• A Socialist Action Contribution to Discussion in the Antiwar Movement •
by Jeff Mackler / June 2005 issue of Socialist Action
The May 18 decision of the National Steering Committee of United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), currently the broadest antiwar coalition in the United States, to set Saturday, Sept. 24, for a massive demonstration in Washington, D.C., to "Bring the Troops Home Now!" is a welcome and critically important development.
Antiwar activists at last have a clear and principled call to action to mobilize in unprecedented numbers to challenge the bipartisan war and occupation of Iraq, the continuing slaughter of the Iraqi people, and the plundering of Iraq's resources. The Sept. 24 demonstration also affords antiwar fighters a perfect
opportunity to counterpose the billions and trillions of dollars allocated to the U.S. corporate war industries to the massive cuts in virtually all social spending in the United States.
International ANSWER has also called Sept. 24 demonstrations in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles to protest the U.S. government’s military endeavors in Iraq and worldwide. We are confident that
ANSWER’s Washington action will be united with the one called by UFPJ; it is essential that antiwar activists employ every effort to build a united action at a
single site. Separate and competing protests on the same date and time are divisive and unthinkable.
Socialist Action urges the maximum mobilization for the Sept. 24 events. It is the responsibility of all those who seek to pose a real alternative to the
warmakers to visibly demonstrate that our movement represents the aspirations of the vast majority of the American people and that the brutal bipartisan war and conquest policies of the government serve only the
interests of the tiny minority, the ruling elite, who profit from death and destruction no matter the cost in human lives and suffering.
In the context of this important step forward, and while antiwar activists are once again preparing to mobilize to challenge the right of the government to
make war, Socialist Action believes that a balance sheet of the near total default of the U.S. antiwar movement's major organizations over the past year, and longer, is in order. This article is a contribution to this discussion. Our readers are urged to partake in it with their own views.
Democratic Party: Graveyard of social movements
With the exception of the very modest March 19, 2005, actions, it has been more than a year since UFPJ or any other national antiwar group mobilized to
challenge the U.S.-engineered occupation and war against the Iraqi people.
Indeed, it is accurate to state that the UFPJ leadership consciously subordinated the organization of massive protests against the Iraq War, the central issue in world politics today, to the 2004 presidential election campaign of pro-war Democrat John Kerry.
To accomplish this end, UFPJ formally adopted a year-long plan of action aimed at organizing the broadest and most diverse range of forces to cast a
vote for whichever Democrat emerged victorious in the presidential primary contest charade. This time-worn "lesser-evil" strategy was launched with great fervor under the UFPJ slogan, “Say No to Bush’s Agenda!”
To organize and attract the broadest range of voters, a massive list of political issues and demands was incorporated into UFPJ's propaganda arsenal, with
corresponding staff assignments, literature, and local, state, and regional campaigns set in motion.
The “UFPJ 2004 Campaign” urged social movements to begin with “voter pledges seeking to positively influence the electoral process” as well as “working in the coming weeks and months to build voter registration and mobilization.”
UFPJ was thus transformed from a mass-action-oriented antiwar coalition to a virtual Democratic Party election campaign committee.
Mass protests ceased entirely as the bulk of the nation's activist forces first sought out a supposed antiwar Democrat—Dean, Kucinich, or perhaps
Sharpton—and then pressed on with the "lesser evil" nostrum to its logical and absurd conclusion, effectively urging a vote for the billionaire pro-war Boston Brahmin, John Kerry. This was accomplished with the aid of not-too-subtle slogans such as "Fight the Right," or Stop Bush's War," as if John Kerry were not a willing (and even eager) accomplice in the U.S. war machine.
A similar scenario was undertaken during the Vietnam War era, when major forces in the antiwar movement sought to convince activists to subordinate mass antiwar mobilizations to support to the Democratic Party’s so-called peace candidates. Eugene McCarthy (in the 1968 Democratic Party primaries) and George McGovern (in the 1972 presidential election) were the
“lesser evils” of that period. Neither supported the "Out Now” demand or otherwise participated in or supported the antiwar movement. But, unlike Kerry, they vaguely posed as peace candidates.
