Ceasefire Now march to US Embassy, London 11th November 2023 Ceasefire Now march to US Embassy, London 11th November 2023. Photo: Steve Eason / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED

The movement of solidarity with Palestine did not emerge from a vacuum, argues Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

The massive marches across the UK and the world in solidarity with the Palestinians echo the great international protest movement against the Iraq War in 2003, but they also represent a qualitative shift in that movement. The gulf between mass, popular feeling and the Westminster political establishment has reached acute levels.

To understand why, it is necessary to go back in time. When George W. Bush and Tony Blair launched the ‘war on terror’ back in 2001, following the events of 9/11, they did so to legitimate a strategy of projecting Western military power to forestall and turn around Western economic decline against emerging competitors like China.

The military pre-eminence of the world’s only superpower seemed at that time invincible, a trump card. Moreover, the US and the West were still riding the wave of 1989, their victory in the Cold War, and the moment history had supposedly finished.

At that time, the belief that liberal and capitalist globalisation would bring prosperity and peace over the long run was widespread. The labour movement as a whole was deeply shaken by defeats like the Miners’ Strike in the UK, and led by figures who believed in one way or another that Thatcher’s dictum was true: there was no alternative (TINA) to market capitalism.

But mass opposition emerged over time, both to liberal and capitalist globalisation with the rise of the anti-capitalist protest movement following the Battle of Seattle in 1999, and with mass opposition to imperialist war, which reached a high point in 2003.

The scale of anti-war mobilisation, including millions on the streets in London on 15 February 2003, sent shockwaves within the establishments of the core Western states. And though the anti-war movement failed to stop the war, it won the argument that the intervention would prove disastrous.

With over a million dead Iraqis and chaos spreading across the Middle East, the shadow of Iraq has loomed large in any debate around foreign policy ever since, constraining policy makers, as evidenced by the temporary failure of David Cameron in the UK to take the country to war in Syria in 2013, which also delayed the US decision to enter the fray.

However, while the debacle in Iraq was visibly constraining the actions of the UK and its allies, in the end it failed in stopping them. A clear example is that Cameron had lost the vote in the Commons against the background of mass anti-war demonstrations outside parliament in 2013, he still covertly joined a bombing campaign with the US, and won the vote to bomb Syria two years later in 2015.

Debates over strategy

It is undeniable that the failure actually to stop the wars that wrecked Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen, as well as multiple Israeli acts of aggression against Gaza since 2006, caused the anti-war movement to ebb over time, produced pessimism in some quarters, and opened up a variety of debates emerging from the disappointment.

Criticisms were expressed of the Stop the War Coalition for insisting on ‘A to B marches’ and for supposedly insufficiently explicit anti-imperialism, for example. These criticisms reflected a desire to radicalise the movement as a supposedly more effective way of challenging the hegemony of the British imperialist state.

These represented the arguments of a small minority, however, which ignored the setbacks that the labour movement as a whole, and the anti-imperialist left in particular, had suffered in the 1980s and 1990s. The fact was that a radicalisation and deepening of anti-imperialist consciousness was occurring, but not at the pace and with the depth some hoped to see.

Similar debates spilled over into other spheres, like over how to oppose austerity after the financial crash of 2008. Much of the revolutionary left retreated into propagandist party-building, combined with a shallow rank-and-file-ism in the trade unions, while significant chunks of the official labour movement decided to channel emerging mass protest behind a leftward shift in the Labour Party.

The unexpected victory of Jeremy Corbyn for Labour leader in 2015 probably went much further than the latter forces had bargained for, reflecting the successes of the Stop the War Coalition and the People’s Assembly against Austerity, which combined some of the same forces and approach that had been behind the Stop the War Coalition.

Nevertheless, the rise and fall of Corbynism between 2015 and 2019 illustrated the limits of working through the Labour Party. Despite winning huge majorities for the Labour leadership, at the NEC and at Congress, the Labour Left remained constrained by its slavish subordination to electoralism and by extension its loyalty to party unity.

Their capitulation to the right of the party started in summer of 2018 with the adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, a clear attempt by the right to muzzle the anti-imperialist left, which it hated to the core. This opened the flood gates. The following year, Labour adopted the position of the second referendum, losing it the 2019 election.

Ever since, the Labour Left has been a shadow of itself, losing not just control of the party, but its ability to speak out. The expulsion of Jeremy Corbyn from the Parliamentary Labour Party for alleged anti-Semitism was just the beginning.

Countless purges of the left have followed since, with Labour MPs frightened to speak up for striking workers, and sections of the Labour Left championing Nato’s proxy war with Russia in Ukraine and joining in attacks on the Stop the War Coalition, calling for its disbandment.

It is unsurprising that when the Gaza crisis began this October, not a single Labour MP spoke at the first London solidarity demonstration with Palestine. It took the initiative of forces outside of parliament, led by the revolutionary left, to call and deliver mass demonstrations to pull Labour figures, trade unions and other political forces into the movement.

