Reflections on the anti-war movement

The pitiful response to the war on Libya—not one major national demonstration from the start of bombing in March to the fall of Tripoli in August—confirms that the anti-war movement, which once mobilised so many against the invasion of Iraq, is now dead. For those of us who have been activists in this movement from the beginning, this is a painful admission. Trying to analyse it in the form in which it exists today is of limited benefit, as its social significance is almost zero. However, it was a different story back in 2003. It is important to study the movement as it was at its height, so as to learn whatever lessons we can. The following is offered as a contribution to this.

From 2002 to 2004 the anti-war movement seemed to become a significant player in national politics. Every town, every village, every college seemed to have an anti-war group. The big national mobilisations were built on the back of thousands of street stalls, public meetings, local demonstrations, and other events. The first obvious question we can ask is why it became so big. Why did the attack on Iraq precipitate such a wave of protest when the attack on Yugoslavia had not? Probably because it was not just about Iraq. In the case of Yugoslavia, Labour was still fresh in office after 18 years of Conservative government. By the time it came to Iraq four years later, not only was the context different because of the aggressively militarist policies being pursued by the US and British governments in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, but there was also a sense of disillusionment across a broad front. It was the fifth time in six years that British military might was being unleashed overseas. People were angry about restrictions on civil liberties—ID cards, inclusion of innocent people in the DNA database, etc.—as well as about growing levels of official racism, tuition fees, and the increasing spread of unbridled market relations into health and education. Most of these were bound up in one way or another with the war, and for that reason opposition to it managed to draw all these issues and those concerned with them together. The anti-war movement became the channel through which a variety of specific pent-up grievances and more generalised discontent were expressed.

The movement failed to stop the war—and that was not the result of deficiencies in its leadership. It is true there were mistakes. Some slogans were ill-thought out ("Troops home by Christmas"), and one could not help but cringe when the anti-war case was presented in the media in terms of opinion poll figures rather than on its own merits. And at times the movement seemed too focused on the Middle East, worrying obsessively about a potential invasion of Iran which didn't happen and ignoring the actual invasion and ongoing occupation of Haiti. We must all take our appropriate share of the responsibility for these errors. But the most important fact is that, prior to the invasion of Iraq, the movement was essentially correct on all important questions of slogans and tactics. It avoided seductive overtures, either from the right (e.g. “Give the arms inspectors more time”) or from the left ("Victory to Iraq"). By making "Don't attack Iraq" the central slogan, the movement laid the basis for building the biggest and broadest possible campaign—which it went on to do. It is a testament to the leadership of the movement that so many diverse strands of opinion—pacifists, liberals, leftists, religious groups, environmentalists and others, as well as the completely general public—felt able to remain part of it and did not organise separate demonstrations. And that sufficient funds were raised to produce the enormous quantities of leaflets, posters, badges, stickers, placards, and other campaigning materials which were essential to the movement.

In retrospect it seems unlikely that there was much chance of stopping the war. All kinds of strategies were advanced at the time. Some people advocated the blind alley of "direct action". Others wanted to emulate the velvet or orange (or whatever colour, fabric, or fruit) "revolutions" in vogue at the time in former Soviet republics—presumably not realising that these were imperialist projects and had been resourced accordingly. Others argued that a general strike would do the trick—which may well have been the case; but it would have been difficult to wish one into existence. There were attempts to promote inter-faith dialogue, or so-called alternatives to war. The former only makes sense if one believes the Iraq war was the result of some kind of misunderstanding between faiths, and the latter only if one believes its aims were something to be desired. The brutal truth we must face is that all the other strategies which were suggested would have been less effective than the ones the movement actually used, and the ones which the movement actually used were not good enough.

There were certainly some genuine achievements: millions of people were drawn into taking political action, many for the first time in their lives. The date of the largest demonstration, 15 February 2003, will become a reference point in the history of progressive struggles. Serious questions were forced onto the political agenda, about the nature of government, of democracy and of decision-making. However, it would not be unreasonable to expect that the experience would have educated large numbers of people: that thousands would have become politically-aware activists with an understanding of the way society works and a desire and commitment to change it. The movement against the Viet Nam war produced a whole generation of such people, and left a lasting impression on the mass culture industry. In contrast, there is no "Iraq generation". There are no memorable protest songs or movies, no iconic posters, no books of note. The movement was huge but ephemeral, lacking the minimal understanding of imperialism which would have served as a backbone. To a very great extent, the anti-war movement failed to change the consciousness of the people who became involved with it. It has left barely a trace of its former existence.

