From New Situation, Great Challenges

Bob Avakian on: Lessons from the First Gulf War

Revolutionary Worker #1172, October 27, 2002, posted at

In the aftermath of September 11, the RW published a major tape-recorded talk by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the RCP, USA--"New Situation, Great Challenges" --shortly after the war launched by the U.S. government, focussed initially against Afghanistan.

This week, as the U.S. threatens war against Iraq, and as we see important new developments in the resistance of the people--most recently on October 6 when tens of thousands around the country took the "Not In Our Name" Pledge of Resistance--we are publishing excerpts from that talk on some important experience from the anti-war movement at the time of the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War. The full text of this talk is available online at


We must bring forward the vision of a movement against the war acts and repression of `our own' U.S. government that is so powerful that it cannot be hidden from the masses of people all over the world--including in the countries and areas that are targets of U.S. imperialist aggression and are, justifiably, "hotbeds" of hatred "against America."

`Imagine, what it would (and will) mean to those millions and millions of people when they see hundreds of thousands and ultimately millions of people in America itself , taking on the aggression (and repression) of their own government and standing with the people of the world against all that this government stands for and is doing and enforcing in the world. Imagine the questions that will raise in those people's minds, the "dialogue" (even if indirect) it will give rise to, among people all over the world with people in the U.S. itself.

`Imagine the inspiration it will provide and the potential realignment it will contribute to-- with ordinary people worldwide finding common cause against the oppressors and bullies of the world, first and above all the rulers of America--who, it will be more and more clear, do not speak and act in the interests, or in the name of large, and growing, numbers of American people themselves....'

Bob Avakian From an RW editorial, 12/12/01"WANTED: A Powerful Antiwar Movement"

Clearly, this expresses a grand vision--but one that is no larger than what is required in the face of everything the imperialists have set into motion and are seeking to bring about, at the cost of tremendous suffering. Building the kind of opposition called for in that editorial represents a very important objective that we should have before us as a concrete goal--something to be actively, urgently working toward and uniting and struggling with others to achieve....

And with this objective in mind, there are some important lessons to be drawn from the experience of the Gulf War and the movement of opposition to it. It is very important to keep in mind that, from the first days of the Gulf War, there was massive opposition to that war, in large parts of the world, including the U.S. and many other countries within its war "coalition" at that time. I remember watching a report about a demonstration in Germany of half a million people (or perhaps even a million) against the Gulf War. Of course, they quickly followed this with their typical methods of covering up unpleasant realities, their tried and true means of obfuscation: "However, polls show that the majority of Germans support the war." So, never mind reality; we always have a poll. This reminds me of what Lenin said about how the reactionary ruling classes have need of two functions: the hangman and the priest. Well, now, they also have the bombing and the polls. They have the bombs to kill you with and the polls to tell you what you're supposed to think.

The fact is there was a massive outpouring of opposition to the Gulf War, including in the U.S., especially in the early stages, but then to a significant degree people were disoriented, particularly when it became clear that the imperialists were going to achieve overwhelming military superiority and a military victory--and without many casualties. As this developed--and, at the same time, as the imperialists launched a political and public opinion counter-offensive against the anti-war movement--there was a significant amount of disorientation and even demoralization among the ranks of this movement. Part of this was based on an erroneous assumption--the assumption that this would be essentially like Vietnam, in the sense that the U.S. (and its coalition) would get involved in a "quagmire"; they'd get bogged down; the body bags would start coming home; and then people would turn against the war on a large scale.

First of all, this is a vulgarization of how and why many people opposed the Vietnam War in the first place. Although there were broader sections of the population that were influenced in that kind of way, even they got more politically advanced through the course of coming into motion against the war. But there was a very broad outpouring against the Vietnam War which wasn't based on body bags coming home or on the fact that it became increasingly clear that this war could not be won; it was based on understanding the political nature of that war--the reactionary, oppressive, murderous nature of the war the U.S. was waging and the interests for which it was fighting and, in opposition to that, the interests for which the Vietnamese people were fighting and resisting the imperialist war of aggression.

Secondly, in the Gulf War, there was a certain assumption that got taken up and propagated by some people with incorrect thinking, some political groups and tendencies who are always looking for the lowest common denominator, who took up this logic that "when the body bags start coming home, the people will turn against the war" in sort of a narrow, utilitarian, pragmatic way. And when those things didn't happen, many people were disoriented by that.

In addition, pretty quickly the imperialists began their counter-mobilization around the slogan of "support the troops," and this line was even taken up by some within the anti-war movement, where it served as a kind of ideological and political "Trojan Horse." How can you support the troops and not support the war ? What is it that the troops were doing, except waging that war?! Those soldiers who should be supported are those who are resisting--or seeking the means to resist--the war.

