The following article was first published in the Summer 2008 Supplement to Proletarian Revolution No. 81.

Anti-War Conference Clashes
Over Afghanistan, Democrats

League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP) supporters joined hundreds of other participants in a national anti-war conference in Cleveland on June 28-29, billed as the National Assembly Against the Iraq War and Occupation.

The anti-war “movement” has been beset by political contradictions from the onset – pro-Democratic Party leaderships and the obvious stamp of a middle-class constituency. But today, despite broad opposition to the U.S.’s bloody military adventures, it exists essentially in name only – anti-war protests are few, far between and poorly attended. It was no surprise, then, that many who attended the conference were anxious to overturn this state of affairs. They wanted to fight for mass protest action against our ruling class’s imperialist occupations of Iraq and of Afghanistan and against both of the parties of U.S. imperialism that support these occupations: the Republicans and the Democrats.

The organizers of the conference, on the other hand, were committed to preventing the movement from raising demands or taking actions that would alienate the Democratic Party. The Democrats, Barack Obama above all, want to restore the U.S.’s declining power in the world by withdrawing troops from the losing war in Iraq, in part to bolster the occupation of Afghanistan. So the conference organizers opposed calling any protests until after the November election. They insisted on limiting protests to the Iraq war and fought against calls to oppose the equally imperialist occupation of Afghanistan. A clash between the conference’s leaders and the more militant, anti-imperialist participants was thus inevitable.

The LRP played a prominent role in fighting for motions to protest against the U.S.’s occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, its threats of attack against Iran, and both of the main imperialist parties supporting these policies. By the end of the conference a clear majority stood opposed to the leadership. It voted to change the name of the body to “The National Assembly to End the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and Occupations,” and to add “and Afghanistan” to every reference to protesting the war in Iraq in the Assembly’s action proposal. A majority also voted for a motion proclaiming solidarity with the Palestinian liberation struggle, rejecting the organizers’ more moderate statement on the issue.

The Anti-War Crisis

At the start of the Iraq war, hundreds of thousands of people marched in protest against it. The decline of the movement since then has been rapid. The dominant leadership has been the United for Peace and Justice (UfPJ) group. Consisting of various liberals and reformist socialists, UfPJ has insisted that the answer to the pro-war Republican Party is to build support for the Democrats. But the Democratic Party overwhelmingly supported the initial invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and its legislators in Congress continue to this day to vote in favor of funding the continued occupations. So when the 2004 elections approached, UfPJ avoided building mass protests that would challenge the Democratic Party’s imperialist policies and threaten their electoral chances. The movement was thus demobilized and has never recovered. (See our article “Anti-war Leaders Divert Struggle” in Proletarian Revolution No. 69.) The movement was further damaged by rivalry between UfPJ and two other anti-war groups, ANSWER and the Troops Out Now Coalition (front groups of the more left-wing Party for Socialism and Liberation and the Workers World Party, respectively). This rivalry hit rock bottom in 2005 when UfPJ attempted to hold actions to compete with and sabotage protests previously announced by ANSWER and TONC. By 2008, the movement had become crippled to the point that no major national protest was organized to mark the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq in March. This crisis provided the opportunity for Jeff Mackler, leader of the Socialist Action group, to seek a more prominent role by offering to mediate the conflict by launching the National Assembly and the Cleveland conference – on a basis acceptable to the pro-Democratic UfPJ leadership.

The Working-Class Alternative

Can the stranglehold of the Democratic Party on the anti-war movement be broken? It would be unserious to underplay the uphill nature of this battle. We in the LRP fight to build a revolutionary working-class pole in the movement. We know that mass struggles of the working class, especially its most oppressed sections, are key to launching the kind of fight against imperialist war that is really needed, and for which the present forces are no substitute. No one could seriously believe that even impressive demonstrations will alone drive U.S. imperialism out of Iraq and elsewhere. The work stoppage by the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union (ILWU) that shut down West Coast ports on May Day to protest the war is rightly touted as an inspiring example of the power that could really frighten the ruling class if it was widespread.

But it must be stated frankly that today such working-class anti-war action is the exception. The overall level of working-class struggle is very low, a situation which can not be overturned by even the best agitation by the small numbers of activists today. The American working-class scene demands a commitment to patient propaganda, trying to convince the most politically advanced workers and youth of the need to oppose imperialism, and of the importance of this struggle to their own conditions. Of course, revolutionaries also look for opportunities to agitate for action by sections of the working class, but such openings exist today generally only over the most immediate demands of workers’ own situation. (See our report on the New York City transit workers’ union in this issue, for example)

That does not mean that revolutionaries do not fight to change the level of class struggle. But we must focus this fight on the crisis of leadership and on building an alternative revolutionary leadership. The Democratic Party – and those leaders of the working class and oppressed who support it – are responsible for suppressing the class struggle over decades. The current low level of resistance allows both anti-worker and racist attacks at home, and is closely related to our class’s passive acceptance of imperialist adventures abroad.

