Review: Arun Gupta Asks, “What Anti-War Movement” (presented by Democracy Now!, September 24th, 2009)
A year after Barack Obama’s presidential election and with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan still raging (and spreading into Pakistan), many within anti-war circles are engaged in dialogue about which way the movement should go. A large part of the problem faced by anti-war activists is that their once relatively large movement is now far smaller and less vibrant. Much focus has been given as to why this is. Many of those still dedicated to the anti-war cause are now taking a critical look at the movement’s preceeding years, attempting to find lessons which can help them recover from a major slump in organizing and mass action.
One such activist is Arun Gupta, editor of the New York City ‘left’-oriented newspaper, the Indypendent. In a speech presented by Democracy Now!, another nominally left media outlet, Arun Gupta attempts to answer some of the hows and whys of the death of the anti-war movement and offers prescriptions for future organizing.
Talking about his background, Gupta says he cut his political teeth as part of solidarity activism for the South African anti-apartheid movement and Latin American struggles. In explaining thoughts at the time about wider radical organizing, Gupta states, “there’s always been this notion that the left would re-found itself into a mass base movement if we only had some sort of imperialist war that we could oppose, something on the scale of Vietnam; that this would radicalize the population enough and it would show the true face of imperialism.” Gupta begins by noting how this never came to fruition.
Gupta on the death of the Amerikan anti-war movement
In attempting to answer why a mass, radical anti-war movement never came into being, Gupta reflects on one of the main US anti-war organizations, United For Peace and Justice (UFPJ). Gupta rightly pegs UFPJ as a shill for the war-mongering Democratic Party, something most remaining Amerikan anti-war activists are aware of. Citing mostly anecdotes and quotes, Gupta describes UFPJ’s role inside the anti-war movement as one of shepherding activists towards the reformist morass of mainstream electoral politics.
After the Democratic Party gained a congressional majority in 2006, UFPJ supporters, including Gupta, were advocating a ‘power of the purse strategy,” urging Democrats to use their federal budgeting power to cut funding to the war. Gupta says the leader of UFPJ, Judith LeBlanc, characterized that strategy, reformist as is was, as being “on the outside shaking our fists,” and told supporters that the way forward was working within the Democratic Party. Gupta also notes how long-time ‘leftists’ such as Carl Davidson, who campaigned for Barack Obama, hailed his presidential victory as a milestone for “class struggle.” According to Gupta, UFPJ and leaders such as Carl Davidson are why the anti-war movement collapsed.
Gupta also says there was a failure on the part of the “great hope” that was the “direct action left,” “anti-globalization movement,” “anarchists,” “student-led groups” and “some of the parties” [most likely referring to the 'Party for Socialism and Liberation' and 'Workers World Party']. Though there was a lot of talk between these groups about reforming and refocusing on anti-war work, he states, “nothing has really come from it.” He dwells little on why this is and fails to examine the politics of any of these groups. Instead, he still thinks they could potentially come together to form a “new, radical, principled anti-war movement.” According to Gupta, because it isn’t happening, UFPJ still maintains power in the passive, anti-war movement which now supports Obama.
Where Gupta gets it wrong
While UFPJ and Carl Davidson helped lead the anti-war movement’s shift towards support for the Democratic Party, Gupta adds no analysis or understandings beyond this. His answer of why the anti-war movement never coalesced into a mass-radical movement is shallow, bordering on conspiratorial. Thus, Gupta misses the point entirely.
From the beginning, the anti-war movement was a largely anti-Bush movement, a domestic reaction to the brash, John Wayne-esque brand of imperialism. There was almost none, if any, focused internationalism coming from the largely pro-Amerika movement. Almost all internationalist actions and slogans were by accident, as parts of the anti-war movement took up anti-militarist causes: one memorable example being when Portland ‘anarchists’ burnt an effigy of a US troop while chanting “Bye bye G.I., in Iraq you’re gonna die.” It is important to note this example was a fringe rejected by the mainstream of Amerikan anti-war sentiment. Moreover, the ‘anarchists’ undertook the action based on liberal anti-militarism, never bridging over towards a long-term, principled stand with the world’s oppressed against imperialism.
One meme to come out of the anti-war movement was that Bush had turned world opinion against the US. Another was that “peace is patriotic.” Hardly internationalist or radical slogans, the anti-war movement peddled the mythology of historic Amerikan greatness and a false picture international fraternity. It actually saw itself as trying to improve Amerika’s image worldwide. More contrived was the anti-war movement’s talk about how the wars are supposedly against the interests of Amerikans. Moaning about ‘our’ wasted tax money was common throughout the anti-war movement. The obvious problem with this is that imperialism, which Amerikans do benefit from, requires imperialist wars. Amerika’s wealth is and always has been based on the oppression of other peoples. Amerikans intuitively understand this and most never joined the anti-war movement.
Into 2005, as the war dragged on, and with Bush’s incompetence and instability in Iraq dominating attention, more Amerikans began seeing the wars as becoming overly costly and offering less in the way of long term returns, even describing them as a burden to Amerika’s interests. However, this is not an anti-imperialist view. Afterall, even ardent imperialists, such as Obama, have described the Iraq war in this light.
