over – but surely this excuse doesn’t hold true for the war in Afghanistan, with casualties increasing daily and the carnage making headlines. Yet he tries to put a brave face on it:

“Without a militant and independent movement in the streets, exposing each and every escalation of this war, we can expect only more and more desperate military acts in the service of corporate America. That is why this demonstration, though smaller than some held in the past, is a victory.”

Earth to Gauvreau: A couple of dozen protesters standing around dispiritedly listening to a speaker declare that the smallness of their demonstration isn’t their fault – and certainly isn’t his fault – is a defeat, and there’s no two ways about it. Any bystander who happened upon this mini-mobilization would have to conclude, regardless of his own opinion of US foreign policy, that opponents of US intervention are an isolated and somewhat eccentric minority, with no chance of actually having an effect on the course of events.

After long and bitter experience in the leftist-dominated “peace movement,” I’m convinced that this is exactly how the left sectarians who invariably dominate such gatherings like it. In a real mass movement against interventionism, their influence would be considerably reduced, and their ability to use it as a recruiting ground to advance their organizational ambitions would be very close to nil.

The sectarians of “Socialist Action,” a minuscule Trotskyist grouplet which has been very visible on the West Coast at “peace actions,” admit as much in a 2000-word polemic published in their plonky little newspaper, and on their equally plonky web site (Marxists don’t do the internet, and when they do, the results are laughable). The piece starts out by averring that the model cited by Zeese is the old America First Committee, which opposed US intervention in World War II, as well as the Anti-Imperialist League, which, earlier, led the opposition to the US occupation of the Philippines. Without going into any detail about the latter example, the author goes into a long disquisition contrasting the Trotskyists’ opposition to US entry into WWII with the AFC’s, hailing the “militant” labor “sit downs” as exemplary, in spite of the fact that they had nothing to do with antiwar activism. As the climax of the Trotskyists’ glorious record, Socialist Action avers:

“During the war, the Socialist Workers Party organized to aid fraternization among working-class soldiers of all nations, and they opposed the attempts of the government to prohibit strikes for better wages and working conditions and to brand actions by the labor movement as aiding the ‘enemy.’ Their militant opposition to the war and wartime assaults on the rights of workers to defend their standard of living led the government to indict leaders of the Socialist Workers Party and the Minneapolis Teamsters under the Alien Registration, or Smith Act.”

So, the Trots wound up in jail, to the cheers of the Stalinists and the pro-war “liberals” – that looks like a defeat to me.

Their account of the America First movement repeats all the old Stalinist canards about the biggest peace movement in American history: it was run by big businessmen, it was “anti-Semitic,” it wasn’t really for peace, just pro-Hitler. The article cites the considered opinion of James P. Cannon, the Trotskyist leader at the time, as saying “the ‘isolationists’ in elite circles merely held a tactical difference with those of their peers who were for sending U.S. armaments to Britain.” Their real goal, he thought, was to consolidate their control over the Western hemisphere in preparation for intervening in Europe.

Cannon’s view is nonsensical, as anyone who has read the writings of America First leader and top activist John T. Flynn would readily understand: Flynn was a principled opponent of US intervention abroad, because he understood what turn of the century liberal Randolph Bourne meant when he said “War is the health of the State.” Flynn and his co-thinkers wanted to limit the power of the American state – a goal not shared by Trotsky’s disciples.

In any case, what the Socialist Actioneers fail to note, in their endless polemic, is that the America First Committee mobilized millions against the war: it had 800,000 members (dues-paying members, I might add), and a Washington lobby that very nearly sunk Roosevelt’s ever-accelerating drive to drag us into war in Europe. Massive rallies conducted on a nationwide scale kept the Roosevelt administration in check, right up until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The War Party had to take the “back door to war,” as one historian put it, in order to get us in.

So, faced with these two examples – the isolated (and jailed) Trotskyists, and the massive America First movement – which would any normal person consider a role model?

