For many Jewish activists the main problem with the coalition Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, or Answer, is the organization’s fiercely anti-Israel stance. But for some observers and activists, there is a more fundamental question: whether the decision of liberal groups to work with Answer — an organization that represents the most extreme-left elements remaining in America — will stifle the anti-war cause’s efforts to transform itself into a mass movement.
The question is particularly ripe now, with President Bush’s approval ratings and public support for the war plummeting.
Answer has had a strong hand in organizing many of the substantial anti-war gatherings since September 11, 2001. A few scratches at the surface of the organization reveals just how far outside the mainstream its ideology resides.
The lead group in Answer is the International Action Center. Led by the former attorney general turned extreme-left activist Ramsey Clark, Answer is considered widely to be a front organization for the notorious Workers World Party. The WWP is a communist group, formed in the late 1950s as a breakaway faction from the Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party.
The WWP decided it would support even the most dictatorial of Communist leaders if their mission was to undermine America and its allies — something that didn’t sit well with most Trotskyites — and its final rift with the Socialist Workers Party was over the WWP’s support of the crushing Soviet incursion into Hungary in 1956. The WWP went on to back the Chinese government and its tanks against the dissidents in Tiananmen Square, tout the virtue of the North Korean regime and openly state its support for dictators like Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic.
And the organization’s wider agenda was well on display at a rally that preceded the march in Washington, D.C., this past Saturday: A hodgepodge of speakers representing diverse leftist causes took the stage — from supporters of Fidel Castro’s Cuba to opponents of the Philippine government. And, predictably, the Palestinian cause held center stage, with at least a dozen speakers, wearing kaffiyehs wrapped around their necks and demanding a full right of return for Palestinian refugees, a stipulation any knowledgeable observer of the conflict understands as a death knell for Israel.
Answer’s wider agenda has made it easy for the right to launch attacks on the anti-war movement as it has picked up steam over the last three years. Anytime Answer is involved, the organization becomes an easy and obvious target, as well as a vehicle for criticizing other anti-war activists.
On Tuesday, in an article for Slate, Christopher Hitchens, the one-time radical who became one of the most die-hard supporters of the war in Iraq, had this to say about Answer: “To be against war and militarism, in the tradition of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, is one thing. But to have a record of consistent support for war and militarism, from the Red Army in Eastern Europe to the Serbian ethnic cleansers and the Taliban, is quite another. It is really a disgrace that the liberal press refers to such enemies of liberalism as ‘antiwar’ when in reality they are straight-out pro-war, but on the other side.”
If it were only pro-war pundits like Hitchens highlighting Answer’s presence at the heart of the anti-war movement, it would be one thing, maybe simple red-baiting. But it’s not. No less a figure than David Corn, Washington editor of The Nation, has criticized the coalition numerous times in print. As early as November 2002, a year after Answer was founded, he wrote in the L.A. Weekly: “The anti-war movement won’t have a chance of applying pressure on the political system unless it becomes much larger and able to squeeze elected officials at home and in Washington. To reach that stage, the new peace movement will need the involvement of labor unions and churches. That’s where the troops are — in the pews, in the union halls. How probable is it, though, that mainstream churches and unions will join a coalition led by the we-love-North-Korea set? Moreover, is it appropriate for groups and churches that care about human rights and worker rights abroad and at home to make common cause with those who champion socialist tyrants?”
It’s a question that clearly has troubled the left. Leaders of United for Peace and Justice, a more moderate coalition that has been focusing narrowly on the issue of the Iraq war, have taken part in demonstrations with Answer before. But they agonized for months about whether to join Answer for the September 24 rally and march. And, in recent months, they have criticized Answer’s tactics.
In a May press release, the national coordinator of United for Peace and Justice, Leslie Cagan, wrote that “while professing to desire unity, Answer and the IAC have repeatedly misrepresented the positions of, attacked, and attempted to isolate and split UFPJ and other antiwar groups, even when we were supposedly in alliances.”
Still, Cagan’s organization eventually opted for cosponsoring the march, explaining its decision as a way to avoid disunity and draw the largest possible number of people to one protest.
It seems to be a conclusion some people on the left are coming to, despite their reservations about Answer’s politics. The growing opposition to the war in Iraq, along with Cindy Sheehan’s more populist protest this summer, might have made Answer’s role less of a liability. Though Answer still might be getting the permits for marches and planting speakers at rallies, there is little question that the overwhelming majority of people going to demonstrations do so because they want to publicly oppose the war, not support fringe causes.
“Most of the media and most people have the good sense to understand that people who oppose the war are not these Stalinist androids,” said Eric Alterman, who writes a column for The Nation.
Alterman said he abhors Answer’s politics, but ultimately thinks the organization’s involvement is a “net plus” if it can bring out the hundreds of thousands of people they are able to organize.
The anti-war movement needs to stomach Answer’s antics and extremism, Alterman said, just “like the people who really wanted to go to war are stuck with the Bush administration.”
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman