From Socialist Worker, No.1819, 28 September 2002.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Worker Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Chris Harman, editor of Socialist Worker, and a socialist activist since the 1960s, speaks about the urgent need to build socialist organisation today.
The anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960s was a turning point, but today’s movement is even bigger. We now face the fourth war in ten years. And when the war against Iraq is over, the madmen in the White House are planning to set their sights on new targets – Iran, North Korea, perhaps even China.
We are seeing the horrific reality of a barbaric system, but at the same time we are already seeing incredible signs of resistance to the war. We have seen massive demonstrations against the war this year. In Barcelona half a million were on the streets against capital and war, and in Germany Bush faced very big protests.
These protests are already much, much bigger than the demonstrations at the beginning of the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War started in 1963-4, but the first mass demonstrations against it did not take place until 1967-8. When the French writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was invited to address anti-war meetings in the US in 1966 he refused to go. He said he wouldn’t waste his time going to the US because there would never be an anti-war movement there.
There were 100,000 people out on the streets demonstrating outside the Pentagon 18 months later. In Britain in 1968 at the high point of the protests there were 100,000 people on the streets. This time we have the same scale of mobilisation against the war before it has even started.
But the point at which the anti-war movement in the 1960s became really effective was when it linked up with other issues. For example, in France in 1968 the student movement fed into a general strike of ten million workers. In Italy the student movement of 1967-8 led into the workers’ movement of 1969, the “Hot Autumn”.
This process was repeated in country after country through to the Portuguese Revolution of 1974-5. In the US the movement wasn’t just against the Vietnam War. To a large extent that campaign merged into the uprising by black people against their oppression. It was the combination of forces that also affected the US army in Vietnam, and really terrified the US government.
This time round the protests against the war are taking place just as workers are beginning to move against attempts to impose neo-liberal policies and attack their working conditions.
Across Europe, right wing leaders like Berlusconi, Aznar and Blair are pushing to make workers work harder, take away trade union rights, and so on. So the anti-war movement is rising just as there is a rise in working class struggle. Already this year we have seen three million on the streets of Rome and a general strike in Italy. Ten million workers in Spain took part in a general strike, with two million demonstrating on the streets.
The anti-war demonstrations can feed into the anger of workers against their own conditions and create an explosive cocktail that can really change society. This can give hope to other people who are suffering. In Britain unemployment is not as high as in other parts of Europe. But people are still being made to work harder, in worse conditions, with more managerial bullying and in more insecure temporary jobs. The militant mood on demonstrations can begin to tap into the bitterness this causes.
It can also link up with other issues in society, such as the anger of black and Asian people who have been abused by Blunkett and threatened by the Nazi National Front and BNP. And it can tie into the general discontent in society over things like environmental conditions and the collapsing transport system.
At the TUC conference two weeks ago, for the first time since the miners’ strike of 1984-5, there was a left wing group of union leaders and delegates making links between such issues. The fact that the trade union leaders talk in these terms, even if they don’t always deliver in these terms, means that large numbers of people will be prepared to get involved.
There is a spontaneous movement to the left. In the 1960s we saw a movement like this across Europe, and we are seeing it develop again today across Europe and the whole world, with tens of thousands of people demonstrating outside the Earth Summit in Johannesburg. But in a situation like this not everyone automatically becomes a socialist. Racists and Nazis try to spread their poisonous ideas among those who are driven to despair, like the unemployed and people in the former mill towns in north west England.
There is a mixture of ideas among the mass of people. Some believe the system should be overthrown. Some believe in all the filth of the system, the racism, the grovelling to the bosses. And people in the middle are pulled first in one direction, then in the other. They are attracted by great articles like those written by John Pilger in the Daily Mirror, but some are also pulled by the Sun and Mail. In this situation, people need to make the links and explain how the racism blacks and Asians suffer is connected to the misery experienced by white workers.
We need a movement that can put across a simple, clear message. We have to say that if you want to fight against the boss you also have to fight against the war. If you want to challenge racism you also need to stand up to the employers. If you campaign against racism and the war you are helping to stop your own life being ground down.
In the 1960s organisations based on building these sorts of connections were established in a few places, but they were not powerful enough to break through in society. From 1974-5 onwards the old system was able to re-establish itself. This time round there is a much bigger movement and the possibilities are greater.
It is vital that people go from the demonstration this week to build the anti-war movement as widely as possible. That means linking up with the bitterness exploding around public sector pay. We also need organisation, a party, that brings together the people who want to make these connections. It has to discuss and learn the lessons of the past, be firmly rooted in socialist politics and have a vision of the different sort of society we are fighting for.
It has to be a democratic and active organisation which is part of every struggle, whether it be against the threat of imperialist war, defending asylum seekers, winning a strike or fighting a nursery closure. We need a much stronger socialist presence to turn the potential that exists into reality. People who want to fight the whole system should join the Socialist Workers Party.
Last updated on 11 December 2009