National Sections of the L5I:

The European Social Forum staring into an abyss

Printer-friendly versionPDF version

The ESF in Istanbul failed to provide a lead in the coming struggles against the crisis, report Martin Suchanek and Dave Stockton

Photos of the event are online here

"The Social Forum is not dead, it is just rotting on its feet," said one participant at the Sixth European Social Forum held in Istanbul from 1-4 July. The bitter irony was not misplaced.

The balance sheet of this year's ESF in Istanbul is a sobering one. With only some 2000-3000 participants it was smaller than all the previous forums. The final demonstration despite its lively character had around 5,000 on it.

About half of the Forum’s participants came from Turkey and Kurdistan, others came from different European countries, including from Russia and Eastern Europe - with a few from countries further a field like Palestine and Nepal.

As always the left across the continent was represented - from the trade union bureaucracy and pressure groups like Attac, through “foundations” of the reformist parties, to various fronts of the far left. Once again the charade of pretending not to be political parties- as dictated by the World Social Forum Principles – was largely maintained. With this comes an incredible fuzziness on all questions relating to what sort of governments could be expected to carry out the idealistic plans and proposals called for.

This vague utopianism, habitual to ESF gatherings, was rendered more than usually in the present context- where all the governments of Europe, right (Berlusconi, Sarkozy, Merkel) or left (Zapatero, Papandreou), are pressing ahead with savage austerity programmes. Unless they are defeated this will constitute a historic defeat for progressive forces across the continent. At the moment Greece is still in the forefront of the resistance with six one day general strikes in the last six months and major mobilisations in Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, Germany and Slovenia. Yet ,by and large, resistance has been kept to one or day actions and sectional mobilisations, meaning that governments have been able to continue with introducing cuts.

For this reason one might have expected the ESF to concentrate on debating precise and clear tactics designed to stop these governments in their tracks – to discus how to break the paralysis and outright sabotage of our resistance by the union leaders and the big reformist parties.

Instead – despite many meetings on “the crisis” - the platform speakers usually limited themselves to describing the attacks and calling for an alternative based on social reforms without considering what sort of union leaderships or political parties might be needed to fight for them.

Why so few?

The large crowds who had attended the ESFs in Florence (2002), Paris (2003), London (2004) and Athens (2006) were missing from Istanbul, as they had been from Malmö in 2008. The ESF has plainly lost its attraction for large numbers of activists from struggles, political organizations, campaigns or parties.

This was due in part to the poor mobilisation for the forum throughout Europe. The Istanbul ESF was carried almost totally by the political left in Turkey, mainly by the more radical trade unions DISK and KESK and by the Mesopotamian Social Forum (i.e. the Kurdish liberation movement.) In the huge city the ESF had a low profile and its venues were poorly signposted. The mass membership of trade unions and organisations of the left and the Kurdish liberation movement for the most part stayed away.

Outside Turkey, the mobilization was even poorer. This was due, in part, to lack of material, technical, organizational and human resources in a time of crisis. Many sessions did not have enough translators for the simultaneous translation essential for discussions from the floor. The old problem of far too many platform speakers relative to discussion was in evidence once again.

But no one should forget that (unlike the earlier ESFs) the Turkish state as well as the municipal authorities in the Istanbul were largely hostile to the forum. Also no one should forget that the resources of the organizing committee in Turkey were small to negligible. Overall, an office of about 10 square feet was available that was equipped with four tables, some chairs and old computers and possessed hardly any financial resources. In such conditions what they volunteers achieved was a near miracle and we will not join any complaints from the self-designated “Europeans” (NGO, Trade union and party-front officials) who made such a fuss about this at the EPAs (preparatory assemblies).

However in our opinion the decisive reason for the low mobilisation was due to a different factor. At no point in the months preceding was it made clear why thousands of activists should come at all, what decisions, what initiatives, could come from the forum, giving clear coals and definite actions for the fight against the crisis, to stop the war against the Kurdish people or the imperialist wars and occupations in the Middle East.

Although the ESF is still the only "space" on a European level where the representatives of various organizations can promote the coordination of the resistance, it was plain that a large majority of the informal leadership of the ESF, left trade unions, Attac, associations close to sections of the European Left Party (the French CP, Rifondazione, Die Linke) just did not want to shoulder any such responsibility.

What went on in the forum?

This was also expressed in one strange contradiction to the forum.

Around one third of the 200 seminars have been reported on the crisis and its causes, on the record and experience of battles, but also about the question of possible alternatives to capitalism. Other priorities were the issue of attacks on the education system, the youth, women, and the struggle against imperialist war and against the Zionist occupation of Gaza and solidarity with liberation struggles like those of the Palestinian and Kurdish people.

In many seminars and meetings the need for resolute action was referred to. People often said the movement against the crisis had to go beyond demonstrations, etc. The individual struggle must be directed against not only against the "excesses" of capitalism, but against the capitalist system which is in a historic crisis. Therefore, time and again speakers raised the need for an international coordination of resistance.

Individual thematic meetings of social movements or networks of the ESF- such as the Education Network and the Anti-Imperialist Network meeting in which the League for the Fifth International and Revolution actively participated - also adopted final statements and declarations in this direction. In addition the networks like the Education Network are indeed trying to create a mobilisation for the autumn winter aimed at mass action to stop the savage attacks on schools and universities.

Political stagnation and decline

But these were only steps in the right direction. The ESF in Malmö, Sweden in 2008 was also politically radical, leftist and anti-capitalist. But then as now it continued to lag behind events, faced with a historic crisis of capitalism it was unable to develop a serious leadership for the working class across the continent.

