Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Frontline Debate with the CPUSA on Reagan and the Vietnam Antiwar Consensus

First Published: Frontline, Vol. 1, No. 16, February 20, 1984.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Frontline Introduction: The following criticism of an article in the December 26 issue of Frontline appeared in the January 14 issue of the Daily World, newspaper of the Communist Party U.S.A. (CPUSA). It was written by Tim Wheeler, the Daily World’s Washington, D.C. correspondent. Frontline’s response was written by Irwin Silber, co-editor of Frontline and a member of the ,em>Line of March Editorial Board.

Daily World: ’Vietnam Antiwar Consensus Still Intact’

By Tim Wheeler

“Washington’s Offensive: Out of the Talking Stage” is the headline of an article by Irwin Silber and Victor Uno in the December 26 edition of the Bay Area publication, Frontline.

Silber and Uno cite Reagan’s invasion of Grenada, CIA warfare in Central America, the Marine combat role in Lebanon and deployment of Pershing II and cruise nuclear first-strike missiles in Europe.

“Taken as a whole,” they write, “these developments represent a major shift in U.S. foreign policy.” These moves, they charge, reveal a renewed readiness by U.S. imperialism to use military force as an instrument of its aggressive foreign policy.

They repeat a quote from The New York Times attributed to a “senior Reagan Administration official” that “one of our primary missions was to get Americans out of the Vietnam syndrome and get them accustomed, again, to the idea of projecting power overseas... Well, it’s worked.”

Then Silber and Uno continue, “Verification of this estimate came a month later when the invasion of Grenada won wide public support.... Clearly, the reversal of the post Vietnam antiwar consensus is a significant victory for the U.S. bourgeoisie.”

Silber and Uno accept as proof of this “wide public support” a number of big business media public opinion polls. Glumly, they charge that the “liberal opposition” to Reagan’s war drive has “collapsed.”


The invasion of Grenada was a criminal act of racist piracy that does, indeed, indicate Reagan’s readiness to push the world into the abyss of war. But to cite this invasion as proof that the “post Vietnam antiwar consensus” has been reversed is a dangerously erroneous conclusion.

The same polls Silber and Uno quote on Grenada indicate growing majority opposition to the Marine deployment in Beirut. Those polls show majority opposition, as well, to Reagan’s war in Central America. And they show overwhelming support for a mutual, verifiable U.S.-Soviet nuclear weapons freeze.

Silber and Uno are dead wrong in stating that the ruling class is united in support of Reagan’s resort to military force around the world. The ruling class is split down the middle on Lebanon. The Pentagon’s Long Commission report on the death of 241 Marines in Beirut revealed just how deep those splits are. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, it is reported, opposed sending the Marines to Beirut. Similar splits are widening on his policy in Central America and on Reagan’s crazed drive for nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union.

As for the liberals in Congress, they vacillate. But this is nothing new. They tend to shift whatever way the political wind is blowing. They should not be written off. Pressure should be stepped up demanding that they block his war moves.

I find it hard to fathom how Silber and Uno can write as they do, handing over to Reagan victories he himself knows he has not won, not in his wildest Grade B movie fantasies. Silber and Uno seem oblivious to the rising mass fightback. Aren’t they aware that ABC’s “The Day After” ignited a massive nationwide debate against Reagan’s nuclear war policy that involved 100 million or more people?


There is no reflection of the series of huge mass protests led by labor, the Afro-American people, and the peace movement in the past three years–Solidarity Day, the U.N. Peace March of one million, the March on Washington for Jobs, Peace, and Freedom last August 27, or the rising tide of fightback against Reaganomic takeaways signalled by the Greyhound workers’ heroic strike.

Silber and Uno hold up the “economic, political, military and ideological cohesion of the socialist camp” as a “profound material force” standing in Reagan’s way. They mention the “growing peace movement in the other capitalist countries.”

But the struggle to end the Vietnam War proved the indispensable role of the U.S. peace movement. We are in the “belly of the beast” and our activities have the unique power of giving the rapacious U.S. warmaker a paralyzing stomach ache. Our peace movement must not be downgraded or written off as Silber and Uno suggest.

