Demagogues and Critics: The True Story of "Stop the War Coalition"

Author: 

Paul Hampton

“What is demagogy? It is a deliberate play with sham values in politics, the dissemination of false promises and the solace of non-existent blessings.” Leon Trotsky, The Stalin School of Falsification (1937)

The history of the movement against the war in Iraq has yet to be written. No doubt an enterprising student somewhere is already busy reconstructing the story of how it happened and why. Such an account would be extremely valuable, given the numbers that have been involved and the movement’s continuing impact on national and international politics.

This book will add little to such an narrative. It is not even a history of the Stop the War Coalition (STWC), although the two authors have been leading participants in the organisation over the past three years.

Rather it is a book puffed up with hyperbole and laced with fabrication. Andrew Murray acquired his talent for falsification in the Stalinist movement, while Lindsey German learned the art of demagogy by the SWP. The combination is politically noxious.

Their biggest failure is the politics of the STWC and the nature of the Coalition built around these politics. Socialist, working class politics have been deliberately excluded from the Coalition and the leadership bear most responsibility.

Instead the negative “anti-imperialist” politics imposed by Murray, German and the rest have souring the direction of a great movement in a number of respects.

The history of the anti-war movement begins with the attacks of September 11 2001 and George Bush’s decision to invade Afghanistan.

The attacks on 9/11 were carried out by al-Qaida, an Islamic terror organisation, best characterised as an extreme current of political Islam. Political Islam began in the 1920s, in part in opposition to the growing westernisation of the Middle East, but principally aimed at the growing secular nationalist and labour movements (including socialists and communists).

Political Islam thrived as these nationalist and workers‚ movements declined in the 1960s and 1970s. It was boosted by the clerical rule in Iran after 1979 under Ayatollah Khomeini and by the defeat of the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. And political Islam has found adherents in many countries where Muslims live, both across Asia and in Europe.

Any anti-war movement arising after September 11 would have to adopt a position towards political Islam in general and towards organisations such as al-Qaida and the Taliban in particular. And it is here that the book begins its litany of distortion.

The authors rightly describe 9/11 as an “atrocity” and say “STWC, like most people, condemned it”. But even those with short memories remember that the SWP specifically made it their badge of honour to refuse to condemn the attacks. At the first rowdy meeting at which STWC was set up, in Friends House, Euston, the SWP used heavy-handed steamrollering from the chair to quash repeated calls from the floor for a condemnation of 9/11. Only later did they start saying that “of course” they condemned 9/11.

The book misrepresents the attitude of those of us opposed to the war on Afghanistan (and later Iraq) who wanted to make clear our opposition to political Islam. The authors write: “At its first conference in October 2001, the Coalition had to rebuff efforts by ultra-left fragments to place a barrier between the anti-war movement and the Muslim community. This took the form of demands that the Coalition reject ‘Muslim fundamentalism’ equally with US imperialism. The content of this ill thought out position was to meet the war party half way… its effect would have been to alienate broad sections of Muslim opinion.”

Almost every word in this passage is false. Opposition to “fundamentalism” was not designed to placate the war party. Nor does the demand alienate ordinary Muslims, who are the principal victims of fundamentalism — it actually differentiates ordinary Muslims from the Islamists. The slogan “No to fundamentalism” indicated that opposition to the war did not mean support for the 9/11 attacks or the Taliban reactionaries. Such a demand was not “ultra-left” — in fact it was a view shared by many liberals. It was also the principal demand made by only Iraqi socialist organisation (the WCPI) active in Britain.

In fact the leading members of the STWC are soft on political Islam. This is clear from a footnote in the book, which says: “Political Islam… has expressed, in however warped a fashion, some of the anti-imperialist demands which were once the preserve of Communist and nationalist movements of the region.”

Bizarrely, the authors argue that al-Qaida has a “secular agenda”. Murray positively extols the virtues of the meetings he was invited to where men and women were segregated. And the book claims that the only Islamists in Britain are small groups such as al-Muhajiroun and Hizb-ut Tahrir.

