FIFTEEN YEARS ago this month, the drive to war against Iraq by the US President George W Bush and Britain’s prime minister Tony Blair raised a mass anti-war movement to historic heights. On 15 February 2003 up to two million marched in London, and over thirty million people worldwide. Yet we failed to stop it.
The price of this failure has been a heavy one – a series of wars each causing incredible carnage in the Middle East, the rise of terrorism in Africa and Asia, the spread of murderous attacks in Europe, to the refugee crisis with millions forced to flee to rival imperialist powers. We urgently need to learn the lessons of the movement of 2003 – both its successes and its failures.
Millions responded in anger to the US and Britain’s act of imperialist aggression, aimed at occupying a country already weakened by over ten years of punishing sanctions based on the patently lying claims that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. In reality millions knew its real purpose was seizing Iraq’s vast oil reserves, the second largest in the world after Saudi Arabia’s.
International organisation, in the form of the World Social Forum movement, underpinned the global spread of 15 February. The European Social Forum held in Florence, Italy three months before, had produced an initiative for the demonstration. Italy with three million marching in Rome was to have the largest anti-war march.
The anti-war movement proved a “weapon of mass democracy” exposing the lies about the worldwide danger of Saddam’s regime, its harbouring of jihadists etc. providing an outlet to give the anger organised form. The Stop the War Coalition (STWC), with the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), pushed forward by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), built a mass campaign rooted in local neighbourhood and campus groups.
In Britain the revolt against the war took an unusually radical form. The weeks after 15 February saw a continuing youth revolt, with thousands of students walking out of schools, colleges and universities in the weeks before the bombing began on 20 March. The press was full of photos of students in school uniform pushing their way through emergency exits as staff tried to hold them back, jumping school fences and taking to the streets to block traffic, chanting “Say Hey, Say Ho, Bush and Blair have got to go!”
The movement did long-lasting damage to Labour, with 100,000 members quitting the party due to Tony Blair’s role in leading the charge to war and millions refusing to vote for it.
The invasion itself was an object lesson in the limits of capitalist democracy: millions had marched, opinion polls showed a majority opposed to war, but we had failed to stop the invasion. On 18 March the House of Commons rejected an amendment to make war dependent on approval by the United Nations by 396 to 217 votes. 254 Labour MPs – infamously voted for war; 84 voted against and 64 abstained. Amongst young people especially, illusions in parliament, politicians, and Labour were severely shaken.
…but we didn’t stop the war
Underlying the failure to stop Britain going to war lay the limits that the STWC leadership imposed on the movement. They had no vision or will to go beyond the big marches – i.e. beyond protest. The direct actions, taken mainly by young people and some courageous trade unionists, were largely spontaneous. It was of course no surprise that the trade union bureaucrats and MPs who supported Stop the War were not rushing to give a lead for mass strike action. But what of the “revolutionary” organisation which played a central, indeed leading role, the SWP? 15 February was its greatest agitational and organisational success. But it was also their biggest political failure.
Despite having the leaders of all the major trade unions on its platform in Hyde Park, with hundreds of thousands of workers and trade unionists listening, none of the STWC’s leading figures, including those in the swp (and today’s Counterfire and RS21), dared turn to the union leaders and call on them to pull out their members on a working day. This was the next logical step and the only way that might have forced the government to back down. Vietnam would have warned them what happens if you try to wage a war that a large part of the population opposes.
Instead they just tried to repeat the monster march tactic, which after the war began naturally saw a shrinking number turning out. Mass protests had shown their power to bring together hundreds of thousands and build a movement, but also their limit, unless they became the stepping off point to make the government unable to govern, unable to wage the war.
Over the last fifteen years the world scene has become more complicated than the unilateral US-led aggression against Iraq in 2003. We have seen a resurgent Russia under Putin and Xi Jinping announcing China’s determination to play a world role. We have seen Trump threaten to use nuclear weapons in Korea. This has included these rival powers supporting tyrannical regimes against justified democratic rebellions by their own people.
The most obvious example is Syria where Putin’s forces prevented Assad’s downfall. The West of course denounced this and gave limited support to the rebels but in no sense was the Syrian Spring and the ensuing civil war an American created “colour revolution”. Nevertheless a new, simple-minded and false “anti-imperialist” trend appeared in the anti-war left including at times STWC. The Communist Party refused to denounce Russian imperialism fearing it would undermine opposition to British or us intervention in Syria. Misusing the slogan, “The main enemy is at home” they denied Syria’s revolutionary democrats our solidarity.
Rebuilding a mass anti-war movement now means of course exposing the machinations of the US and British states. But it does not mean falling for the logic that that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and spreading illusions in their Russian and Chinese rivals. It also means solidarity with all justified democratic, national and class struggles while advocating that they remain independent of either imperialist camp, and trying to find ways to materially aid such struggles, as sections of the left in Europe tried to do in a limited way with the Kurdish forces fighting in Rojava.
Return of Great Power rivalry
We face a new and growing war threat. In January the US Pentagon announced a new national defence strategy, breaking with the Obama era, where “great power competition — not terrorism — is now the primary focus of US national security” ramping up military spending aimed at war with China and Russia. Then on 22 January, chief of the general staff, General Sir Nicholas Carter, declared Russia a major threat and war a possibility “much sooner than we expect”, lobbying for more military spending.
In this context we need a new, mass anti-war movement, one that first and foremost exposes and opposes the crimes and machinations of “our own” imperialist state and its strategic partner Trump’s US, but also one that refuses to be silent on those of the other great powers, much less support them.
Anti-war politics has to be grounded in a wider socialist strategy for liberation, which means supporting all democratic revolutions and revolts by the oppressed in the semi-colonial world, while advocating their independence from the great powers. It is the struggle for socialism that will ultimately abolish war by abolishing the system of borders, profit and competition that gives rise to it – capitalism