The Anti-War Movement and Radical Political Alternatives EDITED







 

 

THE ANTI-WAR MOVEMENT AND RADICAL POLITICAL ALTERNATIVES

 

Ken McLeod

 

'A revolution cannot be made by a single man. A large force is needed, the entire people must participate. That is why it is necessary to have cadres for propaganda, agitation and education. They must be kind hearted, open-minded and sincere. They must help one another as comrades, work together with the masses without whom they could not succeed in anything. A revolutionary cadre has no right to assume a haughty and arrogant attitude as if he was a feudal warlord . He must be modest.'

     - Ho Chi Minh

     The anti-war movement—or the peace movement —has been a continuing feature of Australian political life since World War II. For most of this period it has been an important, and at times dominant, element in Australian radical politics. Thus, the anti-war movement could be expected to have accumulated a range of experiences and understandings of more than incidental interest to any discussion of radical alternatives in Australia. Over recent months many people involved in anti-war activities have been attempting to draw on this collective experience in order to clarify the forward direction of the movement for social change in this country. This reappraisal has been partly a function of the somewhat new political environment that has followed the election of the Labor government, and partly the result of a general feeling that the apparent inadequacies of Australian radical politics must be seriously addressed if they are to be surmounted. 

     The aim of this present contribution to the discussion is not a thorough historical analysis of the anti-war movement, but rather an attempt to discover something of its more general significance as a learning experience for very many politically conscious Australians, including myself. It is therefore something of a summation of collective experience, and something of a personal interpretation of events and trends.

     For me, the urgency of undertaking a wide-ranging reassessment of where we are, where we are going and by what means, cannot be overemphasised. While the election of a Labor government after twenty-three years of particularly stodgy conservatism has opened many new possibilities in Australian society and politics, our integration within a fundamentally crisis-ridden world system, the already apparent limits to the responsiveness of our political institutions, and the imminent time scale in which global and domestic political processes are maturing, means that the elaboration of genuinely radical alternatives is becoming ever more necessary. As the editors of Ramparts recently commented, in times such as these we 'cannot afford to be without an organised mass movement of the left, for what the left means in human terms is a moral community of hope, revolutionary possibility of a better way.' 

     The origins of the contemporary anti-war movement lie in the wide-spread public alarm that arose during the fifties at the real and growing possibility of nuclear war. As humanity apparently stood on the brink of nuclear destruction, mass movements seeking a relaxation of international confrontation and demanding nuclear or universal disarmament arose throughout the Western world. These movements saw the latent conflict between the United States and Russia -- the capitalist block and the communist block -- as the principal international contradiction, the resolution of which could well destroy humankind unless it could be defused by a policy of peaceful co-existence and international cooperation. In Australia, this analysis was articulated and given organisational form at two very large national peace conferences in 1959 and 1964. In the frequently hostile Cold War environment in which these conferences were held, the main political strength which they demonstrated was the participation of significant sections of the organised working class. The organisational forms established then, and the continuing support of the Trade Unions for the peace movement, have largely tended to endure up to the present, albeit in considerably modified form.

     Not long after the 1964 Congress for International Cooperation and Disarmament, a quite decisive event occurred which, in time, basically shifted the strategic orientation of the anti-war movement. In August 1965 as a direct consequence of the power block politics of the Cold War that still held sway in Canberra, the Australian government agreed to send a task force to support the United States military invasion of South Vietnam. Thus Australia became directly involved in a conflict which was to assume global significance and completely alter the contours of international politics. The dynamics of the Vietnam war, altogether different from those that prompted the Menzies government's decision to respond to American pressure for support, exposed and became the focus of a whole new complex of contradictions which are now assuming the magnitude of a global crisis.

     For historical and humanitarian reasons, rather than any profound understanding of the significance of the Vietnam war, the Australian Labor Party firmly opposed Australia's involvement in Indo-China. Thus, the ALP became the focus of early opposition to the war, and the anti-war movement concentrated much of its efforts into the arena of parliamentary politics. The subsequent

devastating defeat of the ALP at the 1966 General Elections, fought largely on the Vietnam question, had a demoralising impact on the anti-war movement. When Gough Whitlam won the leadership of the Labor Party and immediately backed away from the strong public opposition to Vietnam of his predecessor, the movement was further disabused of parliamentary politics. As a result, its strategic emphasis swung from parliamentary pressure group politics to a consciously extra-parliamentary orientation. The formal political institutions had been found unresponsive and were by-passed through the creation of a mass anti-Vietnam campaign throughout the community.