The reasoning is disingenuous, the hard information downright dishonest. It was taken a stage further in 2002, when the STWC formed an alliance with a sophisticated Islamist organisation, the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB). Murray and German’s explanation for the alliance is very matter-of-fact: MAB organised a big demonstration on Palestine in April 2002 and planned another in September. It clashed with the STWC demonstration, so the two agreed to merge.

What they leave out is that MAB is the British off shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest and largest Islamist organisation in the world. The connection is understated by MAB supporters, in their literature and on their website, but it is clearly there.

But instead of facing this, Murray and German substitute demagogy. They write: “The characterisation of MAB as ‘reactionary fundamentalists’ [is a] racist lie.” They sneer at critics of MAB. “At any event, a proposal that the Stop the War Coalition sever all links with MAB was made at its conference in January 2003 by a cadre from the marginal Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. Among several hundred delegates it secured just one vote.”

What they omit is that at the same conference, in reply to the motion, a member of MAB came to the microphone and said that MAB was proud to be associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. MAB leader Anas Altikriti virtually admitted the link in the Times (17 August 2004). He wrote: “MAB is an independent British organisation. Links with others extend simply to shared ideas, values and expertise, in which the Brotherhood is indeed rich, with around eight decades of experience.”

Another measure of the politics of STWC is the resurrection of George Galloway. Murray and German claim that: “Over the last two years a mythical Galloway has been created in the media, unrecognisable to those who know him well.”

This is as close as they come to the truth — except that it is the STWC that has created the mythical Galloway.

Murray and German argue that: “In most respects, [Galloway] is a regular socialist of the left, better read than most, occasionally more conservative on some social questions.” They don’t say that he is an anti-abortionist, or that he has endorsed a “points system” for immigration. Nor do they mention his views on lesbian and gay rights.

Instead they build him up through a stomach-turning eulogy. They write: “George has done more than anyone in the last generation to raise the level of sympathy in the movement not just with the Arab people (the Palestinian people above all) but, through this, to develop an understanding of the importance of the Middle East crisis to world politics. His view of the Middle East is not a cultural quirk, but is informed by a general anti-imperialist outlook.”

Exactly how having Christmas dinner with Saddam’s No.2 Tariq Aziz in 1999 contributed to “anti-imperialism” they don’t say. Instead they make a ludicrous comparison, alleging: “At his best, he is the most persuasive speaker in British politics... he is to the present generation what Michael Foot and Nye Bevan were to the previous ones.”

They say Galloway “has a natural flamboyance, the sparkle of the political entrepreneur”. Presumably that’s why he needs £150,000 a year and a villa in Portugal to function politically.

Regarding Galloway’s infamous address to Saddam in 1994, when he said: “Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability”, the excuse given is Galloway’s own — that it was “misunderstood, but definitely unfortunate” and that he was “saluting the Iraqi people’s indefatigability”.

The Coalition is obviously stung by allegations that it has failed to give Iraqis a voice. Murray and German write that: “At every major rally against the war… the STWC gave anti-Saddam and anti-war Iraqis a chance to be heard. Those who have subsequently accused the coalition of ignoring Iraqis are simply lying.”

But the point is not how many Iraqis have spoken on STWC platforms — but who they are and what they represent. The fact is that until February 2005, no Iraqi trade unionist or representative of Iraqi unions has been permitted to speak on a STWC platform. The reason is plain — the Coalition promotes “the resistance” in Iraq, in direct counterposition to the emerging Iraqi labour movement.

Murray and German write that: “The resistance began across swathes of the country. Its composition was varied — there were supporters of the old regime, there were Islamist groups and there were nationalists, who made up probably the largest group.” This is contrary to almost all reports of the size and composition of the insurgency. But they don’t let facts get in the way of a good line.

They argue: “The Stop the War Coalition recognises the right of the resistance to fight against the occupying powers, even if we do not agree with its political outlook(s).” In Galloway’s short piece, he compares the Iraqi resistance with the French resistance to Hitler i.e. as a national liberation movement. And when this resistance targets Iraqi workers and trade unionists, there is scarcely a word of concern or condemnation.

In fact the STWC didn’t even mention the Iraqi unions until the last months of 2004. Only when Abdullah Muhsin, the IFTU representative intervened in the Labour Party conference in October 2004 (i.e. when it impinged on British politics) did the Coalition finally issue a press release mentioning them — and then only by way of condemnation.

Murray and German make great play of possessing a copy of Muhsin’s briefing for Labour Party delegates. However the book does not call the IFTU as “quislings” or collaborators. Nor do they quote from their press release (11 October 2004), which said: “With regard to the IFTU, the STWC condemns its political collaboration with the British government, exemplified at the Labour Party conference and its view that genuinely independent trade unionism in Iraq can develop under a regime of military occupation (including the daily bombardment of major Iraqi cities) by the USA and Britain.”

It is one thing to criticise the IFTU’s relationship to the British or Iraqi governments, but it is quite another to condemn it for believing that genuine trade unionism is possible under occupation.

However the book is surprisingly conciliatory towards the IFTU — no doubt because the STWC values its relations with UK unions that are making solidarity with the Iraqi labour movement.

The authors refer to the IFTU as a “bona fide trade union” and claim that “the Coalition would not question the IFTU’s credentials as a trade union.” It says STWC “endeavoured to work with IFTU representatives in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Saddam regime.”

On the Labour Party conference issue, they conclude: “The whole episode was avoidable to the extent that it seems most likely that Abdullah Muhsin went well beyond the IFTU’s policy remit in his activities.”

Nevertheless, the STWC shows no interest whatsoever in making solidarity with Iraqi trade unions. From the book you wouldn’t know about the strike wave or about the existence of other unions outside (and indeed hostile to) the IFTU.

In fact their attitude on the “resistance” and on the Iraqi unions indicate the absence of class politics in their approach to Iraq.

The book is right about one thing only — though not quite in the way the authors mean it. Murray and German argue that: “If any question could be said to have replaced the Soviet one as the touchstone of international politics, dividing sheep from goats, it is opposition to the new imperialism.”

The reference to Stalinism is unfortunate but indicative. The authors argue that Afghan women were “never freer” than between 1978-92 — neglecting to mention that for most of that period, Afghan women suffered under Russian occupation.

But they are right that anti-imperialism has replaced the class nature of the USSR as the key dividing line on the left. The significance of the STWC is that their abstract, negative, classless “anti-imperialism” of fools has accelerated the process of disorientation on the left.

Murray and German use the old Stalinist methods to smear the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, as “miniscule critics of the anti-war movement”, who have a socialist conception of anti-imperialism. Between them and ourselves there is an ever-widening gulf.

Publications: 

Culture and Reviews: 

The AWL, Labour and the Left: 

Issues and Campaigns: 

Comments

The relationship between SWP and MAB

This article in Race and Class makes interesting reading:
http://rac.sagepub.com/content/50/2/101.full.pdf+html

Specifically this section:

"Having emerged as the chosen vehicle for Muslim participation in antiwar politics, MAB was elevated from a relatively obscure group to one with a national profile. It gained considerable influence, punching well above the weight suggested by its limited membership and narrow formal constituency. MAB helped mobilise thousands of Muslims, encouraging them to get involved in the anti-war movement. At demonstrations, protesters from many different religious and political backgrounds carried its placards.

MAB assumed an unprecedented significance both for British Muslims and for the anti-war movement. Its membership rose from 400 to 800 or 1,000 – still small, of course, but twice its original size."

If only the SWP could have boasted similar success in recruiting from the Muslim youth (or indeed simply doubling in size). And they call this the "united front" tactic!