The “lesser-evil” argument was enlisted by some of the national antiwar coalitions to defeat the "fascist" Republican threat allegedly represented by Richard Nixon. Following these election campaigns both Democratic Party "peace candidates" continued as supporters of the Vietnam War. They had effectively served their purpose: to derail the emerging mass movement and channel its energy into the framework of corporate power politics.
It was more than ironic that the overtly pro-war Nixon, who claimed to possess a "secret plan" to end the war, became the ruling-class politician to bring
the troops home. Nixon was compelled to do so by a combination of factors, ranging from the heroic struggle of the Vietnamese people for their right to
self-determination, at a cost of four million dead, to the mass movement constructed in the U.S. based on "Bring the Troops Home Now!"
The Democrats, led by President Lyndon Johnson, had rained down more bombs on Vietnam than in the combined history of human warfare. Johnson was forced to step down rather than seek a second term in the face of a
mass movement that threatened to challenge far more than the U.S. imperialist war. This movement had already broken out of the red-baiting constraints of
the Joseph McCarthy era, found common cause with the burgeoning civil rights movement, and opened the door wide to the emergence of other social struggles from women's liberation to gay liberation.
In 2004, the Democratic Party, the historic graveyard of social movements, became the momentary graveyard of the antiwar movement. While terror bombs destroyed Iraqi cities and slaughtered civilian inhabitants, while trade unionists were murdered at will, and while secret torture-interrogation chambers became the norm in occupied Iraq, U.S. antiwar coalitions—in different forms and with differing tactics—rallied for whatever Democrat emerged from the carefully orchestrated primary contests.
All Democratic Party contenders, as always, pledged in advance to support whoever emerged on top of the heap. The early leader, Howard Dean, the so-called peace candidate, rejected any demand to withdraw U.S. troops. But Dean nevertheless served his party well by posing as a representative of its "progressive" or "left wing."
"The Democratic Party is like a bird," Jesse Jackson was fond of saying. "It needs two wings to fly, a left wing and a right wing." Dean, the "left wing," was
later elevated to the post of Democratic Party national chairperson to make it clear to any doubters that there are no fundamental differences either among
Democrats or between capitalism's chief political entities.
Absent from UFPJ's 2004 perspectives was the simple and historic proposition that social change stems from the independent and massive mobilization of millions to fight for their rights and interests, as opposed to
the subordination of these rights and interests to the election of a single individual or party. In this instance the national antiwar coalitions, directly or
indirectly, supported a pro-war party whose candidate called for sending 40,000 more troops to Iraq than the Bush administration did.
UFPJ's message was clear: unless Bush were defeated by any Democrat, there would be little hope for progressive change in America. A Bush victory, they insisted, would represent a massive defeat, the codification of a new era, if not the opening stages of American fascism.
"Anyone who is serious about politics," said leading antiwar exponent and lifelong social justice fighter Noam Chomsky, "understands that George Bush must be defeated." Chomsky and the central leadership of all the national antiwar coalitions agreed. U.S. politics, including the struggle against the Iraq War, were reduced to active participation in a mindless contest between two ruling-class representatives. The American people were to be shunted to the sidelines, other than to cast a vote for a "lesser evil" who promised a greater war!
The results were predictable and demoralizing. With Bush's victory an antiwar movement that had mobilized millions a year earlier lost the wind in its sails.
Many deemed a continued fight against the Iraq War as virtually hopeless.
A significant current in UFPJ sought a new issue entirely—perhaps the struggle against nuclear weapons? In addition, UFPJ's post-election St. Louis conference voted to protest on Sept. 10, 2005, at the United Nations, supposedly to reform or remake this secondary instrument of imperialist intervention. No leadership proposals for a return to massive antiwar
demonstrations were forthcoming at that gathering.
The March 19 international protests against the war saw qualitatively fewer participants in the streets of the United States than in Europe and around the world. The movement was derailed by the blind faith, engendered by the antiwar leadership, in the notion that Kerry and the Democrats represented a real alternative.
The power of mass action
A critical component of any successful mass movement must be the periodic mobilization of its supporters in massive, legal, peaceful demonstrations designed to involve the largest numbers possible. Mass action has been the primary tactic of the antiwar movement for decades. To the extent that social change of any kind is left to the political parties that serve as guardians of the status quo, change becomes impossible.
The history of every progressive social movement in the U.S. and worldwide is testimony to this simple proposition. The right to union organization, the winning of civil rights in apartheid America, and the defeat of the U.S. war in Vietnam were the product of the struggles of the vast majority.
