How the triumvirate marched all the way to failure
Callum Williamson reviews: Chris Nineham, 'The people v Tony Blair: politics, the media and the anti-war movement'. Zero Books, 2012, pp87, £6.99
In this pamphlet, written to mark the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq earlier this year, Chris Nineham sets out to “underline, in very dangerous times, the power of mass, popular protest” (p5). According to comrade Nineham, while such protest did not quite succeed in stopping the Iraq war, “We are living in a world in which anti-war mobilisation has helped weaken empire, and limited our rulers’ room for manoeuvre” (p78).
It goes without saying that in Britain the main body responsible for such a tremendous achievement was the Stop the War Coalition, set up on the initiative of the Socialist Workers Party and effectively run by a triumvirate of SWP members: John Rees, Lindsey German and comrade Nineham himself. Deposed from the SWP leadership in 2008, the three resigned their membership in 2010 and went on to form Counterfire, the organisation that was the original driving force behind the People’s Assembly Against Austerity.
During the last year of their SWP membership, comrades Rees, German and Nineham insisted that the SWP ought to take the lead in initiating a “united front against the recession” along the lines of STWC, and it is undoubtedly true that the People’s Assembly is envisaged as a kind of Stop the Cuts Coalition. After all, it worked so well last time …
Rightly, Nineham rejects the explanations of the US-UK invasion that are centred around the power of the Israeli lobby or the need to secure oil supplies. His assertion that “the British ruling class regards [the ‘special relationship’] as the centrepiece of foreign policy” (p16) is accurate and this explains the fact that Tony Blair was the most reliable and enthusiastic advocate of the US-led invasion. Comrade Nineham points out that “a huge number of people had rightly drawn the conclusion that Bush and Blair were pursuing their own imperialist agendas in Iraq” (p27). However, he does not really take on the arguments of those who believed that Iraq was invaded in order for the west to gain access to the country’s oil.
Obviously it is important to critically approach the dominant perspectives within the movement if your aim is to understand and engage with it, so some criticism of the argument that ‘the invasion was for access to oil’ is required. As Hillel Ticktin has pointed out, it is not in fact necessary for US oil companies to own oil in order to control its distribution and these companies were already making high profits at the time of the attack, making it less likely that they would push for such a risky approach.1
Comrade Nineham gives an enthusiastic account of the massive protests that took place across the globe in the run-up to military action. This is framed as part of the growing importance of protest, with levels of public participation in demonstrations correlating to a rising distrust of the political establishment and political parties (on the latter, not much else is said). Given the failure of movements based on protest in the west over the last two decades (including the ongoing failure of the anti-austerity protests), is it not time to acknowledge the limits of protest rather than marvelling in awe at its “power”?
Divisions and debates within the anti-war movement are briefly touched on, with Nineham explaining the “argument for focus” in relation to the political positions adopted by STWC. That “focus” meant sidelining the critique of global capitalism asthis necessarily would eventually lead the movement into a dead end. The ‘principles’ actually adopted - linking pacifistic and economistic opposition to war with defence of civil liberties and a campaign against Islamophobia - were advantageous according to Nineham. Why? Because, in the words of the then chair of STWC, Andrew Murray of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, “within that framework people could interpret the war in any way they wanted to” (p42).
The idea, of course, was to attract the largest numbers possible. However, what that meant in reality was avoiding taking on the arguments of the right of the movement and thus allowing liberal anti-war narratives to dominate. If the revolutionary left keeps quiet about its politics and perspectives, then it might be able to win temporary allies for a particular demonstration or campaign, but it is surely obvious that, even if the majority of people held Bush and Blair in contempt, there was no immediate prospect of winning them to a global view based on the power of the working class. If the beginning and end of the movement is simply to ‘stop the war’, then it should surprise no-one that support for that movement will rapidly fall away once it becomes clear that it has failed in its aim.
That is why comrade Nineham is forced to look at the past through rose-tinted spectacles when he claims the movement “helped weaken empire and limited our rulers’ room for manoeuvre”. He argues that war has become harder for western governments to wage from an electoral point of view. This is true, but it is important not to exaggerate. After all, where was the large-scale, active opposition to the intervention in Libya, the drone attacks on Somalia and Yemen, the French invasion of Mali and the drive for more direct imperialist involvement in Syria?
Revolutionaries, of course, oppose all imperialist military adventures from an internationalist, class-based standpoint (which also means siding with the workers of the countries subject to imperialist attack, and against their own oppressive governments). “Empire” might be weakened (specifically US hegemony in the Middle East), but this is due to the catastrophic failure of the occupation of Iraq itself and to the decline of the US hegemon, which comrade Nineham himself describes in the pamphlet.
Not that comrade Nineham is wrong when he claims that the movement against war on Iraq has contributed to a supposed swelling of the left. He draws a not unreasonable link between the activity of STWC and trends in public opinion. We are told that the left (in terms of individuals self-identifying as such) has increased from 4.8 million in 1981 to over seven million in 2006, whilst 750,000 now place themselves on the “far left”. Nineham concludes: “The Stop the War campaign has not just reflected this trend: it has helped create it” (p37).
Leaving aside the problems with polls such as the British Social Attitudes Survey he quotes, where people are asked to self-identify (what does “far left” mean for the respondents?), let us ask what has happened to these people. Certainly they have not flooded into the existing far left as presently organised. After all the membership of all the left groups combined numbers no more than 10,000. Surely this is an argument for the organised left not to pat itself on the back, but to urgently address its fragmentation and failure to attract these individuals.
Surely then comrade Nineham ought to feel obliged to go in for a little self-criticism. After all, John Rees, Lindsey German and himself took the lead in forming Respect. A popular front disaster waiting to explode - and explode it duly did.
But comrade Nineham wants only to celebrate the power and breadth of the anti-war movement. He is, it seems, unable to face the fact that ultimately the whole thing ended in political failure.
1. H Ticktin, ‘The US war on Iraq and the world economy’ Critique Vol 32, No35.