Creative chaos hits Brazil

Over 100,000 people gathered in Porto Alegre, Brazil, for the third World Social Forum. From January 23-28 thousands of seminars, conferences and workshops took place, with participants from 156 countries. Around 100 British comrades took part, including about a dozen from the Socialist Workers Party and Globalise Resistance. 'Creative chaos' dominated the event, which was so big that it had to be decentralised to venues all over Porto Alegre: "It was massive. Sometimes it was hard to understand what was taking place where and how to get there," says Naima Bouteldja, a representative from the Progressive Muslim Network and member of Globalise Resistance. As with last year's European Social Forum in Florence, the most interesting things happened outside the official seminars and meetings, which were in the main dominated by big-name speakers with little or no debate from the floor. The organisers seemed to have been aware of this problem before the event, because they tried to spark a little more interest by organising 'round-table debates'. Rather than having speaker after speaker churning out their set-piece, largely uncontroversial remarks, the organisers consciously chose people with opposing views by issuing a 'memo' on certain issues, with which the speakers then had to take issue. Seems a good idea to me and something the ESF should adopt as well. Another difference compared to the ESF was the massive 'youth camp' that took place a few miles away from the centre of Porto Alegre and which attracted over 25,000 people. It appears to have functioned as a second, rival WSF with its own meetings, rallies and seminars. Then there was the 'assembly of social movements', which seems to have made real progress in trying to give the WSF a more proactive edge. But the danger is that, rather than centralising and empowering our forces, this additional forum will create another unofficial, unrepresentative and non-transparent entity. "It was difficult to find out when and where exactly the meetings of the group took place that drafted the 'call of the social movements'," Naima told me. "I only found out later that there were people who wanted to come, but they didn't know how to get there. I presume you need to know the right people. It is still unclear how exactly this network will work or when it will meet again." The event was well covered in the bourgeois media, not least because of the visits of Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez; an official representative of the UN, who read out a message from Kofi Annan; and Brazil's newly elected president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Lula opened the WSF, addressing a cheering crowd of over 40,000 people. He came in for a lot of stick, however, when he then went on to participate in the World Economic Forum in Davos - the event that the WSF was set up to oppose. Naomi Klein heavily criticised the WSF for allowing politicians like Lula and Hugo Chavez to speak. In an article in The Guardian, she writes that it was "hijacked by political parties and powerful men "¦ How on earth did a gathering that was supposed to be a showcase for new grassroots movements become a celebration of men with a penchant for three-hour speeches about smashing the oligarchy?" (February 1). Her criticism points to an obvious contradiction within the WSF: officially, political parties are not allowed to participate. According to Vittorio Agnoletto, the Italian delegate to the WSF international council, this is not about to change in the short term (see interview). The current 'compromise' consists in allowing "government leaders and parliamentarians who abide by this charter to participate in a personal capacity" ('Charter of principles'). Rather than criticising the lack of real engagement with those politicians, who enjoy massive popular support in their own countries, Naomi Klein is one of the people who want to see all political parties totally banned from the WSF and the regional forums. Of course, the 20th century was one of the failure of the left. Dominated by Stalinist communist parties and Trotskyist sects - with their equally opportunist programmes and horrific internal regimes - the left has been politically impotent, ill-equipped and often a barrier to the self-liberation of the working class. But surely the best way to make sure that this does not happen again is by openly challenging and criticising wrong ideas. Not by locking people out that you do not like - a tactic, of course, for which those organisations were well known and despised. Naomi Klein also fails to understand that the WSF - and the regional forums - would not have come into existence without political parties. Lula's Workers' Party, the PT, has given birth to the WSF. Without the financial and administrative help of the PT-controlled regional government of Rio Grande del Sol the WSF would not exist. According to the organisers, this year's event cost a staggering $3.5 million. While the fees of participants will have recovered some of this, the PT will have provided the rest. In the same way the European Social Forum was set up and run by comrades from Rifondazione Comunista and the Democratic Left. The ban on parties is one of the contradictions that the WSF - and the regional forums that have so far not dared to challenge it - will have to resolve sooner rather than later. The other one is its composition and political vision for the future. The WSF's 'Charter of principles' states that the WSF is an "open meeting place "¦ for the free exchange of experiences and interlinking for effective action, by groups and movements of civil society that are opposed to neoliberalism and to domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism, and are committed to building a planetary society directed towards fruitful relationships among humankind and between it and the earth." The clumsy formulations cannot disguise the real desire for a 'another world'. It would be easy to dismiss the WSF for its political domination by reformist NGOs and social democratic parties, as some organisations on the British left have done. NGOs like Friends of the Earth, Amnesty International and Greenpeace are still very influential, although not quite as much as they were in the forums of 2001 and 2002. Christian Aid has even paid for an advert on the internet search engine, Google, which pops us every time you type in 'World Social Forum'. Social democratic parties like the French Socialist Party and Italy's Democratic Left are in leading positions in the regional forums - although like their comrades in the PT they hide behind various disguises. However, we should not underestimate the effect their participation has on these organisations. By engaging with the WSF and the regional forums, they have to properly address the question of how to change the world. Their members and supporters will undoubtedly put pressure on them to come up with alternatives to the capitalist system. If they are unable to provide convincing arguments and solutions, they risk losing support. So not only will there be pressure on such organisations to move to the left; their membership will be opened up to the big political questions. This should provide an ideal opportunity for revolutionaries to put forward answers to these questions - we have solutions that go to the heart of the problem. While NGOs and charities attack the symptoms of the capitalist system, we can put forward a method that roots out the cause. Revolutionaries who are confident in their programme cannot but welcome the politicisation of thousands of young people - even if they are currently still under the spell of social democracy, green politics or single-issue reformism. Tina Becker