As important as periodic mass mobilizations are, there should be no fetish about organizational forms of protest. In different times, when the level of mass
consciousness and combativity is on the rise and the situation warrants, other tactics, including mass strikes, might well be appropriate and effective to give the fullest expression to the power of the antiwar or any other social movements.
Today, however, mass action in the streets is the most appropriate tactic to maximize the expression of this power. Mass action accomplishes far more than its critics believe possible. Its detractors argue that a single peaceful protest on a single day, no matter the size, accomplishes little. The protest is usually ignored by the media, if not the government, so the argument goes.
But there is another side to this equation. Mass action is effective in challenging the false notion that the government represents the majority of the
people. Mass action increases the confidence of the movement in its own power. It exposes participants to a wide range of issues that they do not ordinarily consider. It helps lead participants to the conclusion that the political and economic system itself is responsible for war and today's social evils as
opposed to whichever political party or personality happens to be running the government.
Periodic mass actions reinforce the continuity of the movement, allow for a visible measure of its growing strength and unity, maximize its capacity to involve new sectors of the population in struggle, and help convince increasing numbers that the power over public decision-making truly rests in their hands.
Mass action empowers individuals, teaching them the opposite of what they are taught every day of their lives—that is, that they are powerless, that their
ideas are shared only by the fringe few, that real change is a product of the institutionalized and fundamentally corrupt system of voting.
Mass action indeed challenges the prerogative of the warmakers to make war. It raises the political price paid by the ruling elite to act contrary to the interests and wishes of a visible majority. Mass action works to isolate the real corporate power structure, the ruling few who decide U.S. policy. Mass
action helps to expose the minority status of the ruling class and its reactionary interests in governing.
Mass action is not an end in itself but a step toward even more powerful challenges to the system of war, racism, and exploitation. Subtract mass action from the equation of social struggle, as was the case during the year's run-up to the 2004 elections, and you have effectively demobilized and demoralized the only source of social progress.
Bring the Troops Home Now!
By their very nature mass actions require the agreement of a broad range of forces on just a few critical and principled demands to be placed on the
government. Experience has demonstrated that the larger the number of issues included in the antiwar movement's political platform, the more difficult it
is to organize and maintain the unity necessary for effective mobilization. But as with every political generalization, there are always exceptions that can
become the rule. These are, in turn, the product of new developments in society and new lessons learned from them.
During the Vietnam War era the demands of the movement were quite limited and necessarily so. The central focus was expressed most effectively in the demand "Bring the Troops Home Now."
The movement did not begin with agreement on this demand. In fact, those who originally favored it began as a small minority. With the exception of the 1965 Students for a Democratic Society-initiated March on Washington, those who favored the counterposed demand, "Negotiate Now," dominated the early antiwar coalitions. SDS's departure from the antiwar movement to focus on issues that it deemed more important contributed to this troubled beginning.
The "Negotiate Now" demand was predicated on the false notion that the U.S. government, by force of arms or by any other means, had the right to determine the future of another nation. The proponents of "Out Now”
countered that this view stood in violation of the right of oppressed nations to self-determination. They saw the U.S. war in Vietnam as a continuation of the
policies of all the major world superpowers, which had previously divided the planet into their own colonies or "spheres of influence."
As the Vietnam War unfolded and as increasing numbers of youth—the majority Black, Latino and poor—were drafted to fight and die in a racist war, it became clear that the "Negotiate Now" position was untenable. The periodic mass antiwar conferences that called the regular mass protests codified this in formal votes time and again. The participants in these gatherings, the day-to-day activists in the movement, regularly numbered in the thousands.
The vast political differences that existed among the component groups of the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War led the chief organizers and coalitions, some more willingly than others, to understand that the addition of multiple issues and demands would likely do more to divide and weaken the movement than to unite and advance its power.
The movement's most experienced leaders understood well that a united-front-type coalition with a clear, principled political focus and based on agreement on a single united mass action was a far cry from a political party that was bound to take positions on a myriad of issues. The united-front-type coalition was the chief organizational weapon of the Vietnam antiwar movement. Those who sought to transform antiwar coalitions into new political parties, or to serve as the agency for delivering votes to the Democratic Party, eventually found themselves in a tiny minority, separate and apart from the mass movement to challenge the war.
