BY JEFF MACKLER
Alexander Cockburn’s Sept. 4-6 “CounterPunch Diary“ hit piece against the U.S. antiwar movement, “Deeper into the Tunnel,” merits the serious attention of all antiwar fighters and organizations. This is not so much because of the spurious accusations he hurls against Socialist Action and this writer, as well as others whose socialist politics offend him, but rather because of his serious misunderstanding of what it takes to build a united-front-type, democratic, and effective antiwar movement.
Here we are speaking of a movement powerful enough to organize a massive and successful challenge to the ongoing and expanding U.S. imperialist wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan as well as the ongoing U.S. support to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Cockburn’s newfound libertarian bent, cheap-shot politics of denunciation, ad hominem assertions, and factual distortions are no substitute for the present discussion and debate over effective strategies and tactics to counter the warmakers, force them to “Bring the Troops Home Now!” and accede to the movement’s powerful demand, “Money for Human Needs, Not War!”
I begin this response to what Cockburn describes as the “craven behavior of the leadership of the October 17 anti-war protest in San Francisco” with Cockburn’s own words: “On August 29, the October 17 Coalition voted to endorse a protest at the Westin-St. Francis, one of the city’s flashier hotels, the following Friday where San Francisco Congresswoman and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was to be honored with a $100 a plate breakfast. But by the end of the day the October 17 coalition leadership got cold feet when it learned that the host of the breakfast was none other than the San Francisco Labor Council.”
Cockburn continues for emphasis, “There’s nothing new here. Genuflections to the Labor Council has long characterized San Francisco’s anti-war movement leadership when it comes to determining its public agenda.” Cockburn’s fury is unremitting, as his memories or misinformed sources summon him back to the 10-year battle against U.S. intervention in Central America and the Caribbean in the 1980s and early ‘90s.
Says Cockburn, “In the spring of 1985, Israel was in its fourth year of occupation of Lebanon after an invasion that had been publicly supported by the AFL-CIO with no dissent from San Francisco’s labor bureaucracy. The main organizer of both of those marches (1985 and 1988) was Socialist Action. In its newspaper this group regularly boasted of its anti-Zionism and solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Nonetheless, in this instance Socialist Action promptly turned into Socialist Inaction. The group was adamant about not allowing any demand that referred to the Middle East to be added to the Mobilization’s program. The limp excuse: ‘labor will walk.’” Cockburn adds: “It was considerably more difficult for Socialist Action and its allies to ignore the Palestinian intifada in 1988 but again they rose to the challenge, managing to appease the Labor Council by doing so. This required Socialist Action to cancel a general meeting of anti-war activists that quite likely would have led to the addition of a demand for an end to Israeli occupation.”
“Today,” Cockburn surmises, “we find the very same Socialist Action leader, Jeff Mackler, longer of tooth but no closer to socialism, taking unilateral action to prevent the picketing of the Labor Council breakfast for Pelosi.”
For the record, the date of the meeting in question was August 15, not August 29, and the name of the organization mobilizing in the San Francisco Bay Area against U.S. wars and against U.S. support to the Israeli Occupation of Palestine is the October 17 Antiwar Coalition, a new formation that is a component part of an effort to unify in action a badly-divided movement. To date, some 150 antiwar groups and prominent individuals across the country have called for antiwar demonstrations on October 17. Each has determined its own demands, structure, and leadership.
The S.F.-based coalition includes Bay Area affiliates of all five major national antiwar coalitions and networks—the National Assembly to End the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and Occupations (National Assembly), to which I am affiliated and help lead, the ANSWER Coalition, United for Peace and Justice, World Can’t Wait, and the International Action Center.
Cockburn, the CounterPunch co-editor/publisher, objects to the fact that I set aside a motion presented by his apparent model antiwar leader, Steve Zeltzer, whom he praises to the high heavens. In fact, after consultation with the coalition’s leadership, I did cancel the previously approved Nancy Pelosi protest—a decision I stand by. Cockburn thinks it irrelevant that Zeltzer’s motion, approved unanimously (30-0) on August 15, failed to inform the meeting that the Pelosi protest was to be at a Labor Day breakfast sponsored by the San Francisco Labor Council or that our coalition was not to be merely an endorser of the protest, as Zeltzer originally moved, but the one and only sponsor.
