The following article was first published in Proletarian Revolution No. 66 (Winter 2003).

Lessons of the Vietnam Movement

Many who oppose the looming U.S. war against Iraq look back at the movement against the U.S. war on Vietnam with a combination of nostalgia and admiration. The widespread opposition to that war, and its manifestation in massive events many hundreds of thousands strong, seems an inspiration, for young activists especially.

The fact that we are once again confronted with the necessity of building opposition to yet another imperial slaughter, ought to lead us to reflect not on the Vietnam anti-war movement’s partial successes but on its enormous failures. For working-class revolutionaries who abhor the capitalists’ drive to sacrifice us and our Iraqi brothers and sisters for the sake of world supremacy, the task is to overcome the harmful legacies of the past, not to repeat them.

Why The U.S. Lost in Vietnam

The subject of the greatest myth-making is the student anti-war movement. Its centerpiece organization, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), claimed 100,000 members at college campuses throughout the country by 1968, on the basis of a program which clearly pinned full responsibility for the war on U.S. imperialism.

Working-class opposition to the Vietnam War is rarely mentioned in histories of the period. Yet in 1970, poll data showed that 48 percent of Northern white workers favored immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Vietnam, in comparison to 40 percent of the white middle class whose youth were supposedly the mainstay of anti-war sentiment. Opposition to the war was especially strong among Blacks; among all workers, including Blacks, a clear majority favored full withdrawal. Yet despite their opposition to the war, many workers felt alienated from an anti-war movement dominated by forces alien to their class interests.

Working-class anti-war sentiment found its way into the armed forces. Though the Army was drafted, workers in general and people of color in particular were represented in disproportionate numbers, thanks to student deferments and other devices available to middle-class youth. By 1971, sources close to the top military leadership described the Army presence in Vietnam as “approaching collapse” and “near-mutinous.” The collapse of discipline included frequent “fraggings” – the killing of officers by their troops. By the end of the war the U.S. ruling class had given up on the draft and developed a decided preference for the type of mercenary, “professional” and “volunteer” force they have today. By 1973, the U.S. withdrew its military forces from Vietnam. (For more on this, see “Vietnam: the ‘Working-Class War’” in PR 45.)

The U.S. withdrawal came too late for the over two million Vietnamese who died as a result of the war. As early as 1968, the Tet offensive had shattered U.S. dreams of an easy military victory. Yet U.S. involvement and its deadly consequences dragged on for another five years, as the imperialists sought a way to extract themselves from a messy situation while minimizing the consequences to the “prestige” – that is, terror – inspired in the world’s masses by U.S. might.

The U.S. withdrawal came about in great measure not because of the demonstrations at home but because of the heroic struggle of the Vietnamese people, who endured tremendous sacrifices to rid their nation of foreign invaders. To rebuild U.S. prestige and overcome their “Vietnam syndrome,” our rulers have engaged in quick wars in Lebanon, Grenada, Iraq, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, most often facing little more than token opposition at home.

The second factor was the ruling class’s fear of a potential working-class upheaval at home. The capitalists attempted to wage the Vietnam War on a “guns and butter” basis. But the war came at the tail-end of the lengthy economic boom which followed World War II, which gave way to economic stagnation and crisis beginning in the early 1970’s. Afraid of a social explosion if body bags from overseas were combined with declining living standards and racial unrest at home, the rulers attempted to avoid sharp austerity measures. The fraggings in Vietnam, the ghetto revolts across the U.S. and a wave of wildcat strikes were sharp warnings.

The prestige of the Vietnam anti-war movement derives from its image as “an anti-war movement that won.” But in reality it was the third factor, after the Vietnamese struggle and the domestic working-class threat.

Today the system’s economic crisis continues to intensify. The ruling class has no choice now but to pose the war as “guns versus butter.” Increasingly open assaults on workers’ jobs, living standards, democratic and union rights go hand-in-hand with the war plans of the bourgeoisie. The potential for massive and deep radicalization is tremendous. Yet so are the dangers of a revival of class-collaborationist populism and a deflection of that radicalization away from working-class revolution. That is why we examine the actions of the left in the Vietnam anti-war movement and the hyping of it by their present-day successors.

