Lies will not help the anti-war movement

Ben Lewis reports on the Stop the War Coalition's annual conference, where underhand methods were once again deployed to reject the affiliation of Hands Off the People of Iran

Around 300 people attended the very ‘business as usual’ Stop the War Coalition annual conference on October 30. On offer were more or less the same timetable, speakers and motions as in previous years - and, of course, the same narrow, pacifistic politics. So it was that Communist Party of Britain members Andrew Murray and Kate Hudson, Labour lefts Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn, Guardian columnist Seamus Milne, Respect’s George Galloway and the Counterfire duo of Lindsey German and John Rees graced the congress with speeches that would be instantly recognised by anybody who has ever attended a STWC meeting or demonstration.

Unfortunately, something else has not changed: the STWC leadership’s desire to avoid serious political discussion from the floor. Last year a contentious motion on the Tamils was “remitted” to the steering committee (read: buried) instead of being discussed thoroughly and voted on. This time it was the fate of a motion on self-determination for Kashmir, moved by the British South Asia Solidarity Forum (BSASF).

We also saw the usual motion from the CPGB-ML calling on Stop the War to fight for the slogan of ‘Victory to the resistance’ in Afghanistan and Iraq. In opposing this, Gareth Jenkins of the Socialist Workers Party said that he was “not opposed to the slogan” - he was actually “fully in favour” - but the coalition needed to think about “breadth” and “not drive people away” by making this slogan a “condition for participation” in the coalition. Finally, he added that we needed a “good debate” on this within the coalition - not that there was one, of course.

Delegates were soon to find out that this ‘broad’ approach is only applied when it suits the STWC leadership and their political prerogatives though. For the third successive year, Hands Off the People of Iran’s attempt to affiliate was rejected. This time, however, the tactics the leadership employed plumbed depths that perhaps none of us thought possible.

As soon as I entered the hall in the morning, it was clear that something fishy was going on. The delegates’ pack handed out to all present had a little note “concerning motion 8” (ie, the CPGB motion on Hopi).

The note falsely alleged that last year’s conference had agreed to oppose Hopi affiliation “on the grounds that Hopi had made public comments hostile to the Stop the War Coalition, including the statement that Hopi aimed to become ‘an alternative political centre’ to the Stop the War Coalition and that Stop the War had ‘rotten politics’.”

These comments were not “public” and not made by Hopi, but by Hopi national secretary Mark Fischer at an internal CPGB meeting in his capacity as CPGB national organiser. As the CPGB actually openly reports its meetings, the comments were reprinted in the Weekly Worker and pounced on by Andrew Murray as a pretext for excluding ... not the CPGB, but Hopi!

Below this misrepresentation the delegates’ notes reprinted a letter from Andrew Murray in April 2009, asking the Hopi SC to address this “issue”. This created the impression that Hopi has not responded to this correspondence for nigh on 18 months. But it has. It has constantly pressed for a meeting of representatives from both organisations.

Hopi’s latest letter, sent last week, was clear: “... we [the Hopi steering committee] found it worrying that you are apparently concerned not about our views on the war or threats of war, or even the regime in Iran, but whether an individual had expressed disrespect for STWC leadership in a non-Hopi forum.” In the same correspondence, the Hopi steering committee wrote: “As you know, Hopi is a broad-based campaign with members of the Green Left, Labour Representation Committee and others - excluding the whole campaign because of remarks made by one individual not in any official Hopi capacity seems disproportionate and excludes a vital part of the anti-war movement.”

Let’s do lunch

When politics are conducted in such a Machiavellian fashion, it is invariably the case that much of the moving and shaking is done behind the scenes. After all, it was in the lunch break of last year’s conference that I was asked by STWC officer Andrew Burgin to remit the motion on Hopi affiliation to the steering committee. He assured me it would increase the prospects of Hopi affiliation. Rejecting this ‘not in front of the kids’ approach, I, of course, refused.

During the lunch break this year, I approached comrade Murray to ask him why the information pack contained such misinformation and to request that he - as STWC national chair - openly correct the error for conference.

Rather diplomatically, comrade Murray put it down to a “mistake” in collating the conference pack. He politely assured me he would correct the error before the vote on the motion was taken. This seemed fair enough in the circumstances. Although it might not completely undo the damage, a correction would go some way to setting the record straight. As it turned out though, the “mistake” was not corrected either by Murray or anyone else.

