European Social Forum Organising across frontiers

Kurt Wendt is a representative of the Communist Party of Austria (KPÖ) at the international meetings to prepare for the next European Social Forum, to be held in Paris over November 12-16. At the last assembly meeting in Genoa (July 19-20), he criticised the left for being less united than the bourgeois and social democratic parties. Common conditions require common organisation. Tina Becker spoke to him

Are you happy with the ESF so far?

I am a big fan of the ESF and I have been to most assembly meetings. It is fantastic that we are starting to make so many international contacts. However, I have got a number of criticisms of the ESF process.

For example, we should be aware that our anti-capitalist movement has not had any successes since the protests in Seattle three years ago. We always meet each other again at the next big event and are all happy about how many we are; and we marched together against the war and this is all excellent. However, if you take a step back and look at the last few years, you must admit that overall politics have moved to the right. I think we have to measure movements on the basis of their concrete successes, and I somehow doubt that Paris will necessarily be on this list.

Maybe we are lucky and it will coincide with a major trade union dispute in France and the 40,000 of us at the ESF will become the reserve army in that struggle. That would be my biggest hope about the potential of the ESF, but such historic opportunities present themselves only rarely.

Another criticism is that most people at these meetings are between 40 and 50 years old, whereas the majority of the participants at the ESF will be a lot younger. I also believe that the groups present are a lot less militant and anti-capitalist than those who will travel to Paris. The first ESF was very much an event, a happening, where most politically unattached people would not have got much out of it. It was like a market show, where certain big-name specialists could show off. The workshops were a lot more interesting and I believe that we should put more emphasis on the building of international networks. We need to get away from rallying around the perceived ‘politics of the middle ground’ and become more radical.

You can already see that the ‘stars’ from the Genoa Social Forum, Luciano Muhlbauer and Raffaela Bollini, run the whole show employing all their charm. No sensibilities get offended: the broad consensus must be kept by any price. At the same time though, no important decisions are taken.

For example, we think a European-wide strike would be crucial. Recently there have been almost simultaneous attempts to dramatically reform the pensions system by the governments of Germany, Austria and France. While Austria and France held strikes at the same time, the German trade union federation opted for action over the 35-hour week - and lost spectacularly. If we had deeper cooperation between our unions, we could have shown that the attacks on us are international and not restricted to individual countries.

While such trade union unity would be excellent, what about uniting the left across Europe on a higher, political level?

In today’s society there is a diffuse and not very sophisticated, but nevertheless strong feeling about the need for radical change. In young people’s eyes, symbols like the hammer and sickle and the red star have changed their meaning: only 10 years ago they were the symbols of repression, the symbols of the communist states. Now they have become symbols of hope. Communist websites receive more hits than they have for years, so there is definitely something going on.

In the deepest countryside in Austria, where we have no organisational structure at all, we sometimes perform better than in our wildest dreams. I can only deduce that there is a general swing in the political landscape, although it is still on an individual level. Undoubtedly, this is happening all over Europe.

Therefore, we need to work towards a European-wide anti-capitalist left that can stand together in elections. Our party is very keen on this - we have currently so little national impact that we have got nothing to lose by moving to a more international level. The Italians, the Spanish and the French comrades in particular have other, national interests to consider when they are taking part in such international negotiations.

There are three potential outcomes of the current developments: Firstly, a European left modelled on the example on the Nordic left parties. This is not an acceptable outcome, as these parties are really just social democratic.

Secondly, an anti-capitalist left, which would, for example, have to contain Rifondazione Comunista in Italy, the Communist Party (DKP) and Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) in Germany, etc. The success of such a formation would, however, depend on the ability of the French Trotskyists in the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) and the Communist Party (PCF) to unite in a single electoral organisation.

Also, I believe the PDS is currently not very interested in such an anti-capitalist left. I do not think that we can have such an international list without these problems being resolved first. This might not be so important for the coming European elections in 2004. Only in 2008 will there be proper international lists, with which at least 30% of the parliament will be elected. It would, however, be much preferable if we could sort ourselves out for next year - the bourgeois parties in Europe have long done so. The social democratic parties and the parties of the centre-right are organised in proper blocs. It is a disgrace that the left cannot manage this.

The third option would be a link-up of all the communist parties in Europe. This would exclude the LCR and PDS, but would place more emphasis on the Czech, Slovak and Cypriot Communist Parties. Rifondazione is the main organisation at the centre of negotiations in relation to both these latter possibilities.

I have taken part in some of the debates of the New European Left Forum, the alliance between the communist parties in the European parliament - and I have been thoroughly put off by it. It was horrible. I went to a gathering in Stockholm, looking forward to meeting radical revolutionaries, and was instead greeted by ‘responsible’ government ministers or those who want to become one. I remember having a big fight with Jean-Claude Gayssot, then the French transport minister, who justified his party’s involvement in government with the fact that Air France had only one third of its operations privatised thanks to the restraining influence of the PCF.

What role does the ESF play in all this? All the major European socialist and communist parties are centrally involved in it, although officially parties are still banned.

There are a number of groups in the ESF who are strictly limited to single-issue campaigns: water, farming, vegetarianism, etc. For those groups, the current structure and limited political scope of the ESF is very advantageous and they slot in nicely. On the other hand the political parties hide behind some newly found initiatives. At the July assembly meeting of the ESF in Thessaloniki, I was surprised that the overwhelming majority voted to keep the ban on political parties in place. This means that parties can only organise workshops - although I am certain that at least 85% of all those present were members of one party or another.

