report on student stop the war rally

7 09 2008

by David Broder

There were two self-proclaimed “socialists” on the platform at the Student Stop the War rally in London today – Tony Benn and Lindsey German – and most of the one hundred people in the audience were from the Socialist Workers’ Party and other “socialist” groups. But working-class politics was not on the agenda. Not only did they fail to cite the workers’ movement as the agency to fight imperialism, there was almost no talk of solidarity with Marxists and trade unionists in conflict zones like the Middle East and the Caucasus.

Similarly, for all the talk about student campaigns against Army recruitment on university campuses (in fact, mainly in the wealthiest universities: where clearly the focus should be on stopping Army recruitment at FE colleges and in deprived areas), the Stop the War leaders failed to elaborate any strategy for “stopping the war” except for calling for more protest marches.

Tony Benn said that Stop the War is not a single issue campaign; but then commented that all successful struggles in history have been single issue campaigns; and then claimed that Stop the War puts forward a vision of a different kind of society; but also that it included people across the political spectrum, and commented approvingly on the fact that the Tory MP Michael Ancram had spoken from a Stop the War platform. This meaningless cocktail of sentiments went hand in hand with Lindsey German’s assertion that we ought to “force the government to set up a different kind of society without war and recession”.

Indeed, these “socialists” do not put forward a different vision of society, or even talk about the only agency which might get us there – the workers’ movement – but rather argue for the government to re-allocate funds from “war” towards public services, as if imperialism were some misguided government policy rather than the expression of modern-day capitalism. This unserious attitude was taken to its logical extreme by the chair, Stewart Halforty – once close to Socialist Action but now in the orbit of the SWP – who said that we should resist the establishment of military academies under the Private Finance Initiative, since if built these would “create a profit motive for war”.

Both Benn and German, as well as ex-soldier George Solomou, made the usual dull speeches about the “illegality” of the Iraq war, along with their new theme, NATO “provocations” against Russia. In regard to the recent conflict in the Caucasus both Benn and the SWP were more or less straightforwardly Russian defencist, attacking Saakashvili’s ties to the West while making no mention of the Putin-Medvedev clique’s efforts to maintain their dominance in the Russian “near abroad” and bolster their domestic support by playing ‘hard-ball’ with the West. As always the “main thing” is to oppose American imperialism, and thus to neglect any criticism of any other government or support for any workers’ movement.

So bereft are these “socialists” of class politics that they were not even excited by the strike action taken by American and Iraqi dockers in May to demand the immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq, no doubt because the radicalism of this action would alienate the collection of middle-class liberals, 9/11 Truthers and other such social dust who make up the numbers at Stop the War’s peaceful marches through the centre of London.

Most contributions from the floor were more of the same, although it was particularly objectionable when SWPer Dominic Kavakeb, who is of Iranian descent, claimed that there was no need to support the Iranian workers’ movement, since “I know the Iranian people, and they are good, and they will make the changes they need to”. We might have thought that the fact that the Iranian workers’ movement is not in power is evidence that they do need support if they are to change Iranian society. Benjamin Lewis from the CPGB and Hands Off the People of Iran asked Lindsey German a question about HOPI’s exclusion from Stop the War, and she replied with the stock claim that HOPI was set up “to replace the Stop the War Coalition”, which rather begs the question of why they would have wanted to affiliate to it… She furthermore displayed a far-from razor-sharp analysis of the Iranian regime with the disinterested comment that “of course, different groups are oppressed at different times”.

Unfortunately, despite having my hand up from the very start of the “questions” section of the meeting, which lasted for 15 minutes as opposed to the 80 minutes given to lead-offs by the three speakers, I was ignored by the chair. However, three Workers’ Power comrades spoke either in this “questions” period or in the later discussion on “strategy and tactics” (which was not a discussion about strategy and tactics, but rather self-congratulation on student stunts), and proceeded to say nothing critical of the SWP or the leadership of Stop the War. To his credit their comrade Simon Hardy was critical of Putin, albeit not in a particularly angular fashion.

The Student Stop the War rally (or was it a conference?) displayed the anti-war movement’s total lack of political bearings, its lack of any strategy to “stop the war” and thus its lack of purpose, and the separation in most “socialists'” heads between their campaigning activity and the “big politics” of their leaders’ Sunday afternoon speeches. Perhaps they should consider whether the ideas of Marx and others, as well as the strategy of working-class struggle, are just “interesting”, or whether they are useful tools for analysing society and planning how to change it in the here and now.

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28 responses

7 09 2008
libhomo

Opposing the war in Iraq is fighting imperialism.

