One of the things I find irritating about a section of the socialist left is its indifference to the politics of soft soaping whoever the White House or Downing Street take exception to internationally, which allows their opponents to lazily - but easily - paint them as well-meaning fools, traitors, and what have you, thereby damaging anti-war causes. This, alas, is also a bind Jez has found himself tied up in. There's also a certain intellectual dishonesty about their positions. Stop the War write op-eds that, let's be generous, white wash the enemies of the US and UK, but do not link it with a clear intellectual framework for making sense of these position-takings. For the uninitiated, it suggests opposition to Britain's wars is a gateway into apologising for some of the most disgusting regimes and terror groups on the planet. Therefore 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 had been carved up by the big powers and they were then warring between themselves over a redivision of its spoils. For Lenin, the job 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, revolution was a real possibility in several European countries as a wave of uprisings and revolts swept the continent as decayed and weakened empires collapsed.
The revolutionary wave ebbed as the 1920s wore on, and looked set to be reversed entirely with the rise of the fascist powers. They were ultimately crushed, mainly thanks to the USSR, and ensuing revolutions were either derailed, put down, or co-opted in the West, and contrived or assimilated to the dull tyranny of Stalinism in the East. As the battle lines for the cold war were drawn, so the relationship between the Western metropolis and their colonies were recast. Under US leadership, Britain, France, and the lesser colonial powers withdrew and granted independence to newly emergent countries across the global south. This independence, however, was hollow. Economies were locked into dependent and distorted relationships with their industrialised overseers. Where they tried to break free from this grip, semi-colonial states were quickly stamped on - as was usually the case in Latin America - or became battlefronts where the cold war turned hot, as per Africa and south east Asia. When the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union passed into history, the USA was the power that economically and militarily underpinned this system. It was its champion/guarantor and, logically from a revolutionary perspective, the primary opponent of socialist politics everywhere.
Secondly, an article of faith passed down from the time of Lenin was the notion imperialism accrued super profits, which enabled capital in the metropolitan countries to effectively buy off a "labour aristocracy" who had a vested interest in maintaining capitalist exploitation by virtue of their privileged position within it. It was this layer that stymied the revolutionary aspirations in the main colonial powers, for instance. It could be argued this layer was maintained after the colonies were abolished via international channels of superexploitation, a position that's none-too-convincing. Yet if that is your position, it follows that anything shutting down the funnelling of wealth from the south to the north would weaken capital's capacity to absorb the demands of metropolitan workers and make open class warfare more likely.
That "anything" could be anything. From the Viet Cong to the Provos, from Saddam Hussein's conscript army to Serbian death squads, all have been cast by one revolutionary outfit or another as proxies for working class struggle. Interestingly, as the strength of labour movements and socialist ideas have ebbed internationally so forces that could very generously be described as part of it, such as the aforementioned Vietnamese and Irish struggles, have been substantively replaced by any old reactionary ragtag and bobtail outfit. A case of my enemy's enemy, even if that enemy is raping and burning, and particularly delights in the torture and murder of fellow socialists and communists. Therefore, to be consistent, the role of the revolutionary in the imperialist West is to work for the defeat of one's own state, and that can be done by promoting the cause of its enemy. And, indeed, many groups in Britain did just that. Admittedly, it used to be politically consistent propagandising for Cuba and the Viet Cong in the US, and the IRA in Britain as all were (nominally) socialist forces of some description. It started getting a bit trickier when the proxies were the Argentine junta, Iraqi Ba'athism, and Slobodan Milošević.
The key players in Stop the War, up until about 2010 anyway, were the Socialist Workers Party. It was their front, founded in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks to oppose the imminent war on terror, and organised the protests against the bombing and invasion of Afghanistan. Its remit was purposely broad as it sought to make alliances with all kinds of organisations and community groupings. Its single concern was protesting and stopping the hawkish moves of the Blair and subsequent governments, and by extension the actions of the only truly global superpower. All of this is consistent with the anti-imperialist politics outlined above. Yet, the SWP also left its indelible mark of political dishonesty.
Unlike the other main British Trotskyist groups, the SWP and its forerunners, the Socialist Review Group and the International Socialists tried positioning themselves in the so-called "third camp". 'Neither Washington Nor Moscow but international socialism' was their slogan. They were heretics vis a vis the rest of the Trotskyist "movement" when they refused to support either side in the Korean War. Not that they, or the Fourth International for that matter, had battalions to throw into the furnace. This position was premised on a (correct) understanding that socialism and democracy are inseparable and its absence in the countries crushed under the Stalinist boot meant these regimes were no more worth defending than the capitalist nations - a controversial opinion denounced by Trotters himself. For the SWP, it was an article of faith that these were 'state capitalist' societies - more of which another time. What this allowed them to do, however, was pick and choose which anti-colonial/anti-imperialist struggles to support. Hence a plus was (eventually) placed against the Viet Cong, and a minus against the Provos. Hailing the killing of British soldiers and the bombing of pubs was never going to sell many papers, after all.
With the collapse of the USSR and the move of the US into pole position, so it became opportune to act as the "best builders" against the wars launched at its behest. And, rare for an organisation noted for the flexibility of its principles, the SWP have been consistent in opposing the State Department's machinations and the support given it by successive British governments. Yet the picky-choosiness from its cold war days remains, which it imparted to Stop the War. As we've seen, it was founded to stop war - nothing else - and to build alliances to that effect. In the lead up to the Iraq War, the SWP organised the giant anti-war demo in conjunction with CND and the Muslim Association of Britain, an organisation known for its links with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. As Muslims had been targeted by the far right and were then, as now, on the receiving end of media monstering, the SWP felt that reaching out to what it believed to be one of its principal organisations would integrate them into the anti-war movement and, of course, provide the party with recruits. 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.
Since those halcyon days, the SWP have suffered split after split. The 2009/10 parting with former central committee members Lindsey German, Chris Nineham, and John Rees that led to the formation of Counterfire saw the SWP's grip on Stop the War loosen, but more or less the same personnel carry on as before - albeit under new party branding. The politics remain as well. Yet as the years have worn on, the economic crisis has bitten, the power of the US is clearly in relative decline and rising China, coupled with a more combative and confident Russian oligarchy, gives us at least the appearance of a multi-polar global polity again. The US is no longer the world's unchallenged hegemon. Yet Stop the War has more or less carried on as if none of this has happened, as if the USA is the only active agent in the world and - implicitly - the designs and manoeuvres of rival states and enemies are benign or, at least, less harmful. This is why Putin never gets as much stick as Obama, why leading members of its steering committee have occasionally associated with sundry undesirables, why the Kurds get no support while IS are clumsily and favourably compared with the International Brigades. It's why it appears that authoritarians and totalitarians get a free pass while democratic countries are criticised and mobilised against.
We need a new Stop the War coalition or, rather, we need one with new politics, one that recognises the inequitable and unjust character of international relations and global political economy, that sometimes war and peace is a messy business, and acknowledges that it's not our place to soft soap regimes and terror outfits. Not that difficult you'd think, yet here we are.