The Socialist Anti-War Tradition: Leading the Fight Against War and Imperialism

Socialists in the U.S. have a proud tradition of anti-war and anti-imperialist action. It's time to revive that tradition and end the endless wars.

As a generation of endless war continues to grind on, it is time for socialists to make a meaningful political intervention. As internationalists loyal to the world’s working class, we are challenged not merely to avoid falling for official lies, but to actively organize our class to stop the war machine and prevent further slaughter.

Socialists in the U.S. have a proud – and sometimes tragic – tradition of anti-war and anti-imperialist action. It found perhaps its highest expression in the Socialist Party’s (SP) heroic opposition to World War I, including Eugene Debs’ imprisonment and the nearly forgotten Green Corn Rebellion of August 1917. The SP, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and other radicals suffered intense state repression for their opposition, but Socialist leader Eugene Debs garnered nearly a million votes running for president from prison in 1920.

The U.S. socialist movement was a mass force in the first decades of the twentieth century. Total circulation of the socialist press exceeded two million copies. About 1,200 socialists held public offices in 343 municipalities across the country, including 79 mayors in 24 states. In Oklahoma, the SP had 1,500 locals with 57,000 members, many of whom were also members of the Working Class Union, a secret society that often resorted to night riding, barn burning, and dynamite. They defied fierce repression by the Wilson administration, typified by the so-called Espionage Act, which is still in force and was used to convict and imprison anti-war whistleblower Chelsea Manning.

The lesson from that time is the importance of combining electoral work with mass organizing and resistance, fighting repression, and staying united. The left and right wings in the SP tended to split in the face of repression, leading to imprisonment, demoralization, and the ultimate decline of the party.

Across the Atlantic, socialist parties in various European countries abandoned their promise to stay united against the war, and instead joined their respective national governments and marched off to slaughter. For the most part, only the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, the Italian Socialist Party, and certain factions of the German Social Democratic Party held firm. Each of these valiantly resisted the war , and were positioned to lead revolutionary uprisings at its conclusion. But the socialists’ failure to prevent or stop the war was a key factor in the deaths of millions and the devastation of Europe.

SDS, SNCC, and the anti-Vietnam war movement

There was no meaningful left-wing opposition to World War II. Those who were opposed to U.S. participation in the war, particularly the SP and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), suffered for their opposition. There was no mass opposition to the Korean War either. But in the 1960s, opposition to the Vietnam war galvanized a new generation of socialists and radicals. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) formed coalitions with a variety of socialist groups as well as civil rights organizations to build a massive anti-war crescendo that shook the foundations of the country. Of course, such opposition did not go unpunished. The federal government’s counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) intensified the repression of anti-war and civil rights activists. The Black Panthers and their allies were largely crushed, and the National Guard killed students at the Jackson State and Kent State campuses, delivering a clear message to all. Despite the repression, the transformative movement of the sixties had numerous currents, and the socialist currents played a historic role in a variety of ways.

SDS, in alliance with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), led the first large Vietnam era anti-war demonstration, mobilizing 25,000 to protest in Washington, DC in April 1965. The SDS-SNCC alliance was inspired by resistance against both the draft and the brutally racist attacks on freedom riders and voter registration activists in the South. The alliance was transformative. It changed the focus from earlier, pacifist-led actions which tended to emphasize the threat of nuclear war more than U.S. aggression in Vietnam. This new movement, given wide resonance by the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., mushroomed to encompass thousands of local, regional and national mobilizations involving millions of people.

President Lyndon Johnson’s large-scale deployments of combat troops to Vietnam stimulated militant resistance. Anti-draft activity on campuses continued, as the burning of draft cards gave way to attacks on draft boards and military ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) centers on campuses. In some places, these hated symbols of the U.S. war machine were actually burned to the ground. Alongside such tactics, socialist organizers looked for ways to reach out to the soldiers themselves, the actual working-class people who were being forced to fight. GI “coffee houses” sprang up near many military bases across the country. Soldiers and sailors created their own underground newspapers, which educated soldiers in the ranks about their rights and encouraged them to join off-base anti-war activities. Some activists – often socialists – made the conscious decision to join the military to organize against the war, and in one case launched an anti-war union in the ranks, the American Servicemen’s Union (ASU).