It was my view, shared by all of the above groups and virtually the entire coalition, minus Zeltzer, that the October 17 Antiwar Coalition had the right to know exactly whose event it was protesting. Zeltzer disagreed and later e-mailed his displeasure to all concerned as follows: “I did not mention that it [the Pelosi protest] was sponsored by the SF Labor Council and should have but I did not believe that this should make any difference since the protest was against Pelosi and not the SF Labor Council”! [Emphasis added.]
One can only wonder if Cockburn shared this view that our coalition’s knowledge of what event we were to be picketing should not “make any difference.” It occurred to me, however, as the coalition’s co-coordinator, that I had a responsibility for full disclosure once I learned of the protest’s target. I premised my decision on the quaint concept that the ranks of a coalition have the fundamental democratic right to know what they had truly voted for. It seemed elementary that at least some, if not everyone in the coalition, would contest the delusional contention that we were picketing “Pelosi and not the SF Labor Council.”
Indeed, Cockburn himself concluded that the Labor Council needed a good kick in the butt, or as he put it, to be shaken from “its apathy on the war questions and about its choice of Pelosi, a war supporter, as its breakfast honoree…” Apparently he forgot to consult with Zeltzer on what the protest was about!
Cockburn seems qualitatively less concerned with the democratic functioning of the antiwar coalition than he is with reiterating his point that the “antiwar movement” is dead—that is, charging “Deeper into the Tunnel.” The “Tunnel” allusion presumably means getting closer to the Democratic Party.
Here Cockburn misses the central point. The October 17 mobilizations across the country are squarely directed against Obama’s War, the war today conducted with the full support of the Democratic Party. Our coalition’s program, demands, and mobilization are independent of and in direct opposition to the war policies of the Democratic Party. Further, the construction of an independent, democratic, and “Out Now!” antiwar movement has always stood at the center of Socialist Action’s work. As we will see, this is not the case with critic Cockburn, who found his way to supporting John Kerry’s presidential run in 2004, the Democrat who trumped Bush’s “surge” by demanding an additional 30,000 troops to imperialism’s killing fields.
While Cockburn may mock the need for democratic functioning in the antiwar movement, I assert that democracy is critical to the movement’s success. We will not advance our cause by either Zeltzer’s devious tricks and maneuvers behind the backs of the ranks or Cockburn’s twisting of the facts to advance his false claim that our coalition is subordinate to the Democrats.
Whether or not to picket a Labor Council Labor Day breakfast to which warmaker Nancy Pelosi was invited was an important but tactical question. Opportunities to protest Pelosi’s pro-war politics and party are not infrequent in the city that she misrepresents. Indeed, October 17 Antiwar Coalition leaflets were distributed by coalition leaders at a Democratic Party-sponsored “health-care reform” rally a few days before the scheduled Labor Council breakfast. Pelosi was the scheduled keynote speaker at that rally.
Including the labor movement in mass protests
How to approach the labor movement and engage its ranks—and the vast numbers of unorganized workers as well—in the essential mass protests that are sorely needed today is not an unimportant issue. It is a decisive question. It seems eminently more reasonable to approach the organized labor movement patiently and with due care, as opposed to the prescription of the Cockburn/Zeltzer club—that is, a mass picket line outside the Labor Council breakfast, which would carry with it the implied demand: “Don’t pass.”
This applies doubly to the beleaguered San Francisco Labor Council, which is currently faced with an Andy Stern effort to disaffiliate three SEIU locals at a monthly loss of some $17,000 in dues. Cockburn neglected to mention that key leaders of the Council, who were also leaders of our antiwar coalition, (unfortunately not present when the controversial vote was taken) had gone to great lengths to express their disapproval of the Pelosi invitation.
It’s true that the present bureaucratized labor movement will not be transformed overnight into a democratic fighting instrument of the working class. But it is equally true that the fight to win the active support of organized labor for mass protests to “Bring the Troops Home Now!” is important—extremely important. Yes, there is a contradiction in the S.F. Council supporting the Democratic Party, as do virtually all labor organizations in the country, while at the same time supporting mass mobilizations against the same party. While labor’s political break with the class enemy is not on the agenda today, the value of its involvement in action in the streets in opposition to the policies of capital cannot be underestimated.
