The following article was first published in Proletarian Revolution No. 38 (Winter 1991).
Since January 16, hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets across the United States to demand an end to the war against Iraq. Opposition ranges from a majority of American blacks, who know they will do a big share of the fighting and dying in the desert, to Catholic bishops who deny the war is just. It includes trade unionists who have broken from the AFL-CIO’s super-patriotism. But the protests have been led mainly by middle-class liberals with leftist pretensions who work overtime to prevent anti-war sentiment from becoming anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist.
Nevertheless, the liberals have been unable to prevent the political differences among those who oppose the war from having their impact. One example: in December the movement was shaken by a scandalous split; the two organizations that led initial anti-war activities announced rival Washington demonstrations a week apart in January. Although they claim to believe that united mass protests are necessary in order to stop the war and save thousands of lives, the leaders put their own petty rivalries ahead of united action.
Before and after the two rallies, many activists denounced the split and demanded a truce. We fully share their outrage over this contemptible sectarianism. But the pleas for unity generally ignore the real problem: the liberal politics of the “Coalition” and “Campaign” that made the split possible and even inevitable. A warning is necessary: this scandal will have been only a way-station on the way to disaster, if the liberal peace forces maintain their domination over anti-war activities.
The Coalition to Stop U.S. Intervention in the Middle East tries to position itself as the more left of the two groups. Fronted by Ramsey Clark (Attorney General under Lyndon Johnson) and run by the Workers World Party, it was the main builder of the October 20 rallies, especially in New York, and the January 19 march in Washington. The Coalition adds a “third-world” gloss to its liberal stance by avoiding criticism of the Iraqi regime, on Arab nationalist grounds. But its stifling internal life prevents any discussion of genuinely radical alternatives. This reflects the pro-Stalinist WWP’s admiration for “socialists” like Deng Xiaoping and Nicolae Ceausescu.
The rival Campaign for Peace in the Middle East contains students and leftists repelled by the WWP’s handling of the Coalition. Its main base, however, is among middle-class peace groups who oppose the Coalition from the right. Thus its pre-war Draft Political Statement condemned Iraq’s invasion as well as the U.S. build-up; ostensibly this was a “plague on both your houses” stance, but it allowed the Campaign’s backers to endorse the U.N. sanctions against Iraq. Since these were war measures against the Iraqi population, this amounted to supporting imperialist militarism while rejecting an all-out war.
The Campaign still invokes the imperialist-led U.N. as the authority that can provide a solution. And it calls for “respect for the self-determination of the Kuwaitis, Palestinians and all other people in the region.” This equates the mass intifada struggle with Bush’s defense of Kuwait’s rulers and implies that the oppressor Israeli state has the same rights as its Palestinian victims.
The decision to hold two separate marches was made at the Campaign’s December 1 meeting in New York. The Coalition had already chosen January 19, and there are conflicting claims over whether Campaign organizers had agreed to this date. The Campaign majority gave various arguments for January 26, but its real aim was to outflank Workers World. Sentiments expressed included anti-communism by the right as well as justified outrage by the student and left groups at the WWP’s top-down rule and race-baiting.
Ironically, the Campaign’s right wing lost a vote to include condemnation of Iraq and reliance on the U.N. as slogans for January 26. That meant that the rival marches had identical official platforms. Nevertheless, despite this vote, the most prominent speakers on January 26 delivered the patriotic pro-imperialist line.
When the Coalition and the Campaign presented their differences in the Guardian (Dec. 19), the Coalition made a seemingly strong case by attacking the pro-U.N. views of Campaign elements. It cited Campaign-led demonstrations in the fall that chanted “Sanctions, Not War,” “Support Our Troops,” and “Embargo Yes, War No.” A published response denied the first of these slogans but not the others. And all are compatible with the positions of Campaign loyalists like the Communist Party, the Democratic Socialists, SANE/Freeze and the War Resisters League.
