Friday, February 15, 2013

February 15 Ten Years On: some personal reflections


As the Guardianistas and Radio 4 chatterati have been ramming down your throat today, it is the tenth anniversary of the massive butunsuccessful march against Britain’s military adventure in Iraq. I went on the march, and had a thoroughly enjoyable day, despite the weather, but left with a number of doubts.

At the time, my general view was that of Ian McEwan: “55% against the war”. I thought there were very good reasons to overthrow Saddam, but the reasons the Coalition set out to do it included more bad ones than good ones. The American-led Coalition prosecuted the war appallingly, both in a military sense and in a moral sense, causing innumerable new problems with terrible geopolitical ramifications. And we continue to pay the price for those mistakes. The Iraqi people, of course, continue to pay the highest price – and the death toll of Iraqis killed by other Iraqis continues to rise way beyond the death toll of Iraqis killed by Coalition forces.

But the February 15 march showed me the spectacle of a truly conservative anti-war movement. Yes, it was nice, in a way, to see large numbers of ordinary folk galvanised and angry: not just the usual suspects. But this cohort blurred into Daily Telegraph Little England isolation and yellow flag Liberal Democrat middle Englandism, on the one hand, and every variety of tankie Stalinism, Ba’athist national socialism and Islamist clerical-fascism, on the other (with a good smattering of vicious-minded anti-Americanism and poisonous Israel-hate).

The failure of the February 15 march to stop the juggernaut of war became a defining moment for many. For lots of people, especially in the generation that came of age politically then (those born in the mid-1980s, I guess), it marked a rupture with any hope invested in the Labour Party (which had been the party of government for five years already – and must have seemed almost the permanent party of government for the mid-1980s cohort). In the long run, this helped energise the return from the wilderness of the Liberal Democrats, who were able to pose as a progressive alternative – in a wave that crashed on the shores of the 2010 Coalition agreement, whose bitter hangover we are suffering now.

The SWP, as the most slickly organised group on the outside left and the string-pullers behind the Stop The War Coalition (StWC) front, also profited from that rupture, drawing countless well-intentioned kids into the smallest mass party in the world and its sorry orbit. The emergence of Respect, as the electoral vehicle of the alliance between the SWP and communalist Islamism, was the next twist in this dialectic, harnessing radical energy to truly reactionary aims. Happily, the SWP’s Stalinist practice was soon revealed as incompatible with Respect’s Galloway leader cult and its intolerance of dissent lost it the ownership of the StWC franchise. Less happily, its internal rape culture has now lost it its less morally debased rank and file members in the final scene of the tragicomedy. But unfortunately the SWP’s faux-Marxist dogma had done their damage, wasting so much activist potential on empty gesticulations and derailing radical analysis down the dead end of pseudo “anti-imperialism”.

My experiences with the Socialist Alliance and Anti-Nazi League had long since inoculated me against the SWP’s poison. My disgust at the objectively pro-genocidal posturing of the anti-war left during the Yugoslav wars had already hardened me against Stoppism. I'd marched against the previous Gulf War (one which hadn't had any good motivations, and was all about oil), but even as a young 'un I'd felt uncomfortable marching alongside pro-Saddam fascists.

By 2003, I had parted ways with any hope in Labour for well over a decade, and ironically the march served almost an opposite effect on me: a deepening disenchantment with the actually existing left that has helped me reconcile, to a limited extent, with mainstream politics, after a decade or so in the splendid isolation of anarcho-marxism. I never went full down the Harryist/Eustonite “pro-war left” road, but the further degeneration of the Stoppist-dominated left as the noughties continued to repel me. (Indeed, that was one of the reasons I took up blogging two years after that, to find a political community away from the irritating platitudes of the mainstream left.)

The Tory/Liberal Democrat government as the current decade began helped me recover the anger than animated me in the 1990s, and I hope a new radical movement might emerge in the vacuum left by the collapse of the SWP and its flotsam. As austerity, rather than distant suffering, starts to get ordinary people marching again, I hope we can turn a new page, a decade on, and move on from that February 2003 mindset.


