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International Socialism, Spring 2003


Sam Ashman

The anti-capitalist movement and the war


From International Socialism 2:98, Spring 2003.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The movement against war on Iraq is already of historically unprecedented proportions. This article was written both before war had begun, and before what promised to be an extraordinary global day of protest on 15 February. Yet even so, the demonstrations in the US already outnumber those during the first years of heavy fighting of the Vietnam War, and Britain and Italy have seen their biggest anti-war demonstrations ever. There is a deep rift within European governments between those who support Bush and those who do not, and all European powers know the crisis will intensify once war begins. Moreover, those who predicted the war drive would finish off the international anti-capitalist movement have been proved wrong. The Financial Times declared shortly after 11 September that ‘one of the less remarked consequences of the US terrorist attacks has been to halt in its tracks the mass movement against globalisation’. [1] But George Monbiot could write, correctly, at the start of 2003, that ‘far from dying away, our movement has grown bigger than most of us could have guessed’. [2] The picture is not even between countries or between continents. The movement in North America has faced particular difficulties. But in a number of countries anti-imperialism has served to deepen and extend the anti-capitalist movement and the general radicalisation which produced it.

Before 11 September

One of the defining features of the anti-capitalist movement is its diversity. A wide range of ideas, organisations, tactics, strategies, agencies, solutions and plain confusions were present within it at birth. [3] This had the advantage of creating a powerful and creative coalition, as witnessed on the streets of Seattle in 1999, but it also meant tensions and contradictions within the movement. If there was one single thing which produced the unity within the movement it was a shared critique of the doctrine of economic liberalism which came to dominate government thinking in the 1980s and 1990s. Neo-liberalism is generally associated with the belief that the state must not play a role in the economy. In reality what it seeks is ‘freedom’ for capital from state ‘interferences’. Hence the neo-liberal emphasis on cutting taxes on business, cutting tax on high earners, cutting state regulations on business (not workers) and the environment, privatising state enterprises to open up new spheres for private profit making, ending controls on the flow of finance, and abolishing the control of imports through tariffs and quotas. [4] The combined result of these policies is supposed to be growth and development, as a more competitive environment improves production and free trade leads to areas specialising in what they produce most efficiently.

The critics of neo-liberalism united to expose powerfully the many flaws in these arguments. But there was an ambiguity in these criticisms. For some, the terms neo-liberalism and globalisation were shorthand or codewords for the wider system of capitalist production and so the critique of neo-liberalism opened up a space for wider attacks on capitalism as a system to develop. [5] For others, neo-liberalism and globalisation represented forces in their own right which embodied 20 years of ideological, economic and institutional changes. In response to these changes there were those who argued that the movement should seek to strengthen the existing state-to return to the Keynesian or developmentalist models of the 1960s. This was clearly expressed by pioneering anti-debt author and campaigner Susan George and Bernard Cassen of the monthly Le Monde diplomatique, a founder of both ATTAC and the World Social Forum. Both George and Cassen sought a stronger role for the state to, among other things, implement a Tobin Tax on financial speculation.

There were also those who argued that capitalism had made a radical transition to a new, globalised, weightless economy in a way very similar to mainstream ideas about globalisation. This new era of globalisation meant that the state was now powerless before giant multinational corporations. So Naomi Klein wrote in No Logo about how brands had detached themselves from the product and ‘marketing departments charged with the managing of brand identities have begun to see their work as something that occurs not in conjunction with factory production but in direct competition with it. [6] And Hardt and Negri’s Empire argued that multinationals now ‘directly structure and articulate territories and populations. They tend to make nation states merely instruments to record the flows of the commodities, money and populations they set in motion.’ [7]

This tendency to see the state as redundant as a consequence of corporate economic globalisation meant that both the state and imperialism were not integrated into their analyses. The main focus of attention was campaigning against multinational corporations and the destructive influence of international financial institutions like the IMF and the World Bank. And in the course of this campaigning, many saw the fragmented and dispersed nature of the movement as an advantage over its highly centralised opponents. Klein, for example, wrote of how the strength of the movement organising as a swarm is that it is difficult to control: ‘It responds to corporate concentration with a maze of fragmentation, to globalisation with its own kind of localisation, to power consolidation with radical power dispersal.’ [8] And Maude Barlow of the Council of the Canadians argued, ‘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. [9] Both approaches – those of strengthening and ignoring the existing state – played down the question of war, imperialism and geopolitical rivalry between states and undermined the movement’s ability to respond after 11 September.

