To retain control of oil prices, forestall a peace dividend, and divert attention from the abominable price of Reagan’s war on the poor, Bush threatens to unleash rivers of blood in the Mideast. Only fear of international isolation, potentially hyperbolic geopolitical losses, and spiraling domestic dissent impede all-out U.S. invasion. We cannot affect international opinion or Mideast nation state and corporate jockeying. We can affect domestic dissent.
Boston antiwar rallies in 1964-1965 numbered only a few hundred people who listened to vague talks about the horrors of war. Most students at MIT, my alma mater, ignored the events, although a few eagerly heckled and threw stones at assembled dissidents.
By 1968-1969, Boston antiwar demonstrators reached 250,000 people listening to talks on the imperialist roots of war and the efficacy of resistance. Most MIT students not only regularly participated, but also elected a student body president demanding no more war research, $100,000 MIT indemnity to the Black Panther Party, no more grades or requirements, open admissions, and redistribution of MIT’s technical resources equally among local colleges.
In the four intervening years, Boston saw hundreds of teach-ins, dozens of major rallies, and many acts of civil disobedience, building occupations, and the burning of ROTC buildings. Cultural events, classroom takeovers, marches, sit-ins, building takeovers, and late night discussions transformed student life. This trajectory of increasing resistance shows:
· LESSON ONE: Organizing works. It can change people’s consciousness, commitment, and values.
As the antiwar movement grew, a demonstration called “Mayday” was planned for Washington, DC, where demonstrators would use mobile civil disobedience to shut down the government. Demonstration organizers like Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden toured the country giving emotional talks about Vietnam, the war, and called on people to storm Washington with the slogan: “If the government doesn’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government.” This was “apocalyptic organizing”: (1) Describe reality as careening toward catastrophe. (2) Urge that we have only one more chance before final disaster. (3) Urge that we can reverse the tide and win justice and victory now if everyone immediately drops everything and joins the action. (4) Sparks fly, commitments are given, and organizers leave for the next whistle stop, fists waving gloriously.
Other activists organized for Mayday with a different approach: (1) Explain that the war is fed by institutions that serve political and economic elites, and nurtured by racism, sexism, and manipulative mainstream media. (2) Teach that our task at demonstrations is to strengthen our movement and attract new recruits. (3) Explain that U.S. policy is now catastrophic and that it will remain so until we build a much greater scale and breadth of opposition. (4) Teach methods of discussion needed to spread the word and create local coalitions and organizations. (5) Preserve and combine the sparks to create more heat, channel the energy to avoid waste, nurture the commitment to get longevity, and then move on.
Both approaches favored teach-ins, rallies, demonstrations, and civil disobedience but when apocalyptically-organized demonstrators returned home from major antiwar events, they were unprepared to see the war continue. Recriminations flew, frustration rose, and anger turned inward. Rennie Davis, Tom Hayden, and almost every organizer at one time or another cajoled well-meaning demonstrators who didn’t know the detailed whys and wherefores of their actions. Finally, Davis left to support an “Eastern” spiritual guru. Hayden left to enter a “Western” secular party. And hundreds of thousands of apocalyptically-organized activists burned out.
In contrast long-term organizing gave people the insight to look at our movement and not at government press conferences to see signs of progress. Were we getting better at organizing? At building institutions? At reaching out? At causing some decision-makers to begin to take note? Demonstrators aroused by a long-term analysis better understood their actions and knew what indicators of success to look for and what valuative norms to apply.
The argument that because the bombs are falling we require apocalyptic rhetoric and quick, if ill-informed, actions was repeatedly wrong. First, change is nearly always more distant than the next rally or demonstration. Second, elites can distinguish between brief outbursts that can be weathered and resistance that will keep growing and, if repressed, grow still more. Only the latter worries them sufficiently to affect their policy-making. Thus:
· LESSON TWO: Apocalyptic organizing gets short-term results with limited impact. Long-view organizing produces a movement that can withstand the rigors it will face and send a message capable of reversing war policies.
Organizers in the 1960s favored two main focuses. Some said we have to organize only around the war. “If we stick to the lowest-common denominator and avoid controversial stands we will amass the greatest support.” Others said we have to organize not only around the war, but also “around poverty, alienation, racism, sexism, and authoritarianism.”
Yes, some people who would otherwise agree with antiwar analysis might reject radical stands on poverty, racism, or sexism, so having ways these people can become involved before they become comfortable with wide-ranging analyses is important. Likewise, debates about diverse issues take time. But ignoring non-war focuses has even more devastating costs.
