THE POLITICS OF THE ANTI-WAR MOVEMENT
And the Intractable Dilemma of International ANSWER
by Bill Weinberg
The Sept. 24 anti-war protest in Washington DC was hailed as a revival of a movement which had become somewhat moribund even as the quagmire in Iraq deepens with horrifying rapidity. The march brought out 300,000, by organizers' estimates—making it the largest since the start of the US invasion in March 2003. After a summer in which Cindy Sheehan's campaign to demand personal accountability from the vacationing George Bush had riveted the nation, the march brought out record numbers of military veterans and grieving families—giving the movement an unassailable moral credibility.
But it is significant that this credibility arose from the rank-and-file marchers—while that very credibility may have been actually undermined by elements of the organizational leadership.
Since the prelude to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, the large, visible anti-war protests in the US—especially the marches in Washington, New York and San Francisco—have been led by two organizations, which have at times cooperated but have frequently been at odds: United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) and International ANSWER (for Act Now to Stop War and End Racism). In the Sept. 24 march, they agreed to cooperate; they divided the stage time equally, with different speakers and different banners, although ANSWER actually held the permit.
Both UFPJ and ANSWER have been criticized by some activists as top-down and insufficiently democratic. But concerns are growing over ANSWER's links to a doctrinaire neo-Stalinist organization called the Workers World Party (WWP), which has a history of seeking to dominate coalitions, and has some embarrassing ultra-hardline positions.
Steve Ault, a gay activist in New York City since 1970, served as UFPJ's logistics coordinator for the historic pre-war mobilization of Feb. 15, 2003, last summer's Republican National Convention protests and the May 1, 2005 march for nuclear disarmament. He charges that ANSWER is a front group for the WWP. Speaking as an individual—not on behalf of UFPJ—he decries what he sees as an imbalance between the two major anti-war formations: "One small sectarian group has equal power with a genuine coalition. We aren't going to be able to have a real movement until they are called out on the carpet for it."
Ault says he has for 20 years witnessed WWP use "stacking meetings and undemocratic tactics" to control left coalitions. "When Workers World forms a so-called coalition, its not a coalition at all, its a vehicle to attempt to amplify their power and control. Its not a genuine coalition like UFPJ which has no controlling faction—it has communists, Greens, pacifists, anarchists."
International ANSWER formed after 9-11 around the core of the International Action Center (IAC), itself formed by the WWP after former US attorney general Ramsey Clark joined with the party's leaders to oppose the 1991 attack on Iraq in a surprising alliance. ANSWER's most visible spokespersons have almost invariably been longtime IAC/WWP adherents. WWP is so orthodox that it supported the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and—more recently—former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in his battle against war crimes charges at The Hague. And its current stance on Iraq's armed insurgents has been a key source of tension with UFPJ and other groups in the movement.
Many in the movement are unaware of WWP's past problematic positions. On the seventh anniversary of the Tiananmen Square events in 1996, the Workers World newspaper ran an article charging that the protesters had launched "violent attacks on the soldiers," prompting the Chinese government to declare the movement "a counter-revolutionary rebellion." It protested that "There was immediately a worldwide media campaign condemning China and characterizing the events as a massacre."
In April 2002, the Workers World paper covered the celebrations of the 90th birthday of the late North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung in glorifying terms. And repeatedly, throughout the Bosnian war in the 1990s, Workers World portrayed reports of atrocities and mass rape by the Serb forces as "imperialist lies." Ramsey Clark, the visible leader of the International Action Center, is a founder of the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic, and has also provided legal representation for some accused of participating in the 1994 Rwanda genocide. He has more recently volunteered for Saddam Hussein's legal team.
Merely providing legal representation, even for mass murders, is legitimate. But Clark has gone beyond legal work to political advocacy, and has consistently followed the Workers World party line in both. In the '90s, he repeatedly traveled to Bosnia to meet with Serb rebel leader Radovan Karadzic, today a fugitive from war crimes charges. In September 2002, in Baghdad for meetings with high-level figures in Saddam's regime, he was interviewed by CNN's Wolf Blitzer about his public support for Iraq's refusal to allow UN inspectors back in. When Blitzer noted that Saddam used chemical weapons against his own people at the 1988 attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja, Clark responded dismissively: "Wolf, that's pretty tired, you know. People have worked that for years and years..."
Workers World itself has undergone a recent factional split, with a breakaway group apparently taking most of ANSWER with it. This has led the IAC and the faction that still calls itself Workers World to help found a new coalition, Troops Out Now! Both Troops Out Now! and ANSWER continue to take positions many activists feel uncomfortable with.
