Political parties kept under wraps

Participation of political parties has become the most controversial issue within the ESF. It goes back to a ruling by the international council of the World Social Forum. This council was set up after the first WSF in January 2001 in Brazil and has taken the lead in establishing regional bodies like the European Social Forum. Its composition is a little arbitrary, to say the least. The secretariat is dominated by the Brazilian Workers Party. It consists of eight Brazilian comrades, who have taken it upon themselves to appoint 68 further council members. None of the 76 have been elected at any time. Nor are they accountable to anybody. But that has not stopped them producing the 'Charter of principles', which everybody who wants to take part in any social forum anywhere in the world must abide by. The international council has ruled that the regional forums cannot make any real decisions or produce any documents. So the ESF in Florence will discuss the 'Charter of social rights' - but we can only talk about it: we cannot vote on it - or any other aspect of programme. The charter also states that political parties cannot take part in the ESF - there is no distinction between revolutionary communist organisations on the one hand and on the other hand Tony Blair's Labour Party or general Musharaf's military government in Pakistan: "Neither party representations nor military organisations shall participate in the forum. Government leaders and members of legislatures who accept the commitments of this charter may be invited to participate in a personal capacity." That means in practice that the CPGB has been unable to organise a seminar or send an official speaker to any of the forums. This is of course daft if one considers the role of socialist and communist parties across Europe. They are at the heart of organising the anti-capitalist sentiment, especially in France, Spain and Italy. The foundations for the ESF were laid by the huge demonstrations of Genoa and Rome. The ESF takes place in Florence, precisely because the Italian workers' movement is so highly organised and political and has produced Rifondazione Comunista. It has been argued that the ban was necessary to safeguard the forums from parties that are or were part of neoliberal governments and who without a doubt are interested in infiltrating and neutralising the movement In reality, the formulation will not protect us from the right. Quite the opposite: it actually makes it easier for social democratic organisations to infiltrate. It would be much better to confront these parties openly and challenge their politics in Florence in front of the movement. Social democratic and green parties will participate in any case - surely it would be preferable for the movement to know where and who they are. People are not stupid. If somebody does not want to be 'exposed' to the politics of the German PDS or the Greens there is one easy solution - do not go to their meetings. That only works of course if we know who is a member of which party. Banning parties will serve to obscure and confuse the politics. Bigger parties have no problem in getting their message across - even if they do not appear officially in the programme. The Brazilian PT comrades have effectively been running the WSF. They financed and organised it - and were able to use the forum for their own political purposes. In Italy, Tuscany and the city of Florence both have centre-left governments, where the Democratic Left (DS) - the former 'official communist' party and now virtually indistinguishable for Britain's New Labour - has donated hundreds of thousands of euros to the running of the ESF. The castle, where most of the meetings will take place, has been offered free of charge. Dozens of local schools and halls have been provided as free accommodation. The DS aims to make political capital out of the occasion. This would be less unacceptable if they were honest about it. But instead they hide their party affiliation and pretend that they are simply 'part of the movement'. It is the smaller communist and socialist parties that have in fact actually been excluded from the ESF. They have to hide behind NGOs or other non-party formations in order to be able to participate. In reality, this simply encourages and rewards dishonesty. SWP comrades identify themselves only as Globalise Resistance (which has, according to leading GR member Chris Nineham, "only 100 or so real members"). There are to be a number of SWP speakers on various platforms and dozens of members of Rifondazione Comunista are booked for seminars and conferences - not, however, under the names of their organisations. Unfortunately, Rifondazione Comunista has also been infected by the anti-party bug. For months, it did not criticise the 'no political parties' formulation at all, but has actually been instrumental in defending it, although RC's motivation is undoubtedly different from the DS's or PT's. It just seems that the comrades are taking their policy of 'contaminating' the movement a little too far. Alfio Nicotra, for example, a leading member of Rifondazione, stated in one of the preparatory meetings that "any political party that is integral to the movement would have no interest in promoting itself - only the movement". So, at the first few preparatory meetings for the ESF, the comrades from Italy actually argued against the participation of political parties and stated that parties would not even be allowed to organise or take part officially in any of the 200 or so small autonomous workshops held in the afternoons. "If we want to use the name 'Social Forum' we have to comply with the regulations of the WSF and they are very clear," comrade Stefano from Rifondazione explained at the preparatory meeting in July. "Political parties cannot organise any meetings." Most participants in the ESF criticised and challenged this at the various preparatory meetings - and it seems clear that further challenges to the rather clandestinely agreed charter are only a matter of time. After a few months' pressure, the Italian comrades bowed before the overwhelming mood of the participating organisations. They went to the WSF - and encountered a lot of trouble. There were meetings that lasted for hours, in which delegations from both sides tried to resolve the situation. A compromise was finally reached: political parties will be allowed to participate in and organise workshops only. But the workshops themselves have since been sidelined. Organisations were only given two days' notice of the venue before the start of the ESF. Many workshops will be miles away from the main site. The Social Forum offers a historic chance to unite the left on a global scale. But we need to learn from our past: without democratic and open decision-making at all levels the project will not survive. It is clearly impossible to keep political parties out of the process of remaking the left. Tina Becker * Step forward for unity