Not so memorable

The decline in the anti-war movement has left the STWC all at sea, argues Harley Filben

"This is clearly going to be a memorable day,” declared a mail-out from the Stop the War Coalition, imploring people to attend the STWC ‘anti-war mass assembly’ in Trafalgar Square on October 8. Indeed, there are many factors that made it a day to remember - none of them reflecting particularly well on the coalition, however.

The event was marketed as an equivalent of the various (in truth, often quite politically dubious) ‘square occupation movements’, which are no doubt the latest bit of political ephemera to capture the lively imagination of John Rees.

The best you could say about this branding strategy is that it made a virtue out of necessity. There were, at most, a thousand left activists (and others) milling around in Trafalgar Square at any one time; about 3,000 assembled for the 4pm march on Downing Street, and were promptly and easily kettled.

So the ‘mass assembly’ approach had the effect of concealing very slightly the painfully obvious decay of the anti-war movement; even so, it is clear that the cabal that runs STWC - principally John Rees’s Counterfire group and the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain - have no understanding of what made the square occupation movement, for all its faults, an attractive proposition to newly radicalised elements.

The missing ingredient X is spontaneous energy. The great strength (and weakness) of the square occupations was that they came out of nowhere; thousands of people really were concerned to work out what needed to be done, and so it did not matter particularly that the protests were ultimately directionless. If they came out of nowhere, of course, then they were likely to return to nowhere in not too much time; however, the elemental anger they represented certainly did have a genuinely energising effect.

By definition, you cannot call this energy into being by fiat. It cannot be announced in mail-outs from a central office. At a fundamental level, it is quite incompatible with the very means with which Stop the War has been organised since its inception - haggling on a central leadership committee. Without that energy, the October 8 jamboree was exactly what it looked like - a thousand or so (mostly) leftwingers milling about in Trafalgar Square. The mood of the event was such that one comrade wandered up to the CPGB stall and asked in all honesty, “So when does it start?”

The centre of attention for most of the day was a large stage (set up in time-honoured fashion in front of Nelson’s Column), on which nothing very much happened. For the most part, a large screen played videos in some sense related to the aims of the movement, with hundreds of people looking on a little listlessly. There was also a ‘naming of the dead’ exercise (given the toll of recent imperialist wars, a little difficult to do comprehensively), a series of platform speeches by various notables and - at one surreal moment - a cover of Aled Jones’s well known protest classic ‘Walking in the air’.

Next to the stage was a marquee, with a parallel programme of discussions and meetings. In a sense, the story of the marquee is the story of the day; while the place was packed out for a short debate involving Tony Benn, an earlier session - an ‘open mic’ meeting for ‘ideas to take the movement forward’ was attended only by the odd empty crisp packet that blew in through the door. Nobody has any ideas to take the movement forward; and, over the course of the last 10 years, any and all such ideas have generally been rejected by the conservative clique in charge.

Brar barred

The clique has been quite happy to wield its authority in arbitrary accordance with the perceived political needs of the day. Hands Off the People of Iran was denied affiliate status in 2007 on the basis that it ‘opposed’ Stop the War - a denial that has been persistently renewed at each subsequent AGM; the ‘smoking gun’ was comrade Mark Fischer’s less than flattering comments about the coalition’s leadership, delivered at a CPGB members’ aggregate, in his capacity as CPGB national organiser.

The CPGB, however, remains affiliated; comrade Fischer’s comments damn only Hopi, it seems, despite the Weekly Worker’s long history of scathing criticisms of Stop the War’s leadership. The inconsistency cannot be explained with recourse to political reason; it was a nakedly cynical power-play by the CPB and the organisation Rees then headed, the Socialist Workers Party. Hopi was feared more than the CPGB, because it had gathered support far beyond the ranks of the organisations that started it off. That was considered too much of a threat to the sensibilities of Islamist organisations (and, indeed, direct apologists and agents for the Iranian regime).

In a great bureaucratic irony, there is now another victim of the purge-happy STWC leadership. The Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) has been summarily expelled, ostensibly because it had been “publicly attacking” the coalition in its press.

The CPGB-ML, led by comrade Harpal Brar, is an organisation we have previously characterised as “ultra-Stalinite”; it upholds the legacy of JV Stalin with unassailable loyalty, and also avowedly supports ‘anti-imperialist’ nationalists in the third world. It is the CPGB-ML which turns up at every Stop the War AGM with a motion calling on us to adopt the slogan, ‘Victory to the resistance!’

A far cry from our politics or the politics of Hopi, then - and according to the CPGB-ML statement on the matter, the underlying political basis for the split is over the recent Libyan conflict, whereupon - true to form - Brar and his comrades came out in full support of Gaddafi.

Presumably foremost in the minds of Rees, the CPB’s Andrew Murray and co is the fact that this line does not exactly play well in the public gallery. If, as Stop the War always intended, we are to build the broadest possible unity against the war, then we cannot have idiosyncratic left groups scaring off ‘ordinary people’ with their hard political lines.

Yet it is time to face some home truths. Stop the War is not in any sense ‘broad’. In fact, it is barely alive. The last period in which the coalition could mobilise numbers significantly greater than the immediate periphery of its component organisations was during the 2008-09 Gaza war, almost three years ago. There are several reasons for this, some outside of STWC’s control; principally, the Iraq war is over, and the Afghanistan war is beginning to wind down. The ruling class, meanwhile, won the battle of ideas over Libya, which was always an easier sell than the Iraq disaster.

That is only part of the story, however. The fundamental problem is that STWC is, and always has been, run almost entirely from its central office. Political lines are decided by negotiations among the different components of the steering committee, with the effect that they are both too diffuse and too exclusive. It has become a front organisation for activity on right-on international causes agreeable to its leading components.

Without an army

The consequence is that, firstly, it is not immediately clear what Stop the War is for; it no longer has the crystal clarity it once did as an alliance between all those opposed to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is now wheeled out for Palestinian solidarity and sundry other worthy causes without any fundamental unifying principle. The organisation became increasingly reliant on foot soldiers, in the first instance from the Socialist Workers Party, and the latter’s retreat from full participation in STWC after the loss of Rees, Lindsey German and their supporters left the coalition unable to sustain itself meaningfully. They are generals without an army.

The ‘central office’ model had its uses - at the time of the outbreak of war in Iraq, the ruling class was in acute political crisis on the issue. There was thus an objective basis for truly mass demonstrations against war; and getting 1.5 million people to London requires central organisation. Yet that was never going to last; it was quite predictable that softer elements would drift into a ‘Back our boys’ mindset, or else call on our governments to ‘fix’ the mess they had made.

At that point, initiative needed to go to component organisations and to the localities; the next march may not have been so big, but more active support would have been retained than we actually managed, more diverse tactics could have thought up and deployed, and the anti-war movement would have been in a better position to take advantage of the endless political disasters that flowed from Iraq. However, the leadership held onto its rule by diktat, based on a false image of February 15 2003.

There are those who will welcome the death of the Stop the War Coalition; the ruling class, for a start, and its paid apologists. ‘Left’ practitioners of sectarian idiocy like the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, for whom marching alongside Islamists is ipso facto a violation of communist principle (and for whom active opposition to imperialist war is deemed “kitsch”), will no doubt join in.

We do not. The steady decline of what was once the largest mass movement in recent British history is a tragedy, all the more so in that it could have been avoided. Given the apparently limitless capacity for self-delusion on the part of its leadership, however, it is difficult not to conclude that Stop the War is a terminal case.