The Anti-Globalization Movement, Anti-Imperialism and the Politics of the United Front
Writing our most recent histories seems to bring to mind the reliable touchstones of literature. Let us say, then, that it was the best of times – and the worst of times. A little over five years ago, our world was turned upside down. All it took was two events: Québec City and September 11.
But is this tragedy or farce?
Either way, it’s epic drama. And even though we might find some comfort in the established conventions that tell us that good triumphs over evil and that the underdog prevails, our reckoning right now must be of a different kind. Whether tragedy or farce, we must decide.
For many, Québec City was the high point of the anti-globalization movement in Canada. Youth, students, workers, and activists converged to struggle against the political leaders of the Western hemisphere. For a moment, a space opened up in the street. When people said that another world was possible, it was easy to believe that they meant it with all their guts. Since then, the hopes of the movement have fallen by the wayside. The reasons behind this decline are varied. But it would be impossible to speak of the profound diminishment in expectation that has taken place without making reference to the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center.
Given all that has been done by the US military and its allies in the name of those attacks, it might seem indulgent to focus here on the effects that the imposition of this new order had on a primarily white middle class movement in the global north. Nevertheless, to the extent that the anti-globalization movement marked the high point of recent anti-capitalist organizing north of the Rio Grande, the least we owe it is an autopsy. But there is more. To put them in their proper perspective, debates surrounding the prospects for contemporary anti-war and anti-imperialist organizing must begin with an investigation of the strange death of the anti-globalization movement.
In political terms, five years can seem like an eternity. And sometimes it’s difficult to reckon with the enormity of the changes that can transpire in the time it takes to recover from the shock of a violently transformed geopolitical landscape. Taking stock of the left today, we must admit that some of the assumptions under which we operated when we began this journal need to be revisited. The “anti-capitalist” movements that were ascendant in 2001 have now for the most part faded away. And while some of the groups that arose during this time remain, they are the exception rather than the rule. As a whole, the radical left – where it is still visible – seems to have responded to the new terrain by focusing on single-issue initiatives.
Without a doubt, the work done by activists in these fields is commendable, but it is hard to deny that the sense of possibility that existed five years ago has now largely dissipated. And yet, it was from this very sense of possibility – expressed concretely by a nascent movement grappling with theory and practice on an increasingly mass level– that we hoped to draw inspiration for these pages. As it turns out, we can neither breathe life into nor be inspired by a corpse. What we can do is make sure that its death was not in vain. The cadaver is calling. And so we turn to the work of autopsy.
To be clear, we still intend to produce a journal attentive to the dynamics of “actually existing” movements, wherever we might find them. But we must acknowledge that the ability of movements to generate their own theory gets drastically circumscribed in an era of political downturn and disorientation. This is especially true when they have lost all semblance of a mass character. What, then, are those of us committed to persevering supposed to do? We must begin by acknowledging that the “we” for whom we write does not yet exist. Its architects are those who are sorting through the wreckage in search of its lessons.
In Canada, the anti-globalization movement found its antecedent in the 1997 anti-APEC protest in Vancouver. But even before the pepper spray had cleared, many of us had moved on to bigger and better things. Something was happening. Seattle ’99 was a coming out party, a catalyst. We know that assertions such as this last one have by now become clichés. Nevertheless, and despite the attraction of cynical retrospective accounting, we owe it to ourselves to remember how strange it seemed that an activist could spray paint “we are winning” on a wall and not have it seem ironic or insincere.
Seattle revealed that, even within the richest and most powerful country on earth, significant opposition existed to the processes of capitalist globalization. More than “opposition,” however, these moments heralded the rise of a core of anti-capitalist activists willing and able to push beyond proscribed limits. This grouping, which did not limit itself to either rights discourse or moral suasion, began to confront the representatives of global capitalism with a powerful one-two combination of direct action and militant anti-capitalist rhetoric. Although neoliberalism had not yet produced its own grave digger, it was forced to contend – for a brief moment – with the grave-digger’s apprentice.
