For the broadest possible anti-war movement!

For the broadest possible anti-war movement!

Mike Phipps publishes an exchange of letters with the Stop the War Coalition

Having attended the Stop the War Coalition demonstration on the war in Ukraine on Sunday March 6th, there was a concern among other anti-war activists about the small size of the march and the very few Ukrainians on it. Following some discussion, the appeal below was drafted and circulated. It aims to establish the central principles around which the broadest possible anti-war activity can be built.

“Massive demonstrations against war and in solidarity with the Ukrainian people all over Europe have not so far been matched in the UK, where protests have been small and often divided. We appeal to the entire Labour and trade union movement, pacifists, faith leaders, humanitarians, antiwar activists, those in solidarity with the Ukrainian people and all right-minded internationalists to build the broadest possible movement around three central demands:

• Russian troops out of Ukraine!

• No to war!

• Refugees welcome here!”

You can sign the appeal here

The appeal was duly sent to the Stop the War Coalition who issued the following response:

Dear Comrades,

Thank you for the statement you have circulated concerning the war in Ukraine. We would like to explain why we cannot sign it, nor support any demonstration called on the basis of the demands outlined.

This is not because we disagree with the slogans you have formulated.  Stop the War has opposed the Russian invasion of Ukraine and called for the full withdrawal of the invading troops from the outset.  “No to war” is a slogan which everyone can support under almost all circumstances, although it is not clear what this means under present conditions – if it means opposition to a NATO “no fly zone” over Ukraine then that would be better stated.  And we agree that refugees, whether from Ukraine or other war zones like Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan and Syria (we assume that this is what you mean too), should be made welcome in Britain.

However, these demands do not address central features of the crisis.  In particular, you are silent on the issue of NATO expansion.  It is clear that this expansion has contributed to the war, without justifying it.  Successive British governments have pushed this expansion, including to Ukraine.  President Zelensky has publicly acknowledged that it is something which will form part of any peace agreement.  By not taking a position on this issue, you are avoiding a key question on which British politics actually has an influence, and contributing to the imposition of a “consensus” whereby NATO and its role cannot be discussed. 

Nor do you suggest any criticism of British diplomacy during the crisis, including the wish of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss to fight Putin to the last drop of Ukrainian blood, a position apparently supported by the Labour leadership. It is vital that we make concrete demands of the British government, and not take refuge in platitudes or demands on other regimes only, however justifiable. Your statement is also silent on the war psychosis, almost without precedent, being worked up by the media and politicians here.

There are other pressing issues on which there should be broad unity on the left and among anti-war campaigners – opposition to increased arms spending and to the eastward deployment of British armed forces, and the need for nuclear de-escalation and disarmament across Europe. These are demands on which there is an urgent need for mobilisation.  Your proposed slogans as they stand could be supported by Keir Starmer without batting an eyelid, despite his witch-hunting of the anti-war movement and anti-war Labour MPs, and by Boris Johnson with a touch of hypocrisy on the refugee question.

We remain committed to building a united and powerful anti-war movement directed in the first place against the British government, which has played such a disastrous role in wars across the world over the last generation, and look forward to working with you in doing so.

Stop the War Coalition

As one of the instigators of the appeal, I replied as follows:

Dear comrades,

Thank you for the response to our appeal, which is disappointing, even strange. You say you do not disagree with the slogans we have formulated, but you “cannot sign it, nor support any demonstration called on the basis of the demands outlined.” That doesn’t sound very sensible.

You oppose the Russian invasion of Ukraine, you oppose war, you support refugees being welcome here. But because the appeal – designed to build the broadest possible movement against the war – does not include an analysis of the role of NATO or a criticism of the British government’s role, then no activity based on its demands can be supported.

But it is not NATO that is waging war on Ukraine. And it is not the British government that is committing war crimes against its people. You say that it is clear that NATO’s expansion has “contributed to the war”, but this is not clear at all. It could equally be argued that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was an act of unprovoked imperialist aggression, designed simply to seize the land and resources of a sovereign people. During the war on Iraq, Stop the War quite rightly did not claim that any action by the Saddam Hussein regime contributed to Iraq being invaded. The attack on Iraq was an act of unprovoked imperialist aggression. Why not hold Russian imperialism to the same standard?

This is clearly a different analysis to yours. But, in fact, it’s not in the appeal – and for a very good reason: we do not and should not require opponents of this war to sign up to any particular analysis. The main aim is to build a mass movement against the war.

In your penultimate paragraph, you suggest that there “are other pressing issues on which there should be broad unity on the left and among anti-war campaigners – opposition to increased arms spending and to the eastward deployment of British armed forces, and the need for nuclear de-escalation and disarmament across Europe.” Why not add in a few more demands? The reality is that the more detailed the programmatic demands, the more reason a wide range of individuals will find for absenting themselves from engaging with the central issue: the unprovoked war on Ukraine.

It was to be hoped that Stop the War could look beyond “unity on the left” on an issue of this importance, as it did in its heyday in 2003, when even Liberal Democrat politicians, not to mention faith groups that don’t naturally align with the left,  were allowed onto its platforms. The only stipulation then was that they opposed the unprovoked attack on Iraq – not that they subscribe to a whole range of other criticisms, about NATO, British government diplomacy or arms spending. That was the right approach then and it remains so now.

It seems that the real error of our broad appeal is that even Keir Starmer could support it. That’s unlikely, and his attacks on the anti-war movement must be opposed. But we make no apology for attempting to appeal to supporters of the Labour leadership who are outraged by this unprovoked attack on Ukraine and want to organise constructively against it – not in a way that fans the flames of war – which is why the demand “No to war” is included – but in a way that solidarises with the plight of the Ukrainian people.

Having attended the Stop the War demonstration on March 6th, it was disappointing to note not only its small size but the almost complete absence of Ukrainians.  What a contrast this was to the mobilisations against the attack on Iraq in 2003 when large numbers of Iraqis and people from neighbouring countries were present.

The urgency of our appeal is motivated by the belief that millions of people in this country want to oppose this war, but the current orientation of the Stop the War leadership, and its insistence that people share its full analysis of the role of NATO and British diplomacy, is an impediment to mobilising them.

Unless that orientation changes, Stop the War’s protests will continue to be poorly supported. You may take some solace from the notion that you have drawn a clear line in the sand against the Labour leadership and others, but the danger is that such an approach will marginalise Stop the War, not only over this conflict but over future ones.

That would be a tragedy, setting back any opposition in the UK to this and to future wars.  And it would be a setback of Stop the War’s own making. The aim of our broad appeal is to prevent such an act of self-harm.

Mike Phipps, Chair, Brent Stop the War (personal capacity)

Our appeal is still live. It has been signed by a number of prominent peace and labour movement activists. You can sign it here

Mike Phipps’ book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018. His new book Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow: The Labour Party after Jeremy Corbyn (OR Books, 2022) can be ordered here.

Image: c/o author

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