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What kind of anti-war movement do we need?
The Irish Left has taken to the streets in response to US led militarism on three occasions in almost as many years. In the spring of 1999 we demonstrated against an eleven-week bombing onslaught by NATO on the people of Serbia. Then in the winter of last year we were out again against the bombardment of Afghanistan. Today we are back at it, this time to declare our opposition to an even greater military onslaught about to be perpetrated against the innocent people of Iraq. It is certainly important to get as many protesters out on to the streets as possible but we must also be ever- ready to look over our shoulders and review the results of our previous practice.
To date the Left has prioritised the production of big street demos rather than the fostering of a new campaigning leadership. The protest banners have all carried an uncomplicated anti-war message: Stop the Bombing, No More War, Stop the Killing etc. Most of the slogans have expressed a strategic task in simplistic peace versus war terms. They have been construed to appeal to as wide an audience as the whole of the ‘Irish People’ rather than to any specific class interests of Irish workers.
Has the organised Left so little confidence in the political awareness of Ireland’s workers that an agenda of peace and diplomacy must take the place of one of anti-imperialism? In the past socialists were not mere stretcher-bearers for a peace and diplomacy agenda; we were anti-imperialists, we argued that a peaceful international capitalism was a pipe dream, we promoted the rights of mass supported anti-imperialist struggles and we never evaded questions like relating to armed resistance.
Anti- imperialism of course can degenerate into uncritical support for various armed nationalisms, but handled correctly, anti-imperialism was deemed to be an infinitely preferable starting point for our politics than the more utopian anti-war one. It appears that the Irish left today is all too ready to set aside the gains of anti -imperialist theory to align itself with an admittedly more numerous but yet less socialist peace and protest movement. The omissions of theory have at times been startling, here we will only mention a couple of the most galling recent examples from both ends of our experience.
When the left marched against NATO bombing in Yugoslavia socialists ought to be have been in favour of the right of self- determination and defence for the Bosnians and the Kosovars when they were being attacked by the militias of Serbian nationalism yet for the most part the left decided to leave these stones unturned. In the Coalition against the War Campaign in Belfast we in Socialist Democracy had to argue furiously against an anti-war current reluctant to mention any explicit condemnation of the September 11 bombings lest the message about the threat from the main enemy of American militarism was complicated for simple minds. However in omitting any public opposition to Bin Laden and al Qaeda the anti-war group exposed itself to the charge of the crudest anti- Americanism.
In so far as there is any justification for this dumbed-down version of socialist practice it takes the form of a supposed urgent requirement to build the broadest possible front against the American led war. The view that a united front can only succeed if it sticks to an uncomplicated political message couldn’t be more mistaken. The new historical period of increasing imperialist adventures that has now opened up raises huge questions of world politics that will require more than glorified pacifism as a response. The socialist left will have to rejuvenate its theory of contemporary imperialism but we know that it is not about starting from a clean slate, we can still take much from what Lenin and Trotsky said and did when they fought a much more virulent form of imperialism.
In general the Irish left is loath to discuss today’s great issues to their logical conclusion. Politics is hidden from campaigns that might openly appeal to critically minded workers and a simple-minded version sold to individuals as a means of recruitment. The energy generated by the Irish left is always the energy of getting the bandwagon rolling rather than to get things right. Is it any wonder then that in Ireland the street demonstrations tend to lead to only another usually smaller demonstration and not to any organised campaigns based on strategic proposals?
As soon as the street protest is over everything goes back to where it started from, little is carried on from one big upsurge to the next, and memories are wiped clean. All the talk of the grand united front proves to be phoney. Last year for example the anti-war movement quickly fragmented into a dozen pieces due to a sudden mania for smallness that overtook the SWP. In Belfast a healthy working group of about forty was broken up and destroyed in the name of giving ‘new people’ a choice of environments. We say to the comrades of the SWP, please no more multiple choice socialism! We also declare that the task of the socialist left is not just to work along side all those groups and individuals who are opposed to the massive new war drive it is also to build an anti- imperialist movement based on international socialism.