A Strategy for Antiwar Organizing

Grosser, David

Publisher:  Against the Current
Date Written:  01/01/2011
Year Published:  2011  
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX12434

There is a paradox here: The organized antiwar movement’s effectiveness has declined, even while public opinion polls showed that antiwar sentiment among the public as a whole has grown steadily. A movement which declines while opportunities for growth are becoming more favourable is a peculiar one indeed.



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't have a prayer of defeating the most massive war machine in history. We desperately need an unsparing evaluation of past efforts and a sober strategy equal to the enormity of the tasks ahead.


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’s time to face the hard facts-- exclusive reliance on mass demos has failed. Please don’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'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.

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’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."

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'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’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.


Aaron Hughes of Iraq Veterans Against the War pinpoints the issue clearly. "The peace movement is not about base-building; It’s about messaging. There is a difference."

He’s right — based on antiwar organizing meetings that I'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. 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.


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’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.

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