I believe this hide and seek game is very dangerous. Firstly, there is a total lack of transparency - participants should not have to guess about the political affiliation of speakers. Secondly, the objective necessity for parties is called into question.

It is true that a lot of young people who are starting to get actively involved have a high level of resentment towards political parties and prefer so-called autonomous organisation. So some organisations attempt to influence these forces, without scaring them away by openly admitting that they are a party. This tactic seems to come particularly easy to Trotskyists, who are used to it. But I do have to laugh when I see members of Rifondazione posing as reps from the trade union federation, Arci.

In the long term this tactic is doomed to failure, because political parties will become more and more important. In my opinion, the anti-capitalist movement will start to ask for strategic answers, for a professionalism and expertise that comes from collective, continuous and systematic debate - which can only happen in a proper party.

In Hamburg, for example, the resentment amongst the Autonome against party organisation is going so far that words like ‘effective’ and ‘professional’ are banned on almost the whole left, because they are “the words of the rulers”. But this is exactly the point: the organisations of the bourgeoisie have become increasingly professional and efficient - they can only effectively be fought by our own professional and efficient methods.

For example, by forming a Socialist Alliance or a Communist Party of the European Union?

I would agree with this aim in the long term, but I do not think it is realistic for the here and now. First of all, the nationally organised parties and groups need to overcome their national interests. Otherwise, you might have a small office somewhere, but the political basis of this European formation is extremely small and reduced to the lowest common denominator.

But I do think that we could work together on a much higher level than we do now - around real experiences and points that do not fall into the realm of squabbles between historians. For example, most people across Europe have similar experiences around issues like privatisation, education, etc. I imagine a common website, where all organisations could write of their own struggle - how they managed to win or what lessons they learned from losing. This common experience could then be the basis for common action - for example, a Europe-wide strike.

In the context of internationalism, what do you think of the French comrades’ proposal to allocate speakers at the ESF according to nationality rather than aiming for the most interesting and crucial debates?

This shows a certain helplessness: trying to achieve ‘fairness’ and allowing the honour of certain leading figures to be preserved. But, whether you have 10 Germans speaking or 20, what really matters is the content of their contributions. It is as though the comrades are playing at ‘community of states’ - but on a really small scale.

Instead, we should put emphasis and effort into building various networks: a women’s network, a trade union network, a communist network. Our anti-war network, which organised the tremendous February 15 demonstrations, is not a very deep or stable construct. It suffers from a very superficial anti-imperialism, which is very much organised around slogans only.

When the comrades tried to discuss things like the involvement of the UN, they totally lost it. The French in particular played at being UN assistant general secretary, advising ‘our’ leaders to send the weapons inspectors back to Iraq. Who is going to listen to this rubbish? Not our side nor our enemy either.

I would like now to turn to the recent massive demonstrations in Austria. How have they affected the political landscape?

They were the biggest strikes since 1950 and certainly have had a big impact. I need to go a little further back to explain what happened.

Austria has been extremely stable politically until the year 2000, when for the first time ever a rightwing extremist party [Jörg Haider’s Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, the FPÖ] formed a government with the centre-right ÖVP. After 30 uninterrupted years in government, the social democratic SPÖ was kicked out - and in an instant the trade unions’ link with the government was lost. In 1945, all unions were newly constituted from above, along with the rest of the country’s administration, and have since been part and parcel of the state. For this reason, non-Austrians are still not allowed to stand for any union position - not even as shop steward.

Historically, employees have had to negotiate almost directly with the government and the welfare state grew to become one of the best in the world. The unions can look back over a history of relative success, because they were very close to government. But imagine this: instead of singing the Internationale, the ÖGB union federation still sings the Austrian national anthem at the end of their conferences.

Then, in 2000, the big break happened. Since then, every single Thursday there have been demonstrations in Austria - 174 so far. For the first time, the trade unions had to stand on their own two feet. They had been thrown back and had to start organising real struggles. At first the top union officials had big problems with the new-found militancy of their members and were trying to hold back developments.

In the last year or so, this has begun to change. Some middle-ranking union officials have at least understood that they need ‘the mob’, the people who used to be critical of their government. Before 2000, there would never have been a call by the trade unions to join anti-war protests.

The attack on the pension system, which will lead to a 35-40% reduction for today’s 30-year-olds, led in May this year to the biggest nationwide strike since 1950. More than 600,000 out of five million workers were involved. However, one day later - even before parliament voted on the pension reform - the ÖGB declared publicly that it would not organise any more strikes over the issue. What a great tactic! Rather than building on the success, they threw in the towel. Their official reason was that the strike was so successful, there was no need for another one. While it involved most industrial areas, it certainly did not stop the legislation, so where exactly is the success in that? In Austria as well as in Germany there was a massive media campaign against the strike and I think it affected the union officials.

Did the Austrian left make any impact?

The left is not very strong at all - either in the unions or in wider society. We have not really been able to influence the strike much and the unions were very keen on keeping us out. If you want to become a trade union official or even just an employee, you have to be a member of the SPÖ. As an active communist, you have more chance of getting a job as a bank director.

The day after the strike, many shop stewards and union officials were keen to announce to the media that they would call on their workforce to work extra hard to make up the loss of turnover caused by the walkouts. The strike leaders themselves bought the propaganda of the endangered economy and wanted to make clear that they were interested in preserving their employers’ fortune.

Still, the rank and file of the unions have become a lot more militant. The railworkers and teachers were previously the only ones with any experience of industrial action. Most Austrian workers had never taken part in a strike and now they have an idea of their own potential. I doubt very much that things will just go back to normal - even if we get another social democratic government.