What’s wrong with “Stop the War”?

Submitted by Matthew on 19 October, 2016 - 12:18 Author: Simon Nelson

The Stop The War Coalition enjoyed its heyday around the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but has regained some prominence since David Cameron’s government first proposed the bombing of Syria in August 2013.

Feeding on perceptions that UK involvement in the Middle East has led to prolonged campaigns of bombing, loss of life, and the creation of unstable regimes, with very little of the humanity supposed to exist in “humanitarian intervention”, the STWC has called a number of demonstrations and got some media coverage for its opposition to the UK and US involvement in coalition bombing of first Assad’s forces and then Daesh. But it has been very markedly a “stop-some-wars” effort.

Since 2011, at the start of the Syrian demonstrations against Assad, the leading lights of the STWC have failed to do more than mildly rebuke the Assad regime, which has been the main terrorist force in the country, causing the displacement of millions of people within Syria and into neighbouring Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, and (in much smaller numbers) Europe.

In 2015, following the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, STWC called for protests against those Labour MPs who backed the Tory government’s call for bombing Daesh, but raised no calls to stop the Russian or Assad-regime bombing. At the 8 October Stop the War coalition conference, Syrians heckled Jeremy Corbyn for his silence over the Russian bombardment of Aleppo. STWC honcho Chris Nineham ruled out “a protest outside the Russian embassy” on the grounds that it “would actually contribute to increasing the hysteria and the jingoism that is being whipped up at the minute to go against Russia”.

This approach, appealing to sentiment for peace in general, but in fact opposing only some wars, has been in STWC from the start. It was formed at an ad-hoc meeting called at short notice in September 2001 from initial protests against US president George W Bush’s war plans following the September 11 Al Qaeda attacks in the USA.

The meeting was controlled from the chair by Lindsey German, who was then a leader of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), but fell out of favour in the SWP after 2007 and quit, with Nineham and others, in 2010. Darren Johnson of the Green Party and anti-war activist Milan Rai disputed vehemently with German at that meeting about the basis of the campaign, but other left groups were not allowed to speak (AWL) or were absent (the rest), and German steamrollered Johnson and Rai.

The campaign quickly rallied many people angry at the plans to bomb Afghanistan. After a lull, STWC revived sharply in the build-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Local groups formed across the country. The coalition now enjoyed the support of a range from the Quakers, the Green Party, and some Lib-Dems, to ultra-Stalinists, but was controlled by the SWP with allies from the Communist Party of Britain (CPB) and reflected their world outlook.

Most of the world was horrified by the 9/11 attacks, but the SWP “refused to condemn” them, and allowed STWC to condemn the attacks only by way of a statement by Lindsey German, under pressure at the first regular STWC conference, that “of course” they must be condemned. They have since rewritten history to claim that the coalition always condemned those attacks.

The STWC reflected many of the SWP’s political weaknesses. In the right place at the right time, it was able to mobilise huge numbers of people to demonstrations, as was the more-or-less explicitly Stalinist Workers World Party where it controlled the movement in the USA against the Iraq invasion.

The SWP and its allies sadly tainted those mobilisations by promoting a mix of a-political peace-talk with under-the-counter apologies or semi-apologies for the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, and then the Iraqi “resistance” (forerunners of Daesh). STWC leaders, Lindsey German and John Rees from the SWP (and now in Counterfire), and Andrew Murray of the CPB, sought to exclude class-struggle and internationalist politics in favour of a simplistic picture of a world of two camps: the US, the UK, and Europe bad, anyone who clashed with them, good. STWC leaders implicitly backed the Taliban in Afghanistan, and gave a positive “anti-imperialist” spin to various shades of Islamist reaction.

The official history of the coalition, Stop the War: The Story of Britain’s Biggest Mass Movement, rebukes socialists who said that a critique of political Islam was necessary for a healthy movement.

“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... Its effect would have been to alienate broad sections of Muslim opinion.”

Symbolically, the Worker-communist Party of Iraq had its stalls at STWC demonstrations harassed and excluded by STWC organisers. Other revolutionary socialist groups of Middle-East origin were so disgusted that they refused to work with STWC. The main targets of the “Muslim fundamentalism” which the StWC was so keen to whitewash was and is Muslims or secularised ex-Muslims who reject their fundamentalist impositions. A number of STWC local meetings, most notoriously in Birmingham, segregated men and women to comply with the wishes of local islamic leaders.

