Next steps for ESF

Should we challenge the current rule of the European Social Forum which prevents political parties from officially taking part? If so, how could this most effectively be done? These two questions dominated last week's meeting of the English ESF mobilising committee. Around 40 comrades, most of them members of political parties, had a frank debate about this important issue, which - untypically for these meetings - lasted over an hour. The CPGB's Anne Mc Shane initiated the discussion during an agenda item that discussed last month's international ESF meeting in Paris (see Weekly Worker December 12 2002). She reported that, characteristically for the ESF, most participants were members of political parties: "But most people pretended again that they were just members of this trade union or that campaign. This is very dishonest." Comrade Mc Shane argued for the English ESF collectively to take a lead in challenging this ruling at the next international ESF preparatory meeting in Brussels, on February 8-9. During the first ESF in Florence in November 2002, political parties were restricted to having a stall and to hosting workshops. However, these workshops were pushed to the outskirts of the city, far away from the main venue. Many workshops, including our own, were not listed in the programme. Organisations were only informed two days before the start of the ESF where, when and if their workshop would take place. "As far as I know, all participants from the English mobilising committee have challenged the banning of political parties at various meetings," said Jonathan Neale, member of the Socialist Workers Party, but speaking as a representative of Globalise Resistance, one of the SWP's many front organisations. "However, we should not push it too hard. The longer we wait, the more likely we are to succeed in overturning it," he stated, rather complacently in my opinion. Surely, the longer a certain practice continues without being seriously challenged, the more likely it will become 'common sense', and will then be even harder to overturn. Dave Stockton from Workers Power supported comrade Mc Shane's proposal: "We should challenge this at every single meeting," he argued. Representing the Socialist Alliance, Nick Wrack agreed: "Speaking as a representative of a political party [sic], I see the formation of political parties as a natural development when people get together to fight for the same aims. It is ludicrous and irrational to prevent them from discussing how to fight together against global capitalism." However, he echoed the position of SWP/GR not to "push things forward too quickly" and to "proceed cautiously". Tina Becker from the CPGB reminded comrades that it was "the unelected and totally unaccountable" international secretariat of the World Social Forum that had instigated the ban. This secretariat consists of seven Brazilians, who represent the main organisations behind the first WSF in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001. Most of the people on this committee happen to be members of the Brazilian Workers Party (PT), although the comrades disguise this by formally representing the Brazilian Trade Union Council (CUT), the Brazilian section of Attac, the Landless Workers Movement and other campaigns. This secretariat then appointed a further 80 people to the so-called international council, which has since 'formally' adopted the 'Charter of principles', which contains the disputed rule on political parties. Everybody who wants to take part in the WSF, the ESF, the Asian Social Forum or any other regional forum has to agree to the charter. The ban is allegedly to 'protect' the young and vulnerable anti-capitalist movement from the influence of social democratic and neoliberal parties - or so the story goes. In reality, it was aimed at increasing the influence and dominant role of the PT - not without some success. Asad Rehman from Amnesty International and GR pointed out that Brazil's new president, Lula, a member of the PT, will even be officially opening this year's WSF. Unfortunately, comrade Chris Nineham from the SWP/GR stepped into the 'vulnerability trap'. He suggested that political parties should undergo "some kind of test" before they were allowed to participate in the ESF. This would "help the movement to distinguish between radical and social democratic parties," he argued. This well meaning, but misplaced, proposal, which was not supported at the meeting by any other SWPer, reflects a number of serious misconceptions. Firstly, it implies that "the movement" is not able to make this distinction itself. Without a proper lead by the enlightened few, the impressionable working class will just follow the neoliberal Pied Piper of Hamelin. Secondly, it shows the SWP's recent conversion from auto-Labourism to automatic anti-Labourism. The SWP sees no room for an active approach to social democratic parties. According to this attitude, members of the British Labour Party, the German Social Democratic Party or the French Socialist Party can never be won to socialism by open debate. They must undergo some prior internal conversion. Why should these parties and their members not take part in the ESF? Why should we not use a huge gathering of leftwingers and anti-capitalists in order to expose the flawed social democratic programme that leads straight into a political blind alley? Surely, the ESF offers an ideal opportunity to win over the many, many people, who are still trapped under the spell of Labourism. So far, none of the 'big political players' in the ESF - Rifondazione Comunista (PRC), Communist Party of France, Socialist Party of France - have dared to openly challenge the WSF. Undoubtedly, organisations like Italy's PRC have made gains in some quarters by not appearing to act as an 'old-style' political party. Rifondazione members have been crucial in setting up Italy's many local and regional social forums - but, like their comrades in the PT, they have done so in disguise. In France, the Socialist Party exercises a huge influence over Attac, which has in the region of 30,000 members. Many of these overwhelmingly young people would not have joined a political party. Attac, however, organises around a programme which is not dissimilar to that of the SP. For these reasons, the comrades are not overly keen to lead a forthright attack on this particular ruling of the WSF. The comrades across Europe are united in their desire that the ESF should remain an 'authorised' regional arm of the WSF. Although the few European appointees to the international council have tried to persuade it to allow the participation of political parties (see interview with Vittorio Agnoletto Weekly Worker September 12 2002), a challenge to the WSF has so far not been on the cards. This could, of course, change very quickly. The ESF is undoubtedly moving to the left. The socialist and communist parties involved are more and more boldly taking a lead. Although proposals for an elected leadership of the ESF, presented by the French organisers of the next ESF in Paris 2003, have been defeated once (see Weekly Worker December 12), there have been many calls to form closer links between leftwing forces in different countries. In view of the rejection of a democratic structure, there will surely be no alternative for the organisers of ESF 2003 other than to set up international networks from above. The laissez faire attitude to this important question has led to the creation of only a couple of loose networks. Also, there are moves to present a united challenge in the European Elections in 2004, hesitant though they are. Most importantly, the reality of the European Union is the objective condition that will push forward the unification of our own organisations. Political parties cannot take a back seat for much longer. Unfortunately, a majority of the English ESF mobilising committee argued against pushing this question forward as a matter of urgency. While all participants at the meeting argued against the ban on parties, we will not be challenging the rule collectively. On a more positive note, the meeting discussed some of the serious shortcomings of the first ESF in Florence. The failure to stage any real debates amongst platform speakers, the lack of time for contributions from the floor and the marginalisation of the workshops are the main criticisms the English ESF mobilisation committee will be putting forward at the next preparatory meeting in Brussels. Tina Becker