Leadership lags behind the led

Manny Neira was among the hundreds of thousands who listened to the speeches in Hyde Park after last weekend's great anti-war march in London

I was a little apprehensive as my train pulled into Waterloo on March 22. The demonstration had been called quickly, and inevitably some of those who had come out before would fall silent now British soldiers were under fire. If attendance was low, would we hand a propaganda gift to our enemy? It is a tribute to the two million who demonstrated in London on February 15 that mere tens of thousands might be portrayed as a withering anti-war movement, but still a worry. I have never been happier to be wrong. Police estimated 200,000 and the Stop the War Coalition 750,000 protestors, despite Blair's attempts to rally the population behind the troops. As Samuel Johnson observed, patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, and that particular scoundrel must have felt a chill as he realised that even this refuge might not protect him from crisis and defeat. Just as February's demonstration had been the largest in peacetime, this was the largest in wartime: but the numbers do not tell all. To be there was to have an inkling of what a confident people can achieve. Independent thought in the face of propaganda, and independent action when all three main parties now support 'our boys'. This was not a celebrity radicals bash, or a gathering of the left's 'usual suspects', but the voice of a people who would not be gagged with the union flag. Some 30 speakers addressed the gathering for three hours. At least an hour must have been taken up with the repetition of slogans they could read on the placards and T-shirts facing them: a vast human autocue. The trouble the speakers had even matching the mood of the demonstrators, let alone adding something new, indicated that once again in our movement, the leadership is lagging behind the led. Jean Lambert, a Green Party MEP, began with a "welcome to old Europe": the first of four cries of "Vive la France" to be heard that afternoon. Before praising the French government, we should remember the arms deals and commercial interests they negotiated with Saddam's dictatorship. They are squabbling with a competing imperialist, not defending the oppressed. Though the greens already consider themselves leftwing for advocating economic stagnation to save the earth, there was a definite shift to the left in their adoption of socialist rhetoric, as they position themselves to capitalise on the anti-war feeling. Diane Abbott, Labour MP for Hackney North, condemned the war as "illegal and immoral". Would she think it moral if it were 'legal'? 'International law' is a dangerous illusion when no force exists which can impose it on the US. At best the UN is a cartel run by imperialists to avoid wasting energy against each other, while preventing the emergence of any opposition from the nations they oppress. Like all agreements between thieves, it is largely ignored. No court can limit George Bush, and only the American working class can defeat those he represents. Dr Daud Abdullah, assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, warned the US president that, having started this war, "Bush cannot guarantee when it will end, or how". True as far as it goes but, while the fight of the Arab peoples against US imperialism is to be supported, it is ultimately the power of the American working class which must defeat them. Abdullah highlighted the hypocrisy of claiming the support of a UN resolution for war against Iraq, while resolutions on Palestine were ignored - the first of many references to Palestine that day. No communist would deny the bloody injustice done to the Palestinians, but class war, and not holy war, must be our aim. Representing the school students whose protests have been so admirable, speakers from Camden School echoed the articulacy, radicalism and clarity of mind which so many young people have brought to the movement. They would not meekly study, they said, while innocent children in Iraq died, despite the police brutality they experienced in Parliament Square. The raising of the consciousness of the young must be one of the most alarming aspects of this campaign for the government. Some have spoken lightly of the school student protests. They are wrong. Naturally, their political understanding is undeveloped, and they will not change society of themselves, but this first experience of struggle will always remain with them. It is a quick and effective teacher, and may protect them from the patronising nonsense of armchair socialists. Alice Mahon, Labour MP for Halifax, said that the government had "lost the right to speak for us". It was a right they never had to begin with, but that is to quibble: she is right. She urged against despair, as there is "another America", and quoted a senator who "wept for his country". This was a timely reminder when some feel undifferentiated anti-Americanism. We would argue that the other America lies not in liberal senators, but the untapped power of their working class. She also gave voice to the dubious cry of "Vive la France". A protestor from Iraqi Kurdistan said that the war was about neither Saddam nor terrorism, but "to pave the way for the bloody new world order", and demanded Bush and Blair be tried for their crimes against humanity: "They represent death and destruction: we represent life, happiness, and humanity." Jeremy Elsby, assistant general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, worried about the creation of a world ruled by force and not by law. He is dreaming. The oppressed peoples of the world know that imperialism has never been governed by law - and certainly not by law that favours them. Next up was Adam Price, Plaid Cymru MP for Carmarthen East. Like the greens, Plaid Cymru regards itself as leftwing, but, under pressure from the Welsh people, its rhetoric at least has been pushed yet further left. Plaid Cymru's base was once in the more Welsh-speaking north, but they have been making progress in the previously solidly Labour