What is an Antiwar Movement?


Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are hopeless hacks, claims Lenni Brenner here on the CounterPunch site a couple of days ago. They should be avoided by any pure and peace-loving activist, but then Brenner argues that Louis Farrakhan, who believes white people were created by an evil spaceman, who is profoundly sexist and anti-Semitic, who was involved in the murder of Malcolm X and thinks up-from-the-bootstraps bean-pie businesses is the economic panacea–this guy should be embraced and invited to antiwar rallies. Why? Because he hates Israel and lots of black people listen to him. Really? He’s a charlatan, a crank, his MMM was a bust, but he can bring them out? People listen to him? He’ll bring out the black masses?

Even if this were true, flip it around: Lenni Brenner would never disregard Jackson’s political failings in the same way for the sake of bringing out the masses. When Jackson was more popular and more courageous about Zionism — do we really think he was attacked in 1980, 84, 88 just because he was black? — Lenni had no time for him because he attached himself to the Democratic train. Ok, fine. But it’s disingenuous to overlook everything about Farrakhan simply because maybe with him in its corner the white peace movement will become less white and bolder against Zionism.

It seems to me that the nature of a mass movement (and the antiwar movement is still pretty small-scale compared with the one forty years ago) is that invariably it attracts a lot of people focussed on one objective who may not all agree on every other objective under the sun. UFPJ has 1,300 member organizations, local, regional, national. Some of them are more radical and take broader positions; some just do actions against the war; some just do vigils and are spiritually oriented; some do vigils and political education; some are veterans groups or military families groups that range from having an anti-imperialist philosophy to having no particular philosophy, only anger that their kids are dead or could be.

UPFJ could have 1,350 more, that connect the war with the failures in New Orleans, the failures in health care, the multiple disasters for the poor in every locale of the country. Should all those 1,350-plus be gathered up into a room to hammer out a policy on Saudi Arabia, on the contours of a Middle East settlement (one state, two states, who’s listening?), on Islamic fundamentalism, on Jewish fundamentalism (and let’s throw Christian in there too), on the nature of racism in America, on reparations, on US reliance on oil? Should they have a policy on the car, on greenhouse gasses and global warming, on the Kyoto Accord, on Arctic drilling?, on the two-party system, on the Greens vs. the Labor Party vs. Ralph Nader, on organized labor and its various dicey positions, on the tax advantages for organized religion?

Three of the top staff people in UFPJ are gay, should UFPJ’s member organizations all have a policy on gay rights, gay marriage, homophobia, the family, heterosexism around the world. The president of Namibia, for instance, is ruthless against gay people even as the black masses there are being rallied against Israel for its support of apartheid and counter-revolution in Namibia. So why not also use the occasion to educate on the murderous, discriminatory sexual policies of the Namibian government?

If antiwar forces were to stick totally to Iraq, should they hammer out a unified position on the resistance, on the validity of suicide bombing in theory and practice, on this insurgent faction vs. that, on anti-American fundamentalist woman-haters and gay haters, on the Shiites vs. Sunni vs. Kurds, on the myriad factions within each of those groups and within the Iraqi labor movement, on Iran, Turkey, the dream of an independent Kurdistan?

Lenni Brenner initially takes a let-1000-flowers-bloom approach, locally, then gets caught up in which national organization has a better record on its laundry list. Then, having pooh-poohed mass rallies in Washington DC (and there’s much truth in what he says) he talks about mass rallies with presumably better headliners (Farrakhan). The fact is that the speechifying at those big rallies is mostly bullshit. People come to those things because they want to march, they want to be counted. The rallies are designed solely to satisfy the interests or demands of the organizers, and when ANSWER and UFPJ were working together, used solely as bargaining chips (I’ll see your Ramsey Clark with my Jesse Jackson, and I’ll raise you Al Sharpton).

This lunacy has resulted in the standard march now having two interminable rallies at each end, before and after. The marchers mill around talking to their friends, talking on their cell phones looking for their friends, while each side’s speakers drone on and all kinds of petty bickering that no one but the organizers care about goes on in the stage wings.

I’m all for Brenner’s argument about education, debate etc. UFPJ is timid, but ANSWER has never shown interest in real debate or education either. ANSWER, in its various permutations, has been clever because it feeds off the discontent of more radical forces within the antiwar ranks who want a sharper line, an ideological framework. But in the immediate post 9/11 period when the peace forces were first getting themselves together you had debate a-plenty, and it was ugly, hateful, extremely well-orchestrated on the side staked out by the International Action Center and absolutely futile.