The issue of the precise number of demands has never been fully resolved and likely never will. Experience has taught that behind the arguments over how many demands are appropriate for a united front were more serious political issues.
As we have noted above, the sudden shift by the UFPJ leadership to virtually unrestrained multi-issueism in 2004 was designed to convert the antiwar movement into a vehicle for mobilizing support to the Democratic Party. Shortly after the election season passed, the overwhelming number of UFPJ issues and demands were dropped entirely. While technical considerations of
finances and staff limitations were offered, the real reason was obvious; the election was over.
Right to self-determination of oppressed nations
There are important lessons to be learned from the experience of the Vietnam era. Today's equivalent of the long ago rejected “Negotiate Now” demand has been raised once again but in a different form. Sectors of the movement have called for a "phased withdrawal," or for a multi-lateral or UN force to replace U.S. troops. These "demands" once again violate the critical principle of self-determination, the adherence to which has thus far successfully anchored
the antiwar movement.
To accept the premise that the U.S. has any rights in Iraq is to accept the government's central premise in waging the war in the first place. Whether it be the original criminal lies to justify the slaughter—alleged weapons of mass destruction or that Iraq had relations with Osama bin Laden—or the new
rationalizations that the U.S. is to be the bearer of democracy in Iraq and/or a defender of women's rights, the antiwar movement must reject all such
The right to self-determination is quite specific. Support for it requires that we demand "U.S. Troops Out Now." To the question of what will happen to the
Iraqi people if the U.S. simply withdraws, we can confidently say that it is for the Iraqis only to decide. From the vantage point of Socialist Action, the world would be a qualitatively freer and more peaceful place if the U.S. and its imperialist counterparts withdrew their military forces from their bases all over the world and ceased all support to the murderous dictators they impose to enforce their will.
Absent imperialist intervention the people of the world would have long ago been free to build societies based on real social and economic equality, as opposed to exploitation for profit. Indeed, the central reason for imperialist intervention has most often been to prevent such developments.
The Iraqi resistance
There are some in the movement who press for the inclusion of a demand to support the Iraqi resistance. Their counterparts during the Vietnam era expressed this view in the demand, "Victory for the National Liberation Front," the national liberation army of the Vietnamese people. While many in the movement supported the just struggle of the Vietnamese people for self-determination, most recognized that the best way to achieve this end was to immediately withdraw all U.S. forces.
It was neither necessary nor helpful in building a truly mass movement against the Vietnam War to demand that its participants in the United States and
worldwide support the military struggle or political program of the Vietnamese fighters.
Millions were prepared to fight for "Out Now." Only a handful was prepared to fight for the Vietnamese Communist Party-led resistance. Those who attempted to mobilize on this basis proved this point in practice. No demonstration along these lines ever attracted more than tiny and isolated groups of demonstrators. These in turn gave some credence to the redbaiters of that time, who ranted that the antiwar movement was merely a communist front rather than an actual mass expression of outrage against a genocidal war waged against an oppressed people.
The same is true with today's Iraqi resistance fighters. A demand to support their actions or programmatic positions would be poorly understood at best in the context of the present consciousness of the U.S. population. At worst it would qualitatively reduce, if not totally eliminate the antiwar movement's capacity to mobilize its full power. And it is precisely that mass power, as opposed to ultra-radical slogans or demands, that is effective in challenging the war.
Further, "Support the Iraqi Resistance" is not a demand on the U.S. government but rather an admonition to the American people. It is the responsibility of the antiwar movement to clearly focus its demands on
the government itself.
This is not to say that we are indifferent to the Iraqi resistance. Had there been a collapse in the face of the U.S. "shock and awe" bombardment, as most
expected to happen at the time, the U.S. antiwar movement would have inevitably followed suit. It is an unstated truth that our movement continues only
because the Iraqi people, at great sacrifice, have not allowed themselves to be beaten into the earth.
The struggle of the Iraqi resistance, however at times misdirected, has been brought on by a ruthless, torturing and murderous U.S. war and occupation intent on crushing any and all forms of opposition to its plans to plunder Iraq far into the future. While we do not agree with those in Iraq who mistakenly focus
their justified hatred of the U.S. invaders on civilian Shiites, we place total responsibility for the horrors in Iraq on imperialism.
We reject lending any support to those who attack the Iraqi resistance for defending the land they were born in. Again, "Bring the Troops Home Now" is our best weapon to win the right of the Iraqi people to determine their own future and simultaneously empower the American people to fight for social injustice at home.
No U.S. intervention from Iran … to Cuba!
There are new developments in world politics today that have led millions to understand that the Iraq War is far from an accident or aberration or perhaps a
temporary overreaction to the 9/11 Twin Towers bombing. U.S. rulers are attempting to establish in the minds of the American people, in the name of
“fighting terrorism and defending democracy,” the undisputed right to send troops to attack nations across the globe.
There has always been a lying rationale cooked up by the "bearers of civilization" to cover their evil deeds and threats of war. Yesterday it was the
"communist menace." Today it is "terrorist rogue states" or the "axis of evil," or in the case of Venezuela, "an associate of communist Cuba."
These threats of intervention are real. The Iraq slaughter was preceded by mass destruction, war, and intervention in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, nations
whose leaders were yesterday's American allies.
U.S. troops have been sent to all corners of the earth, from the Philippines to Columbia and Haiti, to Central Asia and Africa. Threats of intervention are
regularly featured front-page in every major newspaper in the country. Pentagon officials openly complain that they lack the troops to send to other countries, given the continuing resistance in Iraq. A return to a military draft is more openly discussed in leading government circles. Such a development, we must add, should be expected to qualitatively change the stakes involved and the very nature of the U.S. antiwar movement.
The U.S. government has become the chief cop of the world, driven not by crazed Republican neocons or Christian fundamentalist groups but rather by its declining role in the world economy, by the associated decline in average profit rates, by the incapacity of major U.S. corporations to effectively compete on world markets.
These, and other factors inherent in the system of private property and capitalist production for profit, more accurately explain the deeds of the U.S. ruling rich and their government. The war at home, the looting of pensions, the attack on trade unions, the massive shift of jobs to low-wage nations, the
unprecedented gap between the richest few and the vast majority, the destruction of public education, mounting institutionalized racism and massive
unemployment are all the product of a capitalism in decline. Behind the interventionist threats and deeds stands a system in crisis, irrationally compelled to press on with wars abroad and at home, by any means
It can be said with certainty that the Iraq War was, in addition to a heinous crime against the Iraqi people, an inter-imperialist conflict between France
and Germany and Russia on the one hand and the U.S. on the other. The former nations had secured contracts with the Saddam Hussein regime for the exploitation of Iraqi oil. The latter had been excluded from the deals. The U.S. went to war to guarantee control of a resource that turns the wheels of the world economy, for direct control of a country that possesses the second largest oil reserves on earth.
The Iraq War was fought to advance U.S. imperial interests at the expense of its capitalist rivals. The cost so far is the lives of 100,000 Iraqis (according
to a study published in Lancet magazine) and 1650 U.S. soldiers, victims of America's economic draft. These figures exclude the 250,000 Iraqis slaughtered in the 1991 Gulf War and the 1.5 million who perished as a
result of a decade of U.S. sanctions.
It is accurate to say, therefore, that war and U.S. intervention stand at the top of the government's agenda. Few in the antiwar movement would disagree. In
fact the very existence of the national coalitions is premised on this undeniable fact. The inclusion of demands in opposition to U.S. intervention and occupation, whenever it is posed—whether in Iran, North Korea and Syria or Cuba, Venezuela and Haiti—would certainly reflect the views of the vast majority of our present movement and those who will join us in increasing numbers in the years ahead.
While our central focus must continue to be on the actual war in progress in Iraq, we have everything to gain by adding a subordinate but critical demand
opposing U.S. intervention whenever and wherever it is posed.
The Palestine issue
The U.S.-financed Israeli occupation of Palestine has been addressed at one time or another by the major national antiwar coalitions. It is well known that the
Zionist settler state is the world's chief recipient of U.S. military aid. The U.S. provides billions of dollars annually to purchase U.S.-manufactured weapons
of mass destruction that daily murder the Palestinian people, destroy their cities, and assure the continued occupation of their land.
