What can animalists learn from Vietnam anti-war movement?
By Jon Hochschartner
Some years ago, I read “North Star,” the autobiography of Peter Camejo, an American socialist. In 1976, Camejo was the Socialist Worker’s Party candidate for president, but drifted away from Trotskyism, eventually finding a home in the Green Party. He likened himself to a watermelon — “green on the outside, red on the inside.” The memoir is worth reading if you haven’t done so already. Anyway, one of the most interesting aspects of the book is discussion of opposing strategies in the Vietnam anti-war movement, that could help inform animalist debates regarding intersectionality and single-issue campaigns.
Here I should point out that I don’t have the book in front of me. It’s not available through my local library system and at the moment I’m too cash strapped to buy a copy. So I will be quoting merely from those sections of the memoir available for free online. Also, my knowledge of the organizations involved is limited, so I’m taking it on faith Camejo is portraying the groups accurately. It’s a subject I’d like to research more, independently.
In the book, Camejo suggests there were two general strategies of anti-war groups during the Vietnam era. One was represented in the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (SMC), and the other in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Camejo belonged to the former organization, which — according to Michael Steven Smith and Paul Leblanc, writing in the International Socialist Review — ultimately served as the “backbone of the campus antiwar efforts.” For his part, Camejo credited SMC success to its single-issue approach, which could arguably be termed non-intersectional.
“The SMC didn’t require that its members hold any particular beliefs outside of wanting the United States to immediately withdraw from Vietnam,” Camejo said. “The [Socialist Workers Party] understood that the development of a genuinely united mass movement against the war was of crucial importance and that people didn’t have to agree on the nature of capitalism, the two-party system, or other issues in order to work together to demonstrate against the war.”
In contrast, SDS insisted that their anti-war efforts be multi-issue, or, to use another term, intersectional. As a result, Camejo said, “SDS abstained from large demonstrations and tried to assert its control over smaller, more militant actions that demanded agreement on many other issues.” Here he is suggesting there was a relationship between SDS’ multi-issue approach and its political impotence.
To me, the conclusions Camejo draws here feel intuitive, and how they would apply to animalist campaigns seems obvious. The fewer ideological demands one applies to potential members or participants, the larger your base of support will be. The more ideological demands one applies to potential members or participants, the smaller your base of support will be. In practice, this suggests we should support big-tent animalist groups, that don’t have an official position on new welfarism or abolitionism, let alone trigger warnings and Palestinian resistance.
Again, anti-war efforts is not an area I know a tremendous deal about. But, assuming Camejo is correct, it’s worth noting the American group that did the real work of opposing the slaughter in Vietnam was a single-issue organization. While groups such as SDS, that took a different approach, sat out the struggle to a degree, pleasing themselves with revolutionary rhetoric that didn’t do anyone much good. Animalists should consider this history when debating single-issue and intersectional efforts.