Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
As we approach the tenth anniversary of the global anti-war protest of 15 February 2003, people are bound to ask what it actually achieved. Certainly it failed to stop the war, a failure for which Iraqis paid and are paying an exorbitant price. So was it a waste of time, an exercise in futility? There are answers to these questions, but to be persuasive they cannot be glib.
Let me flash back to 15 November 1969, Washington DC and the Moratorium for Peace in Vietnam. This was probably the single biggest anti-war demonstration of the era, estimated at half a million by some and twice that by others. I’d come down from the New York suburbs the day before, on a bus chartered by local activists, and spent the night on the floor of a Quaker meeting house. The next day I wandered among the vast, mostly youthful crowd, listening to the speeches, and feeling despondent and confused.
I was 16 but already a veteran of three years of anti-war protest, during which time I’d seen the movement mushroom. In the spring of 1966, I’d accompanied my parents to my first Washington DC protest, which was considered a great success because it attracted a crowd of 10,000. Now there were perhaps a hundred times that number and it felt to me like failure.
Pete Seeger, then age 50 but already a Methuselah of struggle, led chorus after chorus of the recently-released ‘Give Peace a Chance’. I was churlish about this because I thought we were or should be saying a lot more than ‘give peace a chance’. So I joined a splinter march chanting ‘Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh, NLF is gonna win’ and got tear gassed outside the Justice Department.
None of this was very satisfying and on the long drive home I felt depressed. What was the point of it all? For years we’d been protesting in ever increasing numbers, with ever increasing militancy – and yet they kept escalating the war. What difference had all our earnest activity made? What difference would the Moratorium protest make? What difference would anything make? My commonplace teenage malaise had become intertwined with a precocious experience of political frustration.
My scepticism about the demonstration’s effect seemed warranted when five months later, at the end of April 1970, the US extended the war into Cambodia. In the protests that followed six students, four at Kent State in Ohio and two at Jackson State in Mississippi, were shot dead. The upshot was the biggest student strike in US history: more than four million students walking out of classes in universities, colleges and high schools across the country. Yet still the war did not end.
Two and a half more years would pass before the peace treaty was signed in Paris in January 1973. By this time there were millions upon millions dead, disabled, bereaved, traumatised. Nonetheless, the movement against the Vietnam war is widely considered the most ‘successful’ anti‑war movement of modern times, against which more recent movements have measured their ‘failure’.
Many years later, I learned that the Moratorium demonstration was, in fact, hugely effective. In July 1969, Nixon and Kissinger had delivered an ultimatum to the Vietnamese: if they did not accept US terms for a ceasefire by 1 November, ‘we will be compelled – with great reluctance – to take measures of the greatest consequences’. The US government was threatening, and indeed actively planning, a nuclear strike against North Vietnam. In his memoirs, Nixon admitted that the key factor in the decision not to proceed with the nuclear option was that ‘after all the protests and the Moratorium, American public opinion would be seriously divided by any military escalation of the war’. What would have been the world’s second nuclear war was averted by our action, though we couldn’t have known it at the time.
So it turns out that marching on that day was anything but an exercise in futility. In fact, it’s hard to think of a day better spent in the course of a lifetime. My teenage despondency was utterly misplaced.
But this kind of retrospective vindication is rare in the extreme. Most days spent in protest will not be rewarded with such a tangible achievement. The point is that we don’t know and we can’t know which protest, leaflet, meeting, occupation, activity will ‘make a difference’. We are always the underdog, we are always contending against power, and therefore the likelihood is that we will fail. But no success can be achieved unless we risk that failure. Otherwise when possibilities for success arise they pass by unrealised.
I fear we slip too easily into a capitalist paradigm of ‘success’ and ‘failure’. Here the investment is of value only to the extent it yields measurable gains. If it doesn’t it’s a failure, dead capital. So we look for evidence that our efforts have had an impact, made a difference. Every success is catalogued on the credit side, while the much greater number of failures is left untabulated. Sometimes in doing this we start to sound a little desperate, clinging to straws. I wonder if this is the best way to persuade people to invest themselves in a cause. After all, there will always be activities offering more reliable and more tangible rewards.
In evaluating our political efforts, we have to jettison neoliberalism’s stark demarcation between success and failure, which erases everything in between and, even worse, denies any combination of the two. In the politics of social justice, unmixed success and unmitigated failure are rare. Every successful revolution or major reform has had unintended consequences, created new problems, fallen short of its goals. In politics, failures contain the seeds of successes, just as successes conceal the roots of failure.
Capitalists like to invoke a ‘risk/reward ratio’ to justify their profits. Sadly, people on the left sometimes emulate their narrow logic. They promise activists a return on their investment, a guarantee: history is on our side.
But for us, there can be no stable ratio between risk and reward. Our risk has to be taken in defiance of the odds, recognising the likelihood that there will be no reward. At the same time, we take the risk only because of the nature of the reward we seek: a precious step towards a just society. We are not at all indifferent to the outcome. We aim and need to succeed because the consequences of failure are real and widely felt.
So we make the investment. We put our time and energy and skills at the disposal of a cause. This is a greater investment than the capitalist knows – and one that makes us vulnerable in a way the capitalist never is.
We’re taught to despise and fear failure but to engage in the politics of social change we have to be brave enough to fail. Science advances through failure; every successful experiment is made possible only by a host of failed ones. In human evolution, failure – incapacities, shortcomings – led to compensation and innovation.
There are worse things than failure. You can learn more from a failure than from a success – if you recognise it as such. But if the only lesson you draw from failure is never to risk failure again, you’ve learned nothing at all.
Needless risks should always be avoided. We don’t have resources to squander. But the elimination of risk is impossible if you’re contending with power. Without risks all that can be done is to reproduce existing social relations. There is no truth, no beauty without risk, because these things can only be secured in the teeth of resistance, against institutions and habits of thought. To succeed in any way that matters, you have to take your place in the republic of the uncertain, where you risk yourself, not your stake in other people’s labour. It’s the action taken in the full knowledge of the possibility of failure, and its consequences, that acquires leverage.
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament