In Defence of the Stop the War Coalition

I was very disappointed to see a rather shoddy hatchet job against the Stop the War Coalition recently, not from the usual “decent” suspects, but from Phil Burton-Cartledge, on the usually pro-Corbyn and pro-left website, Left Futures.

Let us be clear, over the issue of war in Afghanistan, the British establishment has been proven wrong, and the arguments made by the Stop the War Coalition at the time have been vindicated by events.

Over the question of the invasion of Iraq, the British establishment has been proven wrong, and the arguments made by the Stop the War Coalition at the time have been vindicated by events.

Over the question of the overthrow of the Libyan state, the British establishment has been proven wrong, and the arguments made by the Stop the War Coalition at the time have been vindicated by events.

The Stop the War Coalition is indeed a coalition of people with different views united around the single aim of opposing those particular British military adventures that have arisen from the so-called war on terror. It therefore includes pacifists, it also includes those who believe that the British state does have a legitimate role in using armed force to protect and promote British territory, citizens and interests, but are not convinced that the particular military actions proposed do represent Britain’s best interests. It includes some who believe that the British state should be overthrown in a socialist revolution, and it includes some people who profoundly disagree with that point of view and even find it distasteful.

Naturally, as the specific issues have changed and evolved then the nature of the coalition has also adapted. For example, some who opposed the war on Iraq now distance themselves from Stop the War because they are more sympathetic to some of the rebels in Syria. What is more, as the intensity of public opinion has subsided since the high point of 2003, then the numbers actively involved have declined. Nevertheless, the Stop the War Coalition has been an indispensible part of British democratic life, and has played a constructive role in seeking to question and hold to account the government and the military.

This last point is important. In Britain there is a deep pride in the armed forces, and respect for the ideal of service that they represent. Every family and every community has links to the forces. The military covenant requires that soldiers do not involve themselves in politics, but do whatever duty is required of them, at whatever personal cost it requires. There is therefore a civic duty for those of us outside the military to exercise diligence and scrutiny on their behalf, to ensure that British service men and women are not exposed to danger, or required to involve themselves in questionable actions. It is up to us to hold the government to account.

The Stop the War Coalition are the good guys. What is more, the particular individuals involved in the leadership have generally done well to maintain its plurality, and have worked successfully together despite not always agreeing on secondary matters.

Recently, the Stop the War website has published a couple of silly articles, clumsily worded or crudely expressed. Compared to what they have been right about over the last several years, this is clearly chiff chaff.

Yet Stop the War has been exposed to relentless criticism, almost becoming a moral panic.

Even the concept of pacifism has become exposed to ridicule. I personally am not a pacifist, but pacifists count amongst their number some of the bravest people imaginable, for example, those who believe that whatever the danger or provocation, they must show witness to God by refusing to use physical violence, even in their own self defence. Pacifists have been imprisoned, tortured and even executed without renouncing this principle. Whether or not we agree with them, they are worthy of respect.

Phil takes a different tack, with a poorly argued and ramshackle argument that Stop the War has the politics of the SWP, and then Phil takes issue not with the contemporary arguments of Stop the War, but with a man who has been dead for nearly a hundred years … Lenin.

Firstly, it is not in fact true that Stop the War ever derived its politics from the SWP. What did happen is that in many parts of the country the organizational impetus and backbone of the STW in its early days came from the SWP, but the politics were always coalitional, and given the short attention span of most SWP activists the most long enduring STW groups genuinely included a wide variety of views, priorities and opinions.

Phil offers us a caricature of “anti-imperialist” politics, for example:

To understand the politics of Stop the War, one must delve a little into political history.
Lenin published his little pamphlet, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism back in 1916 when the world has been carved up by the big powers and they were locked in a deathly grip over a redivision of its spoils. The role of revolutionaries everywhere was to turn inter-imperialist war into revolutionary civil war, to prevent soldiers from turning their bayonets outwards against other workers of other nationalities to the real enemy within – the owners of capital on whose behest the Great War was fought.

