"CISPES: Radical, Pragmatic, and Successful"
in Crossroads Special Issue on El Salvador Solidarity, Spring 1994 (one of the most controversial pieces I've ever written, and I stand by every word)
Van Gosse analyzes the reasons for CISPES' success in
developing a fresh and tenacious approach to solidarity
Why should I or anyone else write about CISPES? As a
national organization, it was neither famous nor large, the
usual criteria for organizational significance in this
country. Compared to the NAACP or NOW, with their hundreds
of thousands of members and name-recognition among the
general public, CISPES was an obscure, fringe group. It is
unlikely if as many as 2,000 people considered themselves
active members at any single point in its history, except
perhaps in 1981, when hundreds attended start-up meetings in
cities as different as Boulder, New York and San Francisco.
And while it certainly got into the news in the late '80s as
the target of the decade's largest FBI "investigation," the
mainstream press never paid much attention to the
For that matter, the larger Central America movement,
in which CISPES sometimes played a leading role, was always
quite small, with only a vague public persona -- the
archetypal nun who'd been to Nicaragua and got on the local
op-ed page. At its peak in April 1987, with substantial
union support and important allies from the anti-apartheid
movement, the combined forces of solidarity barely managed
to mobilize 100,000 people onto Washington's streets for a
joint Central America-South Africa rally, a fraction of the
crowds regularly turned out by the decade's big pro-choice,
gay or Black-led marches. Even the disarmament or "peace"
movement within which solidarity usually operated (and into
which it was often inaccurately subsumed by observers) had
much greater recognition and numbers in the heyday of the
Nonetheless, the Central America movement was the major
expression of U.S. radical politics during the '80s, the
only explicitly "left" current that operated consistently
all across the country (in all 50 states, not just a few big
cities), with a practical commitment to revolutionary change
-- if not in this country, then close enough to matter. And
within that extremely diverse movement, encompassing
solidarity with several countries by many different sectors
of U.S. society, CISPES played a unique role. To reach and
service the up to 2,000 mostly autonomous local committees,
other groups of organizers assembled supple but porous
networks, and set up various national campaigns, coalitions,
task forces, projects and foundations.
Eschewing the decentralized "network" model from the
very beginning, CISPES gradually -- in fits and starts over
time -- built a cohesive nationwide organization, with a
stable grassroots volunteer base, local, regional and
national staff, extensive training and evaluation processes
and, most important, a time- and goal-specific national
It is this last element that made all the rest
possible. Without a concrete program that is debated,
planned, implemented and then assessed before starting all
over again, a political organization is mostly a fiction,
something waiting to happen (as opposed to a network, which
typically exists for sharing of resources and information
rather than implementation of a common program).
Unfortunately, too many left groups in the past
generation never really had a program to which the entire
organization held itself accountable through a voluntary
discipline. SDS, for instance, in its period of mass growth
after 1965, rarely had any national program worth the name.
That CISPES members had one, and knew it, was the source of
CISPES' main virtue, perhaps even its sole distinction,
was tenacity. Given that that particular, old-fashioned
character trait has been so lacking on the U.S. left since
1945, this alone caused it to stand out. As I write, CISPES
has just passed its thirteenth anniversary, and with the war
in El Salvador finally ended, it can at least claim it went
the distance, a singular feat in itself. Most of the
prominent 1960s New Left organizations fell apart long
before hitting a decade, despite the much greater space for
activism at one time. Indeed, it could be argued that one
reason CISPES has lasted so long is the "empty space" it
inhabits -- a backhanded advantage at best.
Developing a national program and cohering as an
organization was not an easy or immediate process. Simply to
get to where it was possible for CISPES' leadership to
consciously shape their infrastructure, moving activists
around the country to plug gaps and constantly levying new
"cadre" from the strongest committees, took years of hit-or-
miss efforts, and much internal dissension lasting through
the first half of the '80s. But instead of fading away or
falling apart, CISPES hung on. And in the later 1980s --
when El Salvador largely dropped out of the public eye
except as a moral eyesore -- it came into its own as a
genuinely consequential organization, both "large" and
"well-known" in terms of left-liberal interest-group
politics. It had enough staff (about 100 paid and unpaid
fulltime organizers at peak 1988-89), enough donors (72,000
at one time or another, unfortunately never converted into
formal, card-carrying "members") and dozens of highly
visible chapters in nearly all of the major cities and key
college towns in the Northeast, Midwest and West Coast.
