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London ESF: ETUC embraces Forum, but will it be deadly?

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The basic arrangements of European Social Forum are now well underway. The main speakers at 30 huge plenary rallies have been decided— all but the British ones. The over seven hundred smaller meetings (seminars) proposed by different organisations, trade unions, campaigns, NGOs and political organisations have been merged into between 150 and 170 sessions, each with simultaneous translation into various European languages.

Accommodation, entertainment and cultural activities, media coverage, transport are all now fully underway. A successful gathering of over 20,000 people seems assured, despite the bumpy ride of previous assemblies in London, Istanbul, and Berlin.

The Assembly of 230 delegates from all over Europe was welcomed to the large Building of the European Trade Unions by John Monks, its President and former General Secretary of the British TUC. He told a packed meeting on Saturday, 4th September, “Not so long ago the trade unions were a bit iffy about the Social Forum movement, but we took the step in Prague [ETUC 10th Congress, 26-29th May] to get involved.”

He went on to say that many unions had been forced to realise that globalisation, shifts of production to low wage economies, privatisation, were putting enormous pressure on workers to accept a decline in their economic and social conditions, unemployment or insecure employment. He said that many trade unions had been taking more and more notice of the analysis of the movement and were searching for new policies to act as the basis of a fightback. Unions now accepted they would have to unite their forces with the social movements to fight for a better world. But he also made this clear this meant a humanisation of capitalism, not its replacement.

Indeed, a good proportion of the 230 delegates to the European Social Forum preparatory assembly in Brussels were trades union representatives or activists. Monks went on to warn, “We won’t agree on everything –I wouldn’t like to take a vote here on the EU constitution!” at which a number of those present exclaimed, “No votes! No votes!", referring to the Porto Alegre Principles.

These principles, which ban the taking of votes, are among the most important safeguards for the trade union and social democratic leaders, preventing this movement from placing demands on them. If the majority cannot exert its will and decision on the minority, then that minority can always block effective, decisive and militant action taken with or without the trade union bureaucrats and academic dignitaries.

Nevertheless, the fact that the major European unions, even in Britain, are orienting towards the ESF will surely now mean that tens of thousands of activists will attend the London October event. The last minute, half-in-half-out attendance of the libertarian wing of the movement – People’s Global Action – as well as the major NGOs, socialist, communist and environmentalist organisations will also ensure the full spectrum of the movement will be there.

After months of doubts, we can now be certain that the third ESF can still be a significant moment for the movement. Indeed, the assembly felt its own confidence rise as it pledged more resources to increase the number of seminars and the necessary translation facilities.

Further good news was that free travel cards, worth nearly £20, would be available with the first 20,000 registrations, making the advance fees of £30, £20 (unwaged, students) and £10 (East European, southern hemisphere, refugees) more tolerable. 1,000 beds are available at local hostels for £10 and upwards, while campsite, communal and home stay accommodation will be allocated on a first-come-first-served basis. Catering will be ethically produced, ethnically varied – and affordable.

The Assembly of the Social Movements
More limited and circumspect was the progress made on the key political work of the ESF, which will largely take place on Sunday 17th October, at the Assembly of the Social Movements and the closing demo.

One negative feature is that the Assembly - for the first time - will not stand alone but will run alongside seminars and workshops. This will dilute the importance of the only part of the ESF event which can escape the Porto Alegre straitjacket and make policy, promote actions in the name of the movement (if not the ESF, itself).

Pierre Khalfa of French rail union SUD-PTT argued that we needed to transcend the format of setting dates for a few mobilisations, to incorporate the work of the plenaries, seminars and other assemblies (e.g. women, youth,) into the final declaration, and to monitor and publicise the work of the Assembly throughout the year. He pointed out that last years Assembly by not setting a date for a day of action against social cuts or the constitution, leaving it open for negotiations with the ETUC, had been a mistake and led to failure.

The League for the Fifth International welcomes this belated, even if unacknowledged, self –criticism, since it was Pierre and other French union leaders who, in Paris, absolutely insisted that no date could be set. But in Brussels he said that a date should have been set, which the more radical unions could agree to, and then we should have set out to win over the ETUC unions, and finally even the ETUC council itself.

He said that this year, we should not wait for the ETUC before co-ordinating a defence of the social gains, under attack across Europe. We should mobilise around the March European summit, when five years of the implementation of the neoliberal “Lisbon Agenda” will be up for review. He also insisted on the importance of the Assembly as an integral part of the ESF, which other forces in the WSF, such as Chico Whitaker (he did not mention Bernard Cassen, a bit nearer to home) were trying to sever. Correctly he said that debate and discussion could not and should not be severed from action.

This is a step in the right direction, if it is followed through. This is a better principle than either the reformist programme for a European constitution put forward by Leo Gabriel of the Austrian Social Forum, or the endless series of antiwar demonstrations advocated by various delegates from the International Socialist Tendency, the Socialist Workers Party’s international tendency.

The proposals that were made was that two or three working groups should try to draft the basis of a declaration for the Assembly which included both an explanation of what it is we are fighting against and what we are fighting for— linking these to carefully chosen Europe-wide actions that will strengthen the movement and increase regular international co-operation.

