Friday, 5 April 2013

Stop the War Coalition: a timely reality check

The New Left Project website has published a piece by Ian Sinclair, author of a recent book about the great 15th February 2003 march, on the Socialist Workers Party's record in the Stop the War Coalition.
The article is, in truth, a critique of the Stop the War Coalition itself, but Sinclair uses the handy cover of framing it as a critique of the SWP's role in a the coalition (a position that is more likely to generate a sympathetic response, and one that opportunistically exploits the current mania for bashing the SWP in the wake of its own self-inflicted crisis). It is, however, a critique that appears devoid of any actual substance. 
Because the article is in fact an attack on STWC, it is entirely appropriate that Andrew Murray, a senior Stop the War figure who has never been a member of the SWP, should have responded with a brief but excellent refutation. He was chair of the coalition from its founding in 2001 until last year. There is no point in me writing my own response when he has done a commendable job already, so I re-post his contribution (from the comments thread of the original article) below.  


This is a disappointing piece.  I say so because Ian Sinclair’s book is actually pretty good within the limitations of any oral history project.  He interviews a wide range of those involved in Stop the War and gives space to the views of most of those centrally involved and captures much of the spirit of the period.  In that context, the space he gives to critical issues - the role of the SWP, the politics of ‘direct action’ - is not just defensible but essential. 

I agree with his point that a critical self-examination of any movement’s strengths and weaknesses is a political necessity.  My main beef with his book is that too much space was given not to critics, but to people who didn’t play all that major a role in the events of and around February 15 2003 to begin with. 

The article here, of course, goes much further in that direction in only expressing their views.  First, Mike Marqusee.  For the record, again - Mike was involved in Stop the War from the start until September 2002, when he quit as an officer to write a book about Bob Dylan, something I thought and think was a curious sense of priorities.  Be that as it may, at no time was there any political issue, on either side, behind his resignation.  None of the criticisms of the role of the SWP did he make when he was involved, or at any time afterwards until he had a major unrelated falling-out with the SWP in the Socialist Alliance.  He then subsequently read-back that entirely separate row into his time in StWC - but in any case he played no role of consequence at all in the build up to February 15 or for months previously. 

Regarding James O’Nions, I scarcely remember him attending more than a couple of meetings and all I can say is that the vast majority of those who did attend Steering Committees would not recognise his caricature of their proceedings. To be a “loose cannon” is not a crime but not a virtue in and of itself either, unless one is indifferent to the danger of friendly fire. 

Carol Naughton does of course deserve to be taken more seriously, as CND Chair at the time, and I am am sure she strongly felt the views quoted at the time she wrote them.  There were indeed clashes of the sort that are unavoidable in organising immense mobilisations on the scale of of February 15, and I am sure that some things could have been handled better or at least more emolliently by myself and others.  However, when I last spoke to Carol she herself acknowledged that it was all a bit of a storm in a teacup and what StWC and CND achieved together was vastly more significant.  her comments at the time should also be read in the context of arguments within CND in 203 over their relationship with StWC, a debate ended decisively in favour of the closest continuing cooperation.

Ian’s choice of voices is here highly unbalanced and unrepresentative of those involved at the time.

Two final points - while the debate about direct action is a worthwhile one, and I strongly refute the idea that StWC tried to suppress it, for Ian to simply assert what is an unarguable hypothetical proposition that different tactics could possibly have produced a different outcome without specifying what or how is, after ten years time for reflection, less than helpful. 

And to insinuate that there is something sinister about myself, Andrew Burgin and Kate Hudson being strong allies of Lindsey German, John Rees and Chris Nineham is silly.  None of the three former knew any of the three latter at all before the formation of StWC, so the suggestion that this was a self-selecting group of SWP leaders and their stooges is nonsensical.  If we have worked together well over many years as we have, and unusually for people on the left from very different traditions, it is because of both the importance of the cause and because we have learned to build on our mutual strengths and recognise that weaknesses are best addressed in unity, rather than being the point of departure for a new split.

And Stalin didn’t airbrush Lenin out of Soviet history.  Someone is confusing Lenin with Trotsky.  Mike Marqusee should not be confused with neither.


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