What did all this infrastructure mean in terms of
program? At the beginning of the '80s, before any of the
above had yet been put in place, CISPES embodied a wave of
militant anti-Reaganism that sent an unmistakable message to
the administration that re-fighting Vietnam in El Salvador
would carry a definite cost in terms of radical mobilization
here. In the decade's latter half, CISPES kept El Salvador's
civil war alive in the conscience of liberal and radical
America. Besides a steadily rising tide of protest actions
from 1988 on which were quite explicitly tied to the FMLN's
offensive strategy, it developed (or borrowed, really)
techniques of constructing "people-to-people" bridges
between concerned citizens in this country and the reviving
"popular movement" in El Salvador of unarmed civilian
organizers: walk-a-thons and "work-a-days" raising millions
of dollars in humanitarian aid in small donations; telex
banks to respond instantly to arrests and disappearances;
constant delegations of grassroots activists that in El
Salvador assumed considerable public importance. In fact,
the greatest paradox of CISPES' history as a U.S. radical
organization is that in the U.S. itself it was condemned to
marginal visibility by the national media's conviction that
it would not repeat the mistakes of the '60s by giving
"undue" attention to leftists; in El Salvador, on the other
hand, CISPES became famous, or infamous, depending on your
point of view. It was regularly denounced by Salvadoran
officials, including President Alfredo Cristiani, and many
CISPES activists accustomed to laboring in obscurity found
it a heady experience to be introduced before large popular
assemblies of trade unionists or students and cheered to the
RADICAL AND PRAGMATIC
What made all this organizational and programmatic
expansion possible, besides sheer stubbornness, was that
CISPES defined a new model for what a single-issue left
organization can be -- both very radical and very pragmatic.
CISPES emphatically was not just another liberal lobby, yet
it could not be marginalized by either aboveground political
actors or the moderate forces in the "anti-intervention"
wing of the solidarity movement. Why? Because its immediate
goals were always eminently reasonable in the terms of
radicalized post-Vietnam liberalism: cutting off all U.S.
funding of a government responsible for massive state
terror; pursuing a negotiated end to the civil war; sending
humanitarian aid to desperate peasant communities for their
clinics and schools; instituting a human rights "rapid
response network" to save the lives of trade unionists,
student leaders and shantytown organizers. Instead of
spurning mainstream politics (you know: the two parties are
exactly the same, you'll get dragged to the center, you'll
be forced to sell-out and compromise, you'll get used, and
so on), CISPES embraced the rough-and-tumble of this
country's political system. On occasion, it was the
proverbial skunk at the garden party. But more often it
worked to reward its friends and punish its enemies like any
other competent single-issue organization.
It's important to be clear about what CISPES was, and
what it was not. Its claim to be on the leading edge of
what's left of the U.S. left is based on purely operational
criteria rather than any ideological cohesion, other than
explicit "solidarity": anyone looking for the words
"capitalist," "socialist" or "imperialist" in its direct-
mail appeals, its newspaper Alert! Focus on Central America,
or its voluminous internal program mailings, would be
severely disappointed. CISPES was not some miraculously red-
flag-waving, Leninist embryo that prevailed despite its time
In fact, it struggled very hard to avoid becoming a
place of regroupment for the stray fractions of the U.S.
socialist tradition. As anyone familiar with the past 30 or
more years well knows, to become that common ground is to
invite sectarian "interventions," infighting and paralysis.
It would be more accurate to say that CISPES was an escape
or even an end-run around the dead end that U.S. socialism
had sadly become. With no pretence to any more generalized
leftist -- let alone Marxist-Leninist -- politics among its
volunteers and staff, it built its donor-base among liberals
and appealed to many new campus activists in the late Reagan
years precisely because of its lack of ideological
The exception to this get-the-job-done, number-
crunching instrumentalism was CISPES' unequivocal but
usually reasoned, non-dogmatic public support for the FMLN.
This stance, often criticized as an unnecessary deterrent to
potential supporters or allies outside the left, was a
crucial element in the organization's success. It provided
CISPES with an unequivocal benchmark against which to
measure itself, and great internal elan; it also required
that people think about the ethical and moral implications
of their solidarity. The short-term costs were real, but the
longer-term gains were profound in establishing that it was
possible to be both unflinching supporters of a group deemed
"terrorist" by the U.S. government, and at the same time,
familiar and accepted faces within liberalism's various
enclaves of power, from Congress to many city halls.
Distinctive proof of this special role came on March 18,
1989, the night before the Salvadoran presidential elections
and near the civil war's climax, when ABC News Nightline had
CISPES Organizational Director Michael Lent go mano a mano
with arch-Reaganite Elliot Abrams.
The distinctly pragmatic orientation of CISPES, based
in its self-definition as the "North American front of the
Salvadoran revolution" rather than the "Central American
wing of the U.S. left" (to repeat a formulation from its
1985 National Convention where these two options fought it
out, with the former scoring a decisive victory), points
towards the original source of CISPES' political direction
and organizing methodology: the Salvadorans themselves.
CISPES came out of a particular historical conjuncture, and
a series of powerful lessons about U.S. politics that had
been learned during the 1960s and '70s. It may be ironic or
hard for some to accept that those lessons were best learned
by people outside the U.S., and then "imported" back in via
small groups of exiles, but there it is.
It should be evident to all North American activists
that U.S. politics in the past 20 years have been, in a deep
sense, post-Vietnam politics. Yet we have often failed to
appreciate the depth of opportunity this presents. If during
these two decades anyone among us had described the U.S. as
a rich and fertile terrain for anti-imperialist solidarity,
he or she would have been derided as a dreamer, so great was
the legacy of alienation following the war visited upon the
peoples of Indochina and assorted other imperial debacles.
