Joseph Ritchie discusses the trials and tribulations of the anti-war movement in the UK.
After the mass protests in 2003 failed to achieve anything substantial, many in the anti-war movement have been at a loss about what needs to be done to rekindle some momentum and, more importantly, bring an end to our Government’s aggressive militarism. With this piece I want to first reflect on the antiwar movement as it was and take a look at where it’s going now.
On February 15th the world witnessed something quite remarkable. Worldwide, streets became swollen with protest as millions responded to the proposed invasion of Iraq. As is oft-mentioned, the New York Times reported that these demonstrations evidenced public opinion as the World’s Second Superpower. Looking back, it seems like that’s probably when we should have first felt uneasy. What I want to do with this reflection is take a harsh look at what has constituted the ‘anti-war movement’ and to briefly consider where we might go from here.
The empty centre of protest
When asked to explain why the abstract of a proposed invasion motivated far more discontent than the actuality of brutal devastation, there has been precious little comment from anyone involved in the mainstream anti-war movement. Despite the majority of the movement’s arguments being vindicated, the number of people protesting has dwindled. On the whole, reasons for this have not been forthcoming.
What I want to propose here is simply that there never really was an ‘anti-war’ movement as such. The connotations of ‘anti war’ and ‘movement’ imply a couple of things. These words suggest not only an acute opposition to the war but also the development of a counterforce to it. This ‘counterforce’, or opposition, is what would distinguish a ‘movement’ from, say, a ‘cultural phenomenon’. Looking back at interviews and oral histories of what is thought of as the movement, quite a different sentiment emerges. When, for example, you watch the recordings made of people on the marches and the justifications they give for their presence, they tend not to say that they are there to stop the war, but rather why they think the war is wrong. When pushed, they tend to say things like ‘this [march] will show Tony Blair that people aren’t behind him’ or some other such democratic abstractions. Alternatively, they discuss how important it is to show people that the war is ‘not in our name’. In my opinion, the marches were more protests about democracy and illegitimacy than anything else. In this light, it’s very telling how often the wars alleged ‘illegality’ was posed as an issue.
Then there was the complete lack of tactical thought. Even very mainstream avenues, such as the sustained lobbying of wavering MPs, were not convincingly addressed. To shed some light on why the movement took the form that it did, it’s worth asking why people ended up on the streets. For one, there was the deep commitment to spectacle. Generating the appearance of an anti-war movement (consider the endlessly replicated images of the large marches, the mass produced signs, the endless focus on media representation) seemed to take precedence over all else. A particularly exhausting example of this can be found in a recent campaign that involved a concerted effort to sell copies of the single ‘War (What is it good for)’ as a form of protest. Even more grassroots tactics, like the practice of having anti-war protesters shout at Gordon Brown when he was touring the UK prior to becoming Prime Minister can be read not simply as a good natured waste of time, but as a slight desperation to cultivate the appearance of antagonism when there was in fact none.
Part of this was pure reaction. For example, the lingering ghost of the (unsuccessful) movement that opposed the War in Vietnam was doled out in a largely fictionalized form as a model for the movement to emulate. Quite why it made sense to adopt a failed example, especially in the absence of a draft or comparable other circumstances was never explained, nor even questioned. Linked to this was the fact that rather than a movement rooted in the real world, i.e. in the space in which capital and the wheels of war are located, the movement took the bizarre route of existing primarily in what might be designated the ‘protest space’.
This is consistent with the way in which Capital negates subversive movements. We can observe in the popular renditions of combative figures (Martin Luther King, Mandela etc) the way in which struggle, which engages directly with economic and social realities in a variety of confrontational ways, is reduced instead to a ‘purer’ form of ‘standing up for a belief’. Rather than looking at them as tacticians, the focus comes to rest on their ‘integrity’ and ‘courage’ in a rather abstract form. This in turn promotes the inherent valour of ‘protest’, and ‘doing the right thing’ divorced from the pressing questions of reality. This is quite apparent in the modern concept of a march. Such tactics guarantee, as is a necessary part of liberal freedom that in no way will the protest spill over into the realm of the objects protested against. Instead, we would uphold our freedom to be ineffective.
The movement was also weakened by the hierarchies of knowledge and command within the movement that not only failed in their own prescriptions but fundamentally failed to empower anyone to think and act creatively. In my own experience with the mainstream movement I’ve often found that they are more concerned with crushing potential rivals who might steal membership fees than embracing singularities and exploring new routes of resistance. In this way, there was never a mass movement, so much as a mass orchestration.
This leaves us with the question of where to go from here. On the 29th and 30th of November a group called Edinburgh Anti-Militarists hosted a Gathering in Edinburgh to bring together the disparate strands of the anti-war movement. Given the recent flurry of anti-NATO activism taking place on the continent (and at the next summit in Strasbourg this January) we wanted to mobilize against the NATO parliamentary assembly this coming November. However, while putting together the agenda for the weekend it quickly became clear that this could also be a forum for trying to bring together the often oppositional parts of the movement and perhaps creating some kind of unity.
This seemed like a risky move. I’m sure we’re not the only ones who’ve spent a lot of time locked into pointless debates about the nature of violence and the real meaning of ‘diversity of tactics’. Nonetheless, after the first day of talks and presentations, the second day of discussion got underway and by the end of it we had created something quite remarkable. Despite the variety of campaigners (we had activists from Faslane, people from the Smash EDO campaigns and many others) there was a general agreement that what we needed was a non-hierarchical network of support which would use direct action to stop the NATO assembly next year. Even more interestingly, there was also a feeling that such a network should facilitate support for all the different small campaigns going on around the UK at present. To continue this process and to get more groups/individuals involved, more Gatherings are being planned as we speak. Crucially, this was the first time that we had seen direct action as the central tactic of a UK-wide anti-Militarist network.
Is this sort of network the way forward? Part of me thinks so. After too long having our differences exploited by those trying to control the movement, it makes sense for the direct action elements to unify and engage in protest and garner support on their own terms. It was stressed in discussions how important it was to involve more people and to, in a much more consistent way, explain our actions to the public at large. Further, it seems like after the failure of the anti-war activists to achieve anything through conventional routes direct action offers the possibility of more tangible results.
Still, I personally remain sceptical that this is all we need to do. No matter how vibrant and effective our resistance becomes, it remains fundamentally a rejection of what is. What we lack as a movement is something concrete to move towards. While it is understandable that, as anarchists and anti-authoritarians, we have not engaged extensively in questions about what a just ‘world order’ might look like, we nonetheless should not think we can dodge these questions forever. Much like the question of violence in society, if anarchists and anti-authoritarians don’t engage with these issues effectively, we remain like Christian Priests of old, issuing unhelpful proclamations about how things ought to be and will be after the revolution/second coming.
So, in conclusion, I want to argue that after 5 years of getting it wrong, the recent mobilizations against NATO and the creation of an anti-war direct action network the anti-militarist network (or AMN, for short) offers a chance of getting it right. If we can simultaneously consolidate ourselves as an effective network and reach out to new people on our own terms, things might genuinely begin to shift. To this end, I would strongly urge you to get involved with AMN.
"[DISCLAIMER: This article was written prior to the mass Gaza protests].
Joseph Ritchie has been involved in the anti-war movement since marches began in 2003. He is currently studying and his interests include Anarchist, radical theory and popular social movements. If you would like to contact him, he is available here: [email protected]
To get involved with or find out more about the Anti Militarist Network, e-mail here: [email protected]"