I shall only pick out one or two strands from a tangled and somewhat confusing web. To attempt more would run the risk of getting tangled up in it or of trying to cover far too much. Possibly some of the things not touched on here may become the subject of longer pieces for TGP, such as the one on “Churchill, Myth and Reality” that I am working on at the moment and should have completed soon. So, for example, I shall not say much about the charge of antisemitism that has been leveled against the Labour party and Jeremy Corbyn. That requires very careful attention and cannot be treated briefly. I have already written about the so-called Skrippal Affair that was big news a few weeks ago, so I will not deal with that either. In a way, what I wrote about that may by extension be taken to cover the UK government’s attempted justification for joining the U.S. and France in the bombing of Syria. What follows are some thoughts more or less “off the top of my head” on the general situation here as I see it.
In your request a few weeks ago you asked for our thoughts on why the bombing of Syria in particular had not brought out thousands onto the streets here and elsewhere in Europe – and, indeed also in the United States. It is a question to concentrate the mind. There was a small demonstration outside parliament in London. I read of no demonstrations in France and I don’t think there was anything to speak of in the U.S. There was a brief report of larger demonstrations in Cyprus from where British attacks were launched. At least in part, they may have been motivated by fear of retaliation from Syria against the island’s British bases. So, in a way, it is a question that demands an explanation from all of us on the Left.
In 2003, in the days and weeks preceding the invasion of Iraq, it is notable that the largest anti-war demonstrations were in those countries whose governments were directly involved in the invasion or who supported it. Two huge demonstrations in London, one numbering two million people and the other more than one million, were the biggest mass mobilizations in British history. There were large demonstrations in Spain whose government vociferously supported the war. Likewise in Italy where the right-wing government of Silvio Berlusconi also supported it. But little to speak of in France, where the conservative government of Jacques Chirac opposed the war on the UN Security Council, and in Germany where the SPD government of Gerhard Schroeder also opposed it. The point here, I think, is that the motivation in 2003 for coming out onto the streets in mass demonstrations appears to have been strongly influenced by the position taken by the governments of the particular countries. In London, where I took part in both of the huge anti-war demonstrations at that time, very large numbers of those who came out against the war were people who had never taken part in demonstrations of any kind before. There were large numbers of Muslims on the marches, including many veiled women. In addition to the trade union banners that were always there on such demonstrations, there were large numbers of middle class people who were not evidently particularly identified with the Left. In fact, I would say that the millions who marched brought together, possibly for the first time, people from very diverse sections of British society, both in terms of social class, age and ethnicity.
The obvious question is, why didn’t the bombing of Syria result in a similar response? There is no easy answer to that. Here are few thoughts, with some consideration given to more general aspects of the political scene during recent decades
- The build-up to the invasion of Iraq took place over several months. By early 2003 everyone except the willfully blind knew it was going to happen. We also hoped that because there was such widespread opposition to it, by no-means restricted to those on the left, that there was a real possibility of preventing it and that mass protests, here and internationally, could play a part. After the largest mass protests ever seen in this country failed to have the slightest effect in stopping the government’s intention to invade, I think disillusionment set in. Many felt that if mass protests such as this didn’t succeed, nothing would.
- The Failure of the Left. There has never been a large communist or socialist party in Britain. Unlike Germany before the Nazis destroyed it, and France and Italy after the second world war – and also in Spain and Portugal where there have in the past (but sadly no longer) been mass parties of the left, the CPGB never became such a party. It is not possible here to examine in any detail why this was so. Part of the explanation has to do with the very early development of the trade union movement and the Labour party which grew out of it as a distinctively social democratic party, one in which Marxism was relegated to the margins of its membership. In this respect, Britain was unlike almost all other European countries where the formation of working class parties, at least nominally Marxist, preceded the development of mass membership trade unions The more dramatic disintegration of left-wing parties throughout Europe has been to a considerable extent due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the communist ruled countries of Eastern Europe since 1989. Whatever the complex reasons for the disintegration and disappearance of the communist parties all over Europe as mass parties of the working class, its reality cannot be denied. What is interesting is that almost everywhere a similar fate has befallen the social democratic parties also. Thus, the organizations of the left have been reduced to very small, frequently fissiparous organizations calling themselves parties but having very little influence on events.
