The European Social Forum – an eyewitness report
28 October 2004
The following was the basis of a talk given at the Belfast Socialist Forum at Queens University on 27th October.
The third European Social Forum (ESF), following those in Florence and Paris, took place over the weekend of 15th to the 17th of October in London. This is the paper distributed at it giving the programme of events taking place. It includes meetings, rallies, cultural events, exhibitions and stalls. There’s 76 pages to it so there must have been perhaps a thousand events when you include the unofficial ‘Beyond the ESF’ and Indymedia programmes. So the first problem with any eye witness report is that I was only an eye witness to a tiny part of what went on. So any observations or conclusions I draw from them can only be tentative and provisional, but of course I have to draw some conclusions from what I have seen. Even on this basis the problem I have is where to begin and where to end. And that’s not the least of the problems.
I can’t claim to have gone to the ESF without preconceptions but then everyone will have gone with some sort of expectations. I had read about the lack of democracy in its organisation and how it had been taken over and controlled by Ken Livingstone on the basis that he who pays the piper calls the tune. But what then are we to make of a movement that stakes its claim to existence on creating a space for free and democratic debate when it was so manipulated by someone who earlier in the year had called on rail workers to scab on a strike?
There were thousands at the events from many European nationalities. I have read that there were 20,000 people attending which is certainly on a scale much, much larger than any conference I have been to in Ireland. I had been told that there were 3,500 Germans and 600 Swedes and these would obviously not have been the largest delegations. It was encouraging to see so many young people attending a political event, many waving red flags at the demonstration on the Sunday. But at the same time I had read that many of the platform speakers were not ordinary workers but trade union bureaucrats, many with CBE or OBE after their name.
Of course the movement doesn’t even claim to be a unified movement and celebrates its diversity. It claims to be non-political in the sense that it explicitly excludes political parties and organisations and is prevented from organising its own campaigns. So its main claim is to be a forum for debate. If you looked at the programme of events you might think that there was plenty of debate. Yet the few other eye-witness reports I have read remark on how little actual debate there was.
One session I attended at Alexandra Palace on the EU constitution had at least six or seven platform speakers. Many spoke in French or Spanish (I think), but because I had no translation headset and there were no more left I couldn’t make out what was being said. One speaker at least was in favour of the new EU constitution but at the end speakers from the floor were given only two minutes and this quickly got reduced to one and a half minutes!
Even when there was more time there was actually little real debate. At a meeting in Bloomsbury between the British Socialist Workers Party, the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire from France, and the Partito Rifondazione Comunista from Italy, there was more time to speak but there was no real debate. The speakers from the floor hardly engaged with what the speakers had said and what interesting differences arose were about the hijab.
A young French woman from the floor attacked the LCR speaker for supporting the state ban on wearing the head scarf in schools. Alain Krivine explained that he and the LCR had not supported the state ban but did oppose the wearing of the scarf, on the basis that it was both a symbol of religious alienation, which naturally Marxists could not support, and was also a symbol of women’s oppression, which again Marxists opposed. Chris Bambery from the SWP put the issue into the context of rampant Islamophobia, a product of the ‘war on terror’, and questioned why people got so opposed to Muslim symbols on demonstrations etc when they never previously opposed Church of England vicars on platforms. He didn’t address the issues raised by Krivine on what attitude Marxists, as Marxists, should take.
One writer on Indymedia has said ‘maybe it was just me, but even here, with a huge crowd, the promised synergies and cross fertilisation seemed missing.’ Well maybe it’s just the two of us then. He also said that ‘I never really figured out what the whole thing was for.’ (‘Seedot’ in the Irish Indymedia site).
This is not an easy question to answer but having gone to the event it is a very easy question to ask. Partly this is a result of the obvious contradictions involved in this process. A movement that wants to change the world but excludes political parties? Except these parties still attend disguised under different banners – an invitation to dishonesty. A movement for freedom that demands its foreign guests had to be back at their accommodation at the millennium dome at 11 o’clock. Eleven o’clock? I thought you only went out at that time on the continent!
A movement opposed to neoliberalism? But Gerry Adams was invited to speak at the opening welcome meeting with Ken Livingstone. I wondered how an event which had opposition to privatisation as one of its themes could allow such a prominent place to a movement which had pushed privatisation of schools and health service facilities when it had the first opportunity to do so. Indeed how could something claiming to be anti-imperialist have so many of the meetings on Ireland dominated by supporters of the Good Friday Agreement which is an imperialist inspired solution? Would the organisers have opened the ESF to meetings supporting Plan Colombia, or the building of the Israeli wall or calling for support to the interim government in Iraq? (Although I later found out that this last was indeed the case!) How could such a movement claim to be anti-imperialist?
