The anti-war movement then and now
Platypus Review 148 | July/August 2022
This article is based on the author’s remarks given on the panel “The anti-war movement: Past and present,” hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society at the University of Chicago on May 19, 2022, the video of which is available online at <https://youtu.be/MBOjU_gs3HA>.
WHAT IS THE HISTORY of the anti-war movement for the Left? In the last 108 years there are five wars that show regression and stagnation through anti-war politics from the First World War, the Second World War, the Vietnam War, the wars in the Middle East in the early 00s, and the present war in Ukraine.
In WWI, the Left was famously split. It was seen at the time as the gravest betrayal when International Social Democracy capitulated and voted for war. James Joll writes about this very clearly — a line sticks out in my head where a French worker says to Jean Jaurès, the leader of French Social Democracy, “we need you intellectuals because we don’t speak German and we need you to tell them that they are our brothers.” But the majority of the trade unions neglected this basic point and voted for war and the destruction of the world. The Bolsheviks advocated a line of dual defeatism with the imagination that they were immediately on the verge of world revolution. A hundred thousand German soldiers refused to fight any more and instead marched, armed, in Berlin, for an end to war and for socialism.
With WWII, the Left was even more fractured, but basically the Left supported the allies to defeat facism. The Left generally then had to support the war. Another interesting but also confusing analogy would be Spain, for there was a Left that supported defense of the revolution in Spain and there was an International Legion.
There was a prominent anti-war Left in each of these wars, except for the war against Fascism.
The twin towers fell when I was a sophomore in high school. I was already interested in politics at that point, having campaigned for the Green Party the year before. I registered 9/11 in two ways. In the first, there was the fear and uncertainty on the day itself — it was scary. In the second, there was widespread response to the terrorist attack as an act of war — that night on the news there was an interview with a construction worker at the scene saying, “I hope we’re sending planes there right now” — though no one specified where there was yet. I felt at a critical remove from the jokes that relished killing Osama Bin Laden in 2001; it just didn’t seem right. I was drawn to the anti-war protests. I went to many of the big protests that year, including the main one, on the day of the high school science fair, where we took over Lake Shore Drive and walked arm in arm against the police until we got cornered at Oak St. I spent the night in jail with other protestors before going back to school for a midterm exam the next day. The style of protest, the slogans, the imagination, was very much influenced by the 60s anti-war movement. Those years I went to several protests, was arrested several times, and spent a few nights in jails.
At my first protest, I remember older Baby Boomers at the protests asking me, “Why aren't there more young people? Bring your friends.” So I organized protests at my school, including a walk-out where a dozen or so of us got suspended for refusing to go to classes when the bombing started.
I remember at the time Noam Chomsky talking about how it was unprecedented that the anti-war movement had developed such momentum before the bombing even started. I took this as a sign of progress and I remember thinking then, on the one hand, that this was an interesting point. But on the other hand, we were already too late to stop the war. The question on my mind as a teenager then was, what would it take to stop the next war? This pointed to the need for broader organization and made me consider the need for party politics.
Of course what happened next was that rather than continue to grow and develop, the anti-war movement went to sleep with Obama. Obama was elected and the wars both continued but the anti-war movement stopped.
With Vietnam, in the U.S. there emerged over time a mass anti-war movement. The war did not have mass opposition at its outset, but opposition grew over time. With the wars in the early 2000s in the Middle East, the anti-war movement was very well established before the first bombs dropped. A lot was read into this in 2002. The significance of the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 00s was that you could tell a narrative of progress. The narrative was that the Vietnam War had to drag on and get more entangled before anti-war sentiment finally built up — but that by contrast with the wars in the Middle East, the world had progressed. Europe clearly was done with the war because, look, there was the European Union. They were done with wars. We had overcome nationalism, at least, in Europe. As further evidence of progress, there were protests of hundreds of thousands all over the world when the war was merely first talked about by George W. Bush. The narrative was essentially one of progress. Chomsky gave this interpretation at the time — that the developed anti-war movement spoke to the relative development of the international community.
For the Left, the significance of the anti-war movement in the 00s was that it was a clear object of critique. There was a place to go to sell newspapers. There was a leadership to criticize. It was at the protests that I encountered the sectarian Left (the International Socialist Organization, since disbanded, Spark, the Progressive Labor Party, the Revolutionary Communist Party, and the Spartacist League) and the conversation around imperialism and war. At the protest, the focal point was always confrontation with the police. This was supposed to be radicalizing. I grew dissatisfied with this pattern of activity because it led nowhere.
I was arrested several times. My freedom of speech rights were straightforwardly violated by the police. I was in two lawsuits against the cities of Chicago and New York. In both cases, Baby Boomers who had been active in the anti-Vietnam War movement represented me. In NYC, my lawyer actually was in the SDS leadership. I won both cases and a decade or more later, got checks in the mail. In Chicago, the arrests ended up costing the city a lot of money and did have a tangible effect on protest politics which was applied in Occupy: the police announced they were going to arrest people before they went ahead and arrested them. Perhaps the laws were then followed, but one can’t say that there was either progress here or deeper consciousness of freedom of speech. In fact, it is the opposite now.
With Vietnam, there was a story that the Left could tell. The anti-war sentiment grew and grew and forced the U.S. withdrawal. This story is disputed of course, but it is nonetheless a dominant narrative. Is this a good moment for us now to ask what happened to the Iraq War movement? The answer in retrospect is clearly the opposite: the anti-war movement started out at its strongest and maybe it got a little weaker as the years passed, but what really marks its end is the election of Obama. The wars continued right along. The wars even grew in intensity with Obama’s troop surge, but there was no surge in the anti-war movement; there was exhaustion and depoliticization. The wars continued and the anti-war movement did not. There was other popular political protest in the last decade (Occupy, BLM, and anti-Trump protests) but the war had receded from view. Eventually, much later, the wars did end but it really had nothing to do with the anti-war movement but rather because the wars were a failure and the U.S. eventually decided to cut and run.
The Vietnam Wars culminated in a stagnation on the Left. What emerged then was a standing army of the Left: a late-20th century answer to the standing army of the state: a standing anti-war movement. A permanent peace army that doesn’t have to win; it just has to fight. It fights whatever war militarism is on offer at the moment. This was the real legacy that I encountered in 2002 — the politics of resistance. “We must resist the war machine” is a slogan that doesn’t get old because the war machine will continue.
Of course this legacy itself is a complete perversion of an earlier socialist line on imperialism.
Lenin was anti war in WWI — but a crucial aspect was that he imagined the war ending in a revolutionary overthrow. By stark contrast, in 2005 I imagined the next anti-war movement, in a sort of parallel way that the military is anticipating the next war.
And that brings me to the founding moment of Platypus: the critique of the anti-war movement. Just past the height of the anti-war movement, on the verge of Obama, I read Moishe Postone and Fred Halliday in the Platypus Reading Group. The critique of the anti-war movement from the Left really challenged me because it focused on political principle.
The original Platypus panel was on Anti Imperialism — what it is and why we should be against it. It was questioning the basic suppositions of the anti-war movement, which was both that the war was an imperialist war for oil and that we should be against it.
Platypus chose to focus on the Left and insisted on a Left-Right distinction. What distinguishes Left from Right oppositions to war? In short, the Right argues against war on the grounds of:
- The war costs too much, we can’t afford it, i.e., economic austerity.
- They are not ready for freedom: our society has developed for centuries or millennia and learned to become democratic but they are primitive and their traditional society does not understand democracy — i.e., national chauvinism or racism.
- We should just mind our own business — isolationism.
The Left, when it argues against war, does so in principle on the grounds of:
- They are our brothers — internationalism.
- Even if we don’t speak the same language, we have a common enemy, the bourgeoisie — class struggle.
It is important to draw this up because the anti-war movement in the 00s took up many Right-wing talking points as its own. This was the founding critique of Platypus — when the Left had basically ceded the concept of freedom entirely to the Right.
