In the face of war, unity needed

Expulsion and exclusion as war threat grows

The SWP no longer controls Stop the War, writes Peter Manson, but its successors still practise SWP-style bureaucratism

Last weekend’s Stop the War Coalition conference demonstrated that, while the anti-war movement has undoubtedly seen a big drop in mobilised support, there remains a hard core of local activists still meeting and organising. There are STWC branches engaged in some kind of activity in more than 50 urban centres and a fair proportion of them were represented at the March 3 conference in London.

Previously these branches were dominated by Socialist Workers Party comrades, but today the anti-war movement is way down the SWP’s list of priorities. I would say that out of the 200-plus people gathered at the University of London Union only a handful were SWP. This was unsurprising, since the nearest the organisation came to mobilising its comrades was when in the internal Party Notes Judith Orr asked those who were going to the conference to contact her (February 27). In fact the latest Party Notes - used routinely to urge comrades to rally to the SWP’s current priorities - mentions neither the STWC nor the burgeoning imperialist threats against Syria and Iran.

For its part Socialist Worker (March 10) carries a very brief report, in which it understates the numbers attending by about 50 (the STWC itself overstates them by the same amount). But, apart from its 200-word report, Socialist Worker has nothing on the war threats: the SWP is very much in anti-cuts, anti-workfare mode, with comrades being directed to actions and events organised by its fronts, Unite the Resistance and Right to Work.

All this is very much connected to the fact that the SWP’s former control of Stop the War was abruptly ended when the three comrades who ran it - Lindsey German, Chris Nineham and John Rees - were ousted from the SWP central committee and eventually left to form Counterfire. And it was Counterfire that had the largest contingent of any left group on Saturday - a position that is reflected on the new 40-strong leadership, where Counterfire has six representatives, followed by the SWP and Communist Party of Britain, with three each.

While some supporters of Socialist Resistance, Socialist Action, Respect and so on were also present, it seemed to me that the overwhelming majority were local activists of no particular political affiliation. However, the absence of a large SWP bloc under a three-line whip has not undermined the steering committee’s domination, with conference overwhelmingly voting down the slightest challenge to any aspect of its political strategy. This is undoubtedly because comrades German, Nineham and Rees continue to pitch their appeal to the soft, liberal left, and this green, pacifist milieu in return feels it must demonstrate its faith and loyalty in the leadership.

That was a pity, because there are two, linked, aspects of the STWC approach that particularly need challenging.

‘Neutral’ on Iran

First, its tendency, at the very least, towards sympathy with the Iranian theocratic regime; and, secondly, its continued refusal, on completely spurious grounds, to permit the affiliation of Hands Off the People of Iran - Hopi, of course, consistently opposes the Iranian regime, while at the same time recognising that the main enemy is imperialism.

Although the STWC leadership claims that it takes a neutral position on the question of the regime, its choice of platform speakers says otherwise. Obviously the conference was dominated by the imperialist threats against Iran and it was obvious that authoritative speakers were needed to put the anti-war case. But it was Abbas Edalat of the pro-regime Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran (Casmii) who was invited rather than someone like John McDonnell or Yassamine Mather of Hopi.

To be fair, Edalat’s contribution was for the most part sound. He compared the current imperialist manoeuvres against Iran with those that led to the overthrow of the nationalist prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, in 1953. Back then the west used the same arguments, claiming Iran posed a threat to “international security”. But he concluded by saying that, “whatever you think of the internal policies” of Iran, it was undeniable that the 1979 revolution had “seriously challenged the domination of the imperialists”. Obviously then, our sympathies could only be with the current ‘anti-imperialist’ regime.

Likewise Casmii’s motion - ‘Western neo-colonial intervention and the right of self-determination of Iranian people’ - was largely supportable, except for the final phrase, which declared that, in the absence of western interference, the Iranian people are “perfectly capable of solving any internal problems themselves” (my emphasis). I suppose Casmii might accept that the brutal repression of workers, socialists, democrats, women, gays and national minorities might just about qualify as one of those ‘internal problems’. But Casmii prefers mealy-mouthed diplomatic equivocation.

The big problem with such speeches - apart from the fact that they constitute a gross betrayal of the Iranian struggle for freedom - is that they allow the warmongers to portray the STWC, with some justification, as mere apologists for the regime. This completely undermines our campaigning potential, since no-one in their right mind can accept the ‘progressive’ credentials of such a ruthless dictatorship. By contrast the Hopi position - no to imperialist war and sanctions, no to the regime - would hugely strengthen our hand.

