Stopping the war machine: anti-war work in Britain

More than a decade of calling on workers to demonstrate and lobby their MPs has signally failed to stop or even slow down a single war. So what is the alternative? How should workers be furthering the anti-imperialist goal of preventing the British ruling class from massacring workers abroad in the pursuit of superprofits? [analysis contributed by Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist Leninist)]

Although the leadership of the Stop the War Coalition (StW) was stitched up on day one between the revisionist (CPB) and Trotskyite (SWP) friends of Labour, that should not blind us to the fact that many of the activists who have campaigned and taken part in local StW branch activities over the last decade were and are sincere in their desire to stop imperialist war. The problem is that there is complete confusion in their ranks about what might be the best way to achieve this aim – confusion that is exacerbated by the ineffectual activity organised by the self-appointed leaders of the anti-war movement, and the imperialist prejudices that those leaders are constantly reinforcing.

Anti-imperialism and Stop the War

When the newly-formed CPGB-ML affiliated to the Stop the War Coalition (StW) it immediately made its presence felt by putting forward the slogan ‘Victory to the Iraqi resistance’, and doing what it could to persuade activists of the importance of this stance if we want to build a really effective anti-war movement. The party printed up placards displaying that slogan for the big anti-war demo in March 2005 and put forward resolutions at several StW conferences where it argued for this to be adopted as coalition policy.

Although those resolutions were defeated, what was noticeable was that the margin of defeat got smaller each year, and the arguments used against that call to unite with those fighting against imperialist guns got progressively weaker. In the end, they boiled down to ‘Of course, we agree with you, but we’re a broad movement and can’t go upsetting people. What would the quakers say?’ Interestingly, not a single quaker has ever stood up in the presence of a party member and made this point in person! Meanwhile, the CPGB-ML was busy making itself a pole of attraction for all those who were persuaded of the correctness of its slogan.

The party had always pointed out that there are two vital planks to serious anti-war work, so in April 2009 it put forward a resolution that asked StW’s national conference to adopt a line of active non-cooperation with war crimes as coalition policy. Given the timing (this was soon after the Labour government had been so blatantly complicit in the Gaza massacre), the leadership felt compelled to support that resolution – in words at least. It was adopted with a huge majority … and then quietly shelved.

This was not particularly surprising, but it did give anti-imperialists in StW two very important advantages. First, it was clear that they were winning the argument politically, even if they did not have the organisational muscle to force implementation in practice. Second, they now had a very good weapon for exposing the leadership’s reluctance to engage in really effective anti-war work. StW’s leaders could not claim ignorance that another way was possible; nor could they pretend they were simply ‘carrying out the will of the membership’ in failing to mobilise workers to take direct anti-war action.

At the next StW national conference, the CPGB-ML pushed the point home by proposing another resolution on non-cooperation. This was in October 2010, just five months after the Gaza flotilla massacre, so again, the mood was overwhelmingly in the party’s favour. Real life had been busy proving all its arguments, and the various groups of activists who had been engaged in direct action against illegal wars were greeted as heroes by the assembled delegates.

The new resolution pointed out that non-cooperation was already coalition policy and put forward a list of concrete proposals for putting this policy into practice. The CPGB-ML suggested putting on a fundraising concert to draw attention to the plight of the Gaza protestors (imprisoned for protesting against Israel’s massacre in Gaza in 2008/9); a national speaking tour to promote awareness of conscientious objector Joe Glenton; and full support to all the direct-action activists like the Smash EDO and anti-Raytheon campaigners who were disrupting the war machine.

It also asked StW to step up its campaigning outside army recruitment centres and to oppose army stalls in schools, colleges etc; to draw attention to the media’s role in apologising for, covering up and normalising British, US and Israeli war crimes; to hound the war criminals in order to draw attention to their crimes; and, most importantly, to work inside all the trade unions and the TUC to get non-cooperation motions debated and passed at their conferences.

Only one person voted against the resolution, so clearly this approach was very popular amongst ordinary delegates.

