“The master class has always declared the war; the subject class has always fought the battles […] ‘Yours not to ask the question why; Yours but to do and die.’ That is their motto, and we object on the part of the awakened workers.” Eugene Debs, 1918.
By Orlando Torres.
As we mark the 15th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Trump regime spends millions launching a new round of missiles against Syria, a resurgence of the antiwar movement is as urgent as ever. The stakes could hardly be higher: the United States maintains over 800 military bases around the world; ongoing U.S. intervention in Syria risks direct confrontation with Russia and Iran, which would escalate the already-catastrophic war into a conflict of global proportions; US military aid to Israel ($38 billion over ten years) continues to enable the murder of Palestinians and the ongoing occupation of their land; U.S. drones continue to blow up civilians in Yemen, Somalia and other countries; and, despite the dubious prospect of direct talks between Trump and Kim Jong-Un, the threat of nuclear war with North Korea is far from over.
But since the first election of Barack Obama in 2008 and the withdrawal of most (though by no means all) U.S. troops from Iraq, the dynamic antiwar movement of the 2000s more or less collapsed—effectively reduced to a small cluster of organizations and coalitions without a mass base.
As anti-imperialist socialists, how can we mobilize working people for mass action and build a resilient antiwar movement in the Trump era? In this piece, we look back at the history of antiwar struggle in the U.S. and argue that, to rebuild the movement in the current sociopolitical context, we must use the United Front tactic, maintain complete independence from capitalist war parties, and actively weave anti-imperialist demands into vibrant local movements centered around immigrant rights, better working conditions, healthcare, education, housing, resisting police violence, etc.
This was the strategy that Workers’ Voice and many other organizations pursued in building the April 15th Spring Action 2018 in Oakland, with its call to “end US wars at home and abroad”.
On the Shoulders of Giants: The proud tradition of anti-imperialist struggle in the U.S.
Any serious attempt at rebuilding the antiwar movement must start by learning from and honoring the rich, anti-imperialist legacy of workers and oppressed people in this country.
From the time of the Mexican-American war (1846-48)—when U.S. troops invaded Mexico City and imposed the territorial annexation of California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado— there has been a current of opposition to U.S. wars of conquest and plunder. Indeed, during the invasion of Mexico, the abolitionist movement and press took a firm stance against the war and many prominent thinkers and political leaders of the time spoke out against the stealing of more than half of Mexico’s territory. Among them was the celebrated abolitionist and former slave, Frederick Douglass, who condemned the imperialist land-grab as a “murderous war against […] the interests of workingmen of this country—and as a means of extending that great evil […], Negro slavery”. And it was in opposition to this war (as well as to slavery) that abolitionist philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote his famous essay, “Civil Disobedience”.
Six decades later, socialists were at the forefront of popular resistance to World War I (1914-18). After a wave of unionization and strikes swept the country around the turn of the century (there were 37,000 strikes between 1881 and 1905), large layers of U.S. workers became more class-conscious and politically militant. This was evidenced in the formation in 1905 of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)—a socialist-led union federation that emerged as a radical alternative to the conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL).
Following a decade of rapid membership growth, the 1916 IWW convention passed a resolution in which members declared themselves “determined opponents of all nationalistic sectionalism, or patriotism, and the militarism preached and supported by our one enemy, the capitalist class.” The resolution condemned “all wars” and called for “anti-militaristic propaganda in time of peace, thus promoting class solidarity among the workers of the entire world, and, in time of war, the general strike, in all industries.”
Hence, thousands of workers resisted conscription and thousands of anti-war activists (Leftists, liberals, and pacifists) were prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917 (still in effect) and the Sedition Act of 1918—draconian laws designed to silence dissent and repress resistance to U.S. militarism. One of the most famous victims of the Sedition Act was legendary socialist and IWW founder, Eugene Debs, who was imprisoned and disenfranchised for life after giving a speech against the war in Canton, Ohio. As part of the remarks that prompted his imprisonment, debs said:
“The master class has always declared the war; the subject class has always fought the battles… They have always taught you that it is your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at a command…the working class who fight the battles, the working class who make the sacrifices, the working class who shed the blood, the working class who furnish the corpses, the working class have never yet had a voice in declaring war… ‘Yours not to ask the question why; Yours but to do and die.’ That is their motto, and we object on the part of the awakened workers.”
Despite tremendous political repression, there were smaller but courageous mobilizations against World War II and the Korean War (including explicit opposition to both conflicts by the Socialist Workers’ Party). But the largest and most successful antiwar movement in American history emerged in opposition to U.S. intervention in Vietnam (1964-73).
