How to build the Anti-War Movement

How to build the Anti-War Movement
The Anti-War Movement & the Working Class

By Philip Locker

A crucial element in building mass opposition to the war will be the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the anti-war movement and the strategy and tactics it adopts.

We must bring together all those already opposed to the war in broad, inclusive and democratic coalitions. These coalitions must aim to appeal to people who are currently unsure about weather or not to support the war, and even those who presently support it. This is the decisive question facing the movement. To be effective, the movement must break out of its isolation and link up with much broader segments of working class. This is one of the fundamental lessons of the anti-Vietnam war movement, which only really began to bite, when the majority of the working class turned against the war. Even in the US army, made up of mostly working class youth, the troops began to actively refuse orders and oppose the war. It is only the working class, through its numbers, position and weight in society that has the power to stop the ruling class from pursuing this war.

Different layers of the population will move into opposition around different issues at different times. People who oppose being made to pay for this war, racism or the clamp-down on our civil liberties will come into collision with Bush’s war program. Many workers who currently support the war will find that they are “un-American”-according to big business, the politicians and the media - if they attempt to go on strike to defend their wages and conditions. Many who currently support the war are revolted by the racist hysteria against Arabs, Muslims and immigrants. Immigrants, who may support the war, will oppose the drive to attack their rights. Others are unwilling to sacrifice their civil liberties.

The anti-war movement must be flexible to be able to link up with each sector that moves into opposition, no matter how limited and how cautiously they do so, and help them advance their struggle. In the process we need to explain why they also need to oppose the war as a whole, as the only way to fully combat racism and the attacks on workers and civil liberties.


To reach wider layers of the population the movement must consciously adopt a strategy, approach, slogans and tactics that allow it to effectively open up a dialogue with workers who are currently unsure or even in support of the war. It is necessary to take into account and acknowledge the concerns and consciousness of the vast majority of workers, who fear further terrorist attacks and feel “something must be done.” We should leave no room for doubt by making it crystal clear that we completely condemn the terrorist attacks and stand on the same side as everybody else in opposing terrorism.

From there we need to explain, in a sensitive and skillful manner, that this war will not solve the problem of terrorism, nor will it provide any security from future attacks. It will only provoke more attacks on Americans, and will greatly aggravate the underlying causes of to terrorism.

The war will end up killing thousands, if not millions, of ordinary Afghan people, and possibly thousands of US soldiers.

We must drive home that it will be us, workers and young people, who will have to bear the costs of this war. It is being paid for with our social security funds, with cuts in social spending, and with the lives of our family members serving in the military. In the meantime corporations are enriching themselves by laying off workers and receiving government handouts and cuts in their taxes. We should explain the hypocrisy of the US government, which previously supported Bin Laden, the Taliban and is currently supporting dictatorial regimes all over the Middle East.

This approach has to be consciously applied when the movement develops its key slogans and demands. They must be posed in such a way that starts to connect with the consciousness of broad layers of the public. Incorrect demands, or even correct slogans that are posed incorrectly, can be fatal in this difficult political environment. Concretely, Socialist Alternative believes the anti-war movement should fight around three key demands at this stage: “Stop the war”, “No racist scapegoating” and “Defend our civil liberties”. These demands are not fixed in stone. As the war develops and consciousness changes the movement will need to adapt new slogans.

Many activists, understanding the role of US imperialism and its foreign policy in preparing the way for the Sept.11 tragedy, want to raise demands that go further than these three demands and directly point the finger at the US government for its crimes by calling for a change in US foreign policy with demands like “US out of the Middle East!”

Most Americans would not understand these demands. Even worse, they will be interpreted as saying it’s a case of the “chickens coming home to roost,” “blaming Americans” for the terrorist attacks. This would make it very difficult for the movement to reach new people, since the overwhelming majority of workers would immediately close their ears to us, and we would not even be able to open a dialogue with them.

Our immediate demands need to connect with people’s consciousness, which is mainly angry about the terrorist attacks and fearing further attacks. We need to proceed from that consciousness and explain how the war will not give justice to any of the WTC victims, nor protect us from future attacks. The role of demands is to act as a lever to move people into action. Karl Marx, the founder of the modern socialist movement, once wrote that it’s better to have one real movement than 100 perfect programs. It is through struggle that people are radicalized. By building a mass anti-war movement, millions of people will draw radical anti-imperialist conclusions through their own experience.

If the anti-war movement wants to preach to the converted, then demands aimed at exposing US government are fine. But if the anti-war movement wants to be effective and build a mass movement, it needs to advance immediate demands that can act as a bridge between the movement and wider layers of the public, who are not yet firmly against the war.

