Category Archives: Nonviolence

Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis: Interview with George Paxton

Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis: Interview with George Paxton
by Ian Sinclair

Open Democracy
19 July 2017

In his 2016 book Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis George Paxton, a Trustee of the Gandhi Foundation, sets out what is effectively secret history in a culture that reveres the violent struggle against Nazi Germany – Dunkirk and Churchill being the latest films that focus on the military campaign.

Ian Sinclair asked Paxton about the nonviolent resistance to Nazi Germany in Europe – its breadth, the methods it used and how it compares to the military struggle.

Ian Sinclair: What was the scale of the nonviolent resistance to the Nazis in occupied Europe? What were some of the methods used?

George Paxton: The extent of nonviolent resistance (NVR) used against the occupiers varied from country to country with the most active probably being Norway, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands. The attitude of the Nazis to Eastern Europe, which they wanted to clear of its population in order to settle Germans, meant that the resistance was different in nature.

The size of the different campaigns of resistance ranged from a single individual to large sections of the population. In the case of the Norwegian teachers opposition to Nazification of the schools it was around 10,000 teachers supported by about 100,000 parents. Some strikes elsewhere involved even more than this.

The methods used in the various campaigns were very diverse such as marches, wearing symbols of resistance, private and public letters of protest, refusing to be conscripted for work, resigning from professional bodies taken over by the Nazis, hiding Jews, helping Jews escape, listening to BBC radio broadcasts, producing underground newspapers, collecting funds for resistance, deliberate slow working and many more.

IS: You include a section with a number of case studies of nonviolent resistance to the Nazis. Do you have a favourite?

GP: It is difficult to choose one but for a small scale resistance, involving just dozens of individuals, the White Rose group in Germany is one of the most impressive. Set up mainly by students at the University of Munich and including a brother and sister, Hans and Sophie Scholl, the group produced leaflets attacking the immoral nature of the Nazi regime and also the likelihood of its failure. Leaflets were printed secretly then posted out to individuals and left in public places. Groups were also started in other German towns and leaflets were transported by a resister by train in a suitcase. But due to a careless act when Hans and Sophie were distributing leaflets at their university, they were arrested, interrogated, quickly tried and executed.  This was followed by other arrests, executions and imprisonments. While their resistance was a failure in that the revolt of students they hoped to trigger did not occur, knowledge of their courageous acts spread widely in Germany and indeed abroad.

A contrasting successful resistance was the rescue of Jews, mainly children, by the villagers of Chambon-sur-Lignon on a high plateau south-west of Lyons in France. This village (and others in the region) became a hide-out for those escaping the Nazis and became a centre of safety, particularly for children. The inspiration for this action came from the Protestant pastor and his wife, André and Magda Trocmé. André was an incomer from the north-east of France and a pacifist and his actions were a product of his Christian belief which influenced also the nature of the resistance. Thus he did not deny that Jews were hidden in the village and surrounding farms but refused to tell the police where they were hidden. André survived the occupation, although imprisoned for a time, and several thousand Jews and others hidden there survived until liberation.

There are detailed studies of these two cases published but many more have not been studied in detail and indeed no doubt some actions have been lost to history.

IS: What struck me reading your book was how Nazi Germany was not all powerful in the countries they occupied, but was often forced to compromise and, occasionally, to back down because of nonviolent resistance. Can you talk about some of the successes those carrying out nonviolent resistance had?

GP: One of the most outstanding successes of resistance was the rescue of the Danish Jews. Denmark was treated relatively mildly by the Germans in part because the Danes were willing to supply Germany with agricultural produce. Their own government was allowed considerable independence for a while although the relationship soured eventually and the Germans took over. The local German administration was then ordered to round up the Jews for deportation to Germany. But at the German embassy was an attaché, Georg Duckwitz, who contacted a leading Danish politician to tell him when the round-up was to take place. He in turn informed the Chief Rabbi who passed the word to the Jews, while non-Jewish friends hid Jews and then transported them to the coast where boats were hired to take them to neutral Sweden.  Although there were only about 8,000 Jews in Denmark almost all of them survived, even the few hundred who were captured and sent to Germany were not sent to the death camps as a promise had been given to SS General Werner Best, the German head of government in Denmark, that they would not be.

