David Broder had an exchange of views with Alys Elica Zaerin, chair of School Students Against the War.
David: At the G8, SSAW will be using the slogan “fight poverty not war”, making the point that the US government spends billions more on war than on aid. But aren’t you missing the point that if debt is cut or more aid given to the Third World, it can still be squandered by corrupt regimes. Isn’t it more important to show positive solidarity with progressive forces like the workers’ movement, which can really end poverty?
Alys: We are showing solidarity by going out on demonstrations — with the Iraqi people, for instance — and that is what SSAW was set up for. We are coordinating young people in the peace movement.
What we are doing with our propaganda, like the Stop the War Coalition, is countering the media and giving people a sense of the reality. Three million people demonstrated against the war two years ago, and it’s still an issue many people are extremely concerned about. We want to keep it on the agenda. New Labour is trying to push a “don’t mention the war” policy and sanctifying themselves by claiming that they’re providing wonderful leadership in Africa.
SSAW and STWC are trying to provide a context by bringing into focus aspects of the war like how much money is being spent globally on the arms trade.
D: A lot of people would criticise the fact that your materials don’t say anything about the Iraqi workers’ movement. Hasn't SSAW got a line of “Troops out now”?
A: That is one of our slogans, along with “Don’t attack Iran” and “No more Bush wars”.
D: But if you say “Troops out now”, doesn't that let the reactionaries into power, against the wishes of most of the people of Iraq?
A: SSAW is for a democracy in Iraq that reflects what the Iraqis want, and I don’t think we, as school students in Britain, are in a particular position to proclaim what that should be. It’s up to the Iraqis, and any kind of government which reflects what the Iraqis want is impossible under foreign occupation.
D: Even though you’re not calling for the right-wing insurgency to seize power, effectively the slogan “Troops out now” does endorse that happening, since no one can doubt that they’re the strongest alternative force. The withdrawal of troops now isn’t “leaving it to the Iraqi people”, just leaving it to the best-armed. What about democratic and workers’ rights in Iraq?
A: I would quite violently disagree with your implication that anyone in SSAW would agree with the insurgents taking over.
I think “Troops out now” is a pretty open title — SSAW, being a broad coalition, represents people from a whole range of different groups – Liberal Democrats, the Labour Left, SWP members. I think it is a very wide slogan and every individual is going to have his or her own judgement as to what should happen, even as to when troops should be withdrawn.
D: But any group would call for the immediate withdrawal of troops if we could just have the American troops leave with a great democracy and with workers’ representation. While not supporting the imperialist occupation, it’d be a bad thing for the troops to leave immediately, since realistically we know that it would mean the insurgency would seize power, and would end democratic rights. Surely even very limited democratic rights which allow the labour movement to organise are better than nothing at all?
A: Part of me thinks that’s a horrendous thing to say – there is no freedom for Iraqis, no democracy while the foreign soldiers, tanks and guns are in Iraq, while people are being kidnapped.
Everybody has an ideal for Iraq, but it is just so far from being reached while there is a foreign occupation in Iraq.
D: Trade unions are attacked by both sides, but now have more rights to organise than in the past and in the future. While we have no illusions that the American view is progressive, or what’s needed, it’s less bad than what the Islamists have to offer.
A: Well, that is a point of view, and one on a wide spectrum; though I might feel sympathetic to certain elements of your argument, I can’t, because SSAW is a coalition, take that very single view. You can’t tell me that isn’t a very narrow, single view.
It’s not a view that you can really formulate a slogan over.
D: You can’t formulate a slogan on the issue of when troops leave?
A: You probably could if you thought about it, but you can’t say that isn’t just one point of view. There are many other points of view that you can take and that’s why SSAW can’t take the same stance unconditionally as the AWL or any other exact, single point of view.
D: But I thought you said that SSAW agreed with the slogan “Troops out now” – to me, that’s an equally exact or narrow thing.
A: You can interpret it the way you are, you can interpret it the way the Liberal Democrats do. There is more than one way. You can’t argue that it’s narrow. It’s a verywide slogan.
D: But we know that the words don’t exist in a vacuum, but were formulated by SWP members in the STWC….
A: But the STWC is made up of different representatives from different groups — from the Socialist Party, who the SWP have massive differences with, we’ve got NUT representatives…
D: But the SWP not only have more members than other groups, but use the slogan in their paper and it’s something Respect use…
A: That isn’t an accurate thing to say because the STWC is a coalition and it’s made up of lots of different organisations — the SWP is only one of those many organisations.