A Strategy for Antiwar Organizing

— David Grosser

“[P]olitics begin where millions of men and women are; where there are not thousands but millions…” (V.I. Lenin, “Political Report Of The Central Committee” Extraordinary Seventh Congress of the R.C.P.(B.) March 7, 1918 http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/7thcong/01.htm)

ACCORDING TO A recent CNN poll, “American support for the war in Afghanistan has never been lower” and “only 37% of all Americans favor the war, [while] 52% say the war in Afghanistan has turned into a Vietnam.” (http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2010/10/15/what-the-numbers-say-about-progress-in-afghanistan/)

Fifty-two percent of the adult U.S. population is around 120,000,000 people! Generalizing about such a massive group is risky, but it’#8221;s safe to say whatever their differences, 98% of that vast antiwar public has never participated in any activity organized by the antiwar movement.

Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the various national antiwar coalitions have occasionally mobilized up to one to two million people (one to two percent of the current antiwar public) to attend national protest actions. Impressive as that was, it was insufficient during the Bush years to seriously challenge the government’#8221;s conduct of the Iraq war. The movement had promising beginnings, but it lacked staying power.

Recent turnouts have not come close to those of the early years of the Iraq occupation. Throughout the Bush era, participation continually declined, despite temporary up-ticks. And as public mobilization dwindled, so did the morale and energy of rank-and-file antiwar activists.

There is a paradox here: The organized antiwar movement’#8221;s effectiveness declined, even while public opinion polls showed that antiwar sentiment among the public as a whole grew steadily. A weak and dispirited antiwar movement in the midst of a general public mood of triumph and support for the government’#8221;s military adventures — as occurred in the earliest days of the Iraq occupation — would be understandable. But a movement which declines while opportunities for growth are becoming more favorable is a peculiar one indeed.

Now that Obama has shown his hand by escalating in Afghanistan, the public will again be open to hearing an antiwar message. The Democrats’#8221; losses in the recent election show that Obama-mania has worn thin and can no longer explain the movement’#8221;s paralysis. Finally, a public suffering from the worst economic crisis in a generation, angry at government indifference to their plight and aware of the decline in the American Empire, is a public that will be open to hearing what the antiwar movement has to say.

Therefore, anyone concerned with re-building the antiwar movement should make their highest priority developing a realistic strategy to organize those unorganized and inactive millions. The converse is also true. Without an organizing effort that reaches those new people and builds for the long haul, we don’#8221;t have a prayer of defeating the most massive war machine in history.

An Unsparing Evaluation

We desperately need an unsparing evaluation of past efforts and a sober strategy equal to the enormity of the tasks ahead. Yet the latest incarnation of the antiwar movement, arising out of the United National Antiwar Conference (UNAC) held in Albany NY from July 23-25, 2010 shows no inclination to rethink the movement’#8221;s Bush-era strategy, nor to seriously consider alternatives to what has already proven inadequate.

The conference brought together most of the surviving organizations that have been organizing against the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations for the last eight years, including the remnants of United for Peace and Justice, the National Assembly Against War and Occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan, Code Pink, International Action Center — 31 groups in all). It can be taken as representative of antiwar movement thinking in the current period.(1)

UNAC passed an “Action Program” comprising 28 points but its major action priority boils down to another round of (hopefully) mass demonstrations.(2) This fall, they called for “local and regional protests to commemorate the ninth anniversary of the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan” during the week of October 7-16. Clearly, the centerpiece of UNAC’#8221;s program is to hold “mass spring mobilizations in New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles on April 9, 2011.”

As I write, October 7-16 has passed and even in those large cities where protests were organized (my hometown of Boston was not one of them) turnouts rarely topped 1,000. Is there any possibility that the planned April actions will have a less disappointing outcome? They may draw more than recent national mobilizations.(3) But why expect a different outcome from those of the past?

By essentially repeating past strategies, UNAC cannot hope for anything other than what past antiwar mobilizations achieved — possibly a short-lived increase in activity, but one grossly insufficient to bring any decisive pressure to bear on the government or sustain the movement over the longer term.

