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Politics of the Antiwar Movement
By Bill Weinberg
HE SEPT. 24 ANTIWAR protest in Washington, D.C., was hailed as a revival of a movement which had become somewhat moribund even as the quagmire in Iraq deepens with horrifying rapidity. The march brought out 300,000 protesters, by organizers’ estimates, making it the largest since the start of the U.S. invasion in March 2003. After a summer in which Cindy Sheehan’s campaign to demand personal accountability from the vacationing George Bush had riveted the nation, the march brought out record numbers of military veterans and grieving families—giving the movement an unassailable moral credibility.
But it is significant that this credibility arose from the rank-and-file marchers while that very credibility may have been actually undermined by elements of the demonstration’s organizational leadership.
Since the prelude to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, the large, visible antiwar protests in the United States—especially the marches in Washington, New York, and San Francisco— have been led by two organizations that have at times cooperated but been frequently at odds: United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) and International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism). For the Sept. 24 march, they agreed to cooperate; they divided the stage time equally, with different speakers and different banners, although ANSWER actually held the permit.
Both UFPJ and ANSWER have been criticized by some activists as top-down and insufficiently democratic. But concerns are growing over ANSWER’s links to a doctrinaire organization called the Workers World Party (WWP), which has a history of seeking to dominate coalitions and many embarrassing ultra-hardline positions.
Steve Ault, a gay activist in New York City since 1970, served as UFPJ’s logistics coordinator for the historic pre-war mobilization on Feb. 15, 2003; last summer’s Republican National Convention protests; and the May 1 march for nuclear disarmament this past spring. He charges that ANSWER is a front group for the WWP. Speaking as an individual—not on behalf of UFPJ—he decries what he sees as an imbalance between the two major antiwar formations: “One small sectarian group has equal power with a genuine coalition. We aren’t going to be able to have a real movement until they are called out on the carpet for it.”
For 20 years, Ault says he has witnessed WWP use “stacking meetings and undemocratic tactics” to control left coalitions. “When Workers World forms a so-called coalition, it’s not a coalition at all; it’s a vehicle to attempt to amplify their power and control. It’s not a genuine coalition like UFPJ which has no controlling faction—it UFPJ] has communists, Greens, pacifists, anarchists.”
Many in the movement are both unaware of these organizational connections, as well as WWP’s history of orthodox and problematic political positions. In 1956, WWP supported the Soviet invasion of Hungary, claiming the Hungarian striking workers were “counterrevolutionary”; in response to the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, WWP charged that protesters had launched “violent attacks on the soldiers,” provoking the military’s actions; during the Bosnian war in the 1990s, WWP portrayed reports of atrocities and mass rape by the Serb forces as “imperialist lies,” and now supports Slobodan Milosevic in his battle against war crimes charges at The Hague.
Ramsey Clark, the visible leader of the International Action Center, is a founder of the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic, and has also provided legal representation for some accused of participating in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. He has more recently volunteered for Saddam Hussein’s legal team.
Recently, Workers World has undergone a factional split, with a breakaway group apparently taking most of ANSWER with it. This has led the IAC and the faction that still calls itself Workers World to help found a new coalition, Troops Out Now! The recent split doesn’t seem to have been about anything substantive, but the tactical question of whether to support WWP’s presidential ticket last year or to acquiesce to the left’s “anybody but Bush” (meaning pro-Kerry) position. Behind this question seems to be a turf war between WWP cadre in New York and San Francisco, the party’s two principal power bases. The breakaway faction, based mostly in San Francisco, is calling itself the Party for Socialism and Liberation. Troops Out Now!, which endorsed the Sept. 24 march, remains based at the International Action Center’s New York offices.
On May 1, both UFPJ and Troops Out Now! held separate marches in New York City surrounding the review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty under way at the United Nations. Troops Out Now! rejected UFPJ’s pro-disarmament theme. IAC spokesperson Dustin Langley told journalist Sarah Ferguson of the Village Voice, “Iran and North Korea have a right to get any kind of weapon they need to defend themselves against the largest military machine on the planet.”