In the Netherlands an attempt to conscript former Dutch soldiers who had been disarmed by the Germans was met by the largest strike in the occupied countries. It began in mines and factories and spread until it involved half a million people who took to the streets. In response more than 100 people were executed but far fewer former soldiers enrolled than the Germans wanted.

In Belgium, students and staff at the University of Brussels protested at the employment of Nazi staff and then organised teaching underground.

In the Netherlands and Norway the Germans failed to bring the doctors’ professional associations under their control due to non-cooperation by the doctors.

Opposition in Germany, particularly by Catholics, forced the stopping of the ‘euthanasia’ programme although many had been murdered before it was abandoned.

A recent study, Hitler’s Compromises by Nathan Stoltzfus, shows that Hitler was very careful to keep the German population ‘on side’. He was wary of dissent and compromised if it looked as if opposition to a policy was growing, e.g. the euthanasia programme and the Catholic opposition to attempted Nazification in the Catholic Church; also the effective opposition of German wives to the deportation of their Jewish husbands from Berlin.

NVR in Eastern Europe was different due to the more ruthless methods of the invader. In Poland, in spite of the extreme repression, the Nazis failed to destroy Polish culture due to the extensive development of underground organisations. School and university teaching continued in people’s houses with degrees being awarded and research papers published; courts conducted trials; political parties operated with a parliament and government departments also; separate military and civilian resistance groups operated; money was obtained from the Polish Government-in-exile in London.

The hiding and rescuing of Jews was on a large scale throughout Europe with possibly as many as one million Jews being saved (see Philip Friedman’s Their Brothers’ Keepers); this being done at great risk to the rescuers.

IS: Why do you think some campaigns were successful and others not?

GP: I think solidarity within the resisting group must be of great importance. The absolute numbers of resisters may not always be significant. For example, in Belgium insufficient solidarity and firmness by the higher civil servants and judges led to the Germans ultimately achieving their aims. Support from the general population was important elsewhere, e.g. funds to pay teachers on strike or working underground.

There were some quite important incidental factors such as nearness of mountains and forests for hiding and a border with a neutral country for escape.

The use of nonviolence itself is of great importance. A violent opposition will be resisted with maximum violence from the controlling power but nonviolent resistance will send different signals, e.g. we are less of a threat to you. This may give rise to a degree of sympathy among the security forces. The resisters have to be firm but not aggressive. The occupied population has the advantage of superior numbers if they choose to use their power.

IS: You contrast what you call Gandhian resistance with the pragmatic nonviolent action that people like Gene Sharp advocate. What are the main differences between the two?

GP: There isn’t a great deal dividing Sharp and Gandhi. But most of the NVR used by resisters during the Nazi occupation was pragmatic in the sense that it was not usually underpinned by nonviolent theory; in fact it simply did not involve the use of weapons and so other writers prefer to call it civilian resistance.

Sharp developed NVR theory which was independent of religious belief, Gandhi’s or others. In reality Gandhi’s beliefs were very inclusive although he tended to use Hindu terms which Sharp wanted to avoid as he did not want to tie nonviolence to any particular culture. Both of their approaches are grounded in ethics. Sharp’s academic work actually grew out of his interest in Gandhi’s career but Sharp put more emphasis on the use of power in considering the possible mechanism of NVR; Gandhi hoped for conversion of the opponent.

IS: How do you respond to the argument that it was ultimately violent action that ended the Third Reich, not nonviolent resistance?

GP: People in general and governments in particular think of defence only in terms of military action. This is still true today as it was in the 1930s. Therefore for most of the occupied populations a nonviolent resistance was simply not in their minds, except for a small number of pacifists. However, when their country was occupied and they did not have the means to resist in the conventional way the braver and more imaginative sometimes turned to non-military means.

Most people expected their countries to be liberated by military means from outside but what we need to take into consideration is the cost of violent resistance, which in WWII proved to be enormous in terms of deaths and destruction. And as Gandhi pointed out before WWII began the Allies would need to resort to the Nazis’ foul methods in order to ‘win’. When one remembers the blanket bombing of the German and Japanese cities which were largely occupied by civilians it is difficult to disagree.

The NVR used in the occupied countries was too small in scale to defeat the invaders but I believe the potential is there, and with the knowledge we have today future conflicts could be handled by NVR.