This development was all the more remarkable because, in the Canadian context, the anti-globalization movement emerged in part from the conceptual milieu of campus action groups and organizations like the Council of Canadians who tended to blame poverty and inequality on something called “the corporate agenda,” a perspective often inflected with smug Canadian left-nationalism. From these modest beginnings, the movement developed a sharper and more elaborate critical repertoire. As it progressed, the movement’s critique of neoliberalism became the basis for raising more far reaching concerns. Finally, “anti-globalization” developed into a field of action in which it was possible to clearly identify anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist tendencies.
These tendencies had, of course, been there from the beginning. However, between 1999 and 2001, they began to take on something of a mass character. Although there are dangers in drawing clean historical analogies, it is important to point out that this continent had not witnessed a mood swing of this sort since the radical upheaval of the 1960s-70s. An example helps clarify matters: in The Imagination of the New Left, George Katsiaficas reports how “in 1971, the New York Times discovered that four out of ten students (over 3 million people) thought that a revolution was needed in the United States.” There is no doubt that the movement’s efforts up to Québec City were more modest in scale. Nevertheless, by 2001, confidence seemed contagious.
Québec City became that which was previously unimaginable. Not only had an unprecedented number of protestors turned out for the actions, but a sizable minority of them were willing to engage in civil disobedience and major street battles with the state. In Québec City, the proportional distribution of activists engaged in different tactics established in Seattle was inverted. Direct action became a generalized form of dissent. Despite the cowardice of the trade union bureaucrats who chose to lead their members on a “March to Nowhere” and away from the fence where thousands of activists confronted the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) meeting’s smug fortifications, the event managed to fundamentally transform the terrain of struggle, if only for an instant.
To get a sense of the magnitude of this transformation, it is useful to consider how a figure like Maude Barlow – who, as the leading member of the Council of Canadians, is rarely held up as an example of unrepentant militancy – was able to applaud the efforts of the street fighters and decry the violence of both the state and the neoliberal agenda. This show of solidarity was all the more remarkable in light of the active attempts made by both state and media to demonize the anti-capitalist contingent as a band of violent extremists.
In fact, the police frame-up of the Germinale “cell” on bomb plot charges during the lead up to Québec City in many ways prefigured the current methods used to target Canada’s Muslim “enemies” and bears a striking similarity to the Toronto terror arrests in the summer of 2006. Given the gravity of the situation for Muslims and Arabs at present, making such a connection might seem both ill-advised and narcissistic. Nevertheless, it is worth considering how such connections have been drawn in no uncertain terms by journalists and pundits who aimed to discredit the anti-globalization movement. For instance, in the May 2, 2000, edition of the Calgary Sun, when contemplating how the “flotsam and jetsam of the world’s radical left” could be organized enough to pull off a coup like Seattle, self-declared espionage expert Paul Jackson proposed “three immediate possibilities”: Moammar Gadhafi of Lybia, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, and Osama bin Laden of Afghanistan.
In the end, it was precisely this potent mix of optimism coupled with an increasingly treacherous political terrain that encouraged the anti-globalization movement to develop a series of innovations that transformed, if only briefly, the whole paradigm of struggle. Among these innovations, the following three stand out as most significant. First, the movement embraced and reframed disruptive direct action tactics. Second, it placed emphasis on direct democracy in the organization of spokescouncils and affinity groups. Finally, it developed the ability to name the enemy – global capitalism – directly.
The impetus toward direct action and direct democracy came largely from the Seattle model, where activists adapted tactics developed by radical environmentalists (engaged in forest defense and anti-nuclear protests on the West and East Coasts, respectively) to blockade streets and intersections. Direct action enabled them to physically block delegates from entering the convention and simultaneously managed to paralyze business in the downtown core.
The focus on direct action also derived from anarchist opposition to “symbolic” protests aimed at gaining recognition from the enemy. Instead, direct action emphasized the importance of developing capacities and forms of counter-power within the left. Rather than abiding uncritically by a “politics of demand,” the emphasis on counter-power encouraged activists to imagine that they were able to impose penalties on corporate and state leaders trying to publicly convene or implement their agendas. In addition to disrupting global summits, direct action politics also helped to draw attention to the fact that a small but significant number of people within the advanced capitalist countries were willing to put their bodies on the line in order to resist the process of capitalist globalization.