This can best be seen from the final declaration. It says:

“We, the participants at the Istanbul ESF, affirming that we have a strong engagement against all war and occupation and that we are for a political resolution of the Kurdish issue, have made the following resolution :

Act together in Europe against the crisis

In the context of a global crisis and faced with the EU, the governments and the IMF offensive to impose austerity and social regression policies, the social movements which have gathered in the ESF in Istanbul issues a call to act together in Europe.

Mobilisations and resistance movements are developing across Europe to challenge these policies. It is urgent to build, in the long term, a convergent struggle in Europe, which brings together social movements, trade unions, associations, organisations, and citizen networks. This is why we issue a call for a first step on the way to developing mobilisation across Europe, on the 29th of September and the surrounding days.

We must impose alternative policies, which enable us to fulfill social needs and ecological requirements.
All social movements call for a European assembly on the 23-24th of October (or 13-14th of November) in Paris to further our mobilisation and the coordination of our movements and also to make an evaluation and discuss the future of the ESF.”

This statement is so harmless and non-binding and ultimately unpolitical that it will be hard to beat for sheer vacuity. September 20 is not an initiative of the ESF but of the ETUC. Yet this is not stated. Indeed it seems “several hours of debate” took place behind the scenes between the main forces of the ESF with Cobas in particular refusing to agree to any mention of the ETUC call and trying to defocus from it as a day on which there might be something approaching a Europe wide day of strikes (the Spanish unions have called a general strike on hat day. Cobas argued instead for decentralised actions spreading over two weeks. Cobas used the left argument that the big unions like the CGIL in Italy never call a full day generals strike and the European Trade Union Confederation slogans are for “fair shares in austerity” rather than opposition to it altogether.

It reveals the whole dilemma of the forum. You could just agree on 29 September to do something about. What to do and around which slogans - all that remains open. The ESF had the opportunity to join in on the 29th with the slogan for a Europe wide general strike, but it was unable to agree on such a demand itself, the political initiative was left to the ETUC.

At the preparatory meeting on the second day of the ESF the League for the Fifth International proposed a call which would characterise the severity of the crisis and the life or death struggle needed to prevent the destruction of the social gains made over half a century and more by the continents workers and other progressive forces. This was stigmatised as too long (600-700 words!), despite the fact that it was much shorter than many ESF and WSF Assembly declarations (see the Belem declaration!) and “not the language of the Social Forums” whatever that might mean.

If the "language of the ESF" is the usual litany of meaningless aspirations – “another Europe is possible”, or even “necessary” then this is precisely the sort of language we need to get rid of, if it is to play any role as a mobilising centre it briefly was in 2002-03. If it is to have any political right to exist.

No one had an alternative to our draft but as usual Sofie Zafari started scribbling one and duly produced the above vacuous call – arguing for nothing that was not already happening and containing no class struggle slogans to contrast against the class collaboration of the ETUC, let alone any stinging criticism of the latter’s inactivity over the last two years.

Several League speakers argued from the floor of the Assembly that it should at the very least adopt the following demands, aimed at making the rich pay for the crisis not the poor.

“This Assembly of the social movements calls on all working class organisations, trade unions and political parties, on the social movements, on youth; women’s and migrant organisations to unite in common struggle across the whole continent:

• No to all the EU/ECB/IMF austerity packages! No to all the cuts in wages, jobs, pensions, the slashing of social services like education and health. Cancel the debts of Greece and all the other countries impoverished by the crisis and the market speculators!

• The bank and larger corporations must pay the entire cost the crisis! Tax the rich in order to pay – not the workers and poor. Confiscate the fortunes of the billionaire speculators who have used the crisis to accumulate vast wealth at the expense of the poor. To stop the currency, bond market and stock exchange speculators we have to take control of the finance system out of the private companies and investment funds. Expropriate the banks and finance institutions without compensation under workers control!
• Stop the mass layoffs: we demand the cutting of working hours, not of the jobs and without any loss of pay! We call for the expropriation without compensation of all companies who threaten workers with closures, redundancies, cuts in pay, placing them under workers control!
• Stop the national chauvinist campaign against the Greece people! International solidarity action with the struggle of the Greece workers and youth!
• Build anti-crisis-committees and alliances in all towns, regions and co-ordinate them nationally and internally! All trade unions, all workers organisations and parties, all the social movements should join in such action committees and organise militant direct action – mass demonstrations, solidarity actions in the workplaces and offices, occupations, mass political strikes!”

At the same time the League for the Fifth International called for setting up a European-wide co-ordination for the struggle against the crisis and to mobilise for the 29 September as day of strike action, as a launch pad for all out and indefinite strike action, occupations, student and school strikes etc, aimed at halting all the Austerity packages and bringing down the regimes imposing them.

Given the deadly seriousness of the situation faced by workers, small farmers, women, migrants, across Europe and beyond, the continued paralysis of the ESF is a sign of its approaching death. Whether it can rise from its moribund state and recapture the energy and power it had at the Florence ESF in 2002 is highly questionable.

The principle union and political foundations that back the ESF - Attac, SUD, FSU, Cobas, all excused their lack of initiative in Istanbul by promising. . . . . yet another meeting in Paris in the autumn.

Will it materialise? Will it issue a call for decisive action? Will it finally set up a permanent organising centre for the resistance? The profoundest scepticism is in order. But one thing is certain- unless the ESF mobilises for the ETUC’s Day of action and the various national mobilisations, but in a highly critical manner around its own militant slogans such as those the League fought for in Istanbul then - to use the speaker’s sarcastic analogy - the ESF’s rot will have finally reached the head.

The task then will be for all those who realise the severity of the situation facing Europe’s workers; those who realise the critical issue of exposing and replacing the present leadership both political trade union; those willing to set about creating a new leadership armed with a revolutionary programme of action , should meet - perhaps in Paris after the ESF event - to lay the foundations of a formation to replace the ESF.