Success, failure and other political myths


As we approach the tenth anniversary of the global anti-war protest of February 15th, 2003, people are bound to ask what it actually achieved. Certainly it failed to stop the war, a failure for which Iraqis paid and are paying an exorbitant price. So was it a waste of time, an exercise in futility? There are answers to these questions, but to be persuasive they cannot be glib.

Let me flash back to November 15th 1969, Washington DC and the Moratorium for Peace in Vietnam. This was probably the single biggest anti-war demonstration of the era, estimated at half a million by some and twice that by others. I’d come down from the New York suburbs the day before, on a bus chartered by local activists, and spent the night on the floor of a Quaker meeting house. The next day I wandered among the vast, mostly youthful crowd, listening to the speeches, and feeling despondent and confused. I was 16 but already a veteran of three years of anti-war protest, during which time I’d seen the movement mushroom. In the spring of 1966, I’d accompanied my parents to my first Washington DC protest, which was considered a great success because it attracted a crowd of 10,000. Now there were perhaps a hundred times that number and it felt to me like failure.

Pete Seeger, then age 50 but already a Methuselah of struggle, led chorus after chorus of the recently-released ‘Give Peace a Chance’. I was churlish about this because I thought we were or should be saying a lot more than ‘give peace a chance’. So I joined a splinter march chanting ‘Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh NLF is gonna win’ and got tear gassed outside the Justice Department. None of this was very satisfying and on the long drive home I felt depressed. What was the point of it all? For years we’d been protesting in ever increasing numbers, with ever increasing militancy – and yet they kept escalating the war. What difference had all our earnest activity made? What difference would the Moratorium protest make? What difference would anything make? My commonplace teenage malaise had become intertwined with a precocious experience of political frustration.

My scepticism about the demonstration’s effect seemed warranted when five months later, at the end of April, 1970, the US extended the war into Cambodia. In the protests that followed six students, four at Kent State in Ohio and two at Jackson State in Mississippi, were shot dead. The upshot was the biggest student strike in US history: more than 4 million students walking out of classes in universities, colleges and high schools across the country. Yet still the war did not end. Two and a half more years would pass before the peace treaty was signed in Paris in January 1973. By this time there were millions upon millions dead, disabled, bereaved, traumatised. Nonetheless, the movement against the Vietnam war is widely considered the most “successful” anti-war movement of modern times, against which more recent movements have measured their “failure”.

Many years later, I learned that the Moratorium demonstration was, in fact, anything but ineffectual. In July 1969, Nixon and Kissinger had delivered an ultimatum to the Vietnamese: if they did not accept US terms for a ceasefire by November 1st, “we will be compelled – with great reluctance – to take measures of the greatest consequences.” The US government was threatening and indeed actively planning a nuclear strike against North Vietnam. In his Memoirs, Nixon admitted that the key factor in the decision not to proceed with the nuclear option was that “after all the protests and the Moratorium, American public opinion would be seriously divided by any military escalation of the war.” What would have been the world’s second nuclear war was averted by our action, though we couldn’t have known it at the time.

So it turns out that marching on that day was anything but an exercise in futility. In fact it’s hard to think of a day better spent in the course of a lifetime. My teenage despondency was utterly misplaced.

But this kind of retrospective vindication is rare in the extreme. Most days spent in protest will not be rewarded with such a tangible achievement. The point is that we don’t know and we can’t know: which protest, leaflet, meeting, occupation, activity will ‘make a difference’, tip the balance. We are always the underdog, we are always contending against power, and therefore the likelihood is that we will fail. But no success can be achieved unless we risk that failure. Otherwise when possibilities for success arise they pass by unrealised.

I fear we slip too easily into a capitalist paradigm of “success” and “failure”. Here the investment is of value only to the extent it yields measurable gains. If it doesn’t it’s a failure, dead capital. So we look for evidence that our efforts have had an impact, made a difference. Every success is catalogued on the credit side while the much greater number of failures is left un-tabulated. Sometimes in doing this we start to sound a little desperate, clinging to straws. I wonder if this is the best way to persuade people to invest themselves in a cause. After all, there will always be activities offering more reliable and more tangible rewards.

In evaluating our political efforts, we have to jettison neo-liberalism’s stark demarcation between “success” and “failure”, which erases everything in between and, even worse, denies any combination of the two. In the politics of social justice, unmixed success and unmitigated failure are rare. Every successful revolution or major reform has had unintended consequences, created new problems, fallen short of its goals. In politics, failures contain the seeds of successes, just as successes conceal the roots of failure.

Capitalists like to invoke a “risk / reward ratio” to justify their profits. Sadly, people on the left sometimes emulate their narrow logic. They promise activists a return on their investment, a guarantee: history is on our side.

But for us, there can be no stable “ratio” between risk and reward. Our risk has to be taken in defiance of the odds, recognising the likelihood that there will be no reward. At the same time, we take the risk only because of the nature of the reward we seek: a precious step towards a just society. We are not at all indifferent to the outcome. We aim and need to succeed because the consequences of failure are real and widely felt.

So we make the investment. We put our time and energy and skills at the disposal of a cause. This is a greater investment than the capitalist knows – and one that makes us vulnerable in a way the capitalist never is.

We’re taught to despise and fear “failure” but to engage in the politics of social change we have to be brave enough to fail. Science advances through failure; every successful experiment is made possible only by a host of failed ones. In human evolution, failure – incapacities, shortcomings – led to compensation and innovation.

There are worse things than failure and while failure is nothing to glory in it’s also nothing to be ashamed of. You can learn more from a failure than from a success – if you recognise it as such. But if the only lesson you draw from failure is never to risk failure again, you’ve learned nothing at all.

Needless risks should always be avoided. We don’t have resources to squander. But the elimination of risk is impossible if you’re contending with power. Without risks all that can be done is to reproduce existing social relations. There is no truth, no beauty without risk, because these things can only be secured in the teeth of resistance, against institutions and habits of thought. To succeed in any way that matters, you have to take your place in the republic of the uncertain, where you risk yourself, not your stake in other people’s labour. It’s the action taken in the full knowledge of the possibility of failure, and its consequences, that acquires leverage.

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