After the war, what next for the movement?
By Mike Marqusee
7th May 2003

A global mass movement arises and peaks in a matter of months. A war for control of a vast territory is fought in weeks. History these days seems remarkably compressed. But as a quick war turns into an indefinite occupation, immediate impressions are likely to prove misleading. We may have seen merely the first engagement between an emboldened empire and the new grass-roots internationalism that has risen to challenge it.

Though the anti-war movement failed to stop the war - and remember that such an eventuality would have implied a profound shift in the global balance of power - its achievements remain significant. In Britain, the USA and internationally the movement threw a spotlight on the whole process of war-making, exposing it to a degree of public scrutiny and debate rarely seen before. The war-makers were forced to justify and rationalise their war; many people will now measure its results against those claims. That background is already making the US-British occupation a more problematic enterprise than it otherwise might have been.

Not least, it's helping to empower Iraqis as they resume their long-running quest for self-rule.

Significantly, the movement was international in character. The global spread of the mass demonstrations on 15th February has no parallel in our species' history. This unprecedented international action was not guided by any single political current, though many participated; it emerged from the bottom up, and reflected a new internationalist consciousness - one which speaks in various national, ethnic and class accents, but which is nonetheless discernibly united around an emerging critique of US power and the injustices purveyed by its global reach.

The anti-war movement remains, in the words of an article in the New York Times, 'the second superpower'. However, it does now face new and awkward challenges.

The war has thrown into stark relief what Tony Benn calls Britain's 'crisis of representation'. It has confirmed that we have gravitated further towards the two-party, no choice system that holds sway in the USA. Despite the enormous public pressure exerted on Blair in the run-up to the war, he knew that he would easily win any vote in Parliament. He also knew that, in England at least, there was no viable alternative at the ballot box. He therefore remained unthreatened on the electoral front. (Labour was punished in the Scottish and local elections, but that will not affect the party nationally).

Despite the upsurge of anti-war feeling in the population as a whole, and without doubt specifically among Labour Party members, the scale and intensity of dissent was not reflected within the Labour Party itself. Its structures, now largely controlled from the top down if not merely moribund, were never seriously shaken by the anti-war tide.

The scale of the Parliamentary rebellion was indeed unprecedented. But neither the Labour rebellion nor the opposition in Parliament as a whole reflected the balance of opinion in the country. Dissident Labour MPs like Jeremy Corbyn, George Galloway, Alice Mahon, Tam Dalyell, and John McDonnell have played a major role in articulating anti-war opinion. But they have done so as the parliamentary champions of an extra-parliamentary movement - a movement that so far has had little if any impact on Labour's internal regime, despite the mutinous murmurs.

The pivotal war-role played by Blair, Straw and the Labour Cabinet - in the context of French and German as well as domestic opposition - suggests that the damage is irremediable. The politics of empire, with all its dehumanised compulsions and calculations, are now indelibly inscribed at the heart of new Labour.

In the absence of a viable electoral alternative in England, there will remain a political vacuum, but by no means a political hiatus. Most people I've spoken to in the anti-war movement want to keep the local groups going and continue to campaign - for an end to the occupation, for justice for the Palestinians, against the overarching 'war on terror' and whatever new aggression it spawns.

Self-evidently, these are long-term commitments. The real meaning of what has been achieved so far will be determined by our success in sustaining them, our ability to turn the outburst of global anti-war sentiment into a durable social movement.

But are the ideas and analysis that drive the anti-war movement strong enough to withstand the shifting tides of media and public perceptions? At the scores of anti-war meetings I attended across the country, I found no illusions about the nature of Saddam Hussein's regime. Instead, the guiding impulses have been internationalist and democratic. Opposition to the war was not grounded on calculations about how long it would last or whether losses sustained by US-British forces would be inordinate. On the contrary, the shared understanding of what the war was about and why it was wrong has been strengthened by events.

The WMD rationale for the war has collapsed. The gross disparity between the military and the humanitarian efforts has undermined claims that the welfare of Iraqis was the motivating concern - as did the use of cluster bombs and the dropping of bunker busters on civilian areas. The US moved efficiently to protect the oil ministry while it let more than a hundred other government buildings burn; in defiance of the Geneva Conventions, it permitted the.

Looting of hospitals and museums. Most decisively, Iraqis in substantial numbers have joined demonstrations calling for the removal of the occupying power. In Mosul, Fallujah and elsewhere, protesters have been shot dead by US soldiers.

All this has been noted by the millions who took part in anti-war activities movement and will outweigh the fleeting triumphalism of a one-sided military victory. The anti-war movement must now search out means to insinuate itself into daily life, to become a ubiquitous standing challenge to a global injustice. It needs to create and sustain inescapable reminders of that injustice. It needs to ensure that Iraq is not relegated, as Afghanistan has been, to the media's third division. It needs to hold those who made this war to account, and to do that it needs to create vehicles through which protests can be registered - repeatedly and for as long as it takes - within workplaces, schools, universities, communities of every dimension and variety. Mass national and international demonstrations will remain vital, but their effectiveness will be greater to the extent that they are crystallisations of a broader, deeper, on-going agitation within civil society.

Despite wishful thinking in some quarters, the political landscape has not returned to what passes for normal. The forces and ideas arrayed against each other in the run-up to the war are far from exhausted. The war has fostered the growth of a dissident political culture - expressed in countless initiatives and events - and while the pace of activity is now likely to slow, the genie will not crawl back into the bottle.

By Mike Marqusee