Revolutionary defeatism was its name, overthrowing capitalism its game. And then, with mass parties of workers who’d traditionally been locked out of the political system, and were familiar with socialist and, in some cases, Marxist rhetoric, it actually made sense. Whether one disagrees with revolutionary socialist politics or not, it was a real possibility in several European countries as a wave of uprisings and revolts swept the continent as decayed and weakened empires collapsed.

Phil has a PhD and is a clever cookie, so his sleight of hand in introducing the concept of imperialism via Lenin, and by implication with the small groups who still adhere to his thought is a cheap trick. Yes, Lenin did write a pamphlet in 1916 popularising the work of the Austrian social demococrat and mainstream social theorist Hilferding.

But more to the point, the British Empire really did exist, and has had an enduring effect on British culture, economic life and politics. Indeed, a contemporary with Lenin, was the British Labour Party thinker, H.N. Brailsford, the author of the 1914 work War of Steel and Gold who exercised widespread influence in both the UK and America, influencing the foreign policy positions of the Labour Party. Brailsford also argued that the driver for war was the growing power of finance capital, and that what he called “vast aggregations of modern capital” were engaged in struggle to partition the world. A follower of Brailsford was future Labour Prime Minister, Ramsey MacDonald.

Arguably, Brailsford (and Lenin’s) argument was demonstrably refuted by events. The main imperial threats to British trade interests came from France and Russia, not Germany. Siding with the Entente against the central powers was more a continuation of traditional English policy to intervene to avoid any continental power becoming predominant. While the increasing role of finance capital did go hand in hand with the growth of militarism, it did not play a determining role over specific foreign policy.

Neverthless, what Phil, has done is seek to associate what are actually rather mainstream concerns about Britain’s imperial legacy and military misadventures and over concerns about US militarism, with small groups on the edges of the political spectrum, as a mechanism for not dealing with the actual arguments, and instead seeking to imply that these are odd people with funny beliefs. This is of course a technique perfected by Nick Cohen, and Phil should take a look at the direction he is taking.

Let us again be clear. The terminology of imperialism may sound oddly old fashioned, but Britain really did have a global Empire, built upon military conquest, plunder, rapine and murder. The powerhouse of the British economy was indeed built upon the crimes of Atlantic slavery, upon the transfer of vast amounts of capital to the UK from the colonies, and destroying indigenous economic capacity in order to create mass markets for British manufacturing.

This is not only of historical interest, because Britain’s current economic endowment as a capital rich, high skilled economy has arisen from that legacy. And the prestige and influence of the British state is still bound up with the post-colonial network of military, commercial and diplomatic alliances that arose with the rise of the USA as a global superpower. And yes, British foreign policy is still shaped by those interests, and habits; and there is still a mindset of entitlement, nowadays wrapped up in rather selective concerns about human rights, that has over recent years led to some misplaced military interventions.

The Stop the War Coalition is criticized by Phil as follows:

Yet, as per the pick ‘n’ mix, the SWP ensured Stop the War had nothing to say about the Iraqi regime, the theocracy in Iran, the repugnant character of the Taliban and so on. The patronising logic was the coalition needed to be kept broad around stopping war, anything else would threaten unity.

In fact there has hardly been any shortage of those offering decontextualised, liberal platitudes about all those complex issues, so this was no gap that STW had to fill. What Stop the War has done instead is focus on the inadequacy of UK military action as a solution. Particularly given the fact that the actual lived experience of the military campaigns has been disastrous, and indeed the disastrous outcomes have been made all the worse by the ideologues in Washington who have not respected state sovereignty, and indeed seen the actual destruction of states as a beneficial outcomes – in both Libya and Iraq, and now in Syria.

For sure, anyone discussing the reality of modern international relations using Lenin as an infallible yardstick maybe a fool, but what do we make of someone seeking to use the boogyman of “Leninism” to delegitimise the main anti war campaign that has sought to hold the government to account for the mountains of bodies and ruined lives in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Syria.

19 comments on “In Defence of the Stop the War Coalition

  1. This is a timely and well-argued piece. I found Phil Burton-Cartledge’s article struck a discordant and unconvincing note and was surprised to find it on the Left Futures site.

    His arguments must be taken at face value but Burton-Cartledge must be conscious of the ways in which his piece plays into the anti-Corbyn discourse.

