Raising consciousness in the antiwar movement

May 1, 2006

The following is the full text of the speech prepared for the Left Forum at the Great Hall of Cooper Union in New York City on March 11, 2006. Becker participated in the panel “Debating Strategies in the U.

The following is the full text of the speech prepared for the Left Forum at the Great Hall of Cooper Union in New York City on March 11, 2006. Becker participated in the panel “Debating Strategies in the U.S. Anti-war Movement” in his capacity as national coordinator of the ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) Coalition. Other participants included Leslie Cagan of United for Peace and Justice, Rahul Mahajan and Anin Gupta.

San Francisco anti-war march, March 18, 2006.
Photo: Bill Hackwell

The last four-and-a-half years have been a remarkable period. In the aftermath of September 11 and in opposition to the U.S. government’s “endless war,” and especially in response to the preparations for the war in Iraq, a mass anti-war movement emerged. This movement has seen more than ten major anti-war mobilizations and countless days of actions where street protests took place simultaneously in hundreds of cities.

The ANSWER Coalition (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) was formed on Sept. 14, 2001, three days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We organized our first action against Bush’s “endless war” 18 days later, on Sept. 29, 2001. We were condemned by many on the left for demonstrating at an “inappropriate time.” But 25,000 people came out in Washington, D.C., sparking the start of a new anti-war movement.

These 25,000 people not only defied the right-wing patriotic hysteria of the period following September 11, but also the preponderant view of official liberalism that was scared witless and genuflecting before the Bush White House with its then 80 percent approval rating.

Since that time, ANSWER organized a demonstration on April 20, 2002 of 100,000 people explicitly in support of the besieged Palestinian people. It organized the first mass anti-war protests on both coasts prior to the Iraq war—200,000 on Oct. 26, 2002, and nearly a half million on Jan. 18, 2003.

Although the leadership of the United for Peace and Justice coalition declined our formal effort to enter into a united front for the mass protests in New York City on Feb. 15, 2003, ANSWER fully organized its transportation and mobilizing apparatus in more than 100 cities for the February 15 protest.

Since the war began, there have been similar mass actions in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and elsewhere.

Almost immediately, strongly divergent views developed within the anti-war movement that manifested frequently as a struggle over tactics and slogans. These differences really represented contrasting strategic orientations and, at their roots, different goals.

The united front strategy

The ANSWER Coalition upholds the strategy of the united front. That is, we believe that the principal anti-war movements should seek to march together even if they have divergent strategies, slogans and even goals. The united front is designed to maximize the participation of the largest number of people in the streets, in the struggle together against imperialism. The political struggle over strategy and orientation will continue—and continue without end—but this united front concept establishes the need to mobilize rather than fragment the anger and rage of the people against the government’s criminal endeavors.

Brian Becker, speaking, participates in the Left Forum debate, “Different strategies for the anti-war movement,” on March 11, 2006.
Photo: Roberto Mercado

ANSWER and United for Peace and Justice have mobilized together in a united front for three major mobilizations, the last one taking place on Sept. 24, 2005, which drew over 300,000 people in Washington, D.C. It was a vivid example of the power of a united movement. It was not united as “one big happy family,” not united in the sense of being free of major political and organizational struggles, but it was united in the sense of bringing the largest number of people together at one time and in one place to fight back against war, militarism, racism and colonialism and in defense of the working class and oppressed communities at home. Each of these united front efforts was initiated by ANSWER.

I want to emphasize that everyone tips their hat to the abstract concept of unity. But we mean unity based on the inclusion of targeted communities—especially the Arab and Muslim communities—in the leadership as well as the ranks of the movement. Unity means putting a top priority on explicitly fighting racism—the number one instrument of division within the United States.

How to build unity and what it means for the movement to become “broad” is the subject of enduring controversy. By broad, ANSWER means the inclusion of larger and larger sections of the working class and especially those who face endless racism and discrimination.

Different strategies and goals

In the short time available today, I want to focus on the question before this panel, which has to do with the underlying differences in the organizing strategies and goals of the different movements.

Since this is a socialist conference, I think that it would be worthwhile to reference our own history, which is the history of the socialist movement, on the question of how and by what methods we will fight war and militarism. The differences of today are in fact rooted in the history of our movement, the socialist and working-class movements.