7 09 2008
Dave Isaacson

Really? So when Charles Kennedy MP opposed invading Iraq was he fighting imperialism? Or was he simply advising imperialism to adopt different measures, in the same way that Lindsey German advises Brown’s government to adopt different policies?

7 09 2008
swper

OK, I was there, and I can see some of what you’re saying (especially in relation to Tony Benn). The fact is that, if your aim is to Stop the War, you demand that everyone involved must be a Marxist/revolutionary. Then you’re going to have a few hundred people marching around being laughed at, not a million people on the streets of London.

In a broad organisation, some speakers are going to say things you don’t like and some are going to tone their opinions down for the audience (as Lindsey seems to have been doing). But the alternative is to alienate your support and end up trying to stop the war on your own.

7 09 2008
Chris Ford

But the objectives of communists/Marxists in a war are not just about stopping a war, we differ from others on the means we advocate to stop a war because our overall objectives are different. It is possible to build a large united workers front without diluting your politics beyond recognition of what you actually do stand for. There was nobody marching in the streets in 1914-1917 against the war, but it did not stop the genuine Marxists advocating militant, class politics to stop the war through militant class actions and simultaneously entering into broader alliances against the war. I am not saying its the same situation but we can learn from history.

7 09 2008
Chris S

swp’er, your missing something really important in what is needed to stop the war, to succesfully challenge imperialism. Working class action. You can have a mass movement whilst being honest about the tasks at hand for our movement to actually stop the war drive. At the moment the leadership is subordinating their own politics to keep a small band of right wingers on board.

7 09 2008
Vicky

Excellent detailed report, comrade

8 09 2008
swper

I very well understand that mass working class action is what’s needed to stop challenge imperialism – and that’s what Stop the War pushes for. What you seem to be missing is that if you start waving Marx in people’s faces, it makes you look like extremists and scares them off… the working class just isn’t advanced enough for it at this point. Of course there’s an ongoing process of education to get people to a better level, which is why the SWP pushes itself, the Marxism festival, etc so hard within STW.

Realistically STW doesn’t compromise itself to keep on board anyone more right-wing than Tony Benn, which I can live with. Whatever the long-term objective is – and I realise it’s about far more than stopping a war, obviously – you’re not going to achieve it by making the whole edifice too intimidating or downright odd for someone who isn’t a Marxist (or isn’t yet!) to approach.

I realise that this is a fundamental difference between the SWP and other groups. But it’s the difference that lets the SWP recruit and educate hundreds if not thousands of new socialists every year, while other parties’ membership barely makes it out of double digits.

8 09 2008
davidbroder

The point isn’t “waving Marx in people’s faces” but recognising that our (socialist/communist/revolutionary/’Marxist’) politics are useful in concrete situations and not just abstractions, and therefore that mass working class action, the workers’ united front etc. should be on the agenda.

Does Stop the War push for this? I think not. They appear to have no real focus on the workers’ movement, either at home or abroad, except motions at TU conferences to get money for the Coalition.

As far as I could tell they didn’t even publicise the dockers’ strikes in the US and Iraq. Maybe you might be able to find an article where they did, but it certainly wasn’t prominent, and it certainly isn’t their strategy. Such actions are not just good because they conform to some ‘grey’ Marxist theory of ours, but because they could be effective and have the potential to challenge imperialism as such rather than just the “policy” of “warmongering”.

“The working class isn’t advanced enough”, you tell us. But people aren’t afraid by ideas, and they’re not stupid. It is amazing that the left thinks that communist or ‘Marxist’ ideas are so far beyond people’s grasp… when well over a century ago there were impoverished industrial workers who learnt how to read so that they could study Capital!

The SWP don’t openly and honestly argue for their politics (if their politics are indeed class struggle and revolutionary) in Stop the War. I don’t just mean that at the rally on Saturday they didn’t identify themselves as SWPers or sell Socialist Worker (no-one did), but they do not put forward any socialist ideas or put any particular focus on class struggle against the war. They just call again and again for us to “keep on marching” – an obvious dead end. No wonder most workers aren’t interested.

This does not help “educate” people in socialist politics. The SWP attracts a fair few people to activism, sure, but in doing anti-war work, anti-fascism etc. they do not apply even the most basic ideas of our movement (even working-class struggle itself!).

8 09 2008
Mike

I’m baffled by the comment of SWPer that by brandishing Marx, whatever that means, at people we would appear as extremists. I thought that as communists that the SWP are extremists?

8 09 2008
Mike

SWPer wrote “the SWP recruit and educate hundreds if not thousands of new socialists every year”.

