Peace Movement Needs More Ambitious Strategies

By Robert Penner | 1987-10-01 12:00:00

Bv Robert Penner

IT'S BEEN ABOUT FIVE YEARS SINCE THE CURRENT resurgence of the Canadian peace movement began, so it's time to review our past work and our future strategies. In 1982 and 1983 peace issues were getting more attention and new groups were forming almost daily. The organizational base of the movement was small, but peace events were large. People found the peace movement, were educated, and got involved.

Five years later, there's good and bad news. Predictably, the movement has failed to maintain the same level of public involvement or influence on the national debate. But that is the nature of movements demanding big changes; success takes time. Peaks and valleys are inevitable.

The peace movement has sustained itself at a reduced level. Despite lower turnouts, the public is more aware and (in most cases passively) supportive of the peace movement today. However, at the end of the 1980s we are going to have to do more just to stay the same -- staying the same should not be acceptable. When the public was mobilized, a little work could produce big results. Even a poorly organized press conference would be packed; unsolicited donations kept organizations afloat. The margin for error is less now.

In a period of lower public response, the peace movement is in danger of self-marginalization, of becoming inward looking and more concerned with how right we are than how effective we are. The organized peace movement may become remote from people who are supportive and peripherally active. Naturally, those of us who are heavily involved learn different things from our experience to those who are sporadically involved. The organizational layer can unthinkingly distance itself from the rest of the movement, both in political demands and in orgainzational methods. One is tempted to create a perfect world within the safe surroundings provided by other activists. One is tempted to do what is easiest or most comfortable, tempted to evaluate work by modest and mostly internal standards. But ultimately the terrain of our work is society as a whole; we cannot isolate ourselves from it. Society will affect us, and we have to play by some of the existing rules. Things will not change all at once. We must push beyond our present limits.

ONE WAY IS TO FOCUS ON THE NATIONAL level. We need to politicize our tactics, watch the parliamentary agenda, pay more attention to what can be won and by what method, and heed contemporary media and advertising strategies. Grassroots mobillzation and education are essential, but so too is the channeling of the gains of grassroots work into the national political arena.

It is a myth that decentralization and centralization are opposites. There is a dynamic and natural tension between these two aspects of orgnizing, but they are not contradictory. While the peace movement has correctly criticized the negative aspects of centralization, such as the breakdown of the democratic process in our work we have leaned too far the other way. The peace movement's voice in national affairs is now weak, leaving the field open to arms control and defence "experts."

Some activists hesitate to authorize national leaders, spokespeople, and strategies, hut these exist already, like it or not. The question is, who chooses them and decides what they say and do? Currently the media make this selection for us. What do peace groups gain by abdicating loom this process?

Effective national strategies will cost more, take more effort, and force us to focus our work more sharply. However, focusing raises the stakes. It requires selecting ideas, people, and strategies -- which will naturally intensify the conflicts between ideas and for allocation of resources. Nevertheless, at the point we have reached, we should be able to handle it, and we should take this necessary risk.

Apparently conflict in the peace movement is to be avoided at all cost. Complaints are numerous about there being "no peace in the peace movement," even in reference to fairly minor differences of opinion. But it is through debates between conflicting opinions that new opinions are formed and forward motion is created. I'm not proposing that we deliberately pick fights with each other, but simply that we accept them as an important phase of a forward-moving process. For the debate to progress, more people with a stake in the discussion need to enfnnchise themselves. This means valuing the democratic debates within the movement, participating in the discussion, and committing to the joint decisions that result.

SOME, OF COURSE, HAVE TRADITIONALLY been disadvantaged in debates of this sort for such reasons as age, geography, gender, or financial resources. They can rightfully demand the elimination of these obstacles, and others ought to support their demands.

The peace movement cannot afford to stand still. We are still too small to have power in defining national policy and we must continue working to grow. This is particularly necessary now, given the opening created by the White Paper and the Liberal and NDP responses. The political environment is now conducive to our work; our potential leverage has never been higher.

In fact, the debate surrounding the next election cries Out for the disarmament movement's intervention. An added force is needed to educate and challenge the political parties and the Canadian public on these issues. We must focus our program, build public support for it, and demand that political parties adopt it and implement it. We are well positioned to do this, but it will mean breaking through some of our conservative tendencies. It will mean taking more risks to focus our work nationally. It will mean compromising some of our utopian principles for the sake of realism. It will mean being more aggressive in the public arena and demanding more ambitious, confident, and challenging approaches of ourselves and our colleagues. In the coming period, important defence and disarmament questions will be decided. If we use our full potential, the Canadian peace movement can significantly affect these decisions.

Robert Penner is the Coordinator, Canadian Peace Alliance.

Peace Magazine Oct-Nov 1987

Peace Magazine Oct-Nov 1987, page 23. Some rights reserved.

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