There have been quite a few and may well be more essays written about the massive antiwar demonstrations held ten years ago, February 15. Some of the essays take the form – "anti war, what is it good for, absolutely nothing." Others take the form, "glory days need to be here again, we achieved so much, hooray for us."
I think both those approaches miss what needs saying. 12 – 13 million people demonstrated against war. The world tensed and shook a bit. That's the "hooray" part. The war didn't end. That's the "absolutely nothing" part. But the most salient fact, assuming we really do want to win an end to wars and an end to the social systems that make wars inevitable, is what happened – or didn't happen, next, for us.
How many of the people who demonstrated in February understood more about international relations in March and April than they had in January? How many felt stronger ties to other people who also demonstrated? How many were ready to demonstrate again, understanding the logic of it, aims of it, and methods of it?
Now think about a year later – nine years ago. How many of the 12 – 13 million were in organizations and themselves actively and effectively reaching out to other people, giving talks, writing, holding teach-ins, and demonstrating?
I have no idea what the answers are. No one knows, exactly. But if we recognize that movements are either busy being born or busy dying, then I suspect that by March the spiral was already seriously downward, and it certainly only got worse thereafter.
How could we have turned out 12- 13 million people to demonstrate, all over the world, against a war that had not yet even begun – the first time that had been done in history, and then turned out steadily smaller numbers, vastly smaller, against the horrors of a real war, daily waged?
Why didn't our participation in February inspire in us growing awareness, solidarity, and commitment? Why didn't we subsequently reach out still further into populations around the world?
Suppose it had happened. Suppose in April or May there were demonstrations of 15 million people. And then in early Fall, of 20 million. And suppose each time there were also growing numbers of people participating in civil disobedience. And suppose there were also growing numbers of sustained local actions, of educational gatherings, and of grass roots organization at military bases.
Does anyone who is currently debating the efficacy of activism doubt that this would have been world historic? I don't know if we would have had to reach 25 million strong, or 35 million strong – but with steady growth rather than accelerating diminution of our numbers, that war would have ended, and perhaps not even begun. And all those participants, if they had been engaged in activities that were steadily widening their awareness, mutual aid, and commitment both to activism and to one another, would have established a basis for continued activism and then for radical construction. Just imagine the Occupy movement, if all that had been in place on day zero.
The right question to ask, it seems to me, is what were the conditions, choices, circumstances, and beliefs or lack of beliefs that prevented the February outpouring from being a continuous birth, and caused it, instead, to become a slow slip side into old age?
We have got to stop talking mostly about everything that we are already totally sure about (such as war is hell), and mostly what is comforting (such as we are wonderful), and in any event, mostly that which will make no difference to how well we do. We have got to start talking instead mostly about what we don't know about (the alternative to war) and what is discomforting (what we are bad at and need to get better at), and what will make an enormous difference to how well we do.
Was the problem that derailed us ten years ago something about our way of expressing ourselves? If it was, we need to figure it out and fix it.
Was the problem something about how we conduct ourselves? If it was, we need to figure it out and fix it.
Was the problem our message? Too abstruse? Too negative? Too absent hope and vision? If was, we need to figure it out and fix it.
I will tell you what is not worth doing. It is not worth our time to bemoan that the national and international media don't help us. It is not worth our time to bemoan that politicians don't help us. It is not worth our time to bemoan that they each, and the police, try to disrupt and divert us. The only thing about any of that that might be relevant is to discuss what we can do to reduce their effectivity.
I won't belabor. There is a simple point here. If February ten years ago we became a new superpower – and a good case can be made that we did – then we have been one of the least effective super powers in all history. We need to face that and stop getting upset mainly if someone says we haven't done our job well enough. We haven't. And we won't do it much better in the future if we don't admit it, and start talking about what matters – which is how to do our job much much better.
And, by way of perspective, lest those who were first getting involved ten years ago think I am being critical primarily of them, I think this message applies easily as much to earlier times. Indeed I think it has been true as long as I have been on the left, from the mid 1960s on, and no doubt earlier. So the main purveyors of not attending to what matters most who are now alive have been, therefore, not the young, but my generation. The task is not to mourn or alibi, however, or even apologize. We just need to do better. Ten years on, that is the lesson.