It is difficult to criticise the leadership for this: in a single-issue campaign, the main priority of those at the top has to be to keep the movement as large as possible and as united as possible, without making concessions which would gut it of its content. The task of educating the movement about imperialism must mainly be handled by rank-and-file activists. A major reason for the movement's low level of consciousness was the small number of activists. The demonstrations were the biggest mass mobilisations in British history, but they came at a time when the left was numerically, organisationally and programmatically the weakest it had been for a long time. The resources for educating the movement simply didn't exist. Rather than inspiring a new generation of activists, the huge demonstrations had an ultimately demobilising effect—if people feel that even the biggest demonstrations fail to achieve anything, it makes them more reluctant to go on further demonstrations.

The anti-war movement was not led by people with church backgrounds, or by pacifists, but by the far left. Many figures in the movement, including at the very top, were prominent leaders of left organisations. Organisations of the left were centrally involved in building and leading branches of the movement at local level. Yet none of the groups involved managed to recruit members as a result. Imagine if in another European country a left-wing organisation of, say, 2,000 members led a broad, popular, progressive campaign which mobilised hundreds of thousands of people over a period of months or years. No matter how poor its politics, how incompetent its leaders, how inept its members, it is almost beyond belief that it wouldn’t at least double or triple in size. It could not possibly not grow. Yet that is what has happened here. And it is not just the anti-war movement: the left failed to grow in significant numbers as a result of the movement against the poll tax or the movement around the miners' strike. So consistently and so frequently does the left fail to grow when conditions are favourable that it cannot be ascribed either to bad luck, or to bad leadership, or to pressure from the Establishment.

There is clearly something deeply unattractive about the far left in Britain today—and it is worth trying to identify what that is. The left is weak and organisationally fragmented. This leads to periodic calls for left unity—based on the belief that the large number of groups is itself an obstacle to recruitment, growth, and progress. Such calls are misplaced: fragmentation is not the cause of failure, but its consequence. There are two real problems. The left catastrophically failed to articulate, generalise, or give expression to the feeling of the millions who were mobilised. For these millions—whether they consciously realised it or not—were certainly feeling something for that brief historical moment. The contextual reasons have already been suggested: Iraq being the latest in what seemed like a never-ending series of wars, accumulated grievances over the further dismantling of social services, and so on. It was a vague feeling of unease, a sense that all was not well with the world—a subconscious yearning for something other than that which was on offer. But nothing that any section of the left had to say in 2003 either caught that mood or addressed it. That was a real failure on our part.

The other problem we have is that the left serves no discernible function. It has no plan, perspective, strategy, or objective, other than to perpetuate its own existence. No left group in Britain today is perceived as serious, because no left group has a perspective of one day acquiring state power. The truth is that for almost everybody on the left politics is merely a hobby and, as hobbies go, an exceptionally unrewarding one. It is no wonder that nobody joins.

This relates to the final major lesson of the anti-war movement, and the obvious question: if the anti-war movement could never have stopped the war, what could? There is a historical parallel with events in the mid-19th century. Before that time, the traditional way of trying to influence government policy was through petitions. The Chartists organised several enormous petitions, with millions of signatures. These were ignored—showing that petitions didn’t work. Since then petitions have retained a place in the armoury of political campaigning, but are no longer the main form of activity. Subsequently, the primary method of trying to exert pressure on authority has been the demonstration. The anti-war movement organised a series of enormous demonstrations, which were ultimately ignored—showing that, if the issue is something of sufficient importance to the ruling class, demonstrations don't work. This is unpalatable but in practice widely—although not always consciously—acknowledged. Before 15 February 2003, it was always possible for us to kid ourselves that if only we'd managed to get more people on a particular demonstration, if only we'd worked a bit harder, that would have made the difference. We now have no excuse for this particular belief: all the more so because the Establishment will also have noted the same fact. It could not have known for certain that it could hold firm in the face of demonstrations of millions of people. Now it knows it can, and in future it will be a lot more confident in the face of similar—or bigger—mobilisations.

As for the future, we will have to come up with new forms of organisation and new forms of struggle, which go beyond demonstrations in the same way demonstrations go beyond petitions. A demonstration is a more advanced form of struggle than a petition—firstly because it involves more active involvement of the participants and secondly because people have to be physically mobilised for a demonstration, giving it a dynamic which is potentially unpredictable. The new organisational forms we need have to involve even more active participation and to have an even more unpredictable dynamic. As part of this, we need to understand the importance of state power as a strategic horizon. The anti-war movement also advanced the concept of People’s Assemblies. The events that were organised under that label were, in truth, merely conferences of the movement. But the slogan itself hints at new organisational forms. Doing for the demonstration what the Chartists did for the petition, as well as pointing—albeit indirectly—to the need for something better and the need to challenge for state power, is the true, lasting, historic legacy of the anti-war movement.


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