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Questions That the Movement Will Answer: A Conversation with an Anti-Imperialist Organizer

In recent days, the US public has been satiated with a variety of press reports about numerous “new” plans aimed at addressing the US occupation and war in Iraq.  Some of these plans are rumored to include recommendations for an eventual withdrawal of all US forces from that country while some urge the Pentagon and Washington to stay the course.  One, written by an entity that calls itself the US Institute for Peace, suggests a fifty percent reduction in forces in three years with a complete withdrawal in five.  Now, I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like peace.  It sounds like five more years of war and occupation.  The White House, its generals and ambassador to the Green Zone, meanwhile, are reported to want no changes at all in the current strategy.  The Democratic leadership seems to fall somewhere in between these two.  They say they want to introduce withdrawal legislation but don’t want to force the White House to actually withdraw any troops.  Instead, they want to provide the military and the White House with some guidelines as to when they think the withdrawal should be completed.  In other words, they are once again drawing up legislation that has no teeth and is essentially meaningless.

All of these reports and strategies share one basic assumption: that the US has a right to decide Iraq’s future.  Furthermore, this assumption is accompanied by the belief that Iraq’s future should be one that benefits the goals and interests of US capital.  In other words, the bloodshed and other hardships caused by the US occupation and the tensions it has unleashed do not really matter to the US warmongers.  Nor do the deaths and injuries suffered by US soldiers and their families.  Unfortunately for all of the aforementioned parties, the US antiwar movement has done little in the past year to change this.  Indeed, some of its members share this assumption, although not to the same degree as those US leaders and legislators that are actually funding and prolonging the war.  How else would one explain statements castigating the Iraqi resistance and, by default, the Iraqis’ right to resist the occupation?

Since the war began in 2003 (actually, a long time before that, if we take the US-led sanctions into account as we should), there has been an element in the antiwar movement that understands the fundamentally imperialist nature of the US war and occupation.  In response, this element has organized its opposition to the debacle in anti-imperialist terms.  The anti-imperialists’ politics range from libertarian to anarchist with most of them considering themselves leftists.  I have had a running conversation with Ashley Smith — one of those organizers with the International Socialist Organization — since well before March 2003.  Recently, we decided to exchange thoughts regarding the need for a re-energized antiwar movement whose fundamental understanding is that the war in Iraq (and Afghanistan) is imperialist and that opposition to that war should be anti-imperialist.  What follows is a transcript of this recent discussion.  It doesn’t provide answers as much as it provokes thought.  After all, only the movement and the people it inspires can create the answers.  It is those answers that become history.

Ron: First, let’s define our terms.  To me, imperialism is  the process whereby capitalist nations expand into other countries via economic aid, diplomacy, and war in search of raw materials and resources, cheaper labor, and new markets.  This expansion is necessary because of the essential nature of capitalism: in order to survive, it must make a profit.  In order to make a profit, it must minimize costs, produce ever more goods, and create markets to sell those goods.  So, when a country can not provide all of the resources and labor required by a capitalist enterprise (or collection of enterprises) and the markets of that country are saturated with goods, the enterprises move overseas.  When necessary, they enlist the government (which is made up of men and women who believe in the holiness of profit) to help them make that move.  Hence, so-called free trade deals and wars.

This is from a recent article by Max Elbaum:

During the 1960s, left-led emancipatory movements held  great initiative across the globe and the Black freedom movement surged at home, making radical perspectives a huge pole of attraction for anyone beginning to question the Vietnam War or other U.S. actions.  So as the anti-Vietnam War movement expanded, there was a big pull on very large sections of people toward anti-racist, anti-imperialist, and left perspectives.  The situation is much different today.

What do you think of Elbaum’s statement?  Also, is the situation much different today?  If so, how?  I think it is quite different but also believe that this is precisely why an anti-imperialist understanding is so important.

Ashley: I’m glad that you began identifying the nature of the problem we confront, that is, capitalist imperialism.  For most people opposed to the war on Iraq, the problem is the Bush Administration or this or that wing of corporate America, say the oil companies.  This administration or the oil industry has corrupted what is essentially, whatever its pockmarks, a fine system.  The aim of the movement therefore should be to pressure the government, isolate a regressive wing of corporate America, elect a liberal Democrat, and then implement a sane foreign policy through the existing government.  Imperialism is therefore a problem of policy, not of the system itself.  In 2004, this led the mainstream  anti-war movement to entirely subordinate grassroots struggle to the project of electing John Kerry, who was an ardent supporter of the Iraq War and merely claimed that he would more effectively run the war.  The anti-war movement thus collapsed.  Understanding the actual roots and nature of imperialism is therefore pivotal for building an effective movement that can end this occupation and develop a radical movement for overthrowing imperialism.

The Marxist tradition has argued that imperialism, and imperialist wars like the US one in Iraq, are inseparable from capitalism itself.  Imperialism is thus a systemic problem, not a policy of this or that elected government.  It does not change with elections.  Nor is it the result of particular branches of industry.  Essentially Marxists have argued that capitalism by its very nature was an expansive system; it creates both integrated national economies and a competitive and hierarchical world system.

The capitalist drive for profit compels corporations to gobble up their competition creating giant monopolies that dominate national economies.  They concentrate and centralize the entire national economy.  These monopolies tend to fuse with their home state, dictate its domestic policies to their advantage, and use it to prosecute their interests in the world system.  At the same time, these monopolies break out of their national economies to create a world market, internationalizing the economy, creating an intertwined world system of exploitation of labor and resources.

Instead of producing peaceful development, however, the most developed capitalist nation states compete for spoils of the world system.  At various points in the history of capitalism, they have struggled over colonies, spheres of influence, trade deals, political treaties, resources, and cheap labor.  Inevitably they build massive militaries to enforce their aims.  Eventually economic competition for division of the world between great powers triggers inter-imperial wars like the twentieth century’s world wars.  In pursuing these imperialist aims, the great powers oppress less developed countries through colonialism, invasions, and occupations, maintaining military bases and many sundry other mechanisms from structural adjustment programs of the IMF to discriminatory political treaties.  Capitalism has thus produced imperialism.  Of course, massive movements can so disrupt the system as to end particular imperial wars, but to end imperialism itself, capitalism must be overthrown.  It cannot be reformed out of existence.

That is pivotal for understanding the nature of the US occupation of Iraq and what kind of movement, strategies, and tactics will be necessary to end it.  In reality, the Iraq War was not cooked up in the devilish mind of Cheney or Bush for their oil friends.  In reality, the US ruling class as a whole supported the war as a means of overcoming their failure to contain Iran and Iraq.  They aimed to use the cover of 9/11 to reorganize the Middle East through a series of regime changes beginning with Iraq and ending most importantly with Iran.  They did so not to secure supplies for US consumption, but to prevent US competitors like Europe, Russia, and China from developing independent access to the region’s strategic oil reserves, especially those in Iran and Iraq.  If they did so, they could build a rival axis to US imperialism.  The US war aim was about not only control of Iraq and the Middle East but also dominance over potential imperial rivals.

The US has thus far more at stake in Iraq than it had in Viet Nam and will take an ever more powerful movement to drive it out of Iraq and the region.  During the Vietnam War, which was a brainchild of Cold War Democrats Kennedy and Johnson, it took a mass domestic anti-war movement, a rebellion of US troops in Viet Nam, and a heroic resistance by the Vietnamese people to defeat the US.  Congress never lifted a finger.  We should learn that lesson well and organize an independent mass movement of mass protests and sit-ins, help build a new Vet and GI resistance through Iraq Veterans against the War, and also support the legitimate resistance of the Iraqi people against occupation.  Only the combination of all those forces has the social power to drive the US out of Iraq.  And while we have the majority of the US population coming our way, it will take a good deal of time to organize that kind of movement and solidarity.  Pivotal amidst that process is building a new American left with a clear understanding of imperialism and how to resist its wars.

Ron: With all of that understood, how does one go about organizing such a movement, especially in light of the ongoing attempts by the Democrats to confuse what exactly it means to be against the war?  While the IVAW and other vets’ groups certainly play an important role, they are not enough.  Indeed, some folks are hesitant to endorse them because they were in the war and might have been involved in killing people, while others might consider them whiners because “after all, they signed up.”  I personally believe that the most important role the vets can play is in helping to organize their active-duty brothers and sisters into opposing the war from within.  At the same time, having been involved in the antiwar movement against the US war in Viet Nam, I understand the power of moral suasion the vets can have over the popular imagination.  Indeed, this is part of the reason everybody wants a piece of the vets and why antiwar vets are so hated by the pro-war forces.

Anyhow, back to the Democrats.  The New York Times had a piece on the Democratic candidates’ true Iraq/Afghan war stances and none of the three major candidates’ plans includes anything even approaching an immediate and unconditional withdrawal.  This isn’t a surprise to us, but you gotta wonder how many antiwar citizens think that Edwards, Obama, or Clinton is going to end the war.  Just like the 2006 Congressional elections, the Democrats are lying about their true intentions, yet you can bet that there will be some of their supporters at every antiwar rally between now and the 2008 elections.  This is our biggest task — get the movement past these liars.

