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.