STWC conference: Big claims, bankrupt politics
How can we stop the war? Peter Manson reports on the 2003 protest nostalgia
Everyone had been “moved and changed” by the experience of February 15 2003, the day when up to two million people marched through London to protest against the US-UK invasion of Iraq.
Those were the words of Jeremy Corbyn, the chair for the first session of the “international conference” - ‘Confronting war 10 years on’ - organised by the Stop the War Coalition on February 9. In terms of the aims set by STWC it was a huge success, with the main hall in London’s Friends Meeting House packed to capacity. No doubt many of the 1,000 people present can be expected to help the coalition out by providing a much needed cash boost, enabling it to prepare for the next round of protests against imperialist military action.
Unlike similar events 10 years ago, well before John Rees, Lindsey German and Chris Nineham slinked away from the Socialist Workers Party to set up Counterfire, the February 9 ‘conference’ was hardly awash with SWP members. Apart from those running the stall outside and a few observers in the hall, the SWP - like most of the rest of the left - was notable for its absence. There were no SWP platform speakers and no prominent members around - in practice it was down to Counterfire to run the show.
Today the organised left is a marginal force within STWC - in the hall were a mixture of left-leaning activists, greens, liberals and pacifists, the majority old enough to share a nostalgia for the days when tens of thousands could be expected to turn out routinely for an anti-war demonstration. That was fed by the banners that had been dusted off for the occasion - “Stop the war - Blair must go,” read one.
But the event was both “to take stock and to mobilise”, declared comrade Corbyn: “This country shouldn’t wage war on the rest of the world, but be a force for good.” This comment epitomised the simplistic, ‘war is bad’ politics on display - if ever there was a need for a real ‘conference’, where people genuinely try to work out how to ‘stop the war’, it is here and now. But no, instead of anything resembling a debate, we were treated to no fewer than three long rallies, called ‘plenaries’ - there were, after all, so many big-name platform speakers to squeeze in. These rallies might have had different titles - ‘The consequences of war’, ‘The war on terror today’ and ‘The international movement’ - but could anyone actually tell the difference?
And in between there was a choice of “parallel sessions” (STWC has “abolished workshops”, remarked comrade Corbyn ironically), where you could choose between ‘Palestine and the Middle East’, ‘Drones and remote-control imperialism’, ‘Art and war’, ‘The new scramble for Africa’ and ‘Islamophobia’.
I attended the ‘Africa’ session, which illustrated the problem with this type of event to perfection. A couple of hundred people who had crammed into the room were straining to hear Victoria Brittain’s take on Mali, which clearly the organisers had not checked out in advance. Although later in the final ‘plenary’ she made an impassioned speech about the inhuman treatment of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners, Ms Brittain’s position on Mali must have come as a big disappointment to comrades Rees, German and Nineham: “Mali doesn’t fit neatly into the international pattern of imperialist war,” she said, and seemed to imply that something positive may yet emerge from the French intervention. With Ms Brittain unable to fully project her voice in the absence of a microphone, I thought that perhaps I had misheard.
But other comrades must have misheard too, for she was asked to clarify when speakers were called from the floor. After outlining again the horrors suffered under the Islamists in Mali, she asked: “When you condemn France and neighbouring countries for coming in, what was the alternative?” Her “alternative” was to “build strong national states” in Africa - Algeria was her model. We in the solidarity movement should just “be humble” and “stand by as they do it”. And, in the meantime, the good old imperialists will have to be called upon to restore order.
No doubt it had been assumed that Ms Brittain would be against this war - and she does know a bit about Africa, after all. However, people with such diverse politics can be allies in one anti-war protest, but opponents in the next. Yet STWC, just as it did when the SWP was running things, prioritises numbers. Just get the most possible people together in a rally, on a demonstration, on a march - that is the way to stop war. I’m afraid not, comrades - you won’t get anywhere without a political strategy.
Some speakers did try to grapple with this conundrum. As Tariq Ali said of 2003, “Most believed that if we came out in large numbers it could stop the politicians going to war.” But “People can’t keep coming out week after week,” he added. Never mind: Stop the War just “kept on going” and that, surely, must be a good thing. Comrade Ali muttered vaguely about the need to “rebuild an anti-war movement politically”, but that is as far as it went.
Similarly, Salma Yaqoob told us of how her children remind her how “so many marched” and then ask: “Where are they now?” She has no answers - apart from the next big event put on by Counterfire and its allies - the June 22 People’s Assembly Against Austerity, organised by the Coalition of Resistance. We ought to protest against the cuts too.
Owen Jones spoke passionately of the “hundreds of thousands dead” as a result of the ‘war on terror’, but all he could come up with to end the slaughter was the same old slogans: “Not in our name! Never, never, never again!” As for Green leader Natalie Bennett, what she had to offer was: “The Green Party is with you. We can stop the war!” (one of the half-dozen or so people called to speak from the floor during the entire day went so far as to state that it is the Green Party that “provides political leadership to the protest movement”). Well, Counterfire does not do much better.
After reminding us that “Millions came out - not just for one demo, but time and time again”, Lindsey German went on to ask rhetorically: “What did we achieve?” Her answer: “We made it harder for governments to go to war.” Former STWC chair Andrew Murray repeated the question in his speech and was rather more specific in his assessment of the STWC’s positive role - it had “shaped British politics over the last 10 years”. Thanks to us, “Blair had to get out early”, troops were pulled out of Iraq, Iran has “not yet” been attacked and there has been no “overt intervention” in Syria. Good heavens - did we really achieve all that? Well, Stop the War had “played a part”, he added more modestly. (Phyllis Bennis, from the US group, United for Peace and Justice, was even more extravagant in her claims. She said that “we” - ie, the international anti-war movement - had become the “second superpower”. And “now we must take on the first”.)
