Aug 03 2003

Leadership and the anti-war movement

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 05&06RCN @ 2:59 pm

This article, by Phil Sharpe, on the Stop the War Coalition was first published in the summer edition of Socialist Future Review. We reprint it with permission.

The American and UK governments were determined to carry on with their aggressive political approach, regardless of the level of protests generated against it. This created a real challenge for the anti-war movement and all those in struggle against the Bush-Blair axis.

The massive demonstrations world-wide on February 15 against the USUK drive to war against Iraq seemed to many an irresistible pressure that would result in a retreat by Washington and London. Instead, as we know, the invasion was launched in March and the Saddam Hussein regime overthrown in a relatively short period. Hopes of some that the United States and Britain would become bogged down in a new Vietnam proved short-lived.

Vietnam was an entirely different struggle. The American ruling class was initially united about sending the troops into Vietnam and only began to show splits in the wake of serious military reversals. The Vietnamese liberation forces were an expression of the popular aspiration for national self-determination. This meant that political support translated into a formidable military force that was able to win significant victories over the USA armed forces and its proxies. The Vietnamese had already defeated the French and were armed with modern equipment. In contrast, the Bush administration knew that Iraq was a country with its own internal divisions, which it could exploit for military advantage. In Iraq, American and British troops were never confronted with an armed force that was comparable to the Vietnamese national liberation army. Furthermore, United Nations sanctions had weakened the military capability and resolve of the Iraqi troops, and the army lacked capable and resolute leadership. The Saddam dictatorship, which had engaged in military adventures for more than 20 years, proved incapable of rallying his ill-equipped army.

The aim of Bush and Blair is to develop an aggressive approach that upholds the interests of global capital against any national andregional opposition. On this basis possible further military action is envisaged against rogue states like Iran, Syria and North Korea. They were determined to carry on with their aggressive political approach, regardless of the level of protests which were generated against it. Their stance has created a real challenge for the anti-war movement and all those in struggle against the Bush-Blair axis. The STWC helped to bring millions on to the streets of Britain in the countdown to war — far fewer once the invasion was under way. How has it tried to come to terms politically with and develop the initiative in the context of rapidly changing events?

A bulletin posted on the STWC website after the military action ended, claimed:

There can be few victories which have turned to ashes so quickly. The Iraqis have not welcomed the occupying US and British forces and there have been widespread demonstrations in the country against the occupying armies which have resulted in scores of Iraqis being killed.

The bulletin adds:

We have entered a new phase of the campaign following the end of the war, but there is very large bedrock of support remaining on which we can continue to build. The slogan End The Occupation Now! is obviously the central question here. It is also the slogan being raised by millions of Iraqis so fits very much into international solidarity.

There then follow details about the campaign to defend MP George Galloway from New Labour’s threat against his party membership, with STWC supporters urged to email Blair with their protests. There is no analysis of the fact that despite the massive numbers on the streets, the invasion and occupation of Iraq went ahead. There are no thoughts about the changed political situation. The perspective, as we have noted, is simply applying protest and pressure to end the occupation of Iraq by British and American forces. But it is inadequate to claim that it is business as usual. For making this claim effectively means that the anti-war movement becomes nothing more than an expression of nostalgia about the February 15 protests.

STWC’s leadership

The leadership of STWC as an organisation is provided by a coalition of the old guard Stalinists of the British Communist Party, and the Socialist Workers Party. In the aftermath of February 15 demonstration this leadership was content to go with the flow and call for more mass marches and local actions. But of course, the beginning of military action began to pose new challenges about how to develop the anti-war movement. Primarily, it meant the need to develop a real and conscious struggle against the New Labour government which, after all, was a joint sponsor of the invasion.

So how did the STWC leadership respond to this? The answer is that the leadership tried to respond in terms of business as usual rather than recognising what was new and challenging about the situation. For they had effectively called for a U-turn by the New Labour government. This was actually an unrealistic approach that did not accept the full commitment and support of New Labour as a government for an attack on Iraq. In practice, this meant the STWC became an appendage of the Labour revolt against the war plans. But, the superficial nature of this revolt was shown in that with a few exceptions, the Labour rebels were silent during the war, and made no calls for its end. Consequently, STWC leaders became politically paralysed restricted by their refusal to go beyond the politics of the Labour left.