In 2002 the coalition also starting organising in collaboration with the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), the UK franchise of the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood. MAB was then a small group, mainly of activists of Arab origin, which had difficulty making links in the larger mostly-Muslim communities in Britain. STWC accredited it as co-organiser of the big anti-war marches, and, so to speak, as the “Muslim face” of the anti-war movement.

An article in Race and Class journal in 2008, Standing together: the Muslim Association of Britain and the anti-war movement, notes that: “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… MAB assumed an unprecedented significance… Its membership rose from 400 to 800 or 1,000 – still small, of course, but twice its original size.”

The SWP, by making this alliance, helped to recruit for an organisation that their chief theoretician Tony Cliff had called “clerical fascist” in 1946! STWC also promoted George Galloway MP as one of its main public speakers. Galloway was a Stalinistic soft-left Labour MP with a history of commercial relations with reactionary regimes (Pakistan, Iraq, Gulf States) or their trusted agents.

Simultaneously, STWC refused to have anything to do with the emerging Iraqi trade unions. In fact they condemned them. After the Iraq movement subsided, and particularly after US troops in Iraq withdrew to bases in 2010 and then quit in 2011, the STWC was only sporadically active. The Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and the Russian bombing of Syria from September 2015 exposed again the “campist” politics of the STWC leaders.

In 2010, the leading SWPers in the coalition, Lindsey German, John Rees, and Chris Nineham, had left the SWP and formed a new group, Counterfire. Counterfire moved away from describing itself as “Trotskyist” at all, and became increasingly pro-Russian in its propaganda.

It approvingly published articles by Eamonn McCann and Jon Wight which said that if a side had to be picked in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, then it should be Russia, and that the US was the “main enemy” over the annexation of Crimea respectively.

An increasing number of leftists have come to dispute these politics and the way they taint the STWC’s campaigning. The STWC’s exclusion of anti-Assad Syrians from platforms, at the same time as it promotes Assad-regime supporters, and the mealy-mouthed excuse from Chris Nineham for why the STWC has no protest against Russian bombing, no longer washes with many activists.

A genuine anti-war movement needs to have an internationalist viewpoint. Solidarity against the forces of barbarism whether western or not should be our guiding principle. And the Stop the War Coalition has singularly failed to follow it.

As we were saying: When STW denounced Iraqi trade unionists

On Sunday 10 October [2004] the officers of the Stop The War Coalition circulated on email a statement written on 8 October.

After piously claiming that “STWC has always refrained from taking any position on the internal development of Iraq”, it vehemently took sides in those “internal developments” by denouncing the Iraqi Federation of Trade Union [IFTU]. It did not question that the IFTU is a genuine workers’ organisation — “the IFTU is one of a number of trade unions and workers’ organisations in Iraq”, it noted — nor mention that other trade union organisations in Iraq, while rejecting the IFTU’s support for the Allawi government, share the IFTU’s hostility to the Islamist militias. The IFTU’s “lesser evil” position reflects the general philosophy of the Communist Party of Iraq [but]… the IFTU is still a trade union organisation. But the STWC went on to condemn not only the IFTU but any attempt at trade union organisation in Iraq.

“With regard to the IFTU, the STWC condemns… its view that genuinely independent trade unionism in Iraq can develop under a regime of military occupation”. So what is it possible to develop? Genuinely independent sectarian militias!

The STWC statement concluded by endorsing the “struggle of Iraqis, by whatever means they find necessary” against the occupation. Issued the day after hostage Ken Bigley was beheaded, this amounted to an endorsement of such methods.

By the time the STWC statement appeared in the Morning Star on 11 October, that phrase, “by whatever means they find necessary”, had been cut out. But Galloway, Bambery, and Lindsey German between them had developed an agitation to justify not only the disruption at the European Social Forum [where an IFTU speaker was shouted down], but far worse, against the alleged “Quislings” of the IFTU, or against any trade unionist in Iraq.

• From Solidarity, 21 October 2004