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Book review: Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis by George Paxton

Book review: Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis by George Paxton
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
June-July 2017

“But what about Nazi Germany?” No doubt many Peace News readers have been asked this question when they have voiced support for nonviolence outside activist circles.

Summarising a range of published material, George Paxton shows that nonviolent resistance to Adolf Hitler’s government was widespread. And though it is often poorly referenced and somewhat repetitive, Nonviolence Resistance to the Nazis feels like one of the most important books I’ve read in a long time.

From underground newspapers, open letters, graffiti, socially ostracising the occupiers, to slow working, boycotts and hiding and rescuing Jews, Paxton sets out what is effectively secret history in a culture that reveres the violent struggle against Nazi Germany. Who knew, for example, that on the first day Copenhagen was occupied handwritten leaflets appeared on the streets, titled ‘Ten Commandments for Passive Resistance’?

In the book’s middle section Paxton zeros in on case studies of resistance, such as the extraordinary White Rose Group. Active in Munich in the 1940s, this secret band of young people printed thousands of anti-Nazi leaflets and distributed them throughout Germany – often travelling to other cities to post them on to avoid detection.

Though they worked under an extremely repressive state, individuals, groups and populations were able to win some limited successes – highlighting the fact the Nazi leadership was not all powerful, but often compromised for political reasons. In Denmark nearly all of the Jewish population were rescued from the Holocaust, while a 1941 strike in France against food shortages involving 100,000 miners won more food coupons. In Berlin in 1943 the non-Jewish wives of Jews protested in the street over the threatened deportation of their husbands. Though the Gestapo HQ was close by “they did not act against the women fearing that the protests might spread”, notes Paxton, and the deportations were suspended.

Citing French historian Jacques Semelin, Paxton argues a number of factors increased the chances of success: a united front by the occupied populace, strong democratic traditions and grassroots organisations, a belief in tolerance and a good source of money and food. Like nonviolence guru Gene Sharp (PN 2543), Paxton, who is a Trustee of the Gandhi Foundation, believes that nonviolent resistance would have been most effective against Nazi Germany if it had been deployed at the earliest stage possible.

A goldmine of information, fascinating stories and inspiration for peace activists, Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis deserves a wide readership.

Do you have to gain power to make change?

Do you have to gain power to make change?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
19 November 2016 

“The greatest lesson that we can take from our history is that we can only implement our vision and apply our values when we win power and form a government”, Labour MP Owen Smith repeated ad nauseam during the recent Labour leadership contest. Owen Jones, generally considered to be on the left of the Labour Party, seemed to echo Smith on the issue of power and influence on his Youtube channel in August 2016. “Instead of sticking our fingers in our ears and going ‘lalalala it’s all fine’ there just needs to be strategy to improve those ratings”, the Guardian columnist argued about Labour’s poor poll ratings. “Otherwise we are finished, and the Conservatives will run the country for years. I’ll just keep doing my videos whinging about things, coming up with ideas. Waste of time. Just words, isn’t it? Just words.”

However, despite what the two Owens assert about the futility of opposition, the historical record suggests a far more hopeful conclusion.

“Power is not the only factor instrumental in creating change”, Salim Lone, a former Communications Director at the United Nations, noted in a letter to The Guardian in May 2016. “In fact it’s what one does in ‘opposition’ that has historically paved the way for real change. Humanity’s progress has resulted primarily from the struggles of those who fought for change against entrenched power.” US author Rebecca Solnit agrees, noting just before the US presidential election that “election seasons erase the memory of movements that worked for years or decades, outside and around, below and above electoral politics.” She describes these as “the histories that matter.”

Producing change while not in power can broadly be separated into two camps: transformation that is forced on an unwilling ruling elite, and government policies that are stopped or modified by strong opposition. And let’s not forget that any change from below almost always involves an extra-parliamentary direct action struggle, from the setting up of trade unions and women winning the vote to the success of the American civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s – all forced on an initially resistant ruling class. In the 1990s direct action played a key role in stopping the “biggest road building programme since the Romans” planned by the then Tory government and the attempt to introduce GM food to the UK.