The Democratic Party stranglehold will only be broken when the working class regains its confidence, learns that it has the power to fight in its own interests and comes to see through its own experiences the material link between exploitation and oppression at home and imperialist war abroad. Therefore revolutionaries and all serious opponents of imperialist war should do their part to take on the pro-capitalist misleaderships of the unions and of Black and immigrant organizations at every opportunity. At the same time, it is also important to fight in the arenas that exist to build the best possible actions against the war that are possible today, as we did in Cleveland.

The Debate Over Afghanistan

The LRP was one of several groups that led the fight to proclaim opposition to the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. Others included Socialist Viewpoint, the Freedom Socialist Party/Radical Women, and members of the California-based Transport Workers Solidarity Committee, which played a role in the May Day port shutdown. Even the president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO, Donna DeWitt, a featured labor leader at the conference, voted with this bloc. Socialist Action shamefully led the fight against the Afghanistan amendments.

As an LRP supporter argued in speaking for our motion:

There are two imperialist occupations going on, not one. There are two imperialist parties in the U.S., not one. The Obama campaign is bending over backwards to show how strong Obama is on ‘fighting terrorism.’ Obama says the war in Iraq is a distraction from the main task of attacking Afghanistan and capturing bin Laden. To downplay the question of Afghanistan provides cover to Obama, who will in fact continue the occupations of both Afghanistan and Iraq. If this assembly does not proclaim its opposition to the occupation of Afghanistan, front and center, in its own name, then this assembly is failing to fight against Obama’s plans to step up the occupation of Afghanistan, and to continue the occupation of Iraq.

This statement was met with long, loud applause from a significant portion of people at the conference.

During a debate about whether to focus on organizing anti-war protests this fall in October or December, Jeff Mackler argued for the December date because “UfPJ, ANSWER, U.S. Labor Against the War, and the Troops Out Now Coalition didn’t want a pre-election demonstration.” (We are told that leaders of ANSWER and Troops Out Now protested against this statement privately, but they did not do so publicly at the conference.) The LRP explained that this was another clear example of subordinating the anti-war movement to the interests of the Democratic Party. These comments also received loud applause from the conference, but the December date won the vote.

The co-chair of the conference, Jerry Gordon, made the leadership’s attitude even more explicit when he responded directly to our comments: “We’re not pandering to the Democrats, we‘re recognizing reality. The reality is the labor movement won’t mobilize before the election, when they’re busy electing their candidates. We have labor leaders here, and we have to work with them.” In fact, the alliance of the Democratic Party with the heads of the AFL-CIO, Change To Win, and all the unions is the biggest and most dangerous form of political class collaboration that holds back the struggle of the working class today.

The Far Left in Cleveland

As reported above, we collaborated successfully at the Cleveland conference with several socialist groups and others that we have fundamental political differences with. This was possible because of our tactical agreement on the main practical questions facing the conference. But there were other far left organizations whose role was not constructive.

The Spartacist League and the Internationalist Group came to the Cleveland conference, but not to take part in this struggle against the Democratic Party and their allies. Rather they denounced the entire conference and all its participants, whom they accused of “providing left cover” to class collaboration. The sectarian politics of denunciation from outside, rather than fighting as revolutionary opponents within the current movement, has long been par for the course for these groups.

The far worse role played by Socialist Action was covered up by an article on the conference in the July Socialist Action paper:

Whereas Washington’s war in Afghanistan was condemned by implication in the original proposal, this was strengthened and made explicit by adding the words “and Afghanistan” to all text where Iraq was mentioned, as well as in the Assembly’s own name. The aim was to stress equal opposition to the U.S. wars against Iraq and Afghanistan.

Socialist Action also commented that the amendment on Palestine “strengthened the Action Program’s emphasis on the Palestine issue more generally.” But at the conference Socialist Actions supporters actively opposed both the Afghanistan and Palestine amendments that they now praise. This blatantly deceptive account is meant to leave the National Assembly leaders some credibility in order to haggle for influence with the main anti-war organizations.

The likelihood is that the National Assembly is going nowhere. Because the majority at Cleveland defied the organizers over Palestine and Afghanistan, the leadership failed to broker the pro-Democratic compromise it aimed for. The “movement” will remain divided among competing coalitions for the present and will remain dominated by leaders who put the interests of the Democratic Party ahead of anti-war struggles.

We urge all working-class people who are interested in the perspective we put forward for the anti-war movement and the struggle against imperialism to contact us. We want to join together in common practical actions today and to prove the need to build the revolutionary party of the working class to overthrow the obscene warmongering imperialist system once and for all through socialist revolution.