The masses are on the march! Millions demonstrate against the war worldwide

February 15th 2003 saw the biggest worldwide demonstrations in history. Alan woods and Fred Weston analysis the impact and perspectives for this movement.

On Saturday February 15, tens of millions of people participated in mass demonstrations in 600 cities in five continents. CNN estimated that the total figure of demonstrators was a staggering 110 millions worldwide, but this is impossible to verify. However, it is clear that well over ten millions marched in Europe alone, and that huge demonstrations were held all over the world, from Tasmania to Iceland - in Sydney and Bangkok, Tokyo and New York, in Paris, Rome and Berlin. This was the first truly global mass demonstration in history.

Everywhere the numbers who responded greatly exceeded the anticipations of the organizers. There were at least 500,000 in New York, 500,000 in Berlin. In Rome the organizers had to allow the march to start two hours early because of the sheer size of the demonstration. Initially reports said that more than a million people were on the march, but it may even have been anything from two to three million. In Syria 200,000 marched.. In Tokyo, demonstrators gathered outside the US embassy. In Cape Town they burned the American flag. There were demonstrations in South Korea and in Hong Kong, in Moscow and Athens. In Turkey 45 people were reported to have been arrested. Between 5,000 and 10,000 people, both Israelis and Palestinians, marched in Tel Aviv.

The number of demonstrators in Paris, initially estimated as 50,000 was increased to 100,000 even before it started. However, here there were obvious political weaknesses. The idea was put forward by some that "the French government is for peace and we must support our government". This is a fatal mistake. The French government reflects the interests of the French bankers and capitalists. Its actions are dictated by crude realpolitik, and its position on the present war can change at any time. We must have no illusions on this score. Today they may be causing the US imperialists problems (for their own interests), but tomorrow they can easily change their position.

The biggest response in Europe was in Spain, where about six million people participated in demonstrations all over the country. There were two million on the streets of Madrid, and one and a half million in Barcelona – the biggest demonstration in the history of that city. In Valencia there were half a million. In Bilbao, 100,000 turned out. And even in traditionally conservative Valladolid, 60,000 people protested. The mood of the demonstrators was one of militant opposition to the war and to the Aznar government. People carried placards that read: "With or without a Resolution – No War!" In Barcelona, one of the speakers demanded the illegalization of the PP (Aznar’s party) as a terrorist party that by its actions was encouraging the spread of terrorism!

The present truly worldwide movement shows the depth of anger of the masses against existing governments. There is a feeling among a growing number of people that they are not represented by their governments. The Italian government is run by a common criminal, a multi-millionaire who was only saved from a prison sentence by using his fortune to get himself elected. He naturally feels sympathy with the present government of the United States, which is made up of the same type of people as himself. But the great majority of Italians have other ideas.

Big marches were held in Australia and New Zealand. Australia is supposed to be one of the most fervent allies of the USA but there is massive public opposition to the war. This was reflected in big demonstrations in Sydney and Melbourne, Perth and Canberra. Apart from Britain, Australia is the only other member of Bush’s "coalition of the willing" and has sent "2,000 troops to the Gulf. The Australian ruling class burned its fingers in Vietnam and for a while kept well out of foreign military adventures. But the intervention in East Timor, which is now virtually an Australian colony, went quite well. So now they want to drag the Australian people into new military entanglements. This is just what most Australians do not want.

The biggest demo in British history

One of the biggest demonstrations was in London, where up to two million participated. Other demonstrations took place in Glasgow and Belfast. The organisers of the London demonstration initially had been expecting 500,000. But as the day of the demo drew closer it was clear that far more than that would be turning up. In the event several times that number poured onto the streets of the capital in an unprecedented act of protest against the threat of war against Iraq.


Britain has never seen anything like it in living memory. A sea of placards and banners moved slowly along the banks of the river Thames. Standing on the Embankment it was clear from the early hours that this one was going to be huge. A never ending flow of people just kept filing by, among them many trade unions and many, many Labour Party members, some carrying their Party banners in defiance of the Blairite leadership. Even the police, who always underestimate the numbers of demonstrators, admitted to three quarters of a million. But the Murdoch-owned Sky News put the numbers at one and a half million, which was much closer to the true figure. In the end the organisers reckoned that up to two million people had been mobilised in the biggest political protest in the history of Britain. One would have to go back to Chartist times to find anything remotely comparable to this.

