The global anti-war movement has achieved unprecedented, astonishing successes. Launched in many cases before a single bomb fell on Afghanistan, it rapidly crystallised into an expression of the grave doubts about US strategy in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks, before becoming the organised expression of outright hostility to George Bush’s policies.
It is estimated that some 36 million people took part in 3,000 anti-war protests across the globe in the months leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
And the momentum has continued to swing against the occupiers of Iraq, who today are in a state of disarray over where to go next.
Yet despite this record, some on the left have raised doubts about the efficacy of the anti-war movement. The radical commentator Alexander Cockburn recently argued in the New Left Review that the US anti-war movement was close to dead, because it had effectively been co-opted by the Democratic Party.
The source of this despair may seem specific to the US, but such sentiments have been expressed in Britain too. Some argue that the movement has got bogged down, having failed to stop the invasions or end the occupations of either Iraq or Afghanistan.
There are also questions about the impact of the anti-war movement on elections. Such an impact certainly exists in both the US and Britain. Last year’s US mid-term elections saw the Democrats making huge gains on the basis of hostility to Bush’s war.
In Britain over the past three years we have seen marvellous votes for Respect and a profound disintegration in support for Labour.
But the Democrats have done little or nothing to end the occupation of Iraq, and Labour is still in power with a pro-war prime minister at the helm. Some say this illustrates the limits to the political effect of the movement.
Such pessimistic assessments rest on two things – a misunderstanding of how anti-war movements have succeeded in the past, and an underestimation of how far today’s movement has come.
For example, Cockburn points out that much of the anti-war movement is reluctant to support the resistance in Iraq, in contrast with previous solidarity movements with the Vietnamese or Nicaragua’s Sandinistas.
It is true that there is a great deal of mystifying propaganda about the forces struggling against occupation in Iraq which has had its impact on the anti-war movement.
The fact that the Iraqi resistance is largely Islamist, in contrast to national liberation movements of the past that broadly saw themselves as part of the global left, has also confused matters.
But the aim of the resistance is to end the occupation – and the anti-war movement here does the best service to the resistance by focusing on bringing that end about.
Take, for example, the Vietnam War. When student anti-war activists Tom Hayden and Stoughton Lynd went to meet the Vietnamese resistance leader Ho Chi Minh, they returned with a positive impression of the North Vietnamese regime that was quite contrary to the propaganda pumped out by the mainstream media.
Yet as important as such actions were, they were not decisive in bringing about the end of the Vietnam War. The peace movement embraced millions of activists, and tens of millions of supporters, but only a few of these engaged in solidarity with the armed Vietnamese forces.
It was when hostility to the war became mainstream in the US working class – which supplied 80 percent of the troops to fight the war – that Vietnam was decisively lost.
Judged by these standards there is little reason to be gloomy about today’s anti-war movement.
Consider Vietnam again. Even with the massive protests across the US, public opposition to continued war remained in a minority for a long time. In 1968 only 20 percent of Americans wanted to withdraw from Vietnam, and by 1970 this figure had only grown to a little over 30 percent.
Opposition to the Iraq war became mainstream far more rapidly. Today, some four and half years after the invasion of Iraq, 57 percent of Americans favour withdrawal and 52 percent oppose the conflict in Afghanistan.
This isn’t to say that the US anti-war movement doesn’t face any problems – for instance, there is a lack of unity with groups such as United for Peace and Justice competing with others such as Answer.
But without the anti-war movement, the widespread opposition to the war in US society simply would not exist.
The fact that centrist Democrats such as John Edwards have decided to go on the offensive against the neoconservatives and oppose a prospective strike on Iran is another indication of the strength of anti-war feeling and its ability to make itself felt.
Campaigns against military recruitment in the US are also having success. There has been a steady drop in recruitment for the already overstretched military, especially among African Americans. This is worrying policymakers since recruitment levels have fallen well below their targets for the first time since 1990.
Sizeable national anti-war demonstrations are matched by hundreds of local activities, which have produced strong anti-war resolutions by city councils and mayors – most recently, Oakland city council in California, representing half a million people, passed a resolution opposing a strike against Iran.
None of these actions on their own would be adequate and only some of them have effects beyond their own boundaries – but they hardly depict a movement in terminal decline.
This anti-war consensus holds in most of the occupying countries. In Britain, there was a clear majority against the Iraq war before it began. Support rose in its immediate aftermath, but quickly plummeted back again.
The anti-war position has been the mainstream ever since, and has penetrated sectors of British society previously unlikely to take such a stance, a trend expressed clearly by the Military Families Against the War group.
Wars are usually least popular among ethnic minorities and women, but opposition to the “war on terror” was also a prominent feature of recent postal worker picket lines – a largely white and male workforce.
And although Iraq has been the primary focus of anti-war activism, the movement has shaped the response to a variety of other questions, such as opposing the government’s clampdown on civil liberties and resisting the threat of Islamophobia, particularly in the wake of the 7 July 2005 bombings.
It is widely understood by activists that the “war on terror” is part of a two-pronged global offensive – one being the military attacks, the other being the neoliberal assault across the globe.
The Stop the War Coalition remains a formidable force, capable of uniting an exceptionally broad range of political forces in principled opposition to the “war on terror”. Last year was its most active year since 2003, including a massive lobby of the Labour Party conference in Manchester.
It was able at extremely short notice to mount large and successful campaigns against New Labour’s support for Israel’s attack on Lebanon. This wasn’t only because of Stop the War’s organising prowess, but because tens of thousands of people now have the experience and the arguments ready to hand when emergencies arise, even if they aren’t on the streets every week.
The upshot of the protests against the attack on Lebanon was that Tony Blair, faced with a potential coup from within his own cabinet, announced his resignation.
The Lebanese resistance, including Hizbollah and the Communist Party, gave Israeli soldiers a hammering. But had Israel’s Western allies faced less pressure at home, the Israeli military would have felt emboldened to go even further in its assault – for instance, by trying to occupy southern Lebanon.
On a wider level, criticisms of the war made by senior military and political figures on both sides of the Atlantic highlight deep divisions inside the ruling class as to the way forward.
General Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the British army, has publicly criticised the Iraq war as unwinnable and a failure. Slow moves are being made toward Britain’s withdrawal from southern Iraq.
However, the “war on terror” is not merely a passing phase, but a long term project to reorder the world. As such, the anti-war movement will be a necessity even if we are able to end the two occupations currently under way.
The threat of an attack against Iran is mounting – and the anti-war movement is the only force capable of applying the consistent pressure on the government that is essential to averting a new war.
The discussions and resolutions at Stop the War’s recent annual conference demonstrate the breadth of activities it can organise – not merely in terms of protests, but also in supporting the Palestinians and the Kurds, defending civil liberties, and exposing torture practised by the British army.
There has been a surge in college recruitment for Stop the War, and new initiatives include the creation of local groups in every town, city and village.
This is a vital and urgent task. For much of the time the anti-war movement will be subterranean – it cannot always be in the media spotlight and nor can its focus always be on set-piece demos.
However, through sustained pressure the anti-war movement can not only keep its momentum – but also threaten Gordon Brown with the same fate that befell Blair, should he dare to attack another country.
Richard Seymour runs the Lenin’s Tomb blog at » www.leninology.blogspot.com