The size of the ‘A to B demonstrations’ had clearly had an impact on official politics, causing a crisis for the government, which tried and failed to ban the London march on 11 November. It also resulted in a crisis for the opposition, with Keir Starmer’s authority in question, dozens of public resignations from councillors, the suspension of an MP, and disquiet reaching the PLP and the shadow cabinet.

It is also clear that the Palestine solidarity movement is deepening the schisms within the British state, with, in recent days, both the Scottish First Minister and the Scottish Labour Leader calling for a ceasefire, and the Welsh parliament passing a motion calling for a ceasefire. It is impossible not to imagine that the longer the horrendous reality unfolding in Gaza lasts, the worse the situation will become for the British establishment as a whole.

The road ahead

The revival of the anti-war movement around Palestine, in its extraordinary depth and breadth, shows that the anti-war movement and its arguments have, in fact, grown deep roots in Britain, vindicating those revolutionary, anti-imperialist forces that insisted on building the movement on a broad basis.

Moreover, given the catastrophes of Western foreign policy in the Middle East over the last twenty years, and their systematic repetition, there is the space to say that it was not just mistakes made by the likes of war criminals like Bush and Blair, but that there is something deeper driving Western policy in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The door is now open, then, to making explicitly anti-imperialist arguments. The wars to control the oil-rich Middle East had more to them than a one-off policy decision; they have to be understood against a longer history. The fact that Israeli PM, Benjamin Netanyahu, was prepared to talk up the ‘war on terror’ and to reference 9/11 in the aftermath of the 7 October events was an indication that even the elites today see deep levels of continuity with their past policies.

What is also indicative is that twenty years ago, Bush and Blair spoke the language of liberation of the Iraqis from Saddam, but that there is hardly any such pretence about freeing Palestinians by Netanyahu or his Western backers today. This speaks not just to the racist nature of the Israeli state, but the degeneration of Western foreign policy tout court.

This degeneration is a symptom of the failure of the aforementioned strategy of using US military might to forestall US and Western (economic) decline; of demonising Muslims abroad and at home; of preventing the rise of the West’s competitors, mainly China. The sense of crisis both domestically and where the West has intervened abroad suggests that things have in fact gone much more wrong than was apparent twenty years ago.

That is not just evident in the increasing instability and polarisation politically in the West, but across the Middle East and the Global South. The US attempt to rally the Global South over Ukraine was already faltering with the failure of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, but the moral catastrophe of Western policy in Palestine has exposed the limits of US ideological hegemony, which will have repercussions for politics domestically and internationally for years to come.

Forging a new left

For some time, what Tariq Ali called the ‘extreme centre’ – the coming together of the centre-right and centre-left around neoliberal globalisation and imperialist war since 1989 – has been fracturing and eroding, and the rise of the likes of Trump, Le Pen, Meloni, Orban etc all indicate that there is great danger in the present situation, but the rise and fall of various movements like the Arab Spring, Occupy, the Indignados, the left reformisms from Syriza through Sanders to Corbyn, also show that the situation is pregnant with progressive possibilities.

To take advantage of the opportunities arising from the current situation means learning some of the lessons of the past. One of them is surely that the building of movements like the Stop the War Coalition over the last twenty years, on a broad and patient, but also ultimately anti-imperialist, basis was correct, and laid the basis for the movements and opportunities of today.

Another is that we should not put primacy on parliament. The movement is where we are strongest, parliament is where we are weakest. Witness the strength of the mass movement now led largely by small sections of the revolutionary left who soldiered on through the IHRA debacle in Labour, the defeat of Corbynism at the ballot box over the ‘Second Referendum’, and the collapse of the Labour Left over Ukraine, and contrast it with the abject weakness of the parliamentary left.

None of that should mean that we should be shy about putting up candidates of the left at the next election, both from among those who’ve left Labour on a principled basis, and from those who’ve been champions of the movement outside Labour. There is now a space for left candidates standing against Starmer’s Labour and winning.

But we should be seeking ways of making any new left focus on broadening and deepening the self-organisation of the mass of the population, especially among organised workers. We saw snippets of what was possible with the wave of militancy over the last year, yet we also saw the limits of timid trade-union leaderships, who were as reticent about leading decisive industrial action as they have been about showing solidarity with Palestine.

It is important at times like these to seize the moment; moments pass, as they did with the Iraq War or the Corbynista surge. But to seize the moment, the key is that we need to learn from past experiences. Doing so means recognising we do not live in the eternal present. It means not capitulating to whatever prevailing mood or fad dominates society. And to be able to resist such an approach, you need to be organised. You need to be an active member of a revolutionary party, a repository of the memory of the working-class movement.

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.

Tagged under: