Anti-war demonstration in London. Photo: Jim Aindow Anti-war demonstration in London. Photo: Jim Aindow

The anti-war position of the radical left inside the Labour Party needs to be consolidated in the coming months, writes Kevin Ovenden

Despite the BBC’s best efforts to undermine Jeremy Corbyn over the reshuffle, the reorganisation of Labour’s front bench has strengthened the left: particularly over foreign policy. 

Hilary Benn is still shadow foreign secretary (for how long he can maintain what is ultimately an untenable position we shall see). But there has been a weakening of the pro-nuclear, Washington, Likudnik right wing in the shadow cabinet and front bench.

Persistent noises off from the right of the Parliamentary Labour Party, the Tories and the media have not dented Ken Livingstone’s position in Labour’s defence review. It is here that policy will be made. Ken is no one’s fool when it comes to committee politics.

The coming months will see Trident renewal centre stage and will likely also expose Cameron – as far from centre stage, more as an extra on the chorus line – over the efforts by the major powers to secure their interests in the Syria imbroglio. The least likely outcome of that disaster is any sustained respite from the manifold war.

There is also the potential for all manner of sudden eruptions in the Middle East, from the intensification of the Third Intifada (it’s been a while since Israel seriously bombed somewhere), the multiplying political problems facing Saudi Arabia, and the still vital underlying social forces which five years ago erupted in Tunisia and Egypt.

So the strengthening of the anti-war and anti-imperialist positions of the radical left inside the British Labour Party is of strategic significance. It is not only in the shadow cabinet, of course.

Despite the vicious attempted witch-hunt of anti-war opinion last month (which reminded me of the press treatment of Tony Benn in the early 1980s and of Michael Foot, up to the point where he supported the Falklands War on “anti-dictatorship” and “internationalist” grounds), the anti-war position and the Stop the War Coalition are gaining ground in the wider labour movement.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this. Cameron, the Tories and the high mandarins of the British governing class certainly take it seriously. They understand what it means to have a leader of the opposition who has consistently opposed British imperialism. The Labour Party has never had one before, including Keir Hardie and George Lansbury.

The great danger for the old order is that if this position is allowed to bed in and develop, then the result will be to open up the official political sphere to questions which have been largely kept out of that diminished space since the 1930s. That is how the movement begins 2016 in Britain.

It’s in that context that I found two recent comments by British Marxist theorists regarding this strategic moment disappointing.

Neil Davidson and Alex Callinicos both take aim at the recent political trajectory of the Stop the War Coalition in Britain and of its leading bodies in particular. To be fair, in both cases theirs are abrupt comments which appear towards the end of otherwise thoughtful discussion of wider questions. The issue I have with both interventions is not that they voice criticisms. That is perfectly legitimate.

The issue of Syria – like Libya before it – has caused considerable debate on the international left. Leaving aside those few who have abandoned comradely debate in favour of pronouncing anathemas, there is room for all sorts of differences of assessment within the radical left and inside the anti-war movements we build.

Sometimes that can lead to tensions. A section of the Iraqi émigré left, for example, has been very critical of Stop the War because the Coalition has condemned the violence of the Damascus regime and refused to support its purported “war on terror”.

Others who favour some form of British military intervention in Syria to the opposite purpose unsurprisingly attack the Stop the War Coalition and have serviced the Tory government’s red-baiting assault on the anti-war movement.

That kind of sub-McCarthyite climate of innuendo, guilt by association and smear is something many of us will recall from the days of CND’s sharp resurgence in the early 1980s and from the attack by the Blairite intelligentsia on the anti-war movement over Iraq, especially when Iraqis resisted the occupation, two decades later.

The witch-hunting context, alone, means that it is even more vital that debates and disagreements within the anti-war movement and the left are conducted with integrity, honesty and intelligence. Above all, in an era of the right wing internet smear, serious debate on the radical left should be evidence-led.

It is on the last of these requirements that Alex and Neil most fall down when it comes to what is – in essence – a shared criticism of the Stop the War Coalition.

It is that Stop the War has been “silent on the Assad regime’s atrocities” (Alex), or has “refus[ed] to criticise Bashar al-Assad” (Neil) and has been favourable to Russia’s military interventions.

In the month of December 2015, when those words were written or given in interview, this was also being pumped out as a smear by the Tory media and Labour right (along with the charge of being “sympathetic to ISIS”). Perhaps that is why neither author felt the need to substantiate their claims.

Had they tried to do so, with the academic skills they deploy in other writings, then they could not have maintained their argument. Stop the War neither has been “silent on” nor has “refused to criticise” the Damascus regime, or the Russian bombing, over the last five years.

In addition to large numbers of television and radio interviews you can look herehere,here and here for some examples of how the Coalition has done that precisely through “concentrating on its core mission of opposing Britain’s participation in the West’s wars in the Middle East”, which Alex says it has departed from.