Indeed, a close reading of the news demonstrates that successfully making change while not in power happens all the time. Last month The Guardian headline was “Poland’s abortion ban proposal near collapse after mass protests”. Back in the UK, Corbyn’s Labour Party has inflicted a number of defeats on the government – on planned cuts to tax credits and housing benefit, and the proposed prison contract with Saudi Arabia. It was a Tory-led Government, let’s not forget, that introduced gay marriage – 25 years after they introduced the anti-gay Section 28. And responding to the Chancellor’s recent announcement about investing in the economy, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell quipped “It’s clear Philip Hammond is now borrowing from Labour to invest in his own speech”.

Unsurprisingly governments will try to take the credit for any popular changes – former Prime Minister David Cameron making it known he had personally intervened in favour of legalising same-sex marriage, for example. But rather than taking the powerful at their (retrospective and self-justifying) word, a more accurate explanation of the process of positive change is highlighted by Tony Benn’s famous dictum: “It’s the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.”

Of course, being in power is preferable to not being in power. Far more change is obviously possible when one is in control, when it can be planned, coordinated and sustained. Those attempting to force change from the outside do not have control of the process, the timing or the details. However, it is important not to underestimate the power of social movements and activism – the power of ‘ordinary’ people to create real, long-lasting change.

Indeed, with Donald Trump likely to be in the White House for the next four years it is essential this hopeful understanding of political change is widely understood and acted upon. The signs are promising: with Trump reviled and distrusted by a large section of the American public, it is likely there will be a much needed resurgence of progressive activism following the unjustified lull during the Obama Administration. Trump is dangerously unpredictable, so making predictions about his foreign policy is difficult, US dissident Noam Chomsky noted in a recent interview. However, he ended on a note of optimism: “What we can say is that popular mobilization and activism, properly organized and conducted, can make a large difference.”

Jeremy Corbyn: coups and anti-coups

Jeremy Corbyn: coups and anti-coups
by Ian Sinclair
Left Foot Forward
29 May 2016

In April 2002 the Venezuelan military, supported by the nation’s corporate media, carried out a coup d’état against Huge Chavez, the democratically elected president whose popular government had been undertaking significant reforms in favour of the nation’s poor. Chavez was arrested and Pedro Carmona, the head of the nation’s largest business group, was declared interim president. The constitution was suspended, the National Assembly disbanded and Supreme Court closed. The US quickly moved to recognise the new government and pressured other countries to follow its lead.

However, in an extraordinary example of people power, fewer than 48 hours after he was forced out, Chavez was returned to office after hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans poured into the streets of Caracas demanding he be reinstated.

Gene Sharp, the world’s leading expert and proponent of non-violent resistance, has a name for what happened in Venezuela: an anti-coup. Sharp argues successful anti-coups were also staged in the Soviet Union in 1991, against hardliners intent on deposing reforming President Mikhail Gorbachev, and in France in 1961 to stop a group of generals from overthrowing Charles de Gaulle’s government.

Should Sharp write about anti-coups in the future, he will have another case study to discuss: Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. Since his landslide election in September 2015, Corbyn has faced an almost uniformly hostile media and constant rumours of attempts to unseat him, including from a senior serving British General.

His enemies heralded the local elections in May 2015 as a particular danger point, with reports suggesting there would be an attempt to remove Corbyn if Labour performed below the very high bar set by his opponents in the party. However, on the day before the local elections the Guardian reported “Jeremy Corbyn’s critics inside his party have set aside the possibility of a post-election leadership challenge in the face of warnings by pollsters that the party leader remains impossible to defeat in any vote of Labour members.” According to Joe Twyman from YouGov, the polling data confirmed Corbyn remained “a country mile” ahead of other potential candidates. “The bottom line is that those eligible to vote in the Labour party leadership election strongly supported Jeremy Corbyn last year and that has not significantly changed”. The Guardian went on to note that Corbyn is “being shored up by the grassroots movement Momentum, which has compiled a database of more than 100,000 supporters that it believes could be used within days to help fight off any potential challenge.” In other words, popular opinion and grassroots pressure has staved off an attempt to remove Corbyn (though the mainstream media will never frame it in these terms, of course).

Jon Lansman, the Chair of Momentum, explained Momentum’s role in an interview with the Guardian in March 2016, saying he thinks it is possible that people might move on Corbyn.  Asked if Momentum is preparing for an attempted coup, he claimed they are not, though suggested the group’s huge database of supporters and networks of local groups could be activated should the need arise. “Part of my role has been to ensure that Momentum is equipped to campaign to defend the legitimacy of Jeremy’s leadership”, Lansman told the New Statesman in May 2016.