There was a second question about which there was widespread confusion, not only within the anti-capitalist movement, but on the left internationally: Islam. Many have not known how to respond to the rise of Islamist movements in the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa since the Iranian Revolution of 1978–1979. One response has been to see Islamist movements as progressive and anti-imperialist, as did most of the Iranian left at the start of the revolution. But a more common response has been to see Islamism as an utterly reactionary, if not fascist, monolith. The class base of Islamism is similar to that of classical fascism and of the Hindu right in India, and this, combined with Islam’s hostility to women’s rights, to secularism, to national minorities and to the left have provoked an easy comparison with the far right. [10]

But Islamist movements are not directed primarily against workers’ organisations; they do not offer themselves to capital as a way of solving its problems; they are often involved in direct, armed confrontation with the state and have often taken up anti-imperialist slogans and actions. The view of the Islamists as a reactionary block prevents an understanding of how Islamist movements express the bitterness and the frustration of the poor in large areas of the world, and it can mean that the left ends up siding with state repression of these movements – as during the course of the Algerian state’s war against the Islamist FIS for most of the 1990s.

This approach is devastating for the left in the countries of the Middle East, but it is also dangerous for the left elsewhere. It prevents an understanding of how Muslims in the West may turn to their religion, and, for example, the wearing of the veil, in part as a consequence of the experience of racism. Abstract defence of secularism can lead the left to side with the state – as did large sections of the French left when Muslim girls were banned from wearing headscarves in schools in the early 1990s. For activists in the anti-capitalist movement, with its focus on corporate power and the institutions which enforce it, Islam was not an issue which activists would necessarily have confronted. After 11 September the two sorts of confusion – over the state and over Islam – intersected and, in certain countries, hindered mobilisation against war.

North America: turning things round?

Not surprisingly, the impact of 11 September was felt most sharply on the movement in North America. Activists in New York immediately organised a vigil of 1,000 people at Ground Zero opposing war in response to the attacks. There were scores of meetings, night after night, across New York on a vast range of topics related to the crisis following 11 September. But there was also disarray. The major coalitions pulled out of the protests that were to take place against the World Bank and the IMF in Washington DC between 28 and 30 September 2001 and the protests were cancelled even before the meeting was moved. Subsequent demonstrations against both the war in Afghanistan and the World Trade Organisation summit in Doha were small. Major figures like Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Ralph Nader, Starhawk, Michael Moore and Michael Albert were firm against war – and against the attacks on civil liberties. So were many activists. But many did not know what to do about it.

First there was the sheer pressure of the patriotic backlash. The teamster-turtle alliance evident in Seattle had already been under pressure and was now in danger of being utterly smashed as the machinists’ union called for ‘vengeance not justice’ and John Sweeney of the AFL/CIO said unions stood ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with George Bush. Buzz Hargrove, the leader of the Canadian Autoworkers’ Union – a left union with a strong record of participation in the movement – retreated from protest. A day of action against free trade agreements was planned in November and Hargrove issued a statement calling on the Canadian equivalent of the TUC (the Canadian Labor Council) ‘to suspend this day of protest as a symbolic act to signify our movement’s outrage and our condemnation of terrorist acts’, and that ‘nothing ever justifies violence and no stone must be left unturned in an all out effort to ensure the perpetrators are brought to justice.’ The CLC did not call off the demonstrations. It just stopped building them and ensured labour participation was minimal. Activists felt deflated and confused. The Council of the Canadians, whose leading figure, Maude Barlow, had played a very prominent role in organising the Quebec protests only five months previously, similarly shifted away from mass protest.

Secondly, many activists were facing war for the first time in the short history of the movement. They could not draw on arguments from the 1991 Gulf War or the Kosovo war to help them deal with the question of the regime in Afghanistan and how outright opposition to US revenge bombing was not the same as support for the Taliban. And thirdly, the emphasis on corporate globalisation discussed above hindered the movement’s ability to respond to capitalism’s military face. Those who were anti-imperialist or just pro-peace felt isolated – from the national debate and from working class communities. [11]

The World Economic Forum moved to New York in early 2002 from Davos in order to escape from protesters. It met amid crisis in Argentina and the collapse of Enron. The New York press whipped up a witch-hunt against those who dared to march in a ‘war damaged city’ but some 20,000 to 25,000 did so nonetheless. It was young, angry and anti-war – and also mightily relieved to be back on the streets. At the same time the second World Social Forum in Porto Alegre attracted between 60,000 and 80,000 and even the Financial Times conceded that ‘the strong turnout showed the movement had regained some of the momentum it lost after the terrorist attacks in the US last September’. [12]

