A modestly successful Iraq war protest


Green Left discussion list, March 22, 2004

Media estimates of the size of yesterday’s protest against the war in Iraq varied widely. The very generous ABC TV News said 8000. The less generous Sydney Morning Herald said 2000. My rather rough attempt at counting suggests between 2500 and 4000, which is in the same range as the organisers’ estimates.

The march was vigorous and militant in mood, with several groups of leftist youth carrying red flags.

The organising of the event mainly fell to the far left, the DSP and the ISO, who did a respectable job in rather adverse circumstances dictated by the split of the conservative and Stalinist forces away from the broad antiwar committee six months ago.

An alternative event organised by the Stalinist and religious groups before the main march was stillborn, and only attended by a tiny handful of people.

The organisers of the rally relied on big-name speakers, John Pilger, the actress Judy Davis, and the courageous dissident intelligence professional, Andrew Wilkie, to get publicity, and this was quite successful as there was a fair amount of media coverage before the event, largely of the viscerally hostile sort that has become routine for the Murdoch press, the broadsheet Australian, and the tabloid Daily Telegraph. This hostile publicity actually built the demonstration.

I was actually in a rather good position to get a bit of a picture of the composition of the protest as I systematically leafleted the two meetings, the one before and the one after, with my labour movement book list and the Ozleft website flyer.

I gave away about 1000 copies of both, which is one of the ways I get an estimate of 2500-4000 participants, because for obvious reasons I don’t waste the flyers and I usually average one flyer for about every three to four participants.

On this occasion, there were almost no Laborites in the Sydney demonstration, and comparatively few Greens or other organised politicals, because this Saturday was one week before the municipal elections all over the Sydney region, and almost anyone involved in any mainstream political structure is flat out campaigning on the last Saturday before the elections.

If it had not been for the municipal elections, the demonstration might have been 50 per cent larger. As well, this weekend happened to coincide with the city-wide closedown of the rail network for routine maintenance, making it virtually impossible to get to central Sydney by train.

The interesting thing about the composition of the rally was that on the basis of my leafleting experience:

  • Despite its relatively small size, it included a relatively large number of young people, who don’t appear to have been to anything like that before, or even to such things as the recent large John Pilger and Tariq Ali meetings, because they hadn’t previously seen my leaflets.
  • There was a fairly large number of old labour movement and Stalinist people, quite a few of whom I know but have not seen for some time, and who appeared to be there despite the fact that their leaders had absented themselves from the organising committee. Some of these people greeted me like a long-lost brother despite past disagreements. Quite a few rank-and-file and middle-layer members in the Stalinist groups that had split away from the committee, were a bit shy and awkward, and didn’t take my leaflets because they’d seen them before, but were at least at the demo.In all the circumstances, the demonstration has to be considered a success, and to give credit where credit is genuinely due, this was an occasion when the rudimentary organising apparatus of the far left, particularly the DSP, played an extremely useful role in rather adverse circumstances.

The protest wasn’t huge, particularly compared with the 500,000 of 12 months ago, but it is back in the realms of the respectable-sized demonstrations of past years of ebb, with the difference that the unnecessary split perpetrated by the Stalinist groups and the official left in the labour movement has actually led to their self-isolation on this issue.

The lessons of the modest success of the event should be pressed on the people who split the antiwar organisation six months ago, to find some formula for re-establishing a broad committee for future demonstrations.

Despite their lack of success in organising anything themselves, their presence in a broader group would lay the basis for something like the much bigger mobilisations that took place before and after the Iraq war last year.

In other Australian cities, where the municipal elections weren’t in the way, it appears that ALP figures and activists were present in many of the demonstrations. For instance, the now federal president of the ALP, the energetic Carmen Lawrence, addressed the Brisbane rally, which had possibly 1000 people at it.


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