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The politics of the anti-war movement

With the Bush hawks threatening a cycle of ‘endless war’ to pursue the interests of US imperialism, the question of how to stop war is the most critical one facing all those striving for a better world. KEN SMITH, the Socialist Party’s representative on the Stop The War Coalition (STWC) steering committee, looks at the debates that took place in the movement against the war on Iraq and what lessons can be drawn for the future.

THE HUGE MOOD of anger against the war on Iraq expressed on 15 February provoked political turmoil worldwide and, in Britain, Tony Blair’s gravest political crisis since coming to office in 1997. Bush and Blair, however, rode out the hurricane and proceeded to war, despite the immense political difficulties they faced.

While the power of opposition forced Bush’s war plans to be temporarily impeded it did not stop the war starting. Although the scale of protest compelled the Anglo-American invasion force to tailor its planned ‘shock and awe’ military strategy to avoid further inflaming world public opinion, after their initial setbacks US and British imperialism ‘re-geared’ for a more bloody campaign. For the millions who participated in the demonstrations, and the tens of thousands who organised the anti-war activity, the question of what could be done assumed paramount importance.

In Britain, the Stop The War Coalition (STWC) – of which the Socialist Party is an active part – played an important role in countering Blair’s pro-war propaganda and assisting in mobilising the mass opposition to Bush and Blair. Undoubtedly, huge opposition would have developed against the war with or without the existence of a national anti-war coalition. On 15 February demonstrations occurred in the most remote parts of Britain, spontaneously organised, and in the most remote parts of the world, including Antarctica. The crucial role of a national anti-war coalition, however, is to help effectively channel and co-ordinate the mass movement – to raise the consciousness of the participants, point the way forward and, if events develop favourably, possibly stop the war. Leading figures in the Coalition realised the huge weight of responsibility on their shoulders after the successes of the mass demonstrations organised in the past six months – 28 September, 15 February and 22 March – and a more intense debate developed about the strategy the STWC should adopt to halt the war.

Turning mass opposition into action

THE LEADERSHIP OF the STWC in Britain is overwhelmingly drawn from left-wing organisations, in particular the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), along with reps from the Communist Party of Britain and other left-wing groups. It was the first time that most of these individuals had found themselves at the head of a mass movement and responsible for giving a political lead to such a movement. The Socialist Party has three party members on the 50-plus steering committee but does not have any of the inner-core of officers who make the day-to-day decisions and are mainly responsible for the political direction of the Coalition.

The STWC has a wide diversity of groups and views within it, which tended to broaden since its inception after 11 September. It would be naďve to think that there could be any lasting political unity amongst the various groups involved, varying from Liberal Democrats to Green Party and direct action groups. However, there was agreement around a statement of aims to work together to stop the war. Within that framework each affiliated group – and individual members – were entitled to pursue their own campaigning against the war.

The Coalition developed an authority and mass support as a national body (though this was not necessarily reflected in mass involvement in its local structures). The momentum developed gave a certain confidence – amongst some at least – that Britain’s involvement in any conflict could be stopped or even that the war itself could be stopped by linking up to the global anti-war movement. Certainly, the potential was there in terms of the support for the Coalition and a willingness to follow its lead. Yet the Stop The War leadership, whilst mobilising a mass movement, still had to prove that its strategy could successfully halt a war.

The strategy outlined in the STWC’s material placed heavy stress on mass civil disobedience and industrial action – particularly on Day X (20 March, the day after war started). This was a theme of the most representative national meeting of the STWC to date, the ‘People’s Assembly for Peace’ of 1,000 or so delegates which met in Westminster’s Central Hall on 12 March. There, calls for mass protest and industrial action in various forms – such as non-compliance, lunchtime meetings, walkouts and strikes varying in length from five minutes to all day – were echoed by speaker after speaker. These included union leaders like Bob Crow of the RMT railworkers’ union and Billy Hayes, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) – which earlier in the month had passed a resolution moved by Socialist Party member Bernard Roome "to campaign for all members to take protest action on the day that war is officially declared".

The crucial issue posed was how to turn mass demonstrations into an effective mass anti-war movement, which could deliver such action. To achieve this a serious attempt was needed to involve, as far as possible, the majority of those who marched on 15 February into representative, democratic and effective coalitions at local town, city and regional level and sink deep roots in the workplaces, colleges and communities. School student walkouts and protests, initiated by International Socialist Resistance (ISR – an affiliate of the STWC) and other groups, that took place in early March, were an important preparatory test for action and inspired many workers. But the most crucial aspect of delivering a body blow to the war would have had to be organising effective and sustained action in the workplaces. Strikes demonstrate that it is working-class people who have the real power in society to bring everything to a halt.

The STWC, through the support of left trade union general secretaries – like Bob Crow of RMT, Mick Rix of the train drivers union, ASLEF, and Mark Serwotka of the PCS civil service union – also campaigned for a reconvened Trades Union Congress (TUC) to declare opposition to war and possibly organise industrial action for Day X.

