Some thoughts on the anti-war movement
Mike Marqusee

Based on a talk given at Signs of the Times seminar, 27 January 2003
Mike Marqusee is an author and a member of the Stop the War Coalition Steering Committee

The anti-war movement has developed on a scale and at a pace that few of us expected. It already has one achievement to its credit: it has succeeded in postponing the war.

The strategic aim of the global anti-war movement has been to isolate the US government - hence the centrality of the British movement - while reaching out to the American people. After a hesitant start, the movement in the US is now moving rapidly, as was illustrated by the 250,000 turn-out for the demonstration in Washington DC on 28 January. Opposition to Bush's war policy has spread among students and artists and entertainers, but most significantly, perhaps, among organised labour. As of this moment, labour movement bodies representing some 4 million workers have passed anti-war resolutions. Among them are New York's biggest public sector union, SEIU 1199, which sent twenty-five buses to the Washington demonstration. The Chicago Teamsters Local, the second biggest in the country, passed an uncompromising anti-war resolution by a vote of 402 to one.

In Britain, the movement has been striking for its diversity and energy. It has also managed to maintain a relatively high degree of unity in action, thanks partly to the work of the Stop the War Coalition. The difficulties experienced in the USA confirm the advantages of having a single, broad-based anti-war coalition building mass actions around simple, highly focussed demands: i.e. Don't Attack Iraq. The STWC has been led from the left but has reached to the right. Because it got off to a quick start after 11 September 2001, it was able to develop and stabilise and be in a strong position to maximise and foster the growing dissent on Iraq. The STWC brings together left-wing and peace groups, Labour Party members, including MPs, trades unions, Muslim, anti-racist and human rights groups and activists, and, vitally, a large number of local groups who remain autonomous but look to STWC for co-ordination. It hasn't always been easy but we have managed to achieve a remarkable degree of unity; we have for the most part avoided getting bogged down in internal disputes.

As the anti-war movement expands and war looms, there is a growing debate about which tactics will prove most effective.

Civil disobedience can be a catalyst; it can administer shock therapy (although to do so effectively it requires assistance from the media). If it's done on a sufficiently large scale and in a targeted manner, it can, sometimes, physically obstruct the war-makers. At the moment, we are not at that stage. Actions by small groups, however symbolically charged, cannot substitute for large numbers of people. And at the moment the vast majority of people who oppose the war will not engage in these actions. None of which is to say that civil disobedience has no place within a burgeoning anti-war movement - on the contrary. But it is important that the question of civil disobedience does not become a dividing line within the movement.

Mass demonstrations are by no means the sole tactic to be adopted by the movement but they do remain central and indispensable. And sometimes they do make a dramatic difference. In November of 1969, nearly one million people gathered in Washington for what was, until the demonstration in Florence a few months ago, the largest ever anti-war rally. Publicly, Nixon attacked the protesters; privately, as we now know from published memoirs and documents, the demonstration dissuaded him from deploying nuclear weapons against North Vietnam.

For the most part, the importance of demonstrations lies in their impact on the overall political equation. They are a barometer - for the media, for the political decision-makers and for the movement itself. They provide a focus, a coming together of the movement at its broadest and most diverse. The highest degree of visible unity around the most basic, urgent and unarguable demand (stop the war). And they act as a springboard for future actions - local and national - as demonstrators return home, talk with others about the experience, and in some cases becomes organisers in their own communities.

Increasingly, what does unite the otherwise diverse global anti-war movement is an emergent anti-imperialist perspective best summed up in the work of Noam Chomsky - not a Marxist but an anarchist humanist. Chomsky's analysis of US foreign policy can be seen running through the movement in Britain, USA, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Palestine, India, Pakistan. That seems to me a healthy common denominator. Attending anti-war events of various kinds over the last 15 months, I've been struck by how the language of anti-imperialism, references to the USA as an empire, etc. have gradually become quite casual, including among people who do not and are never likely to subscribe to any kind of 'revolutionary Marxism'.

Some apologists for the war argue that it is a war of liberation for the Iraqi people. But the liberal imperialist vision of a world where democracies are nurtured as US military protectorates is both unreal and anti-democratic. It relies on the assumption of a permanent convergence of interests between the US government and the Iraqi people. We're talking about the destiny of the Iraqi people - but neither Bush nor Blair nor the generals nor the soldiers who will form the occupying force are in any way accountable to those people. The liberal imperialists offer us a world in which a single great unchallengeable power decides what hoops others states or peoples must jump through if they are to avoid being invaded and occupied. The war is an exercise of power by the rich and mainly white over the poor and mainly not white. It is driven by the US elite's desire for strategic control over the earth's non-renewable energy resources, and, more broadly, for global political and economic hegemony.

