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Learning All the Wrong Lessons


It is unfortunately a little-known fact that thousands of high school and college students across the country organized walkouts against the war on January 20, marching as organized contingents to counter-inaugural demonstrations in Boulder, Colo.; Los Angeles; Chicago; San Francisco; Austin, Texas; and other cities.

At Seattle Central Community College (SCCC), students took a few minutes on their way out of the building to confront military recruiters–forcing them to flee under the protection of campus security officers. One of the recruiters, claiming student protesters flung newspapers and water bottles in his direction, told the Seattle Post Intelligencer, “They were all going by, making offhand comments and saying ‘no war.’ We just waved at them. Five minutes later, there was just a mob of 500 people surrounding the table.”

There is a student rebellion in the making, coalescing around opposition to the war and its military recruiters–with students by the hundreds defying threats of disciplinary action.

Despite their potential to transform the political landscape, however, the significance of these militant student actions has so far escaped the leaders of the nation’s established antiwar organizations.

Indeed, after fostering the illusion that supporting pro-war, neoliberal John Kerry represented the only “realistic” strategy for those who oppose the war, these antiwar leaders now seem to have learned all the wrong lessons from Kerry’s defeat in November.

Rather than seizing the opportunity in the months before the election to strengthen the antiwar movement as a clear alternative for the millions opposed to Bush, virtually the entire movement came to a standstill to support the Democratic Party’s chosen candidate–leaving those against the war with no organized expression to the left of Kerry’s “hunt down and kill the terrorists” mantra. Even as the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib surfaced, and the U.S. invaded Falluja and Najaf, finally flattening Falluja in November, the U.S. antiwar movement maintained its silence.


* * *
SINCE THE election, the antiwar movement is showing signs of revival, but the same leadership responsible for the movement’s hiatus during the presidential campaign is once again seizing the reins of control over the movement.

These antiwar leaders have yet to acknowledge their own role in the Kerry debacle, much less the antiwar movement’s decline. Most accept the view that Bush’s re-election provides indisputable evidence that “Christian values” and conservative politics dominate among the U.S. population–requiring those on the left to adapt yet further rightward in the aftermath of Kerry’s defeat.

United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) co-chair Bob Wing lamented recently, “Our original hope was that the movement would grow…But things have not worked out that way, and it is dangerous and unstable for a coalition to have a broader and deeper political unity than most of its member groups.”

Medea Benjamin, cofounder of the women’s peace group Code Pink, told the San Francisco Chronicle on January 23: “It was easier to mobilize people before the war. Now, many people have fallen into thinking that we can’t just cut and run.”

This pessimistic conclusion is somewhat premature–and disingenuous, since the antiwar movement itself has thus far failed to attempt to build an opposition that is clear on this question. On this basis, however, some antiwar leaders now propose continuing a self-defeating strategy for the foreseeable future.

As the headline of a January 16 San Francisco Chronicle story put it, “Bush Protesters Rethink Tactics: Critics hope to move beyond self-satisfaction of antiwar protests, gain wider voting base.” The article stressed antiwar leaders’ desire to retreat from organizing mass demonstrations in order to begin “preaching beyond the choir box.”

“We’ve got to start reaching out to people who don’t agree with us,” Leslie Cagan, United for Peace and Justice’s national coordinator, told the Chronicle. The paper’s report added, “In its recent short-term plan, the 850-organization umbrella behind many of the nation’s larger protests over the past few years conceded that ‘the antiwar movement must reshape its work.'”

In a follow-up interview, Cagan put forward some suggestions for reshaping the movement’s strategy, including greater emphasis on winning allies in Congress: “‘For instance, when Bush goes to Congress (later this year) with a request for another $100 billion for the war, we will do what we can to get a “no” vote.’ She adds, ‘It’s a long shot, but we’re going to try.'”

This certainly is a “long shot,” considering that Democrats have squandered the opportunity to define themselves as an opposition party. The main Democratic Party proposal on Iraq, in fact, is the introduction of yet more U.S. troops.

The speed and aggression with which U.S. imperialism has pursued its global aims since September 11 has been possible only because this is a bipartisan project, in which Democrats as well as Republicans have enabled all of Bush’s policies to pass, often enthusiastically.

The Institute for Policy Studies’ Phyllis Bennis drew out further implications of a Congressional strategy in widely circulated notes to the UFPJ steering committee, elaborating on the need to move beyond forging links with Democrats–to right-wing Republicans voicing doubts about Bush’s losing occupation strategy. “We need to figure out how to strengthen this popular [antiwar] opposition, perhaps linking it with growing elite and particularly right-wing opposition,” she argued.

While these antiwar leaders are looking upward (to Congress) and to their right (to conservatives) for allies, they are missing the radicalization gathering momentum below, among those rejecting their intended role as cannon fodder for the war who are already organizing protests outside the auspices of the established movement.

* * *

IN REALITY, U.S. society today is characterized by sharp polarization on virtually every social and class question, including the war–dividing workers, students and military families. This polarization was very much in evidence during the 2004 election, and has only grown in its aftermath.

The right wing only appears so dominant because of the absence of a genuine left opposition. Yet so many who led the U.S. left on its disastrous course have taken no responsibility for the results–a barely discernable political left in the face of a confident, coherent and growing right.

To influence Congress, our most effective tool is not compromise, but a confident, coherent and growing opposition to the Iraq occupation. We should exploit every division at the top, even between Republicans, but this can only be done effectively by wielding a clear ideological counterweight, backed up by mass forces.

Students organizing walkouts and sit-ins against the war are far in advance of the established antiwar movement in building this kind of opposition. It is worth noting that the vast majority of student walkouts have taken place not on elite campuses, but at working-class commuter colleges and high schools–the main targets for military recruiters seeking to prey upon working-class students facing the increasingly unattainable goal of a college education.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires high schools to turn over student contact lists to military recruiters. But some schools are affected more than others. For example, the exclusive (and private) Chicago Latin School, while receiving $40,000 in federal money last year, has not been asked by recruiters to turn over its student list for the last six years. “It’s a little embarrassing,” spokeswoman Evelyne Girardet admitted to the Chicago Tribune.

Students at working-class high schools, in contrast, receive regular calls from recruiters. “We do not want the military in our schools asking our friends and family to fight for a war that is wrong,” SCCC student Nicole Thomas argued, defending the student walkout. “We want recruiters out of our schools.”

These students–joining vets and active duty military resisters–are part of a growing rejection of the war among those expected to fight it, pointing the way forward for the antiwar movement as a whole.

An effective strategy must mobilize real forces around clear goals. And leadership is earned not by title or even words, but by action and results.

SHARON SMITH writes for the Socialist Worker. She can be reached at:

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