With Labour’s predicted local elections meltdown failing to materialise, Sadiq Khan elected as London mayor and a new YouGov poll putting support for Corbyn within the Labour Party at 64 percent it seems the MP for North Islington is safe for now.

Though it may be obvious, it bears repeating just how high the stakes are for the British people: arguably Corbyn’s leadership will be the best opportunity for significant progressive change in Britain for a generation. And, as I argued just after Corbyn was elected Labour leader, just like all progressive change throughout history, it is the size, power and tactical nous of the popular movement/s supporting Corbyn’s leadership that will be the deciding factor: whether he continues as leader of the Labour Party, the extent to which he will need to compromise his political positions and his chances of being elected Prime Minister in 2020.

If they can be built and sustained, then the popular campaigns and mass movements backing Corbyn should have two broad aims. First, to protect his leadership from the incessant attacks – from the Tories, from big business, from the military, from within the Labour Party and from the media (Corbyn’s politics inevitably means he has a lot of powerful enemies). Activists need to understand it is not just the right-wing press that have their knives out, but that much of the liberal press, including the Guardian and BBC, has played an integral part in the ferocious propaganda campaign targeting the Labour leader. To change the media story, the movement should go on the offensive, pressuring news outlets and journalists, setting the agenda and controlling the narrative as much as possible. Popular pressure should also be applied on Labour MPs who are attempting to undermine Corbyn and his political positions.

Second, pressure should be applied to Corbyn himself and his supporters within the Labour Party – to make sure he keeps to his promises. The more active support he gets, the more confidence he will have in pushing forward his political vision. But more importantly, pressure needs to be applied on Corbyn to push him to be more green and radical. For example, Sadiq Khan – whose Mayoral campaign was backed by Corbyn – has already removed a key obstacle to the expansion of City Airport. In addition, despite the rising climate chaos engulfing the planet Corbyn and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell continue to push for economic growth. “In other words”, the Green’s Rupert Read noted, “they repeatedly call for worsening the number one cause of the ecological crisis.” McDonnell’s positive noises about a Universal Basic Income suggest the Labour leadership is open to considering ideas coming from the radical grassroots.

Importantly, the mass movement backing Corbyn needs to be pro-active, not reactive as Lansman’s comments above suggest. It is imperative that Corbyn does not continue to get tangled up in Westminster’s web of petty political point scoring. If Corbyn is to have any chance of becoming Prime Minister then talk of coups and plots and the never-ending intra-Labour snipping needs to end quickly. Because if the atmospherics and coverage around Labour is still full of coup rumours and often concocted scandals like the anti-Semitism ‘controversy’, come 2019-20 then it will likely be game over. Instead Corbyn’s team needs to go on the offensive and set out their political vision and reach out and build alliances with like-minded politicians and parties such as the Greens.

Hidden within the liberal rhetoric of his run for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2008, Senator John Edwards made some important remarks about the possibility for political change. According to Edwards, the general public and incoming president need to be clear: an “epic fight” is required with “entrenched, powerful monied interests” to reclaim back American democracy so it works for the whole population, not just the few. “We better be ready for that battle”, he warned.

The question when it comes to Corbyn and changing British society for the better in the face of established power is this: is the Left and Corbyn’s supporters up for the “epic fight” that is required? If not, we better be. And soon.

Book review: The Hammer Blow. How ten women disarmed a warplane by Andrea Needham

Book review: The Hammer Blow. How ten women disarmed a warplane by Andrea Needham
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
11 April 2016

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” The Hammer Blow is the perfect illustration of anthropologist Margaret Mead’s famous quote.

The book tells the extraordinary story of how, in January 1996, ten women activists, including author Andrea Needham, worked to disarm a British Aerospace Hawk jet which was about to be sent to Indonesia.

Led by the murderous dictator Suharto, in 1975 Indonesia invaded the former Portuguese colony of East Timor and proceeded to carry out what US dissident Noam Chomsky described as “one of the greatest bloodlettings in modern history compared to total population”. Approximately 200,000 people – about a third of the total population – are reported to have died by the mid-1990s, with the Indonesian forces using the British-made Hawk jets to subdue the East Timorese.