At the RESPECT rally on the fringes of the official ESF, after a Rifondazione speaker denounced neoliberalism and received a round of applause, a young Italian comrade beside me made a sneering comment about how they were poised to support a new alternative government that would precisely implement neoliberal policies.
The movement calls for a ‘social’ Europe but I, after many years, still don’t know what a ‘social’ Europe is. Apparently a meeting was set up during the ESF to organise a pan-European campaign for a ‘social’ Europe but it was reported that some of those involved might actually support the new EU constitution which has neoliberalism driven into its DNA.
The movement as a whole agrees one central slogan – Another World is Possible! But how do they know since there appears to be no agreement on what this world would be or how it might come about?
To even begin to answer the question –what’s it all for? We must put the ESF in context.
The context is the World Social Forum of which the ESF is just a regional expression. The WSF has been based mainly in Brazil since 2000 and has been held under the auspices of the municipal, regional and federal governments headed by the Workers Party of Lula. This party has been in government for a couple of years and has earned a reputation as one of the most pro-neoliberal governments in Latin America. While the poor in Venezuela have rallied to the radical but not socialist government of Chavez; the Bolivian poor have taken part in massive actions against privatisation; and there has been a pre-revolutionary situation in Argentina, the Social Forum movement has taken its lead from the pro-capitalist government of Lula.
The other major partner in the social forum movement has been the French NGO ATTAC which does not oppose capitalism as such but merely its neoliberal manifestation. Its leading spokespeople do not support socialism and have called only for mechanisms to ‘slow down multinationals and increase competition.’
Most of the NGOs which form a strong component of the social forums are funded by the state and would not receive such funding if they proposed destroying that state and creating an alternative power. Indeed the whole idea of an alternative state power is looked down on and in this they easily chime with anarchist disavowal of workers creating their own state power.
Within such a context and framework it is easy to see why there is so little real debate never mind political action. Where there is no real common purpose there can be no debate. Where there is no real unity of aims there can be no steps forward to common action. Where there is no real belief that power can be conquered from below there is no need to allow discussion of international political unity.
This however is the question posed by ESF events. The presence of so many, especially young people, opposed to capitalism – however understood, and seeking an alternative – however so vaguely posed, puts the question of constructing an international political movement deigned to achieve both right to the fore. Under existing rules such explicitly political organisation is excluded yet at the same time those small revolutionary socialist groups who say that the ESF must become the nucleus of such an international clearly fail to realise how confused the existing ESF is.
Many of those participating and leading the ESF are not opposed to capitalism and are not even opposed to neoliberalism. They are in fact obstacles to fighting both. In this we include many of the NGOs, trade union bureaucracies and political parties such as Sinn Fein. As it exists, or could possibly exist given its present structure, it cannot become an international political party. What it is at the moment is an arena where genuine revolutionaries can come together to find a space for debating and organising and for creating an alternative. This did not happen at the ESF in London.
What I discerned was impatience among groups involved in it, that it had failed to evolve and develop. Yet as presently constructed it is incapable of doing so. The mechanisms and people responsible for the ‘diversity’ are similarly responsible for its ultimate lack of dynamic. As presently constituted I came to the conclusion it doesn’t have much of a future.
So what are my final thoughts on the ESF? Well, I will remember the time it took to get to Ally Pally and getting soaked walking away from it because all the buses were full. I will remember listening for hours to speeches I could not understand because there were no more headsets giving a translation. I will remember the great speeches at the RESPECT rally that hid a multitude of sins. I will remember the sheer tiredness of listening to so many speeches and just getting fed up with it all, even a political junkie like me. But then I think how could this happen?
Then I realised that the ESF is just the summit of an approach so fashionable on the left today. It consists of building movements not by uniting the genuine left and winning new groups of workers to struggle, but adding existing organisations on our right through diluting the message and including charlatans who talk left but whose record has long ago exposed them. They are not tested in action because there is no action, and they are not put on the spot, simply put in the spotlight. I had gotten fed up with the ‘debate’ because there was little debate and there is only so much dishonesty I could listen to before I wanted to go home.
But I can’t look back on it in a purely negative way. Most of all I will remember the people I met. It genuinely is a place where you can meet new people from around the world. Ironically the person I will remember most is someone from Canada but originally from my own back yard. I used to think I was the only Trotskyist from the Shankill Road but after the RESPECT rally I met a seventy year old revolutionary from Argyle Street, where my granny lived and I used to play as a child. He had run away from home five years before I was born and had joined the revolutionary movement abroad. If one purpose of the ESF was to engender hope, for me, with this meeting, it had done so.