Networks of resistance

Peace activist Sarah Young, author of the pamphlet Thinking allowed, replies to Mike Macnair

Any discussion of the anti-war movement has to answer this question - what do we need to do to stop a war? The Stop the War Coalition believed that a war could be stopped via the existing legal political processes in Britain. But the bounds of legal protest in the UK are not great. We can petition and lobby MPs. We can demonstrate in pre-agreed locations in accordance to rules set out by the state, whilst under strict state supervision and surveillance. We dutifully performed these activities, breaking all previous records. As Mike Macnair made clear in his article, we marched to the top of the hill and marched back down again, it was not effective and the war was not stopped (Weekly Worker March 17). Many of us knew that the survival of Blair and the continued removal of left candidates (eg, Galloway) from Labour short lists would be the most likely outcome of the STWC strategy. But it was not just the Socialist Workers Party that miscalculated wildly. On February 15 2003 Communist Party of Britain members spoke excitedly about Blair's imminent demise. I do not believe that Andrew Murray expected Blair to be preparing for his next term as prime minister in 2005. But, strangely, collective amnesia has set in and the STWC's irresponsible balls-up is being represented to us as a historic victory. For now we have the launch of the book by Murray and Lindsey German - a celebration of the Iraq conflict - I believe that the working title was Oh what a lovely war! One of the consequences has been a resulting lack of analysis of the anti-war movement. And this is despite the STWC being led by people who claim to be Marxist-Leninists: ie, people who say that criticism and self-criticism should be a standard part of any revolutionary's repertoire. Instead, they have reacted to any criticism like a pile of hissing snakes being poked with a stick. So how could a war be stopped? Firstly, as a movement, we have to start to take responsibility. There must be no illusion in the possibility that one faction of the ruling class might do the hard work for us. The STWC focused on WMD, which was actually an inter-establishment debate, instigated and maintained by people in the legal system, the BBC hierarchy and the capitalist press. By all means exploit differences within the British state, but for heaven's sake do not rely on these differences and never allow them to dictate our agenda. The pro-state British media cannot be used as an excuse for our failings. If we are serious about stopping wars, then we need to be serious about coming up with strategies that will allow us to stop wars. Counteracting the media needs to be part of such a strategy. So I think it is important to repeat again: only we, the people of Britain, can stop the British state from going to war and so it follows that responsibility lies with us alone. British involvement in imperialist war will only be stopped when ordinary people take actions that actually stop the machine - in the workplace, at military installations and on the streets of our towns and cities. This means challenging the state rather than working within its remit. The bounds of legitimate protest in Britain are so limited that effective political activity will inevitably place ordinary people in opposition to the law. Macnair is correct to say that rebuilding democracy in the unions is not a quick fix. Effective industrial actions, like those taken by the Scottish railway workers who refused to carry military-related freight, will tend be unofficial, not backed by leaderships and very likely illegal. In fact, effective industrial activity against war must be viewed as another form of direct action. Like union activity, traditional forms of non-violent direct action were very limited in the run-up to the war. Coach-loads of activists ready to engage in direct action were intercepted by police on their way to blockade RAF Fairford. Uller Roder faced months in Cornton Vale prison after breaking into RAF Leuchars and damaging equipment. This type of activity would need to be happening on a mass scale, if it were to challenge the state. Of course, only a small section of ordinary people can be expected to risk arrest and prosecution. But, for every individual who takes this type of action, there are dozens more who can work on planning, logistics, publicity and legal support. And something else is created that is a vital ingredient in our movement if wars are to be stopped - confidence and solidarity. Direct action need not be just a publicity stunt, as suggested by Macnair: it must be central to our strategy. In a similar vein demonstrations on our streets need to be in locations of our choosing, so that they can cause maximum disruption to road networks and commercial activities. They need to stop being symbolic and start being effective. But here is the great unspoken fact that was recognised by thousands on the first Saturday after Iraq was invaded. Stop the War and its sister organisation, the Scottish Coalition for Justice Not War (SCJNW), were not just out of touch with the thousands of (mainly young) people who were ready and willing to take direct action on the streets that Saturday. They actively organised to prevent such direct action taking place. In Scotland, during the run-up to the war, 2,000 individuals signed pledges to participate in direct action and sent them back to the SCJNW. The pledges were not used to aid communication between people on the ground, so that they could plan effective actions. Rather an arrangement for 'direct action' was made where people could sit in Glasgow's George Square, with the full collaboration of the local authorities, whilst surrounded by a police cordon. With full agreement from the Scottish Socialist Party, the SWP and the CPB, activists were hemmed in by the police. All the usual speakers, representing all those parties, refused to challenge this leadership. It was the school students who finally led the break through the police lines, opening the way for hundreds to flood through, anxious for action, trying to take up positions to blockade the M8 motorway. Bush's visit to London last year provoked the biggest evening demonstration ever in London. Policing was such that groups trying to disrupt Bush's stay had no chance of getting anywhere near. Lindsey German said that Stop the War was happy with the policing that day. The left establishment in Britain would be the first to claim that extra-parliamentary activity is the driver behind political progress in Britain. But extra-parliamentary activity is only effective if it challenges the state. Activity that challenges the state has not been supported by the leadership of Stop the War or the Scottish Coalition. The STWC claims that it was their strategy that led to the mass demonstrations. Not