We are better than them!

Peter Manson reports from last Saturday's 'international peace confernce' in London, which was more of a rally - and gave no answers as to what the anti-war movement should be doing next

In one sense, the 'international peace conference' against the occupation of Iraq was a "huge success", as Socialist Worker put it (December 17). The Royal Horticultural Hall was full to overflowing, with around 1,400 'delegates' and hundreds turned away, and it featured dozens of speakers from a score of different countries. But the media coverage the Socialist Workers Party was hoping for just did not materialise - every time I passed the 'press room' it was completely unoccupied. The Guardian had written about the conference in advance - but only to complain about the £25 fee for reporters. It seems, in common with the rest of the press, its journalists stayed away and, as far as I am aware, the only mainstream mention the conference received after the event was a short report on the BBC website. More pertinently, it was not a conference in any sense of the word - more like a massively overextended and repetitive rally, which went on from 10.30 in the morning until 8 in the evening. Yes, it was moving, even inspiring at times, as well as exhausting, but unavoidably it left you with the nagging question - what was it for? Mobilising people to build for the next demo in March? People who will then, in turn, be mobilised for the next 'conference'? According to Lindsey German, "We have marched repeatedly, but this was a chance to develop our ideas and contacts" (Socialist Worker December 17). Well, the first part is true, but, as for the second "¦ Stop the War Coalition chair Andrew Murray told us from the beginning that the statement we were supposed to be adopting was not open to amendment. Nor were there any motions taken, apart from those agreed in advance by the SWP-dominated organising committee and carried by acclamation. Only a tiny handful of speakers were called from the floor and these were hand-picked. So there was no opportunity to "develop" our ideas, which were actually presented as an eclectic and sometimes contradictory mish-mash. Everybody who is anybody in the anti-war movement was speaking at some time - Tony Benn, George Galloway, Cindy Sheehan, Reg Keys, Rose Gentle, Tariq Ali "¦ But no-one at all engaged with what anybody else said. For example, Iraqi academic in exile Sami Ramadani portrayed all those resisting the occupation as a virtually united entity. No section of it was engaged in terrorism - that was the exclusive preserve of the occupation. The imperialists were "promoting civil war" and US generals have admitted to organising death squads. All acts of kidnapping, indiscriminate bombings of civilians, individual assassinations - in fact everything of which comrade Ramadani disapproves - are the work of the imperialists themselves, he stated. Ayatollah Khalisi of the Iraqi National Foundation Congress painted a different and more balanced picture. Speaking through an interpreter, he pointed out that there was more to the population of Iraq than just sunni and shia, Arab and Kurd: "There is something called the Iraqi people." As with all countries, the population is made up of "different groups", but "Why should this be a reason for hating each other?" Iraqis have lived together with few problems throughout their history, he said, but "only when the occupation came did things change". Yes, the anti-occupation forces are divided, but the National Foundation Congress aims to unite them, said Khalisi. However, he opposed the hostage-takers, whose actions were a "blow against efforts to free Iraq". He referred to the "right to defend our country - the legitimate act of self-determination". Therefore it was essential to be "with the resistance, but against terrorist acts against civilians". This is still problematic, since it does not address the question of the political programme of those who, for instance, strike at the occupation on the one hand and simultaneously blow up civilian supporters of their rivals on the other. It is futile and self-defeating to pretend that "terrorism is not committed by people who wish to end the occupation" and that all of it is carried out by the imperialists themselves. Clearly a united resistance is essential, but, by definition, it must be secular, bringing together religious and non-religious groups, and, also by definition, excluding the murderous sectarians. The only force that is really capable of uniting the resistance is the organised working class - some of whose leaders, however, are unfortunately working hand in glove with the occupation. But the SWP does not try to promote working class leadership. One of its star speakers was to have been Sheik Hassan al-Zaqani, representing the pro-Iran shia islamists of Muqtada al-Sadr, but, predictably, he was refused a visa by the British embassy in Lebanon. The one Iraqi working class representative was Hassan Juma of the Southern Oilworkers Union, who began his speech (again through an interpreter): "In the name of Allah, the compassionate "¦" (Are there no christian or atheist members of his union?). For Juma, who favours the shia Islamic Supreme Council, oil is Iraq's "national treasure" - he appears to desire the "expulsion of US oil companies" even more fiercely than he wants to see an end to the occupation. When it comes to the anti-war movement in Britain, the SWP is no better. It does not attempt to win it to a working class perspective. None of the SWP speakers put forward anything remotely resembling a socialist view of the causes of war or a working class response. For Lindsey German, John Rees, Chris Bambery and Chris Nineham the occupation is brutal and Bush and Blair are bad - that is the long and the short of it. The only speaker who proposed anything approaching a 'strategy' for ending the occupation, and war in general, was Paul Ingram from the Green Party. He said the Iraq war was for oil, so basically war can be ended if the energy crisis can be solved. We must "reduce our dependency on oil" and find environment-friendly alternatives. In the meantime we workers must stop flying off on holiday: "Every unnecessary flight you take is blood on your hands." You might suppose that this is just the quirky view of a particular individual. But in fact, far from being challenged, its message was actually unintentionally reinforced by other speakers, including not only the likes of Juma, but also those from the SWP who talked about the 'war for oil'. It seems the SWP is by default leading the movement into irrationality. But that matters little to the likes of Rees and German. What matters for them is making recruits. And they did succeed in attracting comparatively large numbers of youngsters who seemed genuinely enthused. Three teenage girls in front of me rose for several standing ovations. Perhaps they joined Respect or the SWP afterwards - which is, I suppose, an advance of sorts. But what a waste. With the SWP it is a case of 'easy come, easy go' - we all know that recruitment for it is like a revolving door, such is the rapid membership turnover of the organisation. And the 'broad' party the SWP promotes - Respect - does not even champion working class independence, let alone socialism. The recruits it won in the Horticultural Hall would be, I imagine, young pacifists whose illusions would have been confirmed by most of the speakers. However, as I say, the SWP is delighted with its "huge success" in marching large numbers to the top of the hill once again - and is now getting wound up for the March 18-19 weekend of action. In an attempt at rebuttal of the Weekly Worker's criticisms of the SWP's Duke of York 'strategy', comrade Rees asked: "Why keep marching?" But his response to this rhetorical question was: "There's a simple answer: I'm going to keep marching until they stop killing." He concluded: "We do it because we know it's right. That's why we are better than them"; and "we" have a vision of a world without corporate power and without war. That was about as political as it got. Nevertheless he got rapturous applause, led, as always, by the hundreds of SWPers present.