Certain Salvadorans did not see the U.S. in the same
way. They looked at the example of the antiwar movement
crippling this world-hegemonic power at home, and made a
strategic decision long ago that the U.S. was not only their
natural antagonist, but also the best possible "rearguard."
If hindsight is correct, as long ago as 1976 activists in
the Bloque Popular Revolucionario, linked to the Fuerzas
Populares de Liberacion (one of the five political-military
organizations that in 1980 formed the FMLN) began their
patient work here, not only in the expanding refugee
communities in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and
Washington D.C., but also focusing on the recruitment of
unaffiliated young North Americans to their cause.
Key to the development of everything that came later,
from CISPES' founding in the same week as the FMLN in
October 1980 through the Peace Accords of January 1992, was
the political milieu within which these Salvadoran exiles --
some few dozen people spread around the country, many of
them still hard at work -- found themselves. A self-named
"Latin American solidarity movement" had slowly began to gel
in the late 1960s out of militant New Left anti-imperialism
and the return of many radicalized ex-missionaries from all
over the hemisphere. In the '70s this movement, focused on
Chile and Puerto Rico but encompassing much of the Southern
Cone and the Caribbean, was both quite successful and
seriously crippled by sectarian intrigues. These rivalries
stemmed from the open disunity of most of Latin America's
left movements, at home and in exile, which combined with
the factionalism endemic to the "party building" phase of
the post-New Left.
The Salvadorans who initiated CISPES and continued to
work closely with it and related organizations over the next
13 years (and who were the main, though not the only, FMLN
tendency among the Salvadoran exile community throughout)
drew clear lessons from the political conditions of the
1970s. They did not accept at all the then widely-held
proposition that the first task of "solidarity" was to
construct internationalist links and a common struggle
between the oppressed in the U.S. and other countries. They
did not believe that building a revolutionary movement in
the U.S. was any of their business, nor did they care to
have U.S. political organizations, "revolutionary" or
otherwise, involved in their business. To put it bluntly,
they wanted to keep the organized sectors of the U.S. left
out of El Salvador solidarity work, because they had little
confidence in the political maturity or the organizing
capacity of that left. Who can blame them?
Did these Salvadorans exclude and marginalize some U.S.
activists because of their politics? Yes.
Was this a "narrow" conception of what solidarity could
Was it, to use one of the old epithets,
Were the Salvadorans and the North Americans in CISPES
who were their close collaborators arrogant towards much of
the U.S. left and peace movement on occasion? Absolutely.
But consider it from another point of view: Was there
any current example of a cohesive, united solidarity
movement built by U.S. left organizations? No.
Did Marxist-Leninist "parties" in the U.S. try, once
again, to take over CISPES as part of their never-ending war
of position? Of course; an undercover volunteer from a
Trotskyist organization helped set up the first CISPES
National Office in 1980 before being discovered.
Would any organized group on the U.S. left have been
willing to put the extreme and immediate needs of the
Salvadoran revolution first, not just for a month or two,
but for as long as it took? Never.
At root was the view, which I share, that it was their
revolution and they had the right and responsibility to
determine the most appropriate forms of solidarity. The '70s
post-Vietnam phenomenon of North American leftists
evaluating and adopting various stances of "critical
solidarity" towards this or that revolutionary movement,
offering approval and aid as a bargaining chip, was to
virtually everyone in CISPES a repellent memory -- or more
often, a distinct shock if and when they heard about it.
Indeed, it is safe to say that to a considerable extent
CISPES embodied a rejection of much of the recent New
Leftist past, especially for the ex-adherents of various
Marxist tendencies who were drawn in one-by-one and, so to
speak, unlearned old habits.
To at least a few "CISPESistas," its organizing
practice resembles much more the mass organizations of the
1930s and '40s Popular Front left, with the obvious
difference that there was no party integrating this
particular struggle into a more universal vision of social
transformation in this country.
TRIAL AND ERROR
The bulk of this essay has been devoted to explaining
the success of CISPES' aggressive, flexible and "presentist"
strategy, with the implication that this history should be
seriously considered in planning the future renaissance of
U.S. radicalism. I will stand by that conclusion, but I
would not want to leave the reader with the impression that
this was a flawless trajectory, moving steadily from one
success to another over the years of Reagan and Bush; far
from it, CISPES typically learned how to do things well by
doing them badly at first, sometimes more than once. How
could it be otherwise, given where it came from and its
attempt to break new ground with a new methodology? To put
it another way, to the extent that CISPES embodied a
vanguardist approach, these were the flaws in any emphasis
on voluntarism and what a leader of NISGUA, the Guatemala
solidarity network, once described as CISPES' intense
reliance on the "subjective factor," on organizing and
What this meant in practice was that CISPES' mainly
young, inexperienced activists often remained ignorant to
the point of disrespect concerning other radical traditions,
whether Christian or Communist -- theirs was a pragmatic,
nonideological species of sectarianism -- and had
considerable difficulty appreciating the diversity of the
greater Central America movement, and the success of other
organizing models like the faith-based networks.
