47. Massive worldwide resistance to Iraq War



At the end of January 2003 we reported on “Global resistance to the war – massive protest in Bush’s backyard”. Comrades from the US reported “a number of trade unions and labour councils have taken a strong stand against the war. One hundred delegates representing over two million organised workers formed US Labor Against the War at a meeting in Chicago.”1 But as in Britain, while attacking Bush, not a word of criticism was made at many of the meetings of the Democratic Party, who were tied to big business as much as the Republicans and were firm supporters of imperialist wars and military intervention. In Britain preparations were in full swing for the national mobilisation on 15 February.

This emphasis on the need for democratic forms of organisation was paramount for the success of this movement. As the organisations that had been established were ad hoc, not having the traditional structures of the organised trade union and labour movement, it was therefore even more necessary to arrive at a consensus by having an approach which embraced all forces involved but at the same time striving for a clear programme. A clear class programme was an issue under dispute on occasions, even in the Stop the War national coordinating body.

The Socialist Party came into collision once more with the SWP and their allies over the inclusion of the Liberal Democrats on the platform of the 15 February demonstration. We argued that nobody should be debarred from participating in the demonstration, including Liberal Democrats. Many were very sincerely opposed to the war. For the leaders, however, the anti-war movement represented an opportunity to gain support for their political ‘project’ and that did not challenge the roots of this war, which was to be found in the nature of capitalist society and its imperialist manifestation. Unfortunately, the SWP, in collusion with others, gave a platform to Liberal Democrats leader Charles Kennedy. We predicted in advance that he would use this platform to burnish his anti-war credentials but once war began would distance himself from the Stop the War Coalition and any consistent opposition to the war. This was what happened.

Ahead of Hans Blix’s report, divisions opened up between the US administration – backed by Tony Blair – and France and Germany, backed by Russia. The press in Britain savaged the US administration’s ‘evidence’ to justify an invasion of Iraq. The Daily Mirror declared: “Dodgy tapes, grainy videos, great rhetoric, but where’s the PROOF Colin [Powell]?” After his infamous appearance at the Un, where he supplied the “information” justifying intervention, The Daily Mirror’s retort was simply “not enough”.2 On the other hand, some leaders of trade unions were increasingly demanding action to oppose the war. An array of trade union leaders demanded a recall TUC Congress, including the leader of the lecturers’ union, Paul Mackney, the communication workers’ Billy Hayes, Bob Crow of the RMT, Mark Serwotka of PCS and Mick Rix of ASLEF.

In the preparation for the demonstration, we pointed out that this invasion was just the latest example of the many wars that had taken place since 1945. Since then, there had been a war every year with the US using its superpower status to increasingly sweep aside any objections. Since 1945 it had bombed or invaded 23 other countries.

“Millions march against war” was the headline of The Socialist following the colossal 15 February demonstration. “Britain has never seen anything like it. Up to two million people flooding the streets of central London in a massive sea of anti-war protest. Hundreds of thousands were on their first ever demonstration and it was a day that nobody will forget. As demonstrators converged on London they were strengthened by knowing that they were part of a worldwide movement with millions more making their voices heard across the globe.”3 A placard featured in this issue read: “War on Iraq could kill this many”, referring to the size of the demonstration! And this was not far wrong in its estimation!

The Socialist received an enthusiastic welcome from the demonstrators. Of course, compared to the massive number of marchers, Socialist Party members were spread very thinly throughout the demonstration. Hannah Sell, national organiser, coordinating our intervention, reported that we sold 4,500 papers and 140 people applied to join the Socialist Party. All along the route of the demonstration we sold papers. Four members of the Lambeth branch sold 250 copies at Waterloo Station in a shift that lasted from 8.15 in the morning to 2pm. Over 100 were sold at Euston, 211 papers were sold by one comrade on the Embankment. The march set off early and a seller from Wales reported: “As we approached Parliament Square, Wales Socialist Party members formed a line of sellers across the road, selling to everyone. By the end of the march Swansea Socialist Party had sold 72, with 40 plus from Port Talbot, 50 from Pontypridd, and Cardiff sold 70. People were grasping our leaflets and using them as mini-placards.”

