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March 2003 • Vol 3, No. 3 •

What Next for the Antiwar Movement?

By Nat Weinstein

The global avalanche that cascaded across the face of the planet on the weekend of February 15-16 registered a turning point in world history. The millions of antiwar marchers in more than 600 cities, towns and villages around the world, estimated to have amounted to more than ten million, posed a challenge to the leaders of world imperialism that has forced them to sit up and take notice. On February 17, in its featured front-page report titled, “A New Power in the Streets,” the New York Times summed up the new world situation in its opening sentence:

“The fracturing of the Western alliance over Iraq and the huge antiwar demonstrations around the world this weekend are reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: The United States and world public opinion.”

President Bush was also compelled to tip his hat to this manifestation of the power of millions of marching feet. Asked by a TV reporter to comment on the weekend’s events, he was forced to say that he respects protestors’ right to an opinion, but nonetheless indicated his intention to proceed as planned.

Now, less than a month later, it is even clearer that the drive to war on Iraq has gained a momentum that even the Bush administration cannot bring to a halt without proving to the world that American democracy is purely formal and to be overridden whenever the ruling class deems necessary. The opposition to the war has been reported in polls to be as high as 80-plus percent of those questioned, reflecting a growing suspicion that it is not any threat from Saddam Hussein, but rather an attempt to avert the impending global economic collapse that is the real reason for Bush’s drive to war.

However events may unfold in the immediate period ahead, there can now be no doubt that even if this war on Iraq were stopped before it had begun, it would not be for long—even if Saddam Hussein capitulates to Washington’s demands.

In any case, whether or not the Bush administration goes ahead with its promise to hurl as many guided missiles on Iraq in the first few days, more than equaling the total of bombs dropped during the entire 40 days of the first war on Iraq, antiwar activists must continue their mass protests as long as the killing continues. In fact, it will also be necessary, in any eventuality, to find ways to deepen and broaden the movement against imperialist wars of conquest that clearly will not end no matter what happens in the Middle East.

We now come to the problem of what the antiwar movement must do next. But, let’s first take a look at how it has been evolving. It will allow us to better see where it must go next. We get a preview of future trends by looking at the slogans on the placards brought from home by antiwar demonstrators at the last two demonstrations.

Human Needs Not War

Alongside the slogan, “Stop the War On Iraq!” appearing on most hand-painted signs in all the recent antiwar demonstrations is the one calling for “Human Needs Not War!” and other placards focusing on jobs, schools, healthcare and civil liberties—side by side with slogans opposing the unjust war itself.

While most of those carrying these slogans have not yet reached anti-capitalist conclusions, they nevertheless are articulating an idea that is intimately connected with the anti-capitalist instincts of ordinary people who make their living by working. These instincts are generated by the impact of worsening living standards resulting from squeezing the many to enhance the profits of the few.

Many are already aware and deeply bothered by the relation between wars and profits that is an organic part of the existing social and economic system. Proof that this connection exists in the minds of almost everyone is demonstrated by a flood of placards screaming, “No Blood for Oil!” That slogan implies far more than that this war is for oil profits. It is a manifestation of the growing realization that profit is what makes the world go around and that without it, the wheels of industry will not turn. And that’s just a step away from the realization that without war the capitalist economic order will collapse.

Even those super-patriots who produce the weapons of mass destruction, will not produce a single bomb without a guarantee of a “reasonable profit.” And to make sure that profits remain “reasonable,” they are willing to trade blood for oil, while driving down the wages and benefits of those who actually power the wheels of industry.

The evidence for this can be seen almost every day recently in the pages of the printed and electronic mass media that have been filled with reports of government-backed employer assaults to lower living standards and increase profits. First, at the expense of longshore workers on the west coast, then they hit transit workers on the east coast. And as the world was being taken closer to war, the ruling class launched an attack on the workers who make profits for Boeing and other manufacturers of fighters, bombers, guided missiles, and other authentic weapons of mass destruction.