But it was around the question of Palestine that many activists began to regain their confidence and get some kind of handle on the politics of the Middle East. In spring 2002 delegations of activists visited Palestine, there were the biggest meetings of anti-capitalist activists since 11 September on the issue, and Stop US Aid to Israel started to grow. Around 10,000 marched in New York in solidarity with Palestine, organised mainly through the mosques, and 2,000 movement activists joined another Palestine march. The 20 April 2002 Washington DC march, called against war on Iraq, effectively became a demonstration for Palestine. Moreover as the Iraq crisis began to grow, the impact of 11 September began to fade. Activists felt more confident on the question of Iraq as opinion polls showed that around 60 percent opposed a unilateral US war and 40 percent opposed war with UN or other support. The demonstrations in Europe also had a positive impact on this recovery process. Older activists began to get their confidence back as vast new layers were being politicised by the combination of 11 September, Palestine and Iraq. The big anti-capitalist coalitions did not help this process, with the exception of Global Exchange. For example, the coalition Mobilisation for Global Justice, which includes organisations like Fifty Years is Enough!, insisted it would not take a stance on the war. By doing so it could not relate to either the new concerns of activists or the new layers who were emerging. Only 5,000 joined the protests against the IMF and World Bank in Washington DC in September 2002 – just as the movement against the war was really about to explode.

The failure of the big anti-capitalist coalitions to lead an anti-war movement gave space for other organisations to flourish. International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and Racism) was set up three days after 11 September by the Workers’ World Party – a tiny Stalinist party with a pro North Korea position. A second organisation, Not in Our Name, set up in March 2002, collected ‘pledges of resistance’ against war from thousands of artists and activists. It called rallies and protests on 7 October 2002 and thousands attended, including over 20,000 in New York City. ANSWER then called demonstrations on 26 October 2002 in Washington and San Francisco which were huge; so too were the 18 January 2003 protests which included a march of 250,000 in Washington DC. After these demonstrations a New York Times editorial titled A Stirring in the Nation said, ‘Mr Bush and his war cabinet would be wise to see the demonstrators as a sign that noticeable numbers of Americans no longer feel obliged to salute the administration’s plans because of the shock of 11 September.’ [13]

A third anti-war body has also emerged. United for Peace and Justice was formed in October 2002 by around 70 organisations to co-ordinate work against war on Iraq including Global Exchange, the Green Party, Greenpeace, New York City Labor Against War, the Ruckus Society, Anti-Capitalist Convergence, September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, Z Magazine and Znet, United Students Against Sweatshops, Left Turn, and the International Socialist Organisation.

Anti-war activity is now taking place all over the US. Church groups, veterans, families of soldiers, Arabs, blacks, all are present on the protests. There are fewer Muslims involved, largely because of the fear instilled by a viciously racist campaign against them since 11 September which has seen thousands of immigrants rounded up, fingerprinted and/or deported. Reports of the demonstrations all talk of handmade placards saying ‘Inspect Bush’ and ‘Regime Change Begins at Home’. In San Diego – the most militarised city in the country – there have been regular anti-war rallies of over 2,000 people, most of them as big as the largest anti Vietnam War demonstrations. There are weekly demonstrations and vigils and rallies in neighbourhoods and on campuses. An anti-war march in Pittsburgh of 5,000 people was described by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as ‘the largest peace rally in Pittsburgh since the Vietnam War era ... Disparate groups – children, teens, senior citizens, long-time lefties, newcomers, anarchists, nuns and veterans – took part in the event.’ Among activists there is a sense that they can now go on the offensive, that what they do really counts. The common sense of this movement is ‘no war for oil’ but the general weakness of the left within it means that a broader analysis of imperialism is not at the heart of the movement.

Nonetheless, the movement is in a different league than any other anti-war movement before it. One group, which emerged from the lower reaches of the Democratic Party to defend Clinton against impeachment, has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for anti-war adverts in newspapers and – amazingly – television. More than 50 city councils have voted to oppose the war, the largest being Chicago, and Oakland and San Francisco teachers organised a day of teach-ins across high schools on 15 January, the birthday of Martin Luther King.