Reports showed the resourcefulness of Socialist Party members when faced with police harassment: “In the morning the police were stopping the ‘usual suspects’ from putting up their stalls in the park including the Socialist Party. So we put up our hoardings on Park Lane. The police then barricaded us off from the march, so we ferreted our papers into the park as the demo arrived. The march streamed into the park from every entrance. We sold 250 papers at the Queen Elizabeth entrance, and London West Central branch sold 153 from the Hyde Park Corner entrance. People held up our paper and leaflets as placards as they entered the park. Groups of anti-Saddam, anti-war Iraqis came up to our stall buying papers and taking our material.”4  Opposition to the invasion was not at all universal, particularly from Iraqi groups in exile, many of whom welcomed any military action to remove Saddam. We had many a debate with them and the few bands of Blair supporters, which revolved around how best to remove Saddam Hussein. We had common ground that he was a bloodthirsty dictator, presiding over an unacceptable regime. We argued that the task of removing Saddam Hussein was primarily that of the Iraqi people, with the support of the labour movement internationally. Our opponents said this was hopelessly utopian; Saddam and his regime possessed all the guns and means of repression, therefore resistance and struggle were futile, doomed to endless defeat.

Blair later unbelievably argued the ‘Arab Spring’ justifies the decision to intervene against Saddam! It proves exactly the opposite of what he argued to justify the invasion of Iraq. The Arab Spring of 2011 was a mass uprising of the Tunisian and Egyptian masses which overthrew Presidents Ben Ali and Mubarak, not outside military intervention. In fact, when military intervention was used by imperialism – the bombing of Libya and the foreign intervention of Saudi Arabia in Bahrain – the end result prepared the ground for counter-revolution. Our opponents could argue, “Well Egypt has ended up with a new ‘popular’ dictator, Sisi”. On the contrary, that was not the situation in the immediate aftermath of Mubarak’s downfall when power resided with the masses in the streets, factories and squares. What was lacking in Egypt was a mass revolutionary party, resting on democratic committees capable of consolidating the power of the working class and the poor peasants by carrying through an expropriation of landlordism and capitalism.

Blair has also invoked the example of Syria and the Assad regime to justify the criminal invasion of Iraq. This also proves exactly the opposite. The opposition to the Syrian regime perhaps began as a genuine movement for democracy but it was skewed through the intervention of outside forces, particularly right-wing political Islam backed by the reactionary oil sheiks. This resulted in a bloody stalemate in Syria itself with the conflict spilling over to the region as a whole and a sectarian nightmare. The only way to cut across this is by the development of an independent workers’ movement, resting on the cardinal principle of relying on its own forces to effect change, through real workers’ democracy and socialism in Syria and throughout the Middle East.

Highly significant, was the political message of 15 February. The most positive feature was, of course, the size of the demonstration, together with some of the speeches made in Hyde Park that became the scene of one of history’s biggest ever open-air meetings. Millions marched, but hundreds of thousands gathered together in Hyde Park “to make a human central heating system that kept out the biting cold.” The best received speeches were those which were not only anti-war but anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist: “We want regime change in Britain. Bring down Blair!” said Tariq Ali. Tony Benn got a huge response, saying that the march was the foundation of a new political movement, the first-ever simultaneous global demonstration. Unfortunately, he never followed through with “a new political movement” in Britain, remaining tied to the discredited ‘Labour’ party to the end. This movement could have laid the foundations for a new workers’ party.

In fact Dave Nellist and I, on behalf of the Socialist Party, had a quite detailed discussion with George Galloway in the run-up to this demonstration on the possibility of using his speech as a launching pad for such a venture. However, George veered away from this – putting misplaced faith in the Labour left to restore him back into the ranks of the Labour Party. When he realised the futility of this, he set up Respect with the SWP, which represented, as we pointed out in advance, another cul-de-sac.

Bob Crow got loud cheers for his call for “workers to take action on Day X, the day the war starts.” This speech and others and the way they were received showed that there was a big constituency for the launch of a new anti-war, anti-capitalist formation.

Former Labour Cabinet minister Mo Mowlam and Charles Kennedy were initially warmly applauded but by the time they concluded their speeches, applause was polite and muted. When Mo Mowlam concluded her speech using New Labour’s old campaign slogan, “things can only get better”, there was derisory laughter. Kennedy proposed going through the UN, but Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP for Islington North, made it clear that even if the US were to “corruptly cobble together support for a second UN resolution, this war would still be wrong and we would still oppose it”.