     At this time opposition to the war was still motivated by a response of outraged humanity—a desire to mobilise public opinion to restrain the apparently otherwise inevitable destruction of Vietnam by the overwhelmingly superior power of the United States. The government's decision to reintroduce military conscription in order to raise the manpower necessary for its Vietnam adventure added further grounds for mounting public opposition to the war. But the most important factor in the early stages of the development of the mass anti-Vietnam war movement was the sheer persistence and dedication of the many people who

devoted themselves to the task of awakening the conscience of the Australian people to the reality of United States imperial policy in Indo-China.

     In February 1968 the still ascendant student movement throughout the Western world responded profoundly to the National Liberation Front's Tet Offensive and vast movements of solidarity with the Vietnamese revolution, based principally amongst young people and students, emerged in most countries. This new movement was characteristically more militant, more 'political', strongly activist-orientated with an emphasis on a depth of personal commitment that could somehow equate with the courage of the Vietnam resistance . In a response unprecedented in time of war, thousands of young people (and also older people whose political consciousness had been formed in pre-Cold War days) talked, leafleted, marched and generally agitated in solidarity with a people whom our government and most of our opinion-makers called 'the enemy'. By their personal efforts and example, these activists made Vietnam the major public question of the day and began a process which significantly changed the way Australians saw themselves and the world—a process that called into question many of the values and assumptions of national policy and of the men who made it, particularly their insistence on the necessity for Australia to blindly follow the dictates of our 'great and powerful friends'. This process, as it gathered momentum, contributed mightily towards achieving the later change of government and the associated heightened sense of national identity.

     In November 1969, an interstate anti-war movement consultation was convened in Canberra and the decision made to launch a national mobilisation —the Vietnam Moratorium Campaign. The demands of the Moratorium were simply : 'withdraw all troops from Vietnam now', and 'abolish conscription now'. The decision to launch the Moratorium Campaign was based on an assessment that the time had come to shift the main thrust of the movement from persuading people that the war was wrong, to mobilising those who already held this view.

     If only in terms of scale and impact on the community, the Moratorium was a very significant political phenomenon. During its course it reached, challenged and motivated literally millions of Australians, and, for the hundreds of thousands who directly participated in Moratorium activities, wa s frequently a profound learning experience.

     The Moratorium was also one of the few genuinely national political movements Australia has seen in its short history. In a country where history and distance mitigate against national organisation, and the problems of federalism have been the bane of politics at almost every level, the VMC was, in terms of its limited objectives, a remarkably effective national operation. As well as successfully embracing a wide range of regional differences, the Moratorium was based upon an amazingly diverse coalition of organisations and ad hoc groups. At its height this anti-war coalition included 150 organisations in New South Wales alone.

     The diversity of political and cultural action within the Moratorium was also remarkable. The VMC provided a sufficiently flexible organisational framework within which a tremendous diversity of political, cultural and educational activities were carried on by groups drawn from almost every class and strata of society, all in support of the campaign's central demands. This success in giving organisational form to a movement reflecting the full diversity and plurality of Australian society was perhaps the Moratorium's supreme achievement.

     At the theoretical level the greatest weakness of the Moratorium was its failure to answer, in terms meaningful to the great majority of its supporters, the two basic questions posed by the Vietnam war: why has the United States, at such tremendous economic, social and ultimately military cost, persisted for so long in its efforts to crush the resistance of the Vietnamese people and create a pro-United States in southern Vietnam? And, how have the Vietnamese gone on year after year at almost inconceivable sacrifice, successfully defying the will of the most overwhelmingly powerful and wealthy nation in human history? The Moratorium movement never adequately came to terms with the significance of this struggle, particularly for Australia. In fact, in many important respects Australians seem often to have reacted more to the reverberations of the war on American society than to its direct impact on ourselves.

