Which way forward?

A little over two years ago the better part of two million people marched against the war on Iraq. The following demonstrations in the spring and summer were smaller, but still large. By November 2003, however, although we were not quite down to the 'usual suspects', the numbers had certainly got a lot smaller. We obviously want to see the biggest possible turnout on Saturday March 19, but it is a fair bet that it will be smaller than the demonstrations in 2003.

There was still in early February 2005 (the last time polls asked the question) a clear majority opposed to the war (32% for, 51% against). There was a stronger majority in favour of UK troops leaving "as early as possible" (24% of them for staying "until Iraq is stable", 66% against - figures from http://pollingreport.co.uk/iraq.html). The problem of the anti-war movement is how to convert this passive hostility to the war and occupation into an active mass movement.

There is also another, related problem. In 2003 we marched up to the top of the hill and marched down again - and did not stop the invasion of Iraq. Nobody expects Iraq to be the last target of the US-British coalition. For the moment the US is acting diplomatic towards Iran and employing only 'orange revolution' tactics against Syria. But there is no telling how long this approach will last. We did not stop the Iraq war. What can we do to stop the next one?

Ebb tide

After summer 2003 the active anti-war movement ebbed away. Why? Probably the most powerful factors came from objective conditions and the policy of our rulers. In February 2003 two major newspapers, the Mirror and the Independent, backed the demonstration. This backing reflected the fact that the policy of invading Iraq had created a major split among our rulers. France and Germany stood out against it; and the British state bureaucracy itself was sharply divided on the issue, with military and intelligence sources briefing the media against the policy. The phase of regular military hostilities of the invasion of Iraq inevitably kept the issue on the front pages. Once these were complete, however, the political and media establishment gradually and painfully began to close ranks.

Keeping the wounds open would serve no useful purpose. Some individuals and institutions had to be sacrificed to this end. By spring 2004 Blair had dealt, through the Kelly affair and the Hutton report, a savage blow to critical comment at the BBC, and through the 'faked photos scandal' achieved the ousting of Piers Morgan at the Mirror. The Independent now stood effectively isolated as an anti-war paper. In Iraq, meanwhile, British troops were carefully kept to the relative quiet of southern Iraq, reducing their headline involvement in the war.

Their role in the occupation could begin to appear as just one more of the deployments of British troops in overseas counter-insurgency which have overlapped continuously since 1945. British media coverage of Iraq gave increasing emphasis to conflicts between religious groups in the country. It played up occasional terrorist attacks on shia religious events and marginalised the continuous guerrilla operations against both occupying troops and institutions like the police force which the occupiers are trying to create. These forms of spin made the occupation of Iraq feel like British involvement in Bosnia or Ulster: mundane.

The ebb tide of the movement also had a powerful subjective aspect to it. We marched - and we did not stop the war. Yet the leadership of the Stop the War Coalition could only come up with more national demonstrations, when one of the biggest national demonstrations ever had not worked. It is not surprising that the active movement got smaller.

Clearly, big marches alone will not end the occupation or stop further wars. So where to now? Three alternatives have been put forward. They could perhaps be combined, but each has a different centre of gravity.

Towards the labour movement?

One line of argument was for the movement to focus on the trade unions and the workplaces. At the end of the day, industrial action against their logistical backing could undermine British troops' ability to function in Iraq and force the government to bring them home. The unions, moreover, could make life seriously tough for the Labour Party, since they hold the purse-strings. This was a standard argument of the Trotskyists (eg, Workers Power) and one they have run in every campaign against British military actions overseas in the last 30 years. In a historical and logical sense it is true. If we could get industrial action against the war effort, the occupation could be defeated. But there are two problems.

The first is that the overall situation of the trade unions in Britain is weaker than at any time in the last 70 years. Union membership has fallen by 40% since 1979. Days lost through strikes are at historically low levels. Turnout in union elections is weak. Activists are thin on the ground and struggle to create membership activity around even the core economic interests of members. 2002-03 saw a slight upturn in union membership and activity, but not a real turn-around.