The organization as a whole never developed a
comprehensive approach to working in coalition, and at its
otherwise dynamic national conventions was usually reduced
to juggling laundry-lists of all the different "sectors" it
would work with at some future unspecified date.
In the late 1980s CISPES Executive Director Angela
Sanbrano became a recognized leader of the mainstream "peace
and justice movement" as Co-Chair of the largest U.S. peace
organization, SANE/FREEZE and a confidante of Jesse Jackson,
culminating in her acting as emcee for the main Washington
DC protest against the Gulf War in January 1991.
Unfortunately, her experience was never incorporated into
the training regime at the base level. Certainly, most
CISPES chapters around the country built their own
coalitions and alliances, but in this one area they were
more like than unlike the rest of the decentralized,
pluralist solidarity movement. In one city, CISPESistas
might have excellent relations with City Hall and various
Members of Congress; in some other cases, they boasted of
their prowess at street-fighting, though the latter was
hardly the norm.
A certain arrogance and disinterest in everything that
came before, and an enthusiasm for one's own special
newness, are deeply rooted cultural traits in this country,
hardly unique to CISPES. The above critique, or self-
critique, reflects some distance from the post-student
milieu that has always characterized CISPES, and should be
understood as such. Its weaknesses were inseparable from the
strengths I have attempted to describe -- the energy,
tenacity and discipline that allowed this particular
organization of North Americans, along with others, to make
a distinct contribution to the liberation of the Salvadoran
people from a regime of feudal barbarism.
Twelve Theses on the War in Iraq and the Future of U.S. Politics (January 2005)
1. The war in Iraq is virtually unwinnable and will only get worse—more serious casualties for U.S. forces, more war-crimes against Iraqi civilians, more resistance (and more terrorism) and a de facto civil war leading to a continuously boiling pot.
2. The U.S. has no further military resources to draw upon though it will need many more simply to maintain stability in Iraq—its options will be a) more mercenaries, b) state terror to “put down” the resistance, c) withdrawal.
3. It will never contemplate withdrawal until literally forced to the wall, as in 1969-1970, by severe internal dissent and insubordination in the military combined with massive unrest at home.
4. But there’s a huge difference between the late Vietnam War and now. In the former case, there was a highly disciplined, coherent, rational state with which to negotiate, and even—thanks to the breakthrough forced by the Tet Offensive—a permanent negotiating mechanism. The Vietnamese Communists had essentially created a way out for the Americans, however much our government did not want it, and then pushed us through that door, with considerable assistance from the antiwar movement.
5. So, either the U.S. stays in Iraq for decades to come (as John McCain and other worldly conservatives accurately foresaw) or it withdraws, admitting failure and at best handing over power to a coalition regime with some kind of international peacekeepers. There are no other viable options. Expecting a viable pro-U.S. Iraqi state able to maintain itself in power as the U.S. steadily draws-down forces is a pipe-dream, equivalent to expecting to draw enough cards in stud poker to fill an inside straight—a nice thing when it happens, but highly unlikely.
6. Any prognosis on how the slow–motion disaster of the U.S. occupation of Iraq plays out is complicated by several other major factors. The first is the precarious nature of the current Republican hegemony: the smallest re-election victory margin of any Republican president in a century, a tiny majority in the House. They got to this point by hook and (literally) crook—a partisan Supreme Court decision in 2000, vast amounts of voter suppression in 2004, and a remarkably disciplined political machine operating on all cylinders facing a fundamentally divided Democratic Party and a candidate with serious weaknesses. Karl Rove, Grover Norquist, Tom DeLay et al know this is their one shot to gerrymander a “realignment,” which means 2008 is crucial. They cannot afford any weakness, any backing-off or admission of failure. To do so would be to admit the emperor has no clothes, and Bush pulled it off in 2004 by insisting on his strength, his certitude, his ability to “defend America.” Ironically, if they had won with bigger, cleaner majorities (in 2004 and before) they would have more room to maneuver in Iraq. Now they have little margin left for this high-wire act, except to assert over and over “America is Winning!” as we are ever more palpably losing.
7. The second complicating factor is the extreme fragility of the U.S. economy, which (if Paul Krugman and other liberal economists are correct) is currently floating on a sea of Asian money and extraordinary trade deficits, even as a Euro trade bloc steadily coheres around us. Like Reagan, Bush has discovered the magic of military-industrial pump-priming. Economic forecasting for political purposes is often delusory, but if even some of the dire forecasts come true, there will be large-scale unemployment and rising interest rates to stave off inflation in this decade—just like in the 1970s.
8. The real wild card is one or more major Al Qaeda-style attacks on the U.S., with the potential for a massive rally-round-the-flag hysteria and justifications for suppression of dissent. As we have seen, what our modern Machiavelli Bill Clinton called the “wrong but strong” syndrome was sufficient to save an otherwise completely disastrous presidency in November 2004.
