SPGB Socialist Opposition To War - Can Marches and Demonstrations Against War Change Anything?

The Imperial War Museum in London, has long been associated with displays of war, death and and destruction. Although, unlike the Ministry of War, which changed its name in 1946 to the Orwellian sounding ‘Ministry of Defence’; the Imperial War Museum still nods its head to Empire and the wars of pillage and plunder associated with it. Political correctness has passed it by.

So it comes as some surprise for an exhibition to be held at the Imperial War Museum under the heading: People Power: Fighting for Peace. The exhibition traces the history of anti-war demonstrations since the beginning of the 20th century. There are over three hundred objects including paintings, literature, posters, placards, banners, badges and music associated with anti-war protest movements.

The exhibition begins with the conscientious objectors of the First World War although nothing is said in this section about the principled socialist position taken by members of the Socialist Party of Great Britain in refusing to enlist or be conscripted. Nor is anything mentioned about the SPGB’s Anti-War Manifesto of August 25th, 1914, denouncing the war as a capitalist conflict in which there were no working class interests involved for workers to fight for. The Manifesto concluded:

Having no quarrel with the working class of any country, we extend to our fellow workers of all lands the expression of our goodwill and socialist fraternity, and pledge ourselves to work for the overthrow of capitalism and the triumph of Socialism”.

The exhibition then moves on to the 1930s with the divided positions of those “defending democracy” by joining the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War and the pacifism of the Peace Pledge Union whose members refused to engage in war. There is a photograph of a march of 2,000 anti-conscription protesters in London, May 1939, another war opposed by the Socialist Party of Great Britain on the grounds of class. In 1939 the Party published in the Socialist standard a full statement affirming the position stated in August 1914. The 1939 statement also made the point that:

Another war would be followed by new treatises forced on the vanquished by the victors, and by preparations for further wars, new dictatorships and terrorism”.

How right we were.

In fact, there is no such thing as wars fought for “defending democracy”. Wars are not fought for ideals but for sordid material interests like oil and spheres of strategic importance. The Spanish Civil War of 1936, for example, was a conflict between two ruling classes supported by outside forces like Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany. Orwell’s account of the groups fighting for the Republican cause in HOMAGE TO CATALONIA showed that they were made up of hostile political factions each wanting to secure political power for themselves to the exclusion of everyone else.

There was not the slightest hope for peace in anything that the Peace Pledge Union proposed and its actions were utterly futile in preventing the Second World War; a war in which some of its members joined to fight. In a similar manner to the capitalist left today with the conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, the Peace Pledge Union gave weighted support to the German position in the build-up to the Second World War to the British position (see David C. Lukowitz, "British Pacifists and Appeasement: The Peace Pledge Union", Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 9, No. 1, January 1974, pp.115-127). The fundemental error of the Peace Pledge union was that it erroneously believed you could still have capitalism without war.

The next section of the exhibition looked at the Cold War dealing with the questions of nuclear disarmament and opposition to specific conflicts like the Vietnam War. Prominent space is given to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) formed in 1957. Unlike the Pace Pledge Union, CND were not against all wars, just nuclear war. They held onto the fatuous belief of a “just war”. CND’s idealism extends to the naïve view that British capitalism could unilaterally get rid of its nuclear weapons while letting its international competitors keep their own nuclear armaments. Capitalism does not work like this. As Nye Bevan, who was opposed to unilateralism told delegates at the 1957 Labour Party Conference; you cannot send a future British foreign secretary "naked into the conference chamber". And if we look at the wars which have taken place without the use of nuclear armaments, the death and destruction has been vast and extensive. CND’s support for capitalism and its wars has become part of the problem not the solution.

As for the conflict in Vietnam during the 1960’s, the North Vietnamese government was just a totalitarian ruling class. Unlike the capitalist Left, the SPGB did not take sides but opposed equally the Viet Cong and the South Vietnamese forces supported by the US and Australia.. The Communist Party of Vietnam’s recent commitment to free trade, free markets and globalisation has left much of the Vietnamese population in poverty and working in sweat shops. There is also a rapid rise in the use of child slave labour (BBC 27th August 2013). And the DAILY TELEGRAPH carried a recent article which stated:

There are believed to be as many as 13,000 Vietnamese victims of trafficking and slavery in the UK, along with many thousands more from other countries, with some 3,000 Vietnamese children brought to Britain to work in cannabis farms and nail bars, living in appalling conditions (29th July 2015).

Where are the demonstrations and marches today?

The final part of the exhibition looked at more recent protests against war, notably the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The second Iraq war of 2003 saw an anti-war demonstration in London of over 2 million people taking part on a day where socialists sold out their entire stock of socialist literature by 2 pm. Tony Blair’s Labour government just ignored the protests. The Iraq War went on regardless and that country is still wracked by death and destruction; it remains a conflict where Britain and the US periodically use drone missiles to take-out insurgents and employ ‘military advisers’ to protect their oil interests.

There is also footage of the first Aldermaston marches in 1958 and with CND’s naively optimistic hopes of changing the government’s mind ion nuclear armaments. CND failed to achieve its objectives, as did the Greenham Common protests in the 1980s. The demonstration against the introduction of cruise missiles by protesters at Greenham Common is also illustrated in the exhibition. One photograph entitled ‘Embrace the Base’ depicts 30,000 women linking hands and completely surrounding the nine mile perimeter fence at the RAF/USAF base in 1982.

Two years later, after the Greenham Common protests had started, the cruise missiles arrived and there was nothing the protesters could do about it.

So are anti-war protest marches and demonstrations ever successful? From a socialist perspective, they have been an unmitigated disaster and largely a waste of time. The capitalist cause of war has never been addressed. The CND movement has not been able to stop the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea nor the British Government updating the nuclear capability of its submarines or the Obama and trump administrations introducing a programme to increase the US’s nuclear capability in future wars, possibly against Russia and China. Anti-war protesters have often sided with repressive regimes while all the time idealistic protesters are prey to the leaders of the capitalist left; the ones who “mobilise” the demonstrators and hand out placards with the name of their organisation prominently on the top.

It is true that some of the images in this exhibition are powerful. There is the famous 2005 Photo Op by Peter Kennard and Cat Philipps showing former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, taking a ‘selfie’ in front of a burning oilfield in Iraq. This is a powerful image of a mendacious and messianic egomaniac totally uninterested in the real consequences of his actions. However, it is doubtful Blair lost much sleep over the photographic image as he was too busy making money at the time.

The lesson of the exhibition is that protests and demonstrations do not work in changing government’s minds about going to war. So how are we to end war? First, we need to understand why wars take place. And that means to understand capitalism as a social system of war and conflict over the pursuit of raw resources, spheres of military importance and protection of trade routes. A world divided into nation states is a world divided by competition, conflict and war.

To overcome the social problems found within capitalism requires the working class first to recognise that conflict and war derive from capitalist production for profit. Conflict and war do not exist in a vacuum, they do not exist without reference to real material conditions, and they do not exist without reference to the profit system and the class relations found in capitalism.

All workers, world-wide, have a common interst in ending the capitalist system of wages, markets and wars. A socialist majority has to consciously and politically replace world capitalism with world socialism without leaders and the led. The socialist movement has to aim for the capture of political power. In doing so, it will usher in a socialist society in which the world’s population will be free from economic rivalries and will use the commonly-owned means of production and distribution for the benefit of all men and women on the principle of production solely for use.

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Object and Declaration of Principles


The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

Declaration of Principles


1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.

3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.

4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.

5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.

6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.

7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.

8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.