The Port Huron Statement, 1962 manifesto of the original Students for a Democratic Society, was a document remarkable for its boldness — but also for its limitations. In it, the crying contrast between the professed ideals and actual practice of the “leader of the Free World” were laid bare; yet they were analyzed in terms of a kind of naïve humanism that seemed to suggest that changing the world was largely just a matter of individuals convincing other individuals to exchange bad ideas for good, resulting in practical prescriptions that were somewhat utopian. Of course, most first-generation SDSers continued to evolve politically in various ways, some better than others. Perhaps more remarkable, then, is that the Statement’s principle author, Tom Hayden, is still at it: almost half a century later, he’s written a book on the Iraq catastrophe betraying essentially no change in approach.
In Ending the War in Iraq, the current war is virtually reduced to a plot hatched by a cabal of wily neoconservatives bent on erasing Vietnam’s mark on US foreign policy. Despite having become standard in some circles, this account is deeply problematic. As Hayden himself notes in passing, American reluctance to engage in direct military intervention had begun eroding well before the current administration, aided most obviously by the 1990 Gulf War, but also by US involvement in the Balkans throughout the following decade. And it was Clinton, not Bush, who throughout that same decade took measures to starve, bomb and subvert Iraq into submission, including codifying the policy of “regime change” with the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998. Whatever he might say as a civilian, there is in fact no reason to think that a President Al Gore, presented with the opportunity of 9/11, wouldn’t have started his own Iraq War. That this is the case is doubly attested to by the ease with which so many Democrats — including most Democratic Senators — assented to or even enthusiastically endorsed the invasion.
Indeed, when Hayden attempts to touch at all on the deeper social and material factors driving the war, he falls into crude reductionism. “To imagine U.S. policy more clearly,” he writes, “picture a giant oil tanker with a crew of four — George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, and outgoing Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad — all affiliated with Big Oil. . .” Implicitly, if Americans instead elected a candidate closely affiliated with, say, fast food chains, he or she wouldn’t have such a desire to fight a war for control of an oil-rich country. What this sort of reasoning ignores is that presidents and the states over which they preside depend not just on the support of this or that company or industry, but that of the US ruling class as a whole. In the first place, political campaigns are such expensive affairs that it is extremely difficult to run for any major office without the support of broad swathes of Corporate America. (For example, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Bush’s last presidential campaign received four times as much from the real estate industry as from oil and gas interests — the latter around the same, in fact, as the amount Kerry’s got from financial firms.) More importantly, the upper echelons of the state bureaucracy, the military and law enforcement are always linked by a myriad of social, educational and financial chains to the upper echelons of American capitalism. Given this reality, it is extremely difficult to imagine that the US would go to war purely on behalf of one sector of industry, or even on behalf of war profiteers more generally. A far more likely explanation is that the US invaded Iraq for its strategic importance in securing both US hegemony and the capitalist world system. While Iraq’s oil is not peripheral to this importance, neither is it the whole story.
It quickly becomes apparent, though, why Hayden feels the need to attribute this disaster almost entirely to the calculations of wicked and corrupt Republicans. With the apparent aim of refuting Mike Davis’ description of the antiwar movement as having been “first absorbed by the Dean campaign in spring 2004 and then politically dissolved into the Kerry candidacy,” Hayden inserts in the following chapter a fantasy novella in which Democratic electoral campaigns and their enablers at MoveOn and Air America are imagined not as forces employed to sabotage the movement, but as embodiments of it. Worse, Hayden honestly seems to mistake it for reality, to the point of stubbornly insisting upon it even after presenting what most would take to be damning evidence to the contrary. The antiwar movement dispersed after its pro-war candidate lost? MoveOn gave up on pressing for withdrawal? No big deal, says Tom. After all, Howard Dean told him personally that everything is going to be A-OK. You believe him, don’t you?
Having provided such a confused account of the war and the movement against it, Hayden provides us with his equally confused plan to end the war. This plan — which, it should be noted, has been largely adopted by United for Peace and Justice and many of its affiliates, and was put into practice with the disappointing protests of March 19th — consists of groups and individuals applying “people pressure” to the “pillars” upholding Iraq War policy, including (among others) the mainstream media, US military and financial capacity, and public opinion. At first glance, this approach appears to be little more than stating the obvious: to end the war, the attack those things which make it possible to wage. But the pillar analogy is unsatisfactory. Pillars are solid, unmoving objects that equally uphold a structure. The bases of support for the war, in contrast, are dynamic: at different times, some are stronger or weaker, more heavily guarded or more exposed. Concrete analysis is needed to know what to do at any given moment. For example, attacking war profiteers can have some value, often (for reasons explained above) symbolic; but it can’t realistically have nearly the same effect as, say, revolt within the ranks of the military. The “pillars of war” strategy amounts, in essence, to “diversity of tactics” writ large; and while the latter approach can be rightly asserted against those who would have dissenters in the movement bullied or arrested, it should not be used as an excuse — and it is — to avoid discussing what works and what doesn’t, and implementing plans for action accordingly.
Fortunately, history gives us some idea of where to look for a better orientation. It doesn’t lie in lobbying or prostration before the Democrats, and it doesn’t lie in the heroic actions of an isolated few, nonviolent or otherwise. It lies in the real power of the mass of working and oppressed people to deprive their rulers of the ability to make war. An antiwar movement built on this basis will be difficult to achieve. It will also be an antiwar movement once again worthy of the name.