The Campaign’s open toleration of sanctions is good reason why no revolutionary could endorse it. Of course, attending its demonstrations while voicing opposition to its pro-imperialist politics is a different matter. But if the decisive thrust of specific rallies was to support sanctions rather than oppose the war, as the Coalition suggested, then they would have been objectively pro-war actions, and counter-demonstrations would have been called for.
In any case, the Coalition has no right to criticize the Campaign over sanctions. Its record is little better, only more ambiguous. For five months its literature and banners did not denounce sanctions; even its January 19 Mobilizer, didn’t mention the word. Speakers from its platforms have reinforced illusions in the U.N., not combatted them. Ramsey Clark, in an article the Coalition distributes (Los Angeles Times, Aug. 24), called for U.N. action and urged “Full support for regional, Arab and United Nations diplomatic efforts and actions to end and not escalate the crisis"—as if making peace is the U.N.’s real role.
One of the Coalition’s initial five principles was “Support for peaceful diplomatic efforts to end the Gulf crisis.” This accepts the legitimacy of the U.S. presence in the Gulf and running the show, a “right” due only to its imperial might. It means that the imperialists, their pawns and Saddam Hussein get to decide the fate of the peoples of the Middle East and recarve the turf and the profits. So much for self-determination and popular rule.
The best to be said of the Coalition is that it did not openly support sanctions. But it takes nerve to claim credit in the radical press for a firmness against sanctions it did not exhibit in public. Clearly it came up with its anti-sanctions gambit in the Guardian as an after-the-fact cover for its liberalism and its share of the mutual sectarianism.
Like the Campaign, the Coalition is dedicated to keeping the anti-war movement safe for liberal politicians who may eventually decide that this war is not in the interests of imperialism. That is why the Coalition muffled its objections to sanctions, and why it strengthened illusions in the Democrats by calling for “legislation to prohibit the president from usurping war powers delegated to Congress” (another of its original principles.)
Subsequently the Coalition altered its political stance. Once the war started, with sanctions no longer the issue, it finally came out against them for all to see. It also dropped its demand for legislation defending the War Powers Act. (See its Stop the War! bulletin issued Jan. 19.) But it kept the “peaceful diplomacy” principle and now demands an “international peace conference” to end the war, according to coordinator Gavrielle Gemma (Newsday, Feb. 5.) These unexplained partial changes are cheap maneuvers to justify the Coalition’s claim to be more radical than the Campaign.
Exasperated by the two coalitions’ moderation, other blocs took shape. One, the Stop the U.S. War Machine Action Network, was launched by the Revolutionary Communist Party and included some student activists and radical celebrities. Its special interest is support for soldiers seeking conscientious objector (CO) status and otherwise resisting going to the Gulf.
The Network also claimed to be a firm left wing, based on its statement that “only the world’s people—not the governments—can stop this impending war.” True, it didn’t endorse U.N. diplomacy, but it didn’t denounce sanctions either. One leader pointed to its statement that the war must be opposed “no matter who sanctions it,” but this was an evasive formula designed at best to give the impression that the Network opposed sanctions without doing so.
As to conscientious objection, the Marxist view has always been that pacifism in any form is a poison for the working class. (See the LRP’s, ’No Draft’ Is No Answer!) Working-class youth need to learn the use of guns and other weapons—not to fight in the bourgeoisie’s wars but to defend their own class in the class struggle. We oppose all capitalist armies and will volunteer for none. But when drafted for imperialist wars, communists and other class-conscious fighters take their turn with their fellow workers and use the opportunity to proselytize and organize in the armed forces for the defeat of imperialism. The net effect of draft dodging is always that the upper and middle classes leave working-class youth, especially blacks and Latinos, to do the fighting and dying.
The anti-Vietnam war movement in its early years generally advocated seeking CO status (as well as escaping to Canada). This had the terrible consequence of condemning, as implicit supporters of the war, the vast majority of black and working-class draftees who had no such option. Only later did a substantial wing of the movement gain enough class consciousness to work among the soldiers and help crystallize their opposition to the war.