This resistance became a large-scale phenomenon during the Vietnam war, and the movement against that war correctly gave support and encouragement to the thousands of soldiers who resisted and rebelled, while struggling to win many more to take the same stand. And there were many within the U.S. armed forces during the Gulf War who were taking the same kind of stand. But the "support the troops" line, when it was not only widely and loudly propagated and organized around by the imperialists themselves, but particularly to the degree that it was taken up by forces within the anti-war movement, had a very disorienting, demoralizing, and demobilizing effect. This is a lesson that should not be forgotten but should be consistently applied and struggled for, including in the face of the same, or other, attempts to derail the movement against this open-ended "war against terrorism."

Now, there are some ways in which we should listen to--and learn from--what the imperialists say and do. While, in the most fundamental sense, they are systematic and world class liars, at the same time, as Lenin said, they do have a need to mobilize the population or to affect the population in certain ways, and in their own perverse way they do let out a certain amount of truth because they want to prepare people for certain things. This goes back to what I was saying earlier about how they are trying to condition the population to realize that, on the one hand, there are going to be (or are very likely to be) more casualties and losses on the U.S. side than there were in the Gulf War. So that's one part of the picture--this is a real prospect for which the imperialists recognize the need to prepare and condition people. On the other hand, there are going to be military victories for the imperialists, and there already have been in Afghanistan. There are going to be aspects of the developing situation in which they are going to be able to minimize their casualties, or to swing more sections of the population behind them in the short run on the basis of greater casualties ("now that our troops are dying, we have to rally behind them even more").

This is going to be a complex process, and once again any sort of simple, linear thinking will fail. The idea that, first of all, they're going to almost automatically get into some quagmire or that, if they do, this will automatically lead to more people turning against what the government is doing--neither of those things is going to be true in that kind of linear way. It certainly won't be true without the active involvement and work of, first of all, the MLM forces in this country and around the world (in particular, our Party and the RIM)--and, together with that, and through a process of unity-struggle-unity, other progressive forces and forces of resistance and opposition to the whole juggernaut the imperialists are unleashing.

Our Party has a tremendous role to play in all that, in striving to unite all who can be united in opposition to this while at the same time, through our independent line and work, linking this to strategic revolutionary objectives. Here again we can see the tremendous importance of repolarization, realigning forces, winning much broader forces in society to oppose the imperialist juggernaut of war and repression. And a key thing to grasp is that this must and can be done--in fact can only be done most effectively-- without watering down the movement of resistance to the lowest common denominator, but instead drawing the crucial dividing lines so that the greatest number of people, representing a great diversity of political (and ideological) viewpoints, can be united, in the most powerful way, against the essential thrust and the essential aspects of this imperialist juggernaut.

To quote an internal document of our Party:

"[What is needed is a] movement that can stick to basic principle and still build the broadest united front, keeping in the forefront what it will take to actually stop the whole juggernaut of war and repression vs. getting caught up in sectarian or even simply more narrow and limited interests....

"We have to be ferocious and relentless in exposing the nature of this system, putting forward the solution to all this madness, and on that basis work to unite as broadly as possible and build a real and powerful movement to STOP them....

"The basic approach of our September 14th statement* was an important application of this orientation--of speaking to and seeking to influence millions from a revolutionary position, drawing the dividing lines and applying the mass line, so that we could unite the broadest number of people in a way that moves them objectively in the direction of our international class's strategic interest. Doing this correctly is a real challenge that we will face all the way through this wrenching process of repolarizing whole sections of society away from the ruling class."

* "The Horrors that Come From This Horrible System," RW No. 1119, September 23, 2001. "Through the shock we seek the truth: Global exploiters and mass murderers have no right to retribution and they can only bring more destruction and injustice. To join forces with them, to seek their protection, will only encourage them to commit more crimes against the people of our planet."

Understanding things in terms of these crucial principles, the important thing is not whether people say they are "anti-war" or for peace, or whether they may be confused for a time about such things as whether the UN and similar international bodies can bring some kind of "just resolution" to the international conflicts that gave rise to the September 11 attacks, and so on. It will be necessary to unite with broad numbers of people who formulate the terms of things in many different ways and have different viewpoints about many different questions.

The important thing is that the greatest number of people be won to and united around opposing above all what the U.S. government (and its "coalition" at any given time) is doing--its juggernaut of war and repression. If the dividing lines are not drawn in this way, if the spearhead of struggle is not directed above all at the U.S. government and its whole juggernaut, if the opposition to war and repression is watered down to the point where a general stand in favor of things like "peace" and "justice" fails to identify this government as the main perpetrator of unjust war and repression, then no matter how many people are mobilized, this opposition will be ineffectual at best and at worst may be co-opted and used against the kind of resistance that must be built to actually meet the challenges posed by the imperialist juggernaut. All this underlines the need to continually strive to unite all who can be united in opposition to this juggernaut and at the same time to carry out principled struggle over differences among the forces of opposition, including the crucial questions of how the dividing lines must be drawn and how to build the movement overall so that the greatest numbers are united in the most powerful way.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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