The people who’d gathered initially (about 400) because they opposed a military response to 9/11 and opposed an attack on civil liberties dwindled over a matter of weeks to about 50, maybe fewer, who still had the stomach for the ‘debate’. Somehow opposing war and domestic crackdown was not enough. I remember a black union member being rebuked because he ventured to say that it might be a good idea to embrace the Bill of Rights. Whole bilious evenings were spent debating the question of whether the word “justice” can be used anymore by any true-blue antiwar warrior because Bush used it, and because, after all, it’s used constantly by racist cops and prosecutors, by lying politicians, by imperialists and their dupes in the UN. Email flamers spent hours instructing others on the political crime of producing and distributing a red, white and blue peace sign button (this was a few weeks after 9/11, in NYC, when most people were still walking around like zombies). The remnant of this exercise went on to form the two national organizations.

Now it’s looks as though political conditions are ripe for the development for a mass resistance movement in this country and it’s still not enough to say Out of Iraq! Throw the bums out! I don’t think political consciousness develops because some clever bunch of political purists somewhere has typed out an agenda and then somehow launched a major education campaign to get everyone in line. I think it starts because people are disgusted by death and lying, because they become too acquainted with suffering, because they get together with other people similarly disgusted. In the best vision that initial disgust becomes deeper and more complex, and Out of Iraq! becomes Out of Israel, Out of Palestine, Out of Venezuela and the whole damn empire business. And harder than any of those out-out-outs is the realization that American power will not make things better with better front-men, that ‘humanitarian intervention’ is a trap, that the result of some of those ‘outs’ in the short term may be very ugly and the discomfort of dealing with broken illusions (Gosh, Iraq turns out not to be a democratic secular state even though that was always on our leaflet) is also a matter of political consciousness.

It’s interesting to read contemporaneous accounts of the early Depression, with demos and riots in this city and that, on the steps of this municipal building, at the job sites or factories of this city and then that. This grew and grew, and the CP took advantage of it, the CIO took advantage of it; eventually it was all consolidated, with mass protest and the sit-down, and the result–liberal reform. Same with the civil rights movement, all those little actions, all those courageous stands, ultimate consolidation into numerous larger groups and the same result. Now ANSWER puts Martin Luther King’s face on every poster. In the 60s they would’ve called him a chump, an Uncle Tom who should shuffle off the stage of history. And is the lesson of those earlier mass movements that liberal reform is crap, that nothing was gained because extracting concessions from the state is worthless short of revolution, that if only the masses had followed this person or group rather than that person or group we’d now have the antiracist socialist utopia?

You can’t think about US policy in the Middle East without thinking about Zionism and Palestine, but the antiwar movement isn’t a movement against US policy in the Middle East, broadly speaking; it isn’t even a movement against war in general, even though it includes confirmed peaceniks. Lots of people who are furious about Iraq think Afghanistan was just fine (the labor resolutions, for instance, are never against the war in Afghanistan). Brenner is saying it should be a movement against US policy in the Middle East, oil policy, imperialism. That would be nice; I just don’t think broad political opposition ever develops this way, and I certainly don’t think it develops because some people at the top of national organizations have decided to draft a line or debate with each other.

The movement against the Vietnam war, broadly speaking, didn’t begin as a movement against US policy in all of Southeast Asia or all of the Third World or against US imperialism. Some parts of it went that way, but I don’t think the whole thing ever did. And that was at a time when everything was swinging and so much more was up for grabs–pushed by the black movement, the women’s movement, the gay movement, the farm workers and Chicano movements, the Puerto Rican independence movement, the environmental movement, the consumer movement, etc.

By comparison, the political terrain on the left today is desolate, so the fact that a majority of the country opposes the war, and hundreds of organizations across the country act against it is kind of remarkable. Somehow it doesn’t seem to be the best tactical approach, given the conditions, to try to destroy that by enforcing a broader agenda from on high. Should these little organizations have fora and debates etc. on the broader issues? Sure. But I don’t think there’s much useful to come from detailed pronunciamentoes from ANSWER and UFPJ headquarters.

It doesn’t seem that we have learned enough about human nature, about exhaustion and despair and false dreams, about the power of the state to kill or dismantle opposition, about the seductiveness of capital and the fruits of co-optation, and about how all of these combine to stop the train at the point of limited liberal reform and then roll back. It would be a really limited victory to force US withdrawal from Iraq. Would it not be a victory? (Lenni Brenner seems to assume that it’s only Zionism that’s the real hang-up among antiwar forces; when the US leaves Iraq and it becomes a theocratic state that stones women and gays, don’t you think there will be recriminations and denunciations among all those peace people now who only reluctantly have come to support the Out Now! position? There are divisions like crazy among people who oppose the war.) It might be a “limited victory” to make every Congress person who supported the war either climb down the way Murtha has or be chucked from power, but would it not be a victory all the same? Would there not be many other battles remaining? The problem is in thinking any victory is final, and therefore in believing every battle must engage every ill for that final victory.

JoANN WYPIJEWSKI can be reached at jwyp@earthlink.net



JoAnn Wypijewski is the author of What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo: Essays on Sex, Authority & the Mess of Life.