Anti-imperialists in Britain will know from bitter experience that StW’s leaders have no interest in putting these proposals into action, but, having had the principle so soundly confirmed, the next aim of the CPGB-ML was to try to put pressure from local StW branches for implementation, and to expose the leadership’s antipathy to such action in front of those members who genuinely do want to put a stop to Britain’s imperialist wars.

This was all overshadowed in February 2011, however, when US and British imperialism selected Libya as their next victim, and Stop the War called a protest – not in support of the country under attack but in support of the CIA and MI6-backed terrorists in Benghazi!

As the moves toward war accelerated, the CPGB-ML was the only organisation in Britain that came out unequivocally in favour of Colonel Gaddafi and the Libyan masses he represented. Its members did all in their power to expose the lies of the imperialist media, and to show how various Trotskyite, revisionist and left-Labour luminaries in the leadership of StW were contributing to the propaganda offensive that was softening the British people up for a new war.

Most anti-war activists will be familiar with the political attacks the CPGB-ML made on the blatantly pro-imperialist line that StW’s leaders took at this time, and for which the party was ultimately expelled from the coalition. In fact, however, the whole episode can be seen as a victory for the party and its politics. The leaders of StW had no answer to the criticisms levelled at them, so they did everything in their power to avoid discussion of the subject. Their conduct in expelling those who criticised them only further exposed them in the eyes of honest activists, since there was a blatant lack of any kind of fair or democratic process and the party was given no opportunity to speak in its own defence.

Overall, we must view the CPGB-ML’s anti-war work so far as having been extremely successful. Despite the party’s small size, it has put forward the only correct line – and been the only party doing so. It has popularised two slogans that were previously never heard in the movement, so that others have been forced to take on aspects of its position in order to maintain any shred of credibility. (So, for example, John Rees was forced to claim that he supported the resistance at the national conference in 2010, and Andrew Murray gave a speech that was basically in support of the Syrian government at a recent picket in London.)

Building a united front

When anti-imperialists engage in anti-war work, we have only one aim, which is to create a united front between the workers of Britain and those being attacked by British imperialism abroad. We approach this from two directions:

1. By working to create sympathy for those fighting against British imperialist forces and an awareness of their moral right and duty to do so. Hence the slogan ‘Victory to the resistance’.

2. By working to offer real, material support to those fighting on the front line against our common enemy. This means building a movement of active non-cooperation amongst British workers. If we don’t make the munitions, transport the supplies, broadcast the propaganda or fight in the army, the imperialists can’t prosecute their wars. Hence the slogan ‘No cooperation with war crimes’.

British workers need to understand that these two slogans are indelibly linked with each other – and with their own struggle for emancipation from capitalist exploitation. Imperialist war is not something that happens far away and with no bearing on our lives; it is not merely ‘foreign affairs’.

British imperialism gains the strength it needs to oppress British workers by looting abroad, and it gains more strength both by dividing us from our brothers and sisters overseas (eg, dehumanising the victims of its aggression) and by scapegoating communities at home that have associations with those attacked (eg, by inciting islamophobia in order to justify wars in the Arab world and weaken workers’ opposition to such wars – as well as to encourage white workers to imagine that their enemy is Islam rather than capitalism).

In an ideal world, the CPGB-ML would simply announce the formation of an anti-imperialist anti-war front in Britain, and workers and anti-war activists would flock to its banner. Since the party’s present size and influence means that it is unable to do this in any meaningful way, however, our task is to identify the steps that will take the party in the direction of being able to launch such a front in future – that means building the party and doing everything possible to spread awareness of its analysis.

Impediments to the work of building towards an anti-imperialist front

1. Size.

There is no denying that the CPGB-ML is still a tiny force in British politics and has as yet no influence on the masses. The only solution to this is for comrades in the party to keep doing the work they are doing and training the new cadres that join them. The party’s growth is already accelerating and is bound to become exponential if they get this right.