The second point of the Platypus critique was historical: to hold up the history of Marxism. The enemies of the U.S. in 1965 were very different from the enemies of the U.S. in 2002. In the 60s, the enemies were communists who an international Left saw as its own. In the 00s, this narrative did not hold. Both Sadam and the Taliban murdered communists, but the line at the time was that terrorists are the new communists.
That was the Platypus point of departure.
In a way the problem I considered as a teenager was a far-sighted problem — how can we best organize the standing anti-war movement? We don’t have that problem now. Perhaps, this is because the concept of an “anti-war movement” is itself part of the problem, not just the politics of the anti-war movement.
The mass of the Left generally welcomed the war because it gave it something simple to say. Of course we are against imperialism because imperialism is bad and this is a war for oil. Can we imagine chanting "no blood for oil" now?
The Iraq War was seemingly clarifying for the Left but that belied a deeper confusion that Platypus was founded to expose.
The anti-war movement could draw on a ready-made theory and a ready-made practice. They invoked Lenin’s critique of imperialism and called for mass protest. It’s in this way that the Left loves war: it gives them something to say. Or, it did.
The Ukraine War is different. In Ukraine, since an enemy of the U.S. invaded another country, the Left has nothing to say. The dominant liberal opinion now is on the side of the war. Now Putin seems like the fascist (of course everyone thinks everyone else is a fascist and a Nazi), and Trump is thought to be his ally, and so Trump is the fascist, and that would make Bush, by comparison, a defender of democracy.
The legacy that now maybe seems more apt is unfortunately that of the 30s and 40s with Franco and the Nazis. There, the Left was basically pro-war. The Left today accepts that there were two good wars in American history: the Civil War and the Second World War. At one point the Left would also have defended the Revolutionary War, but no longer. The opposition to the Second World War was much more within currents on the Right than on the Left. The wars against Franco and the Nazis were good wars because they were anti-fascist. The War in Ukraine marks a shift on the Left from basically anti-imperialist politics in the mid 00s to basically anti-fascist politics today. This is connected and maybe more at the heart of the rise of the Democratic Socialists of America and the collapse of the International Socialist Organization. The anti-imperialist Left was more militantly anti-war and supported counterweights to American hegemony. The Anti-fascist Left saw the counter-American regional hegemons as dangerous and also was more sympathetic with pro-state politics domestically.
One can’t just assume that the Left would necessarily have an anti-war position.
Is the issue the politics of the anti-war movement, or is the problem the conception of an anti-war movement in the first place?
To recap: the antiwar movement of the 00s was seemingly clarifying for the Left because it gave them a theory and an activity, but this belied a deeper confusion. The non-existence of an anti-war movement today is more directly confusing: it speaks to both historical repetition with the further evacuation of Left politics.
The Spartacist League had a line: the Bolsheviks were the only successful anti-war movement. The Bolsheviks were against the war, but their conception of how to end the war was based upon a much larger political program than just opposition to the war. Pure opposition to the war is just resistance politics — resisting the war machine. Of course I want there to be an anti-war movement. But would it be adequate? No. The problem with the concept of an anti-war movement is that it is foundationally opposing a symptom. Lenin and the Bolsheviks understood themselves as addressing a deeper cause. Regardless of whether you oppose or support intervention in support of Ukraine or the Russian invasion — there is no deeper cause that we are addressing. What is our world historic mission? That’s what the Left would need to ask itself first. |P
 Many of the ideas in this talk emerged in conversation with Richard Rubin.
 Students for a Democratic Society. See, for instance, “Rebels with a Cause,” available at <https://youtu.be/IRoJoflUH4k>.
 The transcript of which can be found in Platypus Review 25 (July 2010), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2010/07/09/imperialism-what-is-it-why-should-we-be-against-it/>.
 “U.S. Out of Iraq Now! The Left and the Occupation: For Class Struggle Against U.S. Capitalist Rulers!,” Workers Vanguard 850 (June 10, 2005), available online at <https://spartacist.org/english/wv/850/left.html>.