For many activists, the anti-globalization movement’s experiments in direct democracy were profoundly inspiring. In Seattle, thousands of activists worked together in affinity groups to accomplish a series of highly complex tasks. Shutting down a major city is no small feat. Nevertheless, despite their limited experience working together, and despite confronting the better-equipped forces of the state, they were largely successful. Affinity groups, clusters and spokescouncils yielded a vision of the potential contained in non-alienated collective engagement.
This innovation, despite obvious limitations, stood as a great improvement on the protest march – that stage-managed and ultimately disempowering ritual in which participants “vote with their feet” and become a number to be counted. However, while the spokescouncils at major demonstrations between 1999 and 2001 were impressive, they ultimately proved to be transitory phenomena. Even affinity groups, although celebrated as the building blocks of the new anti-mass politics, tended not to outlive the actions for which they had been created, proving that – in the end – most were little more than ad-hoc groupings with little long-term political or tactical coherence.
Along with direct action and direct democracy, the third major contribution made by radicals during this period took the form of openly expressed anti-capitalist politics. Unfortunately, both these politics and the enemy they sought to name proved to be only vaguely defined. Despite these shortcomings, being “anti-capitalist” was nevertheless useful since it enabled activists to distinguish themselves from more reformist elements within the movement. Being anti-capitalist meant that you did not merely lobby for change, use electoral methods, or otherwise operate solely within the boundaries of permissibility drawn by the system. But beyond providing the signpost for a negative conceptual distinction, the “anti-capitalist” politics of the anti-globalization movement proved to be hard to define in a positive sense.
The positive content of the conceptual negation remained an open question. In many ways, this ambivalence was perfectly captured by the well known demonstration placard: “abolish capitalism and replace it with something nicer.” In the end, much of the movement’s anti-capitalism proved to be a sentimental reflex. Often, it took the form of valorizing identification with the heroic resistance fighters of elsewhere and elsewhen. Rarely did it develop into positive programmatic articulations. How could it have been otherwise?
Lacking roots in either the militant labor movement (which barely exists these days) or a theoretically coherent revolutionary tradition (since, for middle-class university students, post-modernism had largely come to replace Marxism as the commonsense of oppositional thought), the anti-capitalists of the movement were often left to find their own way. In a political vacuum, sentiment abounds. Activists began reading their own bodies for signs of the depravity of the system. In place of the red star, the heart became the movement’s ascendant sign. CrimethInc formalized this sensibility when, in the opening lines of Days of War, Nights of Love, they encouraged the reader to “think about your direct bodily experience of life. No one can lie to you about that.”
Despite representing a fundamental improvement in radical politics, the anti-capitalist current of the anti-globalization movement was held back by a number of inherent limitations. From the outset, it was a movement in flux with little in the way of defined structure or overall means for democratic and accountable coordination. At the same time, many activists were beginning to wonder independently and in groups whether the anti-summit demonstration was the appropriate form for anti-capitalist action. Even before September 11, the effectiveness of large protests targeting international summits had been called into question. Holland’s EuroDusnie collective published the original critique of “summit hopping” in 2000. In it they outlined the problems – of elitism, financial privilege, and of not sinking roots in affected communities – that accompanied mass protest gatherings. This document set the tone for all the debates that would follow. At around the same time, many activists began to see how direct action itself could often be reduced to a form of symbolic protest. Once understood as a consequential – if only modestly costly – act of property destruction, the smashed window came to be viewed as desecration, pure and simple. As activists began to place both the terrain and the tactics of the movement under greater scrutiny many began to make a turn toward local organizing in the period following Québec City. After September 11, many activists began lending their energies to pressing immigrant and refugee solidarity and civil liberties causes like opposing detention centers and Security Certificates.