It’#8221;s time to face the hard facts — exclusive reliance on mass demos has failed. Please don’#8221;t misunderstand: I am not saying that mass mobilizations are never an appropriate tactic. But they are only a tactic, one among many that range from writing letters to the editor to civil disobedience or a general strike.

Tactics, mass demos included, are a means to accomplish an end — in this case, most importantly, forcing the United States to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan. Tactics cannot become ends in themselves, which they became in most past practice of the preceding antiwar formations.

This can be illustrated if we ask the question — how will mass demos force U.S. withdrawal? Or asking the same question in another way: “How big a demo do we need to organize to get the United States out of Afghanistan?” To ask this seemingly naïve question exposes the strategy’#8221;s weakness. The answer is clear — there is no conceivable demonstration (or stand-alone tactic of any kind) big enough to force U.S. withdrawal from Iraq or Afghanistan.

Do Demos Build the Movement?

Most mass demo proponents would concede that point. I imagine that they would respond that, implemented correctly, each action could build on the preceding. Becoming bigger, more diverse and militant, catalyzing further erosion of public support for Obama’#8221;s policies and drawing more people into action, eventually these demos would force the administration to disengage from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ashley Smith, an International Socialist Organization (ISO) antiwar movement leader, articulated that vision in 2008. Addressing an antiwar conference he argued, “demonstrations help to build the base of the movement.” Admitting that “in and of themselves, demonstrations are not adequate...,” nevertheless, “they are a decisive component for building organization for even more militant struggle.”(4)

Yet these positive organizational effects have not occurred; past mass demos did not leave the movement any stronger after each mobilization. Why not?

Most importantly, mass demos do very little to bring the unaffiliated into the movement for any longer than the time they spend at the demo itself. Most attend as individuals, and the demo experience does nothing to get them involved in ongoing organizing. They travel in small groups, hang there with their friends, buy a few t-shirts or buttons, ignore the speeches, then leave — as uninvolved and loosely connected to ongoing organizing as before.

For whatever reason, antiwar organizations, whether local or national, have not made it their priority to bring loosely affiliated demo participants into any ongoing organization. As a result, it didn’#8221;t happen.

Moreover, only a very slim proportion of the potential antiwar public (remember that 52% of the population?) is likely to attend anyway. Not only do they need the political/psychological disposition — at the very least, the motivation that the demo will do some good — but they also need the financial and other resources to enable them to make the trip. Needless to say, the more they deviate from the mainstream of the movement — whether the difference is of class, ethnicity, “culture,” geography (living far from urban protest centers), immigration status or whatever — the less likely they are to attend a mass demo.

These weaknesses placed an upper limit on the number of people willing or able to participate in mass demos. At the outset of the Iraq occupation, Bush’#8221;s outrages and the novelty of the demos created an upward momentum. But when the occupation became somewhat routinized and when demos seemed to have little impact, attendance declined.

Once momentum began to flag, there was very little that the movement could do to reverse the slide. As noted, it had no realistic plan to reach that massive antiwar but not “protest prone” public. And since most of the past demo participants were not involved in the organized movement, the movement had limited ways to reach them as well.

Unorganized antiwar protesters made their decision to attend (or not attend) any particular mobilization privately with no contact with the movement. With no face-to-face contact, the movement could not overcome “the surge is working” or “demonstrations are ineffective” propaganda that the mainstream media assiduously promoted.

As demos seemed to have no positive effect, attendance dwindled and declining morale on the part of activists was all but inevitable. The result of this vicious circle: smaller demonstrations and an activist core going through the motions.

This time has to be different. Here are some basic points about a more realistic strategy to rebuild the antiwar movement.(5)

Make Organizing a Priority

Aaron Hughes of Iraq Veterans Against the War pinpoints the issue clearly. “The peace movement is not about base-building; It’#8221;s about messaging. There is a difference.” (quoted in Christine Ahn “The Day After October 2: Grassroots, Long-Term and Big Tent”http://www.war-times.org/node/106)

He’#8221;s right — based on antiwar organizing meetings that I’#8221;ve been to in the Boston area, the biggest debate is always around the correct wording of the demands while discussion about how to effectively take those demands to the widest audience is a perpetual afterthought.(6) The situation needs to be precisely the reverse.

