Guest Writings
18/1/06 What Kind of Antiwar Movement by Reza Fiyouzat

The article by JoAnn Wypijewski, entitled, What is an Antiwar Movement (Counterpunch, January 14-15, 2006), shows clearly a few blind spots of the US Left. It is therefore necessary to address these blind spots. 

Wypijewski starts her article with all guns blazing against Lenni Brenner who, in an earlier article on Counterpunch (The War within the Antiwar Movement; January 10, 2006), had suggested that some meaningful discussions regarding Zionism and Imperialism were needed in order to give the antiwar movement a clearer direction. I will not make a comparison here between what he said v. what she said. Instead, I want to concentrate on how Wypijewski pursues her specific line of argument. I believe that some major problems that are common to a large segment of the U.S. Left are crystallized well in her article.

A major shortcoming is Wypijewski’s general tenet that declares it a negative, time-consuming and ultimately an alienating activity to have discussions and debates among the leaders/activists of the antiwar movement in order to arrive at a more clear idea of what it is that the movement is trying to achieve. She argues this indirectly and by bringing up all manner of side issues, or non-related issues, that presumably would have to be debated to appease the likes of Lenni Brenner (the ‘purists’), whereas the two issues that had been suggested as desperately needing discussions were Zionism and Empire; both of which are absolutely crucial to any understanding of what it is that the Left needs to bring to the antiwar movement.

In denying the need for theoretical/political discussions, she asserts that real movements start out and act in localities and in response to real pains and losses, and over time they gather steam as well as numbers, and in further time all those small moves lead to bigger things, and ultimately they lead to reforms that, although beneficial to all, will be contained and rolled back down the road.

That is the gist of her argument. If we were to take her argument to its logical conclusion, we must argue that no discussions ever need to take place, since real movements start out in localities and develop spontaneously in response to real pain and loss, and any effort to subject these naturally occurring movements to the plans of some ‘purist’ leaders (who have too much time for debates) is futile at best, wasteful and divisive at worst.

Here is a paragraph from Wypijewski’s article that epitomizes what I just summed up:

“You can’t think about US policy in the Middle East without thinking about Zionism and Palestine, but the antiwar movement isn’t a movement against US policy in the Middle East, broadly speaking; it isn’t even a movement against war in general, even though it includes confirmed peaceniks. […] Brenner is saying it should be a movement against US policy in the Middle East, oil policy, imperialism. That would be nice; I just don’t think broad political opposition ever develops this way, and I certainly don’t think it develops because some people at the top of national organizations have decided to draft a line or debate with each other.”

Now, of course, there are elements of truth in this passage (as there are in the rest of the article). The main point of debate however is not how broad political oppositions do develop, but rather how a Leftist intervention can affect and elevate such movements. However, the main thrust of Wypijewski’s argument completely ignores that intervention, thereby reinforcing a sense of helplessness and denying the ability of Leftist leadership to affect anything beyond keeping its own pants up. And a sense of helplessness is exactly the sentiment on which Wypijewski ends her article. From the last paragraph of her article we read:

“It doesn’t seem that we have learned enough about human nature, about exhaustion and despair and false dreams, about the power of the state to kill or dismantle opposition, about the seductiveness of capital and the fruits of co-optation, and about how all of these combine to stop the train at the point of limited liberal reform and then roll back. It would be a really limited victory to force US withdrawal from Iraq. [But] would it not be a victory?”

Yes it would be a victory. But not for the US Left. The U.S. Left, after such a limited victory, would still be stuck with an imperialist system, in which the ruling elites can wage wars of aggression against any people, anytime and anywhere they damn please.

If the U.S. armed forces were to leave Iraq tomorrow, it will be (only) a tactical victory for the people of Iraq. A strategic victory for Iraqis would be when they regain full and meaningful control over their natural and national resources, and secure reparations from the U.S. But, even that tactical victory would have been due to the sacrifices of the Iraqis, and it would be extremely presumptuous to even think that the victory came about due to anything the US Left has done. Indeed, Wypijewski inadvertently admits that the US Left has not been leading much of anything, when she says, “The political terrain on the left today is desolate, so the fact that a majority of the country opposes the war, and hundreds of organizations across the country act against it is kind of remarkable.”

The same was true about the Vietnam War. It was not primarily the American people who forced their government to withdraw from Vietnam; it was mostly the Vietnamese people who kicked the Americans out.