Revolutionary Retreat

It is a tragedy that a movement of hundreds of thousands in the U.S. actively and consciously opposing their own imperialist rulers left no revolutionary legacy. The reason is that those who led the Vietnam anti-war movement, despite the stated intentions of many, led it down the garden path to a graveyard – the Democratic Party. Their populism, often masquerading as revolutionism, worked as an obstacle to the mass development of a genuinely revolutionary understanding of capitalist society. Rather than draw a clear class line between the imperialist rulers and those who had no lasting material interest in the war, they left the door open for dissident members of the ruling class to hijack a swiftly radicalizing movement into continued support of a system which depends on war to survive.

Many of the anti-war leaders of the day were what Marxists refer to as “centrists,” political forces that vacillate between rhetorical advocacy of revolutionary struggle against capitalism and a practice which seeks instead to smooth over the system’s rougher edges. Some sought to police the movement and prevent revolutionary voices from being heard. Others sought to build new political parties on a populist rather than a revolutionary basis, thus giving support to illusions in the electoral process and preparing the way for more successful efforts from within the Democratic Party. Both justified their strategies with a stagist understanding of what the struggle was ready for: liberalize and reform now, overthrow the system later. All, in various ways, ended up helping to preserve the continued dominance of liberal leaders and the ideology of liberalism over the movement.

SWP Kept Movement Safe for Democrats

During the Vietnam War, the largest organization claiming the heritage of Trotskyism was the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which played a leading role in one of the main anti-war coalitions, the National Peace Action Coalition (NPAC). Today’s SWP has long since given up on its claims to Trotskyism, yet there remain smaller organizations which uphold the heritage of the Vietnam-era SWP. The most prominent of these is Socialist Action; the November 2002 issue of its newspaper contains an article by Jeff Mackler, “Strategy and Tactics in the New Antiwar Movement,” which whitewashes the way the SWP and NPAC carried out their work.

Mackler paints a picture of a very democratic, non-exclusionary movement. He described a “united-front” method of anti-war work, in which “the broad range of groups involved can express their individual views as part of the rally program, where the movement’s full diversity is best expressed.” Yet, as he aptly says, “Organizational forms are subordinate to politics.” In the case of NPAC – which Mackler never mentions by name – the organizational form was subordinated to pacifist politics designed to keep things comfortable for liberal imperialists who wanted the U.S. to get out of a losing war. Those politics the SWP enforced.

The central misrepresentation in Mackler’s article is its presentation of the SWP’s central slogan for NPAC, “Bring the Troops Home Now!”, as “the political expression of support to the Vietnamese right of self-determination.” It is true that this slogan was counterposed to openly pro-imperialist slogans defended by the Communist Party and others, like “Negotiate Now!” – a slogan that granted the U.S. invaders the right to negotiate over Vietnam’s future. But “Bring the Troops Home” was deliberately ambiguous regarding Vietnamese self-determination and deliberately ignored the imperialist character of the war. The SWP, in the pages of its party press, interpreted it as “objectively” anti-imperialist. Yet for the many Democratic Party figures who chose to grace NPAC platforms as the war dragged on, it meant nothing more than a tactical judgement against the advisability of continuing the Vietnam War.

Further, the slogan’s emphasis on U.S. troops lent it a patriotic tinge designed to appeal to the liberals. Similar slogans during the first Gulf War adapted even more openly to patriotic sentiment, in the form of “Support Our Troops, Bring Them Home Now.” As we wrote at that time:

For many activists this sentiment expresses their hatred of sending American youth to kill and die for an unjust cause. But the liberals use these feelings to create a defensive adaptation to the patriotic propaganda flooding the country. “Support Our Troops” is above all the warmakers’ motto. To them it means “Support Our War”; it corrupts and dulls human feelings against war and turns them into their opposite. The slogan also promotes the poison of American chauvinism: the idea that American lives are more valuable than others. (PR 38.)

