THE DEBATE AMONG antiwar activists on the necessity and movement-building effectiveness of mass demonstrations has been ongoing since the mid-1960s during the Vietnam War, and is not likely to be settled soon. I want to comment here on a related but different argument raised by David Grosser in his stimulating article on antiwar organizing strategy (ATC 150).
The author proposes, in partial counterposition to the tradition of coalition-sponsored “#8220;mass demos” whose energy seems to dissipate in the aftermath, the need to “#8220;build a real national organization” that can undertake nationally coordinated campaigns, whether that means Congressional pressure or other concentrations, as well as enabling “#8220;wide-ranging democratic discussion and debate” resulting in decisions that are carried out.
Grosser’s working model is the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), in which he’s a longtime active member. Having also participated in the CISPES during the 1980s, I can see the attractive power of the argument. CISPES was the finest movement organization I personally experienced, not only in the commitment of its activists but in its success in building local and regional structures — including the development of very impressive women’s leadership — and in promoting both national anti-intervention mobilizations and grassroots solidarity campaigns.
There’s a serious question about whether such an organization can be replicated in regard to the current U.S. imperialist wars and misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan-Pakistan. Much of the strength of CISPES arose from the fact that it responded directly to the inspiration of the popular revolutionary struggles in Central America, particular though not exclusively El Salvador. We learned from representatives of those struggles how they analyzed the situation and what they needed from a dynamic U.S. solidarity movement.
CISPES, in short, was founded and built upon a pretty high basis of unity of explicit support for an ongoing revolutionary struggle, and an informed but nonsectarian recognition of the various political currents within the FMLN-FDR that was carrying out that struggle).
The contours of the struggles in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan are quite different. While many activists in the antiwar movement, and certainly organizations such as Solidarity, do whatever we can in solidarity with the union movement in Iraq, secular socialist forces like Labour Party Pakistan and independent women’s organizations in Afghanistan, we cannot pretend that these forces or our own efforts carry the kind of weight needed to give authority to a “#8220;real national organization” of the antiwar movement.
The coalitions of today’s antiwar movement are formed on opposition to the disastrous, immoral and murderous U.S. wars and the threat of further catastrophic ones. They are not and cannot be inspired by centers of resistance in Iraq, or the Taliban, etc. Any attempt to form a common political stance toward such forces, or toward the Iranian regime, would be insane.
Given this reality, to say nothing of the highly divergent attitudes in the movement toward the Obama administration, it is difficult to see how Grosser’s appeal for a national organization with the structured, mutual democratic accountability of a CISPES — however desirable — can be accomplished. In the circumstances we are best served by a diverse movement that recognizes and celebrates its pluralism of creative tactics.
July/August 2011, ATC 153