9. In sum, the odds seem quite high that the Bush Administration, and with it the Republican Party (more precisely, the New Right), will face a situation where they can only remain in power by resorting to extremely authoritarian methods both at home and abroad. Do we think that when an utterly disastrous war and perhaps also an economy in deep trouble produces public repudiation they will just sit by? Their entire history will incline them to attack, to survive at all costs. As that eminent Cold Warrior Zbigniew Brzezinski pointed out just before the Iraq War began, the most valid historical comparison for this regime is the Bolsheviks—utterly determined, ruthless, riding the edge and taking huge risks.
10. Where does this leave the American left, that supposedly non-existent force that reared up in the millions to try and get rid of Bush in 2004? You can’t beat something with nothing—and for all his occasional spells of forensic brilliance (as in the first debate), Kerry added up to a “nothing” in personal terms, utterly incoherent on what was always the central issue, “the war” (whether it was the “war on terror” or the “war in Iraq,” and as Mark Danner has pointed out, the essence of the Bush/Rove strategy was to conflate the two, which they did with very little dispute from Kerry).
11. In my view, the left has to decide whether it’s going to just take whatever the Democrats come up with (the de facto strategy so far), or make a real intervention to produce a candidate who is both progressive and capable of winning (e.g. a genuine human being who stands for a new paradigm), or even—contribute to breaking up the Democratic Party to bring about a new formation of the center left united on a basic opposition to suicidal empire, rather as the Republican Party came together in the 1850s from wings of the two major parties plus the independents (Liberty Party in their time, Greens in ours). Cycles and parallels make historians very wary, but it is eerie how closely the current Democratic Party resembles the Republican Party in the heyday of the New Deal Order—condemned to offer “echoes” rather than “choices,” as Barry Goldwater put it, dominated by stolid technocrats at the legislative level, so scared of defeat that it is continually defeated.
12. We can’t go on this way. If I was a committed rightist, everyone I know would have been involved in electoral politics for decades—as a candidate, fundraiser, speechwriter, legislative aide, or in some other way. They grasp for power, while we have stood aside and let opportunists manipulate or ignore the left for their own purposes. Now we are reduced to the honorable few—not incidentally, these are mainly African Americans—who operate on our behalf in the halls of power: John Conyers, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, those who stood up in Congress on January 6 to challenge Ohio’s electors. It’s time to finally get serious about taking political power in this country. It would undoubtedly be a project of many decades, but we have in front of us a textbook example of the “long march through the institutions” and revolutionary fortitude, from Goldwater to Reagan to Gingrich to Bush II. How ironic it would be if the vainglorious epithet Time magazine attached to their “Man of the Year” cover on George W. Bush turned out to be accurate: “American Revolutionary.”
The State of our Movement (June 2005)
[Based on a talk given at Purdue University, April 20, 2005, published by Portside, June 17, 2005]
I want to begin this talk by focusing on the notion of a 'conjuncture,' or what dictionaries call rather blandly 'A critical set of circumstances; a crisis.'
This is a term widely used in Latin America and Europe to get at the particular 'balance of forces,' what I would call the set of contingencies, that define a historical moment. And not just any and all moments either (as in daily life)--but those important defining periods when things change decisively.
For historians, there are no 'models' to understand reality, there is no predictability: contingency is all. So no matter how eerily familiar a time might seem, we have to always begin with the understanding that it is truly new. Which is why the emphases on specificity, originality and exceptionality built into the concept of the conjuncture are really useful.
Let me give an example to underline how new is our particular conjuncture. We all know how the war in Iraqis constantly, even necessarily compared with the U.S. war in Vietnam. But let's imagine that right now, we could actually reproduce all the key circumstances of that disastrous military adventure:
Not 150,000 but 535,000 troops 'in country' at peak
Not over 1,700 dead Americans and at least 20,000 total casualties so far, but eventually over 58,000 dead and over 200,000 total casualties
Instead of the probably tens of thousands of dead Iraqis (no one will tell us the numbers, they refuse to count), the three million who eventually died in the Indochinese wars
Not a decentralized, mostly anonymous, ideologically fragmented insurgency with no political program but one of the most tightly-organized, popular and disciplined political-military movements in modern history, the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, backed by a sovereign state, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, with a very clear program for national unification and independence
Well, let's suppose that Iraq escalates into a similar situation. And it could, possibly, if this war lasts as long as Vietnam. But even if it does, it will make nodifference: our movement must and will be completely different. Think about all the other factors:
The Vietnam war has already happened and the U.S. has been defeated, an experience from which in a literal sense we have never recovered
The Soviet Union no longer exists as an insuranceagency for both grassroots revolutions like Vietnam's and military dictatorships like Saddam Hussein's that need a friend
The Left and the antiwar movement no longer face a powerfully hegemonic New Deal Democratic Party in power, to say the least
The civil rights movement is now a great but fading memory of mass mobilization and political victory instead of being as immediate as Terry Schiavo's passing, and so on and on.