The emergence of labour opposition to the war is also very significant. The AFL/CIO is still pro-war, though it is more divided than before, as are most national union bodies. Only one, the AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) has passed an anti-war resolution. But, as Michael Eisenscher of the Bay Area Labor Committee for Peace and Justice says, ‘compared to opposition to any other war in the last 50 years, labour opposition has emerged faster, with more clarity and greater influence than to any other war’. [14] A hundred trade unionists from 76 local, regional and national unions founded US Labor Against the War (USLAW) in Chicago in January 2003. [15] Unions represented included AFSCME, AFT, ILWU, SEIU, Teamsters, HERE and the UAW. [16] Those present knew of 42 locals, 14 district or regional councils, 13 central labour councils, five state federations, four national labour organisations and 22 local committees which had passed anti-war resolutions – though this is likely to be an underestimate. One report of the meeting said, ‘Again and again delegates would tell of how the workers had surprised them: how they voted unanimously against war, how discussion was heartfelt and strangely one-sided.’ [17]

The meeting was held in the offices of the Teamsters Local 705, the second largest Teamsters local, whose secretary-treasurer is a long standing progressive. He had expected disagreement when an anti-war resolution was put to their general meeting last October. It said, ‘We value the lives of our sons and daughters, or our brothers and sisters, more than Bush’s control of Middle East oil profits,’ and, ‘We have no quarrel with the ordinary working class men, women and children of Iraq who will suffer the most in any war.’ It was passed by 402 votes to one. There was a sharp argument, however, at the USLAW meeting about the UN. Some wanted the organisation to take a pro-UN stance, while others wanted it to attack the UN. By the end it was agreed to do neither, but to issue a general statement of opposition to war for oil similar to that passed by the Teamsters 705.

A similar shift towards mass anti-war activity and a degree of recovery within the movement is also now evident in Canada. After Buzz Hargrove’s statements helped deflate the movement, a severe polarisation developed between those arguing for mass protests to continue and to be combined with anti-war work and those who emphasised ‘stay local’ initiatives and who refused to even mobilise for the G8 meeting in Alberta in the summer of 2002. But that mobilisation was crucial to establishing an anti-war network which produced a co-ordinated day of action in November 2002 when 3,000 protested in Toronto and around 35,000 across the country involving a host of different networks. A second co-ordinated day of protest on 18 January 2003 saw 15,000 protest in Toronto and 300,000 across the country. The Council for the Canadians backed the protests, as did the Canadian Labor Council which issued a statement saying, ‘Working families do not want to go to war in Iraq just to give George W Bush and Dick Cheney and their corporate friends even more control of the world’s oil supply!’ There is a growing sense that if war starts it will be a huge crisis for the Canadian government. One Toronto activist in the movement, Corvin Russell, wrote the following about the January day of action which sums up how many activists are re-emerging:

In the last few months, getting people out has been hard. After 11 September 2001, the anti-globalisation movement in Europe morphed seamlessly into an anti-war movement, with huge rallies in European capital cities drawing hundreds of thousands of people each. But here in North America, the global justice protests dissipated, unable to resolve their internal tensions, unable to clarify their politics, and too weak to challenge the naked opportunism of the Bush administration in the wake of the attacks. The Bush administration’s bloody-minded fixation on war against Iraq has changed that ... On Saturday, we witnessed the rebirth of two movements: the peace movement, so long quiescent, and the North American anti-globalisation movement. With the experience of anti-Vietnam protesters, the energy and drive of the young global justice movement, the credibility and moral power of organised religion and the resources of organised labour, we may be able to stop this war. It’s possible again to feel the heady optimism of Seattle. It feels like the dawn, after a long, dark, winter night. [18]

Europe: a tale of contrasts

In Europe the movement had less difficulty in ‘morphing’ immediately into an anti-war movement – but not everywhere. The two questions, the state and Islam, acted as a brake on mobilisation in important parts of the continent. This was not because organisations took actively pro-war lines. Instead confusion over the question of Islam meant that sections of the movement and the left argued that equal weight should be placed upon down with Bush and down with the Taliban or down with terrorism. The ‘no to terrorism/no to war’ position made it appear that the Taliban and Bin Laden were as big a problem as US imperialism and in practice produced a passive or defensive approach. It also narrowed the campaign by posing it as though those opposed to war were taking a stance against radical Islamism and in practice meant activists did not seek to involve both individual Muslims and Muslim organisations in a broad united front. This argument was felt in a number of countries, within and beyond Europe. The extent to which these confusions succeeded in halting mobilisation varied according to the balance of forces in particular places. And where this argument dominated, the left did not provide a lead to those activists who wanted to act against the war, and greatly underestimated the potential to build a mass movement.