Wypijewski is partially correct in one aspect. Do you remember who it was that finally kick-started the antiwar movement, after the ‘Left’ abandoned all talk of resisting the war throughout the entire election-year of 2004? (Huge chunks of the ‘Left’ were all the way behind a war-supporting party, remember?) It was Cindy Sheehan; a person who, according to her own testimonials, had never had anything to do with oppositional politics of the kind she is engaged in now. So, yes, Wypijewski is partly correct; movements do start spontaneously. But, the movement having started, does the Left have no role to play in it?

So, it seems that the Left does need to talk about topics it has avoided so far. As Wypijewski concedes correctly, the U.S. policy in the Middle East is inseparable from Zionism. So, why should a discussion of such an important and integral part of U.S. actions in that region not occupy the U.S. Left? This is really incredible. Would the same writer cross a bridge if she knew that before the construction of the bridge no studies of maximum stress levels were conducted for that bridge? Would she move into a house if she knew that the contractors had not taken into account some of the most basic criteria for building a house? So why does she apply the same neglect to a social movement that is trying to achieve higher levels of justice?

Another question that arises from reading Wypijewski’s article concerns the role she sees fit for any Left at any historical juncture. If it is not for the Leftist leaders to shed crucial and painfully needed critical light upon the discussions surrounding such key social problems in the American society as imperialistic wars, then whose role is it to do so? By implication, Wypijewski’s article suggests that it is nobody’s place to do so, since movements happen spontaneously and people are not much affected by the role of intellectuals.

One is tempted to ask, Why does Wypijewski bother to write about politics then? The same arguments she presents against Lenni Brenner apply equally to all her own writings. Why does she bother write about U.S. labor and its leadership? Doesn’t she presume that labor movements happen spontaneously and that the contour of their development runs in a separate universe parallel to radical leftist intellectuals’ interventions and analyses?

Here is another key and representative passage:

“I don’t think political consciousness develops because some clever bunch of political purists somewhere has typed out an agenda and then somehow launched a major education campaign to get everyone in line. I think it starts because people are disgusted by death and lying, because they become too acquainted with suffering, because they get together with other people similarly disgusted.”

This passage is filled with fallacies that one would only expect from a conservative thinker. First, not all people get affected the same way by the same deaths and lies. For every Cindy Sheehan there are thousands of military families who not only support the missions of the U.S. armed forces (no matter which missions), but also support the gangsters who send their sons and daughters to Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. So, mere exposure to horrible things does not render one into an oppositional person automatically. If this were the case all the problems of capitalism would have been confronted by people a long time ago, and we would be living in a socialist utopia by now. So, the role of oppositional intellectuals and leaders is crucial and extremely important. (Why else do governments imprison, isolate and assassinate such intellectuals and leaders?)

Second, and more to the point, what then is the role of Left intellectual leaders, Leftist organizations, and the progressive opposition? Is there any leading role they can and should play? If not, then their function is merely one of gauging the public mood and adjusting to that mood. Which is to say complete irrelevance! 

Third, and finally, this line of thinking leads to another harmful line, which states: Things have to get worse before people act. But, if we expect people to ‘do something’ only when personally exposed to nastiness (i.e. if we remain reactive only) and, further, if for people in the Center of this world system (e.g. the U.S.) to turn oppositional it must take personal loss, we are faced with the horrible prospect of millions and millions of lives lost in the periphery (Third World) before a change of heart will take place among enough people to constitute an oppositional movement in the Center (which is what happened during the Vietnam War). Not a very pretty picture for those of us who are unfortunate enough to have been born outside the fortress First World.

This goes to the heart of another matter of importance. Imperialism is not merely a policy of certain administrations that come to power through the electoral process in the U.S. Imperialism is in the very fabric of how the U.S. economy and society work. Imperialism and racism are structural components of how the system works in the Center, and not mere attitudes or policies. The very conditions that make it easy for the U.S. to invade any country it damn well pleases caused also the devastation of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the looting of the city by giant developers going on right now; the same conditions are also responsible for an apartheid education system, and for the theft of people’s taxes for which no representation is offered; and responsible for a structural poverty that is endemic to the U.S. society.

So, to not talk about Empire and Zionism is to act willfully blindly. Leftists, who by tradition come from the school of enlightenment and critical thinking, need to think twice before advocating such harmful lines of thinking as remaining silent about some of the most crucial stumbling blocks in their path.

We know better than that, and our historical tradition is filled with examples of leaders and organizations that posed the tough questions and therefore showed the way forward. Simply go through all the Leftist leaders and intellectuals of the twentieth century in the U.S. alone. Now, think about all the movements with which those leaders and intellectuals were involved. Now ask yourself: Would those movements have been the same without those leaders and without their interventions?

Reza Fiyouzat is a freelance writer and analyst. He may be reached at

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