Anti-war demonstration in London: One step forward, two steps back

Report of the demonstration against the war in Afghanistan held in Trafalgar Square on Sunday Novemeber 18.

On Sunday, November 18, the second big demonstration against the war in Afghanistan was held in London, called by the Stop the War Coalition.

The first demonstration was supported by about 50,000 people and was considered a big success. This time it was feared that the attendance would be less, mainly as a result of the widespread (though mistaken) perception that the fall of Kabul signified the end of the war. The cold and miserable London weather did not help matters.

Nevertheless, the pessimists were confounded by the turnout. By 12 o'clock, a steady stream of demonstrators, mostly young people, were pouring into Hyde Park, determined to express their opposition to the war and the blatant pro-imperialist policy of Tony Blair.

As usual on such occasions, the police grossly underestimated the numbers involved. The figure of seven thousand was hastily sucked out of somebody's thumb, which was met by derision on the part of those present. The actual number was certainly not less than 50,000 - that is, the same as last time.

The participation of a large number of youth was very encouraging. The mood was militant and enthusiastic - a decisive answer to those cynics who say that young people are not interested in politics.

Serious weaknesses

There were serious weaknesses, however, mostly of a political character. The demonstration was organised by a "coalition" of anti-war groups, ranging from pacifists to Islamic fundamentalists. During the meeting held in Trafalgar Square at the end of the rally, the assembled demonstrators listened with rapt attention to the speeches, but unfortunately they would have learned very little of interest, and some very pernicious ideas indeed.

Tony Benn, the veteran Labour Left, as usual, delivered an emotional but coherent speech, denouncing the attacks on civil liberties and the "cringing cabinet" which has accepted without exception all the impositions of Tony Blair (or "Bomber Blair" as some of the demonstrators have christened him). And John Pilger, the well-known Australian journalist, spoke as well as one would expect, denouncing the crimes of US imperialism. ("If they wanted to declare war on terrorism, they ought to have begun by bombing Florida.")

Most of the other speakers appeared to be labouring under the delusion that the way to compensate for the lack of ideas was to strain one's vocal chords to breaking point. Apart from giving everyone a headache, all they succeeded in doing was to sow confusion (that is about all that a confused mind sow!)

We were presented with a speaker "all the way from New York" whose name was not quite audible, but who was alleged to represent something called "Labour against war". From which title one might assume that he was speaking in the name of the American labour movement. Not a bit of it! His opening remarks were to assure us that all American trade unionists were enthusiastic supporters of the war and imperialism. After such a promising start, he then proceeded to reassure us by explaining that his presence was proof that "not all" Americans were bloodthirsty war-mongers. Which must have been a great relief to everyone present.

In general, the chief weakness of the demonstration was its class content - adequately reflected by this friend of "American labour". There was a certain participation from unions, notably ASLEF and the RMT, which was very positive. However, from the speakers on the rostrum, there was not an atom of class content. The majority confined themselves to endless denunciations of "this bloody war" and so on.

Now, to any logical mind, it would seem fairly apparent that the 50,000 or so who gave up their Sunday rest, braving the inclemency of a British November to march several miles to Trafalgar Square, were already more or less persuaded that this war was not a good thing, and that, consequently, the above-mentioned speeches were about as much use to them as a bottle of sun-tan lotion or an autographed photo of Tony Blair.

So far, so bad, but there was far, far worse to come. About halfway through the proceedings, the speeches suddenly stopped, and a bearded gentleman with every appearance of being a mullah approached the microphone and proceeded to deliver a hearty rendering of the Islamic call to prayer. The crowd listened in silence - not quite knowing how to react. The other speakers on the platform stood to attention, trying to look pious. When the performance was over, there was polite applause (which from a Moslem point of view was probably blasphemous). And then the show continued as if nothing had happened.

No concessions to fundamentalist reaction!

It is not clear how many of those present were embarrassed or indignant at this. Anyway, nobody protested. As if it was quite natural to introduce an element of religious fundamentalism into what was supposed to be an anti-imperialist demonstration. And this aberration, it seems is quite acceptable to organisations that have the gall to call themselves Marxists, like the SWP, which apparently is now in favour of "defending Islam".

Well, one might have expected this kind of thing from the SWP, whose organic opportunism is such that it would probably agree to the Pope celebrating mass in Trafalgar Square, if only it would guarantee a big turn-out. (The problem is that the Pope would not come.) And the same goes for all the other pseudo-Marxist sects who spend their lives fussing and fiddling on the fringes of the labour movement.

The opportunism of these muddle-heads can be seen at regular intervals. Whenever a war breaks out. They all suffer from a kind of nervous tic, which compels them, at the first tap of the drum, to start shouting: "Who do you support?" As if Marxists were necessarily obliged, under all conditions, to take sides in a war! Some of these ladies and gentlemen during the Kosovo war were running around the streets waving KLA flags - overlooking the little detail that the KLA were acting as the agents of US imperialism. Now it seems that, in order to oppose US imperialism, one has to back the Taliban! (Yes, some of these people have actually said this!)

As it happens, in the present conflict, there is no doubt about the imperialist character of the war. From the outset, we have consistently explained this to whoever would listen. We are unconditionally opposed to the imperialist aggression in Afghanistan. Our position cannot be determined by the crimes of the Taliban - that is quite clear. But that does not mean that we abandon our criticism of the Taliban and Islamic fundamentalism, both of which remain completely reactionary.

To use the pretext of the war to blur the differences between socialists and the labour movement and is nothing more than a betrayal. It would have the most negative consequences for the workers' movement - especially in Pakistan. The Pakistani workers - who have had to fight fundamentalist reaction in Pakistan for decades - have quite rightly come out against the imperialist war against the Afghan people. But they have done so under their own banners and slogans, advocating a revolutionary class policy. They have not mixed up the red banner of the working class with the black flag of fundamentalist reaction. The poster of the Pakistan Trade Union Defence Campaign (see www.ptudc.org), which has been posted in thousands all over Pakistan - contains the slogans: AGAINST THE IMPERIALIST WAR! AGAINST FUNDAMENTALISM! NO WAR BUT THE CLASS WAR!

In the meantime, let us speak bluntly. The struggle against war and imperialism cannot be served by mixing up the banner of the working class and socialism with religious obscurantism and fundamentalism. Of course, we are in favour of the most active participation of all sections of the working class - including Moslems. We must fight against racism and attacks against Moslems. But this does not mean that we must allow our platform to be used for the propagation of Islam - or any other religion.

The great majority of Moslems do not demand the right to impose their religion on other people. They only wish to have the right to observe their religious beliefs in peace, without harassment. This right we will fight to defend. Marxists will be the most active fighters against the imperialist war in Afghanistan. But we must also fight to raise the consciousness of the working class. Our task is to win them to the ideas of scientific socialism. By their actions, the organisers of the November 18 rally are educating the working class and the youth of Britain backwards.