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World Social Forum (WSF) makes historic call to action – but there's a catch!

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The WSF International Committee and the World Social Movements Network met prior to the G8 protests in Germany. Luke Cooper attended the Social Movements Network, reports on the power struggle taking place between it and the International Council and the prospects for developing the class struggle, anti-imperialist left.

Space or Movement?

On the 1st June the World Social Movements Network, the body which organises the large decision making assemblies at the WSF, held a meeting in Rostock. This followed the meeting of the International Council of the WSF. The International Council is a self-appointed leadership whose majority has historically insisted the WSF could not be a ’locus of power’, i.e. not call actions as a unified force, but remain as a space in which autonomous groups may network and discuss – a forum for global “civil society” to develop itself within . This, they believe, will eventually persuade the world’s rulers to adopt a kinder, gentler sort of market economy. This viewpoint is a quite natural one for the big NGOs that live from charitable donations from corporations, imperialist governments and billionaires. Natural too for big reformist parties, like the Brazilian Workers Party or the German Social Democracy, which carry out neoliberal policies in government but need a bit of left camouflage.

In contrast to this - forces within the movement that wanted a greater coordination of action and did not want the huge social forums to remain just talking shops – deliberately developed the Assembly of Social Movements. It met towards the end of the WSF and regional bodies like the European Social Forum. Its original founders included the left of Attac, Focus on the Global South, Via Campesina and Jubilee South. The Assembly has frequently attracted sharp criticism from the right wing of the movement, such as Bernard Cassen of Attac, who see it as undermining the concept of space.

An even more vociferous opponent is Chico Whittaker, co-originator of the WSF idea, a member of its Secretariat, a member of the Brazilian Workers Party (PT). He has warned of the ’self-importance at the WSF of the World Assembly of Social Movements’ and argued that by holding the assembly at the end of the forum this implies that it speaks for the forum as a whole (Chico Whittaker, in Challenging Empires). There is actually some truth in this last point. For example, the Assembly at the 2003 Forum famously supported the call of the European Social Forum (November 2002) for an international day of action against the impending Iraq war on February 15 2003. This is often wrongly attributed to the WSF or its International Council when in fact it was a product of Assemblies of the Social Movements. Far from being an illegitimate usurpation of the WSF brand name hundreds of thousands around the world remember it as the WSF’s greatest historic achievement.

The International Council at its meeting in Germany endorsed the decision it had made previously that there will be no World Social Forum in 2008. Instead, they called for a global week of action in January 2008 in parallel to the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos. This in itself is a breach with the ”open space” and “no calls” approach of Whitaker and the Brazilian dominated Secretariat of the WSF. If it were serious it could signal the end of the paralysis in the movement and a turn towards co-ordinated action (see Dave Stockton, ’whatever happened to the anticapitalist movement? Fifth International, Vol. 2, No. 3). However, there was a catch – the “action” was only to be about “whatever the networks wanted.”

So, the Right‘s determination not to repeat February 15th 2003 means that whether anything is done (or what is done) will be left up to the networks. Far from actively forging the political leadership the movements need to effectively resist the neoliberal onslaught underway on every continent and prevent new imperialist wars, Chico Whitaker and Co obviously hope the week of action will be so geographically scattered and politically unfocussed that it will to all intents and purposes fail - leaving Whitaker to chime “we tried it and it didn’t work.” Then he can get go back to his concept of the World Social Forum as a space. At the 2005 Porto Alegre Forum I remember a Brazilian activist describe this as “the degeneration of the forum into a marketplace.” He was quite right.

The Social Movements Network in Rostock

The Social Movements Network meeting brought together around 60 people when it met on Friday. They at least recognised the need to choose the subjects to mobilise around so that something would come out of it. Much of the discussion was given over to the subjects but despite this there were few concrete proposals. The question of what actions would be taken was, typically for the movement, put back to an evening “working group". Indeed, again typically for the movement, the discussion was laden with libertarian, abstract rhetoric - “convergence”, “contamination”, “integration”, “expansion” - but woefully short on any concrete proposals.

Some speakers were however admirably frank and to the point in their statements and confirmed that the movement was in a real state of crisis and ferment. Rafaella Bollini of Arci-Italy, talked of the fierce argument at the International Council both at its meeting in June and its previous meeting in September. Indeed, there is clearly a struggle going on in it between the rightist ’space-ites’ and more leftist ’movementists.’ The widely accepted fact that the World Social Forum held in Nairobi was a failure, excluding and marginalising the more radical and popular social movements of the African continent in favour of well-heeled NGOs and churches, had clearly angered the more radical elements. Walden Bello, from Focus on the Global South, had even gone as far, after Nairobi, to ask if the WSF itself was still an ’appropriate vehicle’ for the social movements (’The Forum at the Crossroads’, 4th May 2006) – a statement that would be unthinkable just two years ago.

