What really went wrong with the national alliance against the Gulf war? Henry Worthington reports a classic case of those opposing the war on principle being manipulated by those who were not. Anti-authoritarians should look out, it could happen again.
When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on August 2 last year, the British Left was as surprised as everyone else. Kuwait was a faraway country of which the Left knew little, the invasion a spectacular interruption to the holiday season. To be sure, the crisis in the Gulf provoked a vague unease, but after the first few days, when it seemed that Saddam might sweep south into Saudi Arabia, the prospects of all-out war seemed to recede. Once the American forces were in place in Saudi Arabia and the United Nations had imposed sanctions on Iraq, the most likely scenario seemed a lengthy process of economic attrition which Saddam could not win. It did not seem too much of a priority to set up an anti-war organisation.
Not everyone was quite so complacent. For Socialist Action, a small Trotskyist group, the time was ripe for seizing. By acting fast it could set the agenda for an anti-war movement. In mid-August, taking advantage of the inactivity of the rest of the Left, it took the lead in setting up an anti-war coalition, the Committee to Stop War in the Gulf, doing its best to ensure that it was effectively under its control but did not appear so. Socialist Action is a remnant of one of the pro-Cuba factions in the erstwhile International Marxist Group and is no more than fifty strong. It is nevertheless well entrenched in the Labour hard-Left, with significant influence in the part of it that is sceptical about the idea of eventually setting up a 'pure' socialist party to Labour's Left. Indeed, among trot groups it is notable for the depth of its commitment to the Labour Party and its horror of appearing 'ultra-Left': it works more with non-trots than with other trots, whom it despises for raising 'maximalist' demands.
The group is influential in the Labour Left Liaison umbrella group, which includes the Labour Women's Action Committee, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Labour CND, and it has a major input into Campaign Group News, the organ of the Campaign Group of hard-Left Labour MPs. Unsurprisingly, the platform on which the Committee to Stop War in the Gulf was set up was a 'minimalist' one - "Stop war!" -and hard-Left MPs and the groups in Labour Left Liaison were among the first affiliates.
National CND, for the most part innocent of Socialist Action's existence, let alone its methods, was bounced into joining the Committee by Labour CND, whose secretary, Carol Turner, a Socialist Action veteran, was also secretary of the Committee; the Green Party, whose international committee at the time was under the influence of another trot faction, the tiny Pabloite group Socialists for Self-Management, was brought in at the same time. The Euro-communist Communist Party of Great Britain and the Stalinist Communist Party of Britain, both desperate for credibility, saw a bandwagon and jumped on board, and by early September the Committee to Stop War in the Gulf looked like an impressive coalition of anti-war groups.
The reality was rather different. Socialist Action made sure that it controlled the key positions on the Committee (Turner remained secretary of the Committee throughout its existence), and it blocked attempts by CND and the Greens to get the Committee to endorse sanctions against Iraq, on the grounds that such a move would be divisive - even though the only groups that would have been excluded by such a move were 'revolutionary defeatists' committed to backing Saddam if fighting broke out. (The idea behind this position, first formulated by Lenin during World War One, is that in an imperialist war revolutionaries should work for the defeat of their own side, with the intention of turning it into revolutionary civil war). For a few weeks, such people didn't bother with the Committee, seeing it as far too reformist: the Socialist Workers' Party and other trot groups put their efforts into setting up a rival to the Committee, the Campaign Against War in the Gulf, on a 'Troops out!' position. But the Campaign soon floundered, and the SWP and the rest of the revolutionary defeatists drifted into the Committee. The result was predictable. The Committee's meetings turned into interminable political wrangling. Not surprisingly, as the Gulf crisis dragged on through the autumn, the Committee proved incapable of exercising any purchase on public opinion or on the political mainstream. Just about the only thing it seemed to know how to do was call a demonstration in London - and even then it didn't have the resources to provide stewards or the wit to present interesting speakers.
The Committee's efforts at the Labour Party Conference in early October were particularly disastrous. Faced with a conference opposed to war but not prepared to undermine the leadership (which was anyway rather less than blood-thirsty at this point), the Committee made the extraordinary decision to put up a conference-floor fight on an anti-war resolution it knew would be badly defeated. In result, opposition to the war became identified in the Labour Party with the hard-Left, a kiss of death for any cause these days. With a few days hard work, the Committee managed to throw away any possibility of ever having influence over the mainstream of the Labour Party.
Its attempts to woo Liberal Democrats and Tories were virtually non-existent. To the media the Committee, despite constant damage-limitation by CND, came across as a bunch of unfriendly, paranoid, hectoring and above all incompetent extremists. Whereas elsewhere in Europe large swathes of Centre and even Right opinion opposed war before it started, in Britain the anti-war movement got stuck at an early stage in the Left ghetto. By mid-November, it was quite apparent to the British government that it would face only token domestic opposition if it backed George Bush's plans to evict Saddam from Kuwait by force. By the end of the year, it was clear even to its own supporters that the anti-war movement had failed, and that the only thing that could stop war was a climbdown by Saddam. The Committee stepped up its activity when the air war began in January (and in February at last threw out the revolutionary defeatists, who had by now become a serious embarrassment), but the number of demonstrators on marches dwindled rapidly as a sense of total impotence set in. By the time the land war started, the anti-war movement was on the slide. Perhaps, as the Committee leaders tastelessly put it, support would have grown again if the body-bags had started coming home; luckily we shall never know.
The point of all this is not that the war should not have been opposed. Despite the small number of 'Allied' casualties, the war was a human and environmental disaster. But the peace movement, such as it is, should not now be sitting back and saying that it was right all along: there are lessons it has to learn from the Gulf war.
In particular, it should be absolutely clear to everyone who had anything to do with the national movement against war in the Gulf that not wanting a particular crisis to turn into war is no basis on which to organise a credible opposition: it is essential that the movement from the start excludes those who, in the event of war, will support either side. In the run-up to the Gulf War Leninist advocates of revolutionary defeatism did immense harm to the cause of those opposed to slaughter on humanitarian grounds, and the peace movement should have had no truck with them.
It should also be extremely wary of allowing itself to be manipulated by small groups with their own hidden political priorities. Without CND, with its 65,000 members, the Committee to Stop War in the Gulf would have been a mere husk; outside the Committee, CND could have used its resources and skills to promote its clear position of using sanctions to get Saddam out of Kuwait rather than wasting its time and energy on a coalition that could not even agree to condemn Saddam's invasion. If there is a next time, it would be unfortunate to make the same mistakes.