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Does the Antiwar Movement Have a Pulse?

Looking Reality in the Face

by TODD CHRETIEN

Hundred of thousands of people have marched against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and thousands have dedicated themselves to building the antiwar movement in the U.S. However, in addition to hard work, our movement needs an honest appraisal of its own strength to move forward.

As Socialist Worker has pointed out, the strong antiwar sentiment in the public generally has not been matched by antiwar action. On the contrary, the movement has grown organizationally weaker as the war has gone on, despite the deepening crisis of the occupation.

A significant part of the blame for this lies with the leadership of the largest antiwar coalition, United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ). UFPJ has pursued a strategy of "building a peace bloc in Congress" that has failed to gain anything concrete–while disarming the movement by tailoring activities to the needs of supposed Democratic Party "allies."

As Sharon Smith wrote recently, UFPJ’s plan to build a "’left-center coalition’…spells disaster for the antiwar movement" if it means making our demands acceptable to pro-war Democrats.

However, UFPJ’s main rival, the ANSWER coalition, has pursued policies that are just as damaging.

For one, ANSWER now claims that the antiwar movement is in its ascendancy. After the group’s national protest on September 15, national coordinator Brian Becker wrote: "100,000 March on Washington! A new movement is emerging…[with] features that made September 15 somewhat more akin to the militant marches and actions that became a characteristic feature of the movement that helped end the Vietnam War."

This is not a description of reality. By the accounts of people not connected to ANSWER who were at the protest, it was attended by no more than 10,000 to 15,000 people.

When Socialist Worker pointed this out recently, the Party of Socialism and Liberation (PSL), a key organizational component of ANSWER, responded with an editorial against SW’s "fallacious article bemoaning the supposed ‘weakening’ of the antiwar movement." PSL claimed instead that "[t]he antiwar movement is entering a period of heightened activism, protest and resistance. Hundreds of thousands of people will be in the streets in the coming weeks."

But is it helpful to pretend that protests are many times bigger than they actually are? No–it is disorienting for the movement.

Ask anyone who has worked with ANSWER, and they will tell you that its organizers always double the number of people at their marches. More recently, the multiplication factor has increased–last March in San Francisco, ANSWER claimed that 40,000 people attended a march which had, at most, 15,000 people.

* * *

UNFORTUNATELY, IF you ask antiwar activists, nearly all will tell you that we are correct about the low level of antiwar activity and movement morale right now. Pointing this out doesn’t mean we’re happy about it. On the contrary, the fact has to be addressed in a level-headed way in order to find solutions.

Rather than dealing with this real problem, however, PSL resorts to lying about the ISO. "It is notable," the group’s recent editorial continued, "that the ISO has never taken the initiative to mobilize a national mass antiwar action. Instead, the group is content with criticizing the work of others from the sidelines."

PSL knows very well that the ISO has mobilized for every major antiwar protest since 2001, whether or not–usually not, in the case of an ANSWER demonstration–we have been given a genuine chance to have input into how they are organized.

Moreover, the antiwar movement isn’t reducible to its largest national actions. Equally important is the work at the grassroots, doing counter-recruitment, antiwar union and student organizing, and GI resistance activities.

ANSWER’s longstanding top-down organizational methods exclude all but a small core of people from any real decision-making role. Becker claims that ANSWER is pursing a policy of a "united front" with many other antiwar forces. But the experience of most of the movement is that ANSWER is willing to share the work of building national and regional protests, but reserves for itself all the credit and control.

Thus, it is typical for ANSWER to set protest dates and announce them without even consulting the vast majority of antiwar organizations.

To take another example, while it is true that more than 100 organizations have endorsed the October 27 protest in San Francisco and are mobilizing for it, about three dozen people constitute the bodies that have made decisions about the march–and members of ANSWER hold sway out of all proportion to their presence in antiwar movement organizations and activities at the grassroots.

Such methods are not helpful, to say the least. ANSWER should not be blamed for the passivity of liberal antiwar forces like UFPJ in calling protests. But rather than working to overcome the organizational weakness of the movement by building collaborative relationships, ANSWER counts on this weakness in its maneuvers to maintain control bureaucratically.

The antiwar movement must become qualitatively stronger to make a difference. This week’s October 27 protests will be important, but they will undoubtedly be smaller than they should be, given the vast public sentiment against the war.

We all have to mobilize for and attend October 27 demonstrations. But we also need a serious and sober discussion about how to bring together all the parts of the antiwar movement truly dedicated to bringing the troops home now into a genuinely democratic and collaborative relationship–in order to become better organized and more powerful.

TODD CHRETIEN writes for the Socialist Worker. He can be reached at: ToddChretien@mac.com