Only because of the fading of memories over thirty years can Mackler present “Bring the Troops Home Now!” as a principled, anti-imperialist slogan. In the context of the rapid radicalization of the day, its softness on imperialist patriotism was readily apparent to most observers. It thereby served to exclude from NPAC large numbers of radicalizing workers and youth, especially those of color, who had come to realize through their own struggles that U.S. imperialism was a deadly enemy. Liberal Dem­o­crats could mount NPAC podiums secure in the knowledge that the SWP would neither denounce them in public nor allow anyone else to do so. Despite the warnings against support for the Democrats buried ritualistically in the SWP press, the SWP played a key role in enabling some Democrats to burnish their anti-war credentials unchallenged. As the hardened social-democrat Michael Harrington enviously put it, the SWP “carried out Menshevik politics with Bolshevik discipline.”

Peaceful Protest?

Central to the SWP and NPAC’s ability to police the movement was their insistence on the tactical centrality of “massive peaceful protest,” which Mackler defends. His argument rests on a counterposition between “mass action” and small-group civil disobedience. “Mass strikes and similar direct challenges to capital” he dismisses as “music of the future.”

But revolutionaries are not passive spectators waiting for the working class to put on a grand concert for us. It is our job to demonstrate to our fellow workers that the ruling class which wages war on Iraq is the same class that is waging war on our lives and living standards. We hope to reach the most militant and questioning workers and to break down the patriotic atmosphere that demands that workers sacrifice on behalf of the “national interest.” The gain in consciousness would mean that the working class could then fight not only in defense of its immediate economic needs but also at the forefront of the anti-war struggle. Since these are in reality one struggle against the same enemy, the “movements” would increasingly fuse.

Workers know from experience that force is necessary to defeat the bosses. They do not have the luxury of pacifism when defending their interests and will not have much patience for it in the anti-war struggle. Treating massive peaceful protest and small-group civil disobedience as the only options means dismissing the powerful methods of struggle that the working class has at its disposal. It is a recipe for keeping anti-war protest action hermetically sealed from any future working-class uprising. The policing of the anti-war movement which the SWP carried out and its successors alibi may appear, for the moment, to pose a threat only to small groups to their left. In fact, it is designed to squelch the working class as a whole and prevent it from performing its raucous “music.”

WWP Repeats SWP History

Socialist Action today cannot act nationally like the SWP in the Vietnam movement. But other, larger organizations clearly aspire to such a role.

A significant left force in the anti-war movement is the Workers World Party (WWP). During the Vietnam War, WWP’s fondness for radical rhetoric, combined with their uncritical attitude toward Stalinist leaderships, led them to vigorously cheerlead for the Vietnamese National Liberation Front. Thus they were frequently at odds with the SWP’s way of currying favor with liberal politicians. Today, however, their class-collaborationist politics has since put them deeper in bed with the same elements.

WWP, and the anti-war formation International ANSWER which it runs, have come under attack by squeamish liberal commentators for being the “reds under the bed” of the anti-war movement. WWP is worthy of criticism – not for being communists, but for not acting in any way like communists. At the October 26 rally in Washington, although there was a profusion of WWP supporters speaking from the platform under various guises, not one had the nerve to denounce lead speaker Jesse Jackson’s support for the first Gulf War, or the role of the Democratic Party in prosecuting and supporting imperialist wars. Like the SWP of old, the WWP also made sure that all the “radicals” they invited to the podium were similarly tamed.

Radical Electoralism: Another Dead-End

For the WWP, which has a long history of urging “tactical” votes for figures like Jackson and Al Sharpton, providing a platform for Democratic Party liberals is standard practice. Others on the far left are following a less direct route down the same path.

One such group is the International Socialist Organization (ISO). In the November 1 issue of its Socialist Worker, a lengthy article by Bill Roberts purports to teach the lessons of the Vietnam movement. Instead, it points up some of the lessons ISO leaders failed to learn. For example, Roberts writes:

[One] sign of the antiwar movement’s accomplishments in early 1968 was the result of the Democratic primary in New Hampshire. Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who campaigned as an opponent of the war, nearly beat the incumbent president, Lyndon Johnson, in the first contest for the 1968 nomination. In short order, Johnson said that he was retiring from politics and vowed not to run in the general election.

This certainly was a sign of growing popular opposition to the war. Yet it was also a sign of how the “movement” – not the anti-war masses but the “anti-war” reformist organizations – had misdirected many of its efforts and ended up siphoning that opposition back into the Democratic Party.