The Northeastern Federation of Anarchist Communists (NEFAC) – a group that came together in the wake of Seattle – advanced and responded to the critiques of summit hopping by deepening their roots in workplace organizing, anti-poverty activism, and immigrant and refugee solidarity work. Other groups that came into their own during the turn to local organizing include No One Is Illegal, the Convergence des Luttes Anti-Capitalistes (CLAC) in Montreal, and the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) in Toronto. While these last two groups, and particularly OCAP, were active prior to the period in question, it was during the turn to local organizing that they became increasingly powerful forces in housing, anti-poverty and a variety of other struggles.
Innovative attempts to find a social base for itself notwithstanding, the anti-globalization movement as a whole was unable to make the transition required by the advent of the “war on terror.” One might attribute the failure to combat the imperialist war machine on the appropriate scale to activist commitments to local organizing efforts already underway. But it would probably be closer to the truth to admit that, for many of yesterday’s radicals, their moment in the sun had passed.
While the libertarian and anarchist currents in the anti-capitalist left had managed, whether by design or fluke, to shape the anti-globalization movement in accordance with their own vision of a federated sunset, a horizontal utopia modeled after the conceits of 19th Century romantic humanism, they failed to have a similar impact on the shape of the anti-war movement. Instead of a politics of the act, the anti-war movement – taking its direction from the socialist organizations that correctly read the timing of the twilight of the heart – came to take on the attributes of the united front.
According to this formulation, left currents needed to build the movement around minimal demands while at the same time arguing against the limitations of the minimal platform. Consequently, socialist groups built broad coalitions around the slogans “stop the war” and “troops out now.” On this basis, they gathered together broad sections of the unorganized and organized “left” – including the trade union bureaucracy, a wide range of Arab and Islamic organizations, as well as the New Democratic Party (NDP) and occasionally even dissenting Liberal Members of Parliament.
Although, at its high point, the anti-globalization movement expressed strong interest in building a mass base, its means of achieving this goal were often in direct opposition to the premises underlying the united front. But instead of fighting these differences out within the anti-war coalitions, the activists who lived through the radicalizing experience of the anti-globalization movement have too often responded to the openly inhospitable climate of these coalitions by disengaging.
Groups like Block the Empire, the June 30 Coalition, and others managed in small ways to bring the acquisitions of the anti-globalization movement to their anti-war organizing. Since 2003, activist groups have made efforts to directly confront and obstruct war profiteers operating in Canadian and American cities. Sometimes these activists used the tactic of breakaway marches, drawing participants from sanctioned anti-war parades in order to attack unscheduled targets. Often, these targets would include Israeli or British embassies, or the offices of war profiteers.
Despite the possibilities for resistance suggested by these actions, the mainstream anti-war movement has, to date, been unwilling to entertain deviations from their interpretation of the united front. Radical anti-capitalists, for their part, have not provided them with any compelling reason to do so.
For the most part, radical anti-capitalist activists have condemned themselves to obscurity and political isolation by not trying to engage more directly with the anti-war coalitions. The reasons cited – that the coalitions are reformist and closed to anti-capitalist currents, that they refuse to take a public stand on Palestine or adopt an explicitly “no one is illegal” line on immigrants and refugees – are all actual problems. But it is not clear how the strategies of breakaway marches or isolated confrontations with individual war profiteers will resolve them. Currently, the anti-war movement is the only movement with a potentially mass base. If the modest acquisitions of the anti-globalization movement are going to survive, they will have to be replanted in its soil.
The shift in the terrain and object of immediate struggle brought on by the “war on terror” was accompanied by a significant transition in the dominant orientation to struggle. Whereas the anti-globalization movement embraced the “pedagogy of confrontation,” the anti-war movement has been fashioned after a version the united front. Each of these political orientations is based on a conception of responsibility toward the Other. At first glance, the opposition between these conceptions appears to be irresolvable.
The opposition between the pedagogy of confrontation and the united front has been one of the most consistent fault lines in the socialist tradition. On the one hand, thinkers and activists have proposed that people will be moved to action once it is demonstrated that action is both possible and effective. On the other hand, we have those who propose that people will be moved to action in instances where they feel assured that their action will be understood and endorsed by broad sections of society. In both instances, the goal is mass mobilization and social transformation. The sticking point has to do with the question of how the mass moves.