But we aren’t dealing with normal people here: we’re dealing with sectarian ideologues, who fail to see the implications of their own example. The rest of the article is denunciation of the politics of Ron Paul, and traditional conservatives who oppose imperialism: why, just look, they don’t support nationalized health care! They are against open borders! They oppose Social Security! Horrors! They conclude:

“To involve the great majority of the working people of the United States today, the antiwar movement must be a safe place for the most militant and combative components of the unions and of community struggles. It must seem relevant to those whose first waking thought is how to find a job or keep their house. It must be welcoming to the 200,000 LGBT activists who recently marched on DC.

“A united front with the anti-interventionist far right, on the other hand, would require that our movement drop its demand for “Money for Jobs, Not War!’ … It would naturally draw in the openly racist Tea Party elements. Such a ‘united front’ would make the antiwar movement uninhabitable by those most crucial to its success.”

Translation: a left-right coalition would make the antiwar movement uninhabitable by the inveterate sectarians of the ultra-left, whose only concern is to recruit naïve young people into their dying little sects. Trotskyism, today, is about as relevant as phrenology, and about as useful when it comes to building a mass political movement of any kind – and the sectarians know it. They are essentially parasites who converge on any “peace” movement that arises and suck the juice out of it until they’ve had their fill: then they feast on the bones.

“The unity that we need in the antiwar movement today,” the Trots proclaim at the end of their piece, “is the kind of unity exemplified by the United National Antiwar Conference to be held in Albany, NY, on July 23, 2010.”

No. What is needed is not another leftist-dominated “coalition,” which puts on conferences that address the faithful, reasserts their well-worn dogmas, and sponsors marches of a few thousand (at most). You’ll note that these marches nearly always take place on the coasts – especially San Francisco, that bastion of the left’s past glories – but never penetrate into the American heartland. Until and unless they do, the antiwar movement, as an organized force in American politics, will literally remain a fringe phenomenon.

The irony here is that it was the Trotskyists in the 1960s who really understood how to build a mass antiwar movement: the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) had a really effective strategy and that was to make the antiwar movement during the Vietnam era a single issue movement. The idea was to unite all who could be united around a simple axiomatic principle: Get the US out of Vietnam. Period. The SWPers were among the most energetic and effective antiwar organizers because they knew the difference between building a mass movement around the issue of war and peace and building a political party: the former had to be broad and all-inclusive, as opposed to the latter, which, by definition, has a more comprehensive (and self-limiting) character.

Further irony: the cadres of Socialist Action were once members of the SWP. They were thrown out in the purges of the 1980s, when the SWP ditched Trotskyism for the “wisdom” of Fidel Castro. In trying to recapture their glory days, Socialist Action is ignoring the lessons of their own history.

But this isn’t about Socialist Action – a group with about 30 members nationwide. It’s about the widespread attitude on the Left – or, rather, what’s left of the Left – that they’d rather reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. And more: it’s about the whole “left-right” paradigm that divides the oppressed and plays into the “mainstream” media narrative that red is red, blue is blue, right is “reactionary” and left is “progressive’ – and never the twain shall meet. We see this on cable news shows: both Rachel Maddow and Rush Limbaugh profit from this, but the rest of us lose big time. We lose because, although we may agree on a vitally important issue – the futility and downright evil of a foreign policy premised [.pdf] on perpetual war – we are prevented from uniting to fight it because of outmoded ways of thinking.

As long as the organized antiwar movement remains a leftist sandbox, where sectarians get to pontificate – and do little else – it will stay a sideshow. Once we get beyond all that nonsense, however, there are no limits to what we can do: just look at the polls. The American people are with us – and they’re ready to join us in our fight. Indeed, they’ve never been readier. The question is: are we ready to receive them, and lead them?

Right now, the answer is no: I’m hoping that – someday soon – the answer will be an emphatic yes.

Read more by Justin Raimondo