The Peace Movement in Crisis

EdgeLeft: Peace Movement in Crisis

by David McReynolds

The DISSENTING DEMOCRAT is not knowledgeable about the internal politics of the Peace Movement. We do believe that a well-organized antiwar movement at the heart of the Empire is essential and to this end re-print this column from David McReynolds, an activist of substantial experience and a thinker for whom we hold great respect.

This is written reluctantly, because for many of you this involves such complex internal fights that it is a waste of time. But I’ve found myself involved in so many emails on this matter that I want to sent out this “blast” to a number of folks who have been involved.

About two weeks ago UNAC (United Antiwar Coalition) sent out an urgent  call for two weeks of action (starting at the end of June) to protest the NATO/US/Israeli  plans to intervene militarily in Syria.

The original signers of the call began with what I would call a fairly small group of hard left Marxist/Leninist groups (not calling names – just trying to describe them), consisting of Workers World, Socialist Action, and the Party of Socialism and Liberation (which was a split from Workers World). Gradually other signers came on, including UFPJ, the Green Shadow Cabinet, and some good centrist groups. But the shots have been called by a small group which – in my view – have dominated UNAC from its beginning.

That small group is not evil. It is committed, hard working, and a legitimate part of the broader movement of resistance to where the US has been going. But it cannot substitute itself for a genuine peace movement, nor can it, by a call to action, actually create such actions.

Already events have rendered the UNAC call pointless, both events in Turkey and, as of the past two days, the tumult in Egypt, where events unfold as I write, and about which I won’t comment in this post because as of this moment – 2 p.m. Wednesday, July 3 – no one is sure what is happening.

First, while I am discouraged that the peace movement is disorganized, and no clear coalition exists, it is a hard fact that sectarian left groups cannot substitute for a real peace movement.

I’ll give one example out of what is now distant history. During the Vietnam War the “leading members of the coalition” (which at that time included Trotskyists, Communists, Pacifists, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish groups, Academics, Students, and Labor) met at the home of Cora Weiss on a Saturday to discuss what our strategy should be. There were perhaps thirty people present. As we met, the news came that Nixon had ordered the invasion of Cambodia. So our discussion turned, of necessity, to “what can we do about this extraordinary new development”.

We knew our limits – and keep in mind that in that room were virtually ALL of the groups opposing the war (with the exception of Workers World, which for reasons of its own had never tried to join the coalition).
We felt that the best we could do was to call on people to come to Washington the next Saturday to hold a vigil in front of the White House.
We knew such a large vigil – we thought we could, with a week to work on it, get a thousand people – would result in arrests.

But after leaving that meeting, in the days immediately ahead, the murders at Kent State took place. Those of you my age will remember that American students “went on strike”, a wave of revolutionary fervor
gripped the campuses. By the Saturday when we thought we might have a thousand people, we had 100,000.

My point is that those of us meeting in Cora Weiss’ living room did not rally those 100,000 – the National Guard at Kent State did, the murders did. In short, events did.

UNAC is not able to turn out large numbers. It is not a real coalition of peace groups. Sadly,neither is UFPJ (United for Peace and Justice).
Why there is no real coalition at the moment is worth a few words.

There is no question at all that the election of Obama had a deep impact on what had been a powerful anti-war movement, an anti-war movement which had helped elect him.

I personally did not vote for Obama – I voted for the Green ticket in New York State – but I fully understood why people in swing states voted for Obama. I remember, that election night in my apt., the excitement we felt, news of dancing in the streets, of spontaneous demonstrations in front of the White House.

The problem, of course, was that Obama was not a radical, he was someone who promised to end the war in Iraq (which, to a great extent, he has) but who promptly extended it in Afghanistan. There was a mix of feelings which the “far left” (sometimes I want to say “the distant left”, so far removed is it from the real politics in this country) never quite understood. For most of us on the left, the election of a black President broke historic barriers – it was, on the level of American racism – a revolutionary step.

There was an additional problem – the nation was in the midst of an economic disaster, which had begun before the election, and which continues to this day. In that climate, when the national (and world)
economy seemed on the brink of collapse, almost any measures, even if they seemed compromises, were essential. It is clear now (and has been for the past several years) that serious legal actions should have been taken against a number of key players on Wall Street, that a number of bankers should have been jailed rather than bailed out.

But – and here we come to the crux of the problem – Obama was never a radical. He operated within the framework of the existing system. Nor was there a serious, united movement of the left which could make serious economic demands. (That didn’t happen until “Occupy” emerged suddenly, out of nowhere, some time later).

The peace movement – UFPJ – which had existed as a serious force, was weakened by the election of Obama. We, collectively, did not make a major demand that the US immediately get out of Afghanistan. Many groups did make that demand, but not in a united way. We, as a whole, were slow to oppose the drone strikes.

Some of this could be blamed on that part of the left which had shown itself, at best, naive about Obama. (In the last election the Communist Party – no longer a significant force – actually came out in favor of his re-election).  But neither were there serious alternatives. The Socialist Party, of which I’m a member, had a candidate but that candidate was on the ballot almost nowhere. The Greens fared better, (and in New York State got my vote) but in the US electoral system voters tend to chose one of two candidates for President. A long, serious discussion needs to take place on the difference between running socialist (or green) candidates for local offices and running them for President. I know that on the two occasions when I ran for President, 1980 and 2000, I made it a point of telling audiences that I didn’t really care whether they voted for me, as I had no chance of winning – that I was running to raise the issues and help start a basic discussion of the problems of American capitalism.

Going back to the UNAC “call” for action, what was interesting was who was not involved in being invited. So far as I know,  Democratic Socialists of America, International Socialist Organization (ISO), the Communist Party, Solidarity, Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, and the Socialist Party were not invited. I have heard reports – I can’t verify them now – that ISO is split on the Syrian crisis and inclined to support the rebels. I know that DSA, CCDS and the CP tend to support the Democratic Party. Why Solidarity and the SP were not approached I don’t know. The point is that by the time the call was issued, a hard core
of left groups which shared a history in the Trotskyist movement had signed on. Whatever else one may say of those groups (and of their fronts – ANSWER, the International Action Center, etc.) they do not speak for the broad American left and emphatically do not speak for the peace movement and cannot substitute for the peace movement.

What disturbed me was the wording of the call. It is simply not true that the US is committed at this point to military aid to the rebels. The US military and State Department are divided, precisely because the rebels have moved steadily toward hard line Islamic elements which are hostile to US control. Nor is it clear that NATO as a whole has reached an agreement. Britain and France have, but there are serious tensions within NATO on a number of matters – not least being the idea of bringing to power a group of radical Islamists in Syria.

And Israel? Israel was guilty of two shocking – and in my view stupid as well as illegal – air strikes on Damascus. But the Israeli military establishment is sharply divided with, I suspect, a majority opposed to efforts to topple Assad. Israel has had a stable border with Syria for some years. Why would it want a new Syrian government that would risk a series of border attacks?

My guess is that Israel was added because it fits the politics of the key “left groups” in UNAC. I’m happy to be extremely critical of Israel but Israel is not responsible for everything that goes wrong in the Middle East.

Ironically the key groups – Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states – that are funding the Syrian opposition and supplying the arms, escaped mention in UNAC’s call.

The peace groups surely do need to meet and see what strategy they can work out. And there needs to be an understanding that no artificial exclusion will be imposed (as was the case with UNAC in this most recent call, where some groups were no approached).

All of us need to ask if we are clear on absolute opposition to any shipment of arms to either side. The war in Syria is horrendous. As many as 100,000 people may have died already. Tens upon tens of thousands of refugees have fled across the border into Jordan, into Iraq. In a military sense Assad is stronger today than he was a year ago – which doesn’t make him better, it just means the rebels are losing ground, which tempts the Gulf states to send in more weapons.

From my point of view, a political solution is the only possible solution – and this will be extremely hard to achieve. The rebels are reluctant to come to the table because they are weak. But the longer the war goes on, the greater the chance of Syria being torn apart and the nature of Middle East politics changed – for the worst.

I’m writing this in part because the Socialist Party is having an internal discussion about whether or not to join in the UNAC statement (which, given the speed with which the realities of the Middle East are changing, seems foolish) but the issues under discussion are shared in other groups. I am discouraged to find the Greens, who might have played a more neutral and positive role, signing on.

At the moment, UFPJ is no longer really functioning as a major coaltion – and UNAC has never become a major coalition. The road ahead is difficult and unclear. But one real obstacle is for groups that are small and marginal – no matter how good their intentions – thinking they can substitute for a broader and more inclusive peace movement that can bring in the religious community (including that part of the Jewish community which is now willing to be critical of Israeli policy when necessary).

David McReynolds

(David McReynolds is a former chair of War Resisters International, served on War Resisters League staff for 39 years, and has been active in the socialist movement.


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