A Global Anti-War Movement

Socialist View Spring 2003

by Michael O'Brien, Socialist Party representative on the Irish Anti-War Movement steering committee

ON 15 February, the international day of protest against the war, we witnessed the biggest anti war demonstrations in history. Globally, it was the biggest anti war manifestation since the international protests organised by the Labour and Social Democratic parties in the run up to the First World War.

While recent wars in the Gulf, Serbia and Afghanistan were sold to the broad mass of people in the West as necessary to take on despots and ethnic cleansing, the credibility gap facing Bush, Blair and Co over this war has meant that demonstrations globally have already involved millions of people before any ground invasion has even begun. The effect of sanctions on the civilian population of Iraq alongside pure disbelief that the Saddam Hussein regime poses a "clear and present threat" to the West has pushed a broader than usual strata of society into the anti war camp.

In the UK, no other issue has seen Blair so isolated, not just in terms of public opposition to war in general but even within his own cabinet on the question of support a US led war without UN approval. Against the backdrop of cuts in education and local authority services, many are looking askance at the diversion of millions of pounds into the war effort. This has driven many union leaders into an anti war position, although many share the same flawed view as the 100 or so "anti war" Labour MPs, that a UN sanctioned war would be acceptable. The scale of the demonstrations in Britain can also be attributed to the mass mobilisation of the muslim community.

Whereas in the past, many people in the South of Ireland would have regarded such wars as remote events, the use of Shannon Airport by the US military along with the South's general drift towards military alliances and its recent participation on the UN Security Council makes it an accessory to this war for oil. A feature of many people coming around the anti war movement, particularly in the South, is their disgust with the legal breaches of neutrality and the marginalisation of the UN.

Socialists would not subscribe to the notion of neutrality, insofar as it is necessary to take sides in conflicts from the point of view of what serves the interests of ordinary working people and poor. However we recognise that the idea of Irish "neutrality" being breached that has spurred many into anti war activity derives more from an opposition to Southern Ireland participating in military alliances. While legal breaches of neutrality are an avenue that can be pursued by anti-war TDs in the Dil, it will be more useful to highlight how dispensable the constitution is for the Southern Irish establishment when imperialist interests are at stake. Parliamentary debates on the war in Iraq will be a mere side-show compared to what will take place on the streets around the world if and when war begins.

United Nations

As for the UN, its support for sanctions in Iraq, causing the deaths of over a million ordinary Iraqis, has opened the eyes of many. It is now hard to believe that many on the anti war side argued in favour of sanctions back in the early nineties as a peaceful alternative to war. In reality, they have proven to be the biggest weapon of mass destruction. Opposition to war at UN level, if anything, is a pale reflection of the pressures building up from below in many countries. Blair is the exception on this point. The scale of the military build up alongside Blair's statement that the opposition of individual countries at Security Council level will not be regarded as an impediment to war demonstrates to all what a sham the UN is and that the argument of some for a "strong UN" is meaningless.

The international demonstrations on 15 February served as an event through which those that, until now, have passively opposed war can now make their opposition active. For those already moving into activity for the first time, it is an opportunity to become an organiser for the event by using anti war material and making the arguments in their workplace, homes, schools and colleges.

The questions now posed are where to next after 15 February for the anti war movement globally? What will it take to seriously impede the war effort?

Direct action or mass action

The mass turnout on 15 February provides a conclusive answer to the so called "direct action versus mass action debate" which has been played out over the last few months among anti war activists. The view taken by anarchist influenced groups is essentially that mass demonstrations, particularly in capital cities are useless and that we should instead focus on high profile gestures such as occupying airport runways or damaging planes as has taken place at Shannon Airport for example.

Socialists don't see direct and mass action as mutually exclusive. For instance, Eoin Dubsky breaching the fence at Shannon and spray painting a war plane proved invaluable in focusing attention on the issue of the US military presence. Likewise, the publicity received by the peace camp in the run up to the 18 January demonstration in Shannon contributed to the mass turnout on the day itself.

The Socialist Party would argue for the political pressure of a mass movement to be coupled with direct action.

When two train drivers in Motherwell, Scotland, refused to transport munitions, they did so knowing that their union Aslef had an official anti war policy and participated on the steering committee of the Stop the War Coalition in Britain. They would have been confident of public support which manifested itself in opinion polls but more importantly mass demonstrations including the 400,000 that turned out in London last September. The authorities in Britain are so shaken by this and afraid that it will catch on that they officially denied any knowledge of the incident at all! This is a back handed admission that the people of Britain and the organised working class in particular are with the two train drivers.

Industrial action to impede the war is vital. Workers who personally object to facilitating the war need to feel that they are not isolated but have support from both their union and the public. This begins by arguing for an anti war policy with the trade unions at every level from the local branch right up to the executives of the various unions. In the South, the Irish Examiner newspaper and the Morning Ireland radio programme reported on the mood for a boycott of the US warplanes amongst sections of the Shannon Airport work force. However, when the question of a boycott was put to SIPTU leader Joe O'Flynn he denied any official approach being made to the union but that it was union policy to oppose war unless it had UN backing! Hardly an encouraging answer from the point of view of the workers. They will derive encouragement from further mass turnouts in Shannon and Dublin but the trade unions in the South have the power to stop the US war planes from using Shannon Airport and the trade unions in Britain have the power to severely hamper and even stop the shipment of arms and military equipment to Iraq.

