When thousands of protesters marched down Pennsylvania Avenue during the big antiwar demonstration in Washington on January 18, they just happened to pass the national headquarters of the College Republicans. And on that afternoon there just happened to be some young Republicans inside, drinking wine and hanging out. When they heard all the commotion outside and saw the protest going by — they hadn’t known their office was on the route — they couldn’t help making a statement.
The students pulled a dry-erase board off the wall and wrote a simple message: “Hippies Go Home.” They took it out to their second-floor balcony overlooking the march, and what followed was what diplomats sometimes call a frank exchange of ideas.
“F*** YOU!” a group of the protesters yelled. “Nazis!” someone shouted. Others began chanting: “Hey hey! Ho ho! Yuppie f***s have got to go!” The College Republicans seemed to enjoy it all, smiling and waving and making peace signs. They enjoyed it so much that after a while, they found another board and made a sign that said: “Saddam Kills.” That seemed to particularly agitate the protesters. “Bush kills too!” they screamed. “Bush kills too!”
It all made for good street theater, but in one sense the young Republicans had it wrong. If they had really wanted to get to the heart of the matter, they might have raised a sign that said, “Commies Go Home.” While that wouldn’t have been fair to most of the marchers, it would have been a direct hit at the people who organized the demonstration — and who are the most forceful voices in today’s antiwar movement.
The protest was put together by a group called International ANSWER, which stands for Act Now to Stop War and End Racism. ANSWER is an outgrowth of another group called the International Action Center, a San Francisco-based organization that showcases the work of Ramsey Clark, the Johnson administration attorney general who has specialized in anti-American causes. Both ANSWER and the International Action Center are closely allied with a small but energetic Marxist-Leninist organization known as the Workers World Party, which in its turbulent history has supported the Soviet interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Chinese government’s crackdown in Tiananmen Square. Today, the WWP devotes much of its energy to supporting the regimes in Iraq and North Korea.
At the demonstration, which many media reports portrayed as a gathering of mainstream Americans, speaker after speaker condemned the United States with ancient Communist rhetoric: “revolution,” “struggle,” “oppressed peoples,” “imperialism,” and “liberation.” One speaker even addressed her fellow protesters as “comrades.” Given the impressive strength of the public-address system, it felt like a literal blast from the past. And if the subject had not been so serious, it might have seemed almost quaint. But the demonstration’s organizers, perhaps unwittingly, made a very serious point: More than a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, and long after most Americans stopped worrying about the Red Menace, a significant part of the movement that has risen up in opposition to war in Iraq is, in essence, a Communist front.
Perhaps the most visible face of the demonstration was its co-director and chief spokesman, Brian Becker. Becker got a lot of exposure in the days leading up to the rally; he was quoted in newspaper articles, appeared on TV, and did radio interviews to promote the event. A member of the secretariat of the Workers World Party — and called by some the party’s house intellectual — Becker is a contributor to the party’s newspaper, Workers World, as well as a top official of International ANSWER and the International Action Center.
There is an almost central-casting quality to Becker’s Communism. For example, in a December 2000 address to the Workers World Party conference in New York, Becker began by discussing issues raised by “comrades” who had recently been to Cuba and then launched into a detailed and impassioned analysis of Marxism and revolution. Becker stressed that the Workers World Party had “supported the Soviet Union against imperialism and domestic counter-revolution.” He praised the Soviets for having “sent invaluable aid to Vietnam, Cuba, the African National Congress in South Africa, and other national-liberation movements.” He railed against “U.S. imperialism.” And he concluded: “We know that the biggest single contribution that we can we make to the final transition to socialism everywhere is to build a truly revolutionary party that can lead the struggle to overthrow imperialism at its center.”
These days, with the Soviet Union long dead, Becker spends much of his time supporting rogue regimes. Last August, he traveled to Iraq as part of a delegation led by Ramsey Clark. In an article in Workers World, he bitterly condemned the “lawless aggression” of the “imperialist” and “racist” U.S. air patrols enforcing the no-fly zone. In early 2000, Becker traveled to North Korea to help build what he had earlier called “a movement of genuine solidarity” with Pyongyang. Accompanying Becker was a WWP writer, who described the deep impression North Korea made on them. “Wherever we went and whomever we spoke with,” she wrote, “what impressed us the most was the unbreakable determination of the North Korean people to defend their socialist society against U.S. imperialism.”
Such statements do not add up to the ideal profile for a leader in an antiwar movement that seeks broad mainstream support. But don’t suggest that to Becker. At a news conference the day before the protest, he grew angry when asked about his association with the WWP. “I want to talk about you,” he said. “National Review is a racist pro-war magazine. It’s got a long — many, many generations of racism and militarism. So your so-called interest in the Left is complete bulls**t. You’re just looking to try to divide the antiwar movement. This is a right-wing, racist, militarist magazine. You should be embarrassed to be working for it.” End of conversation.