This does not mean in any way we should conceal the underlying causes of the terrorist attacks, which are rooted in capitalism, the poverty and oppression it creates, and the role of the US in dominating and oppressing the peoples of the Middle East. Our immediate slogan “Stop the war” usually provokes the question: “what is your alternative?” We then can explain the deeper roots of terrorism, the role of US foreign policy and the socialist alternative-but this must be done in a more patient, explanatory fashion, which requires time for elaboration and discussion. Coalitions should organize teach-ins and conferences where such issues can and should be discussed. Leaflets, articles and pamphlets can be used to explain these larger issues. But, when organizing activities aimed at the general public, such as demonstrations, making posters and picket signs, and giving media sound bites, we need to focus on immediate, key issues that can appeal to and mobilize wide sectors of workers and young people. The key way to change US foreign policy now is to build a massive movement, encompassing millions of workers and youth to stop this horrendous war. The victory of the anti-Vietnam war movement had an enormous effect on US foreign policy. It held back the arm of US imperialism for the past 28 years, making it avoid any protracted conflict that would lead to US casualties. The US ruling class sees this new conflict as an opportunity to do away with the “Vietnam Syndrome” and adopt a more aggressive military and foreign policy. A successful anti-war movement today would prevent that and have a massive radicalizing effect both in the US and around the world - sparking mass struggles and revolutions.

Justice Not Revenge?

Another demand being put forward as an alternative to war is “Justice Not Revenge.” This is a call for the US or the UN, to arrest Osama Bin Laden and others accused of being behind the terrorist outrages and for them to face criminal charges at an international court. Socialists do not support this demand. While we too want to see justice done, we have no faith in the US government or the UN-institutions which serve the interests of the dominant capitalist powers-to be able to accomplish that task. The key to fighting terrorism and avoiding future tragedies is to eradicate the underlying social, economic and political conditions that give rise to terrorism. Any struggle against poverty, national oppression and capitalism will unavoidably be a struggle against the US government and the UN. Therefore, it is totally counterproductive to look to these institutions, which are responsible for maintaining the capitalist system, for solving these problems or delivering “justice.” Unfortunately, there are no “immediate” or “realistic” solutions to terrorism. Under capitalism it is guaranteed there will be more terrible terrorist attacks in the future. The problem cannot be solved from above, by capitalist governments. The solution must come from below, from a mass movement of the working class and oppressed. A mass anti-war movement in the US will have tremendous repercussions around the world, and would represent a major step forward in the struggle against global capitalism. It would shine out like a beacon to the oppressed masses in the semi-colonial world, particularly in the Middle East, and would lead to massive struggles in those countries. It would greatly undermine the argument of the reactionary Islamic Fundamentalist forces that all Americans are the same, one giant enemy. It would greatly strengthen the progressive forces in the Middle East that are struggling to build a movement against poverty and oppression.

Next Steps
So far the movement has successfully consolidated a solid core, the foundation for a powerful anti-war movement. In the next period we have to turn decisively outwards-towards the broad mass of students, young people and workers who are beginning to question this war. This means making massive outreach efforts to the broadest possible audience.

Coalitions must adopt their structures to accommodate this need. Coalitions will only grow if they are democratic and inclusive, with room for all political tendencies to be represented.

On campuses, a concerted effort should be made to reach out to every relevant student organization (as well as student government or unions), trying to convince them to endorse our three demands. Student activists must reach out to the main bulk of the student body with the arguments for our three demands by organizing massive tabling, leafleting, postering, teach-ins in every dorm, announcements of big actions in every large class, speak-outs and rallies. College students should also try to discuss with high school students by organizing tabling, leafleting and other activities outside local schools. Campus coalitions should also try to build links with local unions, community organizations, progressive organizations, civil rights and immigrants’ organizations and try to work together for concrete local activities (like a big demonstration) off campus.

Activists should make efforts to pass resolutions against the racist scapegoating of Arabs, the attacks on our civil liberties and the war in Afghanistan within our unions, community organizations and churches-and get these organizations to help build for and participate in big actions.

When Arab or Muslim communities come under physical attack, anti-war coalitions should link up with the local community to form defense committees made up of local people-Arabs, Blacks, Latinos, Whites, union and community activists-to stop such assaults.

The movement also needs to become more organized. A good step in this direction is holding regional conferences to bring together the activists to fully discus the political issues involved in the war, the progress of the war and building an effective movement. These conferences can be a springboard for forming a national organization to organize and coordinate the movement. Steps along these lines are already underway among student activists.

To read other documents about the War, visit our documents collection. There are also a number of other articles in that collection from this issue of Socialist Alternative