More to the point, it has to do with how deeply that movement will resonate, how consequential it will be for the realization of the revolutionary goal of producing a life free of alienation and exploitation. Over the last century, this debate has played itself out in three decisive transitional moments – the late 1920s and early ‘30s, the late 1960s and early ‘70s, and in the shift from the anti-globalization movement to the anti-war movement through which we are currently living.
In a 1929 essay, Walter Benjamin pointed out how surrealist artists had tried in their own way to reconcile the tension within socialist politics between the purity of ecstatic confrontation and the sober and disciplined calculation required by revolution. According to Benjamin, although the surrealists had mostly failed in their efforts, the task they had set for themselves of winning “the energies of intoxication for revolution” remained important. In the context of the rise of fascism – a movement which bound portions of the working class to an expressive baroque myth of self-realization even as it attacked its organizations and undermined its material interests – this was no small matter. Benjamin described the problem the surrealists set out for themselves as follows:
For them it is not enough that, as we know, an ecstatic component lives in every revolutionary act. This component is identical with the anarchic. But to place the accent exclusively on it would be to subordinate the methodical and disciplinary preparation for revolution entirely to a praxis oscillating between fitness exercises and celebrating in advance.
Benjamin’s proposed resolution to the contradiction rested on a renewal of analytic pessimism, on a break with metaphoric imagination and all its depictions of a happy future. Instead of metaphor, Benjamin proposed that the reconciliation of the anarchic and the methodical lay instead with the elevation of dialectical images that could illuminate capitalist social relations as they were actually lived in embodied everyday contexts. Pushing beyond mere contemplation and reckoning with dialectical images could provoke an understanding equivalent to the bodily experience of shock.
For the French Communist Party, no such resolution was considered. The surrealists, who joined the party en masse under the direction of André Breton, left within a year of signing cards.With the rise of Fascism, the Communist Parties of Europe entrenched themselves within the framework of the united front. In the process, the question of why sections of the working class often aligned themselves with fascist myths against their own interests was left unexplained. Fascism was eventually defeated. But the result was not the triumph of socialism, as had been predicted by its proponents, but rather the further entrenchment and consolidation of post war bourgeois hegemonic rule. The surrealists, for their part, became the domesticated enfants terribles of the bourgeois art world.
Post-war bourgeois hegemony stood unchallenged until the mid-1960s. Spurred to action by black liberation and anti-colonial struggles, students and young people in North America and Europe began to articulate a vision of social liberation that did not concern itself narrowly with economic questions. In May of 1968, the streets of Paris turned into a laboratory of desire. The students struck. The workers followed. The Communist Party and the official trade union movement were both outflanked. Such an outburst could not be planned. Its rapid spread could not be predicted.
The movement of May ’68 could not be dissolved into simple demands. Nevertheless, in the absence of both clear demands and coherent organizational paradigms, President de Gaulle was able to diffuse the situation by calling for new elections and effectively channelling the contagion of the movement into established political conduits. The failure of the May movement provided an opening for the Communist Party to squash the anarchic impulse fostered by existential Marxism. In its place, it sought to promote dispassionate Althusserian structuralism. The polarity between the antithetical orientations to struggle was reestablished, with the premises of the united front once again dominant.
Around the same time, in the United States, the Weather Underground attempted to reconcile the anarchic and the methodical, the pedagogy of confrontation and the united front, by heightening expectations of organizational discipline and coherence while at the same time escalating the level of confrontation. Their document “Bringing the War Back Home: Less Talk, More National Action,” penned in preparation for the Chicago action on October 8, 1969, provides the most clear expression of this attempt. Describing the failures of SDS to produce a movement capable of stopping the war, Weather authors Kathy Boudin, Bernardine Dohrn, and Terry Robbins recount the following:
We were afraid to bring our politics to the people; afraid to raise the key issues of imperialism and racism in a consistent, aggressive way. Instead, we hid behind the security of “student power,” or economism, or “bread-and-butter issues.” On campuses and in communities, we thought that if we could trick the people into any kind of struggle – and any level of struggle, no matter how low – they would see the naked teeth of the capitalist monster and join the revolution.
