The Student Anti-War Movement

Within a week of September 11th, a national student day of action against the war was called. On September 20th students on over 150 campuses in 36 states held actions. At several campuses the rallies numbered in the thousands. On September 29th the 10,000 strong protests against the IMF/World Bank meetings were transformed into an anti-war demonstration. From the beginning, college campuses have been the strongest base of anti-war organizing across the country.

But while the initial burst of anti-war campaigning mobilized an important force, which could have been the basis for a wider struggle, the movement was unable to reach beyond this initial layer of people. Activism declined as people felt demoralized by the widespread public support for the war. With the US military victory in November, the movement everywhere has lost steam and been reduced to a small core of activists.

Many activists are asking: why wasn’t the movement able to build wider opposition to the war? Mass opposition to the war in Afghanistan could have only developed on the basis of major events, such as heavy US casualties. Given the nature of 9/11 terrorist attacks and the rapid US military victory, there were severe objective limits to how large the movement could grow.

In the next few months, it is likely that the US will strike new “terrorist targets” in other countries, or that things might not go so smoothly in Afghanistan. If so, we should be ready to respond. But unless the US attacks Iraq (which would re-ignite the anti-war movement on an even larger scale), the basis for a widespread anti-war movement as it existed between September and November no longer exists. This turn in events places challenges in front of the movement, and poses the question: what to do now?

Defend Civil Liberties! Fight Racism!

We need to continue to fight against the attacks on civil liberties and racism. We should campaign to prevent college administrators from turning over to the government the private records of immigrant and Arab-American students.

Money for Education and Jobs, Not War!

With the economic recession beginning to bite, both parties are attempting to balance budget deficits by slashing spending for social services. Colleges will try to make up for this through tuition hikes. This will be a paramount issue for most students for whom college is already too expensive. Anti-war activists should be on the frontlines of these fightbacks, pointing out that the government actually has plenty of money – it’s just being wasted on bombs. By campaigning against the attempts to make workers and young people pay the price of Bush’s war, the anti-war movement can gain much more public support.

Fight the WEF & the Corporate Agenda!

Another important opportunity for the anti-war movement is the World Economic Forum (WEF) summit in NYC on January 31-Febuary 4th. The capitalist policies of the WEF are responsible for the mass poverty and oppression in the former colonial world as well as in the industrialized countries. These conditions are the breeding ground for desperate acts by desperate people – the basis for terrorism and war.

While the US is claiming “victory” in Afghanistan, none of the underlying problems which breed terrorism or war have been solved. We need to learn the lessons of 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan by building a movement that addresses the root cause of these conflicts: global capitalism. Only by replacing this exploitative and oppressive system with a new socialist society will we finally abolish war and terrorism.

For a Broad-Based Progressive National Student Organization

The vast majority of students who organized in opposition to the war yesterday, will tomorrow continue their activism on other fronts in the struggle against corporate domination, militarism, and other effects of capitalism. In light of this, the February national student anti-war conference should not be limited to organizing against the war on terrorism. We should instead see it as a chance to take the progressive student movement as a whole forward by developing a broad-based national student activist organization.

The February conference should be used as a springboard to organize all progressive student groups for another national student conference this fall. Together, we can launch a powerful, united, national student movement to take the struggle against war, racism, sexism, education cuts and corporate globalization to a much higher plane.

Student Anti-War Conferences

From the outset, activists clearly saw the need for regionally and nationally coordinated actions to rise above the clamor of war hysteria. By bringing activists together, conferences play a crucial role in allowing the movement to share experiences and develop strategies.

On November 10-11 over 1000 students from over 100 campuses attended regional student anti-war conferences in Boston, Chicago, Berkeley, Washington DC and North Carolina. Building upon the regional conferences, plans were made to organize a conference to create a national anti-war coalition. The national conference is planned for February 22-24 in New York.

In many respects the conferences represented an important step forward. This experience – both its positives and negatives – will prove invaluable since the need for regional and national coordination in the student movement will come up again and again.

The ISO’s Role

Unfortunately, a negative feature of the conferences for many activists was the role played by the International Socialist Organization (ISO). This was not because the ISO is socialist, but because of their undemocratic methods. Rather than starting with the overall needs of the movement, the ISO acted in a sectarian manner, acting according to their own narrow desire to have organizational control of the movement. Working in a totally undemocratic fashion they had an influence in the conferences far out of proportion to their actual political support. These false methods have set back the socialist movement, alienating many activists from the ideas of socialism. Genuine socialists campaign for the leadership of the movement on the basis of winning political support for their ideas and strategy, not secret organizational maneuvering.

The ISO correctly took the initiative in organizing all the regional conferences. Unfortunately, they never made their role in this process explicit, instead attempting to explain the fact that all the conferences took place on the same weekend, with the same agenda, as a miracle of spontaneous coordination.

At each conference, resolutions proposed by ISO members were debated first. Other activists’ proposals often never reached the floor due to time constraints. To assure their resolutions passed, the ISO arranged for their members to chair most the conferences and stack speaking lists at key moments. At times they would prematurely call resolutions to question, cutting off debate when things looked favorable for them. ISO members also hid the fact that they were part of a socialist organization working for common political goals. Other examples of such tactics were abundantly reported by activists across the country.

Splits in the Movement

These bureaucratic methods led to an uproar at the different conferences, with many students walking out in protest. The backlash against the ISO’s top-down methods led to increased support for liberal and anarchist ideas, since these were seen as the main alternative to the ISO methods. The anarchistic and liberal trends oppose the formation of regional and national structures. Socialist Alternative, while supporting the establishment of regional and national structures as a step forward, argued that these formations must be completely democratic in order to succeed.

A number of national anti-war coalitions and organizations have formed, but unfortunately, many of these are advocating for “two anti-war movements” – and some have even boycotted the national conference.

These divisive tendencies are producing a tragic-comic scenario in February, with three different national meetings taking place. The conference most representative of the real activist base of the student movement will be the February 22-24 NYC conference arising out of the various regional conferences. However, there is no reason to have competing national anti-war conferences. The organizers of the conference should make a direct, written appeal to the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition and other student anti-war groups inviting them to send delegates to the conference.

In order to be successful it is absolutely essential that any national structures that are established be broad based, fully democratic and inclusive. The conference in NYC must be open for all political trends to democratically participate. The elected coordinating committee should represent the diversity of political views and geographical breadth of our movement.

Justice #28, January 2002

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