     At a strategic level, the Vietnam Moratorium Campaign was something of a deadend, being very much the culmination of a stage in the movement's development. While raising perspectives and needs well beyond the limited demands of the campaign, the Moratorium essentially offered only two forms of political action—periodic nationally coordinated mobilisations in the main capital city centres, and uncoordinated, largely spontaneous actions at a local level, usually seen as a buildup for the culminating mobilisations. This pattern was adequate in sustaining a campaign, but inadequate in consolidating a movement. The Moratorium created a consciousness of the need for a more total and sustained political involvement, but failed to take participants beyond the first step towards such involvement. This was not only, or even mainly, due to the lack of a generally accepted left strategy for social change in Australia. 

     It was also an organisational failure. For most of the thousands of people who participated in the Moratorium, it was little more than an event. An event of uncommon political and often personal significance to be sure—but still an event demanding a quite clearly defined commitment. Only for a very tiny minority did participation in the Moratorium mean commitment to a movement with perspectives beyond Vietnam and conscription, and only a very tiny minority had contact with 'the movement' in any meaningful sense. Indeed, contact with the Moratorium for most of the participants in the mass mobilisations was primarily via the mass media. Obviously, any radical political movement that relies largely upon the communication media of the status quo to reach, educate and mobilise its constituency, and lacks the capacity to overcome this liability, is in many ways not a movement at all. The fact that by the December 1972, elections, only eighteen months after the third Moratorium day, the mass anti-war movement had already become more national than real, testifies to this weakness.

     The limited political involvement offered by the Moratorium led many antiwar activists to turn to other, more fulfilling and complete forms of political and social involvement. Many young people were attracted to one or other of the left vanguard sects that had been involved in the Moratorium. Much larger numbers submerged themselves into various aspects of the 'counter culture' where they sought the creation of a new society within the body of the old. The majority of those who remained politically active in the more traditional sense, looked to the Labor Party as the medium through which to pursue their goal of a more just and humane society. In the context of the mass anti-war movement's almost exclusive preoccupation with international events and politics, these were not in themselves unreasonable responses to the heightened awareness of the nature and problems of our own society that the Moratorium itself helped to awaken. By the very act of personal involvement in such a large and diverse political campaign as the Moratorium, many anti-war activists began to look anew at Australian society and to question the honesty of support for the struggles of other peoples, while ignoring the most blatant abuses and dehumanising sterility of urban Australia.

     The growing preoccupation with domestic problems and policies was entirely predictable, reinforced by the campaign for the election of the Labor government and by all that followed the Labor Party's assumption of office in Canberra. The renewal of genuine public debate on social and political priorities after such a long period of public political stagnation, resulted in a fantastic proliferation of pressure groups and, at least during the first twelve months of Labor rule, a further erosion of the remaining extra-parliamentary movement. But experience in attempting to influence the formation of national policy is already beginning to generate an opposite tendency. Increasingly organisations identifying some degree of common interest are seeking a closer cooperative relationship.

     There have been a series of conferences on Resources for Peace and Social Change in Melbourne, the Australia - Third World Centre project in Sydney has been initiated, and a two-day national consultation of several non-governmental organisations in Canberra during mid July 1974, were all initiated by the continuing organisations of the anti-war movement.

     The change of government in Canberra has resuscitated Australia's moribund political arteries and generally raised expectations which will be increasingly difficult to fulfill within the structures of our existing social and political institutions. The point at which the current wave of pressure group activism finds the parliamentary processes unresponsive to the real needs of people, will be the point where the process of genuine social change will begin.

     Since the return of the Labor government, many radical activists have been undertaking an often painful reappraisal of their role within a generally more favourable political environment at home, and a developing international crisis. In many ways the present situation is somewhat analogous to the earlier, pre-1969 period of the movement. Once again the radical movement sees as one of its principal functions the dissemination of important information and the interpretation of events and trends in order to clarify reality and empower and mobilise people within the circumstances and possibilities of their own lives. But, whereas before 1969 the single issue of the Vietnam war was the question which movement activists were seeking to raise before the Australian people, today it must be a more complete analysis of what is happening in Australia and the world. Of course, specific

campaigns about specific issues will still characterise much of the activity of most sections of 'the movement'. The crucial factor, however, will be our success in placing such campaigns, limited themselves, within a more complete conceptualisation of the world situation and of Australia's position within that situation.

     In its efforts to contribute towards the emergence of such an integrated radical perspective, the anti-war movement takes as its first principle the reality of our global interdependence. Now, as never before, we live within a single world system from which no nation or people can isolate themselves. Thus, any movement or programme for radical social change within any one country (particularly the overdeveloped Western countries such as Australia) which ignores or avoids the looming multidimensional global emergency, is at best irrelevant, if not actually misleading. While the environmental, economic and political problems which threaten the welfare of humanity as a species are exceedingly complex, they have their locus in the increasing international and intra-national inequalities which are best described by the concept of over-development and under-development.

     Accelerating mass poverty of the under-developed Third World, energy/resource depletion, dangerous ecological imbalance, extravagant war preparations, and the growing international economic crisis, are aspects of a single global phenomenon. This is the structure of economic subordination which systematically generates, at the same time, under-development in the impoverished Third World countries where two-thirds of the world's population live, and the wasteful and destructive over-development of the small number of advanced capitalist countries which consume over sixty percent of the world's gross product in order to maintain their rate of economic growth. This relationship is well illustrated by the fact that if India alone amongst the Third World countries was to reach the level of consumption of the United States, it would consume 120 per cent of' the world's

resources The reality is that in 1974 India is likely to achieve a negative growth rate.

     With the majority of their people struggling merely to exist, the under-developed Third World countries are forced to export their raw materials, their food products, and even their capital to support the economic expansion and rising GNP's of the over-developed industrial nations. 'For every dollar we received we paid four.' the late Chilean President, Salvador Allende, commented on the fraud of foreign aid.

     While various aspects of this emergent global problem effect both rich and poor countries, its first and principal impact is felt in the Third World, where the task of breaking the bonds of under-development is clearly not just a technical or economic problem to be solved by the application of 'know-how' and 'aid'. The problem of under-development is, in the first instance, a political problem requiring an end to the pattern of' foreign dependence and internal domination by which it is maintained . Thus, the peoples of the Third World have, increasingly, the one solution—revolution -- that offers them any hope of escape. They have embarked upon political revolution to overthrow the repressive and corrupt regimes tied to foreign economic interests; social revolution to obliterate the wasteful and oppressive divisions between the elite and the masses ; and economic revolution to mobilise natural resources for true, self sustained development consistent with their own needs.

     Even within the affluent nations such as Australia, not everyone shares in the bounty from the exploitation of' the Third World. Unskilled and migrant workers, blacks, the aged and the unemployed live on or below the poverty line, and many ordinary Australians feel the bite of inflation in their weekly pay packets, while many of the transnational corporations declare record profits. Behind the affluent veneer of suburban Australia is frequently found a wasteland of human frustration and alienation, sexist oppression and the aggressively heartless consumerism that is paraded as our cultural heritage.

     This contradiction between over-development and under-development, and the political ideology and cultural values which sustain it, is the central contradiction of our historic period. It is the question to which all genuine movements for social change must, in some respect, address themselves. For the simple fact is that the impoverishment and suffering of the Third World, like the empty frustration of many of our own lives, is the direct function of the way we live not as individuals, but as a society. It is a problem that demands, not only the development of new life styles by people in the over-developed countries, but actual changes in the way we organise ourselves and the goals that we pursue.

     As economic difficulties and raw material shortages increase, the institutions of our liberal parliamentary democracy will become increasingly un-responsive to the resulting tensions and conflicts, and the danger of mass reaction in the metropolitan countries will grow. The existence of a mass movement posing genuinely radical alternatives will thus become increasingly important. But such a movement must do more than merely develop socially responsible and personally fulfilling life styles and institutions for survival, important though these may be. It must develop the capacity—the power—to directly challenge by action and example the ideology of corporate capitalism itself which places profits and property before people.

