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.
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.