Pacifism 2003-2023: where has the 'second world power' gone?

Twenty years ago, millions of people around the world wrote a page in the history of world pacifism by taking to the streets against Bush's global war. What remains, twenty years later?

Just twenty years ago, on 15 February 2003, the first (and so far only) 'worldwide' demonstration in the history of movements, pacifism and, to some extent, in the history of humanity, took place in almost a thousand cities around the world. More than 100 million people paraded in all the squares of the world to say 'No to war without ifs and buts', to manifest their intransigent opposition to the 'permanent global war' initiated by the then US president George W. Bush in 1990, with the Desert Storm and Desert Shield operations (in which Italian soldiers also participated), and then continued at the end of 2001 with the invasion of Afghanistan.

Exactly 20 years ago, on 15 February 2003, the first (and so far only) 'worldwide' demonstration in the history of movements and, to some extent, in the history of humanity, took place in almost a thousand cities around the world. More than 100 million people paraded in all the squares of the world to say 'No to war without ifs and buts', to manifest their intransigent opposition to the 'permanent global war' initiated by the then US president George W. Bush in 1990, with the Desert Storm and Desert Shield operations (in which Italian soldiers also participated), and then continued at the end of 2001 with the invasion of Afghanistan.

In that late winter (February 2003), the US administration and its allies were preparing for the second Gulf War (which then actually broke out in late March with the invasion of Iraq by a US-led coalition of the 'willing'). All sorts of arguments were used to justify those wars: liberating Kuwait, illegally invaded by Iraq, defending Saudi Arabia from the Iraqi threat, seeking out and annihilating those responsible for and behind the Twin Towers massacre, fighting terrorism, bringing democracy to Afghanistan, bringing down Saddam Hussein's regime before he could use the 'weapons of mass destruction' that he was accused of possessing, etc.

But none of those pretexts and what today we would call fake news were able to defuse the anti-war movement. Moreover, the wars in the Balkans (in which Italy had committed itself fully, explicitly betraying what was established in Article 11 of the Constitution) had already made it abundantly clear that the end of the Cold War (1989) would not at all open the door to 'universal peace'.

Thus, the broad outline that the World Social Forum had adopted the year before in Porto Alegre, Brazil, was transformed into a concrete initiative, and thus into the decision to organise simultaneous and synchronised pacifist demonstrations all over the planet. In Rome, in particular, the Italian national demonstration took place in which 3 million participants were counted. The agreed route could not contain all the participants, who had to invade all the streets of the capital, which was totally blocked off and with millions of people who could not even move from the starting squares. Twenty-seven special trains filled with demonstrators arrived in Rome, and thousands of buses. Millions of windows and balconies were decorated with rainbow flags for months on end.

The 'Democrats of the Left' and their leader Massimo D'Alema, even though they had played a central role in the Italian participation in the Balkan wars, in view of the extraordinary pressure from below, decided to participate in that huge event, which, on the contrary, the governing Right (then led by Berlusconi and Fini) defined as 'the fruit of ideological anti-Americanism, of totalitarian pacifism, of sloth in the face of terrorism'.

That day was so extraordinary that News York Times columnist Patrick Tyler wrote: 'The huge anti-war demonstrations around the world remind us that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion'.

Today, one year after the Russian aggression and invasion of Ukraine, we are once again faced with a war, with its atrocities, its suffering, with the arguments and fake news (the denial of a national specificity of Ukraine, the defence of the self-determination of the Donbass, the denazification of the country, etc.), that those who started it are alleging. We are faced with the objective need for a response from world public opinion that is up to the task, a response that attempts to live up to that which took the field twenty years ago...

But, it must be acknowledged with bitterness but also with objectivity, none of this has become apparent nor, after 12 months of waging war, does it seem to be looming. And yet, in Russia, thousands of young people, especially women, have defied the repression of the Putin regime to denounce that what the Kremlin autocrat shamelessly insists on calling a 'special military operation' is in fact a war, a war that has caused tens of thousands of deaths among the military and among civilians: we will not venture into the inevitable war of figures between the parties, but everyone, beyond the casualty figures, can see the immense tragedy that is underway. Without forgetting the humanitarian drama of the 8 million Ukrainians who have fled the country and the 6 million internally displaced persons.

In Italy we had some important demonstrations in the first days of the war, we remember the one on 5 March in Rome, about ten days after the outbreak of the war. And then the one on 5 November when around 100,000 people marched through the capital once again. But none of those initiatives were remotely comparable to those of twenty years ago. None of them have been able to set a 'people of peace' in motion, but neither have they been able to start a reconstruction. Moreover, other wars, more recent than those of twenty years ago, e.g. the invasion of Libya, the war in Syria, the bombing of Yemen, not to mention Israel's permanent war against the Palestinians, have not been accompanied by any pacifist mobilisation. Almost as if a kind of habituation to bombs and their consequences has been created even among the most committed activists.

And the war, for the past year, is even closer, it is in Europe, and more than ever before, the threat of general and nuclear escalation looms over the planet. So why is that movement not there and not occupying the political scene as it should? Of course, like everything in our country, the peace movement is also suffering from a crisis of political participation. And this is not just a phenomenon of recent times. The movement of twenty years ago was set in a context profoundly marked by the growth of the 'altermondialist movement', the 'no-global' movement that had packed the streets of so many cities, from Seattle (November 1999) to Genoa (July 2021), with hundreds of thousands of young people activists against those neoliberal policies that took power away from people and communities, that increased economic and social inequalities, that damaged the environment and increased the gap between the North and the South of the world.

And specifically in Italy, the pacifist mobilisation was also intertwined with the trade union struggle led by Sergio Cofferati's CGIL against the policies of the second Berlusconi government, a struggle that had also brought, just in March 2022, millions of people to the streets in defence of Article 18 of the Workers' Statute.

Today the context is totally opposite. Article 18, with its guarantees against arbitrary dismissals, no longer exists, and not because of the responsibility of the political right, but thanks to a law (the Jobs Act) wanted and voted for by the centre-left; the Italian confederal trade unions seem paralysed and resigned to the worst consequences of neo-liberal policies: the comparison with what is happening in France at the moment against the social security reform wanted by the Macron government is jarring.

There is a significant mass youth mobilisation against environmental devastation, gathered mainly around Friday For Future, but it seems to sediment little political participation and little attention to issues not strictly related to climate change.

At the beginning of the 21st century, at the political level, there was a party, Rifondazione Comunista, which, amidst lights and shadows, offered a political backbone to the altermondialist movement and the pacifist mobilisations. Today, the rupture between what remains of the movements and in particular the younger generations on the one hand and party politics on the other seems totally consumed. It is enough to look at the discouraging participation rates in the very recent regional elections (especially among the young). And then, it must be acknowledged, in the political left, and therefore also among activists who could work to rebuild a peace movement, there is a largely false reading either of what has happened in the world in recent years or of what is happening in Ukraine. The end of the Cold War was also read by very authoritative political scientists on the left (e.g. Toni Negri) at the end of the twentieth century as the beginning of the era of the 'empire' (the US one, of course) to which the end of the 'bipolar' world paved the way. In reality, subsequent history made it clear how there was no single 'empire', how American power itself was crippled by the numerous defeats it had accumulated after the disaster of its aggression against Vietnam, weakened by an economic crisis that spiralled between recessions and 'recoveries', undermined by the emergence of new economic and political powers. A situation in which the bipolar balance that had governed the planet for over 40 years (from 1945 to 1989) was replaced by geopolitical chaos. The left, especially in Italy, has remained clinging to an interpretation whereby everything that happens in the world is a consequence of the US initiative. And, therefore, that everything that seems to oppose the US initiative is positive, precisely because it contrasts or seems to contrast the empire. Thus, for example, China, with its economic growth that challenges the western economy, despite being based on the super-exploitation and oppression of hundreds of millions of Chinese workers and peasants, becomes a positive factor in the 'multipolar world'. And anti-authoritarian rebellions, such as, for example, the Syrian uprising against Assad (and the 'Arab springs' in general) are branded as 'pro-Westernism' and, therefore, the bloody Russian bombing of Aleppo and many other Syrian cities in revolt are deemed necessary and 'healthy'. Even to the point of viewing with suspicion the struggles of Iranian women and youth against the ayatollahs' theocracy.

And Putin's great Russian chauvinist bellicism has been more or less explicitly considered by a good part of the Italian left as a stick in the wheels of US hegemony: an inversion of reality, given that it is precisely the Moscow autocrat's initiative that has offered a formidable assist to Washington to relaunch its centrality and revitalise the role of NATO.

With this distorted view of the world, of a world that now totally escapes the old patterns of interpretation, the Left finds itself displaced. It has done nothing to interject and intercept the movement of indignation that has shaken public opinion in the face of the news and images of the atrocities of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and has allowed that indignation to be largely channelled by Atlanticist propaganda.

And this has not only contributed to preventing the creation of a movement against the war in Ukraine but also constitutes one of the aspects of the general inability of the Italian radical left to establish a 'sentimental connection' with significant portions of public opinion. And we can see this in election after election... So much so that they find themselves in frequent and embarrassing harmony with some explicit opponents of Ukrainian independence and admirers of Putin, such as Berlusconi.

Translation using Deepl (not yet proofread)