Comrade Murray - a member of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain - concluded by pointing out that now we “have to finish off the work we started 10-12 years ago”. But the problem was the “weakness of the labour movement”. That point was also picked up by John Rees: it would be “wrong to meet just to commemorate the demonstration” 10 years ago, he said. We have to look ahead and recognise that “there can be no struggle against war without defending welfare, trade union rights and the labour movement in this country”. Most of all, we have to “struggle for success in the working class movement”.
Well, at least he is mentioning the working class from anti-war platforms nowadays, although he still cannot bring himself to utter the word ‘socialism’. But occasions such as these are about inspiring the troops with rhetoric about STWC-style protests, aren’t they? - “We will not stop marching. As long as they are addicted to war, we are addicted to protesting against it,” concluded comrade Rees.
For his part, Chris Nineham was equally expansive in his claims about February 2003: the “biggest movement in history came very, very close to bringing Britain out of the war”. We did not quite make it, but things are now so different, thanks to us: “They don’t go to war to win elections any more”, as in the Falklands. Instead they “have to promise to bring the troops home”. I don’t think such electoral promises are a new thing, Chris.
He did concede, however, that “None of this means we can be complacent.” After all, “Today the spread of war is much greater than 10 years ago.” What? Despite everything STWC achieved? In reality, of course, the ruling class was split over Iraq, with a section actually opposing British intervention. That, rather than the organisational prowess and oratorical skills of the STWC leadership, explains to a large extent why the 2003 march was so huge.
But comrade Nineham was at pains to combat the idea that “Marching changes nothing”. Didn’t you know they only say that “because they want us to stay at home”? And he ended by urging us to “get involved” once more: “Let’s get back on the street!”
However, there was one speaker who was rather less keen on more of the same. David Lawley-Wakelin - the man who interrupted Tony Blair when he was giving his evidence to the Leveson enquiry (and for his pains was fined £100 for “causing alarm or distress” to the former warmonger-in-chief) - wanted to know: “What’s the point of patting ourselves on the back” about what we did 10 years ago? “What have we achieved?” Today we are just “talking to ourselves”. When the results of the Chilcott enquiry into the Iraq war are announced, he said, we should not waste our time “standing in Hyde Park”, but gather outside Blair’s home and demand he be arrested. And why not “gridlock the city”?
Unlike the other speakers, Lawley-Wakelin has seen through the bankruptcy of the STWC’s ‘Grand old Duke of York’ tactics. But like them he is totally bereft of anything approaching a strategy - which is why all he can come up with is an alternative set of tactics.
The one platform speaker to address us as “comrades” was Tony Benn (in contrast to Palestinian ambassador Manuel Hassassian, who said: “We are going to fight until we get our freedom, ladies and gentlemen”). But comrade Benn too was lacking when it came to an alternative politics and fell back on feel-good platitudes: “We’ve built a peace movement so powerful that no government will ever be able to disregard it.”
Comrade Benn does not look as though he will be making many more platform speeches, by the way. He was clearly very frail, lapsing into bouts of coughing, and at times almost inaudible. It was with real compassion this time that the whole hall rose to give him a standing ovation.
Another standing ovation was given to a team of firefighters from the West Bank when they mounted the stage, but the attempt to feature Noam Chomsky via a video link was, by contrast, a damp squib - the sound quality was impossible and Chomsky’s live speech had to be abandoned.
The platform also featured two Iranian speakers. Abbas Edalat, from the apologetically pro-regime Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran, is an STWC regular - he and Casmii are used to back up the sidelining of the anti-regime, anti-imperialist Hands Off the People of Iran campaign, which is banned from affiliating, on the grounds that STWC ‘does not have a position on the Tehran regime’ - not that Hopi is trying to foist such a position on the coalition, of course. So how come the same does not apply to pro-regime apologists like Casmii? Anyway, on this occasion a comrade from the ‘official communist’ Tudeh party also spoke. He called for a struggle “against the dictatorship” as well as “against imperialism” - just like Hopi does.
Another speaker who put forward a clear anti-imperialist, anti-reactionary position was Afghan democrat Mitra Qayoom, who made a passionate call for an Afghanistan free of both imperialism and the Taliban. I suspect that it was in response to this that a young woman wearing a hijab - one of the few speakers to be called from the floor during the rallies - commented that it was all very well condemning the treatment of women at the hands of Islamists in the Middle East, but what about here in Britain? - after all, “We still have page three.” A remark which provoked comrade Rees to applaud ostentatiously behind her on the platform. Personally I do not think there is any comparison between the type of vile, murderous oppression meted out to women by Islamist regimes and Sun-type soft porn.
But comrade Rees’s reaction typifies the attitude of the STWC leadership to allies to its right. The desire not only to accommodate such allies, which is fair enough on one level, but to water down your own professed politics in order to encourage them, provides us with the reason why STWC, as currently constituted, cannot ‘stop the war’.
It cannot do so because imperialism cannot be a “force for good”, to use comrade Corbyn’s words. If we want to end war we have to defeat imperialism and its progenitor, the system of capital that constantly reproduces it. Yes, let us unite with others against the latest act of aggression. But let us not pretend that we can end such aggression for good without overturning that system.
Ten wasted years?
The anti-war movement since Iraq
CPGB public meeting, Calthorpe Arms,
252 Grays Inn Road, London WC1
Saturday March 9, 12 noon to 5pm
Speakers: Moshé Machover
(founder member of Israeli socialist organisation Matzpen);
Mike Macnair (CPGB)
Organised by CPGB: www.cpgb.org.uk