And loses as many each year which ought to alert you to a bit of a problem in the groups approach comrade.

8 09 2008
entdinglichung

SWPer wrote: the SWP recruit and educate hundreds if not thousands of new socialists every year.

their German clone “Linksruck” got more than 10.000 people between 1994 and 2001 to sign up a membership form but never had more than ~ 1.200 members at any point … the only thing they taught most new recruits was selling papers and getting other peoples telephone number

8 09 2008
swper

Unfortunately it’s no longer the era of people learning to read so they can read Capital! Would that it were. The trouble is that for most people nowadays, Marx = communism = Soviet Union = Stalin = bad. And you can get over that in a more subtle, one-to-one kind of way, but inviting people along supposedly to stop a war and then going ‘actually we’re all Marxists’ does scare them.

I do not believe that Marxist ideas are beyond workers’ grasp, obviously. The fact is that it’s a slow process… you take the STW activist first to a meeting on imperialism and war, and then move on from there gradually building the links, instead of hitting them in the face with everything at once. I don’t think most groups realise how weird they look when they stand around outside meetings selling ‘Communism Now!’ or whatever, having done nothing to prepare the ground – those ordinary workers are shuffling past you so rapidly because they think you’re Stalinists, comrades.

Was the million-person demonstration somehow not a ‘mass working-class action’? Really? And you know as well as I do that trade unionists play a much larger role in the coalition than simply funding it. There is an obvious focus on – obsession with, even – the workers’ movement within the party.

Yes, the SWP has a high turnover – it’s ‘easy to join, easy to leave’ by design. You can hardly argue that it does pick up more people in this way than other groups do. Anyone who actually turns up to branch meetings is going to get a good grounding in socialism and the chance to ask any questions (right down to the most basic things) and make any contributions they may have… and, you know, no-one actually makes you sell the paper or recruit unless you want to!

8 09 2008
Eddie Ford

swper:

I don’t think most groups realise how weird they look when they stand around outside meetings selling ‘Communism Now!’ or whatever

That’s funny – I can’t recall going to any meeting in my life where there were people outside selling publications calling for “Communism Now!” or anything like it.

Funnily enough though, I do remember a time when the Socialist Worker was demanding a “General Strike Now!”.

Not that I would ever accuse the SWP or philistinism, of course.

8 09 2008
Eddie Ford

Woops! The last sentence should read:

“Not that I would ever accuse the SWP of philistinism or opportunism, of course.”

8 09 2008
johng

“But the objectives of communists/Marxists in a war are not just about stopping a war”

But it is the aim of the Stop the War movement which is not just made up of Marxists and Communists.

8 09 2008
josfen

Stop the War isn’t going to Stop the War etither, there pacifist tactics dont bring the end of the war any closer. if two million people marching didnt stop the war starting, why would smaller demos make the government end the occupation?

8 09 2008
Voltaire's Priest

Realistically STW doesn’t compromise itself to keep on board anyone more right-wing than Tony Benn

So the MAB, Charles Kennedy, all of the various communalist “supporters” of STW, apologists for reactionary regimes abroad etc, are to Benn’s left?

9 09 2008
swper

Charles Kennedy and the MAB were riding a wave of popular feeling (in the MAB’s case, popular feeling that was especially strong among Muslims). They were being opportunist, yes, but do you want Stop the War to exclude them on those grounds?

The point is that Stop the War’s politics never moved as far right as, for example, the Lib Dems – and you can probably put that down to the so-called SWP ‘control freakery’ (aka fighting to maintain principled positions within very broad united fronts).

What’s the alternative – make people take a ‘leftness test’ before letting them speak on one of your platforms? Why shouldn’t everyone who’s against the war have a place within Stop the War? Do you object to united fronts as a tactic…?

9 09 2008
Vicky

“I very well understand that mass working class action is what’s needed to stop challenge imperialism – and that’s what Stop the War pushes for.”

In that case why did the SWP vote down a motion calling for industrial action at the last AGM? Or does militant industrial action not count as working class in this instance? Hmmmm.

9 09 2008
Dave Isaacson

SWPer: “Charles Kennedy and the MAB were riding a wave of popular feeling (in the MAB’s case, popular feeling that was especially strong among Muslims). They were being opportunist, yes, but do you want Stop the War to exclude them on those grounds?”