For-profit manufacturers of armaments are also among those who produce nuclear weapons. Such archetypical weapons of mass destruction are now in the arsenal of most major industrial countries. Even the desperately poor, industrially underdeveloped capitalist nations like India and Pakistan (and U.S.-funded Israel) possess such weapons. And, you can rest assured that Wall Street and Washington will make sure that the lion’s share of these “goods” is purchased from American arms manufacturers like Boeing and other multibillion dollar national and transnational corporations.

In fact, all countries without sophisticated weapons industries of their own are forced to spend large portions of their limited resources on weapons. It results in a world that forces rich and poor nations alike, into a dog-eat-dog struggle for existence. The rich against each other as well as against the poor countries; and the poor against each other as well as defending themselves against the rich countries. And those with the least resources are forced by the dynamic of the profit system to spend less on human needs for the many—to guarantee a “reasonable profit” for the few.

That’s what Marxists mean when we assert that the capitalist world is rapidly descending toward a barbarism far worse than that when the Roman Empire was overrun by barbarian hordes. Moreover, this barbarism has none of the redeeming qualities of the ancient type that dealt a severe blow to chattel slavery.

And those nations, like Israel, entirely dependent on the only remaining national superpower, are among the biggest “purchasers” of America’s war industries while the American people pay a huge chunk of such costs through taxes and increasing rates of exploitation. The rulers of the poor nations, in turn, need these weapons, not so much as against other poor nations but for the most part to suppress resistance and rebellion by their own hungry peoples.

Poor nations, like India and Pakistan, are at each other’s throats as a result of religious, national, ethnic and other social divisions that are intrinsic to a world dominated by capitalists and the insidiously antisocial nature of the profit system itself.

In fact, some of capitalism’s most respected economists have noted that the systematic production of weapons of mass destruction has become an essential component of the Keynesian mechanism for regulating the capitalist economy. Without it, the global capitalist economy would have long ago collapsed.

But the dilemma that faces the masters of the world is that increased spending on war production never has and never will improve the economy. It certainly can have the effect of a temporary stimulant. But like any artificial stimulant, the organism develops resistance and requires ever-larger doses. Rather than a cure, the best it can accomplish is merely to postpone the day of reckoning. Inevitably, there comes a time when stimulants, rather than stimulating, kill the organism.

The fact that arms production has become a major export commodity points to the organic connection between profits and war. Without the income from the export of military weapons, machines, and other war materiel, the United States would have had a balance of trade deficit almost double the more than $400 billion that it reached in January 2003!

Clearly, capitalism has developed a deep organic connection between war and economics and it is becoming ever-more apparent. That’s the meaning of the spontaneous proliferation of slogans counterposing human needs to the madness of war.

Workers and the antiwar movement

The first and most important task of the antiwar movement, in light of the escalating government-led capitalist attack on living standards, is to focus on reaching out to the working class, and especially the sector organized in trade unions.

Those of us who have long recognized the key role history has assigned to the working class in the struggle for social, economic and political justice are not surprised that antiwar activists have begun to talk about shutting things down, like schools.

Such actions have been in the air partly as a result of the momentum generated by the last two extremely massive antiwar protests, but mostly by the predominant role played by the trade unions in the even more massive antiwar mobilizations in Europe.

Also contributing heavily to this new interest in the role of workers and their unions and the political power they possess was the refusal of British train drivers to transport war materiel intended for use by British forces in Iraq. Moreover, the leaders of the more militant British unions have already threatened strike action if and when their government takes part in the bombing and invasion of Iraq. And on February 27, 120 out of 410 Labor Party members of the British parliament voted against Labor’s Prime Minister, Tony Blair warmongering.

The same phenomenon is occurring in Italy where the leader of the country’s transport workers union has declared, “No ships carrying weapons or war material destined for the Gulf will sail from the Italian ports.” Such developments are occurring all over Europe. They foretell the coming of a new period of pre-revolutionary class struggle in Europe, which will inevitably spread across the face of the earth.