In the end, UFPJ didn’t simply act as a pied piper, marching the anti-war movement to grave of the Democratic Party. UFPJ is simply on the same page with those nominally opposed to the war. While Gupta thinks there is mass, radical potential within First World, UFPJ has a better understanding of where most Amerikans stand on. Thus, groups like UFPJ are able to maintain leadership of the anti-war movement despite the appearance of a seemingly radical fringe. The anti-war movement’s shift towards Obama was a natural one, not principally engineered by UFPJ.
Gupta, under mistaken notions about Amerika and the anti-war movement, says that the way forward is building a mass “anti-imperialist” movement.
From the beginning, Gupta defines imperialism in a metaphysical, abstract way. According the Gupta, capitalist-imperialism is “the defining if not dominant inter-state relation and flows of power in the world today.” Gupta points to the Iraq war as an example of Western imperialism’s attempt to secure Mideast oil against gains by the lesser imperialist bloc of Russian and China. While this is true to an extent, Gupta misses the point.
Capitalist-imperialism, today’s “flow of power,” is the process of capital accumulation on a global scale: it is the exploitation of the global majority, the Third World masses, to the effect of benefitting and buying-off virtually all of the First World. A primary feature of the current capitalist-imperialist system is vast global inequality between the exploiter First World and the exploited Third World.
Gupta is also wrong to say that imperialism is the “defining inter-state relations.” In actuality, states are propped up over the course of class struggle to enforce class rule. With few exceptions, Third World states are extentions of imperialism, surrogates to the process of capital accumulation. Also, while divisions between the imperialists of different countries exist, they are rarely a principal feature. What is significant about the Iraq war is not possible ambitions to wedge out lesser imperialist forces, but rather a multi-national, U.S.-led force invaded and occupied to country to secure a greater stake in oil reserves against the interests of the Iraqi and Third World masses.
Throughout his speech, Gupta never does come to terms what imperialism really is. Rather than stating the obvious– First Worlders enjoy greater rates of consumption, more leisure time, little repression, are visibly better off than most of the world’s people and thus have little reason to radicalize or become anti-imperialists– Gupta uses a ridiculous abstraction, “consensual hegemony,” to explain why First Worlders support the imperialist system. Gupta simply refuses to approach reality: the First World masses support imperialism because it supports them.
Because of this, Gupta’s “anti-imperialism” remains hollow. Not based on serious analysis, Gupta posits an “anti-imperialism” which almost anyone can embrace. Gupta’s “anti-imperialism” changes nothing in terms of practical implications for those who do uphold it. In this case, “anti-imperialism” is an abstract tag-on phrase, a meaningless slogan, for ultimately First Worldist, movementarian politics. Gupta is not concerned with doing a serious study of imperialism, including coming to terms with its consequences. For Gupta, his goal has always been to organize Amerikans.
The magic key theory
According to Gupta, there is a magic key that can unlock a radical potential in Amerikans. First Gupta thought it would be an imperialist war. Then he decides that supporting UFPJ and doing ‘independent’ journalism would somehow radicalize Amerikan masses. Now Gupta calls for “principled anti-imperialism” as part of his latest attempt to inspire a radical idealism into Amerikans. Gupta’s calls for “anti-imperialism,” like his calls for other moralistic positions, will fall on deaf ears as long as he sees Amerikans and the First World as a social base for radical, progressive change.
Because Gupta is a proponent of the magic key theory, his critique of other groups are petty. He claims that the more radical sectors of the anti-war movement never really confronted the state. He says that the anti-war movement was really never able to break free from the limitations of the state, and thus was never able to expand as a radical movement. But what does this mean and is it true? Just in Denver, for example, anti-war graffiti popped up. Khristopher Kolumbus and other statues have been vandalized multiple times. During the DNC, a protest led by a black bloc took the streets and marched downtown. Denver has solidarity networks for prisoners and victims of police brutality and active chapters of Copwatch. Most recently, a nominal anarchist has been accused by the pigs of breaking windows at the Democratic Party Headquarters.
What does Gupta think was missing? “A golden opportunity was missed in the counter-recruitment movement,” he says. Surely, counter-recruitment was another one of Gupta’s magic keys: another one that didn’t work supposedly because the “left” wasn’t turning hard enough.
Like Gupta’s “anti-imperialism,” his prescribed necessity to confront state power is abstract. Besides his counter-recruitment spiel, Gupta never defines “confronting state power.” He doesn’t give other examples, historic or modern. “Confronting state power,” for Gupta, is another movementarian fantasy, speculatively postulated in a way that ignores the real social and material basis of mass apathy and reaction-ism in Amerika.
Gupta’s “anti-imperialism” is not anti-imperialism at all. Instead, Gupta’s politics is one of chauvinism wrapped in loosely-construed, “anti-imperialist” slogans.