Appalled by the UK government aiding and abetting Indonesia’s genocidal actions, and having unsuccessfully lobbied British Aerospace and the government, the ten women formed an affinity group to explore how they could stop the slaughter using direct action. The preparation for what is now known as the Seeds of Hope East Timor Ploughshares Action took ten long months. Needham explains the group bonded over a number of weekends including lengthy “life-sharing” sessions and “spent a lot of time discussing philosophical questions: militarism, patriarchy, co-operation with authority, secrecy and openness, when is it right to break the law”.

Like the rest of the book, Needham’s account of sneaking into the British Aerospace factory at Warton and disarming the Hawk – that is hammering and smashing parts of the aircraft – is absolutely riveting. Eventually discovered by security, the three women who carried out the action – Needham, Jo Blackman and Lotta Kronlid –along with Angie Zelter, were arrested.

Reasoning they acted to prevent a larger crime, their subsequent trial in Liverpool is a fascinating and uplifting example of passionately principled people presenting their case to the conservative British legal system. “I’m not breaking the law, I’m upholding it”, Kronlid told the prosecutor. After six months on remand in prison and a huge support campaign publicising their actions the four women were acquitted by the jury on 30 July 1996 to jubilant scenes outside the court.

“In twenty years of resistance we were never able to shoot down an aircraft”, Jose Ramon Horta, the future President of East Timor, noted in a letter to the women in prison. “You did it without even firing a single shot and without hurting the pilot”.

Frustratingly, after it was elected in 1997 Tony Blair’s Government, with Robin Cook as Foreign Secretary, refused to stop arming Indonesia – “exposing Labour’s ‘ethical foreign policy’ for the sham it was”, notes Needham. Yet, the action of these dedicated activists arguably played a role in ending the occupation of East Timor and will inspire fellow activists for years to come. Best of all it is a barnstorming and engrossing read that will have readers racing to the end to find out what happens next.

The Stop the War Coalition, The Socialist Workers Party and Iraq

The Stop the War Coalition, The Socialist Workers Party and Iraq
by Ian Sinclair
New Left Project
4 April 2013

In the last few weeks I have been doing a number of talks around England to promote my new book ‘The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003’. At a couple of talks a few people have raised objections to some of the criticisms of Stop the War Coalition (STWC) that I make. Below, I attempt to address these objections by summarising my findings about STWC and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) from the more than 110 interviews and research I conducted for the book.

STWC has been the leading organisation in the UK anti-war movement since its establishment in 2001. In particular, it was the most significant member of the tripartite coalition that led the movement against the Iraq War – the other members of which were the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) and Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Given the importance of the STWC, then, it’s worth considering one of the main debates that surrounded it – the role of the SWP.

According to many people I interviewed, STWC started out as a broad-based coalition. However, the SWP gradually came to dominate its leadership and effectively took control after 2003. Senior members of the SWP Lindsey German, Chris Nineham and John Rees (all of whom left the party in 2010) organised STWC’s founding meeting, and have made up the core leadership ever since. Importantly, many of the other senior members of STWC such as Andrew Murray, Andrew Burgin and CND’s Kate Hudson are close allies of German, Nineham and Rees.

As the chief architects (along with CND and MAB) of the 15 February 2003 anti-war march in London – the largest demonstration in British history – I applaud and am thankful to the STWC leadership for their extraordinary level of work. However, many of the people I interviewed were often frustrated and/or angry about the SWP’s dominating role in STWC. As peace activist Gabriel Carlyle told me: “I would put it this way: the SWP were probably the anti-war movement’s best asset and, in some respects, its greatest liability as well.” The SWP were the movement’s “best asset” because, as many people agreed, they were excellent organisers and extremely dedicated activists who helped to quickly build one of the largest social movements in our nation’s history. As Carlyle amusingly put it: “If it had been up to the traditional peace movement to organise the response [to the impending invasion of Iraq], they might have had a candlelit vigil with 200 people.”

In terms of the SWP being the anti-war movement’s “greatest liability”, many people I interviewed, including people previously centrally involved in STWC, criticised the SWP’s centralised style of working and methods which were felt to be controlling, aggressive and bullying. This destructive behaviour, according to activist Yasmin Khan, “played a part in the downfall of the movement.” Carol Naughton, the Chair of CND from 2001-3, noted in a ‘Strictly Confidential’ June 2003 memo that STWC “did not seem to understand or accept the culture of working in partnership once we had agreement to go ahead with joint events.” More concerning, Naughton reported that she “was on the end of some very unpleasant, aggressive and abusive phone calls from the Coalition” and that she “was lied to and misled by [STW] Coalition leadership” who she found “to be duplicitous and manipulative in trying to get my agreement when I had given them a decision that they disliked.”