It didn’t work. And what became clear to people – through the struggles at Columbia and Chicago, at San Francisco State and at Kent State – was that putting forward our politics in an aggressive way was the ONLY way to organize the masses of people in this country… We learn from every organizing situation that people change from being challenged, and that it is in situations of sharp conflict that people are forced to act.
The experience of the Weather Underground suggests that such an attempt at reconciliation is bound to fail. The Chicago actions were ineffective in sparking larger resistance, and the actions undertaken when the group finally went underground were more symbolic than transformative. Nevertheless, their realization that people mobilized at a low political level do not tend to spontaneously come to revolutionary conclusions should not be discounted. By combining decisive analysis with an emphasis on doing, the Weather Underground attempted to reconfigure mass organizing so that it was premised not upon agreement but rather on embodied feelings of collective implication. For Weather, this sense of implication arose from the responsibility activists in the US had to the targets of US imperialism.
The anti-capitalist wing of the anti-globalization movement started from a similar position. The slogan “this is what democracy looks like,” chanted as people took over the streets of cities occupied by heavily armed police forces, encapsulated perfectly the pedagogy of confrontation. Though more modest in scale, the reason that this approach seemed to resonate in 1999 in a way that it failed to thirty years earlier is a puzzle worthy of serious consideration. Without pursuing this question here, we must at least acknowledge that confrontation can provide an important resource for the elaboration of revolutionary consciousness, especially when it is linked concretely to embodied experience at a mass level. However, as in May 1968, the anti-globalization movement was unable to consolidate the gains made through its open-ended process of elaboration.
The anti-globalization movement was already in a period of disintegration when the contemporary anti-war movement began to gain steam. Nevertheless, the socialist leaderships of the anti-war coalitions were vigilant in their efforts to ensure that the movement would not be overrun by the confrontational logic of the anti-globalization movement. In a position piece printed in Socialist Worker in the early moments of Canadian anti-war organizing, Abbie Bakan outlined how the united front tactic became the means by which one section of the Third International endeavored to deal with the ultra-leftism “rampant” among some early European Communist Parties.
In Bakan’s estimation, the radical sectarianism of the ultra-left tended to produce situations in which the left would provoke the state, which would in turn respond. Since the ensuing discord was often more than the left could manage, sectarianism of the ultra-left variety tended to clear the ground for the rise of fascism. Bakan’s argument was aimed at the remnants of the anti-globalization movement who were trying to make headway within the anti-war milieu: “Especially in a period of extreme state-supported racism and Islamophobia, it makes no sense to build a movement where small actions are inevitably vulnerable to state repression.” She continues:
Repression is always a risk. But the goal of the movement should be to minimize such risks, not maximize them. A strategy that only generates an increased sense of fear, rather than inspiring unity and greater collective confidence in the movement, over the long term, is a recipe for defeat.
Since the innovative contributions of the anti-globalization movement entailed assumptions of risk for participants and fostered distinction rather than unity by emphasizing the gap between what it was possible to do and what was most often done, there is little wonder that they were not welcomed into the realm of the socialist dominated anti-war united front. From the standpoint of orthodox socialist strategy, it is far easier to work with liberals than it is to work with radicals who share similar end goals but are committed to the pedagogy of confrontation.
The united front, especially when it is constituted rather than joined by the socialist organization, uses the vacuum of the lowest common denominator as a recruiting device. For those who pass through the movement and find its hollow slogans wanting, there is always the possibility of joining the revolutionary party. Indeed, the socialist groups who play a leading role in the anti-war coalitions have consistently attempted to maintain the divide between politically flat mass movements and the vanguard party where “real” politics reside. In so doing, they have betrayed their responsibility to continuously push against the minimal slogans and demands of the united front.