As a matter of narrowness and “left” Amerikan exceptionalism, Gupta never once mentions resistance efforts on the part of oppressed peoples in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Third World. Gupta, now a self-described “anti-imperialist,” not once mentions those exploited by imperialism in the Third World! Instead he focuses solely on the “radical potential” of the largely defunct anti-war movement in the First World. We ask, how can this possibly be anti-imperialism?
Gupta uses his privilege and broadcasts a phoney “anti-imperialism,” objectively to the disservice of real anti-imperialism. Those in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in the Third World, for whom anti-imperialist struggles are often ones of life and death, do not have the luxury to freely and openly broadcast their ideas and experiences on their common struggle against imperialism. Instead, this is a luxury for Gupta, who not only speaks the colonizer’s language but has the privilege of doing so without repression. Does he take this privilege seriously? No. For Gupta, “anti-imperialism” is another phrase, liberally thrown around to see if Amerikans bite. Without a second thought, he uses his membership of the world’s richest 15% to broadcast an effective lie, that Amerikans are friends of the Third World, calling it “anti-imperialism.” Again, we ask, what is Gupta doing besides objectively blunting real anti-imperialism worldwide?
The difference between Gupta and ourselves is obvious. Gupta conceives of unity between the Third and First World masses where none meaningfully exists; he insists that Amerikans are potentially revolutionary when they clearly are not. Thus, his politics will always be implicitly pro-Amerikan and not representative of the immediate interest of the world’s people.
Real anti-imperialism, the politics of the Revolutionary Anti-Imperialist Movement, derives its strength from and seeks to inspire the global masses, the 80% of the people in the Third World for whom resistance is a way of life. Real anti-imperialists see Amerikans for what they are– class enemies of the Third World masses– and understand this: imperialism will only come crashing down through the advancements of the struggle by Third World peoples for liberation.
While Gupta is wasting time trying to radicalize Amerikans, the Revolutionary Anti-Imperialist Movement (RAIM) is engaged in real strategies for real revolutionary change. Whereas “anti-imperialism” is just a buzzword for Gupta and First Worldists, RAIM understands that imperialism is the crux of world dynamics and proceeds from there. A hallmark of RAIM’s strategy is accounting for limitations imposed on us by the fact that Amerikans support imperialism and using our privilege to develop real aid in the revolutionary struggle.
We don’t water down genuine anti-imperialist politics to pander to First Worlders. Above all, RAIM speaks the truth and says it loud and clear: First Worlders maintain their decadent lifestyles via imperialism; are class enemies of the real masses in the Third World; the complicit ‘Volk’ in a murderous global empire; and must be overthrown along with imperialism. We openly represents anti-imperialist politics and broadcast our analysis to a global audience, using our own privilege to do so, even if most Amerikans don’t like or ‘get’ it.
First World mass movements come and go, along with most of its participants. Rather than trying to build an “anti-imperialist” mass movement in the First World, RAIM is a politically sophisticated and technically versatile one, with the aim of best serving the Third World masses and their struggle. We want dedicated, determined comrades who are all in for the long haul. RAIM broadcasts a consistent message of anti-imperialist solidarity globally and is a focal point of revolutionary agitation, education and political development within the belly of the beast, Amerika. Through RAIM, we seek out and educate those few First Worlders who can be best won over the consistent anti-imperialist politics. Through RAIM, we develop both politically and technically, becoming more of an asset to the revolutionary struggle.
RAIM is important as a national network which openly represents anti-imperialist politics, but it should be seen for what it is: an appendage to the vast Third World struggle; our collective effort to contribute to this larger revolutionary movement. RAIM’s message is huge, too big for RAIM alone. We encourage constant political and technical development, specialization and the application of Third World-oriented, revolutionary politics to different types and forms of work. We support those who support the movement of the exploited Third World against the imperialist First.
Arun Gupta and RAIM represent two very different types of “anti-imperialism.” Gupta’s is one of magic keys and preeminent, potentially ‘radical’ First World ‘masses.’ He brings little new to the table. His explanations of everything from why the anti-war movement collapsed to what is imperialism seem shallow or abstract. His analysis is neither real anti-imperialism nor a strategy for revolutionary change.
Nearing the end of his speech, after talking for thirty minutes, in the typical manner of First Worldist intellectuals, asking how to build a genuine, radical mass movement, Gupta says it’s something he’s thought about a lot about, but doesn’t have any real answers for. Typical.
RAIM posits an anti-imperialism that is new, that explains things in a way Gupta can’t. Our anti-imperialism is groundbreaking and changes the focus and look revolutionary political work for those in the First World.
RAIM won’t lead a revolutionary mass movement, nor do we intend to. Nevertheless, we still have a positive role to play in the global revolutionary struggle. By working together, representing and broadcasting a consistent anti-imperialist message, operating as a school to our own and others’ political and technical development and promoting Third World-oriented, revolutionary unity, we can act as agents of global revolutionary change in a way that First Worldists such as Gupta can’t.
The difference is simple. Gupta is First Worlder who’s into nominally-’leftist’ mass movements. RAIM? The name says it all.
[Video of Gupta's speech can be found here: http://www.democracynow.org/blog/2009/9/24/arun_gupta_asks_where_is_the_anti_war_movement%5D