Mass mobilisations have another benefit in the effect they can have on the morale in the ranks of the armies. This was a factor in the collapse of the US war effort in Vietnam. In the early stages of the war before the anti war movement took off, individual US soldiers opposed to being in Vietnam felt isolated and were more likely to shot themselves than rebel against their officers. Later on as the death toll mounted and opposition in the US grew, the feeling of isolation was dispelled and organised opposition grew in the ranks of the army with anti war soldiers undermining the war effort from within.

Mass opposition to the war within the US and Britain has already reached a pitch that compares well with the days of Vietnam. In Germany and France mass opposition is a serious impediment to even sending large-scale troops. That is not to say that the mood against war will grow and grow without opposition. For example the Bush and Blair regimes could launch the war and go on a propaganda offensive at home along the lines of "whatever your misgivings about the war it has now begun and don't be letting our brave men and women on the ground down". While this may have a temporary effect on a layer within the anti war movement, the death toll on both sides and the background of cutbacks in public services and the diversion of resources into the war will ultimately lead to a growth of opposition.

"War on terror"

With that in mind, Bush and Blair want a quick victory in Iraq to cut across the movement against the war. While we can't be sure how long a war will last, there is a serious question mark over Bush's capacity to continue the "war on terror" elsewhere post Iraq as was his administration's expressed intention in the immediate aftermath of 11 September. The limits to this "war on terror" can be attributed in part to the scale the anti war movement has reached.

Naturally, further terrorist attacks in the West are more likely if a war does take place and this poses a question for the anti war movements. It just takes one attack to put the question on the top of the news agenda and the minds of ordinary people. The overwhelming majority of people in the West are opposed to terrorism, the likes of which we have seen in New York and Bali. If terrorist attacks occur the pro war lobby and their friends in the media will attempt to label the anti war movement as soft on terrorism. If the anti war movement in the West is to galvanise behind it the broad mass of the population who fear terror attacks then this question must be addressed. In the event of terrorist attacks by organisations such as Al Qaida, the Socialist Party will argue that the anti war movement must take up and answer this issue.

A debate around this question has already taken place within the Stop the War Coalition in Britain. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in particular, argued against taking up the question of terrorism. The SWP argues that to incorporate opposition to terrorism into the campaign's propaganda would be putting terrorist groups on the same footing as US and British imperialists. Furthermore, they argue that a stated opposition to terror will prevent the anti war movement from mobilising the Muslim community! Apart from the patronising content to this argument, it is also dishonest. Socialists should not duck any questions that arise amongst the working class. If terrorist attacks occur, then they must be taken up by the anti war movement. Socialists need to explain the conditions of economic and political oppression which give rise to terrorism but also need to point out clearly that terrorism does not undermine imperialism. In fact, it has the opposite effect of strengthening it. The September 11th attacks have been used as a smokescreen by US Imperialism to impose its will militarily around the globe, and is being used as a cover for its war for oil in Iraq. People in general who are opposed to the war have the sophistication necessary to see that opposing these terrorist acts does not take away from the main responsibility for instability in the Arab world which lies with global capitalism and local despots.

In the Arab world, a key feature of the anti war movement is the need to overthrow the pro US rulers and fight for democratic demands. These points were taken up in the Cairo declaration, which was produced in the wake of a gathering of anti war and anti globalisation groups in the Arab world. However, achieving even the most basic of democratic reforms in this part of the world poses the need for a break with capitalism which is incapable of delivering any security for people regardless of how it is reformed.

Anti-war programme

Within the anti war movement, the Socialist Party and the Committee for a Workers International (CWI) promotes a programme which, while it won't be adopted by the movement as a whole at this stage will win over those people who draw the most far reaching conclusions; conclusions about war being inevitable under capitalism and that the only way ultimately to end war is to overthrow the capitalist system and to replace it with democratic socialism.

The slogan of "No War for Oil" exposes the real reasons behind Bush and Blair's drive to war. During the war itself more concrete and specific issues will be raised and need to be dealt with by socialists. The Socialist Party will also be campaigning around the slogan of US and British troops out of the Gulf.

The Socialist Party and the CWI will argue within the anti war movement for the right of self defence for the ordinary Iraqi people when they are attacked. This necessitates the arming of the Iraqi people and the organisation of defence committees on a democratic basis. At the same time as completely opposing the US and British invasion of Iraq, the Socialist Party also argues for the right of the Iraqi people to struggle to overthrow Saddam Hussein and to fight to drive US and British imperialism out of Iraq.

Our programme on this war also fundamentally includes supporting a struggle of the Iraqi masses for the building of a socialist Iraq, linked to a struggle throughout the Arab world for a socialist confederation of the Middle East: For the public ownership of Iraq's oil industry and the right of self determination for the Kurdish people and the Shiite Muslims.

This war will politicise and radicalise millions of working class people around the globe. Its lasting effects will not only be seen in the political ramifications for Iraq and the whole of the Middle East, but will also be manifested in an increase in the numbers of people internationally who will join the struggle for international socialism.

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