Half a Million March in Support of Palestine and Iraq

On 28 September this year, the largest anti-war demonstration in a generation, and possibly since the thirties, took place in central London under the dual slogans of ‘Don’t attack Iraq’ and ‘Freedom for Palestine’. Reporters and organisers put the numbers between 300,000 and 450,000, while the police, realising that their initial piece of routine misinformation announcing the presence of 50,000 marchers was laughably incompatible with the truth, reported grudgingly that perhaps ‘as many as’ 150,000 people had taken part, a figure widely repeated in the more rabidly right-wing press such as The Telegraph, etc.

In fact, if we add to the crush on the Embankment, which took four hours to clear and spilled out into parallel marches in the Strand, the fact that weight of marchers meant that many took a staggering four-five hours to complete the route, it becomes clear that the march was far larger than anything the anti-war movement has seen in recent times – the largest demonstration against the war in Afghanistan assembled perhaps as many as 150,000. Taking into account the number of people who either dropped out half way or went straight to Hyde Park to avoid the crush leads us to the conclusion that well over 400,000, and perhaps as many as half a million, protestors turned out to voice their opposition to British imperialism’s bloodthirsty antics in the Middle East.

By way of a contrast, after the previous weekend’s Countryside Alliance march, also in London, the police had no problems in concurring with the organisers that there had indeed been 400,000 demonstrators present. Two years in preparation, with a budget of £1m and free publicity in every newspaper and television station for months in advance, the CA march even had its own storyline in long-running BBC Radio 4 soap, The Archers. Taking the BBC at its word regarding the fabled ‘impartiality’ of that institution, is it possible we will soon be treated to a storyline in Eastenders depicting Pauline’s support for the anti-war movement? Perhaps police brutality towards working class and ethnic communities will get an airing in the next episode of Casualty? With so much backing, it is perfectly possible that 400,000 people did turn up to the CA march, but it is equally possible that the figures were optimistically inflated by the same benign forces that take such care to have every anti-imperialist turnout’s figures drastically reduced.

The Iraq/Palestine march, by contrast, had a tiny budget and barely a mention in the bourgeois press until the week beforehand, when, perhaps realising it was going to be too important to ignore, several papers ran articles, mostly referring to it in the headlines as a CND-backed march against war in Iraq. It took a little more digging through the back pages of the broadsheets to find out that in fact the demonstration was held jointly by the Muslim Association of Britain and the Stop the War coalition under the slogans listed above.

In fact, the march was originally called several months before by the Muslim Association of Britain. It was then billed as a ‘Million man march for Palestine’ and timed to mark the second anniversary of the Al-Aqsa intifada, the Palestinian people’s heroic resistance to the illegal, fascistic occupation of their homeland by Zionist Israel. Despite being declared illegal since its inception in 1967 by a whole raft of UN resolutions, the Israeli occupation of Palestine recently marked its 35th anniversary, making it the longest such occupation in modern history. Meanwhile, the steadfast resistance of the Palestinians in the face of one of the best-equipped modern armies on the planet has inspired the oppressed and exploited masses around the world and set the Middle East ablaze in such a ferment of nationalist and anti-imperialist feeling that there is not a single country in the region that can any longer be considered safe for US troops.

With the growing threat of war against Iraq, the US’ biggest target in the region and repository of massive untapped oil reserves, the march became a focus of anti-war activity and broad support for the demonised peoples of the Middle East, whose only real crime is that they have the misfortune to live in an area rich with oil, the staple diet of modern imperialist industry and of the imperialist war machines.

The breadth of support was reflected in the make-up of the demonstrators, who came from all corners of the country. A large proportion, but by no means all of the march, came from newly-militant Muslim communities. Added to the usual array of pacifist, ‘left’ Labour and Trotskyite organisations were the banners of SLP constituencies, student and trade unions, anti-globalisation and solidarity organisations, and even some international contingents, such as that of the Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB). On top of this was a healthy influx of ‘middle England’ – Guardian-reading liberals whose growing sympathy for the people of the Middle East, while still confined within respectable bourgeois limits, sees the coming conflict as a war too far.

As with previous anti-war marches, although there were plenty of officers in riot gear hidden away down the side streets, the visible police presence was practically non-existent. There are two possible reasons for this. First, with so many concerned middle class citizens descending on London to demonstrate, many for the first time in their lives, it probably suited the state to let them continue in their innocent belief that they are free to exercise their democratic rights without interference, rather than subjecting them to a rude awakening and lesson in state repression at the hands of the army of ‘storm troopers’ that greets most working class and militant demonstrations. Second, and most importantly, with such a tame leadership of Labour ‘lefts’ and Trotskyites, the Labour government knew perfectly well it had nothing to fear and everything to gain from allowing the marchers to let off a little steam. Nothing was likely to come from the platform that would give the least cause for concern to the warmongers in Whitehall. After all, most of them rely, directly or indirectly, on the Labour party for their careers and positions.

