Why Mass Action?

The broad outlines of Socialist Action’s views on the centrality of mass mobilizations in building an irresistible antiwar movement have been published in previous issues of this newspaper (see Jeff Mackler’s article in our November 2007 issue). But some additional elaboration can be helpful at a time when activists are today discussing concrete measures to overcome the present impasse.

We’ve alluded in the accompanying article (“U.S. Antiwar Movement Falters”) to the main motivation for the liberal wing of the movement—i.e., its allegiance or orientation to the “lesser evil” Democratic Party as a vehicle for ending the war. But it’s worth noting that this is a double-sided phenomenon:

On the one hand, it means discouraging mass action in election years. But on the other, in order to serve as an effective force for the Democratic Party within the movement, groups like UFPJ must maintain their credibility by trying to appear in non-election years as the best and most democratic builders of mass actions.

Once the 2004 elections had ended, UFPJ reasserted its role in calling and organizing mass actions. And even if the Democrats win the White House this year, a similar shift toward mass action will likely take place in 2009. Thus, building the movement will be

impossible now with tactics that simply ignore UFPJ and its member groups.

In recent years UFPJ’s ability to avoid or thwart unified coalitions for mass action was made easier by the lack of democratic functioning and the radical posturing of other forces in the movement, such as ANSWER.

Another factor behind UFPJ’s ability to go it alone without repercussions from the ranks of the movement is a lack of understanding among some activists, both inside UFPJ and beyond its ranks, of the importance of mass action. Thus, complaints are often repeated: “We’re sick of national demonstrations,” “Going to D.C. doesn’t achieve anything,” and, as an inevitable corollary, “We need something different!”

Some civil disobedience or non-violent direct action advocates point to the recent blockage of military supplies in Olympia, Wash., as an example of something supposedly more effective. While the courage of the handfuls of protesters involved isn’t in doubt, the supplies were only stopped for a few hours. And repeating such actions in Olympia and elsewhere will do nothing to encourage the kind of mass turnout that can really stop such supplies for good.

When we get tens of thousands in the streets of port towns like Olympia, the workers on the rails and in the ports, both civilian and military, will begin to consider stopping these supplies themselves—and when they feel ready to do so it won’t be just for a few hours but until the war ends. But to get to that point, first we must regularly get hundreds of thousands and then millions in the streets of D.C. and elsewhere against the war.

In his 1970 speech, “Liberalism, Ultraleftism or Mass Action,” Peter Camejo, a leader of Socialist Action’s predecessor group, the Socialist Workers Party, explained the political and social roots of the desperate search for “new,” “more effective” tactics:

“Sometimes a liberal becomes frustrated not getting the ear of the ruling class, and he concludes that he’s been using the wrong tactics. So he adopts a lot of radical rhetoric. He says this ruling class is apparently so thickheaded that what we’ve got to do is really let loose a temper tantrum to get its attention.”

In contrast, said Camejo, revolutionaries with confidence in the working class “are not interested in moving 20 or 200 or several hundred community organizers to engage in some sort of civil disobedience, window trashing, or whatever. We say that is a dead end, because it doesn’t relate to the power that can stop the war—the masses.

“You can’t ask the 15 million trade unionists to sit in at a congressman’s office. There just isn’t enough room. Of course, the ultralefts know that 15 million workers aren’t going to do that, so that call is clearly not aimed at involving workers.”

Camejo continued, “This is the key thing to understand about the ultraleftists. The actions they propose are not aimed at the American people; they’re aimed at those who have already radicalized. They know beforehand that masses of people won’t respond to the tactics they propose.”

Complaints about the inefficacy of mass action were heard after every national demonstration during Vietnam, even though most of them were bigger than any demonstration yet held around Iraq except those just before and after the war’s launching. And during Vietnam, radicals like those of us now in Socialist Action argued year after year that the failure of any one national action to end the war just proved that we needed more of them and even bigger ones.

And in the end we were proven right: the war ended not because of any action by Democrats in Congress, nor because of any “new” or “different” civil disobedience tactics, but because of the cumulative pressure of mass actions in the U.S. and around the world, and the continued fight of the Vietnamese people.

Such mass actions engendered a mood encouraging resistance within our own military, which by the end of the war reached a virtual service-wide refusal to fight, as well as the proliferation of thousands of local groups engaged in daily organizing. But these more localized efforts were encouraged by the mass antiwar sentiment that the national actions generated and continually increased, rather than being seen as substitutes for such actions.

Even during the more favorable political conjuncture of the 1960s, the relative quiescence of the U.S. working class led some to a mistaken search for “new” tactics.

SWP leader Lew Jones, in his “Report on the American Antiwar Movement” to the 1967 Socialist Workers Party Convention, explained that “the antiwar movement in the U.S. has developed despite the absence of a mass anti-capitalist political movement and despite the relative apathy of the labor movement. The American political climate, dominated by the two parties of the ruling class, has from the beginning exerted constant pressure on the antiwar movement to adapt to its norms.

“Yet this movement, since its first action, has consistently pursued a course of mass action against the imperialist war in Vietnam.” Just as today, the movement faced three counterposed strategies, listed by Jones as (1) the organization of periodic, mass, antiwar united-front actions, (2) adventurist actions, which aim to substitute a handful for mass actions, and (3) the use of the antiwar forces as raw material for various class collaborationist electoral “peace” projects.

In order to secure a broad hearing for the first option, radicals during the Vietnam era organized and united local committees that represented that wing of the movement interested in mass, democratic, independent politics. Meetings and newsletters were used to facilitate communication among them and to educate and agitate for such politics in the broader movement.

The understanding of the need for mass action is a given in a vibrant workers’ movement. The fact that it is not in today’s antiwar movement, especially among activists who’ve become jaded after their first few actions, shows a lack of understanding of the real power in our society, the only power that can shut down that society when it finally feels confident enough to do so. Building that confidence requires at this point getting large masses out in the street in peaceful mass actions.

Lack of clarity on this key issue is understandable in the absence of mass movements, like those around civil rights, of the kind that inspired and reinforced the antiwar movement during Vietnam. But the years ahead will dramatically change that.

There is a mushrooming resentment and anger at the impact on the working class of job losses and wage cuts, home foreclosures, growing income inequality, the racist treatment of Katrina victims, the lack of health care, impending ecological catastrophe, and on and on. None of these attacks has yet led to a sustained, well-organized fightback, much less an independent, working-class-based party to lead such a fight.

But the mobilization of 50,000 against racism in Jena, La., the five million immigrants who struck on May Day 2006—even the failed but significant efforts to reject the Chrysler contract by autoworkers—point to the possibility that one or all of these attacks could turn resentment into actions involving millions of people. Should this happen it will be clear to the overwhelming majority of antiwar activists where power really lies in society, and what tactics are needed to draw on that power.