The second is that the leaderships and full-time officials of the unions are overwhelmingly committed to striking deals with the Labour government. The trivial promises given at Warwick in July 2004 were enough to bring most of them back onside for Blair, though the government shows little sign of delivering even on these promises and has continued its attacks on union members. One result was the passage of a pro-occupation policy at the 2004 Labour Party conference.

Fighting for trade unions that can effectively oppose imperialist wars is a strategically fundamental task for the anti-war movement as well as for the left. But it is a big task. It involves both rebuilding the union and shop stewards' organisations and the links between the activists and the members at the base, and a struggle for political democracy in the unions which will force the full-time officials to work for, rather than against, policies agreed at union conferences. It may be a strategically fundamental task, but it is not a quick fix for the anti-war movement.

NVDA and legal activism

Both anti-war activists coming from the anti-globalisation movement, and an older generation who remember Vietnam and CND, have argued for a central role in the campaign to be played by non-violent direct action (NVDA). There have indeed been some limited NVDA actions - more in 2003 than in 2004-05. Another group has attempted to use the illegality of the war (as a matter of international law) as a way of challenging it. The two activities can in principle work together, with 'direct action' being backed by legal defence grounded on the illegality of the war and the NVDA thereby providing publicity for the illegality.

In the movement in the US against the Vietnam war NVDAs played an important role. But their relative success was resulted from two specific features of that war. The first was that it was fought with a conscript army (and under a system of conscription which had problematic legitimacy). NVDAs thus had an immediate target within the US: the draft system itself, which directly affected the conduct of the war. The second was that the war overlapped with a mass movement which had already developed, for black civil rights. The tactic was taken from this movement - which had, like the draft system, immediately visible targets which could be attacked by NVDAs.

The situation in Britain in relation to the Iraq war is sharply different. There are not clear, visible targets for NVDAs which will directly affect the war-fighting ability of the British military. And though the anti-globalisation movement provides a limited exemplar for direct action tactics, it has not been even remotely on the scale of the black civil rights movement in the US. NVDAs in Britain are likely to be on a similarly small scale and aimed at indirect targets. Their purpose is essentially to provide publicity stunts, but their ability to do so is dependent on the willingness of the mainstream media to give them the publicity they need. Since the political-media establishment began to close ranks, the publicity has been decreasingly forthcoming.

Legal activism is even less capable of mobilising large numbers. It is precisely an activity carried on by small groups of lawyers. It also has a major political disadvantage. Over the invasion of Iraq, the major powers were divided. Therefore there was no direct UN security council authority for the invasion, and therefore (in turn) the invasion was illegal. But the occupation is authorised by a security council resolution and is therefore - despite the illegality of the invasion - legal: unless the lawyers are prepared to challenge the competence of the UN to take such decisions and rely on pre-1945 international law. Arguments from the 'international rule of law' will inevitably be used much more against the anti-war movement than they can be used for it.

Electoral action

The choice made by the central leadership of the Stop the War Coalition round the Socialist Workers Party and its immediate co-thinkers was a different one: to attempt to turn the anti-war movement directly into an electoral force which could threaten or undermine the Blair government. If marching would not change their minds, we would see what voting could do. This was one side of the genesis of Respect. The CPGB's general criticisms of the Respect project and the way the SWP has run it will be familiar to readers of this paper. But the character of Respect also had negative consequences for the anti-war movement.

The idea of an electoral turn of the anti-war movement was in principle sound strategy. The fundamental weakness of the warmongers' position was (and remains) the very broad mass opposition to the war. If this opposition could be given electoral expression, Britain might be knocked out of the coalition, as Spain was. 'Might' is the right word; not only because nothing is certain, but also because the commitment of the British state to its role as the US's side-kick runs far deeper than the then Spanish government's willingness to participate, on a smaller scale, in the 'coalition of the willing'. If an effective electoral intervention of the anti-war movement had led to Labour losing its majority, the probable immediate result would be a 'government of national unity' to continue the war.

But the main trouble was that the specific agendas of the leaders of Respect were counterposed to an effective electoral intervention of the anti-war movement. In the first place, George Galloway, instead of leaving the Labour Party and calling for a new party when the invasion started (which might have precipitated a real movement for a new party), waited for the Labour leadership to expel him - by which time much of the momentum had already gone out of the anti-war movement.