As the 1960s showed, constituencies concerned about domestic issues don’t trust an antiwar movement that slights their concerns. Additionally, a single-issue approach delivers a weaker message. It says to elites, “Yes, there is a growing movement, but its attention is narrowly focused on the war. If you tough it out, this movement won’t challenge society’s domestic class, race, political, and gender inequalities.” A multi-issue approach risks alienating some people via controversial stands, but can reach more diverse constituencies and deliver a more threatening message: “If you don’t end the war, this movement will not only become more militant and disruptive about the war, it will develop similar strength and commitment regarding racism, sexism, political participation, and capitalism.” Thus:
· LESSON THREE: Single-issue organizing appears superficially less controversial and more popular but carries the seeds of its own dissolution and sends a limited message to elites. Multi-issue organizing is difficult to do well, but averts fragmentation, attracts wider support, and sends a more powerful message.
In 1960s organizing efforts, many of us addressed large groups for extended, highly emotional sessions. We would of course explain the criminality of the war for people still clinging to naive views of U.S. foreign policy and corporations. Especially on campuses, we invariably found that with sufficient facts, we could offset such views. Then, however, we encountered more tenacious obstacles to participation.
First, people who agreed that the war was immoral and only in elite interests would then argue that nothing could be done. Immorality was the way of the world. Hate, inequality, servility, and war are in our nature.
Second, after long discussions on everything from human nature to history overcame cynicism about human potentials, people would fall back on cynicism about achieving better conditions. The bad guys have the guns, money, and media. We can’t beat them.
Third, even when we convinced people that in the short term we could force decision-makers to reverse their war policies by raising costs, and that in the long term we could change basic institutions, the final impediment turned out to be distaste of left behavior and a fear of becoming our own worst enemy. People would say, “I know you are right that the war is wrong and peace is possible, but your protesting seems to pervert you so that you will eventually sell out your values and become as bad as those you now oppose.” Thus, popular responses to organizing reveal that:
· LESSON FOUR: Getting people to join radical opposition requires overcoming cynicism about human nature, fear of losing, and a distaste for what activism seems to entail.
The U.S. did not drop nuclear bombs in Southeast Asia. Limits were placed on U.S. policy. Many aggressive acts were prevented and others reversed. Many civil rights were won and women made major gains. Though permanent change requires transformed institutions, there are many short-run victories.
A look at the Pentagon Papers multi-volume documentation of decision-making during the period, and at newspapers and the public record of Congress shows a remarkable fact. Whenever some politician changed from voting pro-war to voting antiwar, or whenever some corporate head went on record against the war, the explanation was always the same. It was never the loss of lives of American soldiers or Vietnamese soldiers or civilians, or economic dislocations of the poor at home. When elite figures announced their switch from hawk to dove, and when the Pentagon Papers listed factors assessed in choosing policies, the focus was always the desire to keep down the cost of political resistance—”Our army is disintegrating, our streets are succumbing to militancy, the next generation is being lost to our corporations, the costs we are bearing are too high. I am now for peace.”
With minor exceptions, no corporate head or high political official opposed the war because it was immoral or because the human carnage upset them. Nor was there any notion that the war was not “in U.S. (meaning elite) interests.” They opposed the war because rising social costs threatened to undermine aims elites held even more important than winning the war: their political power and corporate control. That is:
· LESSON FIVE: Moving people to raise the domestic social costs of war can constrain and reverse hated policies.
So what does this translate to? State and corporate elites are not stupid or subject to moral persuasion. They promote their heinous policies not out of ignorance, but because the results serve their interests. To pressure them effectively, we have to avoid single-issue apocalyptic organizing and opt for a multi-issue long-run orientation. We have to educate about immediate facts and proximate causes, but also about the roots of injustice and the possibility of raising social costs both to win immediate reforms and to eventually restructure defining institutions. We must build a peace and justice movement that builds solidarity.
(1) Every antiwar speaking engagement or teach-in panel should include at least one speaker addressing the “totality of oppressions.” And I am not talking about someone explaining how antiwar work can benefit class, gender, or race struggles. I’m talking about feminists, labor organizers, conversion activists, and antiracist organizers talking about how their work is critically important in its own right, as well as how assisting it will benefit the fight against war.
(2) Antiwar demonstrations, rallies, and written materials should have similar policies.
