By Vicki Morris
That 50,000 people registered for the European Social Forum in Paris is moving.
The vast majority were - are - motivated by the wish to see change for the better in this rotten world. Add to that 50,000, the thousands of volunteers (including the volunteer interpreters of the Babels network), and the 50,000 more who joined in the demonstration on Saturday 15th, and you have something very worthwhile, the building blocks of an alternative to European capitalism. The ESF represents a big leap forward.
But there were - are - many shortcomings. On the purely practical level, that the event took place over four sites led to much time and energy lost marching from place to place. However, it seems true that more local people were involved in the organisation as a result of its dispersal. Just one example among many: the newspaper produced for the event by the pupils of the Eluard and Suger high-schools in Saint-Denis.
The local social forums in France, embryonic before this year, have also received a boost. The big meetings were oversubscribed - some of them moved outside to accommodate all who wanted to attend. Many had too many platform speakers. The smaller meetings, the lowly workshops organised usually by a single group, where all who attended could have a say, seemed to please people the most! The level of translations throughout was adequate but not brilliant - which only reminds us that we all could learn another language as a service to the movement! The whole event has made a financial loss of 100,000 euros.
Another world is possible... is it any nearer"
Workers' Liberty has said that the ESF needs to be more democratically organised: losing the ban on political parties that people simply get around by wearing disguises, moving to voting on decisions, holding the organisers to account. And we want more working-class organisations involved and setting the agenda. Is there progress on these" Are we nearer building a movement that can bring about the better world that we all believe possible"
The week kicked off on 11-12 November with the European Trade Union Forum, organised by French affiliates of the European TUC. This took place in the Hôtel de Ville de Paris in the posh 4th arrondissement. Arguably there was historic resonance in holding the event here: here it was that the boatmen when disgruntled refused to take their boats out, leaving them on the marshy banks - the "grève" that has given the French their word for strike.
But actually the forum was an elite affair. It was nigh on impossible to get an invitation, and impossible to get in without one. Jeremy Dear, the general secretary of the National Union of Journalists no less, had not even been invited when I asked him. I would be interested to know whether there was any British trade union involvement in it apart from the address by the illustrious general secretary of the ETUC, John Monks.
This snootiness is symptomatic. In general, trade unions are involved in the ESF, but at arm's length, and the bureaucrats do not want permanent networks to come out of the ESF that will challenge their grip on their organisations. There were many individual trade unionists involved, and some trade unions participated in organising seminars and workshops. The picture is patchy, though. Newcastle Unison took a large contingent; more union branches could do this. Many more.
With the women, for another Europe in another world
Although there are supposed to be as many women speakers as men at the ESF, parity is a long way off. The first ESF in Florence scored so badly on this count that the World March of Women, a large international mainstream feminist network, organised separately (although under the umbrella of the ESF) a European Assembly for Women's Rights on 12 November. The meeting was quite well prepared. The political outlines of the day, of the six workshops and of the manifesto of women's demands that was to be presented to the ESF as a whole, were discussed on an email list.
In the event, over 3,000 people registered, twice the anticipated number, and another 1,000 joined in the march through the town of Bobigny that closed the day. It will be a while before a proper account can be made of all the demands elaborated in the workshops, and the avowed aim to set up permanent Europe-wide campaigns on the issues acted on. But there is a real hope that from the Women's Assembly can come some practical and quite radical ongoing organisation.
I attended the workshop on migrant women. The demands were, I think, quite modest - aimed at improving the situation of women who have already come to Europe from other parts of the world. In the workshop many people demanded that "no immigration controls, free circulation of people" be added to these demands.
Some members of Jeunesses Communistes Révolutionnaires, the youth group linked to the Trotskyist Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, who appear to have fallen under the influence of the SWP, demanded for women of Muslim background the right to wear the headscarf as well as not to wear it. This went down like a lead balloon.
This side of the Channel, of course, the SWP do not couch their argument even in these terms: have you heard one murmur of complaint from them that the headscarf represents an imposition on women" Me neither.
The ESF talks, the Assembly acts
The range of debate over the two-and-a-half days of the ESF itself was huge; most of the topics covered were offered by participating organisations so inevitably there were gaps, some over-representation and some completely inappropriate stuff.
No speaker spoke as the representative of a political party as such. This is to comply with the Charter of Principles of the World Social Forum (www.fse-esf.org/article538.html). A compromise has been reached in that political organisations are permitted to organise workshops.
