What Kind of Movement Do We
The U.S. occupation of Iraq, now more than two years old, remains the defining issue in world politics. More than 100,000 Iraqi civilians are dead -- so are more than 1,500 U.S. soldiers. The Abu Ghraib abuse scandal has exposed the U.S. government’s use of torture around the world. Every one of George Bush’s justifications for the invasion has been exposed as a lie, and his approval ratings have hit a new low.
So why is the antiwar movement not growing?
On the local level, there have been exciting developments--the victory of antiwar town resolutions in Vermont, for example, and especially the spread of the student campaign against military recruiters.
But in most cities, the March 19 demonstrations on the second anniversary of the invasion were the same size or smaller than the year before. And nationally, leading organizations of the antiwar movement--the United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) coalition in particular--have retreated from calling national demonstrations in order to “build local activism,” as if these two goals are counterposed.
Worse, leaders of UFPJ and some of its affiliated organizations have begun a campaign to police the antiwar movement against political messages that they deem too radical.
The targets of this campaign are accused of trying to impose their political “line” on the rest of the movement. This has been an accusation aimed at radicals -- without evidence -- since the anticommunist witch-hunts of the 1950s, when anyone associated with radical politics was labeled a “red” and an “outsider.”
But it is actually the accusers who are trying to impose limits on what is acceptable to think and say. For example, New York City UFPJ leaders refused to endorse the March 19 “Troops Out Now” protest in Central Park -- in part, they said, because “some of the early materials for this protest” contained “language about supporting the Iraqi resistance.”
Earlier this month, members of Military Families Speak Out cancelled speaking engagements with military resister Carl Webb, a member of the Texas National Guard who refused to deploy to Iraq. The reason? As reported in the Internet newsletter GI Special on April 9, it was because Webb expressed support for Iraqis’ right to resist occupation on his Web site.
Likewise, at a March 24 teach-in in Washington, D.C., UFPJ panelists -- including global justice author Naomi Klein and the Institute for Policy Studies’ Phyllis Bennis -- caricatured those raising similar questions as, in Klein’s words, “offering blanket cheerleading for the resistance.” The effect of this characterization of the insurgency as made up of unthinking fanatics and Islamist “extremists” is to shut off any serious discussion about what antiwar activists in this country ought to know about what is taking place in Iraq (a video of the teach-in can be viewed online).
Supporters of this newspaper and its publisher, the International Socialist Organization, have faced hostility in other circumstances as well -- in particular, for raising questions related to the right of Iraqis to determine their own future.
These examples are not local disputes, but are part of an attempt to impose conformity on the antiwar movement--on the basis of the views of its conservative wing. This is done in the name of “protecting” the movement -- by preventing it from becoming too radical to appeal to “ordinary Americans.” But the effect is to stifle the voices of the most passionate opponents of Bush’s war -- people like Carl Webb.
Furthermore, fears about the attitude of “ordinary Americans” shows a narrow pessimism about antiwar activists’ ability to explain why Iraqis have the right to determine their own future. Leaders of the antiwar movement are being pulled to the right, along with the Democratic Party. This is where the conceptions about what “ordinary Americans” believe come from -- the claims of the Democratic Party establishment, not any experience at the grassroots trying to organizing the increasingly angry sentiment against the war.
Those who are organizing the red-baiting and exclusionism don’t actually want a more reasonable and tactful movement. They want a different movement -- one that avoids taking up issues that might offend the liberal establishment and the Democratic Party.
This means avoiding the discussion of the nature of what is taking place in Iraq today -- an imperialist war whose aim is conquest. The Iraqi people have every right to resist the occupation, just as every other colonized and occupied people have done throughout history.
The attempts to exclude the left of the antiwar movement today echo what took place in the early stages of the struggle against the Vietnam War. Liberal organizations that had collaborated with the anticommunist witch-hunts demanded that the Communist Party -- and, indeed, any force even associated with radicalism -- be excluded from antiwar activities.
But the rising struggle threw up organizations that refused to be bound by the anticommunist straitjacket.
Thus, in planning for the April 17, 1965, antiwar march on Washington, pacifist groups told the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) to drop its demand of self-determination for the Vietnamese people and its non-exclusion policy of welcoming all antiwar forces into the fold. Failing to “persuade” SDS to make its demands “more reasonable,” the League for Industrial Democracy demanded that SDS turn over the reins of the protest to them--which SDS refused to do.
When some 30,000 turned out to the march, SDS’s approach -- and the basic principles of mass protest, support for self-determination and non-exclusion -- was vindicated, and the movement took a crucial step forward.
Most antiwar organizations today do agree on an all-important demand, at least on paper -- immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. This is a solid basis for united action -- one that can be embraced by both activists who have taken the lead in challenging the occupation and people only getting started in activism.
But there can be no limitations on or censorship of the discussion of what comes next -- crucially, the question of the right of Iraqis to determine their own future. The future of the antiwar movement depends on open and democratic structures that allow the movement to grow -- in an atmosphere of inclusion and debate.
Alan Maass writes for Socialist Worker. This article first appeared on the SW website (http://socialistworker.org/).
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