P.S. I was going to include a quote from Ian McEwan's Saturday in this post, but decided that finding it would mean the post'd never get published. I just noticed Gene's post includes it.
All this happiness on display is suspect. Everyone is thrilled to be together out on the streets—people are hugging themselves, it seems, as well as each other. If they think— and they could be right— that continued torture and summary executions, ethnic cleansing and occasional genocide are preferable to an invasion, they should be somber in their view.
Image credit: Urban Crap.

27 comments:

Brian Goldfarb said...

Like the McEwan quote. Reminds me of Nick Cohen's attitude towards r=the Stop the War Coalition.

Re the fracturing of the SWP, I was disappointed to note that China Mieville appears (appeared?) to be a member, according to the article on Harry's Place. Pity about that, such a good writer, too.

Sarah AB said...

That Ariel Dorfman letter's very good too - reproduced in full on Shiraz.

flyingrodent said...

I find it absolutely incredible that anyone, anywhere can look back at the massive humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq and bitch about how the anti-war protests were insufficiently (whatever) for their liking.

Ten years, and still arsing on and on and on and on about the SWP, a group that were at best tangential to the issue even back in 2003.

It's ludicrous and self-indulgent; patently politically convenient and pretty much plain shameful.

flyingrodent said...

All this happiness on display is suspect. Everyone is thrilled to be together out on the streets—people are hugging themselves, it seems, as well as each other. If they think— and they could be right— that continued torture and summary executions, ethnic cleansing and occasional genocide are preferable to an invasion, they should be somber in their view.

And this - the idea that the relative cheerfulness of a bunch of protestors in 2003 has any relevance at all, after the plainly insane-from-the-start war they were protesting has basically destroyed vast tracts of Iraq and Iraqi society, is precisely the kind of hooting idiocy I'd expect from an overeducated chump like McEwan.

Watching his C4 interview, with him sitting owl-like explaining that he wanted the war fought differently - because armies always care what no-dick, finger-wagging novelists think about their actions, of course - is just high bathos.

I find it completely unsurprising that Gene at Harry's Place thinks the "suspect" happiness of the marchers is some kind of vast demerit against them, however, in a way that presumable the Iraq War's vast pile of skulls is no discredit upon him.

http://hurryupharry.org/2005/01/31/crow-anyone/

zhaomafan said...

Bob- I was curious about this comment of yours:

"I'd marched against the previous Gulf War (one which hadn't had any good motivations, and was all about oil), but even as a young 'un I'd felt uncomfortable marching alongside pro-Saddam fascists."

Um, well....how about "preventing one UN member state from erasing another UN member state from the map"? Is that a good enough motivation for you!?

The Contentious Centrist said...

"Um, well....how about "preventing one UN member state from erasing another UN member state from the map"? Is that a good enough motivation for you!?"

I must have missed the news about British socialists taking to the streets in hundreds of thousands to protest against Iran's declarations and preparations for wiping out the "Zionist entity" from the face of this earth.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

zhaomafan,

What state do you mean? The only one I recall disappearing during the last 30 years was the good ole USSR.

Nothing else comes to mind, sorry.

modernity's ghost said...

"Ten years, and still arsing on and on and on and on about the SWP ..."

Flyingrodent's remarks remind me of that Harry Enfield character, Mr You-Don't-Wanna-Do-It-Like-That

Surely, people are entitled to comment on events which they participated in as they see fit?

bob said...

1. China Mieville - I've not been keeping up fully, but I think he is part of the SWP that are trying to get rid of the awful leadership, so he's not the worst.

2. Arsing on about the SWP: The post is about the march, and its legacy, and not about the war. I made my position on the war clear in the second paragraph, and agree it was a humanitarian disaster. I spent one paragraph of this post on the SWP. The SWP were the main organisers of the march; StWC was their front. The SWP grew considerably in the War on Terror period, taking a lot of energy away from the more inspiring forms of anti-capitalism which had emerged in the 1990s. But the SWP's growth was not a symptom of genuine radicalisation; it was a symptom of a conservative turn in politics, a turn which also benefitted the Lib Dems, and gave us the government we have now, which was the main topic of this post. If we want a healthy movement against the Coalition's cuts and austerity, we need to learn the lessons of the period inaugerated by that march.

bob said...