It has long been U.S. policy to use Israel as its chief outpost to defend imperial interests in the Middle East. A central U.S. government argument justifying its war on Iraq was the charge that Iraq provided assistance to Palestine. It has always been U.S. policy to support Israel's ongoing and intensifying drive to reduce Palestine to a series of physically disconnected, economically non-viable Bantustan-like entities where Palestinian national rights exist in name only.
Yet Palestine remains a thorny issue for the antiwar movement. The inclusion of a demand in support of Palestinian self-determination, or any such variant,
has been resisted by some on the grounds that it will significantly reduce the unity and breadth of the movement and therefore its capacity for mass mobilization.
Behind this abstract statement often lies the view that the U.S. is justified in providing military aid to Israel because the Palestinian struggle for self-determination is essentially illegitimate. Those who support Palestinian self-determination are sometimes denounced as anti-Semites. Anti-Zionism is
falsely equated with anti-Semitism.
Zionist spokespersons who participate in the antiwar movement, like Rabbi Michael Lerner, have gone to the media to attack and redbait mass antiwar protests on grounds that they were led by anti-Semites and communists. The corporate media was more than willing to lend credence to these charges while at the same time declining to provide significant coverage of the events themselves.
The presence of Arab Americans, or Palestinians more specifically, on the platform of antiwar demonstrations has been similarly condemned by the
small core of Zionists, who reject self-determination for Palestine. To their way of thinking, the principle applies everywhere in the world, except to Palestine.
We have found that there is little substance to this argument today. Indeed, when mass antiwar mobilizations were organized less than two years ago
and a demand for the right of self-determination of Palestinians included, as well as a defense of democratic rights for Arab Americans under government
attack in the U.S., we saw an unprecedented mobilization of people of Middle Eastern origin. Some 30,000 Arab Americans mobilized to participate in the
mass demonstrations in San Francisco, with equivalent numbers in Washington, D.C. They instantly became a welcome and integral part of the antiwar movement.
The myth that a Palestinian demand would weaken the movement was dealt a stunning blow. The unity and breadth of the movement took a giant step forward when it stood firm against the government's post-9/11 anti-democratic mass witch hunt and imprisonment of people of Middle Eastern origin. Participants were proud to stand with the oppressed when they were denied the most elementary rights, including the right to know the charges against them and to be represented by legal counsel.
Defense of fundamental democratic rights for everyone must be factored into our common work. This includes the antiwar movement's elementary right to march down the street and to assemble in New York’s Central Park, to our right to be free from government spying, to the right of Arab Americans to be free from the Patriot Act or any other persecution. Without these fundamental rights, it can be said, without exaggeration, that the very existence of our movement is called into question.
The few Zionist individuals who protested the movement's support to Palestinian self-determination nevertheless grudgingly joined the demonstrations, deciding that their absence would do their cause more
harm than good.
Similar concerns have been raised with regard to the trade-union movement, especially when some officials who oppose the war object to the inclusion of a
Palestine demand. But here too, the objectors have been largely isolated. The general trend, as exemplified by the formation of U.S. Labor Against War, an organization that includes almost 200 labor affiliates, is toward increased labor participation in the antiwar movement. Few have been able to argue
effectively that defense of the rights of Palestinians has proven to be an obstacle in this regard.
In our view, and without detracting from our central focus on Iraq, support to the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination should be among the
demands of the antiwar movement. U.S. policy in regard to Palestine cannot be effectively separated from its policies in Iraq and the Middle East more generally. The destruction wrought on the Palestinian masses, including the bombing of their cities, their forced enclosure and mass imprisonment, has its equivalent in the wholesale destruction of Falluja and other Iraqi centers of resistance.
Democratic decision-making in the movement
The present national antiwar coalitions are essentially a reflection of competing political currents on the U.S. left and in the progressive
movement more generally. UFPJ and ANSWER tend to dominate their respective decision-making meetings by a variety of representational or voting formulas.
The early days of the Vietnam War saw similar formulas employed to supposedly provide for democratic functioning. But it soon became obvious that the 200 or so approved "delegates" making the decisions at antiwar conferences represented little more, and often less, than the thousand or more who participated as "observers" only.
The formal delegates claimed some form of representation by virtue of their appointment from a local antiwar committee, trade union, civil rights group, faith-based organization, or neighborhood committee. More often than not, however, the formal voting delegates turned out to be individuals more
committed to a political agenda than they were representative of a force capable of mobilizing large numbers for mass protests.