    One of the distinctive features of British political life since the emergence of a mass movement against war, in which the Stop the War Coalition’s political and organisational approach has proved decisive, is the maturing of a broadly anti imperialist trend – strong especially among young people but not limited to the generation who grew up under New Labour’s neo-liberal and imperialist deformation.

    Of course much of this anti-imperialist sentiment is untheorised and in many cases expressed in a language far from that employed by Lenin when writing about the stage imperialism had reached at the beginning of the last century. However, it is now deeply rooted in many people’s consciousness, informs their approach to political developments and guides their actions.

    The more charitable might excuse Burton-Cartledge stance on the grounds that nothing better could be expected from some one whose recent trajectory from the RSL/Socialist party to his present resting place in Labour has left him disorientated.

    To do so is to throw undeserved discredit upon the many SP people I know whose grasp of classical marxism is firm enough for them to retain a working familiarity with these concepts and for them to guide their actions.

    Nevertheless, a mechanical reliance on Lenin is not sufficient. The present day shape of capitalism, in its highly developed state-monopoly form is indissolubly linked to the nature of contemporary imperialism and has assumed distinctive forms. Lenin’s insight, however, remains an essential starting point:
    “Imperialism is that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed.”

    Lenin’s distinctive approach was to utilise the concept of imperialism almost as a synonym for a description of the economic basis and the politics of capitalism.

    This approach compels us to examine the precise connections between British capitalism’s drive to maintain profits is expressed in a foreign and military policy as the willing if subordinate partner to US imperialism globally and reliable conduit for the interests it shares with the US within the European Union.

    Corbyn’s admirable and unshakeable loyalty to the Stop the War project is both a reflection of the essential correctness of STWC’s unremitting and single minded focus on contesting the actions of British imperialism and the need to avoid issues which would threaten the unity that is the foundation of its success.

    The attack on STWC is essentially an attack on Corbyn and Burton-Cartledge has joined this critical chorus.

  2. What gets me is the woodenheaded stupidity of the endlessly-repeated charge that StW likened IS to the International Brigades, as if this could only mean putting IS on a par with the International Brigades. The original article took issue with Hilary Benn’s invocation of the International Brigades to justify aggressive war and a high-altitude bombing campaign, pointing out that what the government was proposing resembled the International Brigades – volunteers who travelled to another country to fight a war they believed in – far less closely than do IS themselves. Which is true whichever way you look at it. If I say that bleach is liquid and you can pour it into a sink, that doesn’t mean I think it’s as good for you as water.

  3. Nick Wright: The more charitable might excuse Burton-Cartledge stance on the grounds that nothing better could be expected from some one whose recent trajectory from the RSL/Socialist party to his present resting place in Labour has left him disorientated.

    He in fact started with the Weekly Worker, before moving on to the Socialist Party.

  4. Francis King: This is a relief. Last week I seemed to be in a minority of one in defending the StWC line here.

    I think there is a distinction at play between “below the line” comments, and “above the line”, where considered positions are put forward. Above the line the political imperitive is to rally to the defence of STW, though that doesn’t rule out discussion about how things could be done better.

    I remain convinced that Stop the War’s position over Syria concedes too much ground by criticising the involvement of the Russians, despite the fact that the legitimate sovereign state of Syria has invited Russian military assistance, and therefore that is a domestic Syrian matter, and outside what I consider the proper scope of STW’s concerns.

    I also think that formulations of an argument which worked over the Iraq war, that opposition to war was not support for the Ba’athist government no longer quite works, because we have learned from the experience of Iraq and Libya, that the Americans don’t limit their objectives to regime or government change, US policy seems to be the destruction of the state itself.

    Interestingly, Kate Godfrey, the former Labour PPC who wrote an article jointly with a Tory MP calling for UK military involvement, got into a twitter spat with me where she explicitly denies that there even is a Syrian state, and she (erroneously) claims that the United Nations has ruled that Syria is not a state. As she is one of the prime cheerleaders for UK military intervention, we can see the way the wind is blowing, as that argument would not only lead to calls for Assad to step down and there be a new government, it would lead to the same sort of year zero approach than Bremmer used in Iraq of actually dismantling the structures and institutions of the state. Kate Godfrey seems to argue (though admittedly twitter is not a good medium for divining her true views) that the Free Syrian Army is the new state.