- In Britain the Labour party (which has always been and remains a social democratic party) has taken a different trajectory. The terrible experience of the Blair years of “New Labour” during which the government more brazenly than ever before linked Britain’s foreign policy to the US administration of G.W. Bush, has had a toxic effect on a party that bought into neo-liberal globalization. There has been a backlash which, in my view was sparked by something almost accidental. That was Corbyn’s totally unexpected election to the leadership of the party. This resulted in an astonishing groundswell of enthusiasm, for a radical alternative, particularly among younger people, many of whom had never bothered to vote in elections. One has to understand the mood that has been gestating for a long time among people of this generation – i.e. the age group 17 – 40 or thereabouts – so many of whom have been ignored, de-skillled, dismissed as of no importance because they are unlikely to vote and have become totally disillusioned with politics. They are the ones who have suffered the harshest effects of deregulated capitalism and harsh austerity over the past ten years, and, indeed going back far further than that. It is mainly from this section of society, large numbers of whom are working class albeit not possessed of the trade union consciousness or the industrial skills that might have informed their predecessors 50 years ago, who have identified with the change wrought in the Labour party under Corbyn. Numbering almost 600,000 the Labour party is now the largest social democratic party in Europe – possibly in the world. This amazing increase in membership could never have been achieved under a Blairite-type leadership. The radical extra-parliamentary mass organization, Momentum, which is closely identified with the Corbyn wing of the party, has injected a youthful energy and enthusiasm into politics which is entirely lacking in all other parties – with the possible exception of the Scottish National party. Of course, neither the Labour party nor Momentum are revolutionary organizations in the sense in which the term is used by Marxists. This is the first time in its history, which goes back to 1906, that it can be said that the Labour party is led by the left wing of social democracy. What does this mean and does it matter?
- It means that Corbyn and some of those who have been brought into the leadership of the parliamentary party have rejected neo-liberalism and are determined to end the austerity that has been in operation with such disastrous results for the last decade. Those in the parliamentary party who are to the right of Corbyn cannot afford to challenge the anti-austerity programme because they know that now it is seen to be totally bankrupt and is rejected by a majority of the population. Despite talk of socialism, even if the Corbyn programme were to be fully implemented, it would go no further than the reforms of the Attlee government of 1945 to 1950. At best, it amounts to social-democratic reformism. Should it therefore be dismissed and not worth working to achieve? While having no illusions that it amounts to socialism, I do not think it should be dismissed. One has only to consider the tirades of hostility in the mainstream media and from the Tory government to see that they are determined to do everything possible to prevent Labour winning an election and Corbyn becoming prime minister. It is a level of hysterical hostility I have never witnessed before. I’ll make a prediction: if Labour under Corbyn’s leadership wins office and forms a government, the main bastions of ruling class power in Britain – the Tories, the mainstream media the corporate elite and every department of state will unite to cripple the government as quickly as they can. Should it come to this, we shall see to what extent the mass membership of the Labour party, Momentum and the more militant sections of the trade union movement are capable of mobilizing mass support for whatever extra-parliamentary action may be necessary to prevent the democratic will of the electorate being snuffed out.
- To return to the question raised at the outset, why no large-scale demonstrations against the bombing of Syria? There’s no one simple explanation. Just a few pointers that may contribute to one: The decision was taken very peremptorily. Theresa May was determined to act as a loyal subordinate to Trump, just as Blair had to Bush (“I will be with you come what may.”) She did not wait for the re-convening of parliament but acted over the weekend. The “Stop the War Movement” had no time to plan for and mobilize mass support to ensure a large demonstration. Public opinion was decisively against bombing Syria, but I think there was a feeling that the bombing amounted to a pathetic gesture that would be of no real consequence. And this does not mean that there would have been majority public support for a more devastating attack. There would have been no such support. There was widespread concern (which was soundly based) that this could have meant triggering a wider war between the U.S., Britain and France against Russia. The Russian warning to the effect that should any of their forces be killed by Western bombs there would be dire consequences, did not go unheeded.
I’ll leave you with this. Obviously, there is much more that could be said. I try to get the Churchill piece to you in the next few days.Warmest greetings,
Parting shot—a word from the editors
The Best Definition of Donald Trump We Have Found
In his zeal to prove to his antagonists in the War Party that he is as bloodthirsty as their champion, Hillary Clinton, and more manly than Barack Obama, Trump seems to have gone “play-crazy” — acting like an unpredictable maniac in order to terrorize the Russians into forcing some kind of dramatic concessions from their Syrian allies, or risk Armageddon.However, the “play-crazy” gambit can only work when the leader is, in real life, a disciplined and intelligent actor, who knows precisely what actual boundaries must not be crossed. That ain’t Donald Trump — a pitifully shallow and ill-disciplined man, emotionally handicapped by obscene privilege and cognitively crippled by white American chauvinism. By pushing Trump into a corner and demanding that he display his most bellicose self, or be ceaselessly mocked as a “puppet” and minion of Russia, a lesser power, the War Party and its media and clandestine services have created a perfect storm of mayhem that may consume us all.— Glen Ford, Editor in Chief, Black Agenda Report