Demonstrators set out under leaden skies and in bitter cold from two separate points, bringing central London to a halt for hours. The temperature in London was chilly but the mood of the protesters was ebullient. For the first time in many years the feeling on the demo was one of a movement with immense power. It took several hours for the demonstrations even to set out on the route to Hyde Park. At half past three, two and a half miles from Hyde Park, the compact columns of protesters were still moving, slowly but with cheerful determination, away from the starting point at Embankment. When the two demonstrations converged at Piccadilly people could hardly move. The road, the pavements, right up to the shop windows, were completely blocked with a human mass moving slowly forward.

So huge was the number of demonstrators that most did not even reach Hyde Park to hear the speeches. Many did not reach the park until dusk. People were still arriving in Hyde Park at 6.30 pm, although the demonstration began at 12.30 pm. Initially the government had attempted to stop the demonstration from using this traditional venue with the pathetic excuse that the grass of the park would be damaged! But it was compelled to back down by public pressure.

There was a lively carnival mood among the marchers, many of whom had never been on a demonstration before. The New Labour spin-doctors must have been watching the demonstration on television with horror. Here was the real expression of the overwhelming majority of the people of Britain. The threat of war has politicised the masses in a way that the politicians could not have anticipated. According to one TV reporter, the numbers involved exceeded those that participated in the victory celebrations at the end of World War Two.

These magnificent demonstrations are an indication of a change of mood and a different situation on a world scale. What they show is that in all countries, from Britain to South Africa, from the USA to Australia, on all continents a seething discontent has been piling up. The impending war has just brought into focus the enormous contradictions within society. In every country spending on schools, hospitals, pensions, is being drastically cut. But when it comes to defending their own narrow interests the capitalists and their governments are prepared to spend billions. This understanding was expressed with the words "No blood for oil" on many banners and placards.


Simply listening to the radio the mood of the people is clear. Many former soldiers, including Gulf veterans and officers, have expressed their outright opposition and participated on the demonstration. Jesse Jackson said: "Bush and Blair will listen or they will pay the price." That is undoubtedly true. But Bush and Blair are deaf to all protests. The war preparations are continuing. What is being prepared is anything but a carnival.

All sections of British society were present – old people with walking sticks, disabled people in wheelchairs, young children, black and white trade unionists and Moslems, Labour Party members and revolutionary Marxists.

The supporters of Socialist Appeal were out on the demo distributing the journal and the printed edition of the In Defence of Marxism Manifesto against the war. Our material was selling like hot cakes, so much so that we sold out of our Manifesto! There was a genuine desire to understand. In spite of all the propaganda about Marxism being dead, many, many demonstrators were keen to read a Marxist analysis on the coming war against Iraq. Many commented that the real socialists should be in the Labour Party and not the likes of Tony Blair.

This massive turnout is a clear indication of the way in which British society has been stirred up to the depth. This marks the beginning of a sea-change in the mood of British society. The issue of the war has served as a catalyst to bring to the surface a mood of deep discontent that has been simmering beneath the surface for years. And within this process many are very open to the genuine ideas of socialism. There is a logic in this. To challenge the capitalists in their war plans is to challenge them on a key issue relating to the very nature of the system.

This event signifies the beginnings of the awakening of the masses to political life. And in the beginning there is always an element of naivety. Although there was a significant layer that was open to socialist ideas, it was also true that hundreds of thousands of people were there to say no to the war, without having drawn all the necessary conclusions about the nature of society we live in. The full seriousness of the situation has not yet dawned on them. The very broad sweep of the movement in its early stages is itself both a strength and a weakness. This is shown by the very heterogeneous composition of the marchers and the predominance of liberal, Christian and pacifist elements on the platform. The presence of bourgeois politicians like Charles Kennedy, the leader of the Liberal Party, underlines this. Kennedy is not opposed to war, but only the launching of war at the present time and under the present conditions. He can, and undoubtedly will, change his tune later on.

