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Broad front or false front?

‘Rage Against the War Machine’ and the troubled state of the peace movement

War ZonesSocial MovementsUSA Politics

Promotional artwork for the Rage Against the War Machine rally, held at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC on February 19, 2022.

On February 19, no fewer than 1,000 protestors converged in Washington, DC for the Rage Against the War Machine rally, in opposition to the escalation of US support for the war in Ukraine. Slickly packaged and backed by a motley of reactionary groups and individuals, Rage Against the War Machine was better marketed than attended, as an attempt at “left-right unity” against a heavily propagandized war. Whatever one makes of this premise, however, there was no real left-wing of the day’s uneasy coalition, whose speakers frequently descended into bigoted non sequitur and half-cocked conspiracism against a backdrop of pro-war, but anti-US, signage.

Left-right unity remains a dubious proposition, as a cursory vetting of Rage Against the War Machine participants demonstrates. At a glance, the rally’s boast of ideological consolidation is reflected by its two major backers: the Libertarian Party and the People’s Party. The former is a fringe representation of otherwise mainstream American political opinion, promoting laissez-faire capitalism and personal freedom. The latter, properly known as the Movement for a People’s Party, originates from a failed petition for Bernie Sanders to break with the Democratic Party, and promises to build a major populist movement, neither left nor right, in the United States.

After the participation of party chairs Angela McArdle and Nick Brana, the list of speakers tends to minor infamy; including prominent COVID denier and comedian Jimmy Dore; retired Congressman Ron Paul; dimpled huckster and “MAGA communist” Jackson Hinkle; folksinger Tatiana Moroz, creator of the digital currency ‘TatianaCoin’; and journalist and author Chris Hedges. Off-marquee, one finds the likes of Helga Zepp-LaRouche, widow and political advocate of far-right cultist Lyndon LaRouche, whose posterity maintains an outsized presence at Rage Against the War Machine and its related events.

The LaRouche movement should comprise a footnote in the history of fascist sects, but Lyndon LaRouche’s post-Trotskyist pivot to race science and conspiracism continues to exert a subterranean pull on the global right, and its representatives in Washington last Sunday in particular. Speaker Diane Sare recently ran for Senate on a LaRouche Party ticket, and the sponsoring Center for Political Innovation (CPI) collaborates with Zepp-LaRouche’s Schiller Institute in official conferences and publications. The CPI is itself a vehicle of left-right unity—a putatively communist organization known for its social chauvinism and online recruitment, its mantra, “we are city builders,” closely harmonizes the lexicon of LaRouchean “Nation-Builders,” and significantly launders their Promethean ideals.

All told, the Rage Against the War Machine rally itself made very little impact on the US ruling class, its government, or the course of its war—let alone the movements that it claimed to unite. But its occasion permits us to consider the state of the peace movement in North America; the real risks posed to socialist organizing by right-wing populism; and the persistent ease with which right-wing movements abscond with progressive talking points, even organizing around issues that they are unable to properly represent.

The anti-war right

We could start with a simple, and then daunting, question. How should we situate this trend as we fight back the far-right and oppose the march to war at once? What are the conditions under which the right finds itself able to claim peace for its own movements, however falsely?

To take them at their word, we might start with the war itself. US military spending on Ukraine reached $50 billion in 2022, with Volodymyr Zelensky pledging to fight “to the last Ukrainian” at the behest of his political backers. The war has been disastrous for Ukrainians and Russians alike, as their governments heap arms atop atrocities and hemorrhage draftees to the front. There is little will to diplomacy on display from any section of the US ruling class, and the bourgeois press continues to portray the conflict as a war of conquest plain and simple, rather than apprehend its functional significance within a world-system being reconsolidated before our eyes.

A year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and almost nine years on from the commencement of Ukraine’s war on the declared republics of the Donbas, a negotiated peace remains both an urgent necessity and a distant, improbable goalpost. As war rages at ever greater expense, all manner of people in the imperial core are beginning to sense what is systematically concealed from understanding—that capitalism is perpetual war, and that the domestic crises that assail workers here are intimately connected to military adventurism abroad. This surely includes the larger part of the US populace attracted to right-wing ideas, for expediency if not persuasiveness.

Recession and war—profligate spending abroad and punitive austerity at home—go hand in hand. As the US spends more than half of Russia’s military budget on the largest European ground war since World War II, pushing the world to a nuclear precipice, its domestic economy is expected to endure approximately 175,000 job cuts a month in 2023, as the Federal Reserve tries to tame runaway inflation. These conditions have spawned various agendas, and the right has typically excelled at parlaying economic shocks into political gains. As prices increase, it is crucial to track the intricate effects of war inflation, where the right has conventionally linked currency crisis to conspicuous consumption and overall moral torpor in order to propagandize its various cultural projects—from traditionalism of the family to outright persecution of so-called ‘surplus populations’ and the minoritized positions comprising this visibly disenfranchised fringe.