In the April issue of the SWP’s Socialist Review journal, after an uncomfortable reference to the situation in Iraq, the editorial ends with the usual call for mass protests in order to put pressure on Blair to stop the war:

This is a weak and divided government whose future is as uncertain as the military campaign in Iraq. The more we protest, strike and demonstrate against it the more we increase the likelihood that it will be defeated – raising the prospect of an end to the war in Iraq. As the bombs rain down in Baghdad and as the suffering continues there is no time to lose.(1)

Protest politics

This comment only goes to show that the call for more protests was a cover for the vacillating stance of the SWP once the war had actually started. The protest politics of the SWP are used to gloss over the crucial issue that faced the anti-war movement, which was the need to truly become an anti-imperialist current that defended Iraq by calling for the overthrow of the New Labour government. Instead, to the SWP, this one-sided opportunist emphasis on the importance of protests became a way of avoiding the necessity of developing a principled and flexible politics in to respond to a changing situation. This is not to suggest that mass protests are unimportant, but they require political leadership based upon revolutionary strategic principles and objectives if they are to have a long-term significance. For the SWP, however, the call for more protests had become a convenient device to try and disguise the indecision, lack of direction and poor leadership in a situation of actual war. To the SWP, it was as if time stopped before March 19, 2003 when war started. What was actually required was a strategy that emphasises the need to bring down the New Labour government and replace it with a government based upon democratic structures of genuine mass participation.

The SWP editorial could not even call for the removal of Blair and was instead content to repeat its utopian and ineffective call for protests to put pressure on Blair to stop the war. In this context, the editorial even expresses the hope that the government will be somehow defeated and so the war will be stopped.(2) But this view is expressed almost as a despairing hope rather than representing a perspective with any real political content. For the only way that Blair can actually be defeated is by bringing down the New Labour government. Hence the word defeating is used in an ambiguous and abstract way, an empty generality which could mean a variety of things to different types of people. It is the use of radical language to gloss over the actual unwillingness of the SWP to call unambiguously for the bringing down of New Labour. So this use of the term defeating Blair is another way of trying to keep pressure politics attractive to those in the anti-war movement – just at the point when many must have questioned the point of pressuring New Labour.

Peace through revolutionary struggle

The SWP’s politics is based on the moral and ethical assumption that war is immoral and needs to be opposed. So peace becomes the only possible and required outcome of this stance. In contrast, revolutionary Marxism shows that the contradictory nature of capitalism means that war is an integral aspect of the existing social relations, and is an attempt to displace these contradictions. Hence the only way to realise peace is by revolutionary struggle against the imperatives of global capital. But to the SWP, this approach is for the long-term, and the immediate and realistic short-term aim is to struggle for peace, and to therefore carry out protests and make demands for peace. Thus when war breaks out, the SWP are disorientated because capital has not acted according to what they thought was possible. This approach represents an idealist outlook, one of trying to modify the actions and policies of capital without directly and decisively opposing the present system. Reality has its own logic, however, and those who are not prepared for a sudden turn of events find themselves in political crisis.

In order to provide ideological comfort to their supporters, the SWP editorial describes New Labour as a weak and divided government.(3) This view is not without its truth, but if not understood in its contradictory aspects it becomes formal and dogmatic. For it is increasingly obvious that the New Labour government has become politically unstable and liable to splits and differences. But it is precisely this context which explains why Blair was so willing to support Bush and go to war against Iraq. For Blair understood that with the increasing disaffection of traditional supporters, the only way to sustain New Labour is to become even more openly imperialist, nationalist and chauvinist. Furthermore, Blair recognises alongside Bush that war is becoming central to upholding the interests of global capital. This is why to consistently oppose war is to oppose New Labour and to call for a revolutionary alternative. Instead, the SWP considers that the futile tactic of trying to change the mind of New Labour could somehow stop the war.

In the May issue of Socialist Review, an article by John Rees attempts to provide an overall evaluation of the Stop the War movement.(4) Rees, one of the main leaders of the STWC, begins with a description of the impressive scale and scope of the national and international demonstrations, and he argues that:

We now know the profound impact that this movement had on the British government. Tony Blair warned both civil servants and his family that he might lose his job and contingency plans were drawn up to bring British troops back from the Gulf.