south: progress which should have fallen to the Welsh Socialist Alliance. An organisation which appears only at election time can expect the contempt of the working class. Price naturally added a dash of nationalist green to his red flag, saying that "small countries around the world are united against this imperialist war". Whether he was claiming that the mere smallness of a country raised its consciousness (difficult to accept, given the protests in London, Paris, Berlin and even New York), or was seriously comparing the oppression of undeveloped capitalist countries with the position of Wales as part of imperialist Britain, is hard to say. He rightly said that the Iraqis will end up paying both for the war which will kill so many of them, and the 'reconstruction' - with their own blood as well as with their oil. The US corporate vultures are hovering over Iraq, and contracts are already been awarded even as the bombs fall. Paul Mackney, general secretary of Natfhe, the lecturers' union, began with a few questions: "Tony, who's the terrorist now? Jack, do you have enough evidence of weapons of mass destruction yet? Clare, is there enough reconstruction for you to do yet?" He saluted school students, the "people of the new generation", and added to the increasingly long list of accolades for imperialist France. Mackney told the crowd: "You should strike. The TUC should be organising that!" After an hour and a half of talk, this was the first direct call for coordinated, working class action. Mandy Telford, president of the National Union of Students, commended the students who had protested, and pointed out that the war was being funded while students were in poverty. Next one of the many Palestinian activists present spoke, arguing Israel, and not Iraq, was the 'rogue state' in the Middle East - with more weapons of mass destruction and broken UN resolutions. He predicted Sharon intended to "liquidate the Palestine problem under the cover of war". A young woman, aged 16, then spoke on behalf of the youth of the Muslim Association of Britain. She grew up in Iraq and wanted to return - "but not via the American route". She denounced the war as a crime, pointing out: "The people Bush and Blair claim to be defending are dying under their bombs." She wondered why such suffering was being visited on Iraq, asking: "Is our blood a different colour?" Ironically, this echoed the words of Shakespeare's Jewish character, Shylock: "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" She quoted US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, who, on being asked whether sanctions against Iraq were worth 500,000 child deaths, replied: "Yes, I think they are." But for the US, she said, "we'd have overthrown Saddam long ago". Bruce Kent, vice-president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, claimed that we have a new weapon in the International Criminal Court. But this is fantasy: no undefeated imperialist power will allow its leaders or even ex-leaders to be tried. He called for a "new world with new structures, where people come before profit". I remember speaking at CND-run meetings where my arguments for social change as a cure to war were howled down as politically divisive to the 'broadness' of the CND campaign, alienating Liberals and the odd peacenik Conservative. How times change. Jeremy Dear, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, led on censorship: through selective state broadcasting as well as through the political bias forced on private media by its owners. Even the Oscars had tried to ban anti-war speeches. "They don't want you to know that bombs hit hospitals, that two fell in Iran, and that the coalition of the willing was simply the coalition of those who had been bribed by the US." He would accept no lectures on the Iraq regime, as "we marched against Saddam while they armed him". He called for our aim not merely to be against war but for a better world based on the needs of the many rather than the profit of the few. Another Iraqi exile argued that there was no case for the war: "The more war, the more reconstruction; the more reconstruction, the more profit: this is the logic of capitalism and imperialism." He left us with the day's second memorable quote from a US politician. Being questioned on the bombing campaign, and with no trace of irony, US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld said: "A lot of humanity goes into targeting." By now we had been listening to speeches for two hours, and it was time for a little light relief. Donnachadh McCarthy, deputy chair of the Liberal Democrats, duly took the platform. "To those who call the Lib Dems traitors," he began - and we assumed he was talking to us, the demonstrators who had endured Charles Kennedy on February 15, only to have him now 'supporting the troops' - "we say the most patriotic thing is not to put our soldiers into an illegal war." "And now I'm going to say something which may be controversial." It is difficult to describe the effect this promise had on the mood of an audience already slightly stunned. "We are all part of the oil economy. When you drive your car, you are part of the oil economy. Don't drive your car when you don't need it. Turn your lights off at home. This will undermine the power of the oil economy for Bush and Cheney." It seems that under the intense pressure of having to make their minds up, the Lib Dems have simply gone barking mad. Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP for Islington North, said that "ordinary people are not prepared to support this war", and had a warning for his boss: "I've heard Tony Blair and Jack Straw worry that young people are not sufficiently interested in politics. When they blocked Parliament Square it seems they were, and Tony Blair should reflect that young people are not going to forget this experience." A speaker from the Kurdish Society spoke on behalf of the Kurdish community in Britain, pointing out that, though in 1985 the government had banned military exports to Iran, in 1987 licenses were still being granted for exports to Iraq. It seemed that under neither the Conservatives then nor Labour now could the Kurds expect justice. Tariq Ali called on the UN not to be a "cleaning company" for the US. Demands on the UN have no value. The US can veto its decisions and ignore its censure. It is a talking shop for imperialism and used to give a veneer of legality to oppression (though the latter is clearly no longer considered necessary, it seems). He was another to lead the thoughtless chorus of "Vive la France". Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Civil Service Union, repeated the statement that the government had no democratic mandate for war, and in reply to Blair's call for 'unity' said that if the war was barbaric when planned, it was barbaric when fought. He declared himself proud to be leader of a union whose members walked out on March 20 in protest at the start of war, and closed with a cry of "We can stop it!" He is right - both about the need to mobilise workers, and about the power they hold. Dr Azam Tamimi spoke for the MAB. He argued against, but predicted, "a thousand bin Ladens, more brutal and more savage than bin Laden ever was". The original bin Laden served only to alienate the American working class, the only force with the potential to defeat US imperialism once and for all. Once the US working class is stirred into action, Bush will fear it more than even "a thousand bin Ladens" - the answer is class war and not holy war. Keith Sonnet, deputy general secretary of Unison, said that if the US and UK wanted to "save the world" they would not have supported Saddam or sold arms to Sharon in Israel, and would have supported the formation of a state of Palestine. Mary Compton, junior vice-president of the NUT, spoke "as a teacher" of the problems of explaining the war to children even here, let alone in Iraq. How could she teach the importance of truth, when the government called oppression 'liberation'; or of democracy when the people of Britain were ignored? Finally, how could she condemn bullying as the US attacked an innocent people? Journalist Yvonne Ridley, once held by the Taliban in Afghanistan, called the war an attack on all our liberties, and demanded we rescue our democracy from "the thieves in parliament". The answer was "civil disobedience". This is as far as individual radicals - without revolutionary politics rooted in an understanding of the power of the working class - can go. A speaker for the Muslim Women Society, a doctor, had seen child deaths caused by sanctions - which the Iraqi people wanted no more than war itself. Billy Hayes, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, jibed that the government wanted to ban firefighters' strikes and seemed in favour only of air strikes. Bianca Jagger is one of those self-appointed ambassadors of human niceness who move with the media spotlight from issue to issue, visiting 'trouble spots', addressing the United Nations - and achieving nothing. She demanded the war stop to allow the UN to administer humanitarian aid: a pointless individual making a futile demand of a corrupt organisation. Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, reminded the gathering of Churchill's gassing of the Iraqis when they opposed the imperialist rule he had established to secure British oil supplies. Apparently Ken has been on the phone to Jesse Jackson, and they agreed to hold a conference to plan a "new society in which power is not concentrated in a few hands". While applauding these aims, one wonders again at the supreme confidence which underlies this rather substantial project. Perhaps he could win back the tube with and for its workers and passengers before reordering society. Lindsey German is editor of the Socialist Workers Party's Socialist Review and convener of the STWC. She equated attacking a nation where half the population is under 16 as equivalent to "bombing a playground". She promised that she will "continue to demonstrate as long as it takes", but if that is all she does she may be demonstrating long after the US has occupied, set up their puppet government and left. The SWP claims to be a revolutionary party, seeing wars like this one as symptomatic of the imperialist rule of the few, and only reversible by the action of the working class: and in this we agree. Why not a word of this to the thousands listening to her? Tony Benn called the war a "massive terrorist attack". He described the US policy of 'full spectrum dominance' - by space, air, sea, land and, above all, information - and accused the US and UK of using misinformation as a weapon. He declared: "Only the peoples of the world are entitled to run the world." We agree, but, having worked all his life to achieve this through parliament and finally left in disgust, how does he propose to achieve this now? And finally, George Galloway, Labour MP for Glasgow Kelvin, stood forward. He denounced the BBC for marginalising the views of the majority, and argued that any opposition to protesting against a war on the grounds of 'my country right or wrong' belonged in the 19th century, along with the current gunboat diplomacy. He was not anti-soldier, seeing British troops as "lions led by donkeys". He said that the idea that Iraqis have been waiting for foreigners to liberate them by killing them was "racist nonsense", and would be exposed as they resisted the US in every town and city. This drew the loudest cheer of the day. Communists will know that arguing the case for the defeat of the imperialist actions of one's own country can be a challenge, as the government wraps itself in the flag. Here, though, the idea that this imperialist adventure might earn the US and UK a beating was popular. Rather defeat for US-UK forces than their victory. The most telling speech of the day, though, was the one the Socialist Alliance failed to deliver. Like a café owner closing for lunch, the SA postponed its conference until 'after the war' - only the CPGB and a single independent opposing this move. As the greens, Plaid Cymru and even the Lib Dems position themselves to reap fresh support, the SA is silent.