3. Re zhaomafan and wiping UN members off the map.

It is true that the ostensible casus belli in 1990/1 was Kuwait's sovereignty. But, just as the left is highly selective about which countries' sovereignty it thinks is worth defending (as per CC's comment), so are the great powers.

Kuwait's sovereignty mattered to the great powers because it was a geopolitically compliant oil state. Kuwait then, and Kuwait now, is not a democracy. It is a family business, a monarchy in which the emir's power is barely circumscribed by a docile national assembly whose membership he picks a third. Barely a third of the population has the right to vote for the powerless elected part of the assembly, and at the time of Iraqi invasion women didn't have the vote. Fuck the sovereignty of tyrants like Saddam and monarchs like the Al Sabah clan.

Since 1990, how many violations of sovereignty have the great powers stopped from happening? Hardly any.

Anonymous said...

If you forgive the cliché, but Poland in 1939 was a military dictatorship which badly mistreated its own minorities. That doesn't alter the fact that Nazi Germany simply invaded the country unprovoked and annexed a lot of land which did not belong to it, which legally belonged to another state and whose population did not want to be annexed by them. I fail to see how Saddam's completely unprovoked invasion of Kuwait is any different. For all the faults of the Kuwaiti government (and I agree that after liberation the country, we should not have restored the Emir), it was simply not on par with Saddam Hussein's genocidal dictatorship.

sackcloth and ashes said...

'It's ludicrous and self-indulgent; patently politically convenient and pretty much plain shameful'.

Which is very much my attitude to the 'anti-war'/STWC/chatterati attitude as a whole.

Accepting that there were opponents of the war who had honourable and respectable reasons for making their choices, the position of the 'anti-war movement' was based on hypocrisy. I found then, and now, very few people prepared to be as honest as Ariel Dorfman was.

The loudest voices against Saddam's overthrow were also the ones who opposed the policy of containment/sanctions/no-fly zones in the 1990s. What the 'anti-war' crowd wanted as a whole - but did not have the guts or the honesty to state openly - was a return to the 1980s. Saddam could gas the Kurds, slaughter Shiites, build up his military arsenal and threaten his neighbours.

That was the end state for the February 2003 protests. And it sickens me that those involved claim the moral high ground.

BenSix said...

That was the end state for the February 2003 protests. And it sickens me that those involved claim the moral high ground.

You profess your concern for the Shiites of Iraq, Sackcloth and Ashes, so it cannot have escaped your attention that the sectarian violence that has torn the country apart since 2003 has featured massive bomb blasts at their mosques and pilgrimages in the last couple of months. 37 people were killed in Shi'ite neighbourhoods just yesterday and this, mind you, represents an improvement in security conditions.

If the rhetoric of a bunch of people who have no real-world influence is enough to sicken you I can't imagine the depths of nausea that you must experience when you consider actual destruction on this scale.

modernity's ghost said...

Bob,

I think you've covered it ably, flyrodent was just sniping from the crowd, uninterested in the line of your thoughts.

One aspect which we often forget is how branches of the StWC fell apart, not because they became hotbeds of neo-cons, but rather genuinely antiwar/pacifist types coming up against a reality of old (quasi-Trot) politics found when dealing with the StWC/SWP officialdom.

It would be good to analyse how such a mass movement fell apart and slip through the fingers of these would-be Lenins.

I suspect one aspect was the realisation that the StWC/SWP elements weren't really "antiwar", just against certain conflicts with certain regimes.

That is they would condone certain conflicts under certain circumstances it is suited their political agenda, which ultimately is political cynics' approach, be it GW Bush, Tony Blair or the malcontents in the SWP leadership.

Many ordinary people were repelled by the geopolitics which animated both the political leaders of Britain and America, and a lot of the "activists" that opposed them.

PS: I was a Stopper. I thought the invasion of Iraq was incredibly dangerous, based on many false premises and partial evidence.

flyingrodent said...

But the SWP's growth was not a symptom of genuine radicalisation; it was a symptom of a conservative turn in politics, a turn which also benefitted the Lib Dems, and gave us the government we have now, which was the main topic of this post. If we want a healthy movement against the Coalition's cuts and austerity, we need to learn the lessons of the period inaugerated by that march.

