Time to build a revolutionary anti-capitalist movement against war and imperialism

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FRFI 170 December 2002 / January 2003

This is an edited version of a talk to an Anti-imperialist Forum in London on 17 November 2002.

Just days after the 9 November anti-war demonstration of more than 500,000 activists in Florence during the four-day meeting of the European Social Forum (ESF), the Italian police arrested 20 militant activists from the anti-globalisation and anti-war movement in Italy. They are charged with attempting to form a subversive organisation with the intention of toppling the current constitutional order. This is a serious warning to the growing anti-war movement that such developments will not be tolerated and action will be taken to neutralise what the ruling class sees as ‘subversive elements’. DAVID YAFFE writes.

The arrests came after some 60,000 people had gathered in Florence in an uneasy coalition of liberal, pacifist, religious, humanist, social democratic and small revolutionary organisations for four days of conferences, seminars and workshops organised by the ESF. They were united by their opposition to the ravages of neo-liberal capitalism and imperialism’s drive to war. Beyond this, however, the coalition is tentative and fragile and has no clear united perspective for taking the movement forward. This is not surprising given the broad coalition of forces involved, and this pattern has been seen for some years now within the anti-capitalist movement in Britain.

A parting of ways
May Day 2000 was a turning point, a ‘parting of ways’ within the growing anti-capitalist movement in Britain. At the time we argued that its political significance went far beyond the actual events themselves and the knee-jerk reactions of the government, the media and the police to the ‘violence’ of the May Day protest in London.

‘It demonstrated a determination of the corporate capitalist class through its political representatives in the Labour government, its media, police and judiciary to destroy the coalition of forces in this country that see themselves as part of a growing, global anti-capitalist movement. It also led to certain high profile figures within the “green” movement, such as George Monbiot and John Vidal, breaking with this growing anti-capitalist coalition by siding with its reactionary critics in a manner which barely distinguished them from the gutter press.’1

The ever-present background to the events was the drubbing the police had received on the anti-capitalist protest in the City of London on June 1999. The state was also aware of the political impact of the anti-capitalist protestors’ victories on the streets of Seattle at the World Trade Organisation meeting in November/ December the same year. It now took steps to criminalise effective anti-capitalist protest.

What we saw was part of a continuing strategy initially put into operation by Sir Kenneth Newman, when head of the Metropolitan Police, not long after the 1980-81 inner city uprisings of black and white youth. The strategy was based on British colonial experience against national liberation struggles and was systematically laid out in General Frank Kitson’s book Low Intensity Operations (1971). It was further developed in the north of Ireland during Newman’s time as head of the RUC. Its aim, in Kitson’s words, is ‘to discover and neutralise the genuine subversive elements’ and to ‘associate the many prominent members of the population, especially those who may have been engaged in non-violent action, with the government’. Intelligence-gathering operations are an essential feature of this process to target those capable of organising serious opposition. At the same time ‘psychological operations’ are used to isolate the serious opposition from the people. Dirty tricks and agent provocateurs are used to discredit the cause. The media and prominent figures are utilised to present the side of the government. May Day 2000 saw elements of this strategy put into practice.

Over the May Day weekend we witnessed unprecedented surveillance by the police with cameras and CCTV. The media played a central role in spreading scare stories about ‘planned’ widespread violence, using so-called journalists to infiltrate ‘secret’ meetings. Prominent politicians got in on the action. Ken Livingstone, soon to be elected Mayor of London – an event promoted and celebrated by large sections of the left, including the SWP – warned of a ‘small core’ who would cause violence and of people getting hurt on May Day. He told his supporters to stay away.

After the trashing of McDonald’s and the daubing of the statue of the imperialist and racist bigot Winston Churchill, the ‘radical’ campaigner George Monbiot called Reclaim the Streets (RTS), who were among the organisers of the May Day activities, ‘incoherent vigilantes’ who are a ‘threat to the environmental and social justice movements’. He said that ‘non-violent direct action ...is not a direct attempt to change the world through physical action, but a graphic and symbolic means of drawing attention to neglected issues, capturing hearts and minds through political theatre’. Most importantly, three days before local elections, he said the ‘violence’ had managed to jeopardise the best electoral chances ‘radical politics’ had had in Britain for 15 years. By ‘radical politics’ he means the ineffectual and powerless, bourgeois local politics of the Ken Livingstones and the official Green Party.

John Vidal, in his article on the protest, actually fingered a man called Ben or Benny who ‘threw the first stone’ and turned a ‘good-natured, if incoherent May Day garden party in Parliament Square...into a running fight with the police’. He then went on to describe Ben or Benny. Vidal had already shown his reactionary colours in 1996 when he argued that RTS’s link-up with the sacked Liverpool Dockers, the first roots of a new anti-capitalist movement in Britain, was a step too far.

Around 100 arrests took place on May Day 2000, followed by the punitive imprisonment of anti-capitalist protestors. May Day 2000 was a watershed. A year later the protest movement in Britain had politically retreated. The RTS and ‘anarchist’ led anti-capitalist movement was increasingly being pushed aside by Globalise Resistance – a front organisation of the SWP. Monbiot and other ‘left’ social democratic forces were given a platform by Globalise Resistance for their brand of ‘political theatre’ – radical posturing and inaction – so they were happy.
May Day 2001 saw the same line-up against the radical anti-capitalist forces. Livingstone endorsed heavy-handed police tactics, calling for the pre-emptive arrest of those who might be engaged in what he called ‘criminal activities’. Lee Jasper, race relations advisor to the Greater London Authority, told people not to attend the demonstration. Monbiot urged protestors ‘to remove the sticks and stones from the hands of the masked-up class warriors’. The event on the day was disorganised with some good, if limited protests, from a handful of relatively small autonomous direct action campaigns. It ended with the SWP, Workers Power and others leading some 2-3,000 demonstrators into a trap set for them by the police in Oxford Street.