Broadening the movement will require two different processes — winning back those who participated at one time but have dropped out, and motivating the broad sector of the population that has never participated at all to get involved. The movement must make its highest priority incorporating new forces, creating and strengthening structures for the long haul, and developing leadership among rank and file activists.

Yes, mass demos and other tactics are important ways to press for the end of the war — but without a conscious strategy, and a major commitment of human and material resources to break down the boundaries that keep people from joining (or rejoining) the movement, the current small active minority will not involve enough people to make a difference.

Whatever tactical program the movement is advancing, active local antiwar committees must be the cornerstone of this effort. Reaching the uninvolved can only be accomplished locally The antiwar “silent majority” are not going to DC, and neither are the former activists. We have to reach them at home (neighborhoods, schools, churches, workplaces, etc).

Nor will the uninvolved be recruited by handing them a leaflet at the bus stop or posting a flyer in the laundromat. Despite their opposition to the wars, they have significant cultural differences and political disagreements with the movement.

Breaking down the barriers to their involvement requires strong local organizing, because it’#8221;s not an “act” of recruitment but rather a “process” of recruitment, incorporation and consolidation that has to unfold over time in the communities where people live. It will mean dialogue that will be a learning process for both organizers and the uninvolved antiwar public.

Develop a Realistic Strategy

Ultimately, most participants felt that the mass demonstrations didn’#8221;t work and stopped participating. (Of course, the same is true for a much larger section of the public who thinks that protesting is ineffective and never got involved in the first place). Most of those people will not get involved until they think that the antiwar movement can actually be successful.

Hence it is incumbent on the movement to develop a strategy that has a plausible chance of succeeding. It should be clear that I don’#8221;t think mass demos should be the sum total of that strategy, but even those who favor it should make their goals and timeline explicit. What steps can we take, and on what timeline, in order to organize mass demos powerful enough to force the U.S. government to disengage from Iraq and Afghanistan?

Whatever strategy and program the antiwar movement adopts, the results expected must be made clear — to pressure someone, to influence some group as part of a plan to affect policy or to concretely limit the government’#8221;s capacity to make war.

From One-Shot Actions to Campaigns

Let’#8221;s be honest — there is no magic tactic that will enable us to end the wars quickly. In order to carry out a long-haul struggle, we need to systematically build our strength. And in order to implement a strategy of that type, the antiwar movement needs to move from actions to campaigns.

A campaign is a series of actions (rather than one stand-alone action) that are employed over a set period of time and designed to achieve a specific goal. They have a beginning and an end, and success or failure can be evaluated with the lessons applied in the future.

Since no magic program can end the wars in six months, campaigns will have to be based on a strategy of what can be done to strengthen the movement within a given time period in order to be stronger the next time. Furthermore, they should be designed to accomplish too-often-ignored organizational as well as political objectives.

We must not have illusions that there will be unanimity behind any strategy at this point. So an important task is to create a national forum where wide-ranging democratic discussion and debate can occur that can lead to a broader level of strategic unity. Could that kind of deep debate take place in UNAC? True, the Albany conference voted on program, but the plenaries lasted at most a few hours (sometimes discussing proposals that people have only just received), which certainly isn’#8221;t long enough.

By contrast, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), which has a much higher level of unity around its goals, spends several months debating proposals on the local chapter level before voting on them at biennial conventions. Without a similar extended, wide-ranging, democratic debate the movement cannot develop a real national strategy and therefore a unified program.

Build A Real National Organization

The wars are a national, not a local issue. Any demand to stop the wars will only be effective if it is advanced in more or less the same form around the country.

Assuming for example that it had been decided to pressure Congress, it’#8221;s clear that deepening of unity, accountability and coordination on the national/local level assumes great importance when we stop to consider what it will take to mount a credible campaign to cut funding for the war. To do so would require simultaneous activity in a majority of Congressional districts.

Only a national organization could undertake developing such a campaign. At the very least, it would surely require starting and strengthening organization in areas where the movement is weak or where the Congressperson is especially strategic or obstinate. Only a national organization could channel resources and support establishing fledgling committees in strategic areas.

Whatever kind of campaign the movement adopts, as I have already stressed, must rest on the activity of local committees. Dynamic local committees need resources and support that only a national organization can supply.

For example, a national organization could feasibly offer local committees a weekend-long workshop on organizing house-to-house canvassing, as well as developing resources, designing curriculum and hiring staff competent to lead such training.

Moreover, committees that take on serious campaigns to build local organization will need support in areas like analyzing their community (to set outreach priorities), developing their strategy, evaluation and trouble-shooting, etc. National organization will have to insure that support is available.

At this point the reader may be saying that the changes I’#8221;m proposing would build a stronger antiwar movement but are impossible to achieve. I admit that I’#8221;m calling for far-reaching change. But I’#8221;m not alone. I’#8221;m part of one experiment to re-direct the movement(7), and we have made contact with groups of “dissidents” from across the country with similar concerns.(8)

There’#8221;s a lot more to say but we should be saying it to each other in a forum designed to reach unity around a political program! The task may be daunting but the price of continued inaction is the continued disasters befalling the victims of U.S. imperialism. On the other hand the payoff from success will be huge: new activists, motivated by hope and energized by real gains in organizational strength, instead of a dispirited core going through the motions.

We’#8221;ll have stronger local committees more firmly rooted in the life of their communities, and new committees in areas where they have not existed. These committees and their national formations will have stronger leadership and activists will learn new skills, apply them to organizing realities and engage in a deeper process of long-term planning for the movement. Finally, this process will translate into stronger political unity, which will translate into more impact on the political system as a whole.

Fortunately (or unfortunately) there is time for experiment and trial and error in developing a new organizing model. U.S. imperialism is not going anywhere — at least not till it’#8221;s forced to. We have time but plenty of work to do.


  1. ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) participated in the conference but didn’#8221;t join in the organizing.
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  2. Most of the Action Program consists of points that clearly are not priorities and will receive little attention or resources. For instance, there are numerous endorsements of initiatives coordinated by others, like May 1 immigrant rights actions. Other points express commitment to call emergency actions in response to contingencies i.e. US or Israeli attack on Iran. Finally many simply express specific positions with no action attached—a call for Israel to release Mordechai Venunu from prison, for example. It reads like every motion proposed from the floor was passed without any consideration of UNAC’#8221;s priorities or capacity to do them all. The program can be found at http://www.nationalpeaceconference.org/Home_Page.html.
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  3. Organizers estimated turnout for the March 2010 DC mobilization at 10,000.
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  4. http://www.isreview.org/issues/60/feat-antiwarmove.shtml.
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  5. Given space restrictions, I can only briefly touch on a few themes here. I discuss “the kind of movement we need” more fully in a longer, unpublished essay. Email me necispes@speakeasy.net and I’#8221;ll send it to you. And here are a couple of suggestions of other places to look: Organizationally, CISPES has a lot to teach the antiwar movement. We have an “organizing manual” “Building Solidarity, Building Committees” (Unpublished, CISPES internal manual on organizational development, np, nd (1994)—Send me a large size self-addressed envelope and $2 and I’#8221;ll send you a photocopy of “Building Solidarity”—CISPES 2161 Mass Ave Cambridge MA 02140. A lot can also be learned from the practice of the left in the 1930s. Memoirs of veterans of the Communist Party, Socialist Workers Party and other organizations offer instructive and inspiring views of grass roots level organizing campaigns that, happily, are more readily available. Dorothy Healey and Maurice Isserman, California Red: A Life in the American Communist Party (University of Illinois Press, 1993), and Mark Naison Communists in Harlem in the Great Depression (University of Illinois Press, 2005) are good examples. Joe Allen gives a brief description of a successful, community based, campaign by the SWP to defend murder defendant James Hickman in the late 1940s. “’#8221;A Previously Unknown Individual’#8221;” International Socialist Review #66 July-August 2009, 62-70. Available on line at http://www.isreview.org/issues/66/feat-hickman.shtml.
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  6. And that hasn’#8221;t changed. A sympathetic observer reporting on a “regional antiwar conference” (held in New York City November 6) as a follow-up the UNAC meeting expressed concern that the conference “…was too jam-packed with speakers at the expense of discussion.” Not only discussion but planning also got cut out of the agenda. “The final organizing session, meant to initiate planning for a major demonstration on April 9 in New York City, had to be abbreviated. Hopefully, future meetings, especially those of the New York-based organizing committee, will leave greater time for discussion, feedback and democratic decision-making.” http://socialistworker.org/2010/11/10/antiwar-activists-gather. Agenda items often run long but it’#8221;s clear what the priority was here. 200 people were reportedly at this event—how many got recruited into concrete activity to build April 9? My guess (and it’#8221;s only a guess since I wasn’#8221;t there) is that it was not a priority of the organizers and didn’#8221;t happen. Yet how many other opportunities to gather 200 people together who want to help build April 9 will they have? You can read a report on the conference by UNAC’#8221;s co-chairs here http://phillyagainstwar.wordpress.com/2010/11/14/unac-report-on-november-6-regional-meeting-in-nyc/.
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  7. “The 25% Campaign—Starve the Military, Feed our Communities ” http://www.25percentsolution.com/index.html See also Christine Ahn “The Day After October 2: Grassroots, Long-Term and Big Tent”http://www.war-times.org/node/106.
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  8. For another indication of widespread re-thinking, see “Where To From Here” a special issue of WIN Magazine (Vol 25 Nos 2 & 3) based on interviews with 90 antiwar organizers on how to strengthen the movement. Many, though by no means all, express views similar to those expressed here. (available online at http://www.warresisters.org/node/392). One question that needs to be settled relatively quickly is whether any of the major national antiwar formations are capable of reform or if some new organization is needed.
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ATC 150, January-February 2011

