Opposing imperialism does not mean supporting oppression

Anti-war protest disrupted by attack on supporters of the Iranian green movement. Ben Lewis reports

On January 28 around 300 protestors gathered outside the US embassy to oppose the increasingly bellicose rhetoric against Iran and Syria. Called by the Stop the War Coalition under the title of ‘Stop the war before it starts: don’t attack Iran/Syria’, the protest was in many respects something that seasoned activists in the anti-war movement would be all too familiar with. With a few exceptions, the speeches were well-meaning, if often slightly tedious and repetitive. Then came a few chants and the promise to build an enormous opposition that could finally scupper the imperialists’ plans once and for all.

However, it soon became clear that this was not going to be simply ‘business as usual’. In a somewhat embarrassing indictment of the ‘as broad as possible’ approach typified by the coalition, several speakers were booed or chanted down, and fights broke out between groups of protestors. At one point a group of Iranians from the London green movement lined up against supporters of the Syrian Ba’athist regime. It was not pretty.

The first indications that something was not quite right came when I was handing out Hands Off the People of Iran leaflets, in support of Hopi’s ‘Make your voice heard’ campaign.[1] The leaflets were readily snapped up, including by young men sporting baseball caps emblazoned with the Syrian flag (not that of the Syrian opposition) and a picture of Bashad Al-Assad in all his despotic glory. No problem, of course. We are revolutionaries, not Guardianista liberals, and should have no qualms about marching alongside, and entering into temporary alliances with, all sorts of people with all sorts of wacky ideas. (There were a few on this demo, as we shall see.) The point of propaganda is to change those ideas, or at least marginalise their effectiveness. We need solid arguments and the willingness to engage in critical dialogue with all those committed to stopping the plans of the imperialists.

While leafleting the Ba’athists, I saw about 40 Iranian protestors gathering behind banners reading ‘Free Iran’. When the rather compromised figure of Abbas Eddalat of the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran (Casmii) spoke, noise erupted from the ‘Free Iran’ contingent. In the din it was not all clear what he was saying. However, readers of this paper will be all too aware of his disgraceful apologia for the regime, not least when Hopi was excluded from the STWC in front of Press TV cameras back in 2007.[2] It was obvious that the Iranians, quite rightly, were demanding to hear a speaker who would present a less one-sided view of the situation in Iran.

This angered the Syrian Ba’athists and their Islamist allies, and soon the two groups were squaring up to one another. They were separated only by police barriers and four or five rather dumbfounded constables. Some of the younger male pro-Syrians initially managed to get quite close to the Iranian greens. Wrapped in Syrian flags and with bandanas reading “labeik Khamenei” (“I pledge allegiance to Khamenei”) around their heads, they meted out some quite heavy blows to some of the Iranians leading the chants.

Chants of ‘Long live Syria’ were met with ‘Down with Hezbollah’. The stage-led chanting (“one, two, three, four, we don’t want ...”) was utterly drowned out. Keen to find out just who some of these people were, comrades working with Hopi managed to speak to them. To give an example of the kind of views they hold, one woman went to some length to explain how it was actually acceptable for women wearing bikinis to be stoned.

There was a fleeting moment of humanity, when the clashes were temporarily halted to allow a small girl from the crowd, who had fallen down, to be safely removed. But from this point on things were really out of control. The stewards were understandably at a loss, and some protestors were calling on the police to break up the fights.

Speeches from the platform were constantly interrupted by megaphone chants from the pro-Syrians, who were complaining about the emphasis on Iran - the demonstration was, after all, supposed to be about Syria too. But the organisers were keen to play down the Syrian aspect and none of the platform speakers really discussed it at any length. This obviously upset the al-Assad fans, leading them to disrupt the demonstration and let loose on the Iranian oppositionists. They did their best to make it known just how much they loved al-Assad, much to the displeasure of the Iranian greens.

One of the main organisers of the Syrian contingent could be seen handing out copies of the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) publication, Proletarian. I therefore wondered whether some of the hostility towards STWC speakers also stemmed from the latter organisation’s unceremonious ejection from the coalition for their veneration of former Libyan despot, Muammar Gaddafi. That said, some of the leading CPGB-ML comrades I recognised were not in the thick of things.

Opportunism is the handmaiden of inconsistency. After all, just a few months ago the leadership of Stop the War booted out the CPGB-ML comrades for their fawning praise of Gaddafi, supposed man of the people. So it was fine (indeed a precondition of membership!) to oppose imperialist intervention in Libya while supporting protestors against their own dictator, but when it comes to Iran … no, no comrades, we cannot allow forces to affiliate to the coalition (like Hopi) who have the temerity to oppose imperialism and criticise the theocracy.