A great leap forward was taken when voting was extended to all the activists who sought to be represented in decision-making. National conferences
of up to 5000 voting participants freely discussed and debated the politics of the movement and decided its future course. The wide-open and democratic
conferences empowered everyone present. The real antiwar leadership was literally in the room. The movement became theirs.
No political group was capable of, or even considered, "stacking a meeting." The decisions reached were authoritative. The mass actions approved and organized were the largest in U.S. history.
The tradition of mass decision-making conferences, open to all and based on one-person-one-vote, became the norm for the Vietnam-era movement. Participants came representing trade unions with thousands of members and campus antiwar committees representing a few hundred activists. More often than not the campus groups proved capable or mobilizing more participants
than the trade-union formations, who nevertheless played a key role in bringing the ideas of the movement into working-class organizations.
The movement functioned as united-front-type organizations as opposed to classical united fronts. The classical or historical united front is a temporary association of mass organizations to achieve very limited and immediate objectives. If a striking union, for example, is under attack and faced with
scab-herding cops who threaten to break a strike, the broad workers' movement can be called upon to join the battle. The basic decisions regarding strike strategy, tactics, negotiations, etc., remain with the striking union.
Organization and control of the united front mobilizations emanating from the unity of the broader trade-union movement, its component parts, federations
or whatever labor structures exist, are determined by votes of the formal leaderships of these bodies. Where the components of the united front are democratically organized, the mobilized rank and file have a direct and immediate voice. But the united front principle is based on the collective mobilization of mass organizations to achieve specific and limited objectives. It is predicated on the capacity of unions to mobilize their ranks in massive numbers.
Today, there are few, if any, trade-union or other mass social organizations or political parties capable of periodically organizing their members for any
purpose, not to mention participating in antiwar demonstrations. Establishing voting formulas at antiwar conferences based on the actual membership of
endorsing organizations or any similar formulas is not an effective way to organize the movement. It is often effective in excluding the best activists.
When the point is reached that a reinvigorated and militant trade-union movement decides to engage its ranks in the struggle against imperialist war, the forms of the movement will qualitatively change. Under these circumstances it would be the height of foolishness to propose that a union, able to mobilize thousands, should have the same weight in an antiwar
conference or in any other gathering than a single individual, however prominent.
Today's national antiwar coalitions are far from representative of the present forces in motion. They are more closely associated with the political views
of small groups with very specific political agendas. While claiming hundreds, if not thousands of endorsements or affiliations, their policies are largely decided by a limited few.
The question of the movement's democratic functioning is far from resolved. As with every successful movement, we must learn from experience and find new ways to maximize the direct involvement and control of the activists on the front lines.
The present national antiwar movement has been and remains deeply divided. The very narrow ANSWER coalition operates with minimal input from the broad movement or its constituent organizations and activists. ANSWER calls national demonstrations with the expectation that others will have no choice but to join in.
It is not the purpose of this contribution to take sides on the issues that divide UFPJ and ANSWER. We have raised our central political and organizational
concerns for the input of our readers and concerned activists. We have sharp disagreements with both organizations while at the same time support all
Neither group, in our view, has moved to establish the mass democratic decision-making bodies that would have long ago eliminated the divisive rivalry that has too often distracted and confused the broader movement.
Neither has a clear vision of building the kind of mass independent movement that is a prerequisite for challenging imperialist war. This discussion will
continue as the movement faces new challenges and new opportunities.
A final lesson from the Vietnam War era is worth review. There were many times when very important differences threatened to deeply divide the movement and limit its capacity for mass action. In the main these were overcome when intelligent and flexible leaders from contending sides found a way to march together while retaining their own ideas.
Often the compromise included an agreement for a limited but principled call for a united mass action. Within this context and along with the corresponding
issuance of a common call and flyer, all components of the movement were free to produce their own literature and carry their own signs and banners. Platform speakers representing the counterposed viewpoints were also agreed upon, as well as a myriad of other speakers who expressed the breadth and diversity of the movement.
The antiwar movement has yet to resolve critical differences. Its best activists and leaders will continue to seek solutions that allow it to become a dominant power in U.S. society. Its initial organizational forms, as in the past, must eventually give way to the full and democratic participation of its ranks. Its independent and mass-action character must always be assured.