Like Bollini, the representative of Jubilee South from India spoke frankly about the situation. He pointed out that while there were delegations at the assembly from most continents, these delegations could hardly claim to represent the entire social movements of their countries let alone continents. In his case, he said his organisation had half a million members but he would be surprised if 5% of them knew what the Assembly of Social Movements was and he certainly could not speak for India’s large social movements nor its left parties. He concluded, that both the WSF and the Assembly of Social Movements were suffering a “crisis of credibility” amongst grassroots movements and activists. Truthful as such statements are, his conclusion - simply that further “outreach” and “expansion” is required - seems woefully inadequate. This leaves you asking how what made it so impossible for such outreach not to be done in the past - surely it is not such a difficult task for Jubilee South to make the Indian social movements more aware of the World Assembly? However, this failure is not simply one of ineptitude but expresses a more profound political problem.

The shadow of politics hangs over the movement

The World Social Forum has always banned the open participation of political parties, counter-posing this to the providing of a space for social movements, campaigns, etc. As we in the League have frequently pointed out this disguises the fact the movements leadership represent certain political positions and parties. Indeed, Chico Whitaker, for example, is a member of Brazil’s governing party that has carried out attacks on workers and the landless peasants. By insisting the World and continental social forums cannot take political positions and adopt calls to action, he is able to block criticism of them and the potential for the organisation of any co-ordinated resistance to them.

The forces that initiated the Assembly certainly stand to the left of this right wing insofar as they want actions to be called. However, even they continue to insist the WSF should not act as political force. Indeed, there is very little politics at all discussed at their meetings. The declarations of the Assemblies over previous years have tended to be a few paragraphs of anti-neoliberal rhetoric, denunciations, utopian hopes for “another world” followed by a list of actions. These declarations do not even so much as outline a political strategy that can actually throw back the neoliberal attacks, nor do they intend to.

There is an implicit and wrong assumption that neoliberalism can be defeated simply through the mobilisation of social movements ignoring the fact that the politicians and state functionaries carrying out neoliberal attacks are able to do so because they wield political power: to implement an alternative programme also requires holding political power. But to take office in social liberal governments is not taking power; it is subordinating the movement to neoliberalism.

The big questions that needs to be discussed are - is it necessary to take political power in order to implement a programme for “another world” and. if so, how to gain real power? Thus any political programme would have to go beyond isolated days of action and analyse the concrete problems and obstacles of the class struggle on its national, continental and global terrain. It would have to tackle head on the old question – reform or revolution?

The necessity to do this is demonstrated by the course of events in France and Italy, the countries that have been most consistently in the forefront of the struggles of this century, its antiwar and anti-neoliberal movements of resistance. Yet despite huge demonstrations, social upheavals, victories in referenda, they both face critical situations. In France despite the uprisings of the youth in banlieues and the anti-CPE movement, the most right wing government in decades has come to power armed with huge electoral mandate. In Italy the majority of the ‘no global’ movement has supported the government of Romano Prodi.

To refuse to discuss such developments, in favour of endless wrangles over the methodology, location or programme of speakers at Social Forums is a crime. When WSFs, ESFs, anti-G8 and anti-WTO gatherings assemble militants from all these arenas of struggle is an incredible waste of resources and opportunities. There is a crying need for such discussions.

The European Preparatory Assembly called for 14 -16 September must discuss the situation in France, the major battles ahead as Sarkozy viciously attacks one of Europe’s most militant working classes. They need not only offers of solidarity, but also a serious discussion on the political strategy that can see them through to victory. Likewise, in the light of the 150,000 strong demonstration in Rome, against Bush and against Prodi’s pro-war policies, the EPA/ESF needs to discuss the disastrous policy of participation in capitalist governments, which will, by the very nature of the state in whose framework they act, carry out neoliberal and imperialist policies, thus fracturing and hampering the forces of resistance.

Thus the issue of discussing politics in the anticapitalist movement has become a burning necessity. A speaker from the Caribbean People’s Assembly did raise the question of politics, arguing that the social movements needed a more developed relationship with the left reformist governments that have come to power across Latin America. Of course, to discuss politics in an open way would create real tensions within the social forum. For example over the attitude the movement takes to the political parties who say they support the movement, while also governing in neoliberal and warmongering governments, as Rifondazione are doing in Italy.

Anticapitalism: the Right, the Centre and the Left

It has become clear that the movement against corporate globalisation and war has a right, a centre and a left. The Secretariat of the WSF and the majority of the International Council constitute the Right. They want to block any attempts for the movement to have co-ordination - to go beyond the shackles of the space. They do this precisely because they express the interests of the governments of capital within the movement - be that the Workers Party in Brazil or Rifondazione in Italy.