With respect, this is completely barking mad. What gave us "the government we have now" was the public's - entirely accurate - belief that the Labour Party was a gaggle of lying shysters and crooks, and not much better than the Tories.

You may feel that this was due to a "conservative turn in politics" - you might feel this sprang from any number of sources, from the StWC's politics to the opportunism of the Lib Dems or whatever.

I'm telling you - the people believe that the Labour Party are lying shysters and crooks, not much better than the Tories, because they are lying shysters and crooks.

I've read more than enough pieces tut-tutting the marchers now for a lifetime. Oh, their politics were so destructive; if only all that energy could've been channeled into whatever pursuits I believe are more fruitful.

Well, that's both fantastical and utterly redundant, IMO. You can't pigeonhole that many people with such varying politics, but you can observe one common factor among them - that they knew and said aloud that the Blair government was a manipulative, lying-arsed, borderline criminal enterprise.

And you know what? They were right about that, in ways that have been proven so conclusively, so many times over, that continuing to finger-wag their oh-so-negative politics after all this time is a travesty, a sick joke.

So I hope you'll forgive me if I don't join in the pity-party for British democracy, if it involves laying our current shite state of affairs at any other door than Millbank Tower, circa 1997.

And good God, just look at this - a theory of our modern politics that even tangentially includes the SWP, in whatever guise! It's like blaming the Little Humpingham Parent Teacher Association for poor innovation in British superconductors, or something. It's not even tilting at windmills since windmills are, at least, quite big and noisy.

bob said...

With respect Rodent, I think you are missing my point by a country mile.

I presume you accept that the February 2003 march had some significance, even if only symbolic, for British politics. I don't think it was enormously significant (this was maybe the third time I've blogged about it in 8 years of blogging). But it is certainly considered significant by many - e.g. by Laurie Penny, Salman Shaheen or Owen Jones, who all wrote about its impact on them. (They're all roughly the same age, I think, a decade or so younger than me.) So, it kind of seems worth a minute or two of reflection. What was significant about it?

Let's accept that Labour were lying shysters and crooks (a conclusion I had come to long before 2003). The march - and the ignoring of it by a government which didn't see its democratic mandate requiring them to do everything a well-attended march told them too (see also Countryside Alliance) - dramatised this for many people.

For some, it pulled them to the left. Personally, I would have quite liked it if that had meant a surge in membership of the the Solidarity Federation, Socialist Party and AWL, but in reality it meant a surge in the SWP, consolidating its position as the main force to the left of Labour for over a decade.

Because "a theory of our modern politics" (not that that's what I was setting out) that DOESN'T even tangentially include the SWP is an account that doesn't include the left. Sadly, most of the main mobilisations of the left in the last decade or so have been SWP fronts: StWC, ANL/UAF, Respect. They play a major role in most trade unions, in the anti-cuts campaigns, in student politics. No other left group have a fraction of their organisational power, energy; few have anywhere near the communication skills. That's been, in my view, a disaster for the left.

Reflecting on the march a decade later it's impossible not to have their Comrade Delta implosion at the back of your mind, isn't it? There seems a nice serendipity to the possibility of the space they've occupied opening up a decade after the march.

Meanwhile, however, for many more people, the discovery that Labour were lying shysters and crooks, as you say, gave us the government we have now: specifically, as I said, it was a major driver of the rise of the Lib Dems. But it seems to me pretty fucking obvious that on any scale of measurement, their qualities as lying shysters and crooks dwarfs Labour's. Posing as a progressive force, as the cuddly anti-war pro-student children-out-of-detention party, as a "liberal" party indeed, they've given us the most devastating political and economic programme we've seen since Thatcher.

I don't go in for "pity-parties" for British democracy either (although I think the idea that the rot set in as late as 1997, and not at the time of cash for questions, back to basics and Archer in prison - or actually probably much further back). But it also seems pretty fucking obvious that however shysty Labour were, they were not " not much better than the Tories". I think this is pretty clearly evidenced in the mounting public sector redundancies, crippling disinvestment, A&E closures, workfare bullying, victimisation of disabled people, UKBA outsourcing, brutal welfare "reforms", deepening educational divides, rising tide of food poverty etc etc etc of the last three years.

