The anti-war movement and imperialism

The two-million-strong demonstration in London on February 15, in tandem with similarly enormous anti-war protests in Glasgow, Belfast and around the world, was of key importance. It heralds the beginning of a new period in which the widespread passive acceptance of overtly pro-capitalist and pro-imperialist politics - the hallmark of the long period of reaction since the collapse of the Soviet bloc more than a decade ago - can no longer be taken for granted by the western ruling classes. Even if at this point the anti-war protests are confined to a fairly low political level - based on objections to a particular war, which is viewed as irrational and dangerous, since Iraq is widely seen not as the 'aggressor' but rather the victim of aggression from the United States and Britain - nevertheless this realisation among large masses of people in advanced capitalist countries like Britain is something new and significant. In a sense, these demonstrations marked an important, qualitative leap in broadening the kind of vocal discontent with a number of the consequences of today's rapacious, neoliberal forms of capitalism and its concomitant militarism. A 'movement' that appeared to concern mainly unorganised youth has now been seen to embrace a qualitatively larger, working class and lower middle class constituency. Such mass mobilisations, for which the left has recently been able to provide the organisational vehicle (though not by a very long chalk an authoritative political leadership), are not something that can be treated lightly - they provide the raw material for major political developments. The question the left faces now, of course, is how we can act to give a conscious political expression to the new forces that the recent manifestations of capitalist irrationality have thrown into struggle alongside us. The question that is immediately posed by the anti-war mobilisations, of course, is how we go from here, with millions on the streets, to actually stopping the war. Unfortunately, wars are not simply stopped by large numbers of marching feet alone. Rather, the state and the class interests that lie behind it are able - unless the mass movement is armed with conscious organisation, political coherence and effective strategy and tactics - to use their control of diplomacy, the armed forces and the executive power in general to override the views of the masses, hoping by means of military success to outmanoeuvre and marginalise the anti-war movement. It might seem that this is an impossible task for Blair at the moment, given that we now, according to recent opinion polls, have an absolute majority of the population opposed to war against Iraq, with or without a second UN resolution. However, Blair, of course, is aware that clever playing of the UN card can at least neutralise a large part of the waverers and calculates that military good fortune, a quick US-British rollover in Iraq, will give him the means to turn the anti-war opposition into a pale reflection of its present strength. Whether this will happen depends on struggle: above all on political struggle. One distinguishing, positive feature of this anti-war movement, as opposed to other movements against wars in history, is that it has achieved an unprecedented popular support before the outbreak of war. This movement is considerably broader than that against the war in Vietnam, for instance, which only really acquired mass dimensions, in the United States in particular, when it became clear that US imperialism was losing (in Britain, it was much less of a mass phenomenon than the current movement). Unlike for instance, the massive but naive protests against militarism and war that preceded the outbreak of World War I, today's mobilisations are well aware of the nature of the war that is impending. This does not appear to be the result of some vague premonition of disaster moving the masses, as in the build-up to World War I, to be lightly blown away as soon as the smell of burning gunpowder fills the air and the 'defence of the fatherland' is perceived to be at stake. It appears rather more solid than that. For all the imperialists' pretty desperate attempts to compare Saddam Hussein with Hitler, and thus recreate the chauvinist-tinged 'anti-fascist' sentiment that animated popular support for the allied imperialist powers in World War II, the absurdity of such comparisons is obvious - far from an imperialist regime seeking world domination, Hussein's crippled dictatorship does not even rule over the whole of Iraq itself. The sole remaining card that the pro-war lobby have to play is the fear of 'terrorism' - but American propaganda amalgamating Hussein with bin Laden makes no sense to anyone who understands the elementary difference between a secular nationalist dictatorship like Hussein's and the theocratic aims of al Qa'eda. The Bush administration may have some success in pushing this rubbish to less sophisticated elements of his own electorate, still to some extent smarting at 9/11, though the existence of a real anti-war movement in America again shows some real fragility even in the belly of the superpower. In Europe, however, this kind of propaganda is rightly perceived as insulting, virtually racist drivel, and is going down like a lead balloon. Particularly since many ordinary people have been horrified by graphic images and accounts of the terrorism, rivalling that of Milosevic, of Israel's armed forces against the Palestinians - with virtually unstinting support and enormous financial aid from the United States. The people who are marching today have come to their views having lived through a succession of armed imperialist interventions in the past decade. In particular in the case of Iraq, a decade of undeclared warfare, imperialist starvation through sanctions and regular bombing are widely known to have resulted in many hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. As a result, this movement does not really have the pacifistic attitudes that animated many of those who protested under the umbrella of CND et al in the second Cold War period in the early 1980s. Rather, there is a much clearer anti-imperialist logic to this movement, which, though there is fear of 'terrorism' in response to Bush-Blair's imperialist adventure, is not mainly concerned with simply preserving life and limb in western Europe from being obliterated by the actions of others. Tony Blair's attempts to play the 'morality' card to justify his war are pathetic: a great many of the people marching have come to regard the whole idea of invading a third world country in this manner, and thereby exposing its population to terrible slaughter and maiming, as itself immoral - a view that is reflected among the wider popular sentiment. There is therefore - no doubt in an embryonic form, diluted for many people at present with naive conceptions of universal ethics - a real anti-imperialist logic to this new movement. This incipient anti-imperialist thrust needs to be made conscious, in order to arm the movement with the kind of political programme capable of stopping imperialist war once and for all. However impressive a demonstration of two million people may be, if it has no way of counterposing itself politically to the government waging the war, it will be impotent. Blair will, as indeed he shows every sign of doing already, simply ignore it and try to recoup his losses later in terms of popular support. Despite the existence of the mass movement, he still has an enormous political advantage - a coherent political organisation, in terms of both the state machine and the loyalist core of New Labour, and as a result a coherent political programme. Put simply, if the government is to be stopped in its attempt to wage war, it has either to be persuaded to change its policy to accord with the will of the anti-war masses, or be replaced by another government that will really carry out the popular will. The former, however, is extremely unlikely, since what would be at stake if such an about-turn in policy were to take place would be a major, potentially damaging rift between the most powerful material interests in Britain, the big capitalists and their professional hangers-on in the political sphere, and their counterparts in the United States. And for the British capitalist establishment the role of slavish junior partner to the US has not been seen as simply an optional extra in terms of Britain's foreign policy, but as something fundamental to their material interests, to ensuring the survival of the capitalist system in this country. For British capitalism to turn its back on the United States in a major war crisis has strategic implications: such a policy would be seen as a form of political suicide by the dominant sections of the British establishment. In this regard, the government is completely in step with establishment opinion in strategic terms. This is why Blair's policy is supported wholeheartedly by the Tories, and why the Liberal Democrats are dangerous to the anti-war movement, as their only differences with Blair and Bush are over how to defend the system of oppression and war that is capitalism. At best, Charles Kennedy is opposed to this particular capitalist war in order to safeguard the future for capitalism to wage future, 'wiser' wars for profit and plunder. At worst, his only real difference is about how to wage a politically effective war against Iraq, and thereby how to undermine the current anti-war movement. Kennedy's aim in attending the February 15 anti-war demonstration was not to oppose the war per se. Rather, it was to use the mass movement to put pressure on Blair to adhere to the United Nations route, and thereby gain legitimacy for the war in the eyes of at least a section of those mobilised. Kennedy wants to maintain and deepen links with 'old Europe' while not breaking from Britain's role as junior imperialist partner to the United States. A second UN resolution giving the go-ahead for war would therefore suit admirably. The problem for Kennedy is that it is not at all clear that Bush and Blair will be able to pull it off in the UN, given the adventurist nature of the coming war and its trampling over not just Iraq, but more importantly from the point of view of more far-sighted representatives of capitalism, the perceived interests of a number of important states such as France, Germany and Russia. Kennedy's role is therefore that of reconciling the alliance with Bush with his own party's pro-European (that is, pro-European capitalism) proclivities in terms of its strategic perspectives for the future of British capital. If a formula could be found to unite these currently apparently contradictory interests, Kennedy would be all in favour of invading Iraq. No, despite the posturing of Kennedy, all the major parties in British politics today are pro-war, either overtly or covertly. Without political organisation, without a political alternative government to the existing one, the anti-war movement is at a critical disadvantage compared to the powers-that-be. But there is enormous potential for constructing such an alternative, if the mass base particularly of the Labour Party, can be split away to create such a cohesive political force. Fundamentally, this means a new working class party - one fundamentally different from the Labour Party under either Blair or his predecessors, who have of course been responsible for administering British capitalism in critical periods, where many equally vicious imperialist wars have been waged - usually, though not always, in tandem with the United States. In a sense, what has happened now is that, in the absence of the Stalinist bogey for the imperialists to use as a talisman to ward off criticism, they