Socialist Worker

The left after the war

John Rees is a member of the Socialist Alliance executive, an officer of the Stop the War Coalition and a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party. He looks at issues raised by the debates on the left in the aftermath of the war.

Issue No. 1862

THE BLAIR government is now in a deep crisis. The war has left a bloody and costly occupation behind in Iraq. The trail of lies and deception is now reaching back into the heart of the government. The movement built by the Stop the War Coalition struck the whole governing system with such force that its aftershocks are still reverberating through the corridors of power.

Tony Blair won the war in Iraq, but he is losing the political war at home. Millions of working people now understand that Blairism has failed. Senior union leaders now openly speculate that Blair will be gone within 18 months. Gordon Brown and Robin Cook are both positioning themselves for the post-Blair era. There are difficulties with this 'reclaim Labour' project.

The Blairites have so marginalised the left that it is difficult to see how the Labour Party can be easily reclaimed. Even the 175-strong selection meeting for the Brent East by-election, open to all Labour Party members, chose the pro-war, pro-Blair MEP Robert Evans.

At a national level the alternative leader to Tony Blair is Gordon Brown. Brown is the author of the Labour government's 'prudent' neo-liberal economic policy. He supported the war and has never criticised Labour's support for US imperialism.

And any possible leadership of the Labour Party, including Robin Cook, would support the neo-liberal economic model. This is now the unchallenged economic orthodoxy.

Neo-liberalism is the spirit of the age. Except among the majority of the population. Most people if they vote, and they do so in fewer numbers than ever before, vote for the least bad alternative. And they do so reluctantly. Many find political expression in extra-parliamentary movements.

The left has a primary duty to sustain movements of protest. The Stop the War Coalition has proved in practice that it has the allegiance of hundreds of thousands of supporters. Its initiatives continue to draw in and politicise more people than any other political organisation. But there remains the question of providing a general political alternative to New Labour.

The aftershocks created by the war are still reverberating through the left just as they are through the political establishment. The issues raised by the war are redividing the left on different lines to those that existed before the war. The war created three broad camps on the left. First there is a pro-war left, given prominence by the right wing because they are supposed to carry more authority than the normal run of the mill imperialist.

Clare Short played this role at the decisive moment of the war. But the real core of the pro-imperial left were the journalists Nick Cohen, David Aaronovitch and Christopher Hitchens.

Secondly, there is the left that built the Stop the War Coalition. This was easily the biggest section of the left. It included the SWP, the Communist Party, the Socialist Alliance, the Socialist Party, the Green Party, the Labour left, most major trade unions and Globalise Resistance, and was supported by large sections of the Muslim community and CND. It is on this foundation that a truly spectacular movement stands.

Thirdly, there were a small number of left sects and individuals, some of whom were in the Socialist Alliance, who opposed the foundation of the Stop the War Coalition or, though nominally supporting it, actually opposed it at every turn or took no active part in building it.

Some of these organisations and individuals objected to working with the Muslim community. Their views are seized on by the pro-imperialist left in order to discredit the Stop the War Coalition and the left generally.

The task for the anti-war left is now to create from among the forces opposed to the war the largest possible alternative to New Labour. The Socialist Alliance represented the largest possible grouping of the left in the period before the war. But the war has greatly increased the potential reach of such a project. The RMT's decision to democratise the political fund is one important development. The detestation of New Labour in the FBU is another. Andy Gilchrist, a reclaim the Labour Party loyalist, singly failed to stand up to the government during the firefighters' strike.

If the FBU leaders were not refusing to hold the union's annual conference there is little doubt that the FBU would also vote to democratise its political fund. But this mood exists to a greater or lesser degree in every union in the country - witness the clean sweep by the left in the PCS union executive elections, including the election, as one of the vice-presidents, of a Socialist Alliance supporter, and the decision by Bectu to re-examine its political fund.

In the Muslim community there is a palpable desire among those who supported the Stop the War Coalition to find a viable alternative to New Labour. This community is, in its majority, working class. It is, in its majority, a community which has been the bedrock of Labour support in many inner cities.

This is why talk of 'cross-class alliances' or 'popular frontism' by a minority within the Socialist Alliance is so wrong. Of course, there is a minority inside the Muslim community that is middle class. But they too are on the receiving end of Labour government attacks about 'asylum seekers', 'terrorism' and 'fundamentalism'. Some have been radicalised by the war. This has made them open to working with the left. The left should welcome this development.

It would be as stupid of the left to turn its back on the radicalised sections of the Muslim community, including the local and national leaders thrown up by the anti-war movement, as it would have been for socialists in the first half of the 20th century to ignore the Jewish community in the East End of London. Neither is it true that most Muslims are supporters of 'Islamic fundamentalism'. Only a tiny minority of Muslims in Britain are followers of 'Islamic fundamentalism' or so called 'political Islam'.

Those on the left who talk as if all the Muslims were fundamentalists are simply engaging in an unacceptable form of prejudice. And the critics of the Socialist Alliance strategy who claim that all Muslims are anti-gay or anti-women are speaking from a similar ignorance. They simply assume that they know the political views of a Muslim because they know their religion - a form of prejudice that would never be acceptable if it were applied to Catholic or Church of England workers, despite the reactionary views of religious leaders from those communities.

Muslim women have in fact been at the forefront of the anti-war movement in many towns and cities. If this development is to be furthered the left needs to extend its links with Muslims.

Many Muslims may, as a matter of theological belief and personal preference, not agree with the far left on issues of sexual politics. This may prevent some from joining with the left in a common electoral platform. But many are happy to defend other people's choices in terms of sexual politics. They are certain to be defenders of the right to self determination since they, quite correctly, expect to be defended by others when it comes to the right of religious observance.

Indeed, this was always the basis of cooperation between the left and the Muslim community in the anti-war movement.

The revolutionary left is secular and atheist. But it also defends the equally important principle of freedom of religious worship - especially for those who are under attack by the government and the right wing. One final word on 'cross-class alliances'. There is no cross-class alliance being proposed for the future of the Socialist Alliance. But is it absolutely ruled out that socialists could enter such an alliance?

Were such an alliance proposed between socialists and political representatives of the ruling class then this would of course be impossible since it could only undermine the forces capable of fighting the system. But what about an alliance with sections of the middle class, or the petty bourgeoisie, to use the Marxist jargon?

It is instructive to recall the full name of the body that made the Russian Revolution - the Soviet of Workers', Soldiers' and Peasants' Deputies. This was, in other words, an alliance between the socialist representatives of the working class and the representatives of the peasantry, a classical petty bourgeoisie. The key question was not whether there was an alliance but whether it was the working class and socialist elements, both in the working class and the peasantry, that determined the political direction of the alliance.

In Russia, of course, the socialist and radical elements led an alliance, including representatives of the petty bourgeoisie, and so maximised the force driving against the old order.

The fault of the popular front was that it subordinated the radical forces to the political priorities of the most conservative forces in the alliance. Every mass movement, even those falling far short of revolution, throws up similar issues. The Stop the War Coalition faced just such a test and passed it with honours.

It is now time for those who want a real political alternative to New Labour, at both a national and local level, to reject those who put sectarian purity before reshaping the political landscape around them. There are larger forces moving in society than any of the existing left organisations. We must either cut a channel that can allow these forces to rebuild a new left or we will, perhaps not many years from now, be looking at a resurgent right arising from the ashes of the Blair administration.

Where do you think the left goes from here? Let us know at

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Sat 26 Jul 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1862
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