On May 1, 2005, both UFPJ and Troops Out Now! held separate marches in New York City, with Troops Out Now! rejecting UFPJ's pro-disarmament theme. Dustin Langley, a spokesperson for Troops Out Now! and member of the IAC, told journalist Sarah Ferguson of the Village Voice: "Personally I think to talk about global disarmament misses the point of who has weapons and who they are being used against. We say Iran and North Korea have a right to get any kind of weapon they need to defend themselves against the largest military machine on the planet. Considering that Bush has listed them as two potential targets, they have as much right to nuclear weapons as any other country."
This division was also evident during the March 2004 rally in New York commemorating the one-year anniversary of the Iraq invasion, which ANSWER and UFPJ co-organized in an uneasy alliance. As in the recent Washington rally, they divided the stage time. During ANSWER's half of the rally, someone taped a photo to the speakers' platform of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani scientist who was accused of peddling nuclear materials to North Korea and Libya. No move was made to remove it.
History of Dissension
For some veteran activists, the persistent division brings back bad memories of the movement to oppose the first attack on Iraq in 1991, when WWP provoked a split by refusing to condemn Saddam's invasion of Kuwait. This resulted in two separate national marches on Washington, just days apart—one by the WWP-led National Coalition Against US Intervention in the Middle East, the other by the Campaign for Peace in the Middle East, a coalition consisting of War Resisters League, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Women's International League for Peace & Freedom, and other traditional peace groups.
This division even goes back to the 1960s, when the WWP-led Youth Against War & Fascism (YAWF) was posed against the more mainstream National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam.
WWP's origins actually trace to a split in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) over the Soviet invasion of Hungary to put down a workers' insurrection in 1956. The Trotskyist SWP opposed the invasion; a breakaway faction around Sam Marcy supported it, arguing that the Hungarian workers were "counter-revolutionary" (the same line WWP would take on the Tiananmen Square protesters a generation later). Breaking from the SWP, the Marcy group founded Workers World, which moved in a more Stalinist direction. Marcy remained the ideological leader of the party until his death in 1998.
The recent split doesn't seem to have been about anything substantive, but the tactical question of whether to support WWP's presidential ticket last year or to acquiesce to the left's "anybody but Bush" (meaning pro-Kerry) position. Behind this question seems to be a turf war between WPP cadre in New York and San Francisco, the party's two principal power bases. The breakaway faction, based mostly in San Francisco, is calling itself the Party for Socialism and Liberation.
Brian Becker, a longtime IAC/WWP leader who is national coordinator of ANSWER, is now with the breakaway party. Troops Out Now!, which endorsed the Sept. 24 march despite the split, remains based at the International Action Center's New York address (39 West 14th St. #206). Its visible leaders such as Larry Holmes are also longtime IAC/WWP figures.
The fundamental issue which has led to tensions with UFPJ was not a factor in the split: WWP's refusal to countenance any criticism of the Iraqi "resistance." Troops Out Now! comes closest to taking an open stance in support of the armed insurgents, calling in their literature for the anti-war movement to "acknowledge the absolute and unconditional right of the Iraqi people to resist the occupation of their country without passing judgement on their methods of resistance."
This seems to ignore the reality that the armed insurgents in Iraq are increasingly blowing up civilians—not US troops. The targets of their attacks are more and more perceived ethnic and religious enemies, and in their areas of control they are enforcing harsh shariah law and radically repealing women's basic rights.
These inconsistencies provide easy ammo for those who wish to dismiss the anti-war movement as deluded and hypocritical. For instance, they allowed the born-again interventionist Christopher Hitchens to write for Slate magazine after the Sept. 24 march a piece entitled "Anti-War, My Foot: The phony peaceniks who protested in Washington." Hitchens decried the central position of "'International ANSWER,' the group run by the 'Worker's World' party and fronted by Ramsey Clark, which openly supports Kim Jong-il, Fidel Castro, Slobodan Milosevic, and the 'resistance' in Afghanistan and Iraq, with Clark himself finding extra time to volunteer as attorney for the genocidaires in Rwanda... 'International ANSWER' [is] a front for (depending on the day of the week) fascism, Stalinism, and jihadism."
Palestine: the New "Wedge Issue"
But Steve Ault argues that some controversial positions have actually been useful to ANSWER. "They come up with a wedge issue to use against the other coalition, and they scream 'racism,'" he says. "And they do it very well."