But George Galloway’s concluding speech was far worse than Casmii’s in this regard. Sounding like a personal spokesperson for the more unhinged elements of the Tehran regime, he stated that, if Israel attacks Iran, then the thousands of US troops in the region would find themselves “on the receiving end” of the inevitable (divine?) retribution. “Iran will respond within an hour with all its might,” he ranted. All the region’s oilfields “will be on fire” within that same 60 minutes and the Straits of Hormuz will be closed. The subsequent oil crisis will trigger global “economic collapse”.

Who would have thought that the gang headed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had such destructive power in its hands? In fact it was almost enough to make you think that some of the propaganda about the Iranian ‘threat to peace and security’ had been true all along. I hope Galloway does not base his campaign in the forthcoming Bradford West by-election on such inanities (he announced his candidature to the meeting).

Don’t take sides

With such a crude pro-regime speech receiving a generally positive response, readers will not be surprised to learn that the motion put by Communist Students - which called for “active solidarity with the Iranian people, who are fighting not just the sanctions and the war threats, but also their own theocracy” - shamefully had only a small minority in support.

The vote followed the intervention on behalf of the officers group from STWC treasurer Steve Bell of Socialist Action. Ignoring the fact that the coalition’s current pro-regime position is not only divisive, but counterproductive, he alleged that to advocate “regime change” would be “to split the anti-war movement”. Any change of government must result from “a decision of the people of the country itself” (we agree; but whatever happened to the idea that socialists should take sides with the oppressed?). Furthermore, comrade Bell found the use of the term ‘theocracy’ “unpleasant” - the implication was that the CS motion had Islamophobic undertones.

This theme was taken up by Tansy Hoskins of Counterfire later on. She treated us to a quiz by asking which three countries have a head of state that is also head of the established religion. Apart from Iran, the other two are the Vatican and the United Kingdom. So the theocracy isn’t so bad then.

I was fortuitously able to answer this when I was called to speak in the hour or so when local activists (like comrade Hoskins) were being asked to share their campaigning experiences with us. Discussion of those tiresome motions had been limited to one speaker for and one against, with no exceptions, but the chair for the session, Chris Nineham, called “Peter Manson from Wandsworth Stop the War” to the microphone (I had put in a request to oppose a motion from Wandsworth - see below).

I pointed out that the meeting was being run in a way that prevented the clarification of differences. Instead of curtailing debate and encouraging local (and some not so local) anti-war activists to say whatever they wanted in a completely structureless way, why not actually focus on the areas where we are divided with the aim of achieving greater unity? I asked why it was so wrong to even contemplate taking sides against a regime that is being targeted by imperialism, so long as we side with the people and oppose imperialism as our main enemy. To heckles about the “theocracy”, I stated that the answer, both in Iran and the UK, for democrats was the separation of church and state, and equality between believers and non-believers.

However, the insistence that there must be no criticism of regimes under imperialist threat applies exclusively to Iran, it seems. Libya is rather different (as was Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq). Last year, the then chair, Andrew Murray (who has since stepped down, but remains on the steering committee), wrote in an STWC publication: “While few people are admirers of the Gaddafi regime, the experience of Iraq underlines the dangerous futility of trying to impose ‘regime change’ from without” (STWC Newsletter No10, April 2011). In other words, regime change from within might be OK.

On another country currently under threat, steering committee member Andrew Burgin stated to the conference: “What Assad is doing in Syria is brutal.” Even comrade German admitted: “I don’t agree with what Assad is doing” - in fact she found it “upsetting”. Easy, Lindsey. But she said that, while there was room for “a number of different views”, what was important was our “duty to oppose western intervention”. So why does that not apply to Iran and Hopi?

No exclusions

Which brings us to the actual argument used to justify Hopi’s continued exclusion as an affiliate. Apparently, according to comrade German, “Hopi thinks the Stop the War Coalition shouldn’t exist - it wants to replace it.” And no organisation would permit the affiliation of such a deadly rival, would it?

This is so absurd that it is almost beyond belief. As Tina Becker put it, “Surely our anti-war movement must be healthy enough to … think, openly debate and take its politics seriously.” Hopi has never had any such aim, nor could any comment by a Hopi leader be honestly interpreted in that way. Comrade Becker had been moving the CPGB motion calling for the ban on Hopi to be ended - and for a new, similar rejection of the affiliation of the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) to be overturned.

This ultra-Stalinite organisation had protested against its own expulsion right at the start of the conference. In September 2011 the officers group had written to it to say that it had decided to “reject the affiliation” of the CPGB(ML) - even though it was already an affiliate. The reason given was that the CPGB(ML) had called some STWC leaders “pro-imperialists” and “traitors”. So “general secretary” Zane Carpenter raised a point of order: the exclusion of his group should be put to the conference after the CPGB(ML) had been given the opportunity to put its case.

