Is Ignorance Our Answer?

- By Macdonald Stainsby

"I've noticed [...] that a lot of people are put off from our teaching because we know the answer to everything. Couldn't we in the interests of propaganda draw up a list of questions which appear to us completely unresolved?"
--Bertolt Brecht.

After the demise of the Ba'athist Republican Guard in the streets of Baghdad came a fog in the air over the marches in the streets of the imperialist world, particularly in North America. While many of us have indeed pointed directly at the existence of a decline in enthusiasm for an anti-war movement, we have yet to spend time discussing what it is that feels different about where we are now. Worse, to avoid becoming fully demobilized-- an obviously healthy desire-- we have decided not to speak about that which we have no answer for. But these questions need to be taken up, not in the empty theorizing disconnected from practice that has characterized the flip-side of 'movement building' in the past, but in an entirely different manner. While we do this, it is important to keep an old Chinese saying on the tip of our tongues: "Those who think something cannot be done should never stand in the way of those actually doing it."

During the months leading up to the launch of the 'hot' war on Iraq (after 12 years of sanctions and intermittent bombings), organizers and new faces alike had a collective experience of a feeling that something profound was underway. While the anti-war movement has produced more than adequate proof that it was not a mere flash in the pan but instead has staying power, that same anti-war movement has less confidence, certainty, and clarity than before March 20, 2003. Much of this revolves around concerted efforts to avoid painful questions: What is the end goal of 'building the movement'? What are we attempting to accomplish? Do we have an answer for how to go beyond a certain reformist, street-clogged reactive lobbying section? What are we counter-posing? Do the people who attend marches and rallies get treated as agents of democracy or sheep to be herded?

Such questions are avoided, often, for what seems a very good reason. We do not want to break open fissures within alliances that are always tedious and delicate. So we (let's just say it) lie. We lie to ourselves, we lie to those we would organize and we lie to those who raise questions we cannot answer. But the truth is-- and we need to state this very loudly, it goes to our credibility in the end-- We have absolutely no idea at all what to do. Revolutionaries have worked exceedingly hard at facilitating both social democratic allies and the uncommitted sections of the population in such a manner that put tens of thousands of people-- in some cities, hundreds of thousands-- in the streets to do one thing: Stop a war that we knew could not be stopped by mere pressure tactics alone. In and of itself, this is a good thing, but to what end? What are we going to do when we 'build the movement' to the maximum? There comes a time when society is basically infused from one end to the other with the real burning questions of the day and we have nothing at all to offer in this situation.

When tens of thousands of normally inactive or dispersed people get together to 'stop the war' and fail, the result is a tremendous disempowerment: by using the language of 'correct parameters' and 'preparing for the next election', we guarantee the acceleration of defeatism.

We might best start to have a chance to deal with where to go from a point of mass mobilizations-- mostly themselves a product of material conditions we are all subject to more so than as a result of the valiant efforts of anti-war campaigners (no matter how valiant that effort might actually be)-- by saying not just to one another as activists but to the whole world that we have absolutely no idea what to do.

Let us be brutally frank with ourselves about some historical questions, the few we can learn from in more than a general manner. I say few, because we live in countries that are most poignantly defined as imperialist, as aggressor states (on both sides of the 49th parallel this is the case) that have both a standard of living and an economic relation to the world that is based on control and direction of global resources and the super-exploitation of 'Global South' labour. This should indicate that we need to draw on not lessons from feudal or semi-feudal state movements that broke with imperialism, but rather what our own 'first world' experiences have been. Here is the juice of the matter: How do we envision the transformation from a mass movement of rallies and marches to something that actually can begin to conceive of a world not 'fashioned in the image' of white supremacy, colonialism, spectator politics around voting and the celebration of the very worst in humans? Or, put again, how can we turn a movement primarily based on the spectator-thank-you-for-coming-please-come-again model into something that inspires us to actively start to fashion a new world, not through slogans and demands but actions that have concrete outcomes on something other than paper?

There are two things that happen while 'movement building' is underway that cause fissure, rupture and ultimately split within the ranks of progressive forces: Success is one. The other would be failure.

1) Success.