At present, the military is not drafted but is recruited, mainly among working-class youth who see it as the only route to better their skills and gain an education. No wonder the proportion of minority youth is high. While we defend anti-war soldiers who risk jail by refusing to go to Saudi Arabia, we argue against this strategy and against conscientious objection. Here too it is working-class youth, who cannot afford the job risks that come with CO status, who remain to do the fighting. Today’s army is not a typical “foreign legion” of mercenaries; the struggle for the minds of the working class needs revolutionaries among the exploited and deceived “volunteers” in the desert.
Today as always, the pacifists try to mobilize students against the war by raising fears of a draft. But in reality the capitalists will be reluctant to move to a draft even if the war stretches out. A drafted army in an unpopular war is a time bomb—they know it, we know it, and all anti-war activists should understand it. As well, pacifism is no way to fight imperialism. Opposition to the war recruited on pacifist grounds will be part of the problem, not the solution, as the state turns up the patriotic pressure to deepen exploitation and class war intensifies.
Much of this article is adapted from one written before the war for our pamphlet, The Politics of War. In it we said:
The refusal by all the coalitions to take a clear stand against sanctions is a political crime. Majority opinion among the American public is turning against Bush’s war-mongering, but it tends to fall back on ’Let the sanctions work.’ If popular sentiment stays at this level, it can be turned into pro-war opinion should the sanctions fail to force Saddam to withdraw.
Moreover, public acceptance of the U.N. embargo is dangerous even if it doesn’t lead to immediate war. Accepting sanctions amounts to accepting American imperialism and its right to decide on governments, war or peace in the Middle East (and everywhere else).
This proved precisely true, as public opinion swung behind the war. But the movement leaders continued their adaptations to imperialist patriotism.
The question of imperialism defines a decisive line of difference among those who oppose the Gulf war (but not between the Campaign and Coalition). There are those who oppose the war to save U.S. imperialism from unpopularity at home and further hatred and mass uprisings abroad. They want to cut imperialism’s losses, not its throat. Then there are those who know that imperialism is the cause of war and must be uprooted. The problem is that the main anti-war organizations’ political programs are presented as “least common denominator” agreements but in reality promote liberal imperialism.
Given the Campaign’s implicit support for sanctions, it is remarkable that several “communist” organizations (FIT, FSP, ISO, Socialist Action, Solidarity, SWP) chose to work in it. We do not suggest abstaining from actions against the war because they may include people who have illusions about Congress, the Democrats or the U.N. But to build an outfit whose program encouraged enforcing the embargo is nothing short of a capitulation to imperialism. That left-led coalitions do their best not to offend the Democrats confirms the old Leninist point: middle-class “peace” protests set the stage for war.
At the January 26 rally in Washington, a major slogan was “Support Our Troops; Bring Them Home Now,” accompanied by a panoply of U.S. flags. For many activists this sentiment expresses their hatred of sending American youth to kill and die for an unjust cause. But the liberals use these feelings to create a defensive adaptation to the patriotic propaganda flooding the country. “Support Our Troops” is above all the warmakers’ motto. To them it means “Support Our War"; it corrupts and dulls human feelings against war and turns them into their opposite. The slogan also promotes the poison of American chauvinism: the idea that American lives are more valuable than others’.
Worse, working-class activists should have no feelings of solidarity with some of “Our Troops.” The officer corps, the “lifers,” the elite pilots and others whose life missions include killing for imperialism are mercenaries in the true sense and enemies of humanity. Anti-war leaders who push “Support Our Troops” have a lot to answer for.
Bush & Co. are gloating over the supposed end of the “Vietnam Syndrome,” the unwillingness of the American public, after going through an unjust and unwanted war, to accept any more such ventures. Today’s peace leaders have their own Anti-war Syndrome, the assumption that current anti-war sentiment will shape up as a replication of the Vietnam-era peace movement (or at least their image of it).