Cockburn’s sleight of hand in describing the Council’s record understates the facts. The San Francisco Labor Council not only opposed the 1991 Gulf War—at the request of this writer and the mass-action coalition organized by the Cockburn-condemned Mobilization for Peace, Jobs and Justice—but it organized a contingent of 10,000 Northern California workers to march against that war.
More recently, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union initiated a one-day strike and closed down all West Coast ports from Canada to Mexico. They struck for a single demand, “U.S. Out of Iraq and Afghanistan.” In 2006 five million immigrant workers shook the nation with a May Day strike against proposed reactionary anti-immigrant legislation.
In all these cases the same contradiction prevailed. The ever-deepening capitalist offensive moved millions of workers to the streets. They protested the reactionary policies of the Democrats and Republicans although the leaders of these mobilizations remained committed to the illusion that the warmongering and anti-immigrant Democrats offered a way out.
This contradiction will not be resolved overnight and especially not by tricking honest antiwar fighters with devious motions to expose the S.F. Labor Council today and request its support tomorrow. I should add that we have recently been informed that the San Francisco Labor Council will support our October 17 action and make a good faith effort to mobilize Labor Council affiliate support for it. This is the same and rather unique Council that has supported virtually all major antiwar demonstrations in the Bay Area for the past 40 years.
A further note should be of interest here. Cockburn was perhaps not informed that the S.F. Peace and Freedom Party, which had also endorsed the Pelosi protest, revoked its endorsement when informed that it was directed against the S.F. Labor Council. Cockburn might not have known that S.F. Peace and Freedom was also Zeltzer’s party and that it had disassociated itself from Zeltzer’s motion.
Palestine and the united front
Cockburn found it convenient to ignore the fact that the October 17 Antiwar Coalition in San Francisco included in its several demands one that stated, “End U.S. support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine!” That demand, along with “U.S. troops out of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan!“ “Money for jobs, pensions, healthcare, housing and education not wars and corporate bailouts!” and several others, were proposed by this writer. These were also the demands recommended to the antiwar movement for the October 17 local and regional protests initiated in Pittsburgh by the summer conference of the National Assembly to End the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and Occupations. They were duly considered by the coalition and adopted unanimously.
Unfortunately, historian-journalist Cockburn felt that this was insufficient for me to atone for my “sins” of 25 years ago. I judged at that time, along with hundreds of others in a coalition that I had helped to found—the Mobilization for Peace, Jobs and Justice—that the united-front-type mass-action movement that was needed and possible at that time could not be effectively built with the formal inclusion of a Palestine demand.
Coburn, a bit of a red-baiter when it suits him, prefers to place the responsibility for this decision solely on me and Socialist Action rather than on the regular mass meetings of 300-500 activists and organizations—including all seven Bay Area Central Labor Councils and 100-plus union presidents, faith-based groups, and scores of others—who democratically voted to do so.
Then as now, Mr. Zeltzer and a few of his cohorts cast the handful of dissenting votes. Then as now, Zeltzer believed that the construction of a united-front mass-action coalition against imperialist war was subordinate to the need to denounce the union bureaucracy, that a movement that included all his demands was preferable to the mobilization of the working class and its allies to prevent U.S. intervention in Central America.
Cockburn’s view was not that of the Salvadoran FMLN and Nicaraguan FSLN of the 1980s, whose representatives always supported our coalition and used its mass-action rallies to defend their right to self-determination. They understood the constraints on our movement at that time. And likewise, the Palestinian fighters understood the centrality of the Central American revolutions in progress, which were in the immediate gun sights of U.S. imperialism. Some 400,000 Guatemalans, 80,000 Nicaraguans, and 80,000 Salvadorans lost their lives at the hands of U.S.-backed death squads and armies in these struggles.