Commemorating the one-year anniversary of the Iraq invasion, ANSWER and UFPJ guardedly co-organized a rally in New York City in March 2004. As in the recent Washington rally, they divided the stage time. During ANSWER’s half of the rally, someone taped a photo to the speakers’ platform of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani scientist who was accused of peddling nuclear materials to North Korea and Libya. No move was made to remove it.
For some veteran activists, the persistent division brings back bad memories of the movement to oppose the first attack on Iraq in 1991, when WWP provoked a split by refusing to condemn Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. This resulted in two separate national marches on Washington, just days apart—one by the WWP-led National Coalition Against U.S. Intervention in the Middle East, the other by the Campaign for Peace in the Middle East, a coalition consisting of War Resisters League, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and other traditional peace groups.
The current issue that has led to tensions with UFPJ is WWP’s refusal to countenance any criticism of the Iraqi “resistance.” Troops Out Now! comes closest to taking an open stance in support of the armed insurgents, calling in their literature for the antiwar movement to “acknowledge the absolute and unconditional right of the Iraqi people to resist the occupation of their country without passing judgment on their methods of resistance.”
As armed insurgents increasingly target civilians, these inconsistencies provide easy ammo for those who wish to dismiss the antiwar movement as deluded and hypocritical. For instance, these inconsistencies allowed the born-again interventionist Christopher Hitchens to write a piece for Slate Magazine after the Sept. 24 march entitled “Anti-War, My Foot: The phony peaceniks who protested in Washington.” Hitchens decried the central position of “‘International ANSWER,’ the group run by the ‘Worker’s World’ party and fronted by Ramsey Clark, which openly supports Kim Jong-Il, Fidel Castro, Slobodan Milosevic, and the ‘resistance’ in Afghanistan and Iraq, with Clark himself finding extra time to volunteer as attorney for the genocidaires in Rwanda ... ‘International ANSWER’ [is] a front for (depending on the day of the week) fascism, Stalinism, and jihadism.”
The question of Palestine is currently ANSWER’s principal “wedge issue.” UFPJ’s own hedging on linking the struggles in Palestine and Iraq has served ANSWER well. In the prelude to the March 2004 rally in New York, ANSWER insisted on making an end to the occupation of Palestine a central demand of the demonstration. UFPJ balked, stating that while they agreed it was important to address Palestine, the main purpose of the march was to express broad opposition to the war in Iraq. ANSWER responded by circulating a letter online, signed by numerous Arab and Muslim groups, charging that it was “racist” of the antiwar movement not to give the Palestinian cause equal footing.
UFPJ’s member groups have “agreed to disagree” on how to achieve peace in the Middle East, taking no stance, for instance, on a right of return for Palestinian refugees —a demand embraced by ANSWER. And unlike ANSWER, UFPJ has put out a position criticizing all attacks on civilians— whether by the Israeli military or Palestinian militants.
Some have perceived UFPJ’s “agree-todisagree” position as an equivocation that has rendered the coalition vulnerable on this “wedge issue.” In any case, ANSWER has proved itself adept at building coalitions with Arab and Muslim groups.
Ibrahim Ramey, national disarmament coordinator for the faith-based pacifist organization Fellowship of Reconciliation, says: “ANSWER has done much more organizing in pro-Palestinian Islamic communities. Activists need to have a debate over this difficult issue: the question of Zionism, and I use the term deliberately. There is no principled discussion on it.”
Ramey recognizes the contradiction that some of the same figures now pushing the Palestine question in the movement are also sympathetic to Milosevic, who is accused of genocide against Muslims. “I don’t believe despots and mass murderers need to be lauded because they occasionally wave the banner of opposition to the United States. Milosevic was not a great hero because he happened to be bombed by NATO warplanes.”
Ramey also admits that IAC’s “position on Milosevic isn’t something there is a lot of awareness of in the Muslim communities where ANSWER has been successful in organizing.”
Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation, which works with ANSWER while not being an official member of the coalition, is aware of its position on Milosevic, and makes no bones about his disagreement. “I don’t support that line. I think Milosevic was a genocidal butcher. But we can work with people we have disagreements with.”
Bray credits ANSWER with “forcing the debate on Palestine within the movement. That was healthy and necessary. You cannot discuss peace in the Middle East region without discussing the occupation of Palestine.” And he sees the question of which issues get priority as linked to the broader problem of “a paternalistic and elitist attitude within the movement.” Bray also points to the absence of large numbers of African-Americans at antiwar demonstrations, calling it a “bigger issue than the factional splits within the movement.”