The chair, Jeremy Corbyn, asked comrade German to reply to the point of order and she asserted that such language was “unacceptable”. But there was no need to debate this immediately, she said, as the question was on the agenda for “this afternoon”. In fact the motion from the CPGB protesting against the exclusion of both Hopi and the CPGB(ML) was taken in the final session, just before the closing speech from George Galloway.

In response to comrade German, CPGB(ML) general secretary Carpenter pointed out (despite attempts by Corbyn to shut him up) that it was “no good deciding later if I can’t speak all day”. He had a point, but comrade Corbyn would have none of it. He put his ruling - that the conference proceed along the lines of the published agenda - to the vote and, of course, this was agreed by a huge majority. So finally, after a 10-minute interruption involving prolonged shouting (and in one case screaming) by around eight ultra-Stalinites, the CPGB(ML) had to accept that its arguments were not going to be heard.

But that did not stop it trying again following the speeches of comrades Becker and German. But, no, these two brief contributions were deemed to constitute a full and fair debate, and the CPGB(ML)’s view on its own expulsion was totally irrelevant. Even the imperialists usually allow those charged with a misdemeanour to put their own case before declaring them guilty. But the chair - for the final session Jeremy Corbyn was back in his seat - indicated that time was pressing, as we still had to hear George Galloway’s closing speech. Once again there was a noisy protest by the CPGB(ML) and once again it was only ended when conference voted to move on to comrade Galloway.

The latter began by slyly attempting to divert attention from this injustice by pouring scorn on both ourselves and the CPGB(ML). He felt he had been caught in a “pincer movement between two organisations calling themselves the Communist Party of Great Britain, neither of which is the Communist Party of Great Britain”. We agree, George: that party does not exist, but we have claimed the name in order to stop it falling into the hands of opportunists until such a time as it can be reforged. But what does Galloway himself intend to do to help bring back into existence the party for which he appears to have such a soft spot?

In reality, his version would be more like that of the CPGB(ML) - and, in one respect, any of the other ‘revolutionary parties in waiting’ that litter the left. I am referring to the bureaucratic centralism they all practise - as demonstrated by the way oppositionists like Hopi and the CPGB(ML) are treated. Galloway ironically remarked that he “admired the rigour with which Jeremy enforced the party line” - although many a true word is spoken in jest.

But why does the STWC leadership behave in this way? After all, there is nothing to stop individual members of organisations denied affiliation from joining Stop the War, speaking at conference or even putting motions (provided they do so on behalf of an organisation that is affiliated). And surely the reaction of the CPGB(ML) to its expulsion was entirely predictable. So was it worth the disruption?

I think we are in the realm of gesture politics here. On the one hand, the disaffiliation of the CPGB(ML) tries to put over the message that Stop the War does not touch deranged dictators like Gaddafi. On the other, the exclusion of Hopi is aimed at a different audience: those holding powerful positions in Tehran. The STWC is a safe pair of hands and its leaders can be promoted on media such as Press TV and by other means.

Too expensive

The motion from Wandsworth Stop the War which I opposed was entitled ‘Welfare, not warfare: the cost of war’. It wanted to put the expense of imperialist war at the very centre of STWC campaigning, since the “Con-Dem government spends huge sums on unjust wars”, while “simultaneously it is cutting billions from public expenditure”. As it is “vital that STWC wins over the trade union movement”, it should attempt to do so by linking war to anti-working class cuts. In other words, the money could be better spent.

So the motion called on the steering committee to organise “a major ‘cost of war’ conference”, produce “resource materials explaining links between war cuts and poverty” and “draft a model ‘cost of war’ resolution for trade union branches”. A comrade from the National Union of Students had earlier explained the rationale for a parallel policy within the student movement: a lot of people don’t accept the anti-war case, so let’s link it to something they do agree with.

In my contribution I pointed out that this whole position is, to begin with, opportunist - they don’t agree with us, so let’s sneak in our policy through the back door. Secondly it is counterproductive: what if they could make war cheaper, or manage to afford it without making cuts elsewhere? How about sanctions? They don’t cost much to implement, so does that make them OK?

In order to mobilise a movement capable of halting the imperialist war plans in their tracks it was necessary to win the argument, I said. And we do not oppose those plans because they are too expensive, but because they are not in our interest. While I had no objection to including references to the hypocrisy behind the cuts - ‘They say we must cut back on healthcare, but there’s always enough money for their wars’ - I objected strongly to the resolution, which would see an appeal for ‘sensible’ cuts act as a substitute for principled opposition to wars fought in the pursuit of imperialist aims.

But, of course, Wandsworth’s motion was agreed by a large majority - although it was gratifying to see a number of activists did vote against this ‘common sense’ approach.