STWC had a Steering Group, made up of representatives from different organisations, which met regularly. However, according to Mike Podmore, who was on the Steering Group himself in 2003, the SWP “orchestrated these meetings completely” with dissenting views “argued or shouted down.” James O’Nions, a former member of the SWP and member of the Steering Group, agrees with Podmore. For O’Nions, the Steering Group:

Was run a bit like any Socialist Workers Party conference. You had a member of the SWP central committee give a spiel about what we should think about a certain thing, and then there would be a discussion.  But there was no common attempt to find a solution. Rather the solution had already been agreed, and the session was about the officers of the Stop the War Coalition winning over everyone else to what they wanted and trying to get people to mobilise them around it. That is how the SWP operate basically.

Mike Marqusee, a veteran activist and press officer with STWC from 2001-3, goes further:

They [the SWP] used methods to isolate or exclude people or discredit people who were questioning their leadership that are not acceptable, including smearing people, misrepresenting them and whispering things about them that weren’t true. There was a fear of what they considered to be mavericks or loose cannons. What is an anti-war movement without mavericks and loose cannons? I mean please. The anti-Vietnam War movement wouldn’t have got anywhere if it had excluded those people because they were doing the whole show from the beginning.

Arguably the SWP’s domination of STWC led to organised direct action and civil disobedience not being pursued fully by the anti-war movement in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq. What the interviews I conducted show was that after 15 February 2003 there was an attempt to have a serious debate in STWC about how to move the movement forward, and whether direct action should be pursued. However, according to Marqusee an open discussion “was not favoured by the SWP or a number of the other leaders of the Coalition.” Instead, according to Marqusee “they began labelling people who were saying they wanted a different [tactical] emphasis as divisive.” Not only did STWC not support groups looking to carry out organised direct action, according to Naughton they actually tried to undermine it. In her ‘Strictly Confidential’ CND memo she notes:

Incidents happened that were actively countering the work that CND was doing such as the office of the [Stop the War] Coalition telling callers that the CND [direct action] event[s] in Whitehall and the Fairford and Menwith demos were all cancelled when in fact all of these were well and truly going ahead. I have personal experience of this as I received the emails and phoned myself to check it out.

Interestingly, despite multiple defections from the SWP since 2003, there seems to be agreement between current and former senior members, in that they all see the role of the party in STWC as an unqualified success. For example, Alex Callinicos, a current member of the SWP’s Central Committee, recently amused himself by noting journalist Owen Jones agreed with him that the SWP played a vital role in STWC. Despite strongly challenging the SWP leadership over the party’s on-going rape scandal, influential former member Richard Seymour broadly agrees with Callinicos on STWC. Replying to journalist Laurie Penny’s assertion that the SWP “has been at the forefront of every attempt to scupper cohesion on the left over the past decade” the Lenin’s Tomb blogger praised the SWP’s role in STWC, which he described as “perhaps the most high profile campaign of the last decade… which brought together Labour party members, CNDers, members of various far left groups, and – once again – SWP members in a leading role.” Finally there are German, Rees and Nineham and their supporters, who left the SWP in 2010 to form Counterfire. As noted these people were the senior members of the SWP in STWC, and still effectively control STWC. The two books they produced on the anti-war movement – Chris Nineham’s ‘The People v Tony Blair’ and Stop the War. The Story of Britain’s Mass Movement, the official STWC history of the anti-Iraq War movement written by Andrew Murray and Lindesay German – are both uncritically positive about SWP’s role in STWC. The latter book bears mentioning for another reason as well. One interviewee told me they considered this book a “joke” because it “looks like something from Soviet USSR – just like Lenin was airbrushed out of history by Stalin, key figures in the Stop the War movement were eroded out of history by the SWP.” Thus, except for one passing mention, the important role played by Marqusee who fell out with the leadership in 2003, is missing from the book.