Our starting point is that war is not fundamentally a policy of hyper-aggressive politicians. Rather, it is the inevitable expression and manifestation of contemporary advanced capitalism, which has emerged as a global system. We identify this system as imperialism.

Moreover, the presidency and the other elements of the modern capitalist state in the imperialist countries are, in the words of the Communist Manifesto, the “executive of the modern state” whose job is to “manage the common affairs of the bourgeoisie”—meaning, in this case, the imperialist bourgeoisie.

Unlike the groups in the peace movement who worked tirelessly to replace the person of Bush and the Republican Party with other capitalist politicians—they will do it again in the coming elections—we argue that the leading forces within the working class and progressive movements for peace are dangerously misleading the people into thinking that the government can serve the interests of the people. That the impulse toward capitalist war will be diminished if “we” can “take back the White House” or “take back Congress.” As if these institutions that only manage the “common affairs of the imperialist bourgeoisie” can somehow be transformed into instruments of peace and justice.

This outlook leads to a fundamental strategic error from our point of view. Those groups in the peace movement, who desire to “make the Democrats better” or push the Democrats to the left or draw the Democrats into assuming at least partial leadership for the peace movement, or function as our spokespersons, realize that the political program of the anti-war movement must then not be fundamentally objectionable to the Democratic Party. In fact, it requires that the political program and strategy of the peace movement be tailored in anticipation of the potential entrance into the movement by the Democratic Party or their institutional supporters in the labor movement or other movements.

Since the Democratic Party—as an organization that seeks to manage the common affairs of the U.S. imperialist ruling class—completely supports Israel, this requires that the peace movement avoid the full embrace of the Palestinian people’s just struggle against colonialism and an exclusivist apartheid state.

The Democrats, having fully embraced the Iraq war, are now seeing Bush’s weakness. They are trying to adjust U.S. imperial strategy in the Middle East—what Congressman John Murtha calls a “strategic military redeployment in the region.” At the same time, they are encouraging voters to leave the Republicans for Democrats.

But the Democrats supported and enforced the economic sanctions that killed more than a million people in Iraq. They supported the war, and they support the idea of creating a pro-imperialist stooge regime in Iraq. They are even more bellicose than Bush against Iran.

A ‘left face’ for imperialism?

The logic of this strategy toward the Democratic Party is that the peace movement should be the left face for the imperialist government. Its slogans call for a “democratic foreign policy”—as if imperialism and capitalism will hear our appeals for humanity and for peace and somehow revolutionize itself out of existence.

We have no interest in building a mass movement that will function as the “loyal opposition” for a system that is in its essence imperialist. In the name of reaching “broad and center forces,” this will leave the movement as a tail to the imperialist beast.

Instead, we believe that movement should return to its roots. That has been the underlying foundation of ANSWER’s strategy. While our slogans and language must be popular in presentation and tone, our strategy toward war should be rooted in that famous declaration by the parties of the Second International that met in an Extraordinary Conference in Basle, Switzerland, in 1912.

The worldwide socialist movement at that time anticipated that a new imperialist war was in the offing—just as we know, with absolute certainty, that U.S. imperialism is embarked on endless and repeated wars and interventions against all governments that seek to retain even nominal political and economic independence.

In 1912, the socialist delegates meeting in Basle pledged that it was the “duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives … to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of the war.” Should the war break out anyway, the socialists agreed to an international strategy where each party would “utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.” This was the essence of a strategy that became known as revolutionary defeatism.

Our goal today—a century later—is not to help imperialism become more peace-like. Rather, it is to build an independent working-class movement in the United States that seeks to radically transform society. We seek to upset and disrupt the capitalist system and build a working-class movement that is based on a socialist understanding of the nature of imperialist war. To this end, we draw the connections between class oppression at home, national oppression and racism at home and the system that requires the oppressed classes to regularly agree to function as soldiers, as cannon fodder, for those who oppress them.

This consciousness will not come about as a result of activism alone. Socialists in the anti-war movement must use all their energy and creativity in fusing the day-to-day movement with the goal of creating a genuine anti-imperialist political awareness among the tens of millions of people who are disgusted and disillusioned with Bush’s criminal war. This is a far different political strategy than “taking back the Congress in 2006” and “taking back the White House in 2008.”

Articles may be reprinted with credit to Socialism and Liberation magazine.

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