Against Trump, for what?
The February 4 demonstration pulled in many people new to politics, reports Peter Manson
The new US president has certainly provoked a hostile reaction from substantial elements of the ruling class and, partly as a result of that, from large numbers below.
Not surprisingly then, demonstrations against Trump are pulling in many thousands on both sides of the Atlantic and the February 4 mobilisations in Britain were no exception. The London event - under the slogan, “Stop Trump’s Muslim ban, stop May supporting it” - which gathered outside the US embassy in Grosvenor Square for a rally before heading off to Downing Street, pulled in well over 20,000 and possibly as many as the 40,000 claimed by the organisers.
Of course, these particular organisers - specifically Stand Up To Racism, the People’s Assembly and the Stop the War Coalition (supported on this occasion by the Muslim Association of Britain, Muslim Engagement and Development, the Muslim Council of Britain, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and others) - are not renowned for their honesty in estimating the attendance at their events. SUTR is, of course, the latest ‘united front’ of the Socialist Workers Party, while the PA and STWC are run by former SWP members, now organised in Counterfire.
On this occasion the figure of 40,000 might have been exaggerated - but on nowhere near the same scale as the June 2015 anti-austerity demonstration called by the PA, when Counterfire’s John Rees in particular insisted that 250,000 people had turned out for a march that was in fact around a quarter of that size.1 But there was another very marked contrast between 2015 and February 2017.
Most encouragingly, last Saturday’s event was the first this writer can recall with a majority female attendance - at least for a demonstration which was not specifically aimed at women. More than that, they were mostly young women - a factor that ought to augur well from the point of view of drawing new forces into the working class movement.
However, the contrast was particularly sharp in a different sense, if you compare February 4 2017 with the ‘Solidarity with Refugees’ demonstration of September 12 2015. If that date seems familiar, it is because it was the very day that Jeremy Corbyn was declared the new Labour leader, and the demonstration outside parliament marked his first speaking engagement.
On that occasion I can vividly recall how eager the marchers were to snap up anything political - the Weekly Worker, like, I am sure, other left papers, was selling like hot cakes and people were queuing up at our stall to get their copy by the end of the afternoon. But last Saturday was totally different: it was very hard work selling our paper, while comrades handing out the latest free copy of Labour Party Marxists report that they also had to work very hard.
In other words, it is not just that most of the anti-Trump demonstrators were not the usual left suspects, or even those with an affinity to some kind of working class or Labour politics: many were either totally new to politics altogether or else from the green/liberal milieu.
So how should the left interact with this milieu? Is the most important thing the sheer numbers on the street, united in their opposition to a particularly reactionary individual? Or should we be aiming to go beyond that and try to win people to a positive, progressive, working class alternative? As the SWP’s internal Party Notes reported, “Speaker after speaker called for unity against Trump”.2 By that it meant that almost everyone restricted their contributions to the non-controversial, concentrating on what their audience was known to be against.
This was epitomised by the SWP’s very own Weyman Bennett, representing Stand Up To Racism. He proclaimed: “If Donald Trump comes to this country, we’re going to kick his arse. Black and white, gay and straight, women and men - we’re going to kick his arse.” Leaving aside the total impotence of such a threat, comrade Bennett did not say anything in favour of a specific political alternative.
In that sense he was pretty indistinguishable from the likes of Azad Ali of the Muslim Safety Forum, who said we should “bring the whole of London to a standstill” if Trump turned up, while Muslim Association of Britain president Omer el-Hamdoon claimed that the new situation had revealed not only “who are the racists”, but “who are the fascists”. As for Corbyn himself, who appeared via a video link, he mainly restricted his comments, as you might expect, to platitudes, such as condemning the “nasty policies created to sow division and hatred”.
Lindsey German of Counterfire, speaking for the Stop the War Coalition, predicted: “This is the beginning of a mass movement.” But what sort of mass movement, Lindsey? One that adopts specific programmatic demands or merely contents itself with reminding us all of what we don’t like?
But, for her, that is par for the course. Both she and comrade Rees, in all the time they have headed the STWC, including well before they flounced out of the SWP, were hardly renowned for their advocacy of a leftwing political programme when they spoke from the coalition’s platforms. The words, ‘working class’ or ‘socialism’, never passed their lips whenever they wore their STWC hats. Stop the War could not even bring itself to recommend a particular vote or electoral tactic in its heyday prior to the 2005 general election - that would have been too ‘divisive’, it seems.
Apparently it is not the job of a demonstration’s organisers or even the speakers on its platforms - whatever their leftwing credentials - to attempt to win their audience to working class politics. That is the job of the rank-and-file SWP (or Counterfire) members, who try to persuade individual demonstrators to join their organisation and help ‘build the party’: ie, one of the existing tiny sects.
However, I am not sure they had too much luck on this occasion l
1. See ‘Huge cheers for Corbyn’ Weekly Worker June 25 2015.
2. Party Notes February 7.