Liberal politicians were at first absent from the anti-Vietnam war movement, even when they were ready to forsake the war as a losing effort for imperialism. That was true even though “the movement” was raising only demands that they could readily accept ("Bring Our Boys Home"). The liberals did not join until they could be assured that a “peace police” was in charge, in the form of the SWP, the CP and others who thought it necessary to keep the movement from becoming too radical for bourgeois tastes.
These leaders machined the movement into a tool for liberal Democrats. Organizers who saw themselves as radicals and revolutionaries ensured that the movement turned a moderate face toward the public. Their conception that they were working for a higher cause enabled them to reign in the militancy of a movement which instinctively sought to go further. Their own ostensible views—for example, that imperialism and war could be overcome only by socialist revolution—were pushed aside. Their rationalization was that the public was not ready for hard, jarring alternatives: people moving from right to left had to pass through liberal anti-war positions first, they imagined.
But that is not how political development necessarily occurs. Many joined the anti-war struggle through a radical leap. “Make love, not war” gave way to revolutionary rhetoric. Black followers of Martin Luther King’s pacifism turned to the militant anger of Malcolm X and later the gun worship of the Black Panthers. Students got fed up with vapid liberalism and its support for imperialism: SDS transformed itself from a broad reformist melange into a nest of varied tendencies whose self-conceptions were adamantly revolutionary. Many students joined groups which called themselves Trotskyist, Maoist or Fidelista.
Tragically, the political limitations of all wings of the movement meant that the war ended without imperialist liberalism having been exposed. The left anti-war leaders proved to be the vanguard of the middle class, not of working-class socialism. True, the U.S. did not face the prospect of an immediate socialist revolution. Nevertheless, if the left had fought for a revolutionary opposition to imperialism rather than filling the liberal vacuum, the war would have ended a lot sooner, since a revolutionary threat always forces bourgeois concessions more rapidly than reformist protests. The liberals would have been gravely weakened, and the left would have created a far more powerful force than the handful that now exists committed to building a revolutionary working-class party.
Instead, liberalism’s new lease on life led to the bleak political landscape of today, where only six members of Congress voted against Bush’s war—and anti-war organizations are led by Vietnam-movement veterans who no longer know that the enemy is imperialism.
If imperialism is not combatted, the result will be even more dangerous today because economic conditions are far worse. With the bourgeoisie launching a new assault on all layers of the working class, the need to fight back becomes desperate. Many working and middle-class people are drawn to pro-war positions because they want to hit back; at least “we” are not letting Saddam get away with his attacks. If workers do not see a way to battle Wall Street and the rich, many will be induced to “kick ass” against those who seem to be the problem—blacks, Hispanics, Arabs, Japanese or Koreans. Pacifistic banners strewn with doves will be rejected with scorn. The only force that can offer a hard alternative is a revolutionary party that tells the truth about class relations and world politics.
Fascist groups in the U.S. today are small, but it is important to note that they oppose the Gulf war—for their own reasons. They demagogically raise anti-war slogans against Wall Street, big oil, the banks—and the Jews, whose support for Israel allegedly drew the U.S. into war. As well, the reactionary (but not yet fascist) wing of conservatism represented by Pat Buchanan supports the war but doesn’t like it. Their program is a Fortress America freed of foreign entanglements that can crack the unions and stand up to Germany and Japan economically. Under conditions of mass war weariness, these forces can reap the harvest of plebeian anger, for which the pacifists and liberals offer no solution. A similar development is occurring in some Islamic countries, where religious fundamentalists have taken the leadership of explosive anti-war struggles.
The revolutionary answer can come only from authentic communists. Our alternative to imperialist war is civil war, the class war against the bosses. The right-wing demagogues cannot advocate such a struggle, but neither can the pro-liberal left. As the masses grow more desperate and society polarizes, the moderate left will become even more so. We are not yet in the situation of Germany in the early 1930’s, when the reformists moved to the center and let the Nazis win the middle classes and many workers. But our period can stage the dress rehearsal for such a scenario.