In Spain the first small demonstrations over the Afghan War were around the slogans ‘Down with Bush, down with the Taliban’, and many on the left were pessimistic about the possibilities for further mobilisations. Only a few weeks before the EU summit in Barcelona in March 2002 many thought the protests would be small. But the coalition organising the protests chose to make war a major theme and on 16 March 2002 up to 500,000 joined a march ‘against a Europe of capital and war’. After the Barcelona protests a poll in the city found 57 percent of the population supported the ‘aims of the anti-globalisation movement’. On 20 June 10 million workers joined a general strike, adding to a general sense of radicalisation.

Similarly in Greece, the left reformist coalition Synaspismos refused to participate in a demonstration of 10,000 in Athens very soon after 11 September, calling it ‘irresponsible’ because it failed to condemn terrorism. But Synaspismos was largely isolated. The demonstration was organised by the still powerful Greek Communist Party and the Genoa 2001 campaign which formed, as the name suggests, to mobilise for the G8 protests in Genoa. It held an anti-capitalist festival in October 2001 for which 1,000 people registered and at which the campaign decided both to continue and to make building an anti-war campaign its focus. The campaign then produced a statement linking the anti-war and anti-capitalist movements together, which was signed by many leading activists. The revolutionary left played an important part in this, and in the formation of a Stop the War Coalition where there was overwhelming support for arguments against narrowing the campaign by making it against terrorism or radical Islam. Growing anti-war demonstrations now involve Greece’s powerful labour centres and the peace movement.

In France the movement had been in advance of many other European countries as a result of the backlash against neo-liberalism in the mid-1990s, which included the mass strikes at the end of 1995 and the formation and rapid growth of ATTAC. But the twin questions of the state and Islam combined to have a much more negative effect. To begin with, many on the left were tied to the Plural Left government. As such the Communist Party and the Greens were very reluctant to mobilise against the war. ATTAC France opposed the war in Afghanistan but in practice did little to mobilise against it, despite having around 30,000 members. This was partly because of its desire to keep its links with the Plural Left government, the agency to implement the Tobin Tax, partly because of the question of Islam, and partly because of a further abstract argument that it is only struggling against the market that provides a solution to war and to terrorism.

Susan George expressed the confusion over the question of Islam when she said she was not sure whether she was right to have opposed the bombing of Afghanistan. [19] She wrote in the ATTAC France newsletter after 11 September that the movement now faced a ‘fanatical, post-State enemy’:

a shadowy, undeclared, non-territorial enemy who is not fighting for traditional goals, who respects none of the ‘rules of war’ evolved over past centuries and who brings the full horror of unpredictability into the homes and workplaces of the wealthy, the democratic, the law-abiding. We must at all costs avoid the ‘clash of civilisations’ à la Samuel Huntington. This is the scenario Bin Laden and his fellow fascist fundamentalists most devoutly desire, believing as they do that indiscriminate American action will radicalise millions of Muslims and lead to full-scale holy war against the hated West. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has described Bin Laden as ‘a megalomaniac who wants to take power over the world’. We must hand him no opportunities. [20]

And she continued: ‘Terrorism has brought about a moment similar – although less hopeful – to that of the 1940s when the Bretton Woods institutions and the Marshall Plan were conceived. A new, updated and globalised Keynesian strategy is now called for ... Arab and/or Muslim countries wishing to join in the planetary contract would need to show good faith in weeding out their own dangerous fundamentalist elements.’ [21]

Bernard Cassen, president and co-founder of ATTAC France and one of the initiators of the World Social Forum, spelt out clearly his deprioritisation of the war in an interview in New Left Review in January 2003. [22] Talking about the impact 11 September and the war on terrorism would have on the World Social Forum this year, Cassen argued:

The issue of war will be very important, but it will not be as dominant as it was in Italy, at the European Social Forum in Florence, where it overshadowed everything else ... Knowing that the forum would be held in Italy, and that Rifondazione would mobilise around the issue, we all agreed that war would be a leading theme in Florence, alongside its original slogan: ‘We Need a Different Europe’. But then we discovered that all the posters for the march spoke only of war, without mentioning Europe. I can’t say that I was entirely surprised. But if the forum had been held in France, it would not have gone like this. War would have been on the agenda, but not an obsession with war. Because whether war breaks out or not, B-52s and special forces will not alter poverty in Brazil or hunger in Argentina. [23]

This both fails to see the connection between the US’s military imperialism and the US’s ability to enforce IMF and World Bank programmes in Brazil and Argentina, and to see how it is precisely the issue of the war which is currently radicalising millions and providing the impetus for the movement.