Many platform speakers were absolutely correct to ridicule the double standards of the west for its lecturing of Iran on the perils of nuclear technology. But if we are to go forward, we must also look at our own movement’s double standards once in a while. We should not allow the coalition to become the private property of a handful of people like Counterfire’s John Rees and Lindsey German or Andrew Murray of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, who high-handedly deem what is appropriate and what is not on the flimsiest, most inconsistent grounds.[3]

Fortunately the overt apologia from this trio has gone, with comrade German seeming to recognise that it was quite possible to be anti-regime and anti-war: “You are making the biggest mistake of your lives if on the basis of opposition you support the war,” she shouted over the noise. Quite right. In the past, the Iranian left has, of course, been tainted by the presence of all sorts of useful idiots lining up with the war drive. But the 40 or so Iranians at this demonstration were clearly, visibly anti-war. Most were keen to take Hopi’s leaflet, and many carried official Stop the War placards reading ‘Don’t attack Iran’. Some of their supporters held up signs making the obvious point: ‘Sanctions and war kill Iran’s democracy movement’. If there is a criticism that can be made of the ‘London green movement’, it is that their opposition to the entire regime has come far too late.

But now is not the time to quibble. The Iranians present on the demonstration should affiliate to the STWC, take their arguments into the British workers’ movement through initiatives like Hopi, and fight for basic internationalist principles. Indeed, they have some influential comrades who will stand up for their voices to be heard, such as MPs John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn. They both combined their opposition to imperialist intervention in Iran with support for imprisoned trade unionists and democracy activists. After all, such a basic internationalist position is hardly some kind of crazy, ultra-left departure. Not only have unions like the PCS and Aslef signed up to Hopi. So too have a whole range of well respected democrats and anti-imperialists.

We are in Britain and - yes - our first duty is to stop the warmongers. The main enemy is at home in the imperialist heartlands. But comrades Murray, German and Rees have consistently opposed the affiliation to Stop the War of anti-imperialists critical of the Iranian regime: specifically Hopi. We reject the notion that we must silence ourselves if we want to be a recognised part of the coalition. Given that the Iranian regime itself actually thrives on the threat of war, this matter is hardly a mere trifle.

In this context, I am also a bit perplexed by the notion directed against the likes of Hopi that ‘the Iranian regime is a matter for the Iranian people themselves’. On one level this is a truism. But what about the notion of solidarity? Do we drop our proletarian internationalism when we campaign against imperialist war? And the Syrians and Iranians present seemed to think the nature of the Tehran regime was a matter for everyone.

But is not the struggle against war in the Middle East bound up with the strength and success of radical movements for change from below? Is it so heinous a crime to have platform speakers who have things to say beyond ‘Let’s all stop the war’? Who perhaps suggest how an international working class movement could do this?

Fresh from a trip to Cairo, comrade Rees made a sound point against imperialist hypocrisy on ‘democracy’: the unfolding Egyptian revolution stood as an indictment of the arguments made by liberals and social-imperialists about how US intervention brings democracy - the Egyptian military are shooting democracy protestors with US bullets! Indeed, but what about examples of hypocrisy over democracy nearer to home? Why has the STWC been so opposed to combining opposition to imperialist wars with calls for democracy? Why has it deliberately prettified the oppressive Iranian regime? The notion of an ‘anti-imperialist camp’ that must not be criticised is something that far too many of the left still cling too.

Curiously, the report of the demo by Sian Ruddick in Socialist Worker online does not mention the stand-off at all (which presumably means it did not happen).[4] And at the end of the demonstration, Counterfire’s Chris Nineham could only roll out the usual call: put aside our differences and build the broadest possible movement. We in Hopi also want the broadest movement of opposition to any imperialist intervention in the Middle East. But that does not mean putting aside our differences. We need a movement that thinks and debates, that encourages the healthy exchange of ideas, and that welcomes a whole range of critical views. However, the job of Marxists in particular is not to dumb down their Marxism, but to do their utmost to transform opposition to war into a working class-led challenge to the state.


1. http://hopoi.org/wp-content/uploads/leaflet.pdf.

2. See ‘Don’t confuse the poor workersWeekly Worker November 1 2007.

3. See my report of the underhand methods employed by Murray et al to reject Hopi affiliation to the coalition at the last STWC AGM: ‘Lies will not help the anti-war movementWeekly Worker November 4 2010.

4. Socialist Worker January 28.