Anti-war movement stumbles forward

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Same speech, different country and keep the reference to the Tolpuddle Martyrs…that was the gist of Tony Benn’s presentation on the platform of a Labour Against the War meeting at the London School of Economics on 14 November. The war, he said, was about resources and American [sic] commercial interests. The War on Terrorism should be handed over to the United Nations because the British government’s actions could make this country a target for terrorism. He denounced the legislation attacking civil liberties, condemned the demonisation of Muslims and pointed out that the US and Britain had armed Bin Laden. Most inevitable was the distinction Benn made between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Labour.

The RCG asked Benn why he would not leave the Labour Party as Bertrand Russell had done in 1965, after 51 years of membership, in protest over British support for the Vietnam war. A comrade who was once a British soldier described the torture tactics used under orders in British Guyana, Sarawak and Aden, and against the Catholic community in the six counties of Ireland. All of these were military interventions under Labour governments and during the last two Tony Benn was a Labour cabinet minister and Queen’s privy councillor.

Benn replied that he had lived and he would die in the Labour Party: ‘You fight where you are,’ he said, as if it were an incurable affliction. His colleague, Christine Shawcroft, Labour National Executive Committee member, claimed that it was a crime for socialists not to be working within the Labour Party: after all, ‘we’re bigger than you are’. You risk alienating the 300,000 members of the Labour Party, we’re told. What a joke! Most of them support the war, support the use of cluster bombs, support the Zionist state and support the racist immigration and asylum laws. In any case, MPs have a tiny influence in parliament and government…the capitalist ruling class is always in power.

Despite audience applause, our interventions were attacked by social democrats in the Socialist Workers Party and the Revolutionary International League. In their view, presenting a political disagreement is the same as being sectarian - be as radical as you like, talk about imperialist hypocrisy, as long as you don’t offend or challenge the ‘left of the Labour Party’. As we said in the last issue of FRFI, ‘the Labour Party can really rely on the opportunists to police the movement!’ If the social democratic tactic of working as a pressure group within bourgeois parliamentary democracy could bring gains for the poor and oppressed, we would support it. Historically, this tactic has always sold out real working class interests and diluted the revolutionary anti-capitalist potential of every movement.

The RCG is in favour of the broadest possible public platform to build a movement that takes a principled stand. However, the invitation of Labour Party members must not put them beyond question and it must not be at the exclusion of others. The social democrats are always ready to make concessions to the right, but frequently censor the political contributions of the revolutionaries, activists and other radicals on the left.

The challenge we make is to ask: just how far would the Labour Party have to go before you can no longer justify remaining a member. Tony Blair has already announced that the Labour government can foresee no limits to its militarism.

One week after 11 September the SWP magicians conjured up a Stop the War coalition, sprinkling a few prominent liberals and other social democrats into the cauldron for good taste. For the first month the social democratic anti-war broth left out the anti-imperialist ingredients which might prove too spicy for members of the Labour Party. When the RCG proposed that the Stop the War coalition include opposition to Labour imperialism with its slogans, the SWP central committee autocrat Lindsay German, dismissed it outright: ‘I don’t think we should include that’, but the shambolic vote that followed showed significant support for an anti-imperialist position. On a weekly Tuesday picket outside Downing Street, RCG comrades were attacked by SWP cadre for reciting a little Labour party history over the megaphone to remind the crowd that the distinction between old and new Labour is totally phoney. Again we were told off for alienating members of that racist, imperialist Labour Party!

Recognising that ‘the times they are a-changing’, with comparisons to the war in Vietnam and the emergence of a more radical section of the anti-war movement, the SWP did a U-turn and poured out on the national demonstration in London on 13 October with placards saying ‘Fight US/UK imperialism’. Nonetheless, Benn, Corbyn and other fresher-faced Labour Party hypocrites have had pedestals prepared for them on platforms across the country. At the rally in Trafalgar Square following the national demonstration in London on 18 November, Benn showed how the left opportunistically dons the mantle of radicalism, distorting history. He favourably quoted IRA Commander Bobby Sands, without mentioning that he never lifted a finger while Sands died slowly on hunger strike, or that he has always opposed the Republican movement’s armed struggle against British imperialism. Opportunists always rob the working class of its history.

The anti-capitalist movement has been relatively absent from the anti-war movement where its commitment to direct action and a radical, anti-Labour stance is much needed. This period could present the opportunity to re-energise the anti-capitalist movement by drawing new people demonstrating against the war into an understanding of capitalism as the real enemy.

The failure of direct-activists to work within the mainstream anti-war movement is partly a reflection of the growing fear of state repression, particularly stepped up against the Wombles, and partly a reflection of the movements anti-‘left’ sectarianism. Its disdain for the SWP is understandable, particularly since the front organisation Globalise Resistance has been so successful in turning a potentially revolutionary movement into another reformist pressure group. However, without the presence of anti-capitalists, many of the new, potentially radical protesters will be dragged under the umbrella of the reformists, repeating this process in the anti-war movement.

One section of anti-capitalists which has been active is ‘no war but the class war’. News that the bombing had started during their meeting in London was met with a refreshing call to immediate action. An impromptu march started in Oxford Circus and a group of anarchists and communists marched down the road to Downing Street chanting ‘No war but the class war’, police vans mounting up on their tail.

While they understand that the working class and the poor of the world will suffer in this war, their opposition to the existence of any form of state leads them to take a reactionary position against anti-imperialists. They do not distinguish between advanced capitalist and underdeveloped capitalist countries, so they argue that anti-imperialism or support for national liberation struggles against imperialism, are tantamount to support for the capitalist class in the oppressed nation.

Both national anti-war demos have seen thousands of Muslim people taking to the streets to protest. Following the uprisings of Asian youths in the northern cities last summer this has clearly alarmed the British state, because they represent a force which the state cannot control, either with the carrot, or the stick. Divisions exist within this section, with a minority extolling Osama bin Laden and the Taliban and others opposing both the terrorist attacks on the US (and Islamic fundamentalism generally) and the imperialist military response.

The bombing stage of the war in Afghanistan may end soon but the political pressure points which have emerged under the shadow of the B52s have set the scene for the growth of a really radical movement in Britain against capitalist oppression. These issues are: the racist backlash, the persecution of asylum seekers, the attacks on civil liberties and the economic recession. The failure, in the name of national unity, of the labour and trade union organisations to challenge this authoritarian government during the war has shown the need to build a new independent movement in the interests of the poor and oppressed, both here and internationally.

Helen Burnes

FRFI 164 December 2001 / January 2002

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