The UN is a diversion

The speakers at the closing rally in Hyde Park added very little to the debate on Iraq. Tony Benn was one of the few to depart from the usual pacifism and moral outrage and put forward some political arguments. The veteran Labour Left politician stated that this was the beginning of a "new political movement". He was the only one to refer to the injustice of the present world order: the world, he pointed out, was dominated by the big monopolies and arms manufacturers. Five hundred billionaires have the same income as half the world population, he said, while 35 million die of starvation every year. He demanded that the money wasted on arms be spent on houses, food and clothing.

Unfortunately, Benn’s case was marred by his customary obsession with the (dis) United Nations. He was immediately followed by Kennedy, who quickly latched onto the absence of a "mandate from the UN" as his main objection to war against Iraq. This crafty bourgeois carefully leaves himself a convenient escape route. The Liberal Democrats, he said, would not support war without a UN resolution. The implication was that with such a resolution, they would.

This shows the Achilles heel of the anti-war movement. An extremely negative role has been played by those who have persistently argued in favour of the United Nations. This has introduced an element that can split the anti-war movement and undermine it fatally. Blair and Bush still have the opportunity to bribe some members of the Security Council to procure a second resolution. This would sow massive confusion, seriously damaging the potential of the movement. It is an urgent task that we systematically expose the reactionary role of the UN and make it clear that we oppose the war, with or without a UN resolution.

The argument about the UN is a joke in very bad taste. Israel has been flouting UN resolutions for decades and actually has nuclear weapons. It is led by a war criminal who is responsible for the murder of thousands of Palestinian men, women and children in the Lebanon. Yet no action is taken against him, and the issue of the UN’s "honour" is never mentioned. At the end of the day the UN is financially dependent on the USA. The Americans can bully and bribe the members of the Security Council to vote for a new resolution that will open the door to military action. If they do not succeed in this, they will start a war anyway. To entertain any illusions on this question would be criminally irresponsible.

Even as millions were demonstrating against war, Kofi Annan was already changing his tune, saying that arms inspections "cannot continue indefinitely without full Iraqi cooperation", and that a second UN resolution "might be necessary". This slick operator is sending a message to the Americans – the equivalent of a sly wink in diplomatic terms – to reassure them that a second resolution is entirely possible that will prepare the way for the use of force. Thus the UN will prove to be, not a vehicle for peace, but a launching pad for war. And in that case, what will the "friends of the United Nations" have to say?

Hypocrisy of Blair

This demonstration was a kick in the teeth for Blair. But Blair, who talks a lot about democracy (for Iraq), is not very keen on listening to his own people, and is not even willing to allow a vote on war in the Mother of Parliaments. His arrogant defiance was spelled out in the Labour Party Spring conference in Glasgow, which coincided with the anti-war demonstrations in London and Glasgow. Significantly, Tony Blair told the conference that the real aim was the removal of Saddam Hussein. This assiduous churchgoer and born again "Christian" tried to present a "moral" case for war against an "evil dictator". In this new and "improved" version of the Sermon on the Mount he made out that war was morally justified.

Blair stated that there would be "serious consequences" if the anti-war protesters were to succeed. In an astonishing piece of verbal gymnastics, he argued that the removal of Saddam by war would be a "humanitarian action". This means he has a "moral case" for sending British soldiers to bomb and kill Iraqis. Blair weeps crocodile tears over the people of Iraq. Yet for the last ten years British and American bombers have bombed the Iraqi people, and western imposed sanctions have led to the deaths of a million of them. As if in answer to Blair, among those on the London demonstration were Iraqi women with their faces covered to prevent them being identified, opposed to the dictator Saddam Hussein, but also opposing the war against the Iraqi people.