Meanwhile, the SWP had three ulterior agendas in its Respect turn. The first was to separate their forces from those of the fractious other groups of the far left and 'independents' who had been involved in the Socialist Alliance. This was made clear in reports to the SWP's autumn 2003 conference. The procedural consequences of this desire tended to paralyse the process of formation of Respect through top-down control, and to strengthen suspicion - going well beyond Socialist Alliance elements - of the SWP's control-freakery.

The second was to replicate the 'united front' method as the SWP had seen it since the Anti-Nazi League of the 1970s: that is, to create a top-down alliance with forces to its right on terms fully acceptable to these forces, in which the SWP could appear as 'the left'. The difficulty was that the SWP was from the outset in a majority in Respect, the forces to its right being largely phantoms. In consequence the SWP was afraid of frightening off the phantom right by taking 'leftist' stances on questions like the constitution, immigration, abortion and so on - particularly since in this case the right was represented to a large degree by the Muslim Association of Britain.

This meant that there was only one way it could present itself as 'the left' in Respect, and this was to insist on 'solidarity with the Iraqi resistance' - a formula MAB leaders could certainly go along with. However, by autumn-winter 2004 this orientation of the SWP and its immediate co-thinkers was creating sharp tensions with some of the trade union officials involved in the STWC. The price paid for keeping the officials on board was the adoption at the January 2005 STWC conference of watered down positions both on the question of immediate withdrawal of troops, and on the electoral policy of the STWC as such.

The SWP's third agenda was to recreate the STWC in electoral politics in another sense. Blair's victories, the experience of various single-issue campaigns, the anti-globalisation movement and most recently the success of the STWC in 2002-03, have all suggested that grassroots organisation, an independent press, and so on, are not necessary to successful political campaigning. What is needed is mastery of the mass media. The SWP hoped that STWC's media successes could be repeated in the Euro-elections. They dreamed of electoral campaigns of a new type, ones which would not involve the long slog of leafleting and canvassing or the laborious struggle through local elections and local campaigning activities.

The result was a commitment to a campaign in all constituencies in the 2004 Euro-elections, which would give Respect a political broadcast and state aid with circulating leaflets. But at this point it became transparently clear that Respect was not the 'party of the anti-war movement'. Whatever the political line-up on the Respect steering committee, a large part of the grassroots activists of the anti-war movement came either from direct action enthusiasts hostile to electoral politics, or from the greens and the left of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties.

The endeavour to run an electoral campaign through the media thus precluded any real possibility of tactical local non-aggression pacts with the Greens or support to anti-war elements of Labour; and the high prominence given to Respect in STWC events (and in SWP priorities) undermined the local anti-war movements. It was also predictably unsuccessful. Once the internal conflict in the political elite had been largely resolved after the war, the mass media were never going to give Respect a 'fair crack of the whip'. Respect's resulting poor electoral performance, outside a handful of areas with strong south Asian populations, tended to undermine the anti-war movement by association. The main beneficiaries of anti-war sentiment were in fact the Lib Dems, even though their national leadership had been at best ambiguous towards the war.

What's it for?

The point of the anti-war movement is not to provide 'opportunities' for the left (whether to make an electoral breakthrough, or to recruit, or to provide a sea in which the left can swim). It is to fight to get British troops out of Iraq, and Britain out of the 'coalition of the willing'.

The point may seem banal and obvious. It needs nonetheless to be made, because so many people have spoken the language of 'opportunities for the left' or even a 'window of opportunity for the left'; because the idea seems to have formed the basis of the policy of the SWP; and because it is so misleading.

