Anarchist Bookfair: Direct action caught in the traps of pacifism and imperialism

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At this year's Anarchist Bookfair there was a meeting devoted to 'direct action' against the war in Iraq. The ICC intervened at it because the question of war is a vital issue which has stirred up a lot of people, some searching for an anti-war struggle based on the working class and wanting to go beyond the 'official' protests and demonstrations. In the meeting much of the discussion focused on the tactics of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) within the Stop the War Campaign (STWC). From a 'direct action' point of view the SWP were energetic but tended to dominate meetings. Some thought that the SWP were boring, others didn't like the way that the SWP tended to criticise advocates of direct action as 'elitist' - a criticism that was taken to heart.

The reason for this discussion was the fact that the partisans of 'direct action' had decided to participate in the Stop the War Campaign over the last year. Although the reason for this decision was not put forward explicitly, the logic seemed to be that if you wanted direct action, then you didn't want to be sidelined during the massive demonstrations mounted since the start of the run-up to the attack on Iraq. They wanted to be 'with the masses'.

The ICC intervened to point out that the problem with the Stop the War Campaign was that it was part of the bourgeoisie's mobilisation for the Iraq war. It raises the banners of pacifism and democracy to lead workers into the arms of the ruling class. It defends an anti-American foreign policy for the British state, it defends the national bourgeoisie at the very moment it's advancing its interests with military means. Leading figures from the government such as Robin Cook and Clare Short expressed their 'anti-war' views in harmony with the more leftist opposition of the STWC.

The general reaction was that the ICC's intervention was 'bonkers'. However, it is a matter of record that the bourgeoisie always rolls out pacifist campaigns when it's preparing for war. It preaches harmony between classes with different interests, it says that 'peace' is wanted by all reasonable people. Like the Stop The War Campaign previous pacifist mobilisations have said that war is a specific policy of particular governments, rather than the result of capitalism's inherent imperialist appetites.

In International Review 113 we published an article by Trotsky from 1917 on "Pacifism as the servant of imperialism" in which he shows how pacifism presents a supposed alternative for those who are shaken by the prospect of military conflict, as part of the recruitment for imperialism. In Britain, for example, a figure like Lloyd George was noted as an opponent of the Boer War, as an advocate of disarmament and neutrality, condemning the march toward the outbreak of the First World War. Yet, with the German invasion of Belgium he took his place in the ranks of the unashamed warmongers, as Minister for Munitions, then War Secretary and then as the pacifist Prime Minister who directed the British war effort to victory.

Today, if you look at the Stop The War Campaign, you can see that what's wrong with the SWP or CND is not that they're 'boring' but in the politics they defend. The SWP defends particular policies for British imperialism, demands that the government put a different emphasis in its dealing with other countries. Although, in the case of Palestine for example, the SWP line up directly with the major battalions of the British bourgeoisie. With the CND there is a commitment to national defence that is quite explicit. It only argues against using nuclear weapons for the defence of the British state. The massacres of the First and Second World Wars become quite acceptable from this point of view - with the sole exception of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagaskai.

So, both these groups defend British imperialist interests, and this underlines that the Stop the War Campaign cannot be taken at face value as an 'anti-war' group. Those supporters of 'direct action' who have enrolled in the STWC's meetings and demonstrations have, in their own terms, 'given in' to the 'mainstream'. 'Direct action' becomes just another facet of the bourgeoisie's democratic mystifications. After all, didn't Tony Blair himself invite the 'anti-war' movement to protest during Bush's visit - as a demonstration of their democratic rights, the democracy that Bush and Blair are currently trying to impose with force of arms on Iraq.

At the Anarchist Bookfair meeting there was some tentative support expressed for the ICC's position. There was a recognition that the ICC was pointing to 'contradictions' in the view being put forward by the defenders of direct action. Subdued and partial as this support undoubtedly was, it was important as a concrete expression of the fact that the working class will not inevitably be drowned in the pacifist mobilisations of the bourgeoisie - it is capable of putting forward a perspective based on the development of the class struggle and, therefore, of showing a real, effective class resistance to the bourgeoisie's wars.

Hardin, 4/12/03.