The point is not that these groups (Kennedy and MAB) were opportunist. It is that the SWP was opportunist in the way that it…

a) positively promoted them as leading figures within the anti-war movement, when their politics were actually very right wing, and they actually had very little base in the anti-war movement. It may come as a surprise to you, but MAB was not representative of the bulk of Muslims who were on the demos. They were some undemocratic ‘community’ leaders that the SWP hoped would provide a ready stream of activists/potential recruits.

b) that in doing this *did* limit the politics of the anti-war movement. SWPer actually admits this, but feels that “Stop the War’s politics never moved as far right as, for example, the Lib Dems”. Nobody has said they did. Generally when various groups get together for some unprincipled lash up they manage to meet somewhere in the middle. Just what StWC has done.

This is not to say that all compromises are unprincipled. Certainly not. But these were all backroom deals made undemocratically behind the backs of the movement. This is the normal operative method of the SWP.

I’d be interested to know what SWPer thinks the defining characteristics of united fronts and popular fronts are.

And as for your earlier comment that SWPers don’t have to sell ‘Socialist Worker’ – that only goes to show how degenerate the party has become! What is wrong with selling your own organisations paper? When I was in the SWP (and I’m sure its still the same) it was in the constitution that members must “buy, read and sell” the paper. And quite right to. We weren’t anarchists after all. Some how the organisation has now become so wishy-washy that members aren’t even expected to sell their own paper!

9 09 2008
johng

On the SWPs position regarding contemporary imperialism and Iran these two interviews may be of interest. One is recent the other is from 1988. You can’t get so much as a rizla between the two positions. Clearly if the SWPs position was an opportunistic capitulation of some kind it involved time travel.

http://www.isj.org.uk/?id=241

http://www.marxisme.dk/arkiv/callinic/1988/09/iraniraq. htm

In terms of promoting MAB, MAB were involved because they had a base, not the other way round. Anything else is an excercise in self delusion. If prominant figures like Charles Kennedy wanted to speak on anti-war platforms that was his contradiction not ours. In any case I see that the liberal bombers have arrived on this thread.

9 09 2008
josfen

I dont see any liberal bombers. The article and comments say that people want working class resitance to imperialism rather than popular fronts

10 09 2008
internationalcommunist

In the ISJ article John G links to (the other link doesn’t work) Callinicos makes no concrete reference to the class struggle in the Middle East or communists/socialists/Marxist or trade unionists in the region. Ipso facto he does not have a class struggle position. He just criticises the left for their supposed sectarianism towards Islamists, Ba’athists, Nasserites etc., while making vague references to anti-capitalism.

What is particularly funny in the interview (why would an Iranian Marxist interview Alex Callinicos about Middle Eastern politics for an SWP journal?!) is that Ardeshir Mehrdad hits the nail right on the head:

“Part of the left in Europe and America, when deciding on the stance they need to take in response to imperialist intervention confine themselves to a mirror image of the imperialist position and in the first instance the US government. Wherever imperialism places a negative mark, they automatically replace it by a positive, and vice versa. For example tension or conflict between Washington and the regime of any country is enough for that regime to be labelled “progressive” and the revolutionary or socialist duty becomes not only to oppose the interventionist imperialist policies and actions or defend the right of self determination (or sovereignty) of the people of that country, but to go further and to directly support the regime. It does not matter if Castro or Chavez is ruling there or Saddam and Milosovitch, or Robert Mugabe and Ayatollah Khameni’i. Also the real content of the conflict between that regime and Washington appears to matter little, nor what are the relationship of that regime with its people (even ignoring specifically how it deals with its workers, peasants and working people). Some go so far as to consider any form of criticism to the policies of such regimes as aiding and abetting imperialism and condemn it with the justification that such criticisms provide the ideological excuse for imperialist intervention and aggression.”

… and then Callinicos just says he is being abstract, assimilates Mehrdad to ‘anarchism’ and then says that revolutionaries of decades past also supported bourgeois nationalists. But it is Callinicos himself, who says he wants the Iranian working class to “wake up” and one day overthrow the regime – but refuses to do anything in the here and now to support them – who is talking in abstractions.

Even aside from the intemperate tone Callinicos adopts throughout the ISJ interview, he is just waffling. He clearly knows absolutely nothing about the class struggle in Iran. If he did, he would refer to it. As if to make up for the almost total lack of class or political differentiation made within each country, Callinicos throws in expressions like “permanent revolution” for the sake of it, but without any concrete application or relation to actual working-class forces. It is a jumble, a mess of ideas. For example:

“If Bush attacks Iran tomorrow, which side are you on? I would be on Iran’s but – as Lenin put it – I would refuse to paint Ahmadinejad in communist colours; in other words, I would be for an Iranian victory despite his anti-Semitic rantings, despite the regime’s capitalist class base, despite the repression it perpetrates. This is the politics of permanent revolution, which seeks the overthrow of imperialism and of the local bourgeois regimes, with the complex relations of collaboration and conflict that they have with the main capitalist powers.”