As someone who has served on the national officers’ group of Stop the War throughout those five years I, for one, am perplexed by Alex and Neil’s criticism.

That’s particularly as it is identical to the one made in one of Jonathan Freedland’s perennial attacks in the Guardian newspaper on the Coalition in 2012. I answered it in a column in that paper which opposed the Assad government. This was as early as four years ago, when there was a major push from the US right for military action in Syria and Iran, and nothing in Stop the War’s position has changed since, as its repeated interventions make clear.

If Alex and Neil are not aware of these interventions, then they should be. If they are, but believe they are insufficient, then they should acknowledge them and make that alternative argument instead – one which rests on grounds of judgement and assessment, not upon ignoring the record.

But they do not. Instead, they make an additional argument which is very worrying.

That is because it flies further from reality. In so doing, it gives comfort to those on the right whose smears and innuendo depend upon an irrational disregard for evidence.

Alex’s diagnosis: “…some in the Stop the War leadership increasingly adapted to the activists from a Stalinist background within its ranks…”

Neil’s: “In England, Stop the War has accepted all sorts of compromises with people who are frankly Stalinists – people who think that Putin and Assad, and Qaddafi before them, are figures we should support…”

Neither of them provide any evidence for this process which apparently undermined the Stop the War Coalition over the last six years or so (for it is in that period that both Alex and Neil fell out politically and organisationally with some of those in the Stop the War leadership).

That’s not surprising. There is no evidence. Nor can there be. In fact, the verifiable public record points in the opposite direction.

I’m sceptical, in any case, of how the term Stalinist is often used in political discussion today. That’s largely because it is thrown around with abandon in an increasingly moronic right-wing media and has long sounded in some quarters like some Citizen Smith caricature denouncing his landlord as a “fascist”.

But the refusal of Alex and Neil to say who these Stalinists might be makes it even more difficult to respond.

I think it is a safe, however, to assume that they both have in mind the Communist Party of Britain: the historic, orthodox-communist party which sided with Stalin as opposed to Trotsky in Russia three generations ago.

It’s also safe to assume that they are thinking of figures in the anti-war movement who are associated with the Communist Party and its daily paper, the Morning Star.

They no doubt have in mind people such as Andrew Murray, a leading figure in the Unite union and the chair of the Stop the War Coalition.

If I’ve misunderstood, and Alex and Neil do not mean the Communist Party or Andrew Murray and the like, then I apologise – but they really need to tell us who they do mean instead by these “Stalinists”.

There are two fatal problems with this idea that a sort of ethereal Stalinism, becoming embodied in certain activists, infected the anti-war movement in Britain.

The first is that Andrew Murray has done exactly what Alex and Neil insist upon: he has condemned the Assad regime and has opposed Russian military intervention. That is unsurprising. Andrew is the chair of the Stop the War Coalition and those are the shared positions of the Coalition.

The second is even more telling. The period in which Neil and Alex claim that Stop the War was succumbing to “Stalinist” influences was in fact one when, due to the demands of his work for Unite, Andrew ceased to be the chair of the Coalition and his place was taken by… Jeremy Corbyn.

Jeremy held that pivotal position until he won the Labour leadership and had to stand down himself on account of that welcome new responsibility.

Neither Alex nor Neil is prepared to say that Jeremy Corbyn – as chair of the Stop the War Coalition between 2011 and 2015 – presided over a “Stalinist”, “campist” or “soft on Assad” “deviation” of the anti-war movement.

But that is what is entailed by their arguments – even if they disavow the conclusion: both, I am sure, realise the consequences in real politics today of smearing the left-wing leader of the Labour Party as a Stalinist.

There is one significant difference between their two arguments.

Alex’s is deployed in the course of arguing for his organisation to re-engage with building the Stop the War Coalition.

Neil’s has no such direction. It is unclear whether he thinks the Stop the War Coalition should be built or should be broken up and replaced by something else.

But what is common to the reasoning of the two arguments is this – both are deployed primarily according to the logic of the organisational and political choices of the authors and their political groups.

To some extent, everyone’s arguments carry that overhead. But – at the very least – that needs to be acknowledged if we are to have a serious conversation.

If we don’t make clear things like that, then we end up with not just fantasies which locate “Stalinist” agency as the source of the anti-war movement’s alleged deviations, but – and this is much worse – with a seemingly left-wing, academicist gloss for what are in fact right-wing, witch-hunting pressures.

There is a fruitful discussion to be had as the movement grows in the coming months. And there are lessons to learn in order to make the movement more effective.

But that all depends on genuine engagement in that movement, an honesty about one’s own role and a commitment to learning from mistakes – above all one’s own – rather than, as Matthew 7:3 warns against, beholding the mote in someone else’s eye, but considering not the beam in one’s own.

Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.