Fighting to get British troops out of Iraq and Britain out of the 'coalition of the willing' is an elementary act of human solidarity. We have particular responsibilities here because British as well as US aircraft have rained death and destruction on Iraqi cities; because British as well as US troops have killed and brutalised both Iraqis attempting to defend their country from a foreign invader and Iraqi civilians; and because British diplomacy has lent its support to this war originally conceived in the US. In addition, it is in our interests as socialists/communists and democrats: "A nation which oppresses another can never itself be free." The war on Iraq (which has in reality continued through a series of different forms since 1991) is part of a system of global rule in which Britain is the US's junior partner. If we succeed in getting Britain out of Iraq - when we, the anti-war majority, say, not when it is convenient to the British state - we will deliver a blow to this system of rule. The victory of the anti-war movement would in truth be an opportunity for the British workers' movement to free itself from the shackles of Thatcher-Blairism. Thinking of the movement itself as an 'opportunity for the left' is thinking on much too small a scale. Once we understand this basic point, two fundamental choices follow: about the goals of the movement, and about the coming general election.

Out now!

The task of the anti-war movement is to fight for the immediate withdrawal of British troops and the withdrawal of British support. Full stop. We should not haver about the question of immediate withdrawal, whether in the name of illusions about the UN or - like the Alliance for Workers' Liberty and some forces in Labour Friends of Iraq - fear of the islamists. Doing so undermines the fundamental political cutting-edge message of the movement: British troops should not be there. They should get out now. Promoting illusions in the UN is pointless and stupid. The split in the security council at the time of the invasion has abated considerably. The UN has authorised the occupation and backed the occupiers' rigged elections.

Fear of the islamists plays into the hands of the media supporters of the occupation. We opposed the war unconditionally when it was being fought against the tyrannical Ba'athist regime. We said that invasion and occupation would not make things better. We have been proved right. Exactly the same principle applies to islamist would-be tyrants (whether they are currently resisting or collaborating with the occupation). The episodic murders of trade unionists, etc in Iraq are used as arguments why the troops should stay or be replaced by UN troops. The reverse is the case: they demonstrate that the troops do not protect the Iraqi workers' movement. The occupiers support and promote religious divisions in Iraq and their presence gives legitimacy to projects of jihad. They should go, irrespective of what may follow them.

There is another side to this coin. Some SWPers and others argue that the job of the anti-war movement (or of the political left) is to "support the resistance". They counterpose this policy to fighting for the left and the labour movement to support the emerging workers' movement in Iraq. In the STWC this has led to a conflict over STWC leaders' reticence about outright and unqualified condemnation of the murder of Iraqi trade unionists, etc, which the union leaders were able to use to water down commitments on troops out and on the elections.

This is a red herring. On the one hand, there is absolutely no point in socialists and communists pretending to be political islamists (or pretending that political islamists are 'really' nationalists in disguise and quite cuddly actually - the practice of the SWP). That is the sort of dishonesty traditionally practised by the far left. On the other, suppose we did seek to give "support" to the resistance. How would we do so? Buy guns and try to ship them into Iraq? The only practical support we in Britain can give to any part of the Iraqi people is to fight as vigorously as possible for the immediate withdrawal of British troops from Iraq and for an end to British support for the occupation.

In this context 'support the resistance' rhetoric and ambiguity about the murder of trade unionists, or the bombing of shia mosques, serve to weaken the anti-war movement. The focus of the movement should be on the single demand: Out now!

The anti-war movement and the election

The attempt to create in Respect the "political expression of the anti-war movement" has failed. The number of candidates Respect will be standing in the coming general election is not wholly clear, but will definitely not be large. In this context, the STWC January conference offered a watered down version of a correct policy of the anti-war movement in the coming election: conditional support.

STWC "urges people to take into account the voting record and opinions of candidates" in relation to four points:

The resolution calls for local activities round this policy, like STWC election hustings. This is highly desirable. But it goes on to advise local groups to "bear in mind the cardinal importance of maintaining the unity of the anti-war movement". In this context this can only be read as 'Raise this issue, but not too sharply'. British politics is already dominated by the anticipation of a general election in May, though no firm date has been fixed. Under these conditions the anti-war movement does indeed need to use the election to get its message across. But what is that message to be? The answer has already been argued: Out now!On this basis, local STWC groups can draw a sharp line between pro- and anti-occupation candidates, and create the conditions for clear local campaigning against pro-occupation candidates and sitting MPs. No doubt this will involve some tension in the movement. But if we do not pursue this path we will not deserve to be called an anti-war movement.