I find it strange that they offer no estimate of the possibility of defeating Reagan and his retinue next November, as if it doesn’t matter.

Conditions have never been more favorable for fightback against Reagan’s war schemes. And it is possible because, despite Reagan’s efforts to reverse it, the post Vietnam antiwar consensus is still intact. That consensus, if fully mobilized, will remove Reagan and Reaganites in 1984.

Frontline: Official Optimism Won’t Build Effective Peace Movement

By Irwin Silber

The central condition for scientific communist tactics in the class struggle is the accurate assessment of objective conditions. This is what gives the shade of difference between the Communist Party U.S.A. (CPUSA) and the Line of March political center–as expressed in Tim Wheeler’s comment reprinted here–its significance.

The thrust of Wheeler’s comment is that Frontline overstates the degree of unity within the U.S. ruling class behind Reagan’s foreign policy and underestimates the popular opposition to that policy. Wheeler argues that the U.S. ruling class is seriously split over Reagan’s war policy and that Frontline is “oblivious to the rising mass fightback” which indicates that “the post-Vietnam antiwar consensus is still intact.”

By contrast, Frontline holds that the Reagan foreign policy reflects a ruling class consensus in support of a broad imperialist counter-offensive in order to reverse the pattern of setbacks suffered by U.S. imperialism over the past two decades. We believe that it is Wheeler who is oblivious to the fact that the ideological campaign accompanying this counter-offensive has significantly undermined the “Vietnam syndrome” to the point where it is no longer the political check on U.S. military aggression it was a decade ago.

To Wheeler, Frontline’s view amount to “downgrading” or “writing off” the U.S. peace movement. In fact, it is Wheeler’s unduly optimistic assessment of the caliber of the peace forces that will harm the struggle for peace by seriously underestimating the tasks facing communists in forging an effective antiwar movement

Let’s examine these differences more closely.


Certainly there are trepidations in sectors of the ruling class about Reagan’s conduct of U.S. foreign policy. But to appreciate the significance of these concerns and their potential political impact these must be situated within the unity which frames them.

Ever since the U.S. military defeat in Vietnam–quickly followed by Washington’s inability to bring military force to bear in order to prevent the MPLA victory in Angola, the ouster of the Shah of Iran, and the Sandinista triumph in Nicaragua–there has been a growing conviction in U. S. ruling class circles that the U.S. had to find the way to reassert its power in the world. The first major effort in this direction was made by Jimmy Carter who, using the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan as his pretext, took a series of moves–establishment of the Rapid Deployment Force, dropping SALT II, revival of draft registration, boycott of the 1980 Olympics, the Soviet grain embargo, etc.–designed to launch this counter-offensive.

Reagan’s complaint was that Carter’s program was too little and too late. He offered a more aggressive military buildup, at the heart of which would be an attempt to regain a first-strike nuclear edge over the Soviet Union.

It was on the basis of this program that the major sectors of finance capital put aside their well-known hesitations about Reagan and united around him as their preferred candidate in the 1980 elections. And since then, Reagan has kept the ruling class united behind the central pillars of his program. All major bourgeois forces advocate an increased military budget–the only contention is over how much and how fast Some prominent figures want a more conciliatory posture toward the Soviet Union–but even the most liberal elements came down on the side of installing the cruise and Pershing IIs, as pro-deployment editorials in both the New York Times and Washington Post demonstrated. There was no substantial ruling class opposition to the Grenada invasion, and neither is there any to the general policy of improving the “flexibility” of the U.S. armed forces to intervene anywhere in the world.

In short, what differences exist in the ruling class take place within the framework of an overall consensus in favor of the increased reliance on military force. Having given Reagan the go-ahead to pursue the imperialist counter-offensive, the general tendency in the ruling class is to back him up and not unduly curb his authority in any particular course of action. Thus, even in the present debate over Lebanon–the sharpest dispute within the U.S. bourgeoisie–the challenge to Reagan has focused principally on the indefensible military position of the marines stationed in Beirut.

Dissent, event at this level, can of course be quite useful at times. But it would be foolhardy in the extreme to conclude from such debates that Reagan does not enjoy a fairly extensive ruling class consensus behind the set of policies he has unfolded in order to reclaim U.S. imperialism’s fortunes in the world.


In undertaking to frustrate those policies, then, we must make an estimate of the relative strength and stability of those forces who stand in objective opposition to them. Here, illusions that the antiwar consensus forged in the course of the mass movement in opposition to the Vietnam War retains the breadth, influence and political leverage it did a decade ago can do great harm.

We have no quarrel with Wheeler about the existence of a residue of antiwar sentiment left over from Vietnam or the positive signs that the peace movement is once again upping its activity. But Wheeler uses these facts to distort the actual motion of U. S. politics over the last decade. The undeniable fact is that, relative to the mid-1970s, the bourgeoisie has succeeded in moving the terrain of national political debate decidedly to the right.

Just a decade ago, the initiative rested with those opposed to U.S. intervention abroad. The cry “that might lead to another Vietnam” was enough to cow all but the most reactionary figures and threaten political suicide for any who defied it. Yet today, Ronald Reagan–the very symbol of militarism and aggression –boasts that America is “standing tall” again and clearly holds the initiative in the 1984 presidential campaign.

The point is, four years of “patriotic” agitation and anti-Soviet propaganda have had their effect, and proved that vague support for peace and ideologically shallow sentiment that “our boys” shouldn’t die overseas are anything but a firm basis for an antiwar consensus. In fact, such sentiments can rapidly translate into support for Reagan’s “peace through strength” policies. (This is the sobering warning in the popular support for Reagan’s invasion of Grenada, which Wheeler so lightly dismisses.)

In the face of all this, to point to the level of peace sentiment and antiwar activity that does exist as evidence that “the post-Vietnam antiwar consensus is still intact” is the height of political complacency. This can be seen most graphically in Wheeler’s conclusion, which reduces the principal task before the communists to an organizational one–helping to provide the already existing mass consciousness with a political vehicle through which it can express itself.

Such a conception of the challenge before the communists today is wholly inadequate. Effective opposition to the Reagan war drive is not a jack-in-the-box simply waiting for someone to open the lid and let it erupt. Rebuilding a politically meaningful antiwar consensus cannot be based principally on the memory of U.S. body counts past or the anticipation of U.S. casualties in a future war.

It will require, in the first place, a sizeable corps of activists in a broader peace movement who are themselves united around a perspective prepared to challenge both the political objectives and the anti-Soviet and national chauvinist underpinnings–not just of the war drive –but of U.S. foreign policy overall. To make such a perspective a material force in the antiwar movement, it will have to rest on and become the expression of a social base in those sectors of the U.S. working class with the least illusions about their stake in the imperialist system, most particularly in Black and other minority communities. And finally, building such a movement will require a head-on polarization with those forces at the head of the trade union movement who are themselves the active ideological and political agents of imperialism in the U.S. working class.

Any underestimation of the scope of these tasks–any view which even hints that an effective “antiwar consensus” can be built without giving them central importance–is a profound political disservice to the cause of peace.

Beyond this political difference, however, there is a profound ideological component to this debate. At the root of Wheeler’s political mis-assessment is the classical error of “official optimism,” the pernicious view that only an emphasis on the most positive features of any given historical moment demonstrates confidence in the working class. Those who have substituted official optimism for Lenin’s view that ruthless objectivity is the hallmark of communists have done immeasureable damage to the communist movement–instilling in the communists the most debilitating complacency and training the advanced workers on a dose of illusions. (Lenin himself called official optimism “optimism in regard to opportunism.”)

Unfortunately, Wheeler and the CPUSA have raised precisely this error to the level of a principle. The CPUSA’s November 1983 23rd national convention was permeated by this theme, and party general secretary Gus Hall, in his main political report, unabashedly proclaimed it a central feature of the CPUSA’s outlook and strategic thinking:

The position of the working class in the line of march continues to change. There have been significant advances since our last convention. Our class has moved closer to the front of the line.... We must view all these developments from a rose-colored partisan class perspective.

To be sure, all communists are optimistic–in a broad, historical sense–about the role and revolutionary capacity of the working class. But to confuse this fundamental principle of class partisanship with a concrete assessment of the strength of the workers’ movement at any given moment can only undermine communists’ ability to prepare the working class for the tasks history has placed before it.