Hyde Park and human nature
“Bliss was in that dawn to be alive” was how Wordsworth described, in his Prelude, the death of the Ancien Régime in 18th century revolutionary France. He was expressing a popular held belief that his was the dawn of a new age and the birth of an era that would see the overthrow of tyranny and oppression throughout Europe. Many of the million-plus demonstrators on the 15 February anti-war demo in London clearly were feeling similar sentiments after their many hours long march to Hyde Park on a bitterly cold and damp day. People power, it was widely hoped, would deprive Tony Blair of the war he craved.
To the right of us SPGBers at the entrance to Hyde Park (we had leafleted the demo since the multitudes had been gathering at Embankment six hours earlier) an SWPer, megaphone to lips, optimistically announced to the thousands upon thousands pouring through the main gates that two million had turned up to march to Hyde Park and that 140,000 had marched on Glasgow and, more, that three million thronged the streets of Rome. Each proclamation was greeted with a roar from the crowd, perhaps on a par with the cheers that greeted the holding aloft of the severed heads of Louis XVI and co. And again his claim that “we” could bring down the Blair government brought another roar and a tidal wave of dancing banners and placards.
Tired, cold, their bladders bursting, their banners held high and often proclaiming their allegiance to the thousands of groups who had turned up, most were already aware that they were taken part in the biggest demonstration in British political history and that something – maybe not yet defined – was happening.
The once unheard of Stop the War Coalition had had its ranks swelled with 400 affiliated organisations ranging from CND and the Socialist Alliance to Artists Against the War and the Colombia Solidarity Campaign. Palestinian flags waved beside a colourful and intricate banner proclaiming the presence of the Sex Workers Union and Class War flags could be found amidst a thousand home made placards. The young, elderly and infirm, people from all walks of life were on the march determined to show the masters of war that any coming conflict would not be fought in their name. The political parties and organisations aside, this was a demonstration at which the common people were expressing their anger.
It was difficult not to feel proud to witness this demo, to gain comfort from the fact that people were actually asking us for leaflets, hoping they could learn more about the madness at which they were protesting and to ponder whether or not the masses were at last waking up from their state-induced sleep; for few we encountered could not locate the Iraqi crisis in a simple political and economic context – namely, that Bush and Blair were intent on invading Iraq with no other desire than to secure the world’s second largest oil reserves. Even the neo-nazis of the BNP, arch enemies of ”the left” and the scourge of a thousand Moslem communities, and previously forewarned that they were not welcome, had a presence and were claiming this would be a war for oil – well, there’s opportunists on every demo!
As we left Hyde Park at 5.30pm, our stock of 15,000 leaflets depleted and darkness rapidly falling, we passed thousands still marching, including a huge Welsh contingent. Clearly fatigued, they walked at a pace those who had preceded them hours earlier would have envied, intent on reaching their destination even if the day’s speakers had departed, their platitudes to be read in the Sunday broadsheets. They had come this far and were not going to be deterred by the fact that the demo was at an end.
It would be easy to dismiss this demonstration as a mass gathering of well-meaning reformists, some of whom would happily give Blair their backing for the carpet bombing of Iraq once the contentious “second UN Resolution” was secured. Similarly, it would be simple to point to the immense single-issue focus of many of the demonstrators and to observe that they were unaware that to end war we must first end capitalism. However, at a time when British elections are attracting their lowest turnouts since records began and the mass media regularly speak of the apathy of “Joe Public”, this was Joe Public marching and with no requirement for anyone to define their politics other than to vote with their feet against yet another war in which blood and oil will again be weighed on the scales of profit.
Undoubtedly a march attended by one million-plus in London does not constitute a mass movement bent on charge any more than the massive demonstration in Genoa in July of 2001 signalled the death knell for capitalism And whilst this was clearly no rallying call to socialism, we can at least draw comfort from the fact that the workers cannot now be dismissed as totally apathetic and that people, as we have always maintained, can unite in common cause; that humans are at their best and will work together, when faced with the worst.
Whilst out on the streets promoting the case for socialism, we often encounter jibes from experts on human nature to the effect that “humans are selfish and aggressive and not capable of co-operating in their own interests’. In London on 15 February, one million workers walked together peacefully, and as one, and in opposition to, aggression. Around the world, from New York to Brussels and from Kiev to Sydney, demonstrators took to the streets in their tens and hundreds of thousands in 600 cities to protest their disapproval of the proposed killing of thousands.
What was that about Human Nature?