Chris Harman

The war: debate, analysis & argument

Birth of a new movement

(1 March 2003)

From Socialist Worker, No.1840, 1 March 2003.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Worker Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Chris Harman is the editor of Socialist Worker. He has been an active socialist since the anti Vietnam War movement of the 1960s. He describes the significance of the 15 February demonstrations across the globe

WHAT WE saw on 15 February was incredible. It was not just the demonstrations in Britain – it was the protests right around the world. The Financial Times said they were the biggest demonstrations since the Vietnam War. In fact, there was nothing coordinated on this scale during Vietnam.

On 15 February some four or five million marched in Spain, more than three million in Italy, 500,000 in Germany and, if you put together all the different demos across the US, probably one million people protested there. The demonstration of 200,000 in the Canary Islands will be a revelation to anyone who has been on holiday there.

These protests have already had an impact on the rulers of the world. I fear it won’t be enough to stop Bush taking us to war. But it has made clear to his allies how difficult the drive to war is, and got Tony Blair squirming. People are realising just how many lies those ruling the system will tell when they try to convince us that theirs is the only way of doing things. People are beginning to see alternatives on a scale unimaginable only four or five years ago. The protests in Seattle in November 1999 were a turning point, but only involved about 50,000 people. Since then we have had demonstrations of 300,000 in Genoa, 500,000 in Barcelona and one million in Florence. This adds up to a whole rebellion against different aspects of the system.

This itself is a political fact of great importance. A generation of people is getting involved in politics for the first time. Throughout the history of capitalism you can see a pattern where people rebel and are then defeated. Then they have to live with the system for the rest of their lives. They become demoralised and think that nothing can be done to change things.

They are not convinced that the system is good – they just don’t think there is any way it can be changed. Every so often a new generation emerges to challenge the system. And people from the old generation get drawn back into the struggle.

I saw that on the anti-war demonstration after the European Social Forum in Florence last November. Many old people were at their balconies applauding the marchers. These were people who had lived through fascism, fought in the Resistance, seen their movement rise and fall through the 1960s and could see things happening once again.

On 15 February right across the world young people were on the streets with their parents and grandparents, opposing something the system was trying to do. This sense of internationalism can be traced right back to when Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto in the 1840s. Simultaneous revolutions and uprisings erupted in several countries across Europe.

This was followed by a period of defeat. But in the 1860s there was a revival of the movement. Small numbers of trade unionists from several countries got together to form the First International.

It drew together all sorts of people who wanted to change society. Some believed you could do it through reform. Others argued that you needed revolution. That process reached its high point when the working class took over Paris and set up the Paris Commune in 1871.

After the defeat of the Commune people were forced back into retreat until 1889. Then a new International was built which lasted until the First World War. It was broken when Labour-type parties backed that war. Those opposed to the war established a new International in 1918-19. It launched a new spell of internationalism.

This rose again in the 1930s with the horror of fascism, recession and war. There was a wave of solidarity with the inspiring example of the revolution in Spain. Again in the 1960s there were movements inspired by the revolt against the war in Vietnam. Now there is another of those bursts of internationalism, but on a much, much greater scale than ever before.

At the various social forums that have taken place around the world, lots of people have come together to discuss how to change society. At the first World Social Forum in Porto Alegre two years ago some 20,000 or 30,000 people gathered.

Its second forum last year was 50,000 or 60,000 strong. This year there were 100,000 people crowding into rooms with people speaking in ten, 12 or 15 languages, discussing how to change things. There was a range of ideas expressed. Some argued it’s just a question of a few pressures on the system – some argued we have to overthrow the system. But it is the coming together of these debates that is fantastically new. It was out of precisely these discussions that the initiative was taken for the demonstrations on 15 February, although the protests were vastly bigger than the forums themselves.

The people who organised the demonstrations were influenced by the international movement. That’s why marches took place in so many places across the world. The beneficial side effect of globalisation is the globalisation of communications. It is possible for the first time in history for people to get in contact with other countries through e-mails, websites and cheaper phone calls.

Every move in capitalist globalisation creates a reaction from below, with people organising on the ground and generalising their experiences. There are three main aspects to the movement now developing. First, there is the quite small component made up of those who are already revolutionary socialists. We are used to going on demonstrations in which we are a large component. But last Saturday we were a tiny part of the march.

We have been part of organising and carrying the anti-war arguments, but we have managed to trigger a movement a hundred times bigger than we are. The second element is the large numbers of young people and trade unionists who have been influenced by the growing anti-capitalist movement over the last three or so years.

Since Seattle there are people who have followed the movement, absorbed its ideas, and read articles by Paul Foot, George Monbiot and John Pilger. These were also in a minority on the march. The third element was made up of large numbers of people just beginning to be touched by these ideas.

They are also pulled by other arguments. Some would think that if the UN gave the go-ahead for war that would make it alright. They repeat the respectable arguments used by archbishops. But the minority who are clear about how to stop the war can talk to and influence much wider numbers. This is a challenge for everyone. In periods of retreat for the movement people end up huddling together and talking to small groups to protect themselves from the outside world.

Now we are in a new period in which the most important thing is to reach out to new people and involve them in action. That means discussing with wide groups of people – not to lecture them, but to debate with them. This is a challenge to everyone who reads Socialist Worker. We have to think, who went on the demonstration? Who do I know on my street? How do we get in touch with others? Let’s get them organised and talk about what we do if war breaks out.

There are comparisons with the 1960s. Revolutionary socialists were tiny in number in 1967. Between 1967 and 1974 there was a huge movement. Everywhere around the world revolutionaries grew from being tiny to influencing thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people. At certain decisive moments these people could influence millions.

In Britain when nothing is happening the Socialist Workers Party looks very big. When you have two million on the streets you realise there are thousands of other people whose ideas are not that different from our own. They care about the same things as us. They want a better world just like we do. We have to involve these people.

All the demonstrators opposed the war. Most of them would be just as opposed to what the International Monetary Fund is doing to Third World countries. Many would also have supported the firefighters – not all of them, but 70, 80 or 90 percent would have.

On other questions it would be different. Many of the marchers would have been pulled by some press arguments about asylum seekers, for example. That is why we need discussion, debate and to begin to organise together for a better world.

There is a tendency for strands of the movement to begin to challenge the system as a whole. War is one of the nastier aspects of the system, but people are more than just against war. At the rally in Hyde Park on 15 February those speakers who gave some sense of opposing the system as well as just the war got a rapturous response. It wasn’t just the people who buy Socialist Worker who were cheering. People like this exist in cities across Europe, Latin America, North America, Australia, parts of Asia and Africa.

There is a massive explosion of debate about how to make the world better. This is the new movement being born. Look back at the 1860s for a comparison. The International then had a narrow base of people who came together to support strikes in other countries. A few years later there was the Paris Commune, when workers took over one of the world’s major cities.

Today people are coming together to discuss what to do and the potential is there for something much more significant even than the movement so far.

Last updated on 13 December 2009