The recent development of extraordinary political and social militancy by European unions, reminiscent of the fighting spirit displayed by the world’s workers’ movement in the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s has not been seen since those days. Working-class militancy began to subside partly because of the long period of economic stability in the advanced industrial countries of North America, Europe and Asia. Also contributing to the relative passivity of workers in these countries since the end of the 1950s, was the bureaucratization of the political and economic institutions of the working class. In the United States, where the bureaucratization of the workers’ movement was most complete, the pacification of the union ranks was also most advance.

The trend toward passivity, which is now coming to an end, is neither a mystery nor is because, as many so-called “labor experts” claim, the working class is no longer the leading force in massive struggles against economic, social and political injustice. In fact, flowing logically from this impressionistic and false view, they conclude that major sections of the working class have become part of the middle class. And the rest, they now call the “underclass.”

This is a falsehood based on the premise that income determines class. Thus, the most consistent of these pedantic impressionists say there are now only three classes, the rich, the underclass and those with an income somewhere in the middle.

But while income certainly has an affect on consciousness, and while consciousness certainly has an effect on what class people believe they are in, it is people’s role in production—based on a mutually antagonistic relation between wage workers versus capitalists—that determines their social class.

Those in the middle class, otherwise known as the petty bourgeoisie or small capitalists, include among them foremen and supervisors, self-employed farmers, artisans, artists, doctors, shopkeepers, etc. But like everything in this world, there are always among the classes those who shift from one to another or are positioned somewhere in between. But that’s where the role of consciousness helps determine class: It is also which class you believe you are a part of that is often decisive! That is, consciousness determines which class you identify with and are loyal to, that counts, in the final analysis.

But everything influences everything else. Thus incremental changes have been taking place over the past period of generalized passivity. It is becoming increasingly apparent that a qualitative change in consciousness seems about to take place in American workers and their unions. It is even more rapidly advancing toward a sharply higher level by the war and the example being set by the working class of Britain and on the European continent. That too, has contributed to the reawakening of respect for the power of the workers and their class institutions now taking place, at least among antiwar activists here in the United States.

All these developments suggest that the time is rapidly approaching when the American workers will rediscover their proud past and begin to relearn the lessons of the great battles fought and won (and why they won or lost) over the last half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century.

Moreover, there is no doubt that the sleeping giant of American labor has begun to awaken. Like the rest of the country, workers have been affected by the seeming insanity of the drive toward war on many fronts. This drive has already produced a massive antiwar movement that has, in turn, precipitated the formation of U.S. Labor Against War (USLAW).

USLAW has in a very brief period already rallied a coalition of unions representing some five million workers behind a powerful antiwar resolution. This resolution has recently also acquired the support and the beginning of an organized connection with many of the world’s trade unions, encompassing altogether some 200 million members. USLAW has now begun working toward bringing many unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO into the antiwar movement.

To be sure, this is no easy task in light of the reactionary role of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy. The top leaders of the American labor federation have consistently supported every war launched by the capitalist government of the United States, whether it was led by the Democratic or Republican Party. Moreover, while they have been whining about what they have called a “one-sided class war against American workers,” they have quietly submitted to every serious blow struck against workers and their unions over the last several decades.

The exceptions were the few who did fight but lost, like the air traffic controllers’, meatpackers’ and rubber workers’ unions starting at the beginning of the 1980s. But in every case, the decisive cause of their defeats was the disloyal refusal of the top labor officialdom to mobilize genuine support for their embattled sister unions. To be sure, they have almost always given oral support, but have consistently refused to mobilize the rank and file of the labor movement on the picket lines of striking workers. Effective picket lines, that is, those that shut production down tight, are enough in the great majority of cases to force the employers to come to terms with their workers.

The only exception that put up a fight and won was the Teamsters Union under the leadership of its president at the time, Ron Carey. But even that union that carried out an effective and successful national strike against the United Parcel Service, the largest and most profitable package delivery corporation, was ultimately betrayed by the top officialdom of the AFL-CIO.

