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Peace Wars 

The bitter battle over piloting a campus peace movement that hasn't even left the ground

Wednesday, Jan 16 2002
On a raw, wind-whipped night in early December, the Berkeley Stop the War Coalition hosts a teach-in titled "Whither the anti-war movement?" The question, loaded with an unlikely combination of urgency and weariness, is cynical; so are the faces of the 50 people who show up to answer it.

Most who trickle into the tiny classroom in UC Berkeley's Wheeler Hall are students, braving lingering colds and looming finals and sporting backpacks, buttons, and jackets adorned with familiar logos of the left: raised fists for socialism, green patches for environmentalism, Che Guevara for generalized revolution. A few aging hippies also file in, one of them dangling a stopwatch around his neck so he won't violate the two-minute limit on speaking time. Then there's the middle-aged guy hawking Workers Vanguard in the doorway. He's a member of the Spartacist League, the would-be revolutionary group that spouts the philosophy of Leon Trotsky and the belief, passionate and persistent, that Afghanistan's best hope for a stable future rested in the Soviet invasion of 1979. "Hail Red Army!" the league's literature proclaims. "Extend social gains of the October Revolution to Afghan peoples!"

Although no one's going to throw him out, the Spartacist's presence provokes palpable scorn. He's not here to plan demonstrations or to suggest new strategies for building a movement against the war in Afghanistan; he's here, first and foremost, to pitch his ideology to a more captive audience than he'd get on the street corner. But he's unlikely to find any recruits tonight. As the hodgepodge of badges, insignias, and emblems suggests, these people already belong to groups that don't leave much room for those with differing ideologies.

The Spartacist, however, will not be denied his sales pitch. After organizers of the teach-in give a half-hour of updates on the war in Afghanistan and the latest number of civilians supposedly killed by errant U.S. bombs ("They do that every day," says one moderator. "Miss things on purpose so they can kill ordinary people"), the meeting shifts into a discussion of "where we go from here." The first speaker offers what will prove to be the evening's most-proposed strategy for expanding the anti-war effort: more fliers.

Then the Spartacist raises his hand.

"This war is not about terrorism, it's about imperialism," he begins. Aside from one moment of comic relief ("The best hope for the women in Afghanistan was the Russian Army in 1917 -- I mean, 1979") his speech is more antagonistic than anti-war. He snipes at rival socialist groups, derides Democrats as the "class enemy," and concludes his tirade with the expected hard sell for the Spartacist way of life: "Joining forces with the working class in the fight for proletarian revolution is the only way to end capitalist oppression."

As he sits down, a dozen hands spring up. The Spartacist, by uttering the magic words "imperialism" and "capitalism," has let the genie out of the bottle. From this point on, the teach-in becomes an argument.

On one side are those who think the anti-war movement should embrace the tenets of anti-capitalism, as evinced by the 1999 protests in Seattle of the World Trade Organization. The stunning success of Seattle, a golden moment when Turtles marched with Teamsters and petty party differences were brushed aside for the sake of a greater cause, owed much to surprise and serendipity; no one -- not those comprising the semispontaneous union of environmentalists, labor leaders, communists, socialists, and anarchists who were protesting, nor the police who responded -- understood the moment's power until it was past. Of course, preventing delegates from reaching conference rooms is a relatively modest goal -- and one all participating leftists could agree on. Seattle's success, as pure protest, has not been replicated; among other things, law enforcement agencies have become more vigilant when world economic leaders meet. But it did spawn global justice campaigns nationwide, and they thrive especially on campuses, where movements to close sweatshops and raise janitors' wages serve as many a young leftist's introduction to raising hell.

But inconveniencing businessmen is not stopping a war, and not everyone in the student anti-war movement is convinced that it should rush down the aisle with the Turtles Who Took Seattle. Some of the most vocal anti-war protesters, after all, love the United States and hope to thrive within its economic system. Plus, as one student at the teach-in puts it: "If you go up to people on the street and tell them we should stop the war because the United States is an evil imperialist empire, people will discount it out of hand, just because of the words you're using. That's not the course we should take."

"The anti-capitalist movement already has an anti-war contingent," counters another. "This is a ready-made movement that we have to inject an anti-war movement into. If you want numbers, there they are."

After an hour of circular argument that likely doesn't change the opinion of a single person -- and certainly doesn't produce a new plan for building the anti-war movement -- a latecomer slides into the back row and whispers, "Why are we having this discussion again?"

Although American anti-war sentiment is most closely associated with the Vietnam War, its roots trace to the Quakers, early European colonists who objected to war as a matter of Christian principle and faced Puritan persecution when they wouldn't fight Native Americans. Indeed, each of the country's major conflicts garnered its share of dissent. The Revolutionary War was opposed by Tories, or American colonists loyal to the British crown; the Civil War had its "copperheads," a derogatory term for Northerners sympathetic to the South; and during World War I, socialists, pacifists, and labor leaders formed the core of a sustained anti-war effort. World War II peace activists focused on protecting the rights of conscientious objectors; by the end of the Korean War, when the Chinese entered and American soldiers began dying in greater numbers, two-thirds of Americans thought the United States should pull out.

About The Author

Matt Palmquist


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