Whilst collective strike action organised through trade unions at national and local level is the best way to concretely mobilise millions of workers against war, it needs to be vigorously campaigned for within the unions. It was wrong to invest much hope in the TUC leaders taking this step – as was subsequently shown when a second TUC general council meeting declined to convene an emergency TUC congress (although it did state, in an otherwise anodyne resolution, that it was against the war). But in terms of concrete action, the TUC leaders and leaders of the biggest unions did nothing. Unfortunately, the left union leaders on the TUC general council did not push the issue of taking action to a vote, nor did they campaign effectively enough for pressure from below to be applied.

The left trade union leaders and the STWC leaders, knowing what the likely actions of the TUC leaders would be, needed to argue and campaign for effective industrial action to be built for from below. Such a call would have fallen on fertile ground amongst a significant layer of workers who, in many workplaces and trade unions, were demanding a clear lead.

Had widespread industrial action been taken by workers on Day X, this could have built into a movement to make British military action unsustainable. Even though that did not happen, the STWC and supportive union leaders still faced the task as the war progressed of instilling confidence that in any action workers would be defended by the union leaders and that it would lead to further escalation, along with other workers, in a 24-hour general strike at least.

Building for industrial action

UNFORTUNATELY, BEHIND the rhetorical calls for action, the specific detail of organising action in the workplaces was limited. Socialist Party members consistently argued inside the Coalition that calls for action could not be left to calls from the top but needed to be built for from below.

In the build-up to a war the mobilisation of mass public opinion in the form of demonstrations, rallies, public meetings and mass civil disobedience, can have an effect in staying the hand of governments preparing for military action. The situation is different, however, once a war gets underway. Defeat on the issue of war, far more than a setback in partial struggles over wages, working hours, public spending cuts, environmental controls and so on, places the very rule of a capitalist government at risk. Once war starts it is only either the power of the organised working class mobilised effectively in strike action or the fact that the war has become untenable for a ruling class that can stop a conflict. Unless their rule is put at greater risk from a movement at home than it would be by withdrawal from a war, the government is unlikely to be deflected.

The orientation of the STWC was broadly correct – towards the organised trade union movement. However, whilst having the support of seven national trade unions and left general secretaries, the Coalition’s roots in the workplace were not sufficient for it to mobilise generalised industrial action.

Socialist Party members successfully moved a resolution at the People’s Assembly calling upon the Coalition to "popularise the slogan ‘stop work to stop the war’" including specifically appealing to supportive union general secretaries and trade union executive members of trade unions to finance and organise the publication of millions of leaflets, outlining the case against war, explaining how to organise workplace protests, and pledging solidarity action against any threat of victimisation. This was subsequently followed up at the STWC steering committee by getting agreed a Socialist Party proposal to organise a planning meeting of workplace union reps, executive members and general secretaries to popularise and plan industrial action against the war – specifically organising for action on May Day. Had the war progressed and this initiative been enthusiastically built for it could have created a network to counter propaganda and build for action. In particular, it needed to link the anger that exists against New Labour over privatisation, low pay and public-service cuts with the anger against the war. Slogans such as ‘not a penny for the war, defend education, defend pensions, defend public services’ could help mobilise workers to take action.

At the People’s Assembly, RMT general secretary Bob Crow correctly called for widespread action on Day X including stopping transport. However, to stop the transport he proposed occupying the roads rather than having the confidence to call on rail workers, underground workers and other transport workers to take strike action on that day. And, unfortunately, it was only a few days before Day X when the RMT issued any leaflets to its members arguing very guardedly for action.

‘Regime change’ at home

OTHER SPEAKERS AT the Stop The War People’s Assembly (mainly leading SWP figures in the anti-war movement) went further than arguing for just industrial action and declared that "when they start the war, we stop the world". The Assembly also committed itself to regime change in the form of demanding that "in the event of war starting, the prime minister should resign".

These were worthy aims but there was not an explanation of how they could be delivered – giving rise to the possibility of confusion and disillusionment setting in amongst anti-war activists. The lessons now being drawn from the huge global demonstrations on 15 February and since is that such mass mobilisations in themselves were not enough to stop political leaders whose power, prestige and ultimately political survival are at stake.

Also the STWC’s leadership did not sufficiently develop a national structure for the anti-war campaign with the deep roots in every community, college, school and workplace necessary to deliver sustained mass civil disobedience. These measures – of sinking deep roots to build mass civil disobedience – are absolutely crucial if pledges were to be delivered. Socialist Party members raised in the Coalition the example of the two-year long anti-poll tax campaign in 1989-91 which not only mobilised massive numbers on protest demonstrations but also successfully organised 18 million non-payers of the tax to make it unworkable and, ultimately, forced Thatcher to resign. To stop a war is more difficult but the numbers that at least passively supported the Coalition could have made mass civil disobedience of this scale a distinct reality.

‘Fair-weather friends’

SUCH A STRUGGLE – to ensure regime change in Britain and stop the war – requires a determination to see things through and mobilise the organised working class. But, despite the words about industrial action and mass civil disobedience at the People’s Assembly, at that stage – a critical moment in maintaining mass opposition to war – some of the Coalition’s officers were in practice moving to the right. In particular they were laying stress on orientating towards the Liberals, rebel Labour MPs and even rebel Tories who had just recently found their consciences, when they felt the hot breath of the mass movement on their necks.

