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Which way for the anti-war movement?

Jim Jepps


 

Stop the war

Everyone on the left has to agree how ground breaking the anti-war movement has been. The sheer size of the thing transformed the quality of what it represented. The movement has reached parts of society traditionally cut off from the political debate in the wider society. The most obvious examples of this is school kids and Muslims, both groups, who for quite different reasons, can feel disenchanted by UK politics.

 

It doesn't need restating that the largest demonstrations in history, all taking place in a coordinated fashion right across the globe do not come along every half an hour. The left has understandably been concerned to move this movement on and to ensure that at least sections of the movement become politically active in a more general way. RESPECT is obviously part of this.

 

But there is another question that in recent months we have been less pre-occupied with. Where now for the anti-war movement itself?

 

This is a serious question for everyone who wants to see the movement become stronger and more successful. It is also a question that cannot simply be answered by saying more, more, more. Revolutionary zeal is obviously wonderful and I wont hear a word said against it - but being the small, sharp axe that turns the little cog that pushes the little engine that could only gets us so far.

 

There are key questions that we need to attend to if we are to benefit the movement rather than simply participate in it. These key questions revolve around the role of demonstrations, politics, democracy and education in the anti-war movement.

 

Demonstrations

 

The first thing to say is that the demonstrations were an enormous success. Not just in the narrow, nice to see you all here, haven't the left done well sense. More importantly they heavily influenced the policy that the pro-war governments pursued.

 

This has been made clear this week by revelations that Bush had felt the need to give Blair an opt out of the war because of the pressure he was under. Blair had smelt blood, so was not going to be called off, but every world leader knew that millions opposed the war vociferously.

 

But there is another fact. They did not stop the war.

 

This has led large numbers of people who still oppose the war to say that demonstrations do not achieve anything. Now there are two ways you can go if you think that. Up or down - and in practice people have been going both ways.

 

A small number of people have said - this shows we need to up the ante and do more outrageous, more high profile stuff. A larger number have said - the government will do what it wants anyway so why bother coming out. Of course there is the group in between who feel the pressure on both sides but continue to do the excellent, if rather less inspiring, work day to day.

 

The danger in this polarisation is clear. One group does not get its voice heard and could become demoralised by their entire involvement in political activity. The other group becomes a forever dwindling moral elite, cut off from the movement that gives any actions they take true impact. Both groups begin to see each other at a distance - and unfortunately their hearts do not become fonder.

 

We need to avoid this happening. A small, moral anti-war movement with an inactive, if enormous, base would be entirely ineffective. We need to look to ways to keep people active and make an impact on the direction society is going. This means ensuring that there is more to do than invade military bases, sit in roads and make gruelling hikes - no matter how important they may be.

 

It also means that abstract propaganda about general strikes and other mass mobilisations are tempered with a realistic appraisal of what is happening at the moment. When two million people marched in London it was not only because people did not want the war - it was also because people thought that we could stop the imminent conflict. Everyone could taste the war and knew there was a mass movement against it.

 

The last demonstration did not get those numbers on the streets because lots of people have lost heart in the power of demonstrations. It is vital that the anti-war movement does not allow this understandable feeling to become longer term despondency.

 

 

Politics

 

One method is to translate the anti-war feeling into an anti-war vote on June 10th. This is going to be difficult for a number of reasons.

 

Firstly there is no clear way of telling what an anti-war vote is. Lib Dem votes, Green votes, Independents, Labour rebels, the handful of socialist candidates, even the BNP were opposed to the war and will take some of the anti-war vote. Unfortunately it will be indistinguishable from everyone else who voted for those parties and will not be seen as a clear vote against the war.

 

RESPECT is the only organisation whose votes will clearly and unequivocally will be seen as opposition to the war. Unfortunately the vote is unlikely to be spectacular enough to give the powers that be any particular pause for thought. A new organisation that is unknown, untested, with no mass base trying to build a viable campaign at break neck speed may make a good start and create a viable platform for the general election, it will not see a swathe of euro MP's and local councillors elected.

 

But the level that RESPECT has tied itself to the Stop the War Coalition in itself is a potential problem. When the StWC was founded it fought hard to ensure that it could serve as an umbrella for anyone who opposed the war, no matter where else they lay politically. This policy, that ensured the fantastic success of the StWC is being eroded (but far from ditched) by the headlong rush towards the Euro elections.

 

RESPECT can rightly be proud of candidates like Lindsey German (convenor of the StWC) and George Galloway who have tirelessly fought to make the movement the success it is - but we need to be aware that we do not ditch the principles of unity in the StWC. The number of RESPECT supporters in the national executive for instance is wholly disproportionate and has created problems for many Labour and Green Party members - it could also, at a future date, be a problem for those who do not support RESPECT whilst being active and valuable members of the anti-war movement.

 

StWC conferences, conventions and the new national council must touch base with these founding principles to ensure that no one feels unable to be part of it because they see the coalition as too heavily dominated by RESPECT supporters. No matter how successful RESPECT is the anti-war movement will always be bigger, broader and more valuable.

 

 

Democracy

 

At times like this - when there is a lull in the fighting (at home, not abroad) - it will always be a time for reflection from the participants of the movement. This reflection is taking place all over the country but is currently shapeless in form. The Coalition has recognised the need for more direct contact between those who call the shots and those who volunteer to follow directions.

 

The new National Council is a welcome move, which moves the coalition in a more democratic direction. These structures not only need to exist, they need to be used - and the more vigorous and robust the political culture can become the healthier the coalition shall be.

 

It also needs to keep an emphasis on mass democracy - to prevent those who prefer small actions - or whose ratio of free time to commitment is far higher than others, also deeply committed to the movement from becoming the sole voice of the anti-war movement.

 

The NC needs to be utilised to its fullest potential to direct the organisation from below. The coalition is not the possession of the party builders (no matter how excellent they are in every word and deed) but of the movement that made it possible.

 

Education

 

Southend protesters having fun

But finally to return to the question of what we need to be doing.

 

It seems to me that a broad menu of activities for those who oppose the war should be available. Not just demonstrating against occupation (as the thousand strong demo did in London the other day) or marching about the country (like the thousand strong Aldermaston march) but a rich and varied diet that people enjoy taking part in (we aren't all masochists).

 

A number of Coalition branches have held meetings on civil rights - this is not only useful in itself - it also allows the movement to maintain its organisational integrity, still bring in new people and give us something fresh to think about. It helps people draw broader conclusions, and most importantly people can see the point.

 

I'm not saying that we all know everything we need to know about the occupation or the reasons that we went to war but you only need to read the papers or watch the TV to have the chance to see this - large numbers will not come out time and again to hear the case against the war when they are already well and truly convinced.

 

The occupation has gone badly - everyone agrees on this - but there is a strong current of people who argue that we can't just leave now, no matter how unjustified the initial invasion was. We need to take that argument on - that debate needs to be public, high profile and effective turning good wishes into political backbone. there are no doubt a hundred other issues that the anti-war movement could cover without going over well worn ground to keep its sympathisers happy and politically engaged.

 

 

The movement will face many challenges ahead. It will at times be strong and vibrant and it will also have lulls and moments of crisis. For those of us who want to work with many currents in a diverse and rich movement we need to make sure that we do not allow natural tendencies to polarise us into the noble daring few and the passive many - but also we need to make sure that the movement keeps its own integrity, welcoming everyone opposed to war and occupation.

 

 

April 2004

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