What is most striking about each of these brief sketches is how both the pedagogy of confrontation and that of the united front reveal themselves to be motivated by the same concern. This concern is best expressed in the form of a question: what are my responsibilities to the Other? In the case of the Weather Underground, responsibility to the Other took the form of militant action and personal self-sacrifice. Theirs was a call to put the privilege of their status as white Americans to use in the struggle against colonization and militarism. Since, in their estimation, colonized people – both within and beyond the United States had been carrying more than their fair share of the burden, it was incumbent upon white activists to deal directly with the heartland of colonization in a “consistent, aggressive way.”
For Bakan and others aligned with the politics of the united front, responsibility to the Other takes the form of minimizing state repression. Here, the orientation is overwhelmingly to targeted communities with whom organizing efforts are to be pursued rather than to – in this instance – the people of Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iraq. This strategy has been widely adopted in the anti-war movement. Even Block the Empire, an anti-war group that arose in part from the spirit of the anti-globalization movement, announced that its anti-imperialist contingent for the October 28th anti-war action in Montreal would be “child friendly.” This nomenclature is code for “free of confrontation.”
With the rise of Islamophobia and racism in the wake of 9/11, it was indeed imperative that alliances be made with Muslim and Arab communities not only to build a broad movement against the war, but to publicly stand in solidarity with those most directly affected by the backlash created by the so-called “War on Terror.” The nature and promise of these alliances varied from place to place, but there is no doubt that this strategy has enabled the anti-war coalitions to bring out large numbers of people from diverse communities. However, the short history of the anti-war movement has also shown that this strategy has been prone to a law of diminishing returns. While numbers have fluctuated from event to event, an overall survey would show that, since the mass anti-war mobilizations that took place just prior to the commencement of bombing in Iraq, demonstration numbers have followed a predictable downward arc. This has only been confirmed by the generally disappointing results of the October 28th, 2006 Canadian national day of action against the war.
United front politics – as they have been constituted by the current anti-war movement – deliberately limit the possibility of developing anti-imperialist or anti-capitalist consciousness. By rigidly limiting its slogan to “stop the war” or “troops out now,” it produces a mass movement that can and will be easily recuperated by social democratic forces and even ruling class elements who believe that particular military initiatives have been tactical mistakes. Meaningful anti-war movements should not focus on trying to formulate a better imperialist foreign-policy. Calling for the “return” of Canada’s historic “peacekeeping” role or advocating that local military forces replace the soldiers of Western imperialism cannot be seriously contemplated as an “anti-war” perspective. Anti-war politics need to be about more than the possibility of building a united front against obvious imperialist excesses. They must also try to link these episodes to a project of developing deeper mass consciousness. How this can be accomplished concretely is beyond the scope of this editorial; however, it suffices to say that the energy the antiwar movement is currently investing in Jack Layton’s NDP only lays the groundwork for the recuperation and demobilization of the movement into narrow electoralism.
Despite the logic of the united front, flattening out political demands yields lack of interest as often as it yields conversions to radical politics. However, as the US continues its attempted military remaking of the Middle East, and as the Canadian body count (not to mention the scores of murdered civilians) in Afghanistan continues to rise, it seems inevitable that the sections of the North American anti-war movement that have not forgotten the lessons that stood at the heart of Québec City will come to the conclusion that a positive orientation to direct action, direct democracy, and coherent and explicit anti-capitalism is needed once again. If this life-affirming impulse is not given room to breathe, there is a possibility that, like the Weather Underground before it, it will devolve into a truly dangerous and adventurist politics of despair. That this trajectory has not already been followed by some sections of the movement rests in large part on the tightening grip of security forces since September 11.
Whether the anti-globalization movement died of growing pains or was strangled in its crib remains to be determined. What is clear is that the anti-war coalitions have danced on its grave. They have justified inaction by patronizingly pointing to the vulnerabilities of the Others in their midst while concealing their own terror at the thought of confrontation. Their talk of vulnerability consistently downplays the still-greater vulnerability of those currently dying under a hail of bombs.