     Because of the causal inter-relationship between over- and under-development, the solutions to the problems of overdevelopment in our own society must, as in the Third World, be of a social and political nature, reaching to the base. The radical restructuring of our society which will be necessary will require the widest possible involvement in exploring the options available to us and in considering the alternative possibilities of socialism, not as an adequate solution in itself, but as a necessary pre-condition for such solutions.

     The nature of the changes that we must inevitably face require a mass community involvement and thus the development of a mass consciousness of the problems. This must include a more profound understanding of, and sympathy with, the struggles of the Third World -- an understanding that solidarity with the Third World peoples is not merely support for their cause, but is intimately related to the nature of our own society and is an integral part of transforming and liberating ourselves. In so doing we must strive to reinvest our understanding and practice of solidarity with something of its original meaning—a joining of common struggle—so that we can truly perceive the struggles of the Third World as one with our own, rather than vicariously as struggles on our behalf, or even as a threat to us.

     Seen in this context, the weaknesses of the movement for radical social change are fairly evident. Pre-eminently, the movement still lacks, as the Moratorium lacked, a credible and generally accepted theory of social change in Australian conditions from which perspectives and priorities can be derived. Hence many people involved in alternatives seem to feel that doing anything at all in a generally 'progressive' direction is just as valid as doing anything else. Or again, that it is quite reasonable for each individual or group to establish their own priorities and seek their own solutions, irrespective of what others in the movement are doing, and without any attempt to build a movement consensus about what tasks are most urgent and immediate.

     This approach is also reflected in the radical movement's lack of organisational or even cultural cohesion. There is a strongly anti-organisation sentiment amongst many involved in exploring alternatives which is a predictable enough reaction against the stifling restrictions of our existing social and economic institutions, and the organisation for organisation's sake approach of much of the Old Left. Nevertheless, it is a largely irrational response which ignores the real strength and pervasiveness of corporate welfare capitalism and the ideology that underpins it.

     These weaknesses are partly derived from a general lack of historical perspective. The radical movement in Australia has been slow to develop a consciousness of itself as a movement with its own history as well as its own incipient culture. The monolithic social concensus of the Cold War and Menzie s' years obliterated from our collective consciousness much of the most valuable experiences and perceptions of movements and experiments in the past with not dissimilar aims to our own. We have lost the sense of continuity and growth which is essential for the morale and resilience of any radical movement. Our past has been taken from us, and our judgment of present future possibilities suffers accordingly.

     The anti-war movement could well be uniquely placed to contribute to overcoming some of these weaknesses. Its historical origins and experience are a resource which the whole radical movement can usefully share. Potentially, the anti-war movement bridges the gap between the organised working class and the more recently radicalised social strata with the new forms of political/cultural action they have devised. But, most importantly, it has developed an understanding of the need to create mechanisms of integration within the movement—to seek, at the very least, to counteract the tangential forces which retard the movement's growth, strength and unity. 

     At the theoretical level, we need to achieve a better working integration between our understanding of the global imperatives which will increasingly impinge themselves upon our particular social reality, and the dynamics and imperatives of our own society. While each individual cannot work at every level and on every front simultaneously, the depth of commitment and intensity of involvement that necessarily must be sustained, demands the creation of a movement consciousness that is both sufficiently theoretically rigorous and humanely supportive to give meaning and hope to specific undertakings.

     The integration of information and political action is another necessary task. In reaction to the often mindless activism of the sixties, a tendency to see the mere accumulation and distribution of information as itself a valid form of political action has arisen. Hence the remarkable proliferation of resource centres, learning exchanges and similar information-handling projects. In a society such as ours where information resources and skills, the hardware for the storage, retrieval and processing of information, and the media of communication are firmly controlled by economic and professional elites, the selection and use of information is potentially an instrument of power in the hands of the powerless but only potentially so. While the way in which the world is imagined will often determine the way people act in any given situation, the mere fact of knowing does not necessarily mean that people will think or act differently. A fundamentally naive belief in rationality seems to underlie the practice of many groups involved in information handling so that they often become contained within a process of

providing information for its own sake. The belief faithfully reflects the middle class, often academic, bias of many of those involved in the radical movement.

