The woman passed by, then came back and took a leaflet. She read it, and as a result came on her first political demonstration, in London, on 28 September 2002, with 400,000 others protesting against war on Iraq. She also brought her husband and her five-year-old son. She'd never been politically active before, but within weeks she'd set up a local anti-war group in her town.
This story was told to me by an anti-war activist in Northampton, who concluded by saying, “I used to wonder whether it was worthwhile leafleting, and now I know it is.”
Not every leaflet spawns an anti-war group, but without the tens of thousands of leaflets being handed out on the streets of Britain, the anti-war movement here would be a shadow of its present strength.
Those tens of thousands of leaflets are tokens of the hundreds of thousands of arguments, letters, newspaper articles, vigils, actions, arrests, and protests of all kinds that have helped to awaken consciences, raise consciousness, and mobilise resistance.
At a student activists' conference in the North of England, I was asked what made me think that the world could be any different. I was also asked how we could overcome the apathy and hopelessness of so many of those who disagree with British warmongering, but do nothing to actively oppose it.
Our feelings of helplessness and hopelessness - which we all suffer from sometimes - are not accidents, they are the outcome of conscious and deliberate planning; they are also the logical result of a deeply authoritarian culture. President Bush and Prime Minister Blair and their many advisers seek to create an aura of invincibility, omnipotence and inevitability. This image is one of their most powerful and valued weapons in their attack on democratic restraints. This image is false.
Margaret Thatcher also projected an “unstoppable” image. Her victory over British coalminers in 1985 was presented as “inevitable”, a foregone conclusion, but research ten years later by British reporter Seumas Milne revealed that “the period during which the miners came closest to victory and the Thatcher government to falling was in fact in the autumn of 1984, when most pundits had already written the strike off”. Popular movements can win against even the most intractable and apparently-invulnerable governments.
“Brainwashing under freedom”
Western culture, which is rapidly colonising the entire world, is dominated by the “star system”, whereby the elite few at the centre are recognised as significant and powerful, and the surrounding many are assigned the task of watching powerlessly. From the classroom to the level of national government and international affairs, power is at the centre and the many must obey, choosing between options also determined by those at the centre.
It is little wonder after a lifetime's indoctrination in this authoritarian culture that so few of the 40 per cent of British people who oppose this war take action. Perhaps we should celebrate the fact that despite this and many other forms of “brainwashing under freedom” so many are willing and able to take political action in solidarity with the ordinary people of Iraq.
Where is the evidence that the world can be different? The world is different. Britain is no longer a feudal state. That did not happen by accident. The United States no longer allows slavery. That did not happen by the simple passage of time. South Africa has abolished the apartheid legal system. That was not because of a change of heart on the part of the white elite. Women in Western Europe now enjoy political and civil rights. Again, not an inevitable outcome of the passing of the centuries.
We have changed the world
The world has been changed by popular struggle, and the world will continue to be changed by popular struggle. Millions of people have paid a price for social progress, by being ostracised, imprisoned, transported and deported; by being beaten and killed; by being vilified and libelled; by the loss of jobs or promotions; and in many other ways. Millions of people have spent millions of hours working for social change, standing up for what they believed in. We have created trade unions to protect ourselves from exploitation. We have won many rights for ourselves as gay men and lesbians. We have stopped
what you can do to stop the war
For specific actions see http://www.betterworldlinks.org/irak.htm for 1000+ Iraq links
much unnecessary suffering by animals atthe hands of the human race.
We have made revolutions which have made a difference to millions of lives.
These have been far from perfect and have often empowered new exploiters and new dictators, but nevertheless popular struggle did overthrow the tyranny of the Czar's Russia, of Somoza's Nicaragua, of Batista's Cuba, of the Shah's Iran, of Chiang Kai-Shek's China. As a result, hundreds of millions of people improved their conditions of life (though almost always under a new form of tyranny).
The world can be different and it will be different. Our efforts can help to move the world towards a humane and decent future.
And we can never know the full effect and meaning of our actions. In October 1969, an anti-war demonstration of 250,000 people in Washington DC persuaded President Nixon not to go ahead with his secret plan to drop two nuclear warheads on North Vietnam. Those demonstrators may well have gone home dispirited and depressed that the war continued despite their massive protest, not knowing how they had changed the course of history. (See Milan Rai, War Plan Iraq for more details.)
A chance to stop this war
At the time of writing, the fate and timing of President Bush's intended war on Iraq is in doubt. What is not in doubt is his determination to carry out that war. The future of millions of people - not only in Iraq - depends in large measure on how the anti-war movements in the United States and Britain cope with the challenges of the next few months.
We must ignore the PR-crafted image of “inevitable war/victory”, and concentrate on what we can win.
At the time of writing, we still have a chance of stopping this war from happening at all. It will require, in my view, massive mobilisation, and mass direct action, but it is possible.
Even if the air war starts, if we can continue protesting we can act as a restraint on how that air war is fought. If we can prevent the US from bombing Iraq's electricity sector, we may be able to save tens of thousands of lives. That is worth fighting for.
Even if the air war starts, with our efforts we may be able to prevent a ground invasion - which could cost thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of lives (military as well as civilian) if it involves street-by-street fighting in Iraqi cities.
If we can hold together as a movement and continue protesting against this war even as the bombs fall and the tanks go in - if they do fall, and they do go in - we can act as a restraint on how this war is fought.
If we can remain united and strong as a movement even if the US wins a quick victory in Iraq, we can help to prevent future wars - on Iran, Syria and other members of President Bush's “axis of evil”. President Bush is entirely serious. In August he said, “There's no telling how many wars it will take to secure freedom in the homeland.”
Don't lose heart!
In 1991, the anti-war movement in Britain - which had managed to mobilise two gigantic marches over 100,000 strong on successive weekends - faded away once the ground war started. We felt impotent, and we lost heart. The United States succeeded in imposing its will not only on Iraq, but on a generation - not only in the West, but also in the Middle East, paving the way for the phoney US-imposed Israel-Palestine “peace process”.
While there was an unprecedented mobilisation against the arms trade after the 1991 Gulf War, the anti-war movement failed to follow through into a movement against the economic sanctions on Iraq - economic sanctions which have taken hundreds of thousands more civilian lives than were taken by the six-week war of 1991. We must do all we can to stop this war, but we must not lose hope or lose heart if the war begins. Our protests can save lives in Iraq, and it is the saving of civilian lives that is at the core of this movement.
We must do all we can to stop this war, but we must not lose hope or lose heart if the United States wins a decisive and rapid victory. There are other wars on the horizon and millions of people in other countries under threat.
Inaction is not an option
Today the international anti-war movement faces major challenges. Our protests now can and will affect the way future wars are fought.
If we can show that we will remain united and strong, if we can remain a powerful antiwar movement despite the reverses that may yet confront us, if we demonstrate the tenacity needed to build an even stronger movement after this crisis, that will help to deter the warmongers as they contemplate future wars.
”There are no magic answers, no miraculous methods to overcome the problems we face, just the familiar ones: honest search for understanding, education, organisation, action that raises the cost of state violence for its perpetrators or that lays the basis for institutional change - and the kind of commitment that will persist despite the temptations of disillusionment, despite many failures and only limited successes, inspired by the hope of a brighter future.” - Noam Chomsky.
As President George W Bush has correctly pointed out, “Inaction is not an option.” Every action we take matters. Never underestimate the effect of the actions that you take: whether it is being part of a mass demonstration or even the handing out of a single leaflet.