Supporting the Resistance?


Posted to on April 22, 2005


Back in 1967 I was being courted by both the Trotskyist SWP and the Maoist Progressive Labor Party (PLP), groups I had been introduced to by New School for Social Research graduate school classmates. The SWP was heavily involved with the mass demonstrations against the war, while PLP was deeply imbedded in Students for Democratic Society (SDS).


My Maoist classmate kept harping on the need for the anti-war movement to become "anti-imperialist". Since I was newly radicalizing (but not yet familiar with the Marxist methodology), this argument had much appeal. What good was it to oppose the specific war in Vietnam when the system would generate other wars down the road? Furthermore, since SDS had just begun to identify itself with the NLF and other guerrilla groups worldwide, the temptation to embrace slogans that specifically supported the insurgency were strong. In contrast, the SWP appeared tame if not "moderate" by limiting itself to slogans like immediate withdrawal.


One Friday night at SWP headquarters, where a public forum was about to begin, I repeated the PLP objections to my Trotskyist classmate. He then walked me over to a party member named Dan Styron who patiently explained to me what was wrong with those arguments. He said that the antiwar movement was objectively anti-imperialist. By maximizing the number of people in the streets, we begin to draw in elements of the population who have the social power to stop the war--like GI's and workers. If the antiwar movement can help to force the US to withdraw from Vietnam, it will encourage revolutionary struggles everywhere. In effect, Dan was expressing the spirit of Karl Marx's observation that "Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes." Shortly afterwards I joined the Trotskyist movement and kept Dan's words at the back of my mind all these years. (Dan committed suicide in the late 1970s.)


They come to mind once again after reading Alan Maas's article titled "What Kind of Movement Do We Need? Attempts to Limit Debate Only Weaken Antiwar Organizing" in the ISO newspaper ( and which also appears on Although Alan makes useful points about the need to stand up to attempts to reduce the Iraqi resistance to Baathist thuggery or Islamic fundamentalism, he does not really seem aware of the bigger problems facing the antiwar movement. Fundamentally, the debate about how to characterize the resistance is a diversion from a much more urgent task--namely, how to achieve maximum unity around the demand for immediate withdrawal. Even Alan acknowledges:


"Most antiwar organizations today do agree on an all-important demand, at least on paper -- immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. This is a solid basis for united action -- one that can be embraced by both activists who have taken the lead in challenging the occupation and people only getting started in activism."


It should also be noted that at the debate between fellow ISO member Anthony Arnove and Tariq Ali on one side and Joanne Landy and Stephen Shalom on the other at the Left Forum conference, all of the debaters supported immediate withdrawal. Instead, the debate was about how to characterize the armed resistance, with the nominally "left" position amounting to open support for it. This, in my opinion, is not really critical for defending those who are fighting for the freedom of their country. What is much more important is building a powerful movement that can appeal to GI's and working people and draw them into action in ever-increasing numbers. In other words, we have the same task we had in the 1960s.


Although I have a lot of respect for the ISO and am happy that they are a growing force on the American left, there is still an element PLP/SDS type ultraleftism that gets in the way of their becoming even more influential. It is also of some concern that a group that has the numbers that can effect the future direction of the antiwar movement lacks the political clarity to make a difference. In an article by Geoff Bailey that appeared in the September–October 2003 International Socialist Review titled "The making of a new left: The rise and fall of SDS," we read:


"The strength of the Stalinist currents in SDS was increased by the weakness of the Trotskyist tradition. The largest Trotskyist organization in the U.S., the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP), played a central role in the various national coordinating committees that organized the semi-annual mass antiwar demonstrations in Washington as well as in the youth wing, the Student Mobilization Committee (SMC). But the SWP always looked at the antiwar movement as a single-issue movement and reacted with outright hostility to any attempt to inject more radical, anti-imperialist politics into it. It dismissed SDS as a petty-bourgeois, semi-anarchist group, and while it had a large presence in the SMC, it made no attempt to influence the debates inside SDS. Instead of playing the role of the revolutionary left-wing of the antiwar movement, the SWP gave a left cover to the pacifists and liberals who dominated the coordinating committees."




I am afraid that this paragraph is a guide to the poorly thought-out role that the ISO has assigned for itself in the antiwar movement today. I would argue that instead of aspiring to the "the revolutionary left-wing of the antiwar movement," the ISO should be focusing on what steps are necessary to unite everybody who is for immediate withdrawal in effective mass actions. Instead of "left brain" exercises calculated to show how Naomi Klein gets failing grades in an anti-imperialist final exam, the comrades should be assessing the US left and broader formations such as the church, the trade unions, etc. to figure out how to move the struggle forward. Unity, not anti-imperialist litmus tests are what is needed. This takes an entirely different set of skills than are required to "expose" Joanne Landy. In fact, she exposes herself every time she opens her mouth.


Now that I am in the final pages of Barry Sheppard's memoir (available from Haymarket Books, the ISO publishing arm--I hope they read it), I am more convinced than ever of the need to build an objectively anti-imperialist movement. This means figuring out how to tap the raw energy of high school and college students who despise this war and who are fearful of an impending draft. But it also means figuring out how to speak to the trade unions that are in the orbit of UFJP, most of whom are solidly against the war but are susceptible to pressures during election years. Now that the elections are behind us, it is extremely urgent for the most far-sighted elements of the mass movement to put forward action proposals that address the powerful and deep opposition to the war in this country and internationally. That is the true revolutionary task of our age.