It is also part of the Charter that the social forums are nothing more than a space for people to meet. They aren't supposed to organise anything ongoing! A way has been found to get around this as well: the Assembly of the Social Movements.
This is a gathering outside of the main programme of the ESF, open to all who participate in the ESF. 3,000 people made their way through rain and mud on Sunday 16th to take part. No votes were taken, there was just reporting back on the week's events, and the announcement of two key initiatives for the coming year.
On 20 March 2004 there will be an international day of action for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories and the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya.
On 9 May 2004, the date set for ratification of the European Constitution, there will be a Europe-wide day of action for "a Europe based on the recognition of social, political, economic, cultural and ecological rights, both individual and collective, and with women equal to men".
Clearly, to inspire mass participation this longwinded yet still vague phrase would have to be turned into concrete demands; we would suggest working-class demands like a 35-hour working week for all with no loss of pay, creation of public sector jobs, charter of trade union rights, decent pensions, etc. The initiatives that are coming out of the ESF, and the ESF itself, have to be given a working-class character and politics to make that other world that we are all talking about a reality.
As the recent strike wave in France showed, the working class has the power. More information:
- www.fse-esf.org, www.babels.org
- Sceptical about the whole thing, but good links, especially to the Libertarian Social Forum, paris.indymedia.org/
"Workers and the unemployed are angry,
To win this battle,
We need a general strike!"
"We will struggle, we will win...
[for] a Europe...for all the workers."
(LCR-led chants at the ESF demonstration)
That pretty much sums up what I took from the ESF. Obviously, it's not the new revolutionary international, but it is a dynamic and huge movement of mainly young people looking for a solution to the world's problems. It's not about opposing globalisation - it's about opposing capitalist globalisation in the name of global solidarity. Revolutionary groups like the French LCR - visibly politically healthier than its British section, the ISG, and than the SWP, which is roughly of similar size - must provide a class focus for the movement. The working class alone holds the power to build "l'autre Europe," and "l'autre monde" that everyone at the ESF wants to see. People there were engaged and interested in ideas - discussing politics with someone was as easy as chewing gum. At the meetings, discussion - critical discussion - was encouraged, not suppressed. The British left can learn a lot from this culture.
Socialist youth discuss
On the morning of Saturday 15th, going on for 300 young people struggled out of their sleeping bags to attend a meeting on the role of youth movements in fighting poverty, racism and war. Organised by the Jeunesses Communistes Révolutionnaires (Revolutionary Communist Youth - linked to the LCR), the session began with platform speakers not only from the JCR and its Spanish and German equivalents, but our very own SWP and Socialist Resistance/ISG.
The SWP speech was what you'd expect - "everyone in my college is really angry". But we really came to hear the LCR. The JCR comrade spoke about the growing radicalisation among young people in France; stressed that the need to build a socialist alternative to the far right was more urgent than ever; and argued that the recently agreed LCR-Lutte Ouvrière electoral pact could represent the beginning of such an alternative. She even hinted at criticism of the LCR's support for Jacques Chirac in the second round of the presidential elections, arguing that the fight against fascism necessitates the rejection of working-class alliances with "capitalist forces".
After Pavel from the Czech section of Workers' Power had condemned the British anti-war movement for failing to call for an Iraqi victory and the Sparts had had their rant, AWL members quietly pointed out the difference between the LCR-LO alliance, based on socialism and working-class political independence, and what the bulk of the British far left is doing now with the Galloway electoral project.
ESF in Britain
It's not clear the date yet, or even the location - in theory, towns other than London still have a month to put together a bid - but the next ESF will be in Britain. The exertions of the London Social Forum to have the organisation of the event opened up wider than the forces of Globalise Resistance/SWP (who initiated the London bid) are bearing fruit. But it goes without saying that to have a good ESF in Britain, as many people as possible must be involved in organising it. Here are some dates for people's diaries and to tell to as many people as possible. Remember, it's a social forum, that means everyone has an equal right to be involved, and no one should be intimidated by the SWP's bureaucratic manoeuvrings to keep control. We must start asserting ourselves now!
Saturday 22 November, noon, London Social Forum report-back from ESF and discussion of the London bid; room H216, Clement House, LSE, Aldwych. More details: http://www.londonsocialforum.org.uk
13-14 December, contingents from other European countries visit for the inauguration of the British ESF
- For more details of social forums in the UK click here