Moreover, although the united-front mass mobilizations of that period focused on the immediate threat of U.S. intervention in Central America, they hardly excluded the active and full participation of the Palestinian movement. They joined our mass actions, were prominently represented on our speakers’ platforms and were more than encouraged to participate with their contingents, banners, and placards. The cause of the Palestinian struggle was advanced, not retarded, for the simple reason that it was incorporated into powerful mass mobilizations that engaged in action qualitatively more forces than would have been the case had our coalition been sharply divided.
Yes, we could have marched down the street with a full “revolutionary” program and a hardy few behind us. We chose instead to bring along hundreds of thousands whose participation informed them, far better than any slogan or demand, that we represented the majority, that the government did not represent us, that we were independent of them, that we had power, that we were not an isolated few but the conscience of the nation. This is the stuff that makes history—not rhetoric. Mass action empowers those who engage in it. It opens the gap wide between government lies and the people’s truth. It is the essence of the united front.
Today, much of the antiwar movement has included a key Palestine demand. One can only wonder what is to be gained by attacking Socialist Action for fighting for its inclusion. I confess to Cockburn’s “accusation,” that Socialist Action’s newspaper regularly championed the Palestinian cause. I would add that we were virtually alone in championing the historic Palestinian demand for a democratic and secular Palestine with the right of return. We rejected and still reject a “two state solution” as a violation of the Palestinian right to self-determination.
Then as now, Socialist Action denies the legitimacy of the Zionist state—as our movement did since 1948. Such a Zionist, colonial, racist settler state would be codified, along with the establishment of a Bantustan-like Palestine, essentially under Israeli control, should the “two-staters” have their way. That was not the position of “two-state” Alexander Cockburn in the 1980s, and perhaps today as well.
Contrary to Cockburn’s allegations, Socialist Action’s support to the Palestinian revolution was not limited to articles in our press. We took the cause of the Palestinian people to as broad an audience as possible and through a variety of vehicles. During the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians at the hands of Israel and the neo-fascist Lebanese forces it aligned with, we led an international solidarity campaign that reached scores of countries, and we helped publish a full-page, $50,000 ad in the New York Times entitled, “End All Aid To Apartheid Israel!” Coupled with our conscious efforts to include the Palestinian community in the mass actions during those years to the maximum extent possible, our record exceeds anything that Cockburn and his past or present sideline critics ever dreamed of.
The antiwar movement in the 1980s, as with all social movements, had its own peculiarities. Some 17 national unions had joined the Labor Committee for Democracy and Human Rights in Salvador led by trade unionist David Dyson. It was not uncommon in those times for the movement against U.S. intervention in Central America to receive support, funding, and active participation by trade-union leaders and members, who were motivated by the fact that the U.S.-backed Salvadoran dictatorship’s death squads regularly murdered trade unionists, and who were still fresh from the experience of mobilizing against the Vietnam War.
Similarly, the Salvadoran government’s murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the related slaughter of Cleveland nuns based in that country brought a cry of outrage and mass mobilization from the Catholic Church and others in the religious community.
The anti-nuclear weapons movement, demanding, “Freeze and reverse the arms race!” was likewise energized when Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, Gen. Alexander Haig, threatened to use nuclear weapons against the USSR. Similarly, the South African government’s racist apartheid polices were hated in every corner of the progressive movement. As a result, demands on the U.S. government relating to all these issues were based on social foundations capable of mobilizing tens of thousands in the streets, thus exposing the contradiction between what the American people demanded and what the government delivered.
Although the formal inclusion of a demand on Palestine was not possible at that time, we struggled to find a myriad of ways to integrate the fight for Palestinian self-determination into the mass mobilizations that were on the order of the day. We did not denounce the movement in progress and stand apart from it, as is Cockburn’s preference today.
Socialist Action’s modest forces were not capable of overcoming the reactionary prejudice against the Palestinian people and the prettification of the Zionist colonial settler state of Israel. Had we made Palestine the dividing line between us and the forces that were prepared to mobilize, we would have lost the united-front coalitions that were a prerequisite for the mass challenge to imperialist war. Rather than abandon the Palestinian cause, as Cockburn charges, we found numerous ways to include it and advance the process of educating those who were not yet prepared to understand its importance.
