22 March 2003


Henry Worthington's piece on the 1990-91 movement against the Gulf war in Britain (see below) does, as he says, make some still salient points. The current anti-war coalition - at least at the level of the formal national organisation - is if anything even more reliant on various Leninist parties, micro-parties and sects, and it's even more tolerant of pro-Saddam and revolutionary defeatist opinion. The Stop the War Coalition has a member of the executive committee of the Stalinist Communist Party of Britain, Andrew Murray, as its chair, and the quasi-Trotskyist Socialist Workers' Party (home page here) is today playing pretty much the role that Socialist Action did in 1990-91, though it is of course a much bigger outfit.

But there are big differences as well. In 1990-91, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, although much reduced in membership from the height of the campaign against deployment of cruise missiles during the 1980s, was the most important ingredient in the brew. It was still a real mass organisation, with some 65,000 members: it even had a monthly magazine available in WH Smith throughout the country, Sanity, edited by the late Ben Webb.

In line with this, CND was also engaged with the political mainstream, although again it was a pale shadow of itself in the mid-1980s, when its reach embraced most of the Labour Party and the Liberal Party. CND's national organisation in 1990-91 was run by a coalition of Labour leftists (mostly soft rather than hard left), Liberal Democrats, Greens, feminists, non-aligned activists and anarcho-pacifists.

It's worth noting that the Labour hard left - with the exception of Labour CND, run by the Trots from Socialist Action, and the ageing diehard Stalinists and pacifists in Labour Action for Peace - never really bothered itself with CND after the mid-1980s and had very little influence on CND nationally. And the Communist Party presence in the organisation, significant until only a couple of years before, had dwindled with the collapse of the CP in internal feuding in the late 1980s.

Nevertheless, one old CP stalwart, Gary Lefley, an enthusiast (like today's Stop the War Coalition chair Andrew Murray) for the CP's tiny hardline pro-Soviet Straight Left faction, had somehow been appointed CND's general secretary. (Lefley's politics were gleefully exposed at the time by Julian Lewis, now Tory MP for New Forest East but then a Conservative central office appartchik after several years of running the anti-CND Coalition for Peace Through Security, in an article for Freedom Today - for which click here.)

Apart from Lefley - who was treated as an embarassment by most of his colleagues - Leninists were notable by their absence at CND's core until the Committee to Stop War in the Gulf got off the ground. That they got a foothold was down at least in part to the flaky political judgment of Marjorie Thompson, the chair of CND.

Whatever, CND's failure to deal with the Trot manipulation Worthington describes was notable because it was surprising, though in retrospect it did show how far it had lost the plot. Today, CND (home page here) is nothing like the force it was in 1990-91. It's still there - but its membership has withered and it is utterly marginalised when it comes to mainstream politics. It's not entirely CND's fault: the collapse of the democratic left in the Labour Party and more widely in the recent past has rather a lot to do with it. But in the national organisation of the current anti-war movement, CND carries less weight than the SWP.

Another big difference from 1990-91 is the role of political Islam in the current movement. The big London demos against the current war - unlike those in 1990-91 - have been notable for the turnout by (mainly young) Islamists, who have been embraced by the SWP and the rest of the Leninist left. An unsavoury alliance if ever there was one, in my view.

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