This comment seems to be an expression of radical defiance, an indication that even if the anti-war movement did not succeed in its aims it still came very close to realising its objectives.

Such a view may have the desired effect of consoling some supporters of STWC about the apparent narrowness of their defeat. What it does not explain is why they were defeated, and what this indicates about the connected limitations of protest politics. For what Rees cannot explain is why such high levels of militancy and campaigning were ultimately unsuccessful and even put on the defensive by the actual advent of war. The inability of Rees to outline a cogent answer to these points is that he does not recognise that Blair and Bush are prepared to take political risks, and are committed to ruthlessly ensuring that their strategic and military tasks are practically realised in the best interests of global capital.

Rees seems to agree with the common sense and pragmatic view that New Labour policy is flexibly defined by nothing more than spin and public opinion polls. Consequently he considers it was possible to get New Labour and Blair to back down over the war. But New Labour policy is more coherent than an expression of popularity contests. It is actually dictated by the contemporary requirements of global capital, which is why Blair was so adamant in his support of Bush and the overthrow of the Iraqi regime. Regardless of what he might have said to the media, Blair was prepared not to back down, and this is precisely what caused a problem for the STWC leadership.

In his article, Rees seems to acknowledge the necessity for the anti-war movement to go beyond its protest origins and preoccupations: This is an important point: the anti-war movement is not only a protest movement taking action out of principle, it is also a movement powerful enough to actually change the political course of British society.(5) Rees’ comment is actually strong on rhetoric and sadly lacking in real theoretical and political content. For in practice, Rees rejects the perspective of mobilising to defeat the New Labour government. A general call to change the course of British society is absolutely meaningless. New Labour is, after all, the government.

Only a call to go beyond it can connect the protests to a coherent and strategic vision to transform society in a democratic and participatory manner.

Rees might suggest that what he is advocating will facilitate the anti-war movement’s transformation into an ambitious political entity. Firstly, he argues:

One obvious solution is that the supporters of the organised left grow in numbers. The more the socialist organisations grow the greater the clarity and mobilisation capacity of the whole movement grows. (6)

But the question of political coherence is not merely provided by increasing numbers, because the primary question still remains of what concrete politics and policies can take the movement forward. Rees advocates putting pressure on New Labour to change its policies. Consequently his call for more socialist influence is actually a call for building the influence of opportunist politics with the aim of influencing existing British society.

Trade unionists

Rees also calls for greater trade union and working class involvement in the anti-war movement. But this is not made in terms of the political development of an alternative to New Labour, but rather of using the trade unions in terms of an organisational capacity for pressure group politics:

Each trade unionist has the power to organise greater numbers around them. They have, potentially access to funds, mailing lists and audiences that the unorganised lack. More than this, such activity brings pressure directly to bear on the Labour government.(7)

This patronising description of the role of trade unionists is an expression of how Rees envisages the role of the working class. He wants to encourage a new layer of activists to be involved, who will be prepared to help with the donkey work. Rees’ elitist view towards trade unionists is connected to his pressure group mentality. He considers that politics is all about the implementation of pressure by a presumably unthinking rank and file. The invasion of Iraq, together with a whole range of reactionary New Labour policies, has produced a tangible shift away from the Blair government. Many trade unions are facing calls from below for an end to affiliation to Labour. Votershave deserted Blair in droves. One of the least publicised marches during the war was of 10,000 Muslims in the East End of London. They protested outside the offices of a local MP who backed the invasion and may well put up a candidate at the next election.

