What happened to the Antiwar Left, anyway?

14 million protestors marched in 800 cities around the world on February 15, 2003 to oppose the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. This was a preemptive reaction to the Bush administration’s preemptive war. According to the Guinness Book of World Records it was largest ever protest in human history. The 2003 protest was also a swansong of sorts. It was the culmination of a movement called the antiwar left.

Twenty-two years later, the U.S. hawks continue to press for a relentless escalation against Russia and European leaders are unfailingly following Washington’s lead, there is not a major left movement to voice discontent. There are no antiwar leaders comparable in stature as Archbishop Desmond Tutu or Labour M.P. Tony Benn was the voice of the movement in 2003. Old antiwar groups like the ANSWER Coalition are either quiet or struggling to make their voices heard.


Two-dozen House progressives called Monday for diplomacy. But antiwar leftists like Sen. Bernie Sanders or The Squad are sure to be disappointed as few elected socialists on Capitol Hill did their job and voted “Yes” on one huge Ukraine military-aid package. Some former Ploughshares Fund boss Joe Cirincione sounds downright Kristolian with his calls to smoke out an “pro–Putin” axis.

Post-9/11, the atmosphere of prowar conformity has returned. But instead of dour “security mothers”, it’s enforced ironically by irony bros with Ukraine flags or pronouns within their bios. These pages were written shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine. I noticed that the same moral binary systems that were used to demand obedience to the Covid regime were also applied to the war. Progressives thought to be post-nationalist suddenly became the most passionate nationalists and were willing to overlook the worst aspects of Ukrainian nationalism. The street theatrics, which were once hallmarks of left-wing antiwaragitation, are now being used to promote no fly zones (i.e. World War III).

Are leftists ever so critical of NATO’s claims? Is the post-9/11 era a great hallucination? What has changed? Defenders of the progressive status-quo claim that nothing has changed. As it was right to protest America’s unjustified wars following 9/11, the left is also right to criticize Russia’s current war of aggression. Sancta simplicitas!

This is a painfully superficial view. A progressive can condemn the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine without signing up for the everything-but-troops response adopted by hawks in Washington and London. This is what many left-leaning people have signed up for. If anti-imperialism or anti-militarism are progressive principles, then flooding Europe with weapons and fighting Moscow to the death is not a progressive principle.

The real answer lies elsewhere. These are the three main explanations:


The first is the changing nature of the American-Westway of war. In his book Humane published last year by Yale Law School, Samuel Moyn explains how the United States has allowed more war to be waged with a clear conscience. We might also add to this the shift towards proxy wars fought overseas by mercenaries and foreign clients. This makes it possible to call for escalation with no concern about the idea of unclean hands.

The second is the conquest by cultural progressives of America’s security apparatus, along with all other elite institutions. The business end of American imperial power has been “woken” for quite some time. This means that it has always reflected liberal cultural preferences of U.S. elites , as River Page brilliantly explained. There is still something very novel about the moment when the CIA posts recruitment videos promoting intersectional spooks with Latinx grievance political and anxiety disorders as badges of honour. Although the counterculture of yesteryear is fully embraced in our culture, it has been at the cost of old-left commitments. When you take control of the Pentagon, you are the owner. You also have the right to operate it. This is called waging war.

Who do you wage war on? The third factor is the recasting non-Western power like Russia and China into reactionary forces that must be beaten out by the U.S. and Western powers. The Vietnam left’s cynicism over the dark undercurrents in American power relative to the non-Western globe is gone. The “out there” world is ruled by patriarchy, repression avatars who impose modesty on women and limit LGBTQ representation. Similar elements are back in vogue. Progressives face a single battle line: The Dnieper flows into the Potomac and foreign and domestic enemies blur into one another.

It is up to us all to fight these apocalyptic and belligerent tendencies. This includes the remaining leftists. We might adopt one of the great slogans from the 2003 protest, “Not in Our Name.”

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