No structure, no democracy

Over the last week there have been three important meetings following the bid to stage the 2004 European Social Forum in London. Tina Becker reports

Around 250 people attended the launch of the London Social Forum on October 4. A good turnout that promises to make the LSF into a focus for the British left.

While most of the discussions in the workshops proved interesting and fruitful, the forum has a number of problems that it will have to seriously address very soon - especially those concerning its reason for existence and method of organisation. An understandable rejection of the organisational methods practised by most leftwing sects has led to a situation which is in some respects even more undemocratic than the type of regime it seeks to avoid.

The composition of Saturday’s meeting gives reason for hope. Twenty-five groups and political organisations were present with stalls. More than 20 workshops were put on. Most participants seemed serious about building a viable organisation and enthusiastically took part in the discussions about democracy, the anti-war movement and privatisation.

It was an unusual event in many ways. The organised revolutionary left was definitely in the minority. Apart from the CPGB, there were a couple of members each from the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (hiding behind their No Sweat campaign), Workers Power (aka their youth organisation, Revolution) and the International Socialist Group (announcing themselves as “supporters of Resistance”). The Socialist Workers Party played the kind of role that is normally reserved for small sectarian groups. They set up a stall outside the hall, from which Hackney-based full-timer Michael Bradley (who was involved in the attack on CPGB members outside the SWP’s Marxism 2003 in July) told anyone who would listen what a crap event this was going to be.

Globalise Resistance, the SWP’s anti-capitalist front, sent only one of its less well known members into the meeting - undoubtedly with an ‘observe and report’ brief. The comrade took copious notes throughout the day but said nothing. SWP members have been very vocal in their rejection of the London Social Forum, along with the other forums that have been set up, such as those in Cardiff, Durham and Leeds. Only in Newcastle do the comrades seem to be centrally involved. A participant from Newcastle told me that SWP member and local Unison convenor Claire Williams is running the small Newcastle Social Forum “with an iron fist”.

After October 4, the SWP will certainly not be able to simply dismiss the LSF as an irrelevance - 250 is more than GR pulled to its national conference. Less than 18 months ago Chris Nineham, one of the SWP’s leading figures in GR, told me that it had “under 100 members”. It is doubtful if the organisation has grown a lot in a period which saw the SWP put most of its resources into the Stop the War Coalition. Also, the