Immediately after the union’s victory over UPS, the government stepped in and unilaterally removed the Teamsters’ president on an entirely spurious charge of misappropriation of union funds and unilaterally banned him from membership in the union for life. He was further prohibited by a government–appointed body of corporation lawyers from so much as talking to active members of his union. And even after his subsequent acquittal in a court of law, the government refused to reconsider its action. Meanwhile the AFL-CIO’s top officialdom refused to utter a word of protest, much less mobilize support for the democratic right of Teamsters to choose their own leaders.

But now, the changing consciousness that is sweeping throughout America and the world is affecting the rank and file of our unions as well—with even greater force simply because they have been the recipients of some of the heaviest blows struck against average living standards. It’s important to note, that when organized labor’s wages fall, the wages of the unorganized workers also tend to fall to an even lower level than is normally the case.

One of the ways the antiwar movement as a whole can help USLAW reach out to rank-and-file trade unionists and to their unions is to help distribute their leaflets addressed to working people where they work and especially at the big industrial plants—union and non-union alike. That would not only help the antiwar movement but it would also serve to help the unions organize the unorganized in the country as well. That would be a genuine win-win relation between the antiwar movement and the labor movement.

Furthermore, it’s a matter of historical fact that whenever the organized working class is forced by joint government/employer attacks on their living standards to fight back, it tends to lead to a broad labor counter-offensive in defense of the class interests of all working people. That’s one of the important reasons why workers in this country had long enjoyed the world’s highest living standards—something that is no longer the case.

History also proves that one of the most powerful causes of mass labor upsurges is the heavy sacrifices imposed on workers in wartime. In the past, such mass struggles had occurred only after wars had begun and after support for the war by the masses declines and the hardships imposed become explosive. But this war is different. It comes after decades of falling wages, longer hours (the erosion of the 40-hour week and 8-hour day). And last but not least, the capitalist government has been imposing ever-greater legal restrictions on working people’s right to strike in defense of their class interests. And when anyone is foolish enough or desperate enough to keep a lid on a pot holding a volatile liquid over a source of rising heat, an explosion is inevitable.

The war, that has not yet been formally launched, however, has features and effects markedly different than most past wars. Unlike the Vietnam War, for instance, where the government’s avowed policy then, was “guns and butter.” Now the policy of the bipartisan government in the upcoming war has already been explicitly declared to be for bigger profits for the rich and more and deeper sacrifices for the poor. The sacrifices, however, are not being restricted to the unemployed and lowest-paid workers, but have long been affecting the better-paid and more privileged sectors of the working class.

Ever large parts of the middle class are seeing their living standards fall, and like workers, are now also losing good salaried jobs. Many of those in this social sector are being pushed down into the working class, and when the current economic crisis breaks out of control, increasing numbers will find themselves, along with workers, drafted into the army of the unemployed.

In addition to this war being the first to be accompanied by a massive antiwar movement in the U.S. before it has formally begun, it is also the first to have such massive opposition on a global scale. It is also the second consecutive war to be launched against countries that have not in any way struck the first blow against the United States—making it transparently obvious that the reasons given for these wars are false.

History also proves that once in motion, workers rarely stop with merely holding on to what they have. The labor struggles that began in the early 1930s, for instance, led logically toward reaching out to the great mass of unorganized workers to join and organize themselves in a generalized struggle against the attack on their living standards. The trend that is sure to unfold will be toward a much broader struggle against economic, social and political injustice in order to mobilize all those adversely affected by the new conditions in a common struggle for justice.

For all these reasons, the next big task of the antiwar movement is to reach out to the working class and their unions and to their counterparts everywhere. This may be our last chance to stop the war before it begins. And even if we don’t succeed in that, we will have armed more people with the truth so that we can continue the struggle to stop this war, save Iraqi lives and bring our sons and daughters in the armed forces home from the Middle East alive.






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