Ashley: The Democrats are really a challenge for social movements and the Left.  Just a glance at the main funders of the party reveals the problem; they get the bulk of their money from corporate America.  As a result, however much they appeal to the movements of workers and the oppressed, they are tied to a class that does not share our interests and as a result betray their promises to us.  Nowhere is that more clear than the war in Iraq.  Save for a handful of exceptions, they voted for the war; they refuse to cut the funding; they oppose immediate withdrawal; and they won’t even impeach the war criminals in the White House.  Some of them are actually more hawkish on Iran than Bush is!  They have more in common with the Republicans’ imperial and corporate agenda than differences.

That’s why we have to stress that social movements must remain independent of both corporate parties, not compromise our demands like immediate withdrawal, and rely on our own social power to compel them to follow us, conform to our agenda.  Only then can we force their hand and end this occupation and challenge imperialism itself.

While most people in the anti-war movement are going to vote for the Democrats, a big layer realize that Hilary Clinton, who looks like the odds-on favorite, is not for immediate withdrawal.  So with that layer I think we have to say, regardless of who you vote for, it is our struggle that will determine whether or not the war comes to an end.

Once you grasp that change does not come through the Democrats nor really event through the ballot box, but through social movements like the civil rights movement that compelled reluctant Democrats like Kennedy and Johnson to grant voting rights, then it becomes obvious that we must develop an anti-war strategy that looks to our social power to end the occupation.

The key historical precedent we have to turn to is how we, not the Democrats, ended the Vietnam War.  We ended it through the dynamic interaction between a truly mass domestic anti-war movement, a rebellion among the US troops and Veterans documented in David Cortright’s brilliant book Soldiers in Revolt, and the national liberation struggle of the Vietnamese people.

That’s exactly what we must build today.  We must build a grassroots and sustained anti-war movement expressed through demonstrations, sit-ins, teach-ins, and many other tactics to turn majority anti-war sentiment into the social power to shut down campuses, paralyze cities in mass protests, and even organize strikes at workplaces against the war.

Even more importantly we have to build such resistance inside the troops; if they refuse to fight, the war is over.  That’s why any moralistic posture toward soldiers is foolish.  Most of these soldiers didn’t really volunteer; they are subject to a poverty draft.  They are young workers who are looking for money, job training, and education so that they can have better lives.  And, as has been amply documented, the military has often hoodwinked them with recruiters’ lies and aims to use them as cannon fodder for imperial actions that are not in their interests.  A growing majority of the US troops don’t want to be in Iraq, an emergent minority has drawn anti-war conclusions, and its leading edge has built Iraq Veterans Against the War.  We must support this effort as part of our movement to end the war, because IVAW has the potential to turn the ranks of the US military against the war.

At the same time we argue for such a dynamic movement, independent of the two corporate parties, we have to build a new American Left that can eventually provide an alternative at the ballot box, but even more importantly in grassroots struggle that does represent the interests of immense majority of workers and oppressed inside this country and internationally.  Otherwise, the movements will be hamstrung by the dominant politics of the two corporate parties.  As Engels said a long time ago, the struggle is economic, political, and ideological.  We therefore must build a new left that fights on all these fronts — fights in the day-to-day grassroots battles over basic demands; aims to build an electoral challenge; and provide as anti-capitalist, dare I say socialist, worldview to combat the corporate propaganda and provide an alternative based on solidarity from below.  We have to fight them on all fronts as part of an overall strategy to challenge and transform the system.

Ron: Once again, the stuff about Democrats is well understood by all, but the most hardened party loyalists are probably not going to be convinced that the Democratic Party is part of the problem, not the solution.  However, that leaves pretty much everyone else.  Amongst them, there are a variety of perspectives ranging from the very cynical to the not as cynical to the somewhat hopeful.  The latter will probably vote Democratic just because they believe that it has to be better under Democrats.  How does one wrestle with that hope and conviction?  People in this country seem very far from even grasping the idea that there is something besides the GOP, the Democrats, and giving up.  I know many of my friends consider trying to change anything is a big waste of time.  I can only answer them by saying that one never knows until one tries, but their response is that the historical evidence is against such a possibility.  Part of me thinks that this cynicism stems from the overwhelming presence of capitalist ideology in our daily lives, but knowing that doesn’t change a thing.  In fact, it only feeds the conviction that the only thing leftists can really do is prevent the absolute worst from happening — whatever that is.

Given that most antiwar voters are going to vote Democratic (which means that they will end up voting for a candidate who supports the war since the antiwar candidates will be pushed to the sidelines by the party leadership), how does one prepare for the certain disappointment to come if the Democrats win and nothing changes — the war goes on and perhaps expands?  What I mean is how does one turn the almost certain disappointment away from cynicism and towards a truly popular grassroots antiwar movement?

So, we end with questions similar to those we started with, which suggests, like I said before, that it is up to the movement that is organized against the war to provide the answers — answers which will determine the history of this moment, and the future.


Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch‘s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at <rjacobs3625@charter.net>.



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