Anti-War Movement Builds

With huge demonstrations reminiscent of Vietnam-era protests, the movement against war on Iraq is starting to make its mark. In late October, over 100,000 people marched in Washington, D. C. in an action larger than any that occurred during the 1991 military assault on Iraq. Then, in early November, half a million protesters lined the streets of Florence, Italy in one of the largest demonstrations that country has ever seen. On the weekend of November 16-17, anti-war protests also took place in at least 26 cities and towns in Canada, the largest of them a march of 10,000 in Vancouver.

Several inspiring things stand out about this emerging anti-war movement. First, it is drawing in many people – high school students, parents, union members, people affiliated with churches and mosques – who have never before attended a protest rally. This gives the movement a unique diversity. Describing the October demonstration of 100,000, the Washington Post, for instance, noted that “‘Nebraskans for Peace’ and ‘Hoosiers for Non-Violence’ chanted alongside silver-coifed retirees from Chicago and a Muslim student organisation from Michigan. Parents could be seen enjoying a sunny, picnic- perfect afternoon by pushing a stroller with one hand and carrying a ‘No War for Oil’ sign with the other.”

Secondly, the burgeoning anti-war movement is drawing in a wide layer of young people. Protesters in their early teens are common at these events. At the November 16 march in Toronto large contingents of high school students turned out, sporting colourful banners, puppets and placards.

Thirdly, the new movement is becoming highly politicised. Discussions of Palestinian rights, US policy toward the Middle East and the role of oil interests are widespread, producing a deepening analysis of the Western governments’ drive to war.

Finally, the movement is throwing off the defeatism that has been all too common in North America since the US and Canadian governments cynically exploited the events of September 11, 2001 in order to roll-back civil rights and repress social protest. Refusing to give in to the climate of intimidation, anti-war actions are lively, festive and celebratory. As a 27 year-old Greek activist told reporters at the monster demo in Florence, “The atmosphere here is wonderful. Absolutely perfect. It shows that a new young left is emerging.”


That upbeat and defiant attitude will be necessary during the challenging weeks and months ahead. It is almost certain that Bush will launch a devastating military assault on Iraq – regardless of what the UN weapons inspectors report. Indeed, one high-ranking White House official has already admitted as much. Richard Perle, a top White House security adviser, told members of the British parliament that even if the UN weapon inspectors give Iraq a “clean bill of health,” the US military would still invade. According to the Mirror, a major British newspaper, many British MPs were shocked. “This makes a mockery of the whole process and exposes America’s real determination to bomb Iraq,” complained former Defence Minister Peter Kilfoyle.

The Bush administration’s determination to unleash its war machine on Iraq raises the stakes for the anti-war movement. In order to stop this war, either before it begins, or once it has started, we will need to move from mobilisations of thousands to tens of thousands, and from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. Only an enormous protest movement, one capable of setting in motion a massively disruptive campaign of protest and civil disobedience, will be capable of putting an end to the cruel and barbaric war on Iraq.

For this reason, it is vital to learn from the successes of past movements and from those tactics which are most effective today if we are to carry our movement into more schools, workplaces, communities, unions, churches and mosques.


Nobody has a recipe book for building a mass movement. Nevertheless, the history of movement building makes a number of things quite clear. First, outreach is crucial. It is vital that the movement produces materials – leaflets, buttons, T-shirts, pamphlets, videos – that provide popular education against the war. Such materials can be used to organise meetings and discussion groups to better inform people as to what is at stake, and why.

Secondly, public action is essential. Protest movements have to claim public space. Mass rallies and marches are indispensable in this regard as they allow anti-war activists to overcome their isolation and unite in collective demonstrations of solidarity and commitment. But, since it is impossible to hold well-organised mass rallies every week, it is equally important that other sorts of actions take place between periodic mass rallies. Smaller actions, based in communities or at workplaces or schools can provide an accessible context for people to become involved in anti-war activism. In fact, a dynamic movement needs a wide-range of locally, decentralised events along with periodic mass actions that bring large sections of the movement together.

Among such local actions, public leafleatings, community and campus teach-ins, public lectures with keynote speakers, conference panels and workshops, and “die-ins” in public spaces to dramatise the impact of the war on the civilians in Iraq, can all be especially effective movement-building tactics. Events such as these provide a wide variety of opportunities for people to find a place for themselves within the movement and to experience the radicalising effects of self-activity (as opposed to more passive forms of support). Forms of direct action, including ones that target corporations complicit in the war, MP offices or army recruitment sites, will also be important for disrupting the very implementation of state policy and for strengthening the political leverage of the mass movement.

A dynamic mass movement must also constantly expand its core of activists – those thousands of dedicated people who hand out leaflets, make speeches, write press releases, organise meetings in churches, schools, union halls and community centres, put up posters, and so on. And this is not possible without offering people a wide spectrum of forms of personal involvement and participation in the movement.


None of this is sustainable, however, unless the movement creates open and democratic coalitions that allow activists to actually shape the movement of which they are a part. The global justice movement has shown this with its creation of spokescouncils which, whatever their shortcomings, have provided participants with spaces in which to discuss, debate, strategize and direct their movement. The anti-war movement too needs forums for democratic discussion and collective planning.

So far, in Canada at least, the movement lags behind in this regard. The largest city in the country, Toronto, still lacks an open coalition dedicated to bringing anti-war individuals and organisations together into a democratic forum. It is no surprise, therefore, that the November 16 anti-war march in Toronto was only half the size of the demonstration the following day in Vancouver – despite the fact that Toronto has twice the population. The commitment of people to put in long hours building the movement and its events is directly related to their sense that they have a direct stake in shaping the movement at its core.

Open, dynamic and democratic coalitions provide a framework for the self- education and self-development of movement-builders. Without an ever-expanding core of activist-organisers, mass social movements cannot maintain the rate of growth necessary to success. And without direct participation in decision- making, activists grow cynical about the way progressive movements are organised. The corrective is a movement that practices a meaningful participatory democracy.

During the days of the campaign against the Vietnam War, most cities had coalitions of this sort. In Toronto, the Vietnam Mobilisation Committee, as it was called, held regular meetings of hundreds of people. Similar types of organisations were created during the 1991 war on Iraq. The new anti-war movement needs to move quickly to build democratic coalitions along these lines.


Equally vital is that the movement openly and aggressively proclaim its anti- racist commitments and politics. It is no secret that the Bush administration, like its predecessors, uses racist depictions of Muslims, Arabs, and people of colour generally in order to create nationalist war hysteria. Challenging the drive to war, therefore, will require anti-racist education and organising. Moreover, this means confronting structures of white domination, including the laws and ideologies of “national security” and “citizenship”, which are fundamental to western capitalist societies. And it means ensuring that activists from organisations and communities of colour are centrally involved in leading and shaping the movement.

The anti-war movement needs to adopt anti-racism as a vital part of its public campaign. Anti-racist politics must be foregrounded in the movement’s coalition titles, education materials, organising processes and tactical discussions. There are tens of thousands of people of colour in every major city who, given their experiences of racism, are deeply suspicious about the impending war on Iraq. They need to know that the anti-war movement is fundamentally committed to the struggle against racism in all its manifestations – at home as well as abroad.”

David McNally and Jerome Klassen are members of the Toronto New Socialist Group

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