so. The STWC surfed, rather than created, the wave of protests against war. It was a movement with a life and momentum of its own. This was illustrated by the thousands of school students who took autonomous action when war broke out. They organised themselves with minimal links to the official anti-war organisations. Supporters of non-violent direct action have been forced out of the STWC and were notable by their general absence from the peace assembly in August 2003, where no support for direct action, or messages of solidarity with imprisoned peace activists in the UK, came from the platform. Macnair described with accuracy how the SWP has attempted to transfer anti-war sentiment into parliamentary activity, in the form of the Respect coalition. The likes of the CPB and Labour Party leftists are committed to reclaiming Labour. In Scotland, the International Socialist Movement and Socialist Worker platforms of the SSP are committed to marketing their party for votes rather than promoting grassroots autonomy and activity. The net result is channelling people into passivity, where they are the recipients of top-down decision-making and where they are discouraged from participating in the types of localised decision-making and activity that can build movements like that against the war. This is symptomatic of how the left political establishment in Britain will only commit itself to working with and through the state. The left is so bound up with the state that it can be considered as part of the state. During the period before the Iraq invasion, never before were so many people neutralised into such ineffectual political action. It was as if Tony Blair had phoned Lindsey German asking her to not cause too much trouble and she had agreed to do her damnedest to help him. Of course it is not just leaderships that are at fault. There is a general culture in the left of British politics where people are not in the habit of having to work things out and do things for themselves - a habit that reflects the way that the state operates to disempower and disengage us from ideas and actions of our own making. The main left parties, despite claims of the efficiency of democratic centralism, are in effect top-down decision-making organisations. Their cultures are such that they see working people as masses to be manipulated into behaving progressively and who need to be led by revolutionary experts such as Chris Nineham and Alex Callinicos. The likes of Gregor Gall fancy themselves in this role and will push to ensure that the SSP assumes and maintains this cultural profile. They are pale, male and stale - just like their bourgeois counterparts in the state. So we were a long way from stopping the war. And do not let us delude ourselves into thinking that the STWC have made the next war more difficult for the British government, as claimed by Murray (The Guardian March 16). Nevertheless, some progress has been made. It is a step forward that the STWC has even continued to exist after the war. After assuming control of the committees against the 1991 Gulf War and the Kosovo war, the SWP abandoned them and allowed them to fragment as soon as the wars were over. This showed a lack of commitment and understanding of the need for a permanent organisation aimed at confronting Britain's role in wars and imperialist projects. It also allowed the wars to be interpreted as a series of disconnected events. However, the STWC continues to impede general understanding of the world situation in terms of the resident imperial powers by propagating the 'war against islam' interpretation and concentrating on the WMD issue instead of Iraqi human rights. It is important to campaign around withdrawing British troops: the USA's 'coalition of the willing' needs to be dismantled. But we also need to build solidarity with Iraqis who are suffering intolerably. This means solidarity with Iraqi trade unions, the Union of the Unemployed in Iraq, and anti-clerical women's and children's organisations. The STWC and the SWP have neglected the Iraqi human rights area completely, under the guise of building wide support for a single-issue campaign. But Iraqis are appealing for international solidarity. In Britain we want to know how to help the Iraqi people both politically and financially and cannot find out how from either the capitalist media or the STWC website. And we are allowing the Labour Party to control the Iraqi human rights agenda - for example, by using Ann Clwyd as special envoy to Iraq. The longstanding peace movement and the younger anti-globalisation and pro-environmental networks have a keen awareness of how manipulative the so-called revolutionary left can be, in particular the SWP and the CPB. Their approach is to continue to organise in parallel with them, but there is a greater likelihood that these groups will become more assertive in their criticisms of the SWP and others. This has the potential to precipitate a much needed public debate about how politics should be conducted that could even result in a rejuvenation of engagement with political theory by single-issue activists. Outside of Stop the War, the network of peace activists has strengthened, so that there is much improved capability for direct actions focused on stopping wars in the future. With the G8 coming to Scotland, there are increased chances for communications between long-term peace activists and the (mainly younger) anti-globalisation and environmental protesters with the possibility for joint action and organisation. This would be a significant development that the state will try to discourage. The main body coordinating direct action against the G8, the Dissent network, is already being fingered by the capitalist media with bogus links to violence. So there has been development in the organisation of peace and anti-globalisation activists. But we are not going to stop wars without taking industrial action. It is this area in which we are weakest in Britain, not least because so few ordinary working people are engaged with politics and trade unionism. We cannot afford to wait in hope that the (not particularly) 'awkward squad' will gain more influence in the TUC. The SWP and CPB are only committed to working within the existing TUC hierarchies, which has been and will continue to be an ineffective approach. We need badly to acknowledge a requirement to build confidence and solidarity, starting at the grass roots, so that direct action in workplaces can be taken. When organised workplaces begin to make links with the direct action peace and anti-globalisation networks - that is when we will start to see effective political actions in Britain against war. The task of revolutionary anti-militarists is to refocus on what is effective and meaningful activity and to build working links between all those prepared and preparing for resistance to the next war, wherever they may be.