Meanwhile SNCC, the Black Panther Party, and others encouraged African-American soldiers to fight for their rights in the military, where segregation and racist abuse had always been dominant. The ASU’s newspaper, The Bond, and other anti-war literature circulated widely among the troops in the war theater. These developments led gradually to open rebellion, even mutiny, which became a material factor in ending the war, together with the relentless resistance of the Vietnamese national liberation forces.

In May 1971, another approach emerged: non-violent direct action aimed at “shutting it down.” Following two weeks of non-stop mass protests in Washington, as L.A. Kauffman put it in her book Direct Action, these protests ranged “from a half-million-person march to large-scale sit-ins outside the Selective Service, Justice Department, and other government agencies, some 25,000 young people set out to… disrupt the basic functioning of the federal government through nonviolent action.” Repression was fast and intense – thousands of military troops helped the DC police round up everyone suspected of participating in the protest. White House aide Jeb Magruder later noted that the protest had “shaken” Nixon and his staff, while CIA director Richard Helms called it “a very damaging kind of event,” and “one of the things that was putting increasing pressure on the administration to try and find some way to get out of the war.”

Veterans Lead the Way

Combat veterans returning from the war also became lightning rods for intensified anti-war activity. These new working-class anti-war voices were natural allies of socialists trying to reach and mobilize civilian workers against the war. Veterans’ demands for jobs, benefits, and improved care for their wounds and traumas tended to concretize the war’s negative impact on working people, while dramatizing the war’s criminal character. At least half a million veterans returned to civilian life with punitive “less than honorable” discharges which added to their difficulty reintegrating into a society already torn asunder by war. Anti-war veterans became the natural allies of war resisters – draft resisters and military deserters, as well as civilian anti-war activists – fighting for amnesty. Their joint message was that the war should never have happened, that it was a crime and the politicians who foisted it on the country and the world were the criminals. Their call for amnesty was a clear signal for the future: it’s right to refuse to fight in illegal, imperialist wars of aggression.

The massive character of the anti-war movement gradually penetrated all sectors of U.S. society, including the pro-Cold War leadership of the AFL-CIO unions. The union leadership – which through World War II included many socialists and communists – had been effectively purged and terrorized in the “Red Scare” witch hunts of the 1950s. Conservative union leaders, including AFL-CIO president George Meany, were among the most vocal supporters of the war effort. Images of construction workers bashing anti-war protesters’ heads became common fare in the mainstream media. But socialists and other anti-war activists never gave up on reaching out to union workers. And some union leaders never caved in, notably the United Electrical Workers (UE) and the International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU), as well as more mainstream unions like the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Over time Labor Against the War and other groups were able to develop anti-war and progressive activism in the unions.

The anti-war movement evolved into a genuine social rebellion across U.S.society. This rebellion fed into the women’s liberation and LGBTQ liberation movements, both of which faced vicious reactions and media vilification. Socialists were among the first to legitimize the liberationist character of these movements, recognizing them as major new forces in the broad effort to transform capitalist society. This didn’t happen smoothly or easily. The progressive movement had tended to reflect the patriarchal character of the broader society, and women and gay people often had to call out hypocrisy and discrimination among their friends and allies. But these efforts resulted in early victories, ultimately leading to a stronger and more united movement for change.

All of these new voices and social actors could be seen in the composition of the delegations to the 1972 Democratic National Convention, a kind of de facto “rainbow coalition” that mainly supported the anti-war candidacy of George McGovern. It was exhilarating to see, but it was largely an illusion: Richard Nixon successfully mobilized his “silent majority” against us. The lesson was not that the rainbow did not exist. Rather, it was not yet strong enough to challenge the war machine and its power structure, and it needed more forthright leaders than relatively Democrats like McGovern.

