Still marching, still not leading

Ben Lewis reviews Five years on: why we are still marching Chris Nineham and Andrew Burgin : Stop the War Coalition, pp24, �1.00

This pamphlet has particular relevance to me and doubtless thousands of other people, in that it briefly outlines five years that have changed the lives of thousands of activists within Britain, politicising a new generation and throwing people from all backgrounds into political struggle - often for the first time in their lives.

Who can forget the militancy and resolve with which school students responded to the threat of war? Walkouts, meetings and the defiance of threats of expulsion all undermined the myth that the youth of today do not care about politics or big issues. February 15 2003 - or, in the words of cultural commentator John Harris, “the day when politics stopped working” for millions across the globe - will certainly go down in history.

Yet where are these people today? Where is the political verve and resolve that swept across anti-war branches, student unions and sixth form common rooms? Demonstrations are smaller, activists often disillusioned and local Stop the War Coalition branches - a select few aside - effectively cease to operate. It is in this context that we must analyse the latest STWC pamphlet. Although not explicitly stated, it attempts to come to terms with the last five years - not through ruthless and honest self-criticism, but through making a liberal, moralistic case as to why it is necessary to keep on marching, despite the fact that five years of doing precisely this has unfortunately seen numbers dwindle and the masses gradually retreat from the political stage back into passivity.

Activists who have walked up and down the hill in the name of peace will therefore not be surprised - there is no real attempt to articulate new ideas about the future of the anti-war movement and the political tactics it must adopt if it is to successfully channel the still latent sentiment into some sort of challenge to undermine the war in the Middle East.

The pamphlet appeals to our moral outrage at the horrors of war by highlighting some in part shocking figures from Oxfam surveys and ‘human rights’ case studies. It does not attempt to grasp the dynamics of the US war drive. Although the section on the ‘forgotten war’ in Afghanistan is of much better quality than the others, it offers nothing new to readers of the liberal press.

Tony Benn’s extremely brief foreword epitomises the political shortcomings of the STWC - an organisation that once was full of verve and energy but, because of the directionlessness of its ‘Marxist’ misleaders, is unwilling and unable to provide answers in the face of the permanent ‘war on terror’ and its disastrous consequences.

In this sense, the pamphlet can actually be viewed as a step backwards compared to some previous material produced by the coalition, such as Lindsey German’s and Andrew Murray’s 2005 Stop the war: the story of Britain’s biggest ever mass movement. Whereas Murray and German were previously willing to make hollow concessions to the obvious fact that “the anti-war movement failed to stop the war because it was insufficiently implanted in a militant working class movement”, the pamphlet is loathe to even admit this, let alone ask why this was the case. Instead the reader is subjected to desperate exaggeration and hyperbole in order to make the case for the STWC “making a difference” - as one section of the pamphlet is titled. Not only has Tony Blair “been driven from office”, but - and this really is something to be proud of - “the strength of the anti-war movement has forced the US to put its plans for an attack on Iran on hold” (p23).

It is hardly the case that Tony Blair was ejected from office into political insignificance with his tail between his legs. True, Iraq plus frustrated ambitions within the upper echelons of his own party forced him to announce his resignation date earlier than he would have liked. But he managed to see out 10 years as prime minister, was appointed Middle East ‘peace envoy’ and looks destined for a high-profile role in the European Union.

The claim about Iran ignores the fact that, as well as seeing Tehran as an enemy, the Bush administration is also holding out the offer of a deal. Moreover, the authors seem to forget that in a sense the war against Iran has already begun in the shape of sanctions.

According to Burgin and Nineham, US aggression is “driven by fear of economic competition from China and the emerging powers” and that is why “further use of overwhelmingly military force by the US, whoever is president, remains a serious threat” (p22). But there is no mention of US economic decline in the conditions of imperialist moribund capitalism and the necessity of war for US capital. The glaring failure to mention, let alone concretely analyse, imperialism is also more frustrating in that it fails to tackle head-on one of the deep-seated political misconceptions within the anti-war movement: namely that the occupation of Iraq would be somehow ‘just’ or ‘more respectable’ with the backing of the United Nations den of thieves who, in the aftermath of the invasion, declared the occupation legal and legitimised the puppet regime.

The section on Iraq makes some sound points about the chaos inflicted on Iraq by the occupying forces, especially in terms of the chronic lack of resources in the country due to a destroyed social infrastructure and the sealing off of key districts. It also does an adequate job of tackling the media’s concerted efforts to focus reporting on individualised sectarian terrorist attacks, downplay Britain’s role as invader and manufacture the impression that the continuation of the occupation was some sort of ‘peace-keeping’ operation to prevent the country sliding into civil war. Given that even certain elements of the organised ‘left’ can see the ‘progressive’ side of the occupation, it is important that the pamphlet attempts to deal with this question and highlight the destructive US-UK ‘divide and rule’ strategy.

Nevertheless, this is not the same thing as implying that there are no deep-seated divisions within Iraq itself. The pamphlet reassuringly says, for instance, that “Iraq has little history of inter-communal tensions” (p7). But what about today? While we insist on an immediate and unconditional end to the occupation, we are under no illusions that this will instantly produce peace, light and harmony. However, in line with the STWC’s policy of ‘keeping it broad’, comrades Nineham and Burgin do not call for immediate and unconditional withdrawal - in fact they make no specific demands whatsoever. (True, the section on Afghanistan ends with the statement that “It is time for the troops to leave.” But when was it the right time for them to be there in the first place?)

Yet to discuss Iraqi social divisions in a serious manner would certainly get the comrades into some difficulty. The US “switch in political alliances” (p6), which is described as helping to stabilise the country, is actually linked to its increasingly complex relationship with the (supposedly anti-imperialist) Iranian regime, which exerts huge influence in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is probably why there is next to nothing written on Iran and the threat against it.

Aside from the hardly novel assertions that the “America and Israel are directly threatening Iran” (p2), the pamphlet devotes little attention to the issue and the extremely complex social dynamics unfolding within the wider Middle East region as a whole. It does not mention sanctions and the ramifications for Iranian society. Given the STWC leadership’s cynical manoeuvres to prevent Hands Off the People of Iran and Communist Students from affiliating for having the gall to speak out against the Tehran regime, and its own preference for pro-Iran apologetics, the absence of material is surely not insignificant.

It is here that we see the fundamental political problem with the coalition. Although Tony Benn marvels at the “broad” coalition that has been built with “people from all nationalities” represented (p2), the reality is that the Socialist Workers Party is more than willing to make concession after concession to forces to its right, while looking to silence and exclude critical voices - crucially from the left. So exiled Iranian socialists in Hopi are told they are not welcome, but a tour around the country is laid on for Hezbollah.

It is clear that things are now a lot different from the heady days of 2003. But, reading this pamphlet, you can perhaps see why. Firstly, as I have pointed out, it does not even address the question of decreasing support. Secondly, just as it makes no demands, it fails to outline any tasks either for the STWC or the movement more generally. Marching is about the limit of it.

The pamphlet combines statistics, personal reflections and (some oddly placed and largely irrelevant) graphs and maps to make its pacifistic, liberal case against war. Yet unless the left can pose a democratic, working class alternative, then there is a real danger of an attack on Iran - and not only that, but many more wars besides.