However, for this to succeed, the Assembly would have to start taking decisions – as advocated by the League for the Fifth International. Indeed Franco Russo from Rifondazione Comunista’s national committee, among others, described the principles of Porto Alegre as a “Procrustean bed” which the movement was being cut down to fit. He said we must overcome their restriction.

In the discussion of the British delegation on its list of plenary speakers, SWP members advocated ignoring the PA principles and allowing politicians to speak at the ESF . This is something that they have never done before, urging the fearful consequences of “provoking” a split with Bernard Cassen, Susan George and Jacque Nikonoff of Attac that this would lead to.

The IST’s chronic tailism was also on display in discussions on the closing demo. Speaker after speaker demanded that the slogans be focussed mainly on “Stop Bush!” on the grounds that this mobilised half a million in New York, and that Iraq remained the key issue in Britain. Curiously Blair did not figure alongside his master in their suggestions. Why? Might it have something to do with offending the Livingstone Labour left and trade union bureaucrats, so essential to the funding of the Forum?

Indeed, if we are to learn anything from New York, “Stop Blair!” would be a far more useful slogan. But in any case the French and Italian comrades who insisted that the assault on the social gains of the workers right across Europe, plus the antidemocratic provisions of the new EU constitution were central issues, alongside the war, were correct.

The point of the demonstration is to reflect and expose to public view in the capital of European neoliberalism and imperialist war, the growing scale and international integration of our movement. Size alone, on the lowest common denominator, is not enough. What we are concerned with is not boosting the prestige of the “British movement”, let alone of the SWP.

What we want is to create a movement of British workers, of women, of youth, of immigrant minorities, all in conscious and regular active solidarity with their brothers and sisters on the continent and with the victims of racism, sexism and imperialism. A demonstration where, for example, RMT, Sudrail, Cgil and Cobas workers marched together demanding the defence of nationalised railways or their renationalisation would make a tremendous impact. All the sectors of struggle should attempt to do this.

In the end, a compromise was reached with the slogans, “Against war, racism and neoliberalism – for a social Europe!” leading the march. While these are fairly anodyne, meaning all things to all people, at least they enable activists to raise British workers consciousness about Blair and Brown’s attacks and place concrete demands on our union leaders. Claiming that world politics revolve around Bush’s Empire, in the SWP’s and Socialist Action’s mouths, is nothing more than an excuse not to place demands on the Labour government and TUC.

Key seminars and assemblies
L5I members were involved in several negotiations, merging seminar proposals from across Europe. Our aim was not merely to fight for a platform for our own ideas – important though that is! – but to provide participants with clear and honest debates between conflicting tendencies on the key issues facing the movement. Against the monotony of banks of middle-aged bureaucrats and academics, we sought to include youth, rank and file militants, radical activists. In this, we were partially successful.

The L5I is one of 16 organisations wanting to debate the future of the movement, though the final decision on this was postponed to a delegate meeting next weekend in Paris. Whether or not we get a platform speaker, we will continue to fight for the right to put our distinct positions to the forum.

On the crucial question of the unions and their disintegrating relations with social democracy, particularly in Germany and Britain where the task of forming new workers parties is being debated by growing numbers of workers, we are hoping to host a seminar with the Berlin Trade Union Left, TNI Transform and Globalise Resistance Scotland. We will be urging all trade unionists, fed up with being dumped on by Blair and Schroeder, to come along and help develop an international response.

World Revolution, the socialist youth organisation, also had some successful meetings. The case of jailed anti-fascist Mario Bango, which was again well received by numerous trade union and social movement leaders, will form a central part of a seminar of Roma organisations. This should provide a useful forum for East European delegates, in particular, for whom the fight for Roma equality is key to the struggle for democratic rights for all and working class unity.

Revo also secured a willing partner in the Turkish-based Youth Struggle for a seminar on uniting youth struggles, looking at young people fighting neo-liberalism and capitalism. Potentially more important, though, the comrades won agreement – after ten months of argument – for a Youth Assembly. The grudging nature of delegates from “adult” organisations could still be seen in their denial of the youths’ automatic right to simultaneous translation facilities. However, the support of large social democratic youth groups, along with that of the Basque youth and various more left wing organisations, could make this a must-do part of the programme for school and college students and young workers, who will attend the ESF in droves.

And making sure they hear about it and understand the importance of the event – not just for their own struggles, but for the future of the movement itself – is now the task of the day. The London ESF, 14th-17th October, has the potential to change the correlation of forces in the British class struggle. It can turn the tide against Blair by giving workers and activists a greater understanding of the global nature of the attacks on democratic rights, on social services, on standards of living – and a greater belief in the ability of a collective, class struggle to stop them.

But more than this, the ESF is the key political event of the global anticapitalist movement. And it is taking place at a time when that movement stands at a crossroads. One road leads to class collaboration, providing pro-capitalist policy answers to the likes of Lula in Brazil Livingstone in London and John Monks in Brussels. Another leads to the self- isolation of the People’s Global Action and the Zapatistas, refusing to struggle for the state power needed to abolish this rotten system. The road that we will be urging the tens of thousands of militants to take, however, will diverge from these two, and lead to the formation of a new, Fifth International, a new world party of socialist revolution.