This presents the background necessary for understanding the political situation and class divisions that confront the anti-capitalist movement today as imperialism prepares for another war in the Middle East.

The capitalist crisis has severely deepened over the last two years. 11 September 2001, the ‘war on terrorism’, the imperialist bombing of Afghanistan, the devastating crisis in Latin America, the second Palestinian Intifada and the continuing war against Iraq, have forced the ‘left’ to move on. Imperialism is now once again part of the vocabulary of the anti-capitalist movement. The brutal and barbaric attempt to divide and redivide the world in the interests of the imperialist powers and their multinational companies is becoming ever clearer as the real import behind the ‘war on terrorism’. But the class divisions which underlay the divide in the movement in Britain over May Day 2000 and 2001 have not gone away. The need to build a mass anti-capitalist and necessarily anti-imperialist movement remains. Such a movement will have to make a decisive break with those social democratic organisations and forces, which have undermined and diverted the movement in the past. We need to discuss what this will entail.

The ESF – a precarious unity

A recent assessment of the events in Florence by the Anti-imperialist Camp2 raises important issues concerning the coalition of forces within the anti-capitalist movement within the ESF. It sets out, in a general way, the conditions necessary for the developing crisis to produce a different movement, one that stands in revolutionary opposition to capitalism. The Anti-imperialist Camp (AIC) is a small group of radical left and anti-imperialist organisations that were part of an anti-imperialist bloc at the ESF in Florence. Their statement begins with the arrests of militant activists, among them the leader of the southern Italian anti-globalisation movement and several anti-imperialist activists, two belonging to the Anti-imperialist Camp. They say it was no accident that the arrests were carried out after the successful mobilisation in Florence. It should be seen as a warning that the Italian ruling class will not tolerate an effective movement against the war that demands the removal of the warmongering Berlusconi government. Some of those arrested have since been released due to the solidarity movement that has sprung up all over Italy, but the charges have still not been dropped.

The anti-imperialist bloc held its own closing rally at the demonstration where ‘anti-imperialist and proletarian forces addressed the crowd’, with speakers from liberation movements from Palestine, Turkey, Kurdistan, Colombia, Sri Lanka and delegates from the anti-imperialist movement in Greece. However, they point out, while imperialism’s war drive is creating the conditions for a new and, inevitably, heterogeneous movement to be formed, the anti-imperialist, revolutionary forces are still a minority within the movement.

The political situation is still quite far away from the extreme conditions of a comprehensive and acute crisis which would allow revolutionary forces to gain the kind of support that would put them in the leadership of the movement. It is not surprising, therefore, that a combination of radical reformist, neo-Keynesian and Christian philanthropic forces are dominant in the movement. In the AIC’s view, the new movement is still the victim of the deceit implied by the so-called end of history or death of communism. Its horizon does not reach beyond the ‘humanisation of capitalism’, subordinating its savage aspects to ethical rules.

It will not be enough simply to unmask those reformist illusions. On the contrary ‘reformism’ is attractive precisely as a result of its seemingly realistic approach. It will take new historical experiences to deny credibility to their utopian dreams. We will have ‘to undergo many Argentinas and Iraqs’ until the lessons are learned. What is positive is that imperialism is being understood as underlying the Western war drive. Despite Attac (Association for a Tax on Financial Capital), the pacifists and the old union bureaucracy, the demonstration ‘emitted an anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist signal’. But the revolutionary and anti-imperialist left still remains highly fragmented.

The AIC concludes that the unity built in Porto Alegre in Brazil and reproduced in Florence is precarious, ranging as it does from ‘social democrats to inconsequential revolutionaries’. The developing imperialist war drive could, however, produce a favourable situation for revolutionary and anti-imperialist forces to break up this ‘insane alliance’. For now, the revolutionary forces have to stay within the movement and fight the pacifist and neo-reformist forces, by not only building an international bloc against the war, but also taking the side of the Arab masses against imperialist slaughter.

The anti-war movement in Britain

These issues are ever-present in the anti-war movement in Britain. That movement, dominated by a unprincipled alliance of Globalise Resistance (SWP) and the pacifist CND in the Stop the War coalition (STW), acts as a safety valve, to dissipate the anger thousands feel about imperialism’s war drive. There are large gaps between demonstrations. More than four months separates the next planned demonstration in February 2003 from the one last September, with STW organising virtually nothing of consequence in between.

In reality, every demonstration against the war or in support of the Palestinians in Britain has the same character. Time and again, we have marched though empty London streets to end up listening to the same speeches from the same ‘left’ MPs and other social democrats whose ‘principles’ never extend to breaking with the racist, imperialist, warmongering Labour Party – unsurprisingly, for it is the source of all their status and privileges.

Increasingly the crisis of capitalism, the drive to imperialist war and the devastating consequences facing the vast majority of humanity are demanding the creation of a revolutionary anti-imperialist movement against war, capitalism and imperialism. If this movement is to be built there has to be a parting of ways – a fundamental break with those social democratic and pacifist forces that are blocking the way to building such a movement.

1 See ‘May Day – a parting of ways’ in FRFI 155 June/July 2000 for this and other material.
2 See website at www.antiimperialista.org/en

Letters of protest against the arrests of anti-imperialist activists in Florence should be sent to PM Fiordalisi Domenico, c/o Procura Della Repubblica, Via Sicilia 87100, Cosenza CS, Italy.