The LCR, the most important revolutionary left organisation in France, was unable to counter this because it too made the mistake of putting opposition to the Taliban and US imperialism at the same level. This only reinforced the confusion over Islam and, instead of giving a lead to other activists, contributed to passivity. One French anti-racist activist says, ‘We are all now rather ashamed by the lack of an anti-war movement in France. It was just that after 11 September we needed time to work out where we stood on things like the Taliban and Middle East dictatorships. We needed to discuss these questions, and work them through.’ [24] As such the scale of the movement against war does not reflect the political consensus in France. No leading politician supports war, nor do the major newspapers. Yet two anti-war demonstrations in Paris in December 2002 – itself a sign of the lack of co-ordinated action – saw 6,000 and then 4,000 protest.

The story is very different in parts of Europe where the movement emerged as the driving force against war very quickly. In Italy the enormous protests against the G8 in Genoa in July 2001 had reflected and deepened growing radicalisation which aided the spread of social forums modelled on the Genoa Social Forum. This radicalisation included parts of the official workers’ movement, including Rifondazione Comunista and the metal workers’ union, FIOM. This movement then moved almost seamlessly into opposition against the war as the social forums took clear anti-war positions. The day after the bombing of Afghanistan started there were demonstrations of several thousands in most Italian cities. Some 300,000 people joined the annual peace march from Assisi to Perugia in October 2001 – a combination of peace activists, religious organisations, scouts, the social forums and Rifondazione – and 140,000 protested in Rome against war in November 2001. In 2002 the mass radicalisation continued as 3 million demonstrated against Berlusconi in Rome, there were two general strikes, and the European Social Forum ended with a million-strong demonstration against the war. Any arguments that terrorism should be equally condemned were drowned in this tide of anti-Berlusconi protest and general radicalisation.

In Britain the situation was different. There was a substantial mobilisation for Genoa but there was no real movement like that in Italy or like ATTAC in France. It was the war which transformed the anti-capitalist mood into a movement. The Stop the War Coalition, formed after 11 September, mobilised 50,000 in London along with CND in October 2001 and 100,000 in November 2001. George Monbiot described in The Guardian one of the rallies in Trafalgar Square and how, ‘to thunderous cheers, speaker after speaker linked the war to the other means by which the rich world persuades the poor world to do as it bids: namely its power over bodies such as the World Trade Organisation’. [25] Another Guardian journalist wrote of how ‘far more people than expected were prepared to actively oppose a war that, according to the government and most conventional wisdom, was so morally straightforward as to require little debate. And this anti-war coalition looked remarkably like the alliance that had been opposing globalisation prior to 11 September.’ [26]

The mobilisations against the war on Afghanistan provided a mass core to the Stop the War Coalition, the base from which the movement has grown spectacularly in the space of 18 months, and the coalition has pulled in wide support and united the opposition to the war under one umbrella organisation across England and Wales. The Today Programme on Radio 4 has described the movement as ‘powerful’ and even a profile of the coalition in The Times said, ‘A new generation of protesters, weaned on the politics of globalisation, have transformed the terms of the analysis.’ [27] By the time of the TUC conference in September 2002 left union leaders were talking of opposing an imperialist war. The demonstration of 400,000 in September 2002 brought together anti-capitalists, Muslims, trade unionists and many others and was followed by an organising conference in January attended by 800 delegates and effective backing for the coalition from the Daily Mirror.

The presence of a strong left within this united front has meant that anti-imperialist arguments are central to the movement. These arguments go beyond saying simply this is a war for oil but broaden it to the question of US hegemony across the world connected to the power of US corporations. Even in Italy where the movement is clearly large and strong and hard against the war – whether UN backed or not – this theoretical framework is largely lacking.