stand naked when they carry on the same kind of rapacity as in past decades in Vietnam, Korea, central America, today in the Middle East. An independent working class party, not the kind of narrow leftist sects and covens that have been unfortunately only too characteristic of 'revolutionary' politics for decades, is urgently needed now. Such a party cannot be organised around an insistence that one particular thinker's views on the old Stalinist regimes, or current events in the Middle East, or whatever, are obligatory for the initiated. The kinds of 'revolutionary parties' (there are too many of them) that are organised along those lines are totally inadequate for the opportunities of today. Though such organisations have played a progressive role at times in the past in preserving some key ideas of revolutionary socialism through some very difficult times, they are useless, and therefore reactionary, in conditions of potential advance. Particularly in the context of the experience of Stalinism, undemocratic, sectarian organisations that engage in heresy hunts and expulsions of those who dare to disagree with a particular guru can only repel thinking people who fundamentally have been politicised not just by the crimes of imperialism abroad, but also by its flagrantly anti-democratic practices at home. Capitalism cannot be quietly reformed into something fundamentally more humane - that is the lesson of the decay and disintegration of old Labour, and of old-fashioned, reformist social-democracy in general. But democratic demands will play a major role in mobilising and politicising the masses in the struggle to defeat capitalism. Why should governments be able to initiate predatory wars against the will of the mass of the population? The people must have the democratic right - not as an exception, but as a norm - to simply recall elected representatives who attempt to trample over their wishes. All the undemocratic features of the existing, pseudo-democratic (in reality thoroughly capitalist) regime must likewise be abolished. The monarchy, and the power of the executive and the prime minister derived from the powers of the monarch, should be immediately abolished - executive power should lie only with at least annually elected, instantly recallable representatives. There is no room in this kind of democratic political system for such things as the House of Lords, or the power of the Privy Council or the official church, or any other unelected source of power counterposed to that of the people. All state officials, judges and anyone else who wields power over the lives of ordinary people should be elected and recallable. Likewise there must be a radical transformation of the existing situation of where the state is armed to the teeth where the people themselves go unarmed. The people must have the ability to resist and if need be persuade a government they elect to abide by their will. This means the organisation of a people's militia, composed of all citizens able to bear arms, democratically organised with all officers elected and subject to instant recall in the same manner. The standing army must be abolished, and replaced by the armed, democratically organised population as a whole. Ditto in the 'economic' sphere. A society is not democratic if its productive capacity is in the hands of unelected employers, who wield the power to deprive ordinary people of their livelihood, to relocate the forces of production to where the most money is to be made from cheap labour, and to generally abuse the wealth of society, created by the work of ordinary people, for their own personal gain. All management must be subject to the same norms of election and recall as with those with executive power in the state itself - exercised through trade unions or other institutions that will grow out of the mass struggle for democracy in society. All management decisions must be subject to veto by those who work for a living, collectively organised. All industry should, by a process of controlled transformation, democratically supervised by the working people themselves, be transformed into the common property of all, not run for the profit of a few. Only then can the enormous waste and despoliation of the environment, of people's lives, by capitalism the world over be done away with. This form of democracy cannot be limited to one country. We need a movement of revolutionary social change to seek victory at a global level because that is where capital fundamentally operates as an exploitative metabolism. Overcoming capitalism in one country alone and being content with such a position is merely to negate capitalism negatively and create the conditions not for socialism in one country but the return of capital, albeit in the strangest, hybrid, forms. Socialism is not socialism if it is not democratic, through and through. And socialism can ultimately know no borders - it must likewise be international in scope, otherwise it ceases to be socialism. There are of course many tactical questions that arise out of the anti-war movement itself: how to organise actions against the war, how and when to organise strikes, mass protests, civil disobedience, even how to engage with potential disaffection in the armed forces at some of the breathtaking imperialist doublethink behind the current war drive. All these things must be addressed by a new, democratic, revolutionary and in its logic, socialist and communist party of the working people that must grow out the struggles against this war, and around no doubt many other burning questions of the new period of struggle we are entering into. But the left should have no fear of democracy. On the contrary, consistent democracy has revolutionary implications for the great masses of working people the world over. Indeed it is the only road to genuine socialism and the salvation of an endangered world. Ian Donovan