Chris Harman

Thinking it through

The state of the movement

(November 2001)

From Socialist Review, No.257, November 2001.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Anti-capitalists are taking to the streets against the war and their politics are hardening up, argues Chris Harman

’One of the less remarked consequences of the US terrorist attacks has been to halt in its tracks the mass movement against globalisation. As its leaders have been quick to realise, the atrocity’s nature has made unsustainable the anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism that pervade their protests.’ So claimed the Financial Times on 6 October, the day before the US and Britain began to bomb Afghanistan. Not for the first time, the paper was substituting wishes for reality.

The suicide attacks on New York and Washington did, of course, have an impact on the worldwide movement over globalisation that had grown so massively in size and impact in the 20 months from Seattle to Genoa. Like any great horror, man-made or natural, it stunned people right across the world in the days immediately afterwards, cutting off discussion about much else. And when discussion began to turn elsewhere it was to the looming war against Afghanistan, not the issues that had been central until the morning of 11 September.

No movement could avoid being thrown off its stride by such developments. The coalition which had come together to call what would have been America’s biggest protest, at the Washington World Bank meeting on 22 September, split after the terrorist attacks on whether to direct the protest against the war. In Britain Tony Blair was able to manipulate people’s feeling of shocked horror to abort any debate at the TUC conference over his privatisation proposals and then ensure union leaders did not mount any real challenge at the Labour Party conference three weeks later. As I write, the prospect of the World Trade Organisation meeting due in Qatar in early November is much overshadowed by the nuclear submarines not so far from the Gulf state’s shores firing cruise missiles at Afghanistan.

But this certainly does not mean the movement about globalisation is finished. Far from it – it shows every sign of emerging from the brief lull which affected it in mid-September bigger in size and harder politically.

In the 20th century we saw many examples of the way in which great catastrophes like wars and slumps could stun, temporarily, movements against the system, only for them to emerge stronger a little later. The classic example was August 1914. The four years previously had seen a wave of strikes with accompanying political radicalisation in a whole number of western countries, and the first stirrings of national liberation movements in their colonies. The war seemed to knock both sorts of movements off balance, especially as leaders as varied as Guesde, Henderson, Scheidemann, Kropotkin, Gandhi and Tilak rushed to back their own rulers in the war.

It took the genuine left two or three years to recuperate after the shock. But when it did so, it was to re-emerge larger and with much greater clarity of purpose than before. The rumblings against the system in the spring of 1914 returned as earthquakes from February 1917 onwards.

The movement around globalisation has suffered much less than its forebears of nearly 90 years ago, whether in terms of desertion or of disorientation. Most of its leading spokespeople have come out clearly against the war – witness the positions taken by Walden Bello, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Vittorio Agnoletto and Kevin Danaher. And across the world wide sections of the networks that were organising against the World Bank or WTO are now calling people on to the streets against the war.

Where history is repeating itself is in the way the war is forcing people to harden up their politics. The movement that broke upon the world at Seattle was always anti-capitalist in the sense of being against the existing world system and its commodification of everything. But in many cases the anti-capitalism was implicit rather than explicit, mixed up with beliefs in the possibility of reform, that speculation rather than exploitation was the enemy, or that small business and local production had virtues missing from big business.

There was also a tendency to dismiss as ‘outdated’ talk of confronting the state. People like Naomi Klein argued that we could ignore the state, and should simply form locally-based campaigns and networks directed against the multinationals: ‘We are up against a boulder. We can’t remove it so we try to go underneath it, to go around it and over it.’

This was a strange mirror image of the position put forward two decades ago, when people like Edward Thompson argued that it was possible to confront the question of the military destructiveness of the state without linking it to the capitalist character of society.

The movement had already begun to overcome any such separation of the economic and political at Genoa. The protest attracted huge numbers from the most militant section of the Italian working class.

The behaviour of the Italian police brought home to the hundreds of thousands of participants from right across Europe the harsh reality that the state was not some benevolent institution that they could look to to control the multinationals, and that, although they might try to walk round it, it would not simply stand aside while they did so.

That lesson will have been reinforced tenfold since 11 September. If the greatest military power humanity has ever known is prepared to launch unlimited and endless war against one of the poorest states on earth, what hope is there in trying to stand aside from the global system of exploitation and oppression to undertake local experiments in ecologically sustainable food production or in simply setting up direct trade networks?

People are seeing all too clearly that globalisation has military dimensions. As well as the multinationals, it involves the great imperialism of the US, the weaker imperialisms of western Europe, Russia, China and Japan, and the sub-imperialisms of the lesser powers. All use weaponry of mass destruction as bargaining tools in their haggling with each other over the pecking order in the global system of their economic affiliates.

There are still many confusions to be resolved as the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements draw together. There are still, for instance, those who see terrorism and fundamentalism as adversaries as powerful and as dangerous as – or even more dangerous than – imperialism.

There are still many arguments to be had over these and many other issues. But they look set to take place within a much stronger and much more politically sharp movement than we have seen yet. The Financial Times is unlikely to be gloating for long.

Rumblings against the system returned as earthquakes

Last updated on 26 December 2009