The September 11 terrorist attack and the Bush administration’s response is a defining historical moment, ushering in a new and dangerous period in international politics.
The terrorist actions were crimes against humanity, and the perpetrators should be brought to justice under international law. But that is not Washington’s goal. Rather, the administration’s agenda is to entrench the national security state and achieve a new level of international dominance on the basis of an open-ended “global war on terrorism,” bringing the “new world order” to fruition. Washington’s offensive is really a crusade against anyone it designates as an enemy, with numerous practitioners of terrorism enlisted on Washington’s side.
All this has thrown progressives deeply on the defensive. But with each passing day there are more openings to influence public opinion and even revitalize popular movements and the left, if we are both bold and careful.
Bush’s “war on terrorism” and the fight against it is now the central political axis for all social struggles and the lightning rod for all ideological debate. The alignment of forces, demands, and outcomes of all popular battles will be affected by this pivotal issue.
This creates great dangers. But because of the across-the-board, long-term character of the administration’s program, it also means that huge constituencies are thrown into potential opposition as they defend their interests. This lays the basis for broadening the antiwar movement, and also for stronger and more interconnected movements of all oppressed sectors on a variety of issues.
Internationally, the administration has set itself grandiose objectives: Wipe out Al-Qaeda and all other terrorist or allegedly terrorist groups. Replace the current Afghan government and threaten if not attack several others. Support Israel and buttress dictatorial Arab regimes but avoid antagonizing the entire Muslim world and the global South. Keep together a fractious international coalition while maintaining unilateral decision-making authority and undermining all international institutions.
As civilian casualties mount in Afghanistan and as the problems in walking this tightrope mount, antiwar sentiment is spreading worldwide, and apprehension if not yet outright opposition is growing in the United States.
Intensification of racism is thoroughly intertwined with Washington’s war. As in every crisis, war and racism play the cutting-edge roles in the U.S. elite’s assault. The brunt of attack is aimed at innocent people of color the Afghans who are being demonized as terrorists or terrorist supporters and whose lives are dispensable. Bush’s unipolar world order is based on supremacy of a U.S.-led white West against colored enemies, even though some Third World governments are included as junior partners.
Domestically, the administration’s shameless assault on all popular sectors likewise has racism at the pivot. The savaging of civil liberties comes down hardest on Arab, South Asian, Muslim and other immigrant communities. Boosting the military budget at the expense of social programs also hits hardest at people of color, as does bailing out the rich while offering only austerity to workers and the poor. The re-legitimation of racial profiling is nakedly racist.
Manipulating genuine fears about personal security, wrapping itself in the flag and promising a “fortress America” modeled on gated affluent white communities, the administration has so far been able to roll over all opposition. But even a few elite voices are beginning to argue that Bush’s extremism may backfire, and among the millions in the administration’s class and racial gunsights his political honeymoon will not last forever.
Furthermore, judged by its stated goal of stopping terrorism, Bush’s war will prove ineffective. The anthrax bio-terror and the government’s class-biased, racist and generally bungled response is the first of more fiascos to come.
For the left, this means that if we reach out broadly and craft our messages correctly, we can help galvanize large sectors and gain many allies. We must avoid all tendencies to self-isolate. It would be disastrous to stick to “same old, same old,” hold “small but militant” demonstrations and expect others to come to us. We must jar ourselves loose from thinking that our prime immediate task is to hold up anti-imperialist politics within the antiwar movement. Rather, our problem is that almost everyone currently mobilizing is already at least implicitly anti-imperialist, and we must find ways to involve millions far beyond our own ranks.
Strategically, the fight for peace must be the central demand for the people’s movements over the next period. We must shed all tendencies to see peace as a merely a liberal issue. Rather, it is central to the overall anti-imperialist agenda, and it is simultaneously our entryway to advance that overall agenda. Its main content is that of staying the hand of Washington’s war and fighting US militarism in all its forms.
But, the central demand to end the war needs to be creatively linked to all other issues and struggles, which now take place in this new and dangerous context. The challenge is to grasp concretely the new intersections and relationships between war and racism, and between war and racism on the one hand and all other issues. How gender violence is linked to war and racism, how war and racism destroy the environment, the effect of war and racism on the economy all these become crucial. We need to re-strategize each ongoing struggle so that it becomes part of the fight against the war on terrorism, and also so that the antiwar fightback strengthens struggles on all fronts.
With this framework we can effectively approach, work with (and within) peace, international solidarity, religious, anti-globalization, student and civil rights groups. And we can contribute to the antiwar involvement and general strengthening of popular organizations that have up to now tended to eschew international issues.
It is urgent to build the broadest possible coalitions of all who desire peace and freedom. These coalitions will be strongest and most lasting to the extent that they are anchored by communities of color, labor, women, lesbians/gays and other oppressed sectors. Building the unity and fighting capacity of these sectors is critical. However, students, youth, religious folk, and intellectuals also have key roles to play, and their movements may sometimes be more advanced than others, as we saw during the anti-Vietnam War movement.
Overall, our orientation should be to look outward, to spearhead large-scale education campaigns, to work to get government bodies on record for peace and against attacks on Arabs and South Asians, and to take advantage of every crack in the pro-war consensus among elite power-brokers and opinion-makers.
In the process it is crucial to avoid substituting sloganeering or rhetoric for concrete analysis, and to refrain from apocalyptic predictions. We need to address rapidly changing conditions in a timely fashion, deal in serious ways with genuine fears about security, and avoid prematurely polarizing with potential allies.
If the left can make headway at this, we may be able to break out of our longstanding isolation as well as contribute significantly to the mass fightback. Though the left is collectively weak, there are probably more self-identified leftists doing political work full-time than ever before, mostly in non-profit organizations and the labor movement, some in academia. Many more work unpaid in the social movements. The strength of the left is its holistic approach, its internationalism, its ability to grapple with the intersections between different forms of oppression, and its strategic political sense. If we can bring these to bear in this new period, we can make a critical contribution to the antiwar and other movements and greatly expand the influence of the left.
*This essay is adapted from presentations kicking off a series of strategic discussions among left activists in the San Francisco Bay Area; for copies e-mail <firstname.lastname@example.org>.