(3) The organization and culture of the antiwar movement must empower diverse types of people.
Women will not work well in movement defined by the worst male habits of competitive, macho posturing. We have to incorporate feminist principles in antiwar activism.
Blacks and Latinos will not join a movement defined by the cultural and behavioral characteristics of white intellectuals. We have to incorporate Black, Latino and other minority culture in the antiwar movement.
Workers will not lead a movement characterized by the condescension familiar from workers’ relations with managers, lawyers, and doctors. We must have a way of organizing that incorporates working-class priorities in antiwar organization.
Gays and lesbians will not join a movement embodying sexual assumptions familiar from daily encounters with homophobia. We must incorporate respect for sexual diversity in antiwar work.
A multi-constituency movement that inspires lasting commitment will have to be multi-cultural and disavow the oppressive features of gender, race, and class relations. We can’t attain perfection overnight and shouldn’t even try to make a movement that only the most culturally “perfect” human being could feel comfortable in, but we must make steady, substantial progress.
(5) To promote the strongest possible resistance and to give the movement a positive rather than negative orientation, antiwar marches, rallies, and civil disobedience should target diverse sites and make multi-issue demands. For example:
· at the corporate headquarters of major war contractors, demanding an end to war and the reallocation of resources to the production of food, shelter, and infrastructure;
· at drug hangouts and treatment centers, demanding an end to war and creation of massive drug rehabilitation programs;
· at Congress, demanding an end to war and financing full-employment programs, massively progressive “soak the rich” tax reforms, state financed election funds, and binding public plebiscites on policies;
· at army bases, demanding an end to war and conversion of the bases to industrial centers to build quality low-income housing with the first units given to GIs from the base who decide to stay on as employees at the new construction firm;
· at TV stations, demanding an end to war and massive funding for the arts and for independent radio and TV under community control;
· at rape crisis and day care centers, demanding an end to war and massive funding for day care and affirmative action programs for women;
· at inner-city sites, demanding an end to war and funds for rebuilding infrastructure, enhancing housing, and providing jobs;
· at inner-city schools, demanding an end to war and massive funding for education to allow our youth to become more than mercenaries for a garrison state;
· at hospitals, demanding an end to war and conversion of resources to construction of new hospitals and local health centers and the adoption of universal free medical care.
(6) Local, regional, and national antiwar organizations should seek coalition support for antiwar actions from groups organized around gender, race, and class, but should also give material and organizing assistance to groups, projects, and events organized around gender, race, and class whether explicitly requested to do so or not.
This time we should not sacrifice all other agendas to the antiwar agenda, thereby weakening every effort including the antiwar effort. We should, instead, share intelligence, energy, skills, and money among many activist fronts.
People will ask, “What could you do that would be better?” and we have to develop answers that do not stop at solely describing how bad the system is, or “Bring the troops home,” or “Letting the sanctions and international diplomacy work,” or “Strengthening the UN, democratizing it, and making everyone, especially us, subject to its will.”
People are going to realize that if capitalism breeds imperialism breeds war, then unless we get rid of capitalism, war will recur and we will need to be prepared to fight. And if we say, OK, we eventually have to get rid of capitalism too, they will remind us how East Europeans and Russians have recently rushed back to capitalism.
In reply we need to present a new post-capitalist vision encompassing economics, politics, gender, and race. To build a large, lasting movement we need to describe activities that can promote lasting change and show that our movement is sufficiently humane, participatory, and sensitive to come through uncorrupted.
You may say revolution is not on the immediate agenda, so why develop long-run revolutionary answers? You may say we aren’t trying to get lifelong commitment, we are only trying to get people to fight for peace now, so why worry about long-run aims? If so, you miss the point.
People know serious dissent can change their lives. They know that if they admit U.S. crimes, they will either have to become radical with possible loss of friends and jobs, or else turn their backs on morality. People need long-run answers to believe the long-run struggle will be worthwhile and therefore worth joining now.
People need faith in what they are doing, especially if it entails sacrifices. Building a new sense of self around hatred for war is not sustaining enough and tends to create bitter people unlikely to be effective organizers. To become radical requires jettisoning one’s old self-image and it is hard to do this and maintain one’s humanity without understanding where one is headed.
Think about it. People who have been effective activists for decades believe in human potentials, in a better society, in the possibility of winning, and are sustained by these positive beliefs, not solely by hating a specific injustice. To try to get others involved as deeply without helping them attain positive vision is ignoring our own politicization.
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