2. The question of unity.

One of the biggest areas of confusion when carrying out anti-war work is on the subject of unity. But ‘unity’ is not an abstract concept, it can only be understood in context. The question always needs to be asked: ‘Unity with whom and for what purpose?’

While it is true that communists desire to create maximum unity, the purpose of unifying is that we should have maximum strength in the fight to overthrow imperialism. So it goes without saying that those with whom we unify must also be opposed to imperialism.

When we expose the influence of the Labour party and all its apologists in our movement, we are not scuppering the unity of the movement but striving to create the conditions for achieving it. Jeremy Corbyn, Tony Benn, Lindsay German and co want the anti-war movement to ‘unify’ with forces that represent our enemy. Communists, on the other hand, want to build unity with all those forces that oppose British imperialism, both at home and abroad.

The way forward

1. To continue to use CPGB-ML publications and literature to put forward a correct analysis of the cause of imperialist wars as well as their solution.

This analysis is not available elsewhere, and nor is any other organisation putting forward a coherent programme for effective anti-war work. Therefore, it is vitally important that we should do our utmost to spread the party’s influence by selling its papers, giving out its leaflets and forwarding links to its articles online. These articles should be thoroughly studied and discussed, so that as many activists as possible have a thorough understanding of the issues and are able to spread the ideas further into the movement.

2. To continue to work within Stop the War to influence as many decent activists as possible and expose the bankrupt leadership in their eyes.

Whether in or out of the CPGB-ML, anti-war activists should continue to attend StW branch meetings and national conferences, and to participate in local and national demonstrations. We should always have our own leaflets and papers to put forward at these events, and be prepared to raise the questions that the leadership are trying to avoid (eg, Syria).

By continuing to put pressure on the leadership we will also help to expose and exacerbate the differences between those leaders. It is clear that some of them are feeling quite uncomfortable about their organisation’s complicity in the wars on Libya and Syria – and in all probability some are facing difficult questions from members within their various organisations.

3. To counterpose the false calls for ‘unity’ with the imperialists’ agents in our movement with a call for unity with those fighting British imperialism abroad.

We must never be afraid to defend the right of those attacked to fight back, or to defend the chosen leaders of a people under attack, no matter how demonised and vilified those leaders are in the mainstream capitalist media.

4. To continue to build up contact between all those anti-war activists who are disillusioned with Stop the War’s increasing bankruptcy and irrelevance and to hold independent public meetings against war.

For example, public meetings have already been held in Bristol and Birmingham, where increasing numbers of independent activists are being attracted towards the CPGB-ML’s line.

5. To build on such meetings by organising joint anti-war activities with independent activists and friendly organisations.

For example, Bristol and Birmingham comrades have mobilised sympathetic forces in their areas and organised counter-demonstrations exposing the pro-imperialist complicity of those who claim to ‘support the Syrian people’ by calling for the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad and his government.

6. To identify opportunities for speaking to workers who are involved in the war machine in order to explain to them the necessity of working in their unions for a policy of collective non-cooperation.

This could mean leafleting at a nearby arms factory, or an army recruitment centre, or it could take the form of setting up a stall at the RMT, Unison, Bectu, NUJ etc union conferences. Comrades who are members of relevant unions should propose non-cooperation motions to conference.

Much of the work listed above is already being carried out in some areas. Our task is to systematise it and make it central to the activity of all anti-imperialist activists. Even where no party branch exists, every worker has it within his/her power to carry out one or more of the suggested activities on a regular basis – selling papers and attending local StW branch meetings, for example, is a good way to create the foundations for other work. Where two or more members are active together, they might try and supplement this work with finding some part of the war machine to target in their local area. Its tentacles are everywhere!

What activists can do depends on their availability and their concrete situation – whether they are alone or with others, whether they have contacts with union members or proximity to a recruiting centre or transport depot, for example – but we can all do something to increase the influence of anti-imperialist politics in the anti-war movement. We need to spread awareness of the correct analysis of the CPGB-ML, and we need to promote its concrete programme in order to persuade British workers not only of the need but of their real power to put a stop to imperialist war.