The problem with the peace movement

It has never been anti-war - and now it marches against the spirit of political change.

Jennie Bristow

Topics World

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‘Scratch the average pacifist and you find a jingo’, observed George Orwell over half a century ago. What, I wonder, would he make of the apparent national self-loathing that characterises the British anti-war movement today? Surely there is nothing remotely jingoistic in that inchoate sentiment, ‘Not in my name’?

Surely not. What there is, however, is a passive acceptance of the UK’s role as an imperialist power, of the West’s ability to determine the affairs of the rest of the world, mixed up with an aversion to the nasty consequences of doing it. It is this combination of emotional revulsion and political acquiescence that makes today’s peace movement such a disturbing phenomenon.

In the conflicts of the past 50 years, you didn’t have to scratch the British pacifist very hard to find the jingo within. The peace movement – typified by that bastion of liberal-left, middle-class respectability, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) – aimed its fire not at the reasons for war, but at the methods of war; not at warfare itself, but at the kind of weapons employed.

So 12 years ago, during the first Gulf War, it was CND that campaigned for sanctions and diplomacy instead of bombs. Its alternative to Operation Desert Storm was another kind of warfare – a programme of crippling sanctions that, since 1991, has arguably resulted in more deaths than the military campaign itself, and has kept Iraq firmly in the stranglehold of the West.

CND’s mission was never to criticise the legitimacy of the British state’s international adventures. Indeed, the campaign supported Britain’s calls to arms – with the proviso that it wanted to use different arms (such as slow starvation, and above all no nukes).

Moreover, it helped to legitimise such foreign adventures, by presenting an apparently anti-war alternative based on the same interventionist principle. When even the anti-war lobby agreed that Saddam Hussein was a menace to the world and should be dealt with by the West, at considerable cost to Iraqi civilians, what opposition did the British government actually face in its decision to push the button?

CND’s narrow focus on nuclear weapons allowed for new instruments designed to keep the West in a position of authority over the rest – such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a ratification of the principle that only the powerful countries should be able to posses nuclear weapons, and that countries like North Korea deserve to be pushed around for daring to do the same thing. And the peace movement’s arguments for ‘alternative defence’ effectively called for the use of the kind of non-nuclear weapons that, in the hands of the West, have wreaked devastation in recent wars.

The British peace movement’s alternative to war has historically been a patriotic endorsement of Western intervention – with consequences that are no less dire for those on the receiving end. From the Falklands to the Gulf to the self-styled humanitarian interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, CND and its allies in parliament, the media and the church have always accepted the principle of Western intervention abroad, quibbling only over the methods that this intervention should take. Those countries at whom the intervention was aimed invariably found themselves broken up, brutalised and beaten – only sometimes, it happened more diplomatically than others.

What conclusion can we draw from this? Perhaps that the peace movement’s concern was never with the fate of the people upon whom war was being declared, so much as with its own view of the British state. The jingo inside the pacifist accepts that Western domination of, and intervention into, parts of the rest of the world is a moral good and a political necessity. He simply feels that Britain should be able to achieve its objectives by rising above the grubby stuff of direct warfare and killing.

It is the pacifist’s confidence in, and allegiance to, Britain that informs his view of how overseas conflicts should be dealt with – not a sober concern with the fate of the Kurds, the Marsh Arabs, the Bosnian Muslims, or anybody else.

When you scratch the surface of today’s anti-war movement, this fundamental issue has not changed. Whatever concerns are voiced about the plight of Iraqi babies, those protesting in Hyde Park on 15 February 2003 were driven by their own views of the British state, and the role they thought it should play in the world abroad. The difference with conflicts of the past lies, not at the level of the rights and wrongs of this impending Gulf War relative to the past, but at the change in British views of their own political establishment.

Viewing that historic march and the discussion around it, you could be forgiven for wondering whether it was a protest against war, or against Blair, or simply against the current state of life in general. Those aspects of the protest that have been lauded as something new and great – the absence of leadership, the lack of slogans, the diversity of backgrounds and beliefs, the substitution of a mass of individuals for a collective movement – all of this indicated the end of old ideas, passions and principles. United against the war but for nothing in particular, there was certainly a lot that was different to the peace movement of old.

But it is not that today’s peace protests represent the start of some new political movement. Rather, it is the product of the depoliticisation of recent times. It is characterised by a growing distaste for the politics, culture and institutions of modern British life, yet without any sense of an alternative. And it projects these broad sentiments on to the issue of the war.

