Frontlines and the antiwar movement

Jose G. Perez jgperez at netzero.net
Tue Mar 11 23:20:58 MST 2003


If people could follow the argument despite the absolutely GOOFY idea of
posting alternating two-paragraph sections in English and Spanish, there is
something worth discussing in Armand's latest publication onlist of the
Frontlines/Left Party bulletin. If people didn't follow it, here is the
essence of one aspect of it:

>>There are at least four major antiwar coalitions and hundreds of
constituent small groups at the local level.  These in turn put lots of
pressure on the participants in each coalition to upstage the others,
compete with the others, and transmit this culture of competition down to
every last group in their constituencies.

>>The antiwar movement has to urgently regroup.  All coalitions and groups
must be included in a national conference to unite the movement in one solid
coalition.

>>There is nothing wrong with organizing local actions in between mass
demonstrations to maintain the initiative of the movement, provided that
they are done around stronger, united, democratic and all-inclusive antiwar
local coalitions on campuses and communities. These are not to replace the
mass, centralized demonstrations, but to enhance them with
massive local participation in a more organized fashion.<<

I have a very different view of the new antiwar movement: I think it is a
distributed p2p [peer to peer] network, and while it is multilevel --with
local, national and (emerging) international supernodes-- its basic
underlying structure is horizontal and virtual rather than hierarchical and
geographical. Don't think NPAC or PCPJ or the SMC or New Mobe, think
gnutella and Kazaa and texting on cellphones.

Organizing a protest movement of this type basically involves communication.
In the days of the Vietnam movement, the only possible way to organize
national actions was through large, centralized and very hierarchical
coalitions. That's why that movement was never able to do what this one
seems to find almost second nature: organize large national protests on a
monthly basis. (Since October, if you discount the Holidays, there's been a
protest every month. And at least in Atlanta, March 15 is building at least
as well as previous ones).

Back then you needed a formal, authoritative call, with tons of sponsors and
endorsers, just to get the ball rolling. That call would come three, four or
more months in advance of the event. The demonstration got publicized
through the organizations affiliated to the coalition and through the local
coalitions, with their squads of activists, who would hopefully plasters
posters and leaflets all over town. The fundamental weapons of the struggle
were printing presses and mimeograph machines, with a little help from
buttons and a lot from word of mouth.

TODAY we have wheat paste on steroids, magic leaflets that reproduce and
distribute themselves. Armand should be aware of it --that is exactly how he
is distributing his bulletin-- but I don't think he's stopped to reflect on
what it means. The means of production of social protest movements have
changed radically since even a decade ago, never mind the 1960's and 70's.
As materialists, it should not surprise us in the slightest that this has
changed the *forms* of the movement.

Anyone who has participated in previous large scale movements of this type,
and especially the "old" (Vietnam) antiwar movement, and compares it to
this, one, can't help but be struck by the *differences.*  This movement is
much more *spontaneous* -- people come to demonstrations on their own, with
their own homemade signs with often humorous and idiosyncratic expressions
of antiwar sentiment. Instead of being concentrated in one sector of the
population, like students, you get entire families and circles of friends
who come to the protests. The officially-projected slogans of whichever
group is hegemonic in the sponsoring coalition, or the carefully worked out
compromise wordings, do not dominate signs, banners or chants, because
people haven't been organized or mobilized by those structured forces.

The endorsements that really count today is not the list of organizations on
the left-hand margin of the letterhead, but the number of times a call for
an action gets forwarded, reposted to a list-serve, or commented on in a
chat room (as well as the parallel phenomena in the non-virtual world).
That's why even a fairly narrow formation, like ANSWER, can successfully
initiate very large actions. If the character and focus of the action makes
sense to the activists, they will build it through their network of email
buddies, list serves and so on. And if they build it, people will come.

This is also the explanation of *why* the size of the actions constantly
exceeds the expectations of the organizers, and even their physical
arrangements (venue for a rally, size of stage, power of sound system and so
on). Much or most of the organizing and building for demonstrations is no
longer all that visible from a coalition's office or a seat on its steering
committee.

Not just the antiwar *sentiment,* but the actual *mobilization* has far
outstripped the formally structured groups. And what is tending to happen,
very strongly, is that as a result, you get more and more of these local
antiwar action committees ranging from a few to a few dozen people. Even
when these groups are (formally) coalitions, they take on a hybrid
character, and also become just one more action committee with its own base
of activists, working alongside the other action committees that formally
make it up.

Coordination takes place informally, through "supernodes," key activists
and, potentially, local branches of socialist groups, the green party, etc.,
who are in two, three or more of these groups.

Armand's group is very critical of this multiplication of small and often
very informal action committees. His comrades note, for example, that
nowhere did the student strike acquire a real mass character. I'm not sure
Armand realizes just how widespread, and how random, walkouts were on that
day. What happened is that tiny groups of activists in high schools and
colleges came together and led the actions, even though MOST of them
couldn't have told you who *called* the strike (and I certainly can't,
either).

The real strength of the movement, as it exists right now, is this
distributed network of local supernodes which more and more, stemming from
online communication and coordination, emerge as nuclei of antiwar action
committees, with groups of developing activists clustered around them.

It may be that in the Bay Area, where Armand's group seems to be centered,
the traditional and long-standing tribal hostilities between Brand X and
Brand Y Leninist Vanguard Party has led to a situation where the various
antiwar groups are at loggerheads with each other. But out here in the
boondocks, there is a tremendous, even exhilarating amount of goodwill and
informal, practical cooperation, complementation and coordination between
the groups -- all handled informally.

Of course, it would be better if in each area a centralizing organ, a soviet
or junta of antiwar action committees, would emerge. But we should be
extremely leery of forcing the pace of this development, of *imposing* forms
from another *epoch* on this movement. This movement and its organized forms
are emerging in an inextricably intertwined way with the revolution in
communications that's taken place in the last 8-10 years or so. Right now we
should be centering our efforts in trying to *understand* the new movement,
where its forms come from, what this means for the work, not just of
antiwarriors but of revolutionary socialists. And we should *avoid*
representing the past of the movement in the movement of the present.

José


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