It is worth recounting that, after supporting French colonialism in South East Asia for decades, the United States government militarily intervened to prevent the overthrow of a corrupt capitalist government in South Vietnam by the Viet Cong (aka National Liberation Front), in the context of the Cold War. The U.S. invaded Vietnam with over 500,000 troops and carried out an unprecedented campaign of aerial bombardments (including the use of Agent Orange), killing tens of thousands of Vietnamese and Cambodian civilians. In response to these atrocities, and to the morally indefensible justifications for imperialist intervention in a sovereign country, a movement of resistance began to develop.
Given the insurgent political context of the 1960s, the struggle against the war became a sort of movement of movements in which where key sectors of the socialist, civil rights, third world liberation, student, black power, and women’s struggle began coalescing and reinforcing each other. Once again, socialists were at the forefront of the antiwar effort, with the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) playing a leading role in the coalitions organizing many of the largest mobilizations.
As U.S. involvement escalated and the number of Americans conscripted and killed climbed dramatically (58,000 died in total), the movement exploded with a wave of mass demonstrations culminating in the national student strike of 1970 and a series of high-profile protests by antiwar veterans. In the end, the fierce resistance of the Viet Cong, and the unprecedented scale and militancy of the antiwar movement forced the Nixon administration to withdraw all U.S. troops in 1973.
If we want to rebuild the antiwar movement, it is essential to understand why the movement against the Vietnam war was ultimately successful. Given the absence of a mass socialist party and the lack of leadership of the trade union bureaucracy, antiwar coalitions became the main vehicle for antiwar organizing. This entailed the use of a united front tactic, as these coalitions brought together organizations and individuals from a wide range of political currents around the goal of building mass actions against the war.
Despite their politically heterogeneous character, coalitions enabled the channeling of mass antiwar sentiment into demonstrations that were undeniably anti-imperialist. Yet to sustain the wave of mass protests, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and other principled anti-imperialists had to wage a constant battle to maintain the movement’s axis of mass action and resist the pressures of both reformist and ultra-Left tendencies.
The reformist and liberal currents sought to put the antiwar movement at the service of “pressure politics” within the Democratic Party—most notably during the 1968 elections when Joseph McCarthy’s failed primary campaign diverted many antiwar activists from the task of organizing mass actions. On the other hand, a smaller ultra-left tendency grew frustrated with the continuation of the war and pushed for small-scale, overly confrontational tactics that alienated the masses and provided the ruling class with an excuse for increased repression and media stigmatization. As the SWP wrote in a resolution from its 1969 convention, “the most pernicious feature of the line of small confrontations is its substitution of super-militant tactics and their effects on a few participants for a political line aimed at bringing masses into action.
In resistance to these pressures, the SWP and its allies insisted tirelessly on two fundamental principles: 1) the demand of immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Vietnam as the only principled way of supporting Vietnamese self-determination (which countered a range of liberal and reformist calls for negotiations between the U.S. and the VietCong, as a more “realistic” demand); and 2) A mass action orientation, focused on building large-scale demonstrations, as opposed to supporting “anti-war” Democratic Party candidates or staging small-scale, adventurist, and hyper-confrontational actions. It was the movement’s overall adherence to this strategy that enabled it to sustain the type of massive, politically-independent demonstrations that turned the public against the war and were a key factor in ending the U.S. occupation.
After their humiliating defeat in Vietnam, it took several decades for the U.S. to launch another major invasion of a sovereign country. But in the early 2000s, as part of the so-called war on terror, the U.S. escalated its decades-long military intervention in the Middle East by invading and occupying both Afghanistan and Iraq. This once again sparked widespread opposition and a resurgence of a mass antiwar movement.
On February 15, 2003, on the eve of the US assault on Baghdad, millions of people marched across the world (including over 100,000 in New York City) in what is considered the largest antiwar action in world history. Antiwar coalitions were once again the main vehicle for mobilization, with A.N.S.W.E.R and United for Peace and Justice being by far the most prominent ones. From 2003 to 2007, the antiwar movement continued to stage massive demonstrations and played a key role in turning a majority of the U.S. public against the occupation of Iraq. This was aided by the heroism of veterans and members of the military who spoke out and mobilized against the war—most notably Chelsea Manning, who spent years in prison for her courageous publishing of classified files that documented U.S. war crimes. However, the movement ultimately failed to end the multiple U.S. wars in the middle east (despite a significant reduction in the number of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan) and more or less collapsed after 2008.
What Happened to the Antiwar Movement of the 2000s?
Social movements are complex social phenomena and their growth-and-decline is explained by multiple, dynamic factors. With the goal of drawing the right lessons from the experiences of the 2000s, we focus on factors that have major strategic and political implications for rebuilding an antiwar movement.