As emancipatory movements are forced to defend their small gains against right-wing scapegoating and the same conditions of decline that commend reactionary explanations to a section of the population, the anti-capitalist left needs to rally both a vigorous defense and a persuasive explanation of social and economic phenomena—including the war. As incredulity of US militarism inevitably gains, a movement for peace on behalf of the entire working class must assume the highest priority.

Gerald Celente speaks at the Rage Against the War Machine Rally in Washington, DC, February 19, 2023.

The pro-war left

Disappointingly, large sections of the left lack clarity on this elementary issue, and the ease with which the right borrows the language of anti-imperialism surely has to do with a fractious North American left and its poor track record on such matters. The Ukraine Solidarity Network, for example, gathers various academics and activists in limitless support for Ukraine’s “right to obtain the weapons it needs from any available source”—tacitly supporting the arms deals of military superpowers with any number of local and unaccountable militias, many of them avowedly fascist. In this statement, weak disclaimer notwithstanding, the network’s signatories line up behind their respective bourgeoisies, who are equally certain to grant Ukraine the right to obtain contracts for essential infrastructure, “from any available source”—such is the market.

Bluntly, not everyone to blame for the confusion of the Rage Against the War Machine coalition was in direct attendance, where the hawkish weakness of the academic left on imperialism has furnished opportunists a hold in the heart of the anti-war movement. But what of the nominally socialist supporters of this summit? Somewhere on the left, another subset of commentators elides Russia’s aggression altogether by reference to the non-negotiable fact of NATO encirclement and escalation in the region. This perspective typically perceives Russia as an exemplary anti-imperialist force in the world, precipitating a realignment of interests on the model of ‘multipolarity.’ This involves a conflation of national interests that fantastically overreaches the apparent policy goals of China, most obviously, whose neutrality is a matter of survival; and substitutes a vulgar “clash of civilizations” narrative for class analysis. In a war between “East” and “West,” class struggle is omitted altogether; and with Mutually Assured Destruction back on the table, meek fantasies of “revolutionary defeatism”—already disqualified by the absence of revolution—verge on Orientalism and political nihilism.

Where competing extremes of opinion, however scholarly, appear to be operated from above by warring interests, it’s hard to hold fast to something so improbable as diplomacy. The Ukraine Solidarity Network dismisses peace as a meaningless abstraction, as an “anti-imperialist” right cheers on the conscription of working people in a moral crusade, euphemizing peace for its own purposes. In a familiar dynamic, simplicity permits eclecticism; and the pro-war, albeit pro-Russia, crowd makes ample room for “alternative” perspectives on the conflict and its desirable outcomes, from philosopher Alexander Dugin’s esoteric “Fourth Political Theory” to LaRouchean anti-globalism. Amid this murk there are competing points of view, and nothing else; but these agree where multipolarity has been twisted to denote civilizational war, rather than a counter-hegemonic emergence. This horizon is hardly socialist, where civilizations are almost entirely composed of their working classes, after all; recast as nuclear fodder by Manichean cranks.

This factor cannot be underestimated in the articulation of Rage Against the War Machine. Social media coverage of this thinly attended gathering demonstrates a preponderance of pro-war demonstrators, carrying images of Putin and stylizations of the letter Z, used to denote support for the Russian invasion (theories as to the derivation of this symbol vary, but a popular explanation concerns a Romanization of the Russian phrase за победу, ‘for victory’). There are many arguments from principle to be made against the temptation of left-right unity around a single issue—but the fact is that there isn’t a unifying interpretation of the war to be found here anyway. The gulf between exoticized militarism and an authentic movement for peace is stark, and unity between these two extremes can only mean strategic liquidation.

At this point, we should be absolutely clear: above all else, socialists must oppose the stake of their own country’s bourgeoisie in imperialist war; but any additional enthusiasm remains ghoulish and unsolicited. In the US, as well as Canada, a principled movement for peace must first and foremost call attention to the instigating role of NATO in this war, and demand that our governments stop fueling the fire, immediately. To the letter, the goals of February 19 are agreeable in this respect, but based on its roster of participants, we must read between the lines. Demands upon Putin are beside the point from our geopolitical vantage; and lurid fantasies of a Russian victory are still more infantile. We march alongside these dangerous sentiments at risk of the consistency that is our movement’s claim.

Class fracture

The emergence of an anti-war right correlates strongly to a current of international and domestic isolationism within, and without, the Republican Party, where relative extremists such as Marjorie Taylor Greene have registered the loudest opposition to aid for Ukraine, military and otherwise. Republican support for the war has continued to wane over the last year, from 80 to 55 percent, attesting to a cleave within the right wing of capital. Against this backdrop, far-right lip service to peace is most reliable as a single index of capitalist competition, in which small, self-made competitors are threatened with downward mobility in a crisis.