Of course, February 2003 didn't give us that. But it played a part.

bob said...

No other left group have a fraction of their organisational power, energy; few have anywhere near the communication skills.

I meant: No other left group have a fraction of their organisational power or energy; few have anywhere near their communication skills.

I don't go in for "pity-parties" for British democracy either (although I think the idea that the rot set in as late as 1997, and not at the time of cash for questions, back to basics and Archer in prison - or actually probably much further back).

I meant I think this idea (that it only goes back to 1997 and is the sole fault of Milbank) is just silly.

bob said...

Sorry to go on, but one more point:

You can't pigeonhole that many people with such varying politics, but you can observe one common factor among them - that they knew and said aloud that the Blair government was a manipulative, lying-arsed, borderline criminal enterprise.

I think this is partly my point. You can't pigeonhole that many people. It included, as I said, ordinary people energised by anger; little England Tories; dear/sweet Lib Dems; hippy pacifists; Islamists; me. Gene noted McEwan on the irritating happiness of the march; Phil BC noted McEwan on the sobriety and sombreness of it. But if the unifying force of the million or so marchers was "Blair lied", that's not the basis for any decent politics, but gets channeled into populist ressentiment, anti-Labour electoral opportunism, manipulative Trot fronts, and brain-dead pseudo-anti-imperialist fake-Marxism.

modernity's ghost said...

Bob,

A word to the wise: Flyrodent is a contrarian and misanthrope.

He's not really interested in the points that you make.

flyingrodent said...

in reality it meant a surge in the SWP, consolidating its position as the main force to the left of Labour for over a decade etc.

Yes, I can see your argument here, but it does bear pointing out that being "the main force to the left of Labour" is a bit like being "the world's fourth-largest army". After the first three armies, there's a really big drop-off, and I don't see any compelling argument to suggest that handled differently, the fourth-largest army could've mounted any kind of insurrection.

Let's just say from the start that I find the idea - often repeated by guys like Dave Osler - that these marches represented a huge opportunity for the left mildly fantastical and basically a bit offensive.

Call me an idealist, but I regarded a popular protest that drew in a broad section of society as an opportunity to keep Britain out of an insane war, rather than the identification of a gap in the market.

I mean, let's treat your SWP-have-screwed-the-left idea as if it were 100% factual, and say that the Coalition's cuts are the direct result of political disenchantment/incompetence/conservatism, or whatever.

You know what? The current government's cuts are vicious and insane, but nobody is getting strung up by the feet and holes drilled in their heads. A generation of kids might have been discarded like used nappies, but their cities haven't been destroyed with cutting-edge weapons; they haven't been slaughtered in random sectarian violence and they aren't living in religious enclaves hoping that their murderous leaders can keep the country together and fend off a worse slaughter. Our hospitals might be suffering, but they haven't been turned into prisons and filled with dissidents.

I'm sure you mean well here, but I do have to point out that talking about the war as a missed political opportunity sounds absolutely insane, in any kind of historical context.

And this is before we get to the point that the domestic stakes we're talking about were nowhere near as high as you're making out. Assume that some other three-men-and-a-dog outfit beat the SWP to the punch, and then what?

Would the public have flocked to their banner? Would their movement have outlasted the STWC as a minor political force? Would public faith in politics have been sufficiently re-energised to beat back the Coalition?

Somebody somewhere will answer yes to all three, but I can't see a single reason to think so, and frankly I just don't think the issue is much worth debating, given what's happened elsewhere in the world. This is the kind of stuff that draws angry accusations of navel-gazing and narcissism, when it comes from other parts of the spectrum.

That's why I find the whole question so damned annoying - the idea that some other bunch of sage academics might have revitalised British democracy, if it hadn't been for those darned pesky kids... While half the planet explodes in flames. It was dull and irrelevant in 2004 and frankly, these internecine pissfights haven't got any more edifying in the interim.

But then, as Mod says, I'm only saying that because I'm a contrarian and a misanthrope, and not because it's my actual opinion on the matter, or anything.

TNC said...

That Laurie Penny piece was some of the most self-absorbed writing I have read in a while. I guess that is what we should expect from the Occupy Generation.

