For a democratic anti-war movement

The huge anti-war demonstration of September 28 has put its stamp on political life in Britain. The war against Iraq featured as one of the main issues debated at the Labour Party conference this week. Tony Blair got the vote he wanted. But the 300,000 anti-war demonstrators have reinforced the view that the majority of the population opposes his policy of unconditionally sticking to the US and George W Bush's war without end. Wide sections of the labour movement and around 50 Labour MPs have made known their doubts about the anti-Iraq war. The fault line in the cabinet is there for anyone to see - Clair Short, Robin Cook, etc. In the context of Blair's de-Labourisation of Labour the anti-war movement is strategically placed. If the war with Iraq starts and goes badly then conditions exist where the Labour Party could cleave into two with the government going one way and the trade union bureaucracy and rank and file another. Therefore it is vital for the left to address the question of what sort of anti-war movement we build. The Stop the War Coalition was established in the shadow of September 11 2001 to oppose the blood revenge sought by president Bush, backed by prime minister Blair, which led to the invasion of Afghanistan. The formation of the Stop the War Coalition was positive. In effect it saw the passing of the anti-war mantle from the avowedly pacifist CND to the left. However, while the coalition formed itself on the basis of being "a democratic organisation" which "welcomes participation by all those opposed to the war", its foundation conference saw the CPGB and Alliance for Workers' Liberty excluded from the steering committee due to nothing more than our support for secularism and our intransigent opposition to reactionary political islam (Stop the War Coalition No1, November 2001). The 'war on terror' has taken a new turn. With the hawks ascendant in Washington and Blair following loyally behind, a military strike on Baghdad looks highly likely. Given the changing nature of the war and the massive increase in anti-war activity, the Stop the War Coalition needs to redress its priorities and political demands. To do this, a full debate followed by a democratic conference is needed. Chris Harman looked at the prospects for the anti-war movement in Socialist Worker (September 28). He concluded that the best way to link all the struggles is to join the socialists - and no, he does not mean the Socialist Alliance, but the bureaucratic centralist sect known as the Socialist Workers Party. Comrade Harman recognises the changing nature of war under Bush. He says: "When the war against Iraq is over, the madmen in the White House are planning to set their sights on new targets - Iran, North Korea, perhaps even China." While a direct military conflict with China can be considered hyperbole at present, there is no doubt that the imperialist war planners in the Pentagon are using the 9/11 effect to press home and extend US global power. However, comrade Harman draws a parallel between the movement against the Vietnam war and the present situation. In the 1960s things began small. Today, even before a single shot has been fired or a single soldier killed we mobilise hundreds of thousands. I think he misses the point. It is because the Taliban collapsed virtually without a fight, it is because US-UK forces are not engaged in a costly street by street battle for Baghdad that we have the possibility of organising big demonstrations. If large numbers of dead soldiers were brought home in body bags, then for a whole period anti-war protestors would be treated as enemy agents - driven off the streets in a wave of chauvinist-fuelled rage. Let us remember what happened before World War I. The Socialist International - of Kautsky, Bernstein, Jaurès, Longuet, MacDonald, Plekhanov, Lenin, Alder, etc - voted to oppose the war with revolution. In Britain the TUC and the Labour Party staged big demonstrations and pledged total opposition to involvement in a European war. But as soon as war began - shots fired, soldiers killed - that stance was transformed into its opposite. Only a tiny minority stuck to its principles. The US war in Vietnam escalated from the employment of advisors and only became full-scale under Johnston and Nixon, who took the fight into Laos and Cambodia. The anti-war movement grew according to that pattern. Another factor needs to be mentioned. Ho Chi Minh and the National Liberation Front enjoyed massive popularity throughout the whole of the conflict. By fighting a people's war they inspired a generation of leftists from Calcutta to Sydney, from London to Rio, from Paris to Istanbul. That cannot be said of bin Laden and the Taliban or Saddam Hussein or Kim Il Jong. Finally Vietnam could not lose. The US never set its sights on overthrowing the Hanoi government and Vietnam also had the active backing of China and the Soviet Union. The slogans and orientation of the Stop the War Coalition were formed in the immediate aftermath of September 11 2001. As that 'war on terror' has transformed into a permanent war against the perceived enemies of the US, so the tactics and approach of the anti-war movement must be adapted in consequence. The permanent war will shift and shift again. And to be effective opposition to it must combine flexibility and long-term vision. Opposition to war against a particular target, or a particular phase, has to become opposition to the cause of war in the present epoch and a movement to reorganise the world in the interests of people, not profits. The coalition's steering committee must be held accountable. Its slogans and approach to a US-UK war on Iraq must be democratically developed. The growing support for the anti-war movement provides the democratic basis for such accountability. A mass anti-war movement needs mass democracy. It is this that will provide the best basis for a strong left and working class leadership. We welcome the highly visible presence of muslims, especially muslim youth, on the September 28 demonstration. Nor do we fear the involvement of reactionary forces - the jihadists, anti-semites and fundamentalists - though we have no truck with them being placed in the political leadership of the anti-war movement. On September 28, we can safely assume that not one leftwinger or trade union militant became attracted to the ideas of political islam. However, thousands of muslims - not least young men and women - were exposed to the ideas of mass democracy, secularism and socialism. For mullahs and imams something to be feared and fought. Yet the left must sharpen up its message - merely articulating the general 'stop the war' slogan is not good enough. The left - the Socialist Alliance in particular - must stress its universal programme of socialism, democracy and internationalism. That does not mean keeping quiet on or alibing the crimes perpetrated by the Taliban, Saddam Hussein's Ba'athists, the Iranian theocracy or Kim Il Jong's Stalinite monarchy. We must aim to win the movement to recognise that the main enemy is at home - whether you are in London, Washington or Baghdad. The Stop the War Coalition should convene a conference to debate the way forward for the anti-war movement. Coalition branches have been built across the country. We need a movement led by the working class, where revolutionary socialism is the hegemonic idea, but where all consistent anti-war forces are organized. Marcus Ström