The resolution to this problem cannot be found in efforts to reestablish the hegemony of the pedagogy of confrontation. We musn’t forget that the innovations of the anti-globalization movement rested on mass mobilizations that had much in common with the logic of united front work. Even the “anti-capitalist” wing of the movement constituted itself around a minimal self-definition aimed at allowing a diversity of “anti-capitalisms” to co-exist and cross-fertilize more or less uncomfortably. Moreover, without implantation in a movement with a minimal mass character, these innovations are like fish out of water. The way forward lies in recognizing, synthesizing and transcending these seemingly antithetical terms on a mass scale.
As we struggle to pursue this path, the changing conditions of a conflict-ridden system will throw up new challenges and bases upon which to develop anti-imperialist politics. To the extent that it is able to continue killing Canadian soldiers, the ongoing resistance in Afghanistan may revitalize the anti-war movement in this country. It might even exacerbate the tensions already pulling the NATO mission asunder. As it progresses, intensification of this conflict may split the Canadian ruling class over whether to continue on the military front. The division concerning precisely this question running through the Liberal party may be a sign of things to come.
The political-military defeat in Iraq presently staring the US in the face is another major source of potential radicalization. The US is currently overstretched militarily, financially, and politically. US hegemony, if not in decline, is at the very least at a crossroads. High-level military officers admit that they can’t win the war, and history is not shy in suggesting that revolutionary movements often arise within imperialist countries as a result of their failed military adventures. As growing sections of the US ruling class turn against Bush for his incompetent economic and diplomatic initiatives, we may see the pattern repeat itself. If the US economy – otherwise known as Oz the Great and Terrible – is unable to anchor the profound imbalances of the world economy and proves to be the frail force behind the curtain, the possibilities for anti-capitalist politics could be dramatically transformed on a global scale.
Furthermore, left movements in Latin America, including those that have achieved some degree of state power, are demonstrating a huge revolutionary potential. These movements will have major impacts in the North American context, particularly among the Latino population in the United States. The unprecedented mobilization of the US immigrant rights movement is one sign of the latter’s potential political force. If a truly revolutionary situation breaks out in Latin America and the US is unable to contain it – a distinct possibility, given the extent to which it is currently overstretched and on the defensive as a result of its failures in Iraq – we could see a revitalization in both Canada and the US of radical left politics. Our interview with William Robinson in this issue takes up both the question and context of Latin American radicalism more thoroughly.
Although there are obvious parallels to be drawn between the dynamics of the present anti-war movement and that of the 1960s, there are also some crucial differences. Unlike the case with Vietnam, the opposition forces fighting imperialism today are for the most part neither forthrightly progressive nor sympathetic to left-wing perspectives. Since the post-colonial turn of the 1980s, national liberation movements with open communist or socialist politics are no longer serious contenders on the world stage. This is especially the case in western Asia, the region most directly facing the brunt of US imperialism. This is a major problematic in need of exploration. Left forces cannot call for the military or political victory of the Taliban or Al Qaeda in the same way we did for the National Liberation Front in Vietnam. Since some of the Islamic anti-imperialist movements defy easy categorization and have not yet finished their political elaboration, the question is bound to remain complex. Our interview with Aijaz Ahmad in this issue discusses some of these complexities.
A change in objective conditions and the revitalization of radical anti-capitalist politics in North America will force us to confront many of the same questions with which the radical left grappled in the 1960s. Will we be ready? They weren’t. The New Left was greatly weakened by its underdeveloped politics, a situation prepared in North America by the anti-communism and repression of the post-war decades. Because they were not theoretically equipped and had not built the political means required to take advantage of the upturn that everywhere exploded with mighty force before diffusing as though nothing had happened, the New Left was a generation that found its destiny and then betrayed it. The debt we owe them is to not repeat their mistakes.
For the future of the anti-war movement, part of our dialectical image must be found in the sordid history of the anti-globalization movement. The tragedy is that we have not yet had a Québec City against the war. The farce is that such a possibility has been unthinkable, both for the united front and for those anti-capitalist activists who refuse to engage it.