The question of Palestine is currently ANSWER's principal "wedge issue." UFPJ's own hedging on "linkage" of the struggles in Palestine and Iraq has served ANSWER well. In the prelude to the March 2004 rally in New York, ANSWER insisted on making an end to the occupation of Palestine a central demand of the demonstration. UFPJ balked, stating that while they agreed it was important to address Palestine, the main purpose of the march was to express broad opposition to the war in Iraq. ANSWER responded by circulating a letter on-line, signed by numerous Arab and Muslim groups, charging that it was "racist" of the anti-war movement not to give the Palestinian cause equal footing.
UFPJ's member groups have "agreed to disagree" on how to achieve peace in the Middle East, taking no stance, for instance, on a right of return for Palestinian refugees—a demand embraced by ANSWER. And unlike ANSWER, UFPJ has put out a position criticizing all attacks on civilians—whether by the Israeli military or Palestinian militants.
Some have perceived UFPJ's "agree-to-disagree" position as an equivocation which has rendered the coalition vulnerable on this "wedge issue." In any case, ANSWER has proved itself adept at building coalitions with Arab and Muslim groups.
Ibrahim Ramey, national disarmament coordinator for the faith-based pacifist organization Fellowship of Reconciliation, says: "ANSWER has done much more organizing in pro-Palestinian Islamic communities. Activists need to have a debate over this difficult issue: the question of Zionism, and I use the term deliberately. There is no principled discussion on it."
Ramey recognizes the contradiction that some of the same figures now pushing the Palestine question in the movement are also sympathetic to Milosevic, who is accused of genocide against Muslims. "I don't believe despots and mass murderers need to be lauded because they occasionally wave the banner of opposition to the United States. Milosevic was not a great hero because he happened to bombed by NATO war planes."
And Ramey admits that IAC's "position on Milosevic isn't something there is a lot of awareness of in the Muslim communities where ANSWER has been successful in organizing."
Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation, which works with ANSWER while not being an official member of the coalition, is aware of it, and makes no bones about his disagreement. "I don't support that line. I think Milosevic was a genocidal butcher. But we can work with people we have disagreements with."
Bray credits ANSWER with "forcing the debate on Palestine within the movement. That was healthy and necessary. You cannot discuss peace in the Middle East region without discussing the occupation of Palestine." And he sees the question of which issues get prioritized as linked to the broader tendency of "a paternalistic and elitist attitude within the movement."
"Why is it that we can mobilize thousands of people and you don't see many African Americans?" he asks. "You've got myself and few others onstage, but you don't see that many in the crowd. Is it that African Americans aren't concerned about their sons over in Iraq? Or does it have to do with our organizing methods? Neither UFPJ or ANSWER has addressed this issue well, and it is a bigger issue than the factional splits within the movement."
Liberal versus Radical Critique
Complicating the situation is that many of the commentators speaking out against ANSWER's problematic role in the anti-war movement have offered a liberal rather than radical critique. In addition to the Palestine question, ANSWER has been repeatedly criticized for espousing the cause of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the journalist and former Black Panther on Death Row in Pennsylvania after an evidently wrongful conviction. In the October issue of Rolling Stone, writer Tim Dickinson quotes Paul Rieckhoff, director of the Iraq veterans group Operation Truth, which boycotted the Sept. 24 march. "When some guy gets up there and rails about Palestine, Karl Rove is kicking back in his chair, saying, 'Please continue,'" said Rieckhoff. "It's not about Palestine, it's not about Mumia—it's about one focused message: Let's find a way to end this war. If you really want to push back against the administration, you've got to get your shit together. Right now they don't."
Similarly, Marc Cooper warned in the LA Weekly in 2002 that "the new anti-war movement would be...doomed if the shrill rhetoric of the Workers World...loonies would dominate. Fronting for Saddam Hussein (and Slobodan Milosevic) as self-appointed peace leader Ramsey Clark has and exhorting the peace protesters to defend convicted cop killers like Mumia Abu-Jamal and H. Rap Brown as Workers World does...was hardly the way to win over the millions we need to stop Bush."
From a purely tactical standpoint, there may be some logic to de-emphasizing unpopular issues in the interests of building a broad front around a single issue (Iraq). But from a moral standpoint, attacking ANSWER's positions on Palestine and Mumia rather than (or even in addition to) Milosevic and Tiananmen Square dangerously muddies the water. The prior two causes may be unpopular, but they are perfectly legitimate; in contrast, the Workers World positions on Bosnia and Tiananmen Square constitute defense of the indefensible.
Christopher Hitchens (who can no longer be said to be on the left) commits a similar error, in his list of foreign strongmen WWP supports: he indiscriminately lumps Fidel Castro in with the far more sinister Milosevic and Kim Jong Il.