As the Coalition grew it provided a platform that these new rebels wanted to utilise. A broad anti-war movement would obviously welcome Liberals and Tories breaking from their previous support for capitalist wars – if belatedly. However, this should be done on the basis of them joining the mass movement and putting themselves at its service rather than them dictating the political direction of the movement. The volte-face of Labour ‘rebel’ Mo Mowlam, promoted by the STWC officers as a speaker at the February 15 demonstration but who, six weeks later, called in The Mirror for ‘more bombing’ to win the war, shows how wrong it was to place any hope in the new-found ‘friends’ of the anti-war movement.

Generally, statements and resolutions passed at previous STWC conferences pointed in the right direction for developing the anti-war movement – even if lacking the specifics on how to achieve the Coalition’s aims. But as the critical decision loomed on whether the government would take Britain to war or not, the Coalition’s leading group (including the SWP) were advancing a programme which made large concessions to the Labour, Liberal and Tory MPs – a right-wing tail wagging a more left-wing dog. Thus, at the STWC’s People’s Assembly a declaration for peace was proposed which – had it gone unchallenged – would have been a backward step in the anti-war movement’s policy. The declaration was aimed exclusively at politically accommodating the potential new recruits from Liberals, Labour and Tories rather than pointing a clear way forward to the broader anti-war movement.

For example, until then the STWC had a position of opposing a war in any guise whether conducted in the name of the US and Britain or the UN. Yet, this new declaration – drafted by the officers but which had not been circulated in advance to the steering committee, the elected activists who should lead the Coalition – talked only of declaring itself against attacks by the US and Britain and omitted any mention of the UN. Responding to criticism from the Socialist Party and others, the STWC convenor Lindsey German (a leading SWP member) said that this was ‘nit picking’, as ‘everybody knew’ that the Coalition opposed a war under UN auspices. However, Socialist Party members persisted in moving a resolution making it crystal clear that opposing a war in the name of the UN was the Assembly’s policy as well as that of the Coalition. This was carried overwhelmingly.

Even more significant, however, was the passage in the STWC’s officers’ original declaration that "holds it is possible to resolve the present international crisis by exclusively peaceful means in line with proposals made by many states and eminent personalities around the world". The reference to ‘states and eminent personalities’ was later deleted after objections from the floor, but a number of Labour and Liberal MPs at the Assembly applauded ‘the fine stand’ made by world leaders like Chirac and Putin. A Socialist Party speaker reminded the Assembly of the brutal role of these two individuals in other wars, in Africa and Chechnya for example, stressing that we could place no reliance on these capitalist politicians with their own interests in this conflict.

The drift towards establishing a form of ‘popular front’ with establishment political leaders and moving away from mobilising mass action was clearly shown when the Declaration invited "all the British people and their organisations to express their support for this declaration and take whatever action may be required to ensure its adoption as the policy of our country".

This trend was even more explicitly spelt out in a report by the Coalition chairperson, Andrew Murray, to the Communist Party of Britain’s executive committee in March: "The character of that (anti-war) movement is changing and developing. Prior to February 15, it was a very large anti-war movement. From February 15, I believe it has extended still further into a broad people’s movement for peace, of course, but also as an extension of that, for democracy and for popular sovereignty, against a government which is denying the people’s will...

"Historical analogies are necessarily imperfect, but this movement has similarities in its aim and scope with the classic ideas of the popular front. The anti-war movement has the greatest political potential of any I have encountered… It reaches out into the Liberal Democrats in a serious way, and even into the ranks of Conservatives… It is just about as broad as the country itself… it is not just a movement against war, but it also feels like a movement for democracy, for popular control, a movement that believes the rights of the British people are being traduced by government".

We are in favour of building a broad movement against war on the basis of clear anti-war aims. All those participating in the STWC should have the right to argue the case for their own policies and perspectives. In other words, it should be a ‘united front’. But we oppose the dilution of the Coalition’s policies to the lowest common denominator to try to accommodate people like Charles Kennedy, Ken Clark and Mo Mowlam, who do not share the Coalition’s principled opposition to the war. Adopting a ‘classic’ popular front approach we would, in reality, be accepting that the anti-war movement’s fair-weather friends would be the ones determining our policy. Instead we strove to orientate the Coalition towards the forces that were most determined in their opposition to war, above all the class-conscious sections of the working class and radicalised young people.

After the onset of conflict the hoped for Liberal and Labour rebel backing ebbed away. And, as things were posed more sharply, with a greater debate about many elements of the Coalition’s strategy, many activists felt it needed a more concrete plan of action than simply calling demonstrations – important as they were – protesting harder or shouting louder. In particular, the specific issue of delivering strike action through the left trade union leaders and activists who support the STWC was the crucial issue that needed to be successfully addressed.

The STWC’s initial development benefited from the huge anger generated against US imperialism and its main representative in Britain, Tony Blair. But for the Coalition to have brought down Blair and stopped the war it needed to turn its promise of mass civil disobedience into a reality.


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