The first obligation of revolutionaries is to tell the truth. We do not hide our answers to the horrors of capitalism and imperialism. We say that the underlying problem of the current anti-war movement is its overwhelmingly middle-class nature and its domination by bourgeois politics. A movement that can halt imperialism’s military adventures will arise when the working class finds the true connection between the intensifying attacks against itself and capitalism’s war drive.
A working-class anti-war movement will be a genuine united front, unlike the Campaign and Coalition. United fronts are based on unity in action: all who oppose the U.S. war should build common protest actions, with no requirement for political conformity, not even a common slogan. No agreement is needed except on the time and place. In joint action, all have the right to raise their political programs and slogans and to criticize others. There is nothing sectarian about this: all who oppose the war, whatever their illusions, are welcome.
In contrast, the present coalitions have specific platforms, but the people who attend their rallies do not share—or even care about—their “principles of unity.” The purpose of official slogans is prevent critics of the liberals from reaching the podium and to ensure that the public faces of the movement voice only patriotism and pacifism.
As the need for real action grows more apparent, many of the best activists are drawn into anarchist violence (e.g., flag-burning) that has no more consequence than the pablum parades. Working-class politics demands class action as well as formal marches. That is why we work for labor strikes against the war, labor embargoes against war goods and protests led by the working class.
Unlike the Coalition and Campaign, we do not call for “an orientation toward” the working class and the unions by the current movement. We do not ask workers to follow liberal programs; the working class must build its own political leadership, the revolutionary workers’ party. To this end we fight inside the working class to raise its consciousness of how the world works. We explain that U.S. workers have far more in common with workers in the Middle East than with their class enemies at home. We make no secret of our intention to urge our fellow workers to take the leadership of the anti-war struggle and turn it into an all-out class war so that imperialism can be halted for good.
The working-class’s self-mobilization—to defend its living standards, to end racism and oppression in all forms, to prevent war—opens the door to transforming society. The fighters who understand that imperialist war can be fought only by class war should join with us in the struggle to build the revolutionary proletarian party.
Lenin and Trotsky took every opportunity to expose “centrism,” that multi-hued political tendency that uses revolutionary rhetoric to defend reformist positions. Despite its radical analyses and postures, centrism typically flinches and vacillates instead of drawing clear-cut conclusions. We offer some examples.
First, the International Socialist Organization’s paper Socialist Worker, January issue. In an article headlined “The real enemy is at home,” the ISO argues against the mistaken evenhandedness that would condemn Iraq as well as the U.S. But it doesn’t cite the U.S.’s imperialist role as the fundamental difference between the combatants, although it boasts of its own “anti-imperialist politics” elsewhere in the issue. More significantly, it doesn’t draw the anti-imperialist conclusion: defend Iraq!
Apparently the ISO thinks it tactically wise to leave unsaid what “the real enemy is at home” really means: side with the non-imperialist enemy of your ruling class. That equivocation reveals centrism in bold colors.
Another example is the Workers Socialist League, which also pulls back from going all the way. “We give no support to Saddam Hussein,” says Workers Review. “At the same time, the role of imperialism in the Middle East is the primary question for U.S. workers."
So it is. But why so shy about the primary answer?
The Freedom Socialist Party built an Internationalist Contingent in Seattle in January, before the war was under way. Despite an arm-long program, these “internationalists” forgot to oppose the imperialist sanctions against Iraq. When they brought their creation to New York, they added “No Sanctions,” but by then the war was on and they neglected to mention “Defend Iraq.” They’ll get around to that, maybe, when the U.S. has already invaded somewhere else.
We point out these derelictions from honesty and principle because of our stress on building the revolutionary party. That task requires revolutionaries not to follow an all-wise leadership but to develop a firm understanding of capitalism and the methods of authentic communism. As Trotsky noted, revolutionaries “say what is.” Others don’t.