[Marxism] Re: anti-imperialism (An experience with building a coalition against "empire" in New York City)

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Wed May 11 07:59:01 MDT 2005

I can't actually speak for anybody else who was in the SWP, but I never
thought single-issueism was a matter of principle, as David McDonald
reports hearing and as he interprets Fred Halstead as arguing in "Out
Now!"  And if I had heard someone say this at any time, I would have
challenged it and I would not have gotten into any hot water for doing

But I think it is true that, ESPECIALLY with the end of the antiwar
movement, the concepts began to congeal into what many, including myself
(and including Jack Barnes) called a "litany" -- a supposedly sure-fire
strategy for building a movement) reduced to a few principled
prescriptions, "single issue" being one. Dave McDonald's relationship to
the party stems from this postwar period (he participated in a fusion
with the party in the late '70s). Actually, our central
tactical/strategic aim during the Vietnam war was not primarily the
single-issue FOCUS or the demand for immediate withdrawal (which we
fought quite hard for) but the conception that defeating the war
required, on the US side, broad independent MASS ACTION against the war
independent of (though we did NOT insist that participants be
consciously opposed to) the rulers and their political institutions and
parties. Relative to this question, we considered not only "single
issue" but even the fight for the principled demand of immediate
withdrawal to be secondary questions, which we pressed for to the extent
they furthered the central goal -- again, MASS ACTION against the war
independent of the rulers and their political institutions and parties.

With that general objective still in mind, I was quite open to
participating when an attempt was made by some antiwar activists in New
York City (with members of Solidarity in the forefront) to initiate a
"coalition against empire" that we thought could further the building of
a broad mass antiwar movement, help the movement overcome the division
between what I consider the sectarian "right" and "left" coalitions, and
intensify commitment to opposing the occupation of Iraq by educating
about some of the broader issues of "empire" associated with this.  In
particular, I wanted more attention paid to the Palestine issue and to
reaching out to Blacks and other people of color, which the UFPJ
coalition has tended to shy away from.  We thought such a coalition
could provide a less tightly controlled, more democratic space for
discussions and proposals that the movement needed to consider than was
being offered by either of the two coalitions.  To their credit, by the
way, the IAC joined this effort and played a constructive role.  The
UFPJ basically boycotted it outright.

This group adopted the name New York Grassroots Action Network.  And
several meetings were very well attended. The coalition was founded in
May 2004, in the runup to the elections, and had completely and quietly
dissolved into a dew in March 2005.  In the first few weeks, a pretty
good programmatic statement was adopted laying out some basic issues of
"empire." I guess I first smelled trouble when the statement failed to
include a call for immediate withdrawal from Iraq, simply including Iraq
among about 100 countries from which US troops should be withdrawn.

In the 9 months or so that NYGAN existed, it proved unable to decide why
it existed or what to do. It was never able to make opposition to the
Iraq war its central focus -- everytime  someone suggested (yes, usually
one of us ex-SWP antiwar traditionalists) honing in for now on the war
that the US currently had 150,000 troops fighting, others would get
offended, fearing that their issue  would be shortchanged. The group
could not decide on any activity until the two coalitions settled on the
March 19 event in Central Park  and the Fayetteville protest called by
the Military Families.  And then it couldn't carry out its own decisions
on how to participate (although the IAC person carried out all the tasks
he undertook).

They couldn't decide on any action partly because, you know, "empire"
like "imperialism" covers a hell of a lot of territory -- all the
territory there is, really. And every time someone would push the Iraq
focus as the MAIN PROJECT FOR NOW (yes, usually one of us ex-SWP antiwar
traditionalists) the response would be What about Darfur? What about
Palestine? What about community work? What about the 100 countries?
Etc.. The tendency to take offense at the Iraq issue was so pervasive
that at one point, I made an irritated pun based on the Public Enemy
album, saying that people seemed to be suffering from "fear of an Iraq

The reaction to a proposal to include a specific demand for US troops
out of Iraq was so strong that I dropped it, and gladly settled for a
decision to participate as a group in the antiwar actions, which did not

This experience convinced me that this group had been more an expression
of the problems facing the movement than a contribution to a solution of
it.  In fact, a lot of people were really retreating from building
antiwar actions and coalitions toward their own groups and particular
areas of concentration.  Like the two coalitions, each in their own way,
they were tending to lose track of the need for mass action and of the
centrality of the war issue under the pressure of elections and, I
think, out of confusion over what is happening in Iraq.  

(I think teach-ins are needed.  The core activists need to come to a
little better understanding of what is happening in Iraq, and debate
about this is probably needed.  I think that the situation is growing
more tangled for Washington over time, that they are not militarily
defeating the armed resistance even though it is currently restricted to
the Sunni population, that opposition to the ocupation is growing, and
the control Washington has over the situation is weakening. Of course,
very much unlike Vietnam, there is no unified anti-occupation leadership
pursuing a revolutionary course.)

I am quite convinced that a "single-issue" focus around Iraq is far from
being a dead duck -- a crackpot idea forced on the anti-Vietnam movement
by SWP terror and completely off the real-world agenda now that the SWP
has retired from politics. I think the problems of building a broad,
unified "anti-imperialist movement" have not been thought through
seriously. What is imperialism? What anti-imperialist perspective is to
be adopted. Which struggles should be focused on? How is unity to be
attained and maintained? I think the anti-imperialist character of the
actual fight against THIS WAR is insufficiently recognized and

I also strongly suspect that the advocates of an "anti-imperialist
movement" instead of the existing anti-Iraq war struggle will tend to
have a dismissive attitude toward youth and others who are looking for
action against Iraq.  Their "narrowness" may make them seem like highly
dispensable as "liberals" and political primitives to the REAL

I think the utopian project of replacing the current struggle with a
supposedly anti-imperialist one is simply another reflection of the
weaknesses of the anti-Iraq struggle and part of the tendency to retreat
from it.  

I am beginning to suspect that this was even involved in the ISO's
rather cavalier attitude toward reaching new and "low level" activists
in the Military Families with their "anti-imperialist" propaganda. I
think a conflict that should have been resolved by one or two phone
calls became a big public dispute because the ISO treated the Military
Families as not quite up to "anti-imperialist" snuff.

The growing, not declining, problems that the US is facing in Iraq
inspired many hundreds of thousands in the US and worldwide to march
against THIS IMPERIALIST WAR on March 19. 

Yet, the Workers World center followed up the with their coalition for a
communist May Day celebration, and UFPJ followed it up with a march for
nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation. And important antiwar
activists on this list are pushing the "anti-imperialist" movement
schema as a replacement for the current movement whose limited successes
have disappointed them.

Fred Feldman  

More information about the Marxism mailing list