But it would be wrong to try to enshrine this emergent anti-imperialist analysis as a 'line' within the anti-war movement or the Stop the War Coalition. In fact, that would be a good way to ensure that an anti-imperialist critique does not reach larger numbers of people. The comparison with the movement against the war in Vietnam is often made. Thirty years ago, the Paris Peace Accords were signed, bringing direct US military involvement in Vietnam to an end - after eight years of all-out war and 2 million dead. Clearly, the anti-war movement failed to stop the war; and the first lesson is that this time we must do better. However, the real success of the movement against the Vietnam war was the residue it left behind in people's consciousnesses. In both Britain and the USA, that residue has been the foundation of the current anti-war movement. We've started faster this time around because of that long and bitter experience.

It was not until 1967 - two years after the US began its all out air and ground assault - that anti-war demonstrations topped the 100,000 mark. The current movement is also much more socially diverse, both here and in the USA; its racial and religious and class composition (not least the involvement of trades unionists) is much broader. It must be said that Saddam Hussein is no Ho Chi Minh, and that the Iraqi regime is not the NLF. While the North Vietnamese regime did indeed engage in human rights abuses and political repression (it was not a democracy), it did offer people a vision and a programme for national liberation and social justice (not least, land reform). As a result, it had a capacity to mobilise resistance - and to attract international solidarity - that Saddam's regime decidedly lacks. That also feeds into another difference between this war and Vietnam - the likely military one-sidedness, mainly the result of the huge superiority in weapons technology now enjoyed by the USA.

Vietnam became the over-riding global issue of its day, an issue around which a wide array of other issues, other struggles, were galvanised. The same may happen in relation to Iraq or the more long-term 'war against terror'. However, already, international coordination and communication within the anti-war movement is much greater than at any time during the Vietnam days - when nothing on the scale of 15th February was ever organised. That's partly to do with the internet and email, and partly to do with the rise of a new global awareness and a culture of global 'anti-capitalist' protest.

Famously the anti-war movement and the counter-culture were intertwined: the counter-culture derived a sense of mission and higher purpose from the anti-war movement, and the movement acquired a dynamism and creativity from the counter-culture. However, the Vietnam movement was too marked by self-indulgence. Too often, the test was how an action made us feel, rather than how effective or not it might be in achieving our aim. My impression is that today's young activists are more thoughtful, better informed, more realistic, less schismatic than we were.

Then as now there was an ideological framework that had to be rejected - then, the Cold War, today, the war on terror - and a reality that had to be descried behind it: a US empire. Of course, since those days, there's a new element in the anti-war movement: the Muslim communities. I think the active involvement of Muslims has been a strength of the anti-war movement and of the Stop the War Coalition. It was right to reach out and it is right to continue to reach out to the Muslim communities. It's right to ensure that we have one peace movement; it would have been disastrous if on 28 September there had been separate Muslim and white-led demos. Nor should Muslims merely be seen as foot-soldiers; they are and must be part of the wider discussion about analysis, tactics and strategies. That's actually a vital part of challenging fundamentalism. Another is to take away the 'Islamic' from the facile generalisations about fundamentalism. There are powerful and malign forms of Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Jewish fundamentalism at work in our world. All of them are part of a broader pattern of the rise of exclusivist, chauvinist forms of identity politics - something that seems to be intrinsic to this stage of capitalist society. As long as you isolate Islamic fundamentalism from this broader pattern, you won't be able to understand it and you will give succour to the jehadis.

The Muslim communities are not monolithic. Debate and discussion is raging within them. Since 11-9 (and really, before), young Muslims are being politicised. It's important to remember that membership of organised jehadi groups in this country amount to no more than a few thousand. And not every youngster who chants Allah'u Akbar is one of them. Far from it. Not every assertion of Muslim identity is fundamentalist or reactionary - though, like all identity politics, it is double-edged. It's also well to remember that there are varieties and shades of Islamism. There is a current within Islamism that embraces democracy and human rights. Claims that these ideas are alien to and incompatible with Islam or even all forms of Islamism simply strengthen the authoritarian elements within Islam. The roots of fundamentalism lie in the failure of secular orders (including the failure of the left) to build just societies. But it is US imperialism that has given it a lease on life, again and again, and most recently at a time when it was probably expiring from its own inadequacies.

As a Jewish anti-war activist, I've found dialogue and collaboration with Muslims and Muslim groups a rich and stimulating experience. I've certainly found them, on the whole, more alert to the question of anti-semitism than some on the left and certainly far more than the British upper classes. There is an increasing awareness that anti-semitism and Islamophobia are drawn from the same template. In my experience, activists from the Muslim communities are eager for dialogue with and participation in the broader anti-war movement. But that dialogue cannot be premised on the notion that 'we' (non-Muslims) 'know what's good for you' - in either its liberal or Leninist variants.

Can this movement stop the war? None of us knows. But we do know that in the absence of a mass movement this war and others like it will certainly be waged, and the human cost will be unacceptable.

By Mike Marqusee.