This success does not mean there have not been arguments in Britain similar to those which have appeared elsewhere in the movement. Some demanded that the coalition make anti-imperialism a central slogan – others demanded it attack Osama Bin Laden and George Bush with equal weight. More recent arguments have been about the relative effectiveness of mass protests compared to more elitist forms of direct action. Again the influence of the revolutionary left, and particularly the SWP, has been very important. Arguments in the 1980s and 1990s had produced clarity about the nature of Islam and how to relate to it, and the experience of the movement against the Gulf War in 1991 helped deal with the argument about dictatorial regimes once backed by the US which then fell out of favour. The left within the movement has also raised support for the Palestinians which has become part of the common sense of the anti-war movement. The revolutionary left has been able to play a vital role through its stress on the necessity to both seek to build the biggest and broadest united front and raise anti-imperialist socialist politics within it.

The way that anti-imperialist politics have helped build the movement was demonstrated clearly by the European Social Forum in Florence in November. Its three themes were opposition to neo-liberalism, racism and war. But again this process involved arguments at the series of planning meetings for the forum which took place in 2002 where participants from Britain, Italy and Greece stressed the importance of the war while others, most notably from France, downplayed it. The fact that in both Italy and Britain there had already been mass demonstrations was important in shifting the climate among the participants in the planning meetings.

These arguments within the movement have had some effect – though evidently not on Cassen. Susan George has said she now regrets some of her earlier statements on Islam. [28] At the European Social Forum in Florence she spoke about US imperialism and empire, and she is a signatory to the Cairo Declaration (contained within this journal). ‘The Co-Ordination’ has now been formed in France, a coalition of parties, unions and secular peace associations which includes ATTAC France, the CP, the CGT, Sud, the teachers’ union, the LCR, and peace and green groups. In January an estimated 200,000 joined a day of action across France with 15,000 to 20,000 marching in Paris. Two far left groups – Lutte Ouvrière and the Lambertists (Parti des Travailleurs) – have refused to join the Co-Ordination, however, because it is not sufficiently anti-imperialist. And the Co-Ordination does not include any immigrant, Muslim or non-secular organisations. Moreover it has no conception of how to build a mass united front, to broaden the movement to the thousands who oppose the war but are not already activists – whether they are secular or not.

Similarly ATTAC Germany has responded to pressure from within its ranks to prioritise the war. This pressure came from a combination of older members who came out of the peace movement, younger activists and the revolutionary left. One consequence of this was an ATTAC peace tour of 16 big German cities in January 2003 which was a big success. Many are rightly angry with the Greens for supporting the war in Kosovo and tended to be sectarian about the Greens’ backing for the 15 February demonstration. There is also widespread confusion and argument over the Israel-Palestine question and whether opposition to Zionism is the same as anti-Semitism. Nonetheless, the growing mobilisation for 15 February was involving ATTAC, NGOs, sections of the PDS, local peace initiatives and increasingly German trade unions.

The WSF and the war

The 2003 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre should have crushed any argument that the movement had disappeared. It was twice as big as the year before, with 100,000 participating, some 20,763 delegates representing 717 organisations from 156 countries. Some 1,286 workshops took place. The mass of activists present were undoubtedly anti-war, but they were preoccupied with the question of Chavez in Venezuela and the FTAA. Cassen seemed to have got his way given that the indications were that the French delegation had prevented a clear call for action on 15 February coming from the WSF.

The mass of Brazilians who were present, however, were very open to anti-war arguments, indicating the potential for a mass anti-war movement. Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy were cheered to the rafters by 15,000 young Latin Americans when they spoke against the war. Roy urged the movement to expose Bush and Blair as ‘cowardly baby killers, water poisoners, and pusillanimous long-distance bombers’ and also that:

When we speak of confronting ‘empire’, we need to identify what ‘empire’ means. Does it mean the US government (and its European satellites), the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation, and multinational corporations? Or is it something more than that? In many countries empire has sprouted other subsidiary heads, some dangerous by-products – nationalism, religious bigotry, fascism, and of course, terrorism. All these march arm in arm with the project of corporate globalisation ... or shall we call it by its name? Imperialism. [29]

Porto Alegre was a step forward for European anti-war activists in that it enabled them to meet up with activists elsewhere in the world and discuss possibilities for further co-ordinated protests. As a result the anti-war co-ordinating meeting in London in March was going to be international, not just European. The Asian Social Forum in India, for which 14,426 registered, was also primarily preoccupied with regional issues, particularly countering communalism after the anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat, but the bulk of delegates were anti-war and wanted India to be part of the global movement of opposition to the war.