So what is the current conjuncture in U.S. politics? And why should we start there? Why not just pass over to the state of our antiwar movement? Isn't the U.S. political scene always somewhere between `bad' and `worse,' and we can't really do much about it?
That was apparently the response when an outline of thistalk was given at a meeting of the new Steering Committee of United for Peace and Justice on April 8. I had five minutes, and started off talking about 'the conjuncture,' and the leader of an important national organization jumped in as soon as I finished, saying 'I thought we were going to hear about the state of the antiwar movement!'
Well, that's my point. If all we do is talk about our movement, and in passing refer to the larger political world, we have begun wrong and are unlikely to right ourselves. We have to start with the larger frame of politics, because it almost totally defines our space for effective action, our possibilities for intervention. That may mean paying close attention to people we don't like, and politics that many among us find unpleasant, meaningless and seedy, but if we don't pay attention, we're flying blind. Thus, the importance of 'the conjuncture.'
Right now, U.S. politics is exceptionally and dangerously fluid. We have clearly passed into what the great Marxist theorist Perry Anderson, building on older texts of military and political theory, called the 'war of maneuver.' In electoral democracies with highly institutionalized political systems like ours, politics is almost always defined as the 'war of position,' akin to trench warfare: a small gain here, pushing a salient out there, the occasional large-scale offensive (as in a presidential campaign) that costs a great deal but may or may not pay off. Not that much changes in any short-term.
Occasionally, however, things break apart and down, and the 'war of maneuver' begins: the rapid charges, chaotic routs, and amazing changes of fortune that characterize great battles.
This is the situation we have faced since George W. Bush got his war vote in late October 2002, and two weeks later won control of both houses of Congress-but by what is historically a very narrow margin in the Senate, and the most precarious margin imaginable in the House (essentially the same bare majority they've held since 1994, but never been able to build on). Since then, he and his cohort of rightist operatives have skated on the thinnest of ice, and yet have always managed to avoid falling through-if only by skating faster.
You may not be surprised that this is the most controversial of my many speculations: that the Republican hold on power, while apparently commanding, is extremely fragile, as I argued last January in a web-essay called 'Twelve Theses on the War in Iraq and the Future of U.S. Politics.' Many people on the Left are shocked and humbled, and for good reason, by the scope and determination of the right, how they operate effectively at every level of our politics, how they seem to command everything. Yet I'll still reiterate my thesis: the Right's apparent hegemony is illusory, there is no realignment (yet), their control of the institutional levers of power is real but insecure.
This is not a matter of the raw numbers last November 4. Certainly it matters that GW Bush's majority of 51% was the narrowest re-election victory by a Republican in a century, and shockingly narrow for a 'war president.' That's beside the point, however. We should concentrate on Congress, where exists the real power to implement, to delay, to harass, to force change.
By any historical standard, the Republican control of the upper and lower houses hangs by a thread-what would normally be considered a mere handful of seats. Remember: in the New Deal years, the Democrats had a 3 to 1 majority in the House over three terms, peaking at 334 to 88 in 1937-39. Well into most of our lifetimes, we took for granted huge Democratic majorities. Between the fabled Watergate class of 1974 (that produced a better than 2-1 majority) and 1994, the Democrats had an average margin of 88 seats-a figure beyond Tom Delay's wildest dreams. But we all know there was no real parliamentary discipline. After all, Bill Clinton entered the White House in 1993 with solid Democratic majorities in both houses-and what good did it do him? They disappeared in 1994. That would be a useful lesson for GWB, if he was prepared to listen. Under political pressure, the center will not hold, and I think the debacle over Social Security, Bush's 'cratering' poll numbers, the Schiavo fiasco, Delay's mess, and more tocome all suggest that this wafer-thin politicaldominance may well prove its fragility over the next two years.
To complicate matters even more, we have the first really 'open' presidential campaign approaching since 1952: not only no incumbent, but no heir apparent in the form of a vice-president eager to run (as in 2000, 1988, 1968, and 1960). Under these circumstances, the degreeof self-interested maneuvering we can normally anticipate with no incumbent running will be many times greater. 2008 will be a circus and the lions and tigers in the Republican hierarchy are already lining up, red in tooth and claw, ready to climb over each other to power.
My main point is that we should be very careful about assuming any stability at all to the current alignment of power in U.S. national politics. If past patterns mean anything, one can easily imagine yet another Democratic president, with a Democratic majority in one if not both houses of Congress, come 2008.