What makes this disappointing/sad rather than just the usual shit is that John G is wrong about the SWP’s tradition… in fact they didn’t use to be as bad on Iran. If you read their 1986 book Revolutionary Rehearsals, there is a quite good piece on the Iranian revolution and its defeat by Islamists, far from the current classless, CP-esque SWP position of denouncing HOPI for being “soft” on imperialism.

10 09 2008
Dave Isaacson

Johng’s second link was broken. Here it is again: http://www.marxisme.dk/arkiv/callinic/1988/09/iraniraq.htm

I haven’t read it yet, but will do so.

As for the interview with Ardeshir Mehrdad was originally (I believe) carried out for the journal he co-edits: Iran Bulletin-Middle East Forum (a group that supports HOPI). I too was very amused when the SWP decided to feature this on their IST website and then in the ISJ as it really does show Alex Callinicos in a very bad light.

As for Johng’s nonsense about the SWP having the same position on imperialism and Iran as ever, the contributer above is absolutely right – he should check back and read Maryam Poya’s article in ‘Revolutionary Rehersals’, and also Phil Marshall’s book. He might also like to explain why the SWP’s current position is so different from the one John Rees outlines here:

“But socialists should not feel their opposition to imperialism obliges them to stand mute as the working class and oppressed battle against the ruling classes of the Third World. We should support their struggles and urge that, were socialists to lead those countries against imperialism, the fight would be all the more effective. We must not lend the leaders of nationalist struggles “a communist colouration”, Lenin warned.

“So, though socialists were as opposed to US imperialism as Ho Chi Minh, they were unsparing in their criticism when he murdered Vietnamese Trotskyists and when his repressive regime weakened the war against the US by attacking workers’ living standards and right to organise.

“Similarly, our wish for the defeat of the forces of imperialism in the Gulf does not mean keeping quiet about Saddam Hussein’s repression of workers and refusal to grant independence to the Kurdish minority. To do otherwise might have strengthened Saddam’s government while weakening the Iraqi workers’ ability to fight the imperialist coalition ranged against them.

“In fact this kind of criticism is even more justified in the case of Saddam Hussein than in that of Ho Chi Minh. The latter was at least a consistent antiimperialist. But Saddam fought an imperialist war on the United StatesU behalf against Iran in the 1980s. He would have come to such an arrangement again if the US let him.

“George Bush went to war wanting the defeat of Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi working class. He knew any US puppet that replaced Saddam would be no kinder to the Iraqi people than Saddam was when the US supported him. For his part, Saddam Hussein wanted the defeat of the imperialist forces. But he also wanted the defeat of the Iraqi working class. He was against the US in spite of his politics, not because of them.

“Socialists want the defeat of imperialism and the victory of the Iraqi working class. We oppose our own imperialist governments, hoping for their defeat. If defeat came at Saddam’s hands we would still welcome it. But we hope for it at the hands of Iraqi workers who could both crush Saddam and prove far better opponents of imperialism .”

from: http://www.anu.edu.au/polsci/marx/contemp/pamsetc/socandwar/socandwar.htm

10 09 2008
Duncan Money

I agree with johng, the SWP’s position on Iran doesn’t appear to have changed much in the last 20 or so years.

This is from the Socialist Worker in 1987 on the Iran-Iraq war:

“we have no choice but to support the Khomeini regime”

“socialists should not call for the disruption of military supplies to the front… should not support actions which could lead to the collapse of the military effort”

(Socialist Worker – 28/11/87)

But for the fact that Khomeini is dead I could imagine printing exactly the same rubbish now.

10 09 2008
david broder

But the articles you cite, Duncan, are both after they shifted their support to Iran in the Iran-Iraq war… a shift which took place in 1987 after the US sent ships into the Gulf.

In 1986, when Revolutionary Rehearsals was published, they had a “plague on both your houses” position.

The idea that “socialists… should not support actions which could lead to the collapse of the military effort” is awful. This could (it implicitly does) mean opposing strikes which would undermine the war effort. That’s the position the CP took during World War II.

10 09 2008
Duncan Money

Fair enough David, I can’t say I’m an expert on the positions of the SWP on Iran during the 1980’s.

10 09 2008
Dave Isaacson

But Duncan’s point does illustrate what I failed to make clear before – that opportunism is nothing new to the SWP. Though things are particularly bad now, there was no ‘golden age’ in the history of Cliffism.




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