A UN mission in March 1991 described the bombing of Iraq as ‘near apocalyptic’ and said it threatened to reduce a ‘highly urbanised and mechanised society to a pre-industrial age’. [30] The subsequent deadly impact of sanctions and repeated US bombing have contributed to the growing sense of outrage against a new war on Iraq. So too has the sense that US power across the world must be challenged. The mass protests in Britain and Italy have acted as important beacons in the development of a global movement of opposition which has succeeded in deepening and extending the anti-capitalist movement.

All the signs suggest the potential for this to go further should war begin. Opinion polls in February 2003 showed 81 percent opposed to war in Germany, between 76 and 80 percent opposed to war in France, 82 percent opposed to war in Greece and a staggering 91 percent opposed to war in Spain, falling only to 65 percent if war is backed by the UN. While important players in the anti-capitalist movement in North America have effectively vacated the scene, other established leaders of the movement do not grasp how the movement as a whole is both growing and radicalising. They still claim that taking a radical, militant stance will put people off from participating. Yet the whole experience of Genoa, Barcelona, Florence and so on is that the movement’s momentum is politicising and radicalising its participants in ways which go beyond this approach. Filipino activist Walden Bello recognises this when he says, ‘Unless you also target the structures of military and political power that are responsible for US domination you won’t get far in your anti-corporate struggles. I think over the last year this has been a very positive development: the linking of the movement for peace with the movement against corporate-driven globalisation.’ [31] Revolutionary socialists have been able to play an important role in this process. Ideological clarity over the question of Islam, the Middle East, and the nature and necessity of united fronts, has aided greatly the building of the anti-war movement thus far. These are vital political lessons, both for the future of the movement, and for trying to ensure that the 21st century is not even more bloody than the last.


Thanks to Chris Bambery, Tom Behan, Sebastian Budgen, Christine Buchholz, Alex Callinicos, Mike Davis, Andy Durgan, Bilal El-Amine, Chris Harman, Jonathan Neale, Yuri Prasad and Ritch Whyman.

1. Financial Times, 6 October 2001.

2. G. Monbiot, Stronger Than Ever, The Guardian, 28 January 2003.

3. See E. Bircham and J. Charlton (eds.), Anti-Capitalism: A Guide to the Movement (London 2001).

4. See R. Broad and J. Cavanagh, The Death of the Washington Consensus? in W. Bello, N. Bullard and K. Malhotra (eds.), Global Finance: New Thinking on Regulating Speculative Capital Markets (London 2000).

5. See C. Harman, Anti-capitalism: Theory and Practice, International Socialism 88 (Autumn 2000).

6. N. Klein, No Logo (London 2000), p. 75.

7. M. Hardt and A. Negri, Empire (Cambridge Mass. 2000),p. 31.

8. N. Klein, The Vision Thing, The Nation, 10 July 2000 (

9. Quoted ibid.

10. See C. Harman, The Prophet and the Proletariat, International Socialism 64 (Autumn 1994).

11. See A. Callinicos, The Anti-Capitalist Movement After Genoa and New York, in S. Aronowitz and H. Gautney (eds.), Implicating Empire: Globalization and Resistance in the 21st Century World Disorder (New York 2003).

12. Financial Times, 5 February 2001.

13. The New York Times, 20 January 2003.

14. Quoted in J. Wypijewski, Workers Against War, Counterpunch, January 2003 (

15. Ibid.

16. A. Benchich, Labor Leaders Launch National Anti-War Effort, Labor Notes, February 2003 (

17. J. Wypijewski, op cit.

18. C. Russell, A Movement is Reborn, Rabble, 20 January 2003 (

19. Speaking at the Globalisation and Resistance conference, CUNY Graduate Center, New York, November 2001.

20. S. George, Clusters of Crisis and a Planetary Contract, Sand in the Wheels, 21 November 2001 (

21. Ibid.

22. B. Cassen, On the Attack, New Left Review, January/February 2003.

23. Ibid, pp. 52–53.

24. Conversation with author, European Social Forum planning meeting, Brussels, February 2003.

25. G. Monbiot, Tinkering With Poverty, The Guardian, 20 November 2001.

26. A. Beckett, Did the Left Lose the War?, The Guardian, 17 January 2002.

27. A. Treneman, Peaceniks: the Unlikely Alliance, The Times, 21 January 2003.

28. These remarks were made to the media at the European Social Forum in Florence, November 2002.

29. A. Roy, Confronting Empire, ZNet, 28 January 2003 (

30. Quoted in A. Ahmad, US Design and Global Complicity, Frontline, 18 January 2003 (

31. Conversation with author, London, December 2002.

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