Anti-militarism: an anarcho-syndicalist perspective
A discussion document from the Brighton Class Struggle Forum 18/08/09.
Not stopping the war coalition
The Trotskyist-dominated (Socialist Workers Party/SWP in particular) Stop the War Coalition (STWC) pursued a strategy of mass marches under the slogan ‘not in my name.’ This expressed the moralistic, lowest common denominator demand of a movement that was both broad and shallow – and expressed itself completely on the terrain of bourgeois politics (indeed bourgeois politicians – such as George Galloway – were amongst its most prominent leaders and spokespeople).
The only strategy beyond mass marches was to try and channel anti-war sentiment into the latest Trotskyist electoral venture – the RESPECT coalition. This was a total failure. Again. The Trotskyist leadership of the STWC relied solely on the spectacle of mass marches seeking to shame the government into action. They actively opposed even the tamest civil disobedience and direct action, their stewards trying to move along sit-down protestors and organising a London march to coincide with a planned mass demonstration at RAF Fairford, where the gates had been toppled at a recent previous demonstration.
Consequently, the government was confident the protests would remain purely spectacular, and thus could safely ignore them. The Met Police praised the STWC for their co-operation in preventing any disorder (the ‘order’ they were preserving was of course the relentless march to war!). Disillusioned and angry with the way the STWC channelled widespread anti-war sentiment into ineffective channels, anti-war activists in Brighton sought to take a more direct approach.
Sussex Action for Peace
The anti-war movement in Brighton, organised under the banner of Sussex Action for Peace (SAFP) had been wrested away from SWP control quite early on, largely by the sheer numbers of people who became involved. When an SWP attempt to bus-in members to fix a vote and set themselves up to control the group was exposed by a mis-sent email, they split to form a rival group called Hove Action for Peace. This soon folded, having failed as a front group since it did not attract the necessary non-party members who remained in SAFP.
SAFP was largely organised on anarchist lines, with no steering committee, decisions made in open mass meetings and specific tasks delegated to working groups. This had been a result of anarchists winning round most of the humanist liberals (many of whom were experiencing political activity for the first time), both with their arguments in meetings and by circulating leaflets describing the democratic organising methods of anarchists in the Spanish civil war. Consequently SAFP also came to organise mass direct actions in defiance of the police.
The first of these was the October 2002 Halloween protest, a watershed event where 5-600 people took over the streets for hours, successfully blocking traffic and evading the police, who resorted to brutal beatings and point-blank peppersprayings – further radicalising many political virgins. This set the tone for anti-war activity in Brighton from then on. However, having failed to stop the war, the more direct action-minded activists in SAFP began discussing what to do next. It came to light that a local factory was making parts for the Paveway bombs being dropped on Iraq; a target was found and Smash EDO was formed.
The tactics adopted were a combination of SHAC-style targeted protests (including spreading to secondary targets) and an espoused NVDA line – quoting Gandhi – which found resonance in the liberal haven of Brighton. The strategy of Smash EDO was summarised in their slogan: “Every bomb that is dropped, every bullet that is fired in this war of terror has to be made somewhere, and wherever that is it can be resisted.”
Over the next 5 years a combination of dedicated campaigning and fortuitously clumsy repression (such as a High Court injunction, which increased the size of protests tenfold overnight) brought Smash EDO to national attention. The campaign has come to be considered one of the most exciting and successful in the UK and has spawned admirers and imitators all over the country. They are now seeking to set up an anti-militarist network to help take the model nationwide.
Having recently organised a 1000-strong, confrontational street protest against war and capitalism, Smash EDO do appear to be the heirs to the spirit of Halloween 2002. But without wanting to piss on the bonfire, it has to be noted that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have carried on oblivious. All the victories of the campaign have been secondary ones to the goal of actually stopping the war. why might this be?
An anarcho-syndicalist approach
For anarcho-syndicalists, war is not a mere policy of governments but an inherent dynamic to the capitalist system, which divides the world into competing nation-states. Therefore, the struggle against war cannot be separated from the struggle against capitalism, which is seen as a social relation where society is polarised between those who have nothing to sell but their labour-power – workers – and those who hire manage and regulate that labour-power – bosses, bureaucrats and politicians.
The interests of these groups are irreconcilable. However, as soon as workers are atomised as individuals they have no power and simply have to play the game; it’s business as usual – capitalism. Therefore anarcho-syndicalists see the only way to struggle against capitalism arising from the self-organisation of workers to assert their interests – whether to decent living standards or to not kill and be killed in the bosses’ wars.
Historically, such workers’ movements have severely disrupted or even ended wars. The Russian Revolution of 1917 shows that successful struggles against war mean successful struggles against capitalism (although of course the Bolshevik counter-revolution triumphed and re-imposed state-capitalism). However, in 2003 there was no such workers’ movement in the UK.
For anarcho-syndicalists, this explains the spectacular nature of the STWC marches. They were spectacular not because of their law-abiding A-B character but because of their detachment from everyday life. For the most part people went and protested in central London, then went home and got on with business as usual. There was virtually no working class content to the ‘movement’ (the isolated refusal of two Scottish train drivers to transport war materiel being a notable exception).
Since the protests were detached from everyday life, the bore little threat of disrupting business as usual. Thus the government, not impressed by idle threats simply carried on regardless. However, there is an important implication here: ‘direct action’ can also be spectacular if it is detached from everyday life. For anarcho-syndicalists, this is why Smash EDO has been unable to impact the war itself, for all its success in outwitting the cops in the courts and the streets, and costing EDO hundreds of thousands of pounds in legal costs for their failed injunction.
However this is not a criticism of Smash EDO per se. In many ways they have pushed anti-war activism as far as has been possible in the circumstances, and we can only really know this retrospectively. This is why many have found them inspirational. However the failure to impact the war effort in large part reflects a detachment from the class struggle, which itself reflects the low level of class struggle in the UK over the past decade.
The only way out of this impasse is a revival of the workers’ movement, so that collectively we can disrupt the functioning of capitalism – including the drive to war. This is clearly a longer term project than targeting one – or many – arms factories. However it’s one that at least has the potential to stop the war – and all wars. This is by no means mutually exclusive to participating in anti-war direct action in the here and now. The challenge for those who consider themselves anti-capitalist is how to strike a balance between the immediate desire to ‘do something’ about the war and the longer term imperative to build a libertarian workers’ movement capable of threatening capitalism and its wars altogether.