Left Luggage

The socialist strategy site

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.


3 Responses to “Lessons learned from anti-war organising”


    There seems to be a real sense of surprise that eight Work Class British soldiers were killed in 24 hours, during the ‘fiercest fighting yet in Afghanistan’. The Taliban have changed their strategies from massed wave attacks to the hit-and-run guerilla insurgency that stopped the US occupation dead in its tank-tracks in Iraq.

    Whilst the patriotic coverage of “Our Boys” is not surprising, the fact that the Taliban can fight back isn’t either. After all they the product-of / heirs-to the Mujahideen that defeated the Soviets in the 80s. Afghanistan is called ‘The Graveyard of Empires’ for good reason. The British were defeated there (just like in Iraq) in the heyday of the British Empire. In 1842, Afghans killed over 16,000 British soldiers and auxiliaries in a single battle. The Brits remained bogged down in Afghanistan for decades, eventually giving up in the 1920s. The Russians tried a few decades later. They quit after ten years with 14,000 dead on their side.

    Since then Afghanistan has been in a near-constant state of war. The Taliban years meant a kind of harsh peace for many, although their brand of knuckle-headed Islam only really held any real appeal to the 2 million shellshocked survivors in the refugee camps. It’s hard to guess at the numbers of dead in the latest US-UK phase of their war. Human Rights Watch has managed to put together some figures; their minimum estimates (including only known, recorded deaths) suggest something like 1,000 every year – almost certainly a gross undercount.

    With such high stakes it’s obvious that this war is very important to Western leaders and NATO generals. Considering that the
    invasion was basically an act of revenge in the first place, it’s worth taking a moment to ponder why ‘the working class’ are still being sent to die nearly eight years after 9-11.


    But first it needs to be clear about is what the war is not about. It’s not about oil. Or pipelines. Or bases. It’s not about the War on Terror™ (sorry, Overseas Contingency Operation). It’s not about the war on drugs.

    Yes, there is a school of thought that says that the war in Afghanistan is part of a grand plan to control the world’s energy resources – gas and oil especially. Some claim Afghanistan is perfectly placed to take gas from central Asia on to Europe, bypassing dodgy states like Russia and Iran. But these schemers’ plans involve routing gas through such dangerous and unpredictable territory as northern Pakistan, Kurdistan and Afghanistan – a bad idea from the start, hugely expensive and impossible to defend.

    A strongly worded communiqué from any one of a dozen rebel groups in the area is enough to send energy prices soaring. And anyway, this is only one of at least three mega pipeline projects crisscrossing Central Asia. Russia, China, Iran, Turkmenistan, Pakistan and India have all been investing heavily in pipelines which don’t need either America or Afghanistan.

    OK, Afghanistan does have one multi-billion dollar export – opium. But a side effect of toppling the Taliban caliphate in 2001 was that opium cultivation and production skyrocketed. About the only nice thing the UN ever said about the Taliban was about their success in eradicating opium. But in the lawless post-invasion environment, Afghans now produce some 90% of the world’s supply with the anti-drug Taliban showing their pragmatic side – needing cash to fund their insurgency, they encourage and then tax opium farming. A clever plan would be to buy opium directly from farmers (distributing processed opiates to hospitals maybe) but this has been vetoed by the Americans, who can’t be seen to be soft on drugs.

    So if the Afghan war is about anything, it’s about pride. The US (and us) can’t be seen to be defeated by a ragtag group of peasants and refugees – because when you look at the globe, there are a lot of people that match that description and the last ten years have shown that it’s exactly these types of forces that can defeat modern armies. ‘Our’ forces can’t win, and they can’t retreat; the only solution chickenhawk politicians suggest is to throw more young lads into the line of fire and drop more explosives on more people, escalating the conflict. It’s worth recalling the suggestion of a US general during the last years of the Vietnam War: “Can’t we just declare victory and leave?”

    Much more than Israel’s attacks on Palestinians, Afghanistan is as clear a case of complicity from the UK government as you could get. The attacks are ordered by our politicians with the active help of British corporate backers. Take EDO/ITT for example: while they don’t like to admit they make cash supplying components to the Israelis, they are proud to admit they make entire bomb racks for British warplanes, used to murder farmers and shepherds in Afghanistan. EDO’s bomb racks are specifically designed to be used with the Paveway bombs regularly used in ‘close air support’ missions’ to ‘facilitate reconstruction and the extension of government authority’ – i.e. bombing missions to you and me. And EDO must be rubbing their hands as the UK government makes galvanising claims that the Afghan war is ‘showing signs of success’ – despite that fact that after eight years the Taliban now control something like 40% of the country. Even areas theoretically under Coalition/‘Afghan Government’ control often have to sway back to Taliban law at night, when the US/UK military are back at their bases.

    But it’s been difficult to get people on to UK streets to protest the war in Afghanistan lately. Understandable as most folks are reluctant to be seen supporting the Taliban, undeniably amongst the most humourless bunch of bastards you could ever hope not to meet. Another reason may be that, much more than Iraq, there just isn’t much media coverage from the other side of Afghanistan.

    Very few images of Afghan dead permeate the mass media filters. Apart from the odd Channel Four special, and Robert Fisk in the Independent, what we see is what we’re spoonfed – squaddies in rough terrain doing a tough job, alternately doling out sweet to local kids andlobbing mortars at enemy positions. When the Trots are the most active force agitating against the war, we’ve really taken our eye off the ball.

    Information About Afghanistan

    * http://www.tomdispatch.com
    (US alternative news source that’s kept
    focussed throughout)

    * http://www.atimes.com
    (Asia Times Online – their reporter, Syed Saleem
    Shahzad, seems to have really good sources within the Taliban)

    Information For Action

    * http://www.antimilitaristnetwork.org.uk

    * http://www.smashedo.org.uk

    EDO are exhibiting in an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle military conference on July 22nd-23rd. Anyone wanting to give them a warm
    welcome should get themselves down to the Celtic Manor Resort Hotel in Newport on the 22nd and 23rd of July. http://www.smashedo.org.uk
    SchNEWS, c/o Community Base,
    113 Queens Rd,
    Brighton, BN1 3XG, UK
    Phone: 01273 685913
    Email: mail@schnews.org.uk
    Web: http://www.schnews.org.uk

  2. Neil said

    “we’ve really taken our eye off the ball.”

    Who is “we”?

  3. I think it refers to anarchists, Neil.

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