Yet again rumours of the ‘end of history’ have proved to be exaggerated. Within the space of a few days the divided reactions to a terrorist atrocity brought down the government of a leading European state, one of the main partners in Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘coalition of the willing’.
The Spanish events have a twofold significance. In the first place they confirm that Iraq remains the dominant issue in world politics. For months now Tony Blair has been proclaiming that it is ‘time to move on’, a chant that has been taken up by the mass of mediocrities inhabiting Labour’s back benches, desperate to hang on to their seats and perhaps then to ascend to the mighty post of parliamentary undersecretary for work and pensions.
Even many to the left of New Labour echo this call. On the right wing of the anti-capitalist movement, Bernard Cassen of Attac France has openly dismissed anti-war activity as a distraction. He even pointed to the contrast between the scale of the anti-war mobilisations in Spain a year ago and the electoral survival of the Popular Party (PP) government as evidence that opposition to the war in Iraq had produced no political radicalisation. He will have to eat his words now.
Many activists further to the left than Cassen drew the conclusion, when Baghdad fell, that the anti-war movement was finished. In much of continental Europe anti-war activity drastically fell off. This conclusion was resisted by the Stop the War Coalition in Britain, as well as by many activists and intellectuals in the Third World. Thus at the World Social Forum in Mumbai, Arundhati Roy, the Thailand-based coalition Focus on the Global South, and the South Korean socialist group All Together were prominent in highlighting the significance of Iraq.
This stance in part reflected a theoretical understanding of imperialism – the recognition that capitalism is inextricably interwoven with the system of states and the inequalities in political and military power that constitute this system. In other words, resisting the economic logic of capitalism can’t be separated from opposing the efforts of leading capitalist states to use their military power to defend the present, grossly unequal, global distribution of resources.
But those of us who continued to insist, ‘It’s the war, stupid,’ also understood the significance of Iraq. The military conquest and occupation of Iraq by the US and Britain have made that country the test bed for the neo-conservative Project for a New American Century. In other words it is here that the Bush administration’s effort to use its military power to entrench the dominance of US capitalism and of the neoliberal economic model that is so fiercely promoted by Washington will be tested, with luck, to destruction, between the twin fires of the Iraqi resistance and the global anti-war movement.
The Spanish events confirmed what a wild card Iraq is – how it can suddenly re-emerge as an issue, dividing the world’s ruling classes and mobilising popular opposition to their policies. No wonder the pundits are so cross with the Spanish people. The day after the election Newsnight was dominated by Michael Portillo and Tim Garton Ash denouncing the Spanish for having ‘capitulated to terrorism’ – as if Spanish voters had not shown the good sense to realise, as even the Joint Intelligence Committee told Tony Blair in February last year, that invading Iraq would increase the probability of terrorist attacks.
But Spain has a second lesson for us. It wasn’t inevitable that the bombings should have brought the PP down. The Spanish government made a determined effort to spin the attacks to their electoral advantage. Not only did they insist that Eta was responsible but they filled the state TV channels with pap rather than hard news. Evidently this rebounded against them, infuriating many people.
But the PP’s manipulation also motivated many activists to get out onto the streets. After all, Spain saw the biggest anti-war demonstrations of all on 15 February 2003. Some of those who had helped to organise them or who had been transformed into activists by the anti-war mobilisations of last spring began to demonstrate on the night before the election in Madrid, Barcelona and other cities.
These protests – forbidden by Spanish electoral law – drew in thousands. Through their example and the messages that spread out from them by text or phone or e-mail these demonstrations probably helped to motivate many working class people (who might otherwise have sat the election out) to turn up and vote against the PP.
This is how history is made. It is a caricature of Marxism that attributes to it a view of history as a blind, objective process. Of course, profound structural contradictions do develop in the depths of the mode of production. But these contradictions only outline possibilities – they don’t predetermine outcomes. It is how human beings collectively and individually respond to structural pressures that determines what actually happens. The Spanish demonstrators played a part in turning the terrorist atrocities into a political defeat for the warmongering governments there.
All this is, of course, terrible news for Tony Blair. In all likelihood, he will never be able to ‘move on’ from Iraq. Opportunities will arise – let’s hope for less terrible reasons than the Spanish bombings – to bring him down. To be ready for such events requires a theoretical understanding of the centrality of the war and the political determination and organisation needed to act effectively.
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