Despite this, though, the propaganda machine for British and US imperialism is not having such a smooth ride as the governments of those countries might have hoped. One by-product of the 11 September attacks last year is that many people in the imperialist countries have been forced to become aware of the interconnectedness of the Palestinian struggle, Arab nationalism in general and imperialist wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in particular. More and more often it is possible to hear the opinion, long held by this paper and scoffed at by most of the so-called ‘left’ in this country, that the policies of US and British imperialism in the Middle East have nothing to do with democracy, freedom, etc and everything to do with domination and control of the region’s oil by British and US oil corporations.

So blatant has this fact become that even the SWP have been forced to talk about ‘imperialism’, a term that until recently was about as welcome in Trotskyite circles as a portrait of Stalin. Even respectable bourgeois commentators now speak openly about US imperial ambitions, although few are so keen to point to the equivalent ambitions of British or European imperialism.

This widespread awakening of consciousness has pushed the Labour ‘left’, Trotskyite and revisionist fraternity into ever more radical sounding terminology, but their words bear little or no resemblance to their deeds. Tony Benn, lauded as some kind of left wing hero despite being a lifelong Labour MP, finds it politic not to mention his impeccable imperialist credentials as part of previous Labour governments, when (to cite just one example) he was responsible for supplying arms to the brutal Suharto regime in Indonesia. A far cry from the pacifist and cosy ‘Christian socialist’ image he likes to portray.

Ken Livingstone, that ‘Luftwaffe liberal’ who left the Labour party not over ideological differences but for reasons of rank careerism, was an enthusiastic member of the Labour Party that bombed tiny Yugoslavia into submission in 1999. Alice Mahon, another Labour MP with a ‘conscience’ told the assembled listeners: “I have been a lifelong Labour Party member and I am deeply ashamed at its leaders who believe that their first duty is to Bush.” Unfortunately, along with all the other Labour MPs who regularly voice their ‘opposition’ to Labour’s imperialist brigandage (George Galloway, Jeremy Corbyn, et al), the latest crimes against humanity are not quite enough to divide these ‘dissidents’ from their pay cheques. It is left for the casual bystander to wonder how many millions must die in Afghanistan, Congo, Palestine, Iraq, Nepal, Colombia, Sierra Leone, etc, etc before the consciences of these worthies really start to nag? What heinous crimes are there against the workers of Britain or the oppressed of the world that their beloved Labour party has not yet committed?

Several trade union leaders spoke from the platform, and while their statements in support of Iraq and Palestine were perfectly laudable, not one of them called for their members to take action against the war crimes of the British government. In fact the whole question of the working class and their power to stop the war was quietly overlooked. In 150 years of demonstrations and petitions, pressure of public opinion has never forced a change in government policy unless it was combined with real physical leverage. Such leverage is not possessed by MPs and concerned liberals, but by the workers who manufacture the armaments and load the planes and ships that send them to their destination. One shining example of such action is that taken by workers on the Clyde and other industrial centres in Britain who effectively put an end to Britain’s war of interference against the fledgling Russian Soviet Republic by refusing to load or man the warships.

As the global economy plunges ever deeper into recession, inter-imperialist rivalries and contradictions are coming more and more to the fore. This to some extent explains the unusually high coverage of September’s demonstration in the media, for despite Tony Blair’s posturing, the British ruling class is by no means unified on the question of war with Iraq. While those involved in the business of oil and armaments feel that their interests will be best served by participating in America’s war and dividing the projected spoils, there are others who see their future as part of the rising EU imperialist bloc. The EU, with Chancellor Schroeder at the helm, is most decidedly against the war, not because of any great love for peace and justice, but because the European bourgeoisie has no desire to see the US in complete control of all the world’s oil and thus able to hold its rival imperialists to ransom. Germany needs oil to run its industry and war machinery every bit as much as the US does, and it has no wish to see the US’ hand on the tap.

If the anti-war movement is to fulfil its duty it must take full advantage of all the opportunities availed by the increasing inter-imperialist contradictions. It must also take its message beyond the liberal intellectuals and pressure groups to the working class of Britain, showing them that those who would perpetrate war abroad are the same that are perpetrating attacks at home and that in allowing ‘our’ government to wage imperialist wars with impunity, we are allowing our own enemies to strengthen themselves for further attacks on the workers of Britain.

While the Trotskyite and liberal left are congratulating themselves on the huge turnout of last month’s demonstration, it behoves us to understand that such actions will be essentially impotent while they remain an end in themselves. It is worth remembering that on 2 August 1914, just two days before the outbreak of the First World War, another massive anti-war demonstration congregated in central London. From the platform a host of Labour and trade union worthies denounced the coming war as an imperialist crime that workers should do everything in their power to sabotage. Within weeks, the majority of that leadership had remembered which side its bread was buttered and come onside for the war, voting in Parliament for war credits, joining the coalition government and acting as a most enthusiastic recruiting sergeant in what it had suddenly discovered to be a great ‘patriotic’ cause.

With opportunism as rife today as it was then in the working class movement, there is every likelihood that the current anti-war leadership will capitulate as soon as war actually breaks out. It remains the job of those who sincerely desire peace to expose the bankruptcy of that leadership and explain to the British people that it is imperialism itself that creates war, in its never-ending quest after maximum profit, avenues of investment, and sources of raw materials and markets, and in order to really put an end to the bloodshed and suffering of war, we must first put an end to imperialism.