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 collapse of Carillion is only one small part of a larger story of decades of economic mismanagement
Laura McDonald writes that universities should not just be finishing schools for the wealthy or disciplinary institutions churning out docile workers.
A floundering alliance of Blairites is trying to reinvent itself for a Corbynite age. By Tom Costello.
Marienna Pope-Weidemann explains why decades of occupation and oppression have led some people to call Israel an apartheid state.
International Women's Day is set to be marked by strikes from "paid work in offices and factories, or unpaid domestic work in homes, communities and bedrooms."
Laurie Laybourn-Langton writes that measuring the economy is political - and economic measurement dominates politics.
David Scott argues that our prison system represents a human rights disaster, and reformist solutions can't tackle the root problems.
A deeper engagement with culture can strengthen our democracy, taking political projects beyond electoral impact and festival memes into a whole new world of radical, lasting change.
Ruth Tanner writes that revelations about Oxfam's behaviour in Haiti are shocking, but not surprising.
The actions of Oxfam officials are horrendous - but gutting foreign aid funding just puts more people at risk, writes Daniel Gibson.
Stormzy, Grenfell and what it means to be a ‘threat’
The artist is giving a vital platform to a new generation of voices pointing out the deep hypocrisy in which crimes get punished and which get rewarded, write Remi Joseph-Salisbury and Laura Connelly
For All, By All
The latest issue of Red Pepper asks - how do we invite, support and nurture greater public participation so that our cultural capabilities are empowered beyond the crushing logic of market fundamentalism?
‘We are hungry in three languages’: The forgotten promise of the Bosnian Spring
Ruth Tanner looks back at a wave of protests which swept through Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2014.
It’s time for a cultural renewal of the left
Andrew Dolan writes that we need to integrate art, music, films and poetry into our movement, creating spaces where political ideas are given further room to breathe.
Jeremy Hunt is poised to flog the last of the NHS
Peter Roderick sounds the alarm on an 'attack on the fundamental principles of the NHS'.
Viva Siva, 1923-2018
A. Sivanandan, who died this week, was a hugely important figure in the politics of race and class. As part of our tributes, Red Pepper is republishing this 2009 profile of him by Arun Kundnani
Sivanandan: When memory forgets a giant
Daniel Renwick calls for the whole movement to discover and remember the vital work of A. Sivanandan, who died this week
A master-work of graphic satire
American Jewish cartoonist Eli Valley’s comic commentary on America, the US Jewish diaspora and Israel is nothing if not near the knuckle, Richard Kuper writes