attack on antiwar movement

Submitted by Andrew Pollack (not verified) on February 1, 2011 - 1:04pm.

David, the suggestions you recommend are good ones (except support for the reformist 25% campaign). ALL of them can be done within UNAC, and would be very valuable supplements to our mass action strategy (and vice versa!).
I hope you will encourage all your fellow activists to bring these campaigns to UNAC, and to support April 9th!
Andy Pollack
UNAC Coordinating Committee member (speaking only for myself, but I’m sure the rest of the CC would share these sentiments).

Anti-War as Anti-EMPIRE

Submitted by Alan MacDonald (not verified) on December 20, 2015 - 11:00am.

David, nice article but, it could be more effective if,

Here’s my simple chant for the limited ’single-issue’ anti-war movement —- which comports with Tom Brokaw’s national TV ’call-out’ on "Meet the Press" similar to Walter Cronkite’s ’68 truth-telling on Vietnam:

"Stop Acting Like a Fucking Global EMPIRE"

Surprisingly, Tom Brokaw is a strong natural ally of Bernie, and Tom could also help force Hillary out of the race for Democratic president —- just like another highly trusted old newsman, Walter Cronkite did to LBJ in ’68.

Here’s the amazing truth that Brokaw voiced 50 fucking years later (but without the expletive) on the usually quite establishment program "Meet the Press" just before Thanksgiving:

"TOM BROKAW: Well I agree, listen. You know, when Donald Trump talks about security or Ben Carson, we’re talking about
three-year-old orphans who are orphans and refugees because of American policy." [NBC transcript] —— the key phrase being ’because of American policy’.

So, "Greatest Generation’s" Tom Brokaw is unloading on the
big secret that it is "because of American policy" that things are so screwed up not only ’abroad’ but in the US —— just as Walter Cronkite told the American people the ugly truth that the Vietnam War was a deadly mistake and an imperialist war when he came back from Nam and leveled this charge at LBJ —- which forced him out of the race saying, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, we’ve lost the war.”

Now imagine what a surge for Bernie (AND the ANTI-War movement), and a nightmare for war-hawk Hillary, if NBC’s Brokaw had exposed the full truth saying:

"We’re talking about three-year-old orphans who are orphans and refugees because of the American policy of ACTING LIKE A FUCKING GLOBAL EMPIRE abroad and an economic tyranny at home"