The first is dependence on the political apparatus and machinery of NGOs and the Democratic Party. After the first election of Barack Obama in 2008, several antiwar coalitions and organizations with deep ties to the Democratic Party and the NGO system of foundation grants (primarily non-profits) essentially stopped organizing around antiwar issues. This was the case with Unite for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), Moveon.org, and other large, liberal operations that either assumed that a Democratic administration would end the wars or were simply unwilling to mobilize against a liberal president. More importantly, dependence on these institutions often meant containing the platform and politics of the movement within limits considered acceptable to (or that wouldn’t alienate) politicians and funders of the Democratic Party and the non-profit complex, thus limiting the transformational and consciousness-raising potential of a mass, anti-imperialist movement. This was evidenced in the splits and controversies that took place over the inclusion of Palestinian liberation in demonstrations’ platforms.
Without a clear orientation towards political independence, it is much more likely for the power and energy of antiwar organizing—most often built by socialists and other radicals—to be channeled into campaigns to elect representatives of a party that is directly responsible for U.S. militarism and war crimes. This is, of course, exactly what happened. As an often-cited study by scholars at the University of Michigan and Indiana University demonstrated, many antiwar protesters who self-identified as Democrats simply withdrew from the movement once the Democratic party took over congress and the white house in 2006 and 2008, respectively. This unfortunate development stands in contrast to the movement against the Vietnam war, where mass demonstrations were sustained under both Democratic and Republican presidents.
Second, the evolving technologies and dynamics of war have enabled the U.S war machine to rely primarily on drones, airstrikes, and an army of professional soldiers from primarily black and brown, working-class communities. Hence, the U.S. can carry out most of its current imperialist ventures—including major interventions in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia— without imposing a draft or sacrificing large numbers of its own citizens, which in turn allows the corporate media to push the government’s narrative or simply ignore much of what happens.
This became a major challenge for the antiwar movement of the 2000s. As the majority of troops were withdrawn from Iraq and the rate of American soldiers killed dropped, so did the media coverage and the strength of antiwar mobilizations.
The Way Forward: Articulating Movements while Maintaining Class Independence
The struggle against imperialism in all its forms is at the heart of any socialist project that deserves the name. It is our moral and political duty to rebuild a resilient movement against all imperialist wars. To that end, we call for using the United Front tactic—building broad coalitions of working class and popular organizations (labor unions, workers, students, immigrants, people of color, religious minorities, women, queer and trans people) to mobilize for mass action, while maintaining complete political independence from the Democratic and Republican parties.
Some currents argue that demanding independence from the capitalist war parties will alienate the large electoral base of those parties and condemn antiwar organizing to irrelevant marginality. But we must learn from the mistakes of the 2000s. To declare a United Front to be a space that is independent of the parties of the wars and corporations— that is to say that we will organize and define our own politics, tactics and methods independently of these two parties and that we will not feature representatives of these parties— does not entail a framing that excludes Democratic or Republican party supporters and voters. We must differentiate and have a different tactic in relation to the leadership and organized Democratic Party with its staffers and politicians on the one hand (pro-bourgeois or directly corporate agents) and working and middle-class elements (the electoral base) on the other.
Maintaining class independence allows us to mobilize the broadest movement of workers and oppressed people to confront the capitalist class, which declares and profits from all imperialist in which workers are sent to their deaths. Collaborating with and conflating the institutions that enable imperialism with the working people that oppose it will only lead to the cooptation and demobilization of our movements. What liberals and reformists often fail to understand is that U.S. wars are not driven only by greed and “bad government”, but by the need to secure access to markets and natural resources for the capitalist class, which will utilize all the institutions it controls (including the Democratic and Republican parties, the corporate media, Congress, the military, etc.) to achieve its objectives.
In addition to using the United Front tactic, we must come to terms with the evolving dynamics and technologies of warfare. While our opposition to imperialism is a matter of principle, we must recognize that the absence of a draft, the growing reliance on drones, and the relatively low numbers of American casualties in current U.S. wars make the task of building a mass antiwar movement significantly harder than during the Vietnam era.
This requires us to adjust our tactics and be much more deliberate in articulating anti-imperialist demands with vibrant local movements that are already mobilizing masses of workers throughout the country. We must organize in the immigrant rights movement and raise consciousness about the imperialist wars that force millions to migrate; we must organize in the movement against police violence and raise consciousness about the connection between the military industrial complex and the growing militarization of police departments; and we must organize in the movements for healthcare, housing, education and all human needs for which governments claim to lack funding, while raising consciousness about the obscene amount of collectively-produced wealth spent on building and maintaining the U.S. war machine ($770 billion in the recently approved budget for 2018).