Daniel Lazare answers the red-baiters
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Mon Jan 13 09:31:10 MST 2003
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Le Monde diplomatique
APPOINTMENT WITH WAR
WAVES of radicalism come every 30 or 40 years in the United States. Now
that a new one is upon us, thanks to President George Bush's threatened
invasion of Iraq, observers are comparing it to the last. During the
Vietnam war, it took three years, until 1968, of massive US military
intervention before large-scale national protests got underway. This
time, 200,000 people descended on Washington and surrounded the White
House on 26 October while 80,000 more marched in San Francisco.
by DANIEL LAZARE * _______________________________________________________
They were protesting against a war still in its talking stages. Where
college members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) were the
driving force in the 1960s, when conscription was still in force,
today's antiwar movement is far more broadly based. Opponents of the
Vietnam war were a beleaguered minority until the early 1970s. But now
opposition is running at 37%, according to a recent poll, and could go
higher should the US encounter more trouble in the Gulf than the
Pentagon anticipates (1).
Bush may seem strong, but he is actually starting out weaker than Lyndon
Johnson or Richard Nixon during the Vietnam era. His Iraqi adventure is
a high-stakes gamble in which many things could go wrong. Iraq could put
up an unexpectedly stiff resistance, the entire region could rise in
revolt, post-invasion Iraq could descend into anarchy and, crucially,
the US economy could take a steep dive.
If these things happen, today's minority could easily turn into
tomorrow's majority, and Bush's (unelected) presidency could crash as
his father's did in 1992.
There is one similarity between the 1960s antiwar movement and today's:
its shaking-out of the liberal intelligentsia. During the Vietnam war,
ageing social democrats like Irving Howe lambasted students for
violating cold war anti-communism by enthusing for Ho Chi Minh. Today,
ageing veterans of the 1960s are lambasting the new antiwar movement for
similar ideological sins.
Hardly a week goes by without a prominent liberal blasting the movement
for its lack of patriotism, its hostility to mainstream American values,
or its blanket opposition to US military power. If the ex-Trotskyist
writer Christopher Hitchens is to be believed, America is torn between
those who favour a showdown with Saddam and those who "truly believe
that [US Attorney General] John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama
bin Laden" (2).
Either you're with the United States or you're with al-Qaida, as both
Hitchens and George Bush see it, and Hitchens is determined to be with
Others who have attacked America's nascent antiwar movement include the
leftwing feminist, Ellen Willis, and Georgetown University historian
Michael Kazin, author of a highly regarded study of rural populism, who
accused the antiwar movement for failing to recognise that in the US the
masses are patriotic and the globe-trotting bourgeoisie is not. As far
as the US is concerned, Kazin wrote, "Karl Marx's dictum that the
workers have no country has been refuted time and again" (3). If antiwar
activists wish to connect with ordinary Americans, they must prove
themselves more patriotic than the president.
Todd Gitlin, a former SDS president turned New York University
sociologist, recently warned that the antiwar forces were heading for "a
gigantic ruination" because they had allowed radicals to take control,
and if such elements were not purged, the leadership would atrophy -
this warning came days before the massive October turnout.
David Corn and Marc Cooper, staff writers for the liberal weekly The
Nation, have criticised the movement's "far left" leadership for, among
other things, defending Cuba and denouncing UN sanctions that are
conservatively estimated to have caused the death of 500,000 Iraqi children.
Why is there so much hostility? The liberal-social democratic outburst
is best understood as yet another stage in the Democratic party's
disintegration. The process began around November 2000 when the
Republicans used strong-arm tactics to gain control of the White House,
and then accelerated after 11 September, when congressional liberals,
terrified of being labelled unpatriotic, closed ranks behind Bush's
policy of "ceaseless warfare to rid the world of the evil-doers".
Now the Democratic party's liberal and social democratic wings are
collapsing as well. The process is the culmination of ideological trends
over many years. A generation ago student radicals believed with Herbert
Marcuse that the American working class had become hopelessly bourgeois.
Today, those radicals, now greyer and paunchier, still believe the
working class to be hopelessly bourgeois; but now, instead of condemning
that, they see it as a good thing
Since there is no alternative to bourgeois society, the left's job is to
support it while seeking to smooth out the rougher edges. This has meant
reinventing the left as a loyal patriotic opposition and never
inveighing against US imperialism, even though that it is now more open
and unabashed than at any time since the invasion of Cuba in 1898.
But if anti-imperialism is forbidden, it is nonetheless what a
significant segment of the US population feels, thanks to the enormous
human toll caused by UN sanctions, Washington's outrageous manipulation
of the UN Security Council and the Bush administration's cynical
attempts to blame Saddam Hussein for 11 September. The result is an
enormous contradiction that many Marxist and semi-Marxist organisations
and parties are hastening to exploit.
One such group is the Workers World Party, a ex-Trotskyist splinter
group that was the main force behind the October demonstrations; another
is the Revolutionary Communist Party, a Maoist sect chiefly responsible
for the Not In Our Name campaign, an attempt to prevent Bush from using
popular outrage over September 11 to fuel his anti-terrorism campaign.
The most important radical in the US today, however, is Bush, whose war
on terrorism is roiling global politics and propelling the US far to the
right. In revolutionising international relations Bush is also
revolutionising the opposition, forcing the antiwar movement to become
as radical as he is. ____________________________________________________
* Journalist and author of The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution is
Paralysing Democracy, Harcourt Brace, New York, 1996
(1) "Poll: Most support war as a last resort," USA Today, 26 November 26
(2) Christopher Hitchens, "Taking Sides", The Nation, 14 October 2002.
Since then he has stopped writing for The Nation.
(3) See Ellen Willis, "Why I'm Not for Peace", Radical Society, April
2002; also Michael Kazin, "A Patriotic Left," Dissent, autumn 2002.
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