Writer Todd Gitlin also "fumed" to Rolling Stone's Dickinson against the inclusion of "US out of the Philippines!" among ANSWER's demands at the Sept. 24 rally. Shortly after 9-11, the Pentagon dispatched hundreds of Special Forces troops to the Philippines to help oversee the counter-insurgency war on the Muslim-majority island of Mindanao. US forces in Mindanao have already engaged in direct combat with Islamic guerillas. Why is this not a legitimate issue?
Such rhetoric allows ANSWER to assume a lefter-than-thou high ground, and plays into the liberal-baiting strategy. Steve Ault recognizes this danger. "I work with communists, and I have no problem doing so," he says. "My real problem with ANSWER is their process, or lack of it. Workers World gives communism a bad name. They use the charge of red-baiting to silence criticism in an unprincipled way. And much of the criticism against them comes from people arguably further to the left than they are."
One person who might fall into this category is Mahmood Ketabchi, an exiled follower of the Worker Communist Party of Iran now living in New Jersey and active in support work for workers' and women's movements in Iraq. "ANSWER is part of a long tradition of supporting anyone who picks up a gun and shoots at an American soldier, regardless of their politics," he says.
Ketabchi sees this as a paradoxical "nationalist leftist position that puts the US at the center of the world. That's a bogus position. What is the Iraqi quote-unquote resistance fighting for? What kind of future do they envision? Do these groups defend women's rights? Are they socialist? This is a position the left in Iran took 25 years ago, when we thought we could have a united front with Khomeini against the Shah. So the American left is 25 years behind us."
Which Way Forward?
Even among activists who see ANSWER as problematic, there is little consensus on how to address the issue.
Joanne Sheehan, who chairs the New England office of War Resisters League in Norwich, CT, says "ANSWER does not foster grassroots activism. It is totally hierarchical, and I don't think it empowers people. ANSWER is not the answer."
Speaking on WWP's controversial positions, she says, "They do what the Administration they criticize does—here are the 'good guys' and here are the 'bad guys.' They have this view left over from the Cold War that my-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend, and that's a very narrow way of thinking."
But she also feels the intrigues of national movement leadership have drained vital energies. "We put too much emphasis on these big demonstrations and not enough on grassroots strategy, which is where we should emphasize. After the big demo, there is always a sense of 'now what?' Do we just wait for the next big demo? I guess we have to have them to be visible, but there has to be a bigger strategy."
Sheehan explicitly does not fault ANSWER for emphasizing issues such as Palestine and Mumia Abu-Jamal. "My criticism is not that they toss too many issues together. I think it is important to help people understand how the issues are connected. But we need to do that in our grassroots work—not from a podium."
Ibrahim Ramey says that while "ANSWER is problematic in areas of both politics and organizing style for some organizations in the broad anti-war movement," he still believes that "principled cooperation in a united front that understands its political differences is possible. That is my hope, that we can do that." But he also stresses that this can only happen if there is "broad democratic debate, and I recognize that there are major obstacles."
Steve Ault takes the hardest line on the question: "Everyone says unity, unity, unity. Sure, making the argument for not working with ANSWER is problematic. But I think they need to be exposed for what they are. There needs to be a full-blown discussion on this if we are going to build an effective movement."
This story, in abridged form, first appeared in the December issue of The Nonviolent Activist, magazine of the War Resisters League.
United for Peace & Justice
Troops Out Now!
Workers World Party
Party for Socialism and Liberation
International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic
"China's Tiananmen Square: History Clarifies What Happened in 1989," Workers World, June 20, 1989
"North Korea: Celebrations display popular unity against Bush's threats," Workers World, April 25, 2002
Ramsey Clark quoted on the Halabja massacre, WW4 REPORT #49
"Anti-War, My Foot: The phony peaceniks who protested in Washington," by Christopher Hitchens, Slate, Sept. 26
"Give Peace a Chance: Is the anti-war movement too fractured to be effective?" by Tim Dickinson, Rolling Stone, October 2005
"Our Peace Movement, Not Theirs," by Marc Cooper, LA Weekly, Dec. 13-19, 2002
"What you should know about ANSWER, the Workers World Party and the International Action Center," an exposé from Infoshop.org
"The Mysterious Ramsey Clark: Stalinist Dupe or Ruling-Class Spook?" by Manny Goldstein, The Shadow, 2001
"Bombs Away: Global Activists Gather in New York to Revive Nuclear Disarmament Call," by Sarah Ferguson, WW4 REPORT, May 2005
Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Dec. 1, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution