The International Socialist Movement works very hard at what they do; and they publish some interesting and worthwhile magazines. But especially when it comes to their analysis of themselves and those they are associated with, they see things through rather rosy glasses and don't want to be bothered with many structural realities that underscore the movements weakness and confusion.
UNITED STATES: The future of anti-war movement
BY ALAN MAASS
CHICAGO — The October 25 demonstrations marked the first national US mobilisation of the anti-war movement since the US-led invasion of Iraq. The demonstrations in Washington and San Francisco came after the systematic lies of US President George Bush's administration have been exposed and the US occupation of Iraq faces increasing resistance.
Opinion polls show a majority of people in the US are opposed to Bush's demand for US$87 billion to fund his occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. (The most recent USA Today/CNN opinion poll, conducted October 24-26, found that 57% of respondents now want the withdrawal of US troops to begin, up from 46% in August.)
“So many of the things that we were pointing out before the war have become more known — that all this was based on misrepresentations, distortions, sometimes outright deceptions — that it's time for people to take it back into the streets”, said Dave Cline, president of Veterans for Peace and a founder of the new Bring Them Home Now campaign.
The October 25 demonstrations did not approach the size of the ones before the war — when literally millions of people around the world took to the streets on February 14-16 — this has led to some “concern” among activists, in the words of Medea Benjamin, a cofounder of the women's peace group Code Pink.
“I don't see the same level of energy out there”, Benjamin said. “I think people are confused about whether things would be worse if US troops leave. I think people are demoralised that the huge protests that we did organise didn't have the effect that we wanted. So I think those two things combined mean that our movement doesn't have the same momentum that it did before the war.”
Activists throughout the movement are dealing with these same questions. The Bush administration's swaggering victory celebration after Baghdad fell to US troops unleashed a tide of propaganda that put the anti-war movement on the defensive. The White House has since been set back on its heels itself.
But activists across the country report that the growing doubts about the occupation and the anger at the administration's lies have so far not translated into renewed growth for the anti-war committees and coalitions that organised the outpouring of protests before the war. One common attitude is cynicism about the impact of protests. After all, the Bush administration ignored the millions of protesters around the world before the war.
Nevertheless, Leslie Cagan, national coordinator of the anti-war coalition United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), believes that the majority sentiment isn't to give up: “A lot of activists understand that we're up against a formidable power here: the power of the US government, the US military, the US corporations, the mainstream media.”
Rania Masri, a writer and activist who works with the Institute for Southern Studies and serves on the UFPJ steering committee, agrees. “To think that one protest, no matter how large, could stop the war is somewhat naive”, Masri said. “Maybe it resulted in a different kind of a war. Maybe it resulted in the Bush administration being more hesitant about another war afterwards. Maybe it resulted in a very strong political statement that we need to be making.
“We don't know. But what we do know, and this is what I think as activists we have to recognise, is that if we don't act, we know what's going to happen. By not acting, we're supporting the administration's policies.”
Another factor affecting the state of anti-war organising in the US is the disagreements between different wings of the movement about how to approach the US occupation.
Groups with very different political beliefs and strategies could come together before the invasion around the common demand of “No to war”. But many liberal and pacifist organisations now believe that some sort of continued occupation of Iraq is necessary — maybe under the United Nations' flag, or even a US presence with different priorities.
Michael Letwin, co-convener of New York City Labor Against the War, noted the result is that “there has been a certain number of people in the anti-war movement who do not feel comfortable and who aren't necessarily mobilising — or if they are mobilising, they aren't very enthusiastic about it.”
The UFPJ and International Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER), the largest national anti-war coalitions and co-sponsors of the October 25 demonstrations, are agreed on the call for an immediate end to the US occupation of Iraq and the immediate withdrawal of US troops. “We recognise that as American occupiers, we are not the ones who will improve the situation”, said Rania Masri. “We are only making the situation worse, in so many different ways. It is how a spokesperson for Military Families Speak Out put it so marvellously: there's no right way to do a wrong thing. There's no right way to improve the occupation of Iraq.”
Even bigger differences exist over what should happen after the US leaves — especially over the role of the UN. The pacifist American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) supported the October 25 protests as a member group of UFPJ. However, Michael McConnell, AFSC's regional director for Chicago, said that his office hasn't mobilised for the demonstrations beyond advertising them to members.
To McConnell, the occupation is “a much more complex situation” than what existed before the war. “AFSC's position is that the UN should be overseeing the transition to a new government in Iraq”, he said. “But obviously, that's a bit harder to mobilise around than stopping the war before it starts — or even ending an occupation. At least from our perspective, it's more complex at some level than just a slogan.”
But to Elias Rashmawi, who is on the national steering committee of the Free Palestine Alliance and the International ANSWER coalition, support for a UN mandate in Iraq means setting a “goal of internationalising colonial control”. “For the anti-war movement to sustain itself, it requires clarity”, Rashmawi said. “I think the struggle within the movement in terms of defining politics, will start taking shape in the next phase, and I think the size of the movement will be reflective of that sort of discussion.”
Michael Letwin thinks that the UN Security Council's unanimous vote in favour of a US-backed resolution will help clarify issues for activists. “The fact that the UN has just come out and endorsed the occupation unanimously will really accelerate the process of people having to figure out which side of this thing they're on”, he said. “Because it's even less possible to view the UN as some benign alternative to US occupation. Now it's one and the same.”
Leslie Cagan adds that differences around questions like the role of the UN should not prevent different organisations from coming out to demonstrate on what they do agree on. The movement has to figure out how to discuss these political questions as they develop. “You don't get agreement unless you open up the debate”, Cagan said. “And that's part of what the job of a mass movement is — to open up debate.”
Military families organise
Some aspects of the organising for October 25 marked an unmistakable step forward for the anti-war movement. After issuing competing calls for demonstrations in the past, ANSWER and UFPJ worked together on the national mobilisation — a sign, said Cagan, of “a certain level of maturity in the movement that we agree the crisis of the occupation is bigger than whatever the differences exist between us.”
The most dynamic recent anti-war organising has taken place among the families of US soldiers — and even the soldiers themselves. The coming together of military families with different anti-war veterans' groups to launch the Bring Them Home Now campaign in August will make for a stronger working-class base for the movement, said Dave Cline. “It grounds us in the reality of this country, and hopefully, that will help advance the common cause”, he said.
And while organising on the universities may have started slower than some activists expected, the national “Speaking Truth to Empire” tour sponsored by the Campus Anti-War Network (CAN) has drawn good turnouts — ranging into the hundreds in some places. Kirstin Roberts, a mid-western representative on the CAN co-ordinating committee, said that these audiences want answers first — which is why they aren't necessarily drawn to protests immediately.
“Once they get an explanation and get pointed toward activism and mobilising and organising as one of the things they need to do, you find people are signing up to get involved, are signing up to get on the bus to Washington, are signing up with their local anti-war committees”, Roberts said. “To me, it feels not like the decline of the movement, but more of a rebuilding phase of the movement, and on a different kind of a basis.''
Likewise, Cline believes that the October 25 demonstrations mark the beginning of a new phase of the anti-war movement, organised with a clearer sense of how to answer the political questions it will face.
“I think we're at the beginning of a new cycle”, Cline said. “What happened before the war was a cycle that culminated in February 15. And on March 20, Bush said forget about it. He never intended to consider our views. That was one wave of the movement. We're at the beginning of the second wave, and hopefully, it's with a more profound consciousness about what we're up against.”
[Alan Maass is the editor of the Socialist Worker, newspaper of the US International Socialist Organisation.]
From Green Left Weekly, November 5, 2003.
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