Issue nnn of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published Month Year Copyright © Socialist Review

Capitalism and war

The movement stays on the streets

Anger against the war and global capitalism has produced the biggest protest movement in decades. Lindsey German examines why

The danger of war has built a new resistance to it--and nowhere more so than in Britain. Two demonstrations--one of 50,000, the second of 100,000--in the space of a month, huge meetings around the country, coaches booked for demonstrations from the most unlikely towns. There is a revival of old activism--people speak of the biggest meetings in their town since the miners' strike, and demonstrators say that these are the largest protests of any sort for nearly a decade. And you have to go back nearly 20 years to see bigger peace protests in the great CND marches against cruise missiles, and more than 30 to see a bigger anti-war demonstration.

Part of the huge demonstration that took place in London last month
Part of the huge demonstration that took place in London last month

But there is also the birth of new activism, and the combination of the two shows the potential to build a real mass movement. We have seen this before in recent years. The demonstration against the WTO in Seattle, just two years ago, famously united the 'Teamsters and turtles'. Every big anti-capitalist protest since then--in Prague, Washington, Nice, Quebec, Gothenburg and Genoa--brought together young and old, a diverse mixture of campaigners of different backgrounds and races, united against the ravages of the system. The anti-war movement in Britain has many of the features of these anti-capitalist protests, overlaid with two other decisive factors. One is the existence of large black and Asian populations in Britain who have become increasingly vociferous at the racism and injustice which they face. The other is the general disaffection with the Blair government which has helped to create a militant minority highly sceptical of the claims that this is a war for civilisation and democracy.

So far this has been one of the biggest campaigns in Europe, with a much higher level of activism than in countries such as France. How do we explain it ? The crucial question is not simply that of the existence of the large number of Muslims in this country, important though that has been to building the Stop the War Coalition. It is also a question of the direction which the anti-war movement has taken and the politics it has adopted. Right from the outset we kept the slogans simple: stop the war, and opposition to the racist backlash and attacks on civil liberties. We rejected linking the stop the war slogan to one for ending terrorism--while our statement of aims condemned 11 September, we thought making this a campaigning slogan would be too divisive, since the definition of terrorism is widely disputed and has in recent years included those such as Nelson Mandela. We also rejected slogans which could be construed as anti-Muslim, since we regarded it as vital to win Muslim organisations and individuals to back the coalition. The slogans meant that we could unite the maximum number, so we didn't have separate campaigners of Muslims, or the left, or the peace activists.

Motives of the war

This enabled the coalition to relate to the broader political discontent in Britain which meant that the Blair government was unable to simply create a consensus behind it following the events of 11 September. Right from the beginning there was massive questioning of the motives of the 'war against terrorism'. The 2,000-strong launch meeting of the coalition in central London demonstrated that. It is always impossible to calculate exactly why people begin to think in a particular way, or to decide to act rather than to remain silent or passive. But in Britain the political revival of the working class movement in recent years has been much more rapid than its organisational revival. The level of knowledge and understanding among the people who have become involved in the anti-capitalist movement is, on average, extremely high. The fight against privatisation is not just fuelled by the knowledge and inclinations of the workers in threatened industries but by books such as George Monbiot's Captive State, which demonstrates the links between government, private capital and the erosion of democracy. The cumulative effects of the decline of Old Labourism, the rise of Blairism, the disillusionment in Labour's first term, the failure of the trade union leaders to express that opposition, the mass working class abstention in last June's election and the rise of the Socialist Alliance, have all added a sharper aspect to any protest movement against this government.

There has also been the history of imperialist interventions in the past decades. Three major imperialist wars, three sets of bombing, three lots of lies about this being the war which will solve all the problems. The Balkans and Iraq remain devastated. So one of the strands of thinking in building up this movement has been a strong distrust of any such intervention and a strong anti-imperialist sentiment among many.

