The tension within the anti-war movement between the declining pacifist tendencies, the “anti-imperial solidarity” tendencies, and everyone in between has pretty much played out in favor of the second grouping. The prevailing notion in the movement is that while nonviolent methods are appropriate for action the industrialized countries, we must understand the necessity for violent struggle on the international front and therefor not just the reactions of the oppressed to their circumstances based upon our own privileged realities.
I became active while in high school and I sided squarely with the “solidarity” wing. Violence in the Wallersteinian “core” was imprudent, but necessary on the periphery. We championed the cause of the military resistance in El Salvador, while opposing our own military policies. There were elements which didn’t share the agenda, and I met a very articulate representative in seeking draft resistance counseling from the CCCO. The woman pointed out that FMLN buttons were frequently adorned at demonstrations, but few knew anything about FDR, the actual political organization of resistance which was actually organizing and arguing the need for change unarmed, and thus more vulnerable to right wing death squad aggression. Why did we rarely hear about them, when their mortality rate was much higher than the guerrilla fighter in the countryside? I think a lot of it had to do with the romanticization in the afterglow of the 1960s publication of Revolution in the Revolution and a dozen or so movies made by film makers like Costa Gavras and Gillo Pontecorvo.
The bulk of demonstrations I attended during the 1980s were dominated by the self-defined “radical” or “revolutionary” crowd. But the anti-nuclear crowd was a little more grounded in practical politics and reality, and was more heavily influenced by the peace tendency. I was introduced to the intra-movement conflict when I became involved with the June 12th Coalition, organized for the Geneval Disarmament Talks and calling for a bilateral nuclear freeze. The “radicals” wanted to broaden the agenda of the San Francisco march to include among other things opposition to intervention in El Salvador. Despite stacking meetings and disrupting that actual work of organizing, the majority in the coalition kept the focus and over 100 thousand marched from Dolores Park to the Civic Center instead of the usual suspects of a few thousand ineffectual radicals which characterized the majority of demos I’d attended.
I was in my second year of college in the fall of 1983 when President Reagan ordered the invasion of the small island-nation of Grenada (slightly less populated than Humboldt County today). It came as no surprise to me as I had been paying close attention to the politics around Grenada, and I was actually planning a visit to Grenada with some fellow students for the following summer. The military had already rattled Grenadian nerves with naval maneuvers the spring before, and the poli sci professors had been warning us that the invasion was imminent, with some conservative students scoffing at the “conspiracy theories” then pouncing on the necessity of the invasion when it did happen in a manner reminiscent of the immediate transition of consciousness in Orwell’s 1984 when Big Brother suddenly switched enemies. The week prior to the invasion had been depressing enough, with Maurice Bishop being overthrown and killed by a more radical faction and creating perfect conditions for invasion both militarily and politically. The invasion took place one day following the truck-bombing of American soldiers in Lebanon killing several hundred. I remember hearing about it and a number of us converged on the television lounge at Merrill College. Several female students were already there waiting for a soap opera. They were immediately resistant to changing the channel, but as as the preemption announcement came on they got up and left, tossing some obscenities in our direction as if it was our fault. We spent the better part of the rest of the day staring at the screen in disbelief. It had been our first headlines invasion since Vietnam, not including relatively minor incursions into the Middle East and Africa.
As you may remember, the war lasted a week. The Grenadian defense itself pretty much collapsed on the first day, and the US military spent the rest of the week subduing about 500 well-trained angry Cubans. We didn’t learn most of the details for months afterward, but just enough to trigger that above-described radical romance factor in young middle class leftists. A group of us decided to head up to Oakland on the following weekend for a demonstration. It was raining by the time we arrived and there was talk of cancelling the demonstration, but one woman vehemently objected: “our brothers and sisters are facing bullets while we’re afraid of raindrops!” Needless to say the demonstration went forward as planned, and we marched through downtown chanting the usual mindless “hey heys” and “ho ho’s.” But the invasion wasn’t stopping, and it had the support of about 90 percent of the population, most of whom had never heard of Grenada prior. I was on a kind of autopilot and wondered what had become of the Grenadans which had come to speak at UCSC the prior school year. The Spartacus League, the RCP, the CWP, all the regular groups were there pushing their papers. The placards were filled with words like “murder,” “butchers,” and “CIA.” It was business as usual and it felt futile if not counterproductive.
I don’t remember any prowar demonstrators at that particular event, although a group of Moonies would counter-demonstrate an SF event a few weeks later. However on one corner in Oakland we passed by two women holding signs advertising a “peaceful protest” for the following day. They ignored the scattered boos. I gave them a mild smile and tepid wave just trying to be civil and they nodded nervously without smiling. It’s one of those moments in time I wish I could have back so I could leave the march and join them. But like my fellow marchers I was pretty pissed off, and while the stupidity of some of the slogans were making me cringe, I wasn’t in the mood for nonviolence. It didn’t seem to me at the time that it was what the Grenadians would want from us. On the other hand, with Bernard Coard’s military coup, there hadn’t been much about the Grenadian revolution to defend anyway. It was a pretty gray moment for me.
They might not have had an immediate impact on me, but a few of my fellow Santa Cruz students had been put off by the tone of the demonstration and the slogans. While everyone around us was chanting some angry thing or another, several of the women in our group started singing John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance. One of the demo monitors came over and tried to get them to engage the chant in conformance with the rest of the crowd. The women ignored them until the guy accosted them and accused them of disruption. Seriously. I wasn’t in the mood for joining the argument and picked up the pace to get to the destination, some park downtown. We all sat on the grass; listened to a couple of very predictable speeches which quickly spread from the invasion of Grenada to the wars in Central America, the occupation of Lebanon, racism in America, the need for workers to be organized, the right to an abortion; etc.; then headed back to Santa Cruz.
I’m just gathering my thoughts in this narrative. I’m not trying to make any big philosophical arguments. In some of the discussions about the antiwar movement in these threads I’ve been called everything from a “Zionist” (for the record, I’m not) to a “neoconservative” (not even close) from one side, and a “socialist” (not even sure what the word means anymore) or something equivalently predictable from the other side. Rather than argue the labels, I’m just going to lay out some key moments in the progression of my world views. I don’t think they’re coherent enough to warrant any sort of “ism” at this point in my life. But I got pretty jaded on the left very early on, though I would still consider myself a leftist for most practical purposes.
So I’m going to post a series of accounts mostly in free form. Maybe I’ll tie it all together at some point. I’m not necessarily going in chronological order. And I’m not necessarily going to wrap up each such post with a tidy message about how the left ought to be. But during the 1980s, I actually went through a brief period where I questioned everything I believed and explored right wing groups and perspectives. Ultimately I settled back into a leftist view, but I did and do see things from a different view. When I see some of the “anti-corporate,” “anti-Zionist,” and other views which come across to me as dogmatic, I’m not making any profound judgments. I was there. I understand where you’re coming from. Sometimes I still feel the way you do. But the left, by any definition, has been wrong on some very big issues. A left wing political philosophy sans any checks and balances in a number of countries was responsible for millions of deaths. We can debate the numbers or whether the philosophy itself was inherently responsible for those deaths rather than the particular circumstances, but the fact of the matter is, the American left, by any definition, mostly soft-pedaled those horrors, including the small scale carnage which preceded the Grenadian invasion in 1983. The calls to bring Coard and Austin to justice the week prior to the invasion disappeared as soon as the US was involved. And yes, I agree that the situation should have been left to the Grenadians to solve on their own. The point is, it wasn’t even a topic of conversation a week later except for some activists who argued that the coup had been a CIA set-up, though the mechanism was never made clear. They needed clarity, not ambiguity or nuance. And cognitive dissonance won the day, as it so often does. And I think it’s a tragedy, for the possibilities a saner left might offer. But unfortunately, former KPFA manager Pat Scott’s comments I think ring true: “we had the old left, then the new left, and now we have the what’s left.” I’m not quite so glum about it, but I really do think that the left has abandoned critical thinking to its peril. If there’s any overall point to these threads and my radio show, that’s it.
I close this particular session by telling you that I became very intimate with some right wing politics, and my ultimate failure to drift into any of those camps had as much to do with disappointing similarities as differences. I’ll probably get into that at some point as well.
Feel free to argue any points, make suggestions, ask questions, etc. But I’m particularly curious to know if any of my experiences are similar to your own and I’d like you to elaborate.