Becker is not the only WWP activist who played a key role in the January 18 demonstration. Another co-organizer — and M.C. — of the event was a man named Larry Holmes. A member of the Workers World Party secretariat, Holmes has run for president twice on the WWP ticket. At the rally, he used his time to lecture the crowd on the plight of political prisoners in the U.S. He cited two examples, Mumia Abu-Jamal and Jamil Al-Amin (better known as H. Rap Brown), who have both been convicted of murdering police officers and have become causes célèbres in radical circles. “There are so many political prisoners,” Holmes told the crowd. “They want peace more than any of us, and they’re in prison for fighting for it.”
Yet another member of the WWP secretariat, a woman named Sara Flounders, also spoke at the rally, denouncing George W. Bush’s “racist arrogance” and “plans for criminal war of colonial conquest.” In addition, the crowd heard from representatives of other groups — the Free Palestine Alliance, Free the Cuban Five, and the Korea Truth Commission — that are apparently front organizations associated with the WWP. By the time the rally was over the audience had heard enough cries of “Butcher Sharon!,” “We don’t want your racist war!,” and “Free Mumia” to last for many months to come.
For outside observers, the effect of it all was to raise questions about the real nature of the peace movement. “The Workers World Party is one of the most obnoxious groups on the far Left,” says Stephen Zunes, an associate professor of politics at the University of San Francisco who studies the antiwar movement. The WWP exercises influence, Zunes explains, by its sheer energy and resourcefulness. “Historically, you have these groups that are just able to out-organize anybody else. One thing you can say about Marxist/Leninist groups is that at least in the organization stage, they are very efficient.” The Workers World Party has simply out-hustled other leftist groups in the work of getting parade permits and organizing big events. According to Zunes, that has created a problem for more moderate antiwar organizations. “It causes division among the non-authoritarian Left groups. They say, ‘Do we march at a rally organized by a group like this? I don’t feel comfortable with this, but it’s the only game in town.’”
But it is not at all clear that other Left groups are truly distressed by the WWP’s tactics. In interviews with several representatives of peace-movement groups, most declined to condemn the politics of Brian Becker and his associates. “Good for them for having the wherewithal to call the demonstrations,” says Scott Lynch, a spokesman for Peace Action, considered the largest antiwar group in the country. “This is ANSWER’s dance, and they get to call the tune.” Leslie Cagan, a long-time antiwar activist with the group United for Peace, adds, “We are at a point where it is really, really critical that many, many groups come out and voice their opposition to this war. Some in the hard-core Left have taken the lead on that, and I applaud those groups for that.”
But others have their fears. “These groups with the more radical agenda get a lot of media attention,” says Bob Edgar, the general secretary of the National Council of Churches who is helping lead a new, more centrist antiwar group called Win Without War. “I don’t think they discredit the movement, but they turn off some [people] in Middle America.”
If anyone in the crowd on January 18 was turned off, there was little evidence of it. Most people seemed to listen enthusiastically to the WWP speakers. But the WWP has no more than a couple of thousand members in the world, and there can’t be enough Marxist-Leninists to fill a large portion of the National Mall. So why did they listen?
The answer appeared to be this: Because they hate George W. Bush. Yes, they oppose a war, but the thing that seemed to unite the attendees was an intense hostility toward the president. The signs they carried seethed with rage and condescension. “He Is A Moron . . . And A Bully,” said one. Another denounced “Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld: The Real Axis of Evil.”
There were old peaceniks: “We’ve been marching for peace since 1960, and it hasn’t happened yet,” one gray-haired couple said. There were college students doing their best imitations of hippies. And there were the assorted nuts, like the man who stood naked, but for his underwear, in the 24-degree cold, inviting people to use felt-tipped pens to inscribe peace messages on his shivering flesh (he said he wanted to “get people together on my body — literally, everyone signing up for peace”).
Speaker after speaker claimed that the crowd represented the “real America,” the millions who are said to passionately oppose a war to oust Saddam Hussein. And that was the way the rally was covered in the press. One fairly typical report on MSNBC said the demonstration included “a growing number of people [who] are speaking out against a war with Iraq — students, grandparents, businessmen, politicians, teachers, actors, and activists, standing shoulder to shoulder in protest.”
Newspaper reports largely ignored what was said on the stage; the New York Times and Washington Post failed to mention much of anything that was said by ANSWER’s speakers. The Times editorial page said the demonstration “represented what appears to be a large segment of the American public . . . [and was] impressive for the obvious mainstream roots of the marchers.”
Surely the Times editorialist did not actually attend the march. And surely he or she has not spent much time listening to Brian Becker and his WWP allies. Many on the left are trying to will themselves to believe that there is a massive, grass-roots, centrist opposition to war in Iraq rising in the heartland — and finding its voice in rallies like the one on January 18. Perhaps that sounds plausible to people who weren’t there. But not to anyone who was.