The centre is represented by most of the forces in the Assembly and the minority in the International Council. They want mass mobilisations against the forums of globalisation like the G8, IMF and WTO and international days of actions. But beyond this the centre is highly heterogeneous in its politics - some hoping to reform the institutions of globalisation, while others develop utopian ideas around what might replace them. What the centre share with the right is their focus on the actions of social movements and a rejection of the need to express the resistance to neoliberal globalisation in, what Patrick Bond has called, “explicitly political terms” (Patrick Bond, The New Politics of Empire).

In this sense, the social movements are a peculiar protest movement precisely because by bringing together a range of political campaigns and movements they imply the need for a common political strategy to win. Yet, the leadership – in both the WSF International Council and the Assembly – insists on limiting it to the actions of heterogeneous social movements, not moving forward to the creation of a political force – a new working class International – that can fight for the political power needed to implement the full range of the movements demands.

In short, the experience of the last ten years means that the strategic questions of the left - reform or revolution, party and class, etc - are transmitted into a movement that more closely resembling the previous four workers internationals than anything else in the post-war period. It also shows however that internationalism alone will not overcome the crisis of reformist politics and leadership in the mass organisations of the working class on the national terrain. For these reasons, the need for a new international is not a question somehow detached or separate from the actual struggles of workers resisting capitalist globalisation. But absolutely connected to the strategic questions asked by those in struggle: how can the neoliberal offensive be defeated? What kind of organisation is needed? What slogans? Workers, the urban and rural poor are asking such questions.

It is this contradiction - on the one hand a new internationalism that implies the need for a new party, and on the other, the continued dominance of reformist politics and leadership who are deeply posed to a new international - that is central to understanding the present state of paralysis.

In the forces of the left there maybe signs of a way out of this paralysis. At the protest in Rostock the anti-imperialist block on the demonstration brought together several thousand people and organisations from diverse political backgrounds. The COBAS trade union in Italy, from a political syndicalist background, marched alongside the Trotskyist League for the Fifth International, while, for example, the Maoist International League for People’s Struggle was one of several organisations from a left Stalinist tradition that also joined the block. Of course, we had many differences, but we also had many agreements with them. For example, we shared the view that militant resistance was needed to imperialism across the globe and that the formation of so-called “social liberal” governments on the model of the Prodi government were a dead end - not an opportunity - for the movement.

The left only comes together, only becomes obvious, and only shows its potential power during events like Rostock and in national uprisings of resistance we have seen in the last few years. It will become a real force only if it can organise and clarify its ideas. Since the formation of the anticapitalist movement we in the League have been attacked for putting forward proposals, such as the urgent need for a new global party or even simply the need for a more structured co-ordination of struggle in Europe, that could split the movement between those who want to fight neoliberalism and those willing to implement its policies if only they are allowed to share office at local or national level.

Certainly we never had any illusions that, for example, the leadership of the old Communist Parties or the European Trade Unions, could simply be won to our proposals. However, we do believe it necessary to put them on the spot - demand they go further than they are willing to do so - precisely to start the process of breaking their hold on the workers that look to them for leadership.

Perhaps our most powerful riposte to the accusation “you are splitters” is that, in fact, it is parties like Rifondazione in Italy, that split the movement by participating in governments of capital. In any case, we have always rejected the idea there is a contradiction between starting the process of assembling the forces for a new International and maintaining - indeed initiating - the highest degree of unity in action of the mass forces against ongoing attacks. On the contrary the one complements and strengthens the other.

We remain absolutely of this view and have no intention of abandoning the movement and retreating into sectarian isolation. Nor for that matter do we intend to make premature declarations of its death agony. The protests in Rostock showed that thousands of militants still gather around the banner of anticapitalism. No, far from abandoning the movement a fight must be waged within it, on the international and national terrain, that demands the forces of the centre and the right take mass action we need to defeat neoliberal globalisation. The enduring importance of the European and World Social Forums is that they assemble the organisations whose members are some of the most conscious opponents of neoliberalism and demand urgent and radical change. The key question we face is, can the mass forces that currently look to the right and centre for leadership be won to a consistent, anti-capitalist and revolutionary programme?

In the forces of the left there are many differences. Just as what Walden Bello recently said about the WSF (quoted above) would have been out of the question a few years ago, in the same way a few years ago it would have been difficult to assemble the forces who joined the anti-imperialist block in Rostock. It must be the nature and direction of social, class forces in the present period that encourages and necessitates such groups discussing and collaborating with one another. However such an objective tendency must became conscious of its aims and determined to realise them.

What we propose to these forces is debate and collaboration wherever possible. The question of the content of a consistent, anti-capitalist and revolutionary programme is the burning question such forces should discuss. For our part we want to talk to the comrades about the method of the transitional programme, originated by the Communist International following the First World War, brought to its full development by Trotsky and the Fourth International at the end of the 1930s because we believe, that such a programme is of huge importance to anticapitalists today.