Anti-Imperialism in the Reagan Era and After

The Vietnam era anti-war movement and its allies were a major component of the massive opposition to President Ronald Reagan’s interventions in Central America and elsewhere in the 1980s. This opposition took on an anti-imperialist character through its solidarity with the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (Sandinista Front for National Liberation, FSLN) of Nicaragua, the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, FMLN) of El Salvador, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and the freedom struggles in South Africa and former Portuguese colonies in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau.

Reagan came to power in 1981 determined to put an end to the so-called “Vietnam syndrome.” In the wake of the Sandinista and Iranian revolutions of 1979, he called for a “spiritual renewal” of the country that translated into military buildup and intensified support for anti-communism in Central America. A new anti-war coalition, the People’s Anti-War Mobilization, staged an answer, with more than 100,000 people marching in Washington and major actions in other cities, against Reagan’s military buildup and adventures in Central America. While this new movement ultimately did not expand further, there were continuous anti-war and anti-imperialist activities during the Reagan years, including solidarity efforts with the FSLN and FMLN in Central America, and a large anti-apartheid movement in support of the African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa. In 1984 the ILWU Local 10 shut down the port of San Francisco rather than unload cargo from apartheid South Africa. They won the support of thousands in the Bay Area who rallied in solidarity. This movement succeeded in crippling U.S. government and corporate support for the racist apartheid regime. It forced Congress to pass the 1986 Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, and then override Reagan’s veto. The South African government ultimately had to release ANC leader Nelson Mandela from prison after 27 years, and he became South Africa’s first post-apartheid president in 1994.

The U.S. wars and sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s stimulated an anti-war resurgence, as did the belligerent response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In 2002 and 2003, a crescendo of ever larger mass protests opposed George W. Bush’s war buildup against Iraq. At least 100,000 protested in Washington in October 2002, and millions more marched all over the country and around the world. By mid-February 2003, a New York Times front-page report read “there are two superpowers on the planet: the United States and worldwide public opinion.” Socialists played a key role in these mobilizations by making them anti-imperialist, anti-racist, and international in scope, while organizing on a broad basis to encompass all social sectors. The lull that took hold with Bush’s and Obama’s wars, has only recently begun to lift. The drumbeats against Venezuela and Iran have awakened a renewed determination to stop and prevent the never-ending U.S. “regime change” interventions. The recent coup in Bolivia – officially hailed by the government in Washington and by corporate media as a “victory for democracy” – has opened the way for broad opposition to the U.S. imperialist interventions in Latin America and across the globe.

Beyond the Endless Wars

The endless wars of our age have tended to numb the American population, including progressives, to their devastating toll and impact. This presents an opportunity – and obligation – for socialists to intervene. While our attention is rightly focused on such pressing concerns and interests of our working class as Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, we need to be aware that only by ending the wars and dismantling the U.S. war machine, including demobilization of about a thousand forward bases across the globe, will it be possible to get these desperately needed social programs.

We should not pretend that a Green New Deal can happen without sidelining the fossil fuel industry and dramatically shrinking the military. Despite official efforts to make the public believe the war machine is “defending human rights and democracy around the world,” we can and must convince people that its main reason to exist is for U.S. control of oil reserves across the globe. Thus, the good news: demobilizing the fossil fuel industry and the military are really two sides of one coin.

The obvious lesson is that peace and social transformation go together: we can’t have one without the other. And that is precisely the socialist vision the people of this country, and the world, so desperately need. As Bernie Sanders says, “the real challenge of our time is to see how we can… stop aggression and keep our people safe. Because if we are not successful right now, then I think all this world has to look forward to in the future for our children is war, and more war, and more war… as if we haven’t had enough war already.”