But this 'fragility,' if reassuring, is very much a two-edged sword. Simply because of all the advantages of being the default party, as the Republicans were for so long, there are powerful compulsions encouraging the Democrats to find the easiest common denominator (as in Social Security), and the simplest kind of populistic appeal (Republicans as out of touch with ordinary Americans and too long in power, as corrupt 'big government' and so on, all the charges Gingrich used to undermine the Democrats over the years). With all these easy outs, why would the Democratic leadership ever confront an aggressive Republican machine around a complex, dangerous issue like the war in Iraq? If history tells us anything, it is that politicians dependent on votes will only take that kind of stand when the crisis is compelling enough to knock them adrift from their traditional moorings, or when they feel intense anger and pressure from engaged constituencies. Minus the latter, what we can expect from many Democrats is the kind of opportunism manifested by John F. Kennedy in 1960, when he relentlessly attacked Richard Nixon as soft on Red China (Quemoy and Matsu), the Soviet Union (the phony 'missile gap') and Cuba ('I am not the Vice President who lost Cuba'). It was a long, drawn-out exercise in avoidance until now-President Kennedy finally faced the great domestic political crisis of his time on June 10, 1963, and spoke with passion of the 'peaceful revolution' in civil and human rights that all Americans had to accept and undertake. And he got there only because of a movement that never let up and because southern Democratic leaders like George Wallace were openly defying federal authority.
All these contingencies contribute to the regime of brutal or vulgar partisanship which has reigned in national politics since the mid-1990s at least. Rather than ideological conflict, the confrontation is reduced to strictly personal terms: Bill Clinton's sexual dalliances, for instance. This is the worst possible scenario for the Left in general, and certainly for the antiwar movement. It reduces politics to simple polarities: no matter how much I wanted Bush repudiated for his war upon the world, an 'ABB' attitude was foolish.
Let's turn to the state of the antiwar movement, the historical subject seeking to act within the apparently objective frame of US politics.
We have to begin by with a proviso, and a warning: our opponents devoutly want to 'Iraqize' this war, and at every point we have to be ready for a strategy which will seek visible reductions in the US troop presence to placate domestic opinion, just as Richard Nixon 'Vietnamized' his failing war in 1969 and after.
Having made that stipulation, there are three criteria for a successful movement to oppose US foreign policy, as I see it.
First, a successful movement is one that constantly spreads into new geographic and demographic spaces (and sectors), so as to keep structures of power on the defensive, and hem them in.
Second, it will manifest a multi-strategy and multi-tactics approach to swarm conventional structures of power and policy-making elites, never letting up and wearing them down, in the political equivalent of guerrilla warfare.
Third, it will focus on opportunities to connect to so-called 'mainstream,' more properly called conventional, legislative and electoral politics, since this is the arena where a movement must register its gains--and if it doesn't, it can win only by dumb luck or the intervention of an exterior force, the proverbial act of god.
Where is the antiwar movement today, by these benchmarks?
First, let's openly acknowledge the astonishing weakness and failure exhibited by the various national organizations and networks of the peace and solidarity movement in the 1990s, which allowed for the rise of ANSWER. Like nature, sectarians are eager to fill a vacuum, and they did so with great energy. Since 2002, United for Peace and Justice and a host of new organizations (most of which belong to UFPJ) have worked to overcome that entropy, with considerable success. The need to come together as a broad and nonsectarian movement in the streets, to find a unity in action, helps explain why the overwhelming emphasis since late 2002 has been on large mobilizations (like February 15, 2003 and August 29, 2004), but now we need to move beyond that stage of organizing and greatly diversify both our overall strategies and our specific tactics for ending the war.
Second, having largely overcome the problem posed by ANSWER and the absence of a genuine, democratically-run coalition, we can see that our movement is clearly consolidating for the long haul. It is spreading steadily into new spaces and sectors. But we have a very long way to go--we as a movement have to take seriously the challenge of simultaneous growth in all these areas:
Becoming a truly multiracial movement, a real necessity if we ever hope to change the direction of US foreign policy;
Consolidating a national student infrastructure with staff and funding that will build upon the leadership of the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition;
Making the various communities of faith a highly visible component of our movement, a process now under way with the founding of Clergy and Laity Concerned About Iraq;
Developing targeted organizing and real outreach to all those people and groups in the South, the mountain West and rural areas in general who agree with us but are surrounded by 'red state' rightists, and need support.
Third, we are still at a very early stage of developing a sophisticated multi-strategy, multi-tactical approach. In this regard the most positive signs are the strong growth of groups like Military Families Speak Out, the National Guard campaigns, and the burgeoning counter-recruitment campaigns aimed at high school youth. The decision by UFPJ to commit to a multi-pronged fall mobilization in Washington DC, embracing a mass rally, an interfaith service, large-scale civil disobedience, and a coordinated national lobby day, is a major step in the right direction.
Finally, in terms of leveraging our weight into the conventional political (electoral and legislative) arena, our movement has a long way to go, but is making rapid steps. The recent vote on Rep. Lynne Woolsey's amendment requesting that the President "develop a plan as soon as practicable ... to provide for the withdrawal of United States Armed Forces from Iraq" and "transmit to the congressional defense committees a report that
contains the plan" showed how much space actually existsto surface dissent within Congress and the structures of power. Despite the near-absence of any coordinated
congressional pressure strategy, 122 Democrats (that's a majority of their caucus) and 5 Republicans voted 'yes.' We should take this as a clear signal that Congress is prepared to respond to the mounting public dissatisfaction, if given the kind of hard push that is
needed. Indeed, we should take this vote as a signal that victories are ready to be won, if we will act audaciously.