The other important component of the anti-war movement has been its connection with the anti-capitalist movement. Shortly before the bombing of Afghanistan took place, Globalise Resistance organised a London conference and a demonstration at the Labour Party conference in Brighton, also sponsored by the Green Party and the Socialist Alliance. Neither was a mass event, but they helped organise the anti-capitalist movement towards an anti-war orientation. The anti-capitalist movement in Britain has never reached the size of those in many other countries but it too has become more politicised, and this was reflected in the way that there was little argument among most anti-capitalists about being anti-war.

Polarisation of the movement

The anti-capitalist movement has steadily been developing politically--a development which itself reached its peak after Genoa, which led to a polarisation of the movement. The best responses were that the movement should not be criminalised, that it should stay on the streets and refuse to be intimidated, and that the movement should broaden socially to include organised workers. These people were well equipped to deal with the challenge of the war on terrorism, those who retreated after Genoa were much less well equipped. So after 11 September some US anti-capitalist groups decided to abandon proposed actions as a result of the bombing. But many others continued, and tried to turn their vision towards anti-war activity as well.

It has surprised a number of commentators that the anti-capitalist movement has not collapsed. They try to denounce it and the anti-war movement as 'anti-American' whereas of course it has no objections to Americans as such, only to its government and business policies. Even more surprising to these commentators is their inability to co-opt the movement into a simple reform strategy. Part of the critique of global capital is a critique of the social democratic leaders such as those in Italy who invited the G8 summit to Genoa in the first place, or those like Tony Blair who are enthusiastic supporters of the free market. This does not mean that the anti-capitalist movement cannot have elements within it who want reform of the system-far from it. But within the movement there is a much stronger critique of the system. After Genoa, Naomi Klein's idea of just going round the state no longer has such appeal.

A recent Demos booklet by John Lloyd, The Protest Ethic, shows the gulf between the average anti-capitalist protester and those like Lloyd who wish to co-opt the movement for social democracy. Lloyd argues that 'The only political grouping now using the tactics developed by the global movements--sporadic use of violence and oppositionism through uncontrollable and unpredictable networks--is Bin Laden's Al-Qaida. In taking the destructive potential of such tactics and strategies to a far more lethal extreme, they have shown that the line of attack developed by the global movements cannot replace the current system of world governance' (p67).

So protests against capitalism are lumped in with the suicide hijacking of the twin towers, and Bin Laden is cited as proof that no one could run the world better than the people who are doing so at the moment! Luckily the level of thought and debate inside the anti-capitalist movement is rather higher than Lloyd gives it credit for. So is the level of politics, because since Genoa there has been a deepening of understanding about the links between capitalism and war.

Anti-capitalism has moved far beyond the heartlands of the major powers. The conference held in Beirut, Lebanon, to coincide with the WTO round in Doha at the beginning of November demonstrates the identification of many in areas such as the Middle East with the demonstrations in Genoa and the spirit of protest against the system. The conference was a very exciting development, pointing a way out of the nationalist or Stalinist solutions which have been for so long the only major options on offer in the region and heralding the development of a new young movement which can help to build a new left. Those of us from Britain who argued the connection between capitalism, imperialism and war were very well received and we were able to debate with activists from a number of Middle Eastern and Asian countries on a range of issues from tourism and its effect on countries such as India, to privatisation which is heralded as the great hope of the future in the region.

Further connections between anti-capitalism, militarism, war and imperialism will be made at the next major demonstration at the EU summit in Brussels this month. The success of the anti-war movement in Britain has to be built on--both by extending and deepening the movement here, and by making the international links which can put increasing pressure on our rulers. Here, the question of politics is central. The British movement has so far managed to avoid the worst narrow sectarianism which besets many campaigns. The socialist component has been crucial in developing the movement in certain ways and bringing different strands together. The developing movements are building a new left as well. Strengthening the organised working class participation in the movements, and strengthening the weight of socialists within the movements, can only help shift the balance of forces more decisively in our favour.

  • Lindsey German is the convenor of the Stop the War Coalition

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