What, if anything, commends left-wing participation in this motley? Under threat of nuclear war, one might expect bedfellows as odd as the entirety of the population to swell the streets. This hasn’t been so by any comparative standard, and it certainly wasn’t on February 19, as the Rage Against the War Machine rally attracted little more than 1,000 people despite national promotion. Of course, we shouldn’t condescend to peace movements based on thin participation, where this work has been systematically discredited for decades. But where unity is the watchword, Rage Against the War Machine should be measured against more consistent successes from considerably left of its coalition’s furthest extreme.

In April 1965, at the height of the Vietnam War, 25,000 protestors took to the Capitol—as many gathered in opposition to the war as were deployed abroad in its service. During the Gulf War in 1991, 75,000 anti-war protestors descended on the capital. In February 2003, in an internationally coordinated day of protest, hundreds of cities in the US hosted demonstrations in opposition to the invasion of Iraq. The largest demonstration took place in New York City, including as many as 400,000 protestors. Tens of thousands more marched on Washington, multiplying already impressive numbers from clockwork demonstrations of late 2002. It’s difficult today to imagine numbers of this magnitude—that is, for peace. In February 2022, the largest rallies in the US were nakedly pro-war, with the demand for a NATO-backed ‘No Fly Zone’ leading the day. These demonstrations set the tone for popular perception of the Ukraine War in the US consciousness, such that the peace movement continues to trail far behind the liberal march to Armageddon.

Domestic jingoism

This weakness doesn’t recommend collaboration, however, on this or any other matter of only apparently shared concern. There are no single issues under capitalism, and we lose all authority when we permit libertarian think tanks, social chauvinists, and COVID denialists to smuggle their attacks on health care, organized labour, and marginalized groups into anti-war movements. As greater numbers of working people in the US and Canada are plunged into precarity alongside imperial slaughter, the socialism of fools and its many modern variants will exert a falsely persuasive appeal. Clear demarcations are again required, where the left participation in this demonstration is nominal to the point of deception.

Both the People’s Party and CPI propose versions of MAGA-with-Medicare, and the CPI is more chimerical still, rallying a terminally online and newly politicized peanut gallery to the paradoxical cause of an ultranationalist anti-imperialism. In this excrescent tendency, one senses the strange reversibility of right-wing deviation and ultra-leftism, where the CPI essentially articulates a Third Worldism of the imperial core—proposing a storybook developmentalism to reverse the deindustrialization of America. The ideological output of this geopolitical confusion is a domestic jingoism, in which the cultural agenda of these (national) socialists echoes the usual right-wing scapegoating, in war or recession. As LaRouche went before, so goes Caleb Maupin.

What to make of this discordant chorus? The integrity of individual participants notwithstanding, there can be no right-wing or capitalist anti-imperialism by definition, where imperialism names the highest stage of capitalism, characterized by the predominance of monopoly capital. But this paradoxical trend indicates an ideological fracture of the right, where the recent surge of libertarian anti-imperialism properly corresponds to a petty bourgeois nostalgia for relative spatial monopoly during an upward transfer of wealth. This is the pattern of expropriation that recommends ad hominem diatribes against ‘globalists’ rather than globalization; and narrow isolationism over internationalism. However closely linked these phenomena remain, we must be mindful of conceptual slippage: an anti-monopoly movement does not equate to an anti-war movement, nor to an anti-capitalist movement, whatever else it describes.

How can these errors of analysis help us to articulate a more consistent movement against war and monopoly capital, today? NATO’s war in Europe delegates defense of a collective imperial power to a puppet government in Ukraine, with the intent of suturing the global market for US finance capital. Through a glass darkly, this can look like many things—from the wholesale destruction of Ukrainian lives at the hands of a rival, sub-imperialist power to the military frontier of a global expropriation, with local consequences wherever we happen to live. All manner of political interests recruit from these partial impressions, and it falls to the anti-capitalist left to articulate the complexity of this war honestly, without relish or false realism, as we oppose it totally.

Fund people’s needs

On March 18—the 20th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq—the ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) Coalition, Black Alliance for Peace, CodePink, People’s Forum, and dozens of other organizations will march on Washington, DC to demand peace in Ukraine. This movement partakes of the consistency and conviction of decades, gathering committed peace activists beneath a simple banner: “Fund People’s Needs, Not the War Machine.” This two-point program already exceeds any hope of unity with libertarians and marketeers, where meeting people’s basic needs is out of the question for these interests. As for the right-wing misprision of peace, there is no better weapon against the mercenary than unwavering principle. Reaction and credibility rarely share a stage.

Cam Scott is a poet, writer, and organizer from Winnipeg, Canada, Treaty 1 territory. His books include ROMANS/SNOWMARE and The Vanishing Signs, both published by ARP Books. Follow Cam on Twitter @vanishingsigns.

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