As Mick Hume has argued on spiked, the major factors motivating the recent anti-war march in London were the growing atmosphere of mistrust towards government institutions, and the dominant culture of fear (See A march based on mistrust and fear). The size of the march, and the sentiments it espoused – Blair’s not listening, ‘Not in my name’ – spoke volumes about the isolation of the political class, and its lack of legitimacy among the electorate. This message came through loud and clear – what those on the march were rather quieter about is what they thought could be done instead of war.

At least the calls for sanctions during the first Gulf War represented a different, if no more humane, method of coercion. Yet this time around, the sanctions and their consequences already exist. Among those who believe that the West should disarm Saddam, the only call is for more time for diplomacy before a war, or for a ‘peaceful invasion’ of Iraq by UN forces, or for a war to be conducted under the auspices of the UN.

Among those who believe that nothing should be done about Saddam, the motivation is fear and cynicism, not an objection based on political principle. The argument that doing something can only increase the risk apparently posed by Iraq to world peace is tantamount to an objection that war won’t work, and that this is the problem with it. None of this challenges the domination of the world by Western powers – it reinforces the idea that this is a fact of life, and quibbles about the practicality of the USA behaving like a superpower, and the UK following behind.

As in the past, the reaction of today’s UK peace movement to the impending war on Iraq is formed by its views of the British state. But while the old peace movement carried a torch for Britain, today’s protesters are defined by their lack of faith in Britain’s political leaders and institutions. From the hard left to the traditional right, the Hyde Park protest has been hailed as an expression of thoroughgoing cynicism with British political life – and as a description, that is right. But without any political alternative on offer, where does any of this lead?

If today’s peace movement is notable for its lack of an expressed alternative to war, even more noteworthy is the lack of a broader alternative to the politics of the Third Way. The mainstream parties have been conspicuously unable to make political capital out of the protests – the Tories caught up in their own undignified collapse, and the Lib Dems opportunistically attempting to ride the anti-war wave, but coming out indistinguishable from the French and German governments. The lack of any broader contest is what marks out today’s peace movement from the anti-militarist protests of the past, and casts serious doubts on where this movement can lead.

When it came to anti-war protests in the past, CND and its allies on the respectable liberal-left were never key to building the movement. The powerful strand of anti-war movements came from the political left – whose motivations, too, were formed by their views of the British state, but from a positive perspective of social change. Today, when there is no left-wing struggle, we see the spectacle of what remains of the hard left desperately trying to hang on to the coat-tails of the marching however-many-millions, in the hope that this wave of disgruntlement can be harnessed and transformed into something new.

This not only smacks of the self-delusion that has always characterised the British left – it shows how low the left’s expectations have become. Look, for example, at Socialist Worker’s proposals for the ‘Next step’ following the peace demo – including ‘We have days to galvanise the anti-war mood and organise it’, and ‘If up to two million people can march in London, then thousands can harry every government minister wherever they go’ (1). Despite the hype about how the demo ‘showed what can be achieved when we come together’, this seems like an attempt to make rather little out of not very much.

In the absence of this broader ideological conflict, the anti-war movement finds itself rootless. In the absence of even more mundane alternatives – to war, to New Labour, to Blair – the movement is actually corrosive. It unites people around the fears and frustrations about modern life, without offering anything by way of resolution. And by branding itself a new political movement, it dignifies powerlessness by presenting it as protest.

The much-vaunted revolt by Labour MPs in the Parliamentary debate on 26 February indicates the extent of this alienation, and how corrosive it is. The sizable vote for the ‘not yet’ amendment, by many of those who previously have not indicated much of an interest in Iraq one way or another, did not represent opposition to the war – claiming only that the case for war is ‘as yet unproven’. What it did represent was that even those within Blair’s party welcome an opportunity to express their own disaffection, to proclaim that ‘he’s not listening to us’ – regardless of what consequences this might have for the war, for the government, or for their own party.

Of course, there is every reason to oppose this war. Even the Western powers appear uncertain about whether it is a good idea. But while, in this climate, analysis, questioning and the search for ideas can achieve a great deal, attempting to forge a movement out of apolitical frustration is counterproductive to the spirit of political change. The slogan ‘Not in my name’ sums it up, by actively calling for passive disengagement.

Scratch the average pacifist today, and you probably won’t find a jingo. But nor will you find a militant anti-jingo, fighting to make the world a better place. And for those of us who want to go beyond the cynicism epitomised by today’s peace movement, challenging the myth that a million – give or take a few – Hyde Park marchers united in passivity represents a positive force for change is probably quite a good place to start.

Read on:

A march built on mistrust and fear, by Mick Hume

A festival of frustration, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) What we think: after the biggest demonstration in British history, Socialist Worker

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Topics World


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