Lastly, as far as I can tell*, there was no serious attempt to reflect critically on the strengths and weaknesses of the anti-Iraq War movement at the ‘Confronting War 10 Years On’ conference organised by STWC in London on 9 February 2013.

These considerations support the judgement of Marqusee, made after he parted company with STWC, that “the SWP by and large will not engage in critical examination of their own history or current analysis and practice. When events embarrass them, the error is buried in silence. There is a fear of looking harsh realities or awkward questions in the face and a reluctance to spend time addressing them.”

I would like to reiterate I think the STWC leadership did a brilliant job in growing and leading the largest social movement in recent British history. However, we cannot escape the fact that while the anti-Iraq war movement had many important achievements, it was unable to exert enough pressure on the Government at the crucial time. We will never know, but it is worth noting the possibility that different organisational and tactical approaches could have led to a different political outcome regarding the Iraq war – a sobering thought.

Two on-going trends make the critical perspectives I present above all the more important. Firstly, the Government’s increasingly bellicose foreign policy means we desperately need an active and effective anti-war movement. And secondly, the same people who dominated – and continue to dominate – STWC are now leading the Coalition of Resistance, the group which seems to be taking a lead role in the movement against the Government’s austerity agenda. Surely, then, if we want to have the broadest, most effective anti-war and anti-cuts movements, we need to be aware of, and have an honest and open discussion about, the problems within STWC in the early 2000s?
*I didn’t attend the conference but have watched many of the videos of the talks from the day.

Interview with David Gee, co-founder of Forces Watch

Interview with David Gee, co-founder of Forces Watch
by Ian Sinclair
Camden Review
14 May 2015

Speaking to me on his houseboat moored on the canal near Angel, David Gee explains Britain has historically been a very militaristic society. However, he believes there has been a recent upsurge in militarism – the topic of his new book Spectacle, Reality, Resistance: Confronting a Culture of Militarism.

So what lies behind Armed Forces Day, Help for Heroes, the Troops to Teachers programme and the media scrum around the military funeral repatriations in Wootton Bassett?

The government presents these pro-military schemes as an attempt to encourage understanding and appreciation for the armed forces. Gee, the 42-year old co-founder of the Islington-based activist organisation Forces Watch, is unconvinced.

Citing opinion polls, he argues the general public “are becoming more sceptical of Britain’s wars in faraway places” such as Iraq and Afghanistan. “This has worried the armed forces, it’s worried the government and it’s worried the establishment”.

For example, in 2009 Chief of Defence Staff Sir Jock Stirrup declared that the “declining will” among the public to support the war in Afghanistan was more of a threat to British troops’ morale than the Taliban’s roadside bombs.

For Gee the initiatives above are a response to this change in public opinion, “intended to embed the armed forces and what they call military values into civilian culture so we are more supportive of the next war”. Indeed Stirrup himself also stated “Support for our service men and women is indivisible from support for this mission.”

“There has been in the media a lot of jingoistic support for what the armed forces are doing in Afghanistan and Iraq”, Gee says. And while he stresses the varied coverage of the BBC, he notes there has never been an example of a serving British soldier criticising a war on BBC television news. Strict rules ban soldiers saying anything that embarrasses the armed forces or the government. However, Gee also believes the BBC is a strong conservative force when it comes to the armed forces. “The BBC would not want to show that on the eve of a war soldiers have doubts about what they are being asked to do”, he says. “They are much more comfortable with saying ‘Soldiers are ready to go’ and ‘They’ve got a job to do’ and the rest of it”.

Turning to the future, Gee is keen to see significant change in British foreign policy. “Given the ghastly mess that the US and the UK have made of the Middle East, really creating the grounds for ISIS’s rise, the first thing I would like to see – and I don’t think I’m alone – is for the UK and the US to stop invading other countries, to stop thinking it is their job alone to solve problems abroad”.

And what about the armed forces? “In most states across Europe, across most of the world, armed forces are there to defend the territory of the realm in the event of the attack”, he says. Therefore, Gee hopes British armed forces will be used “much more explicitly for defensive purposes” in the future. As we end the interview he explains the government spends around £38 billion a year on its military “while saying we don’t have enough money to staff the NHS properly.”

“It is irrational”, he concludes.

Spectacle, reality, resistance: Confronting a culture of militarism is published by Forces Watch, priced £7. www.forceswatch.net.