Whilst I had his ear, I also asked him why he was still pressing for Hopi to be excluded. He stuck to the same old message: it is simply not possible when its “national secretary had said the things he had”. Not to be put off, I reminded him that three years ago Communist Students had been excluded, alongside Hopi, also for its supposed “hostility” and public remarks leading CS members had made about the coalition. I reminded him that he had even read out such comments at the conference. But since then CS had been allowed to affiliate. Why? By now comrade Murray was becoming more uncomfortable. “Are you making a case for the disaffiliation of CS?” he floundered. No, I assured him - simply pointing out a glaring inconsistency. “Until Hopi distances itself from Mark Fischer’s comments”, he replied, there is nothing that could be done.

What about the recent correspondence from Hopi of which Murray had not informed the conference, I asked? There it was clearly stated that these comments were not the opinion of all Hopi members and supporters. Well, responded Murray to end the exchange, “if you make that clear in your speech, I am sure you will have a better chance of getting the motion passed”.

I then asked comrade Burgin, who had heard the conversation, what he thought of this blatant inconsistency. Absurdly, he stated that, although “hostile” groups like the CPGB and CS were allowed to join the coalition, they were actually “broader political organisations” than Hopi, which was established “specifically on the question of Iran”.

The comrade did put his finger on the political nub of the problem, however: “There are supporters of Ahmadinejad who we do not want to exclude” from the coalition, he baldly stated. Thus, in deference to political forces positively supportive of the reactionary theocracy in Iran, a principled anti-war organisation like Hopi must be excluded. While Hopi is certainly not campaigning for the exclusion of pro-regime forces, it is totally wrong and unprincipled that their presence be used to actually draw the political parameters of the STWC and proscribe leftwing critics of the Iranian regime.

When we finally came around to the motions on Iran, the meeting became livelier and more interesting - after all, there was some actual debate rather than well rehearsed sound-bites.

Sharin Shafi moved a motion on behalf of the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran. It correctly demanded no military intervention against Iran, the lifting of all existing sanctions and opposition to any further ones. However, it also called for “unconditional negotiation” between Iran and the west.

Speaking against this, Hopi chair Yassamine Mather pointed out that any imperialist-brokered settlement would necessarily come at the expense of the Iranian people themselves. Moreover, the solution the motion proposed to the current stand-off on the Iranian nuclear programme was not even that of the ‘reformist’ faction of the regime (which calls for a referendum on the nuclear energy programme), but of Ahmadinejad’s foreign office. However, without any further discussion, the motion passed with little opposition.


I moved a motion from that “hostile” affiliate, Communist Students. It drew conference’s attention to the potentially devastating new form of cyber warfare represented by the recent Stuxnet virus attack on Iran. The final part of the motion also called for open solidarity with the secular, democratic, mass opposition movements against the theocracy: their struggle was our struggle against war and barbarism, the Iranian state was not an anti-imperialist force: the masses on the streets were, I said.

John Rees thanked CS for pointing out the seriousness of this new form of warfare, but added that active solidarity with the masses was a “separate question” to opposing war. With a slightly disgruntled George Galloway looking on, John Rees said that he was for “revolution in Iran”, but we were looking for the “broadest possible opposition” against imperialist attack, including those who support the regime. Our dual tasks as socialists, he said, were to get these people on board and to argue for our democratic, working class politics.

The motion was voted on in parts, meaning that the coalition now has a policy against cyber warfare. However, its continued ‘neutral’ approach when it comes to struggles in Iran gives it the worst of all possible worlds. It cannot mobilise a mass base of “supporters of Ahmadinejad” that comrade Burgin conjures up - no such thing exists. It does, however, manage to alienate many anti-war activists who perceive the coalition as soft on the reactionary regime. Important amongst these, as comrade Mather pinpointed in her election address for the leadership, are the bulk of Iranian political exiles that the coalition is isolating itself from, harming “the effectiveness of both the anti-war movement and these exile groups and individuals” (Weekly Worker October 28).

Joseph Healey of the Green Left and the STWC steering committee ended up moving the pro-Hopi motion. During the lunch break (when else?) he had disgracefully been put under pressure by leading coalition members to withdraw a speaker’s slip he had put in to support the motion. But he refused to budge. Indeed, he gave the best answer to this sort of manoeuvring by agreeing to be the main mover of the motion instead of comrade Mather.