     Community-based information services are only useful if they operate within the context of a movement which offers people the opportunity to respond in meaningful and effective ways. That is, they must be integrated within the context of political action—an organised movement of people that can break down the individual's feelings of helplessness and isolation, set concrete and attainable goals within a perspective that can ultimately be reflected at the level of the whole society's goals and values, and in people's daily lives

     Organisational integration is another necessary task if we are ever to be able to speak of 'the movement' as a tangible reality, instead of a shared notion. This need does not imply any misplaced or futile attempt to create a 'people's party' or a super organisation that would swallow up every little group. It does, however, mean that greater attention needs to be given to deliberate efforts to create organisational forms for the movement which can at once encourage the flexible diversity and personal creativity that appeared within the Moratorium, while providing for a greater degree1 of on-going cooperation and political stamina.

     Seeing the movement as a 'collective of collectives', rather than a monolithic organisation, provides a conceptual model for our guidance, but its actual forms need to be developed and refined in practice through a process of creative innovation. The 'collective of collectives' model certainly suggests the need not only to encourage a greater sense of 'movement consciousness', but also to create a variety of key institutions that can give structural form to such consciousness. Resource centres, learning exchanges, food co-ops, alternative health centres and similar cooperative projects should be projected as fulfilling this role, and in so doing assume a political significance beyond their intrinsic worth.

     One conceit that we must avoid in our search for real alternatives to our present social reality, is the belief that any specific project or any particular group's ideas can, in themselves, create a radical movement as if from nothing. A movement for fundamental social change already exists in Australia, and will continue to exist whether or not most of the ideas discussed in this article and this book are fulfilled. This movement involves some exceedingly important elements, such as the struggle of militant workers for control of their labour and of the productive resources which they create, and the struggle of women for self-realisation and full personhood. It also includes countless individuals and groups, striving in countless ways for a better, more complete life for themselves and for others. To ignore or devalue their efforts is to demean our own values and diminish our own struggle.

     The radical movement has a past from which we can learn, and a future for which we must struggle together. It has a whole multiplicity of local and international connections and associations through which it shares experiences and gains strength and inspiration. In short, it has a historical reality that transcends the particular.

      The question to which we must address ourselves is thus, not: what must we build to fulfill our own goals and our own vision of a better society? It is rather, what contribution can we make to a living human endeavour to clarify and strengthen its common purpose? What are the needs of this particular moment to which we must respond if we are serious about the necessity for fundamental social change? What part can we play, what is the quality of the commitment we must make, in making the possibility of a new society a reality? From the workers' movement we can learn the importance , the necessity, of solidarity and organisation. The radical movement's significance is in direct proportion to our success in creating the sense of common purpose and identity, and the organisational expression of this purpose which we have already discussed.

     From the womens' movement we can learn the necessity of achieving, within all aspects of the radical movement, a more adequate integration of the political and the personal. Being part of a radical—a revolutionary movement means basically redefining ourselves. It means committing ourselves, not only to the ideals and goals which we are seeking through the movement, but also to each other, as comrades. It means defining ourselves not in terms of personal achievement with its inevitable concomitant of competition, but in terms of our relations with one another, of our commitment to a shared purpose. Neither conventional wisdom's dictum that personal needs should be adjusted to society's demands, or the revolutionary sophistry that the resolution of personal oppression and the growth of personal and societal relations even within the radical movement must wait upon and will inevitably flow from the overthrow of economic and class oppression, can any longer be tolerated. For the radical movement even to exist at all it is vital that our political practice include the mutual support, fulfillment and growth that our grasping, dehumanised society denies to most of its members. Our revolutionary duty includes the creation within the movement of a social and personal reality that allows us to grow as whole people, capable of responding to each others needs and to the needs of people beyond the movement, with compassion and trust. This explicitly involves rejecting the indulgence of seeking personal solutions or withdrawing into the reactionary mirage of a separate reality. We must proclaim the movement as a repository of hope and a medium of change—as itself a model, albeit incomplete and distorted, of the changes we are seeking. Only in this way can we invent the humanely radical alternatives that are real alternatives for more than a tiny privileged elite. The creation of such alternatives daily becomes the only possible option that humanity can rationally contemplate.


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