In the October issue of Rolling Stone, writer Tim Dickinson quotes Paul Rieckhoff, director of the Iraq veterans group Operation Truth, which boycotted the Sept. 24 march. “When some guy gets up there and rails about Palestine, Karl Rove is kicking back in his chair, saying, ‘Please continue,’” said Rieckhoff. “It’s not about Palestine, it’s not about Mumia, it’s about one focused message: Let’s find a way to end this war. If you really want to push back against the administration , you’ve got to get your shit together. Right now they don’t.”
From a purely tactical standpoint, there may be some logic to de-emphasizing unpopular issues in the interests of building a broad front around a single issue (Iraq). But from a moral standpoint, attacking ANSWER’s positions on Palestine and Mumia rather than (or even in addition to) its stance on Milosevic and Tiananmen Square dangerously muddies the water. The prior two causes may be unpopular, but they are perfectly legitimate; in contrast, the Workers World positions on Bosnia and Tiananmen Square constitute defense of the indefensible.
Christopher Hitchens, who can no longer be said to be on the left, commits a similar error in his list of foreign strongmen WWP supports: he indiscriminately lumps Fidel Castro in with the far more sinister Milosevic and Kim Jong-Il. Such errors allow ANSWER to assume a lefter-than thou high ground, and play into the liberal-baiting strategy.
Steve Ault recognizes this danger. “I work with communists, and I have no problem doing so,” he says. “My real problem with ANSWER is their process, or lack of it. Workers World gives communism a bad name. They use the charge of red-baiting to silence criticism in an unprincipled way. And much of the criticism against them comes from people arguably further to the left than they are.”
Mahmood Ketabchi, an exiled follower of the Worker Communist Party of Iran now living in New Jersey, says “ANSWER is part of a long tradition of supporting anyone who picks up a gun and shoots at an American soldier, regardless of their politics.” He sees this as a “bogus” position that “puts the U.S. at the center of the world.”
In response to ANSWER’s blind support of the Iraqi “resistance,” Ketabchi, who does support work for workers’ and women’s movements in Iraq, asks “what kind of future do they [the Iraqi insurgents] envision? Do these groups defend women’s rights? Are they socialist?” He compares Iraq to Iran, noting that 20 years ago, Iranian social movements “thought [they] could have a united front with Khomeini against the Shah,” but ultimately Khomeini’s vision of Iran’s future was radically different from that of women’s organizations and left political groupings.
Joanne Sheehan, who staffs the New England office of War Resisters League in Norwich, CT, says “ANSWER does not foster grassroots activism. It is totally hierarchical, and I don’t think it empowers people. ANSWER is not the answer.” Speaking on WWP’s controversial positions, she says, “They do what the administration they criticize does—here are the ‘good guys’ and here are the ‘bad guys.’ They have this view left over from the Cold War that the-enemy-of my- enemy-is-my-friend, and that’s a very narrow way of thinking.”
But she also feels the intrigues of national movement leadership have drained vital energies. “We put too much emphasis on these big demonstrations and not enough on grassroots strategy, which is where we should emphasize. After the big demo, there is always a sense of ‘now what?’ Do we just wait for the next big demo? I guess we have to have them to be visible, but there has to be a bigger strategy.”
Sheehan explicitly does not fault ANSWER for emphasizing issues such as Palestine and Mumia Abu-Jamal. “My criticism is not that they toss too many issues together. I think it is important to help people understand how the issues are connected. But we need to do that in our grassroots work—not from a podium.”
Ibrahim Ramey says that while “ANSWER is problematic in areas of both politics and organizing style for some organizations in the broad antiwar movement,” he still believes that “principled cooperation in a united front that understands its political differences is possible.” But he stresses that this can only happen if there is “democratic debate” and recognizes that “there are major obstacles.”
Steve Ault takes the hardest line on the question: “Everyone says unity, unity, unity. Sure, making the argument for not working with ANSWER is problematic. But I think they need to be exposed for what they are. There needs to be a full-blown discussion on this if we are going to build an effective movement.”
Bill Weinberg is editor of the online journal World War 4 Report (ww4report.com).
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