He picked up on comrade Rees’s comments on unity by pointing out the obvious: Rees wants a “broad as possible” movement, he said, but for the third time the coalition is looking to exclude Hopi, which is clearly “part of the anti-war movement” and also, like him, openly opposes the theocracy. He said that such sectarian moves would be “the kiss of death” to our movement at a time when unity is needed.

Andrew Burgin then gave a disgraceful speech. He wondered why Hopi had called STWC “soft” on the Iranian regime and its “apologists”. For his part, the Iranian regime was “brutal and dictatorial”. (He presumably forgot about the many occasions when we were told about the merits of Iranian democracy in front of Iranian state-Press TV cameras at previous conferences).

He said that Hopi was “hostile” to STWC, and its “founding basis” was to replace and change it. Not true, of course. Hopi’s founding statement is clear: “We recognise that there is an urgent need to establish a principled solidarity campaign with the people of Iran” - there is no mention of STWC at all. What we are “hostile” to is the notion that one must remain silent on the nature of the Iranian regime if one wants to join a coalition which - remember - should be as “broad as possible”.

The next lie was the most cynical: “Hopi draws an equals sign between imperialism and the Iranian regime”. What rubbish. Given the keenness with which Murray, Burgin et al pore over every Hopi article and statement, they cannot fail to have seen the lead Hopi activists have taken in the struggle against the social imperialism of ‘solidarity’ groups that fail to mention the need to fight war and sanctions. We in Hopi oppose any intervention in Iran because it would be the worst possible outcome for the people of Iran. We have never vacillated on this.

He then baulked at a statement by Yassamine Mather about the “dead end” of imperialist negotiations with Iran. It went against “peace”, he said, the very thing the coalition had fought for from the outset. This beggars belief. Does he really think that ‘negotiations’ brought about by imperialist threats is an example of peace? For all the crap about Hopi not recognising imperialism as the main danger, it is Burgin and co who are actually spreading illusions in imperialist-brokered negotiations and peace talks.

Finally, he claimed that Hopi’s politics will “weaken and split the movement”. But, as we have seen, it is Burgin and his allies who are splitting the movement for fear of scaring off allies that largely exist in their heads. Yes, Hopi has differences with the STWC leadership, but so do groups who put forward their own politics, like the CPGB-ML, the BSASF and … the CPGB.

Why is Hopi singled out? In the very correspondence from Andrew Murray reproduced in the delegates’ pack, he states that “the political differences between STWC and Hopi, whilst real and serious, do not constitute a barrier to your affiliation”! Where is the consistency then?

After comrade Mather had made many of these points in response, Sami Ramadani stated that he had known comrade Mather for a long time and that she was a brave anti-imperialist fighter. But, he said, he and other Iraqi socialists had supported STWC even though it “did not call for the overthrow of Saddam”.

“The issue,” comrade Ramadani said, “was whether Hopi would “disassociate itself from its national secretary’s comments.” Despite our protests and calls to clear up this matter by highlighting the recent correspondence, chair Judith Orr (SWP) deemed that there had been enough discussion. Unlike other motions, this one had had two speakers for and against! The motion was defeated overwhelmingly - the SWP, Counterfire, the International Socialist Group and others all voting together. However, there were a lot of abstentions from comrades who must, understandably, have been baffled by the whole affair.

Moving Yassamine’s candidacy for the steering committee, I spoke about the need for democracy in the anti-war movement and different views about the way forward. Frustrated with the whole day, I probably went too far in comparing Murray’s supposed “mistake” to the way that Stalinists of his ilk view the “mistake” of the Stalinist liquidation of those like Grigory Zinoviev and Nikolai Bukharin - it allowed Lindsey German to point once more to Hopi “hostility” and oppose Yassamine’s candidacy. Comrade Orr then decided to change the procedure and ask if voting to add Yassamine to the leadership slate was necessary. The vote was predictable but underlined the truly undemocratic process seen from start to finish.

However, even those like Joseph Healey, who said that my comments were perhaps not the best way of dealing with these methods, could understand the frustration: “Stalinist tactics” had been employed from the start, said Healey outside. Quite right.

The STWC leadership is digging itself into a real hole over Hopi. Its logic is inconsistent even in its own bureaucratic terms. It is making the anti-war movement look ridiculous.

Whatever one thinks of Hopi’s politics, no democrat in the anti-war movement should stand for this. We cannot allow our movement’s message to be defined by the Iranian theocracy - it weakens our fight against war and sanctions.