APR 2001

Wage Peace As If It Were War
(Or How to Fight Like A Grrrl)

by Thom Saffold

Nearly every day, somewhere in the world, groups of people protest the Corporate Global Economic System, and work against it to achieve justice. The world is in the midst of a grassroots rebellion against the corporations—and their governmental and military partners—which would colonize and commodify the whole world and make all peoples bend to its collective will. The United States busily pursues the militarization and control of space and baldly boasts that its aim is to completely dominate the world (see March Agenda, "US and Israel: Space Invaders").

This is a necessary rebellion, one that must be waged for the well-being of all people, our children, and the very environment which sustains us, and against Corporate Capitalism which threatens us.

However, this is a critical time for this global movement of average people, peasants, and common citizens. They face a colonizing System far mightier and ruthless than any earlier empire. For the first time in history, the technological destructiveness of its weapons is so horrendous, that open, violent war against this Corporate Empire would lead only to completely unacceptable—and possibly omnicidal—destruction.

However, the Corporate Elite and its plans can be defeated, IF the growing global people’s movement learns some basic lessons from past struggles against despotism.

Take, for example, the struggle of American women to vote.


In July of 1848, a group of women active in the Abolition movement gathered over tea with their host, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Although united in their work to free slaves, that day their conversation centered on the fact that as women, they did not have many of the rights—particularly the right to vote—that they were working to ensure for Black men.

Stanton poured out her discontent with the limitations placed upon women, and assailed a system that did not grant women the same rights as men. Stanton’s friends agreed with her, passionately. This was definitely not the first group of women to have such a conversation, but it was the first to take decisive action.

Within a week they held "A Convention to Discuss the Social, Civil, and Religious Condition and Rights of Woman." The place was Seneca Falls, NY. A committee under Stanton’s leadership wrote "A Declaration of Sentiments," based on the Declaration of Independence, which called for women to have the full measure of rights that men enjoyed. Stanton dramatically called for the right to vote, the most basic right for citizens in a representative democracy. The Convention agreed to work for women’s suffrage.

For the next several decades, groups of women across the nation vigorously pursued that vision. Women—and many men—wrote letters and articles, and published newspapers and books that argued for women’s right to vote. They held demonstrations. Susan B. Anthony wrote an amendment which would give women suffrage, and she and others got it introduced to Congress. In 1882, Anthony and others were even arrested for the "crime" of trying to vote in a presidential election. The stories of the dedication, hard work, creativity, and courage of tens of thousands of women working for their rights are inspiring.

Still, by the year Anthony died, 1906—58 years after the Seneca Falls Convention—the Women’s Suffrage Movement was seriously faltering, and the Amendment they championed was almost forgotten.

The idea that women should vote was, obviously, sound, practical, and compelling. So, why had the work of two full generations of women and their male allies failed, and what changed so that the Women’s Suffrage Amendment was finally adopted in 1920?

Frederick Douglass, who defended women’s rights at the 1848 Convention, pointed out a bedrock truth for social-change activists to remember: "If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom & yet deprecate agitation are people who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder & lightning. That struggle might be a moral one; it might be a physical one; it might be both moral & physical, but it must be struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did & never will."

A woman named Alice Paul took that concept seriously during the first decade of the 20th century, and took control of the Woman’s Suffrage Movement with a radically different philosophy.

Alice Paul recognized that the male establishment was at war with women in America, and was winning handily because women were not fighting back, except with isolated skirmishes that were easily defeated or ignored. The only way to win, she taught, was for women to cease demonstrating and lobbying as individual groups, and to join together as a peaceful army to wage war on the male establishment until its goals were won.

To accomplish that, Alice Paul organized her followers into a tightly disciplined, militant force that recognized that a successful war is composed of strategies and campaigns, and each campaign is made up of tactics and actions, and each action is accomplished by disciplined "soldiers."

Like a general, Alice Paul led her "troops" in the kind of daring tactics we usually associate only with Gandhi or King. She and her followers confronted President Wilson and the entire Congress repeatedly. She and hundreds of other women were arrested and jailed, went on hunger strikes, were attacked by the police and mobs of men. They knew that in order to win their objectives, they had to change the attitudes and feelings of the majority of the American public, and had to form coalitions as broadly as possible.

After more than two generations of frustrated defeats, in just under ten years of the leadership of Alice Paul, the Nineteenth Amendment was passed. Later human rights movements in America—especially the Civil Rights Movement—and worldwide adopted her vision and tactics, often without knowing from where they came.

Alice Paul was a woman that streets and university buildings should be named after. The Movement against Anti-Corporate Globalism should also look to her and other strategists, tacticians, and practitioners of effective social change movements. Without those lessons, this latest, ultimate battle against the forces of oppression and destruction will be lost.


The first lesson is a hard one for leftists to accept. It is: The struggle for peace, justice, and the common good must, like war, be waged in order to conquer. This is not a call to literal arms, or a plea for violence. Alice Paul and the other architects of all of the successful social change movements of the twentieth century demonstrated that the way to defeat the violence of unjust systems is through its opposite—nonviolence. However, nonviolence is ineffectual unless it is disciplined, focused, and militant.

Disciplined, focused, militant nonviolent struggle requires careful planning and training. Leaders of this kind of struggle recognize that waging peace, like waging war, means setting achievable goals and choosing strategies and tactics, actions and people that can meet those objectives. They organize and fight battles not in isolation, but as part of an overall strategy, a campaign. Actions are coordinated to support other actions. Successes require follow-up actions, so that momentum is not lost. Failures require the ability to adjust tactics and re-motivate people to try again.

Waging peace also requires a long time commitment, discipline, training, and the setting aside of differences in order to find common cause. The hierarchical decision-making of the military is rejected, but accountability is not.

What made the Seattle protests of the WTO so successful was that the coalition organizers followed these principles.

However, most leftist activists tend to be interested only in "their" narrow issue, have a hard time cooperating with other progressive groups, and often are only active when it is convenient. They want to "do their own thing," and prize personal gratification far above effectiveness. They would rather engage in long discussions of ideology and analysis than in strategizing and outreach, and avoid the effort of learning the skills necessary to be effective organizers of a mass movement. This is why the Left has so few successes and why the opposition is winning.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We have role models like Alice Paul, Mabel Vernon, Diane Nash, Mother Jones, Ella Clark, and hundreds of other courageous women (and even a few men) of vision whose examples can guide us. (For more information about these women or Alice Paul, contact the author directly or via Agenda—see p. 3.) The stories of their campaigns are case studies from which we can learn how to create plans for our current conflict.


We’ve even got a text book. Rules for Radicals, by legendary labor, community, and civil rights organizer Saul Alinsky, is filled with exactly what it advertises—rules for those who would be true radicals.

Saul’s first rule is that power is not what you have, but what your opposition thinks you have. If you have organized a vast organization, he taught, you can parade it visibly before the enemy and openly show your power. If your organization is small in numbers, then make enough noise that will make the opposition believe that your organization numbers many more than it does. But if you have only a tiny group and you have no power, the least you can do is make a stink!

Saul also said, "Never go outside the experience of your people" because then you lose them. Jargon and ideology turn people off, and if a movement is not constantly drawing people into its ranks, it ain’t a movement—it has failed.

On the other hand, "Wherever possible, go outside of the experience of the enemy," because that way you mess with their minds and keep them off balance.

Another rule is: "Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon." It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule. Also it infuriates the opposition, who then react to your advantage.

Alinsky believed that a tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag. Much better to use a variety of tactics and actions, that creatively target the vulnerabilities of the opposition, and "a good tactic is one that people enjoy."

Crucial to Alinsky’s philosophy was the concept of reaching out constantly to broaden the movement’s base. "If you are comfortable in your coalition," he taught, "your coalition is too small!"

Seattle’s N30 proved that American leftists can build effective coalitions and create effective strategies. But in order to bring fundamental change to our body politic, looking back at one success is not enough. We in Washtenaw County have to learn from our activist mothers and sisters (and fathers and brothers) how to diligently wage peace against the forces of domination and control, oppression and exploitation here, now, and into the future.


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