"Ten years ago this month, millions of people all over the world marched against the war in Iraq – and were ignored. I was one of them. For me, at the age of 16, there were a lot of firsts...For us, the sense of betrayal was life-changing. We had thought that millions of people making their voices heard would be enough and we were wrong."

I excuse her, because she was a kid at that age. But no adult should be rudely awakened by something that should be self-evident. You and I live under representative forms of political rule. We do not live in direct democracies. We elect leaders. What does this mean? What is leadership? Is it slavishly following the will of the masses? Whoever makes the loudest noise should be obeyed? Or is it setting a course and sticking to it, even if the public disagrees? If we do not like a particular course of direction, we vote the politician out. That's how it works in representative systems. We don't want leaders to bend this way and that according to public outbursts and tantrums.

Bob writes:

"I'd marched against the previous Gulf War (one which hadn't had any good motivations, and was all about oil), but even as a young 'un I'd felt uncomfortable marching alongside pro-Saddam fascists."

It isn't good to come to the assistance of an ally who has been invaded by a belligerent neighbor? That is not a good motivation?

Or, as zhaomafan mentions, in the UN system when a member state invades another member state there are certain actions the Security Council is expected to take.

Should we have simply allowed Iraq to absorb Kuwait? No big deal?

BenSix said...

That Laurie Penny piece was some of the most self-absorbed writing I have read in a while.

I thought it was phrased unfortunately but why it is "self-absorbed" for her to write the political discontent she feels the war inspired but acceptable to complain about the discontent opponents of the war provoked is beyond me.

We don't want leaders to bend this way and that according to public outbursts and tantrums.

We do, however, expect them to be honest.

modernity's ghost said...

I expect it to be sunny and 70 degrees, but that's unlikely to happen too. Its exceedingly naive to expect leaders to be honest, without strict oversight.

There is little evidence for that occurring either in the most recent past, in *any* country or amongst, er, Left political leaders.

For example, many SWPers thought their leaders were honest, hard working and open to reason, however, even the slowest SWPers must realise that's not the case with the comrade Delta issue.

By the same token, to assume or expect *any* political leader to be honest is on a par with expecting the tooth fairy, if that makes you happy fine believe it, but ain't going to happen, evidentially speaking.

bob said...

Rodent, you make some very strong points in your last comment.

The fourth-biggest-army point is a fair one, but only if we accept we can never hope for something better to the left of Labour.

The argument about the scale of Iraq as a problem versus the scale of austerity as a problem is compelling. It's true, our issues seem trivial compared to some of the horrific suffering elsewhere. But we live here, and we need to take up battles here, and not put up with it because there is worse stuff over there. If we focused only on the very worst stuff and let slide the less bad stuff, that wouldn;t be good politics.

On more dangerous ground, I might also suggest that the Iraq war was not the most pressing global issue in 2003 by your measure either. It's true it was one we could make more of a difference to than some of the more horrible situations, in that our government were protagonists. But there were other terrible things going on in the world that should have seemed more important to us by your measure, including the war in Darfur which started the same month.

modernity's ghost said...

I think many were repelled by the StWC and their genuine ambivalence towards war.

We can see this, more recently, in their inability to stage even one national demonstration on the slaughter in Syria.

70,000+ killed in Syria and the StWC don't raise a finger, wrong type of protagonist.

bob said...

Re TNC and Anonymous, I think I was too hasty in dismissing sovereignty in general and Kuwait's in particular. I don't, on reflection, we should stand idly by while an country ruled by an authoritarian regime is invaded by a country with a totalitarian regime. However, nor am I comfortable with the idea of the West's armies as the police force of the world. I'm not sure if defending the Emirate is a good priority, given all the other violations of sovereignty we stand by and allow. The reason the Great Powers defended the Emirate seems to me patently about oil and not justice. This is clearer from appalling way we left the Shia and Kurdish resistance high and dry and from our massacre of the fleeing Iraqi conscripts whose arms could have enabled a revolution against Saddam.

bob said...

Re Mod, yes indeed. All very well to judge Feb 2003 by attempt to keep Britain out of an insane war, but I think it's fair enough to judge its organisers by their utter lack of interest in the war in Syria whose death toll in two years is close to Iraq's death toll in a decade.