Lessons learned from anti-war organising
Posted by Left Luggage on July 19, 2009
An interesting post at the Socialist Unity blog last week asked what happened to the anti-war movement that developed to oppose the war in Iraq and brought up to a couple of million people on to the streets. The post has been produced as the death toll of British soldiers in Afghanistan mounts and dominates the agendas of the media and politicians.
A first point to note is that the post’s author Andy Newman doesn’t quite fix on what precisely he is discussing, shifting from assessing the “anti-war movement” to an “appraisal of the Stop the War Coalition”, to “the Stop the War movement”. These are not synonymous; almost anyone involved in activism around the Iraq war will recognise these mean different things; many people I know from local groups truly resented the STWC for its centralism, its lack of democracy, and its London-centric nature.
Nevertheless, the thrust of Newman’s argument is precisely the structural problems of the STWC, largely its non-demoncratic nature and the dominance of the SWP, meant that local groups split into either those that operated as “SWP fronts” and followed the line decided by STWC centrally, or they became less political local coalitions that – because of the non-democratic nature of the STWC, largely ignored its edicts:
The result was that the Stop the War Coalition became a relatively ossified national organisation, that often viewed the local groups as being suspiciously off message (the local groups tended to be more politically conservative, but imaginative in practice than the national leadership). This also meant that the debate that needed to be held about strategy never happened.
This is a pretty fair outline and serves to highlight how non-democratic organisations like the STWC (whose annual “conference” is almost entirely a parade of Left celebrity speeches and the election of the national officers by a single-slate system) are hindered operationally by their very structure. Rather than centralisation making decision-making more effective, it actually hinders it, especially in a context without the disciplinary mechanisms to ensure “centralism”.
What Newman doesn’t mention, and we would also highlight, is an element of the dynamics at the local level. That is, what was the relationship between anti-war activists and their locality? What were the demographics of the groups? How well placed were activists to mobilise more deeply in their local communities? How was anti-war activism linked to other community campaigns and organising?
As coincidence would have it, today I chanced upon some notes I made nearly five years ago reflecting on my experience in the anti-war movement when I was a student, which partly spurred this post. They’re a little rough and refer only to events in my local area around 2002-3. It’s a pretty lamentable story on reflection and I hope readers will forgive the naivity shown and recognise the crucial lessons learned:
We managed to bring out record numbers at meeting after event after demonstration. But a feeling lingered that there was a layer of people we were missing. So the anti-war group made a decision that because the scale of opposition was becoming so massive it would be useful to form sub-groups in communities across the town.
Being an active member of the group required a lot of time and effort. And there were sure to be people who, for whatever reason, felt they could not give such a level of commitment. But they still might be inclined to do a certain level of activity – leafleting their street, getting neighbours and fellow workers to come on the demonstration, or attending smaller area meetings. This would get them involved. A community strategy would also enable the anti-war group to reach people directly and on a more personal level than it could otherwise hope to.
Successful sub-groups were set up in the a couple of places. On a demonstration just before the war, hundreds of residents took part from these relatively small areas. Inspired by their initial success, my housemates and I decided to set up a sub-group in our own community. We booked a local church hall for a meeting, distributed a leaflet to every house in the area, and then waited. But no one from the area turned up. Not at our first meeting, or second, or third. We wound up the group after that.
So why was the response so terrible in our area compared to other places where sub-groups were launched? A number of reasons spring to mind. The social breakdown of these areas is very different. Our area was very much a working class community, overwhelmingly composed of council and housing association housing, whereas the other two areas are predominantly middle-class and included many students. That’s not to say working class people were more supportive of the war (in fact, opinion polls showed the opposite). It’s fair to say that the anti-war movement largely, and certainly in this town, had a middle-class character. For instance, time and again, the large working class areas of the town were missed out on mass leaflet drops, even though they constituted the largest proportion of the town’s population.
We were not established activists in the area, and because we were students we were automatically out of step with the rest of the community. There were real problems of crime, anti-social behaviour and drugs around the area at that time; all that was obvious. Working class people in the area had probably never had contact with a left-wing group until our leaflet dropped onto the mat, apart from maybe a Socialist Alliance flyer at election time. It is likely that no leftist group had shown any inclination to fight for the community’s interests. And our lealfet said nothing about the multitude of problems having a serious effect on their quality of life. So it’s unsurprising that no one in the area responded or paid our efforts the slightest respect.
This is not to say the war was not an issue for people in the area, but that left-wing activists need to fight for working class people’s interests consistently and on the most pressing issues. Only then, in the long term, could we have achieved success in our local anti-war organising efforts. Community politics is a serious business: building respect, confidence and support is a long and arduous process, but there are no short cuts.
We were blinded to this fact and were met with a deserving response.