    I can see though that perhaps STW has to take certain compromise positions in order to hold the coalition together.

  5. Phil: Which is true whichever way you look at it.

    It is a depressing thing about politics that factual truth is sometimes crowded out. For example the Daily Mail and the Sun wrting articles about me becasue I had pointed out – in an article highly critical of Stalin – that living standards had improved under Stalin. This is not a value judgement, it is simply a fact based upon comparing living standards in 1927 and 1953.

  6. Andy Newman,

    Once again Andy you are spot-on. It is not just that Russia is responding to a legal request from the sovereign government of Syria to help it defeat a foreign fuelled “rebellion” within its territory (as did the USSR respond to a similar request from the Spanish Republic) and thus that it is fighting ISIS, Al Qaeda et al entirely legally. It is that Russia IS actually fighting these groups and not as in the case of the US-led coalition in a deeply ambiguous relationship with these extremists. Thus those who are supporting the Russian- Syrian military campaign are the REAL enemies of ISIS etc. This is a line which could, and should have been popularised by Stop the War. Depressingly, only UKIP actually took that line and stuck to it.

  7. Andy Newman: He in fact started with the Weekly Worker, before moving on to the Socialist Party.

    All is explained. Even when organisms escape the microscopic world of shape-shifting parasites they are likely to carry something of the original infection.:-)

  8. ‘Lenin did write a pamphlet in 1916 popularising the work of the Austrian social demococrat and mainstream social theorist Hilferding.’

    In actual fact, Lenin’s Imperialism was more rooted in the work of Bukharin, who updated Hiflerding’s Finance Capital (1910) on the subject and radicalised it to enshrine the theoretical law of imperialism as leading inevitably to war as a result of inter-imperialist rivalry. Bukharin’s book was titled Imperialism and World Economy, which he produced several months before Lenin’s work and from which “Lenin borrowed freely.”

    Hilferdin’g work certainly contained the kernel of both Bukharin and Lenin’s analysis, but given that it predated the First World War the role of Bukharin in updating it was essential.

  9. Andy Newman: I remain convinced that Stop the War’s position over Syria concedes too much ground by criticising the involvement of the Russians, despite the fact that the legitimate sovereign state of Syria has invited Russian military assistance, and therefore that is a domestic Syrian matter, and outside what I consider the proper scope of STW’s concerns.

    This issue and an well informed discussion on the contemporary nature of imperialism, referenced by an examination of Lenin’s theory, can be found in Andrew Murray’s latest book, published by Manifesto Press, The Empire and Ukraine.
    It also deals polemically with the various assaults, from left and right, on the STWC. Just about to go into a second printing so rush your orders now.
    http://www.manifestopress.org.uk/index.php/publications2/41-the-empire-and-ukraine-by-andrew-murray

  10. ‘The Stop the War Coalition is indeed a coalition of people with different views united around the single aim of opposing those particular British military adventures that have arisen from the so-called war on terror.’

    While this is true as far as it goes, the problem is that its leading spokespeople, John Rees and Lindsey German, continually criticise Russia’s intervention and Assad whenever the topic comes up in interviews, etc.

    I attended the STW demo in London last weekend, which included the participation of a vocal anti Assad faction. The speaker from MAB joined this faction from the platform in chanting anti Assad slogans. There was no speaker on the platform making the case in support of the Assad government to provide any balance. This for me is deeply problematic.

  11. Nick Wright: Even when organisms escape the microscopic world of shape-shifting parasites they are likely to carry something of the original infection.:-)

    I am sure that Phil speaks very highly of you too

  12. Andy Newman: I have actually read it. A wasted youth!

    I can’t claim the same. I am however currently reading Stephen F. Cohen’s biography of Bukharin, which is how I am able to be a smartarse on this particular subject 🙂

  13. #15 is that the same Steve Cohen who taught (or still teaches) history at Essex uni?

    #14 Have you read Red Star Over China by Edgar Snow? 🙂

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