Cockburn is correct in stating that Socialist Action believed in the 1980s that “labor would walk” if a Palestine demand were added. Sadly, many other groups that were critical to the movement would have done the same. How to deal with this fact of political life was what was under consideration. Cockburn and his cohorts considered the same equations and concluded that the united front and mass action to defend revolutions in progress and immediately threatened with U.S. intervention were of little consequence.
Today, Cockburn chooses to howl at Socialist Action once again. He rejects my judgment that “the time bomb was ticking” in San Francisco He mockingly quotes me to make his point. He rejects my view in the same e-mail to wit: “Had we not acted as we did, we might have lost the coalition or a good portion of it.” Unfortunately, he offers no proof to substantiate his rejection.
For Cockburn, proof is unnecessary. But for me, the choice was obvious. I had consulted with all the major forces in the coalition and all were opposed to the Pelosi Labor Council protest. Had we pressed forward with the protest, we would have lost the fragile unity and coalition that is so sorely needed today. We would have also risked the formal support of the S.F. Labor Council and all other councils in the Bay Area for the October 17 action.
Today the October 17 Antiwar Coalition remains united, and with it the prospect remains of organizing a sizeable demonstration against Obama‘s and Pelosi’s war in the most difficult of times for the U.S. antiwar movement and other social movements.
Mass action vs. individual action
Cockburn opens his Sept. 4-6 “CounterPunch Diary” tirade against the antiwar movement and Socialist Action with a long quotation from his libertarian co-thinker John Walsh. Walsh, who today speaks from the CounterPunch platform, slams sectors of the antiwar movement, including its pro-Democratic Party and more reluctantly antiwar components, for not joining Cindy Sheehan in her call for a Martha’s Vineyard protest against Obama’s wars—the same kind of protest that Sheehan initiated at George Bush’s Crawford, Texas, residence. Walsh attributes the “deafening silence” (the title of his CounterPunch piece) that Sheehan asserts was the reaction to her Martha’s Vineyard call, to the subordination of the movement to the Democratic Party.
There is significant truth to this view. The Obama-mania factor—that is, the massive but now diminishing illusion that an Obama presidency would bring an end to U.S. imperialist wars—has served to dampen the immediate potential to realize the majority sentiment against the war in mass mobilizations against it. But there are other factors involved in the movement’s decline in the past several years that have been fruitfully analyzed by many. They include the momentary paralysis of millions in the face of unprecedented attacks stemming from the current capitalist economic crisis, and the demoralization of many in the movement who should know better, resulting from the apparent absence of a national liberation movement in Iraq and Afghanistan that shows promise of a united anti-imperialist struggle based on a program of social liberation.
As important as the latter is, socialists and other longtime antiwar fighters understand that the potential for the emergence of such a movement in the Middle East can best be realized by the forced withdrawal of imperialist troops. Or, put another way, the defeat of the world’s greatest superpower at the hands of the oppressed people of the Middle East and the U.S. antiwar movement would open the door wider than ever to the unification of the imperialist-divided forces inside Iraq and to the emergence of social forces capable of reorganizing and strengthening the present resistance on a more advanced social and political basis.
In the meantime, the vast majority of Iraqis and Afghanis despise the U.S. intervention and have every reason to fight back with any means at their disposal.
Cockburn’s championing of Cindy Sheehan’s heroic and individual example, however meritorious, serves no useful purpose when it is counterposed to the building of united-front-type formations aimed at mobilizing millions. However important the individual in history might be, the collective and massive actions of the many have proved to be history’s mechanism for every progressive social change—anti-capitalist revolutions included.
Indeed, Cockburn tips his hand when he cites and publishes libertarian John Walsh as a source of justified dismissal of the antiwar movement, which Walsh charges as refusing to announce and support the Sheehan protest. Says Walsh in CounterPunch:
“However, not everyone has failed to publicize the event. The Libertarians at antiwar.com are on the job. And its editor in chief Justin Raimondo wrote a superb column Monday on the hypocritical treatment of Sheehan by the ‘liberal’ establishment.