Rees tries to make an adjustment to these developments by writing: On the left, in the unions, among the Muslim community, hundreds of thousands of people want to see a radical alternative to New Labour. Rees’s call for a genuine pole of attraction built by broader forces than the existing Left seems an expression of the present diverse and plural aspiration to go beyond the limits of New Labour. The actual political content is to try and channel mass struggles into the organisational needs and political requirements of the SWP. For the only organisation that Rees presently envisages being built as a necessary political organisation is the revolutionary party, defined exclusively as the SWP. In this context the anti-war movement is considered to be a united front that acts to facilitate the process of building the SWP. This point is diplomatically absent from the Rees article on the development of the anti-war coalition but is constantly articulated and defended by articles on the party question.(8)

Movements such as the STWC are considered as essentially reformist from which the SWP is differentiated as revolutionary:

But genuine unity of action depends on separation on matters of principle such as reform and revolution. We cannot properly determine those immediate issues on which we can unite unless we also properly, and organisationally, separate over matters of principle.(9)

The anti-war movement is envisaged as one homogenous reformist bloc, and only the SWP is considered to be revolutionary.

Two conclusions emerge from this viewpoint. Firstly, it is necessary to accommodate to the perceived unmoving reformist consciousness of the STWC participants.

Secondly, the only way that rigid reformist ideas can be transformed into revolutionary ideas is by organisational recruitment into the SWP.

Thus the SWP does not effectively consider the necessity to develop politics that relates to people in struggle and tries to challenge the limitations of existing ideas and practices. For ideas and social practices have a constant process of self-movement which shows the possibility for often seemingly entrenched reformist and reactionary views to be transformed into a potentially revolutionary standpoint. Real revolutionary politics acts to facilitate the process of transforming existing views, and overcome the accommodation to existing dominant ideologies and acceptance of reformist ideas. Instead the SWP seeks to accommodate to presumed fixed reformist ideas as the organisational basis to win the maximum number of people to its party political ranks. This is why the SWP considered the STWC movement as a convenient political vehicle. It obtained a leadership position that enabled it to accommodate to what it considered to be reformist consciousness and at the same time obtain maximum political influence for the possibility of recruiting to the revolutionary organisation.

In practice, however, the SWP was increasingly tailing behind the spontaneous emergence of a popular mood, which was that of the need to challenge the reactionary politics of New Labour. This point is illustrated by Rees’s view that the Labour left rebellion could have stopped the war: “The critical moment came around the time of the second vote in the House of Commons on Tuesday 18 March. Accident had some role to play in all of this. Had Clare Short resigned alongside Robin Cook, thus ensuring the backbench rebellion was even larger than it was, Britain might well have been forced out of the war.”(10) This type of wishful thinking perpetuates the myth that the Labour left can somehow transform New Labour and overcome its present reactionary character. It expresses an ideological illusion that Blair does not represent the party, and that it is still politically productive to try and maintain the Labour Party.

Plurality and diversity

The plurality and diversity of the anti-war movement represented people who had illusions in the UN, but it also had more militant and anti-imperialist sections which came to represent the dominant mood of the anti-war movement after the war had started. For it was shown conclusively that the UN could not stop war, and that instead the Bush and Blair administration had effectively bypassed it in order to start the war against Iraq. In this context, the demonstrations of March and April, whilst smaller, were more militant and increasingly expressed a mood of opposition to the politics of New Labour. Hence it was not surprising that placards were evident in March and April calling for regime change in Britain. Thus the spontaneous enthusiasm of the marchers was beginning to articulate a mood of both defiance and the need for political alternatives to New Labour.

The STWC leaders have interpreted this militant mood as a willingness for support for an endless diet of demonstrations, meetings and more protests. Certainly there will be dedicated support for continuing the campaign against the occupation of Iraq. Also the prospect of more militaristic action by the representatives of global capital will generate the potential for future mass anti-war struggles. But it is also important to understand that the rapid growth and mass scope of the anti-war movement expressed an opposition to the old and a desire for the new. The anti-war movement was an important beginning of increasing discontent with existing political structures and the spontaneous articulation of the need for the development to an alternative. In this context, the movement is a worthy ally of the global anticapitalist movement. The SWP has attempted to reduce its character to reformism. Instead within the shell of apparent protest, was the emergence of a social movement with a yearning for a better world. This is what we must build on to go beyond New Labour and in so doing go beyond global capitalism.

Phil Sharpe

References

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One Response to “Leadership and the anti-war movement”

  1. Emancipation & Liberation » Emancipation & Liberation, Issue 5 and 6, Autumn 2003 says:

    […] Leadership and the anti-war movement, Phil Sharpe […]

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