In the lead-up to the 1968 election, the ISO’s predecessor organization, the International Socialists (IS), entered into a bloc with Maoists, Black Panthers and other radicals to build a new, anti-war third party, the Peace and Freedom Party (PFP). The PFP was not based on mass working-class organizations, nor was it intended to be a working-class party. It attempted instead to appeal across class lines on a radical populist anti-war platform. A vigorous petitioning campaign won the PFP hundreds of thousands of signatures and ballot access in California and other states. At a time when many in the movement had become disillusioned with the capitalist electoral process, the IS and other forces behind the PFP helped revive the electoralist strategy.

The initial success of the PFP campaign alerted Democrats like McCarthy (who had come to oppose the war) that there was a real constituency out there, and they jumped on it in true opportunist fashion. Many who had supported the PFP out of desperation, or who preferred its somewhat leftward stance, looked to McCarthy as a leader who could deliver more than protests on the war question. The PFP’s electoral and activist support base dried up, as thousands of young war opponents were urged to “get clean for Gene.” Robert Kennedy would soon do to McCarthy what his campaign had done to the PFP, and many activists were later shocked by the Democrats’ nomination of Johnson’s Vice-President, Hubert Humphrey. Yet the damage had already been done; thanks in part to the PFP, many radicalizing activists had been taught demoralizing and false lessons, encouraged to try and play the system from the inside. They were played instead.

The ISO leaders’ failure to draw any lessons from this is clear from their present practice. Today, they campaign for the middle-class radical Green Party and hype its candidates as “anti-war.” In fact, the anti-war credentials of the Green Party are pretty shoddy, as in the case of Stanley Aronowitz, the New York gubernatorial candidate, who supports “military sanctions” against Iraq. Through its campaign the ISO promotes liberalism and electoralism and denigrates the importance of the political independence of the working class.

In the event that popular opposition to the war grows and the leadership of the Democratic Party remains pro-war, it is possible that the fortunes of the Green Party will temporarily surge. This would spur Democratic liberals to try to capitalize on the movement for their own gain, in a replay of the McCarthy campaign. In that event, the ISO will find that their castles made of sand have fallen into the sea; they will be hard-pressed to avoid getting sucked in along with the liberal populist tide. The only sure bulwark against it is the open struggle for the building of a revolutionary workers’ party.

Building the Revolutionary Party

A minority of those who went through the experience of the anti-war movement and related struggles learned this lesson the hard way. By making a critical balance sheet of events and their own role, some who entered the struggle with centrist views were able to discard them in favor of a consistently revolutionary stance. In particular, the struggles of the day had a strong impact within the ranks of the IS. A small number who came to reject the opportunism and dishonest maneuvers of the IS and the rest of the centrist left were able to develop and revive the world-view of authentic working-class Trotskyism, and went on to form the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP). (See Twenty Years of the LRP.)

Centrist anti-war leaders both then and now have substituted leadership blocs with a liberal reformist program for genuine united fronts, which are blocs of groups and individuals with varying programs who unite for common actions against the war. Within such blocs, genuine revolutionaries seek to convince activists that it is necessary not just to end a war but to get rid of the liberal and imperialist leaders (and their radical supporters) who want to keep the system alive to maraud another day.

Over the past decades, the union bureaucracy has been tremendously successful in checking the working class’s will to fight, especially in the U.S. The apparent quiescence in the class struggle has allowed cynical ideologies which see working-class consciousness as incidental to political struggle to flourish. The class-collaborationist political practice of the centrist left is an application of such ideas.

But the increasing nakedness of the capitalists’ attacks on the working class is revealing the inadequacies of the old leaderships’ past practices. New opportunities for working-class struggles and for revolutionary leadership in them are arising. As the centrist leaders prepare new populist detours and traps for future struggles, in order to tie the working class to sections of the bourgeoisie, the need to fight for political honesty and open opposition to capitalism becomes increasingly urgent.

Historically, the only struggle that ever stopped a war was the movement of workers at the end of World War I, which shook all the warring capitalist governments. This movement reached its peak in Russia, which had an established revolutionary party with trained cadres committed to telling the truth to their fellow workers – that capitalism today means imperialism, which means war. Our times demand no less.