"I do not seek unpopularity as a badge of honour," the prime minister went on, obviously angling for some sympathy. He may not seek it but he has certainly got it, as anyone present on the demonstrations would know. Most people now listen to these hypocritical arguments about "morality" and "humanitarianism" with undisguised contempt – including the big majority of Labour Party members. In a Party where most conferences are now carefully stage managed, most of his audience sat with their arms folded. He must have been relieved that nobody walked out of the hall. But the great majority of Labour Party members are completely opposed to the war.

Blair is now absolutely isolated. The only people who applaud him are George Bush and the British Conservative Party leaders. Having delivered his revised edition of the Sermon on the Mount, the Labour leader then hastily packed his bags and left before he could enjoy an encounter with the 80,000 protesters on the Glasgow demonstration. According to those who know him he has, for some reason, suddenly lost all interest in his beloved focus groups. This great democrat is stone deaf to the message of the majority. The services of his polling guru, Philip Glass, are apparently not in much demand these days. Blair does not want to read the polls because they show that the overwhelming majority is against him.

The hypocrisy of Bush and Blair has been exposed to a large and growing number of people. The Bush administration has a first-strike policy, yet is supposed to be making the world a safer place! This is the expression of the lunacy of the Republican religious right, of which George W Bush is the most dedicated representative. It is also an expression of the aggressive policy of US imperialism that demands complete freedom to wage war on any nation it considers to be problematical and overthrow any government that does not suit it.

Blair fears that the moment for action may pass. He and Bush are in a hurry because the inspectors may find nothing and thus deprive the USA of its excuse to attack. In his State of the Union speech, Bush said that the course of this country does not depend on others. That means that if the UN does not fall into line, the US will go to war in any case. And Blair will be with him.

Demonstrations are not enough

This unprecedented movement undoubtedly sends a powerful message to the governments of Britain and the USA. But since Bush and Blair are committed democrats, the message will fall on deaf ears. George W Bush wants the right to attack any country that might conceivably be a "threat" to the USA in future, that is, any country that it is against the interests of US imperialism. The problem for Washington is not that Saddam is a dictator but that the Baghdad regime will not accept the dictates of Washington and the big US corporations.


The mass demonstrations must therefore not be the end but the beginning of a mass movement against the war. The Marxists will be in the front ranks of this movement, but will strive to fill it with an anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist content and link it firmly with the labour movement. There is a mood of growing anger. But it is not enough to "send a message" to Tony Blair in a demonstration that the day after tomorrow can be forgotten. A fire has been lit under Tony Blair’s backside that will not easily be put out. But it must be given an organised political expression. The opposition to Blair must find an expression inside the Labour Party. It is time for a serious fight back. The unions must use their strength to transform the Party, kick out the careerists and carpetbaggers, and return it to the purpose for which it was created.

Mass action is important but in itself insufficient. To leave the mass movement at the level of spontaneity, to confine ourselves to general appeals for peace, to accept the lowest common denominator in the name of false "unity" would be to condemn it to sterility. It is necessary to set out from the present level and the immediate demands, but to take the movement forward. We must prepare new demonstrations, mass meetings and days of action and, wherever possible protest strikes. But above all we must organise a serious campaign of explanation. Our task is on the one hand to broaden and deepen the movement, but also to raise the political level and raise socialist and class demands.

Under capitalism wars are waged for markets, raw materials and spheres of interest. The Bush regime is simply an extreme expression of the inevitable logic of capitalism. Capitalism means war. It is necessary to explain to the activists that this war, like every other war, is a direct consequence of capitalism, and that therefore the struggle against war can only succeed if it becomes transformed into a struggle against capitalism on a world scale.

The mass demonstrations today show that there are already the beginnings of a worldwide movement against imperialism. This fact should fill us with optimism. But the key to ultimate victory is the international unity of the revolutionary proletarian vanguard. The anti-war movement must be armed with the ideas, programme and policies of Marxism! It is this, and this alone, that can guarantee victory. Let us unite all the forces of genuine Marxism and build a worldwide movement on the unshakable foundations of socialist internationalism!

Mobilize against the war on Iraq!

Down with imperialism and capitalism!

Let us unite to build the international Marxist tendency!

Another world is possible – It is called socialism!