“As Raimondo points out, Rush Limbaugh captured the hypocrisy of the liberal left in his commentary, thus: ‘Now that she’s headed to Martha’s Vineyard, the State-Controlled Media, Charlie Gibson, State-Controlled Anchor, ABC: “Enough already.” Cindy, leave it alone, get out, we’re not interested, we’re not going to cover you going to Martha’s Vineyard because our guy is president now and you’re just a hassle. You’re just a problem. To these people, they never had any true, genuine emotional interest in her. She was just a pawn. She was just a woman to be used and then thrown overboard once they’re through with her and they’re through with her. They don’t want any part of Cindy Sheehan protesting against any war when Obama happens to be president.’”
With Rush Limbaugh as a source, it must be true! Walsh continues: “Limbaugh has their number, just as they have his. Sometimes it is quite amazing how well each of the war parties can spot the other’s hypocrisy. But Cindy Sheehan is no one’s dupe; she is a very smart and very determined woman who no doubt is giving a lot of White House operatives some very sleepless nights out there on the Vineyard. Good for her.”
Cockburn’s source and Walsh’s libertarian disciple, Justin Raimondo, also praises neo-fascist Pat Buchanan’s isolationist foreign policy views while neglecting to mention that their libertarian credo espouses “No to U.S. government intervention abroad, and no to U.S. government intervention at home!” (see Raimondo at antiwar.com).
One will not find website mention among these libertarian right wingers of any demands for “Money for human needs, not war.” These free-market laissez-faire capitalist libertarians, who originated in the Libertarian Caucus of the Republican Party, believe that Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” regulates all and serves all. Government must stay out of the way, they insist. They reject outright any demands that corporate profits or government funds be allocated to those whose labor creates all wealth and who are daily robbed by the capitalist system. Liberty for the reactionary social Darwinist libertarians today means every person for themselves! Rhetoric aside, when push comes to shove they are warhawks of the first order to boot!
Cockburn’s last-minute advice on the 2008 elections marked a break from his 2004 admonition to support Democratic Party billionaire John Kerry, who sought the presidency with a campaign to the right of Bush on imperialist war and “national security” issues.
Reluctantly rejecting a vote for Obama, he concludes his column by condemning this “far from socialism” writer by urging his CounterPunch devotees to “read the portions of the Libertarian Party Bob Barr’s platform on foreign policy and constitutional rights.” The libertarian’s pseudo-radical anti-interventionist foreign policy, equating fascism with socialism and ranting against all “collectivist” ideologies (See Raimondo at antiwar.com), bases itself on the view that an unimpeded capitalist individualism is essentially humanity’s way forward. (CounterPunch conveniently highlights “foreign policy” within the article for an easy click to the Libertarian Party website.)
Libertarians increasingly find their way into CounterPunch’s pages and website, including joining with Cockburn’s oft-stated and dangerously reactionary view that the “Jewish Lobby,” and or AIPAC—as opposed to the U.S. ruling class—weighs heavily in the determination of U.S. foreign policy.
As with all left liberals, “lesser evil” politics remain central to their political arsenal. Cockburn is no exception. He concludes his “CounterPunch Diary” with some advice on “How Obama Can Save His Presidency.”
“Now it should be payback time,” says Cockburn. “Obama’s pledge to the American people [should be]: Cheney and Bush behind bars by 2012, plus Gonzales, Yoo, Addington and the rest of the pack. We crave drama. From Obama we’re not getting it, except in the form of racist rallies. This is his last, best chance.”
For lesser-evilists, Democrats always get one more chance! For socialists and all serious antiwar activists, the building of an independent, democratic, united, mass-action, “Out Now!” antiwar movement is a more serious alternative—as is joining the socialist movement to challenge the capitalist system as a whole.
I conclude this response by cautioning readers to pay close attention to Cockburn’s politics, an eclectic combination of self-proclaimed “left-leaning” radicalism with an increasing dose of carefully camouflaged right-wing libertarian demagogy. As for Cockburn’s unsubstantiated charges of 25 years ago that Socialist Action used bully tactics to prevent a Lebanese speaker from expressing her views or that Socialist Action cancelled mass antiwar meetings to prevent consideration of the Palestine issue, I suggest that Cockburn be more careful with his sources in the future. All such accusations are patently false.