All the speakers from the left spoke passionately and carried the crowd with them. Billy Hayes warned New Labour that the unions were fed up with being ignored and if Blair persisted with his drive towards war, the unions would fight to get the government to end it. Again, unfortunately, this was not transformed into action by actually proceeding to form a new trade union-based party. The same could be said of George Galloway, who concluded his remarks by stating: “If he takes Britain over the cliff and into war, he will break the Labour Party he is supposed to lead. Some of us are prepared to pick it up and rebuild it out of the wreckage as a real Labour Party.”5

This promissory note was not redeemed despite Blair actually going to war and big opportunities were lost for launching a new party in the years since the Iraq war began. In fact, the experience of 15 February revealed the positive and negative features lodged in the underlying explosive situation that had developed in Britain, which were brought to the surface by the war. The demonstration and its immense power were enormously encouraging. However, the fact that politicians like Charles Kennedy could appear on a platform demagogically opposing the war and not be answered forcefully by others, like the SWP and the left speakers who were present, only served to build up their ‘radical’ credentials. This, in turn, bolstered their electoral appeal amongst youth in particular, which was only finally punctured after they entered the coalition with the Tories in 2010.

Up to 30 million people in 72 countries, according to American broadcaster CNN, poured onto the streets of cities, towns and villages around the world on 15 February in protest against the war plans. We reported: “This simultaneous action was the biggest anti-war protest in history, as the following reports from CWI members testify… The global tidal wave of humanity began in New Zealand and Australia and over the next few days spread like wildfire from one end of the world to the other. A magnificent expression of solidarity was witnessed across Latin America, Europe, Africa and Asia … The largest demonstration was in Rome, where an incredible three million people marched against Bush and the right wing Italian prime minister and fervent war supporter, Silvio Berlusconi.” Barcelona and Madrid also saw millions protest. In the US, the foremost imperialist power, a magnificent half a million marched in New York – despite Mayor Bloomberg’s draconian restrictions – and hundreds of thousands across the country. Up to 150,000 marched in Dublin, 80,000 in Glasgow and 70,000 in Amsterdam. 3,000 Israeli Jews and Arabs demonstrated in Tel Aviv. Some Israeli Arabs addressed the demonstration, speaking in Arabic, something not often heard in mixed demonstrations in Israel. Members of the Israeli section of the CWI, Socialist Struggle Movement, participated in the demonstration, selling 150 copies of their newspaper. Given the scale of the protests, it was not surprising that they were varied in character and embraced a wide number of political ideas. These included pacifist ideas and illusions over the role of the United Nations.6

Despite the massive protests over the war, the US unleashed its war machine against Iraq in a stupendous ‘shock and awe’ campaign. An air force general declared it “such a shock on the system that the Iraqi regime would have to assume early on that the end is inevitable.”7 Once war began this represented a new challenge to the anti-war movement. The first thing that became clear was that the US and British troops met with determined resistance and far fewer Iraqi soldiers defected than was expected. One Iraqi returning from Baghdad explained: “I’m not fighting for Saddam, I am fighting for Iraq”.8 A US opinion poll taken just after the war started found that 41% expected US casualties would be no more than 100. Two days after war broke out an anti-war demonstration of between a quarter and a half million took place in New York; a similar number protested in London.

The bombing of Baghdad horrified world public opinion. Ordinary Iraqis suffered with widespread deaths and terrible injuries. We commented: “Left union leaders like Bob Crow of the RMT are opposed to war with Iraq and have pledged to support any workers who take action against it. They now have to be more proactive. They should immediately organise an anti-war conference of rank-and-file union members, union reps, executive committee members and general secretaries who support the Stop the War Coalition. Such a conference could discuss taking action against the war, including naming the date for a one-day strike.”9

There had already been a tremendous response from young people who marched out of their schools and colleges on Day X. For instance we reported: “The London Borough of Waltham Forest has never seen anything like it. At the peak of the protest 3,000 school and sixth form students took over the streets. It all started at 8.45 when 200 school students from Kelmscott School walked out and marched to the town square… Terrified teachers rushed to lock the gates and stop students from joining the march, although a few managed to escape… ISR/Youth Against the War spent weeks leafleting for the strike. On the day so many wanted to join ISR/Youth Against the War that we couldn’t keep up.” Thousands also marched to Parliament from Tower Hamlets and Hackney, with many other towns and cities throughout Britain also seeing anti-war demonstrations.10