When we are successful in mobilizing people, it is because we do the right work at the right time. This creates expectations that the demands being brought forward will be seen through. But, of course, to "Stop the war" cannot be done. So, if you are concerned with transforming society as a whole, then 'success' is a very dangerous thing. The majority of the people involved in these coalitions are not out to try and build an alternative world. The disempowerment will happen sooner than later, and it will come from the very would-be "leaders" of the "movement". I recall the day the US 'officially' invaded Iraq a year ago. Thousands of angry people took to the streets, and they were not chanting "peace now" or "what do we want, we want peace". The anger was clear: "US out!" and similar chants continued until we were at a near breaking point. Then, a chair from the coalition thanked people for coming out and told the crowd to go home.

So, in this case, success was frightening to some of the 'leaders', and completely confusing, to say the least. Success is where we (as a movement) hit a plateau in terms of size and then have nowhere to go. We can mobilize ourselves and others into the tens of thousands-- to fail. And the people who, for the first time, are coming out to these rallies and marches, they will wonder what was the point. When we hit the highest level we can go, we can try to sustain these sing along, spectator based political gatherings, but when people sense that their input is not sought, when people realize that they are being sold a lie as far as our ability to stop a racist war, and when the mass realizes that the stated goal is impossible, then they leave, just as upset at the imperialist war machine, but also completely disillusioned by 'activism'. If activism is supposed to be about speaking truth to power, but we silence outside input (and put forward a series of people who ask them to vote for this or that, write the following letter, etc) and have no way of accommodating the desperate energy of the population for action, they become disempowered by the very act that is supposed to empower. Success, in terms of mobilizing, is based on a lie.

2) Failure.

Failure is much the same story. The difference here is that we tell our lies, and no one believes them. Much like the voting system, people come to a certain point where they can no longer believe that attempts to reform the system by merely showing off our displeasure with this or that part of the imperialist system can work. Then, once again, we lie. We try to convince people to believe in the democratic process. Yet, when we cannot do the mobilizing that we are supposed to be, we turn on one another. This is a classic result and not much more needs to be said on this.

Conclusion? Well, if you are reading this far and you are still looking for me to give answers as to how to get out of our clear impasse, then you've missed the point of this writing entirely. Here's what we need to do: Admit we know next to nothing. We need to do, just as the Brecht quote states: come up with a list of things for which we have no answer. Over the last year and a half, regardless of National Post and USA Today polls, we know the majority of even North America has no stomach for this "endless war". We also know, given the right moment in history, that we can mobilize globally like never before. So the real question, is: Can we be honest enough to state that we don't know what to do?

Having been to yesterday's large rally here in Vancouver, some of the facilitators of the anti-war movement have made it quite clear that they have their 'answer': A return to the politics of the very system of imperialism. Speaker after speaker, including keynote Noam Chomsky himself (the day after he endorsed John Kerry for President), were more interested in pushing their own agendas (in Vancouver, the agenda was a love in for the New Democratic Party, Jack Layton and the demobilizing Trade Union Bureaucracy). Being ill, I missed the march but instead went directly to the rally. It was summarily disillusioning. As speaker after speaker only talked of the need to vote out the bad people and put in the good people (Itrath Syed, powerful feminist Muslim speaker, being the exception to this), the crowd got restless and began talking among themselves. If the planners had not been smart enough to put Noam Chomsky at the end of the speakers list, there would have been about 3 people left by the end of the three hours of songs, tributes to the NDP and promises to 'stay in the streets' (though we weren't 'in the streets', but were at a beach). It was not empowering, though many might have been quite happy with having heard Chomsky talk. Spectator politics and 'get out the vote' seems to be the order of the day.

But some of us don't want a larger vote share to go to the New Democrats, but are trying to help build a movement that will challenge the very structures that create imperialist wars in the first place: imperialism itself. And many of those same people are still involved inside the very same movement that is now trying to funnel people into the dead end of electioneering. The question must then, be posed: when we get to the point where we are facing a sea of people who want to stop the war, and are willing to take action, what do we do?

The best answer to this question is to ask it, often, publicly, and with the humility of a people who want a new world. Yes, we must demand better-- but we must start from our complete ignorance. Admitting you have a problem is the first step to solving it. We don't know how to get beyond giant street protests. There is no magic point where people automatically switch from marching and crying to building a new world. So let's admit we know nothing. Then we can start to learn from each other.

Macdonald Stainsby is a young freelance writer and social justice activist based in Vacouver. He can be reached at

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