Millions in the streets! …and here come the redbaiters
Adrienne Weller
volume 24
issue 1
April 2003
They've gone wild, simply wild, over radicals in the antiwar movement. It's downright intriguing. Who are these agitated folks, and what has them in such a flap?
Cold War echoes. In January, Michael Kelly, a far-right columnist for the Moonie-owned Washington Times, attacked the explosively growing antiwar movement as the dupe of International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism). ANSWER, a coalition spearheaded by the Workers World Party (WWP), has organized many of the largest protests to date.

Wrote Kelly, "The left marches with the Stalinists … with those who would maintain in power the leading oppressors of humanity… It marches with … former Black Panther Charles Baron, who said … 'if you're looking for the axis of evil, look inside the belly of this beast.'"

Where the right wing leads, a small band of redbaiting liberals are following. Among them are professor Todd Gitlin, trading on his anti-Vietnam War past, and three present or former writers for The Nation, Marc Cooper, David Corn, and Christopher Hitchens. A few cases in point:

Justifying the reluctance of top labor officials to get involved in the movement, Cooper disparaged huge October rallies in New York City and Washington, D.C., as "dominated by a small, sectarian Stalinist group, the WWP" and "tinged with an anti-Americanism."

Together with Terry Gross of National Public Radio, Gitlin bemoaned that the movement raises "goofy" and "freakish" issues such as poverty, racism, homelessness, and the Palestinian struggle.

The Palestinian issue is a red flag for Corn as well, who has implied that critics of Israel's U.S.-backed occupation of Palestine are anti-Semitic — a common smear against those who support justice for Palestinians.

In February, Michael Lerner of the liberal Jewish magazine Tikkun wrote a Wall Street Journal guest piece called "Anti-War Anti-Semites." In it, he falsely claimed that he was banned from speaking at a February rally in San Francisco because he supports Israel (a charge repeated by the widely syndicated writer Molly Ivins). In fact, event organizers declined to ask him to speak because of public attacks he too had made against ANSWER.

Just say "Maybe!" to war. Cooper, Corn, and Gitlin represent themselves as of the antiwar persuasion, offering nothing but helpful advice to the people in the streets opposing Bush's campaigns of mass destruction. But this is phony.

Reciting the Democratic Party line, all three accepted the "necessity" of the invasion of Afghanistan. And they may be against war on Iraq for the moment, but they leave the door open should circumstances shift. Give the UN inspectors time to do their job, they say; the U.S. shouldn't "rush" into war.

But what would make carnage for profit acceptable to them? Another six months? The approval of the UN? France? A poll showing that 80 percent of people in the U.S. support it? Ninety percent?

Knowing that their own opposition to war against Iraq is highly conditional and subject to change helps to make sense of their criticisms of the radical leadership in the movement — broadsides that clearly seem designed to scare people away from participating.

Lacking the guts to challenge the political system, the redbaiters seek to disrupt the movement.

What's eating David Corn. As for the charges against Workers World Party and ANSWER: there's plenty of room for legitimate criticism of these groups, but the reasons for the attacks against them have more to do with their virtues than their faults.

It's true that WWP is Stalinist. Politically, this means that they do offer nearly unqualified support for highly repressive regimes targeted by the U.S., such as that of Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

In the movements, WWP has tended to maneuver for control at the expense of working collaboratively with other groups and sharing decision-making and policy-setting power with the people drawn to its coalitions. This has been the case in ANSWER.

Just recently, however, ANSWER did endorse a major antiwar intervention planned by another movement group, United for Peace and Justice. One can hope for increased cooperation to come.

Regardless, it's the good things WWP and ANSWER do that have Corn and the rest so steamed. Standing up for the Palestinians; opposing racism and the attack on civil liberties at home; demanding justice for political prisoners like Mumia Abu-Jamal; and connecting these issues to what the U.S. military is doing abroad: this is what drives the right wing, liberals, and once-upon-a-time leftists into a frenzy.

And worst of all, from their point of view, tens and hundreds of thousands of people are turning out for ANSWER's rallies. These demonstrators seem to actually want to be part of a militant movement!

For the redbaiters, this state of affairs is anathema. Wrote Corn, in an exercise in wishful thinking: "Sure the commies can rent buses and obtain parade permits, but if they have a say in the message, as they have had, the antiwar movement is going to have a tough time signing up non-lefties."

Radicals to the root of the problem. Radicals are indeed some of the best movement organizers around — but their most important responsibility is precisely to offer and argue for their ideas.

When they're doing their job right, socialists explain how war, racism, sexism, injustice, poverty, and exploitation on the job are organically bound up together, and they point to a common cause: a system driven by private profit. This does not weaken the movement, but strengthens it.

For one thing, a multi-issue approach attracts people often marginalized in the movements as well as society, but whose passion and commitment can provide the movement with tireless leaders and troops.

Moreover, radicals illuminate the goal beyond stopping whatever military assault is currently taking place. This both fortifies the movement and threatens the warmongers. Let's not forget that it was the growing radicalism of the movement against the Vietnam War that, along with the successes of the Viet Cong, forced the U.S. government to pull out.

To stop a war, huge numbers of people in the streets are important — but are not, by themselves, enough. The people in power have to know that the people in the streets mean business: that the survival of the system is at stake.

Inclusiveness key. Many individuals and groups, including the Freedom Socialist Party, have condemned the redbaiting of WWP and ANSWER. And, although Corn et al. have stirred up a buzzing hornets' nest in the media, their redbaiting doesn't seem to be having much of an effect in the movement.

But their game is a dangerous one.

Redbaiting drove radicals out of the union movement in the 1930s and '40s, a blow to the fighting spirit of organized labor from which it has not recovered even yet. In the 1940s and '50s, thousands of people in all professions had their lives ruined because someone called them a red. The deep freeze of the McCarthy era was finally broken by the drive and determination of the civil rights movement, which numbered many radicals in its ranks.

We can't let McCarthyism destroy our movements once again. For the antiwar mobilization to succeed, it needs to be an inclusive, democratic movement, where Trotskyists, Stalinists, other socialists, anarchists, pacifists, and liberals can debate their differing ideas about how to end this war and all wars while marching together, united, against the death machine.