To push along an audacious perspective, here's a kind of provocation. I want to pose a set of possible tactical wins that would actually have an impact on the world of conventional politics. Plenty of people assert that thinking in these terms is premature, but to me if we
don't start thinking in these terms we will never really move forward. So here goes:
A state legislature passes an 'Out Now' resolution calling for immediate withdrawal (even getting a vote on such a resolution is a victory of sorts)
A command rank officer resigns as an act of dissent from the war
A prominent Republican elected official breaks ranks with the President
A member of Congress loses his or her seat because of support for the war
A major national institution (a large religious denomination, a big union, a major association) calls for immediate withdrawal
A citywide campaign gets recruiters kicked out of schools
Celebrities from the (poor, people of color and/or rural) constituencies that provide the troops speak directly to potential volunteers, urging them not to participate in an unjust occupation
More state legislatures follow Montana's lead and call for bringing home their National Guard units
Churches start creating sanctuaries for soldiers who refuse to fight
A top religious leader urges youths not to enlist, and the right of military dissent from an unjust war
The count of members of Congress who oppose so-called 'supplemental aid' to fund the war consistently increases
A resolution supporting immediate withdrawal is placed on the ballot in California or elsewhere--and wins
More and more state Democratic Party organizations follow California's in calling for immediate withdrawal [kudos to Progressive Democrats of America on that win!]
Congress passes a non-binding resolution opposing 'stop loss' orders as a form of involuntary servitude
The biggest win of all, of course, would be a candidate in 2008 who repudiates not only this war, but the entire doctrine of pre-emptive military domination of the world, as immoral and disastrous-and not only gets the Democratic nomination but wins the general election. A pipe dream? Certainly, at this point, but this is how we need to start thinking about ourselves; this is the level of responsibility we need to accept for what our
government is doing to the world.
In conclusion, let's think about the challenge that faces us now, not just the antiwar movement but the Left as a whole, the challenge to take ourselves completely seriously. This is the painful lesson we need to learn from the no-longer-New Right's fifty-year process of movement-building, ever since Joe McCarthy drank himself to death and a new type of 'Southern Republicanism' began to stir, seeking to pick up the pieces of the Dixiecrat revolt.
The first lesson we can learn from the New Right is that they have never allowed the immediate constraints of the mainstream political world to define or limit them, while at the same time they have remained intensely focused on every possible gain and intervention in (and manipulation of) that world. And bit by bit they have taken it over, first within the Republican Party, and then through the Republican Party.
Contrast this with the Left. On the one hand, we have many formations and organizations wholly defined by and limited by the constraints of institutional Democratic Party politics. On the other, we have whole swathes of activists who are deeply anti-electoral and even abstentionist, preferring to stand aside from the impure world of partisan activism. I know activists with decades of experience who have never met a Member of Congress, and know very little about how our government actually works, its gears and levers. And there are lots of people in-between, who participate in conventional politics while holding their noses, wading in only up to their knees (I would have to answer to this description, if I'm being honest). This is why the Right, and even many in the anemic Democratic center, mock us-and they are correct to do so.
The second lesson is that even though the Right is just as divided up into many different movements as we are, with their own decades of sectarian baggage, they have learned over time how to bring their movements together into a common front. It would behoove us to study how they did that-what kinds of compromises, and institutional adjustments were necessary. At the same time, we have to recognize that their common glue is largely unavailable to us. In fundamental ways, people on the right are linked by race, and by a racially and ethnically-based (and sexualized) fear and loathing of a whole set of 'others.' We may have common fears and antipathies on the Left, we may all detest oppression and militarism, but these are of a different order. So we have to find our own common vision, one based not in fear and the narrowest definitions of community and patriotism, but in hope and an expansive, internationalist love of the country we want to become, not the country we have been. That's a tall order but again, utterly necessary.
To really learn this second lesson, we're going to have do something to which we as Americans are almost congenitally averse. To build the powerful, united, broad Left the world demands of us we are going to have to embrace complexity-our own complexity as the historic Left in America. We aren't at all the same kinds of people, not just racially or sexually but in terms of our ideologies, even our spiritualities. Pluralism is here with a vengeance. Under no foreseeable circumstances are we all going to become socialists, or pacifists, or anarchists. We are Christian and Muslim and Jewish and Buddhist, atheist and nationalist (of one sort or another), black, brown, yellow, red and white, working-class and middle-class. But if we can actually come together as a movement, we have a world to gain-or save.
Essays for Grassroots Policy Project, circa 1998.
About ten years ago, Richard Healey at GPP and Colin Greer at New World Foundation commissioned me to write the three studies attached here, examining how social movements on both left and right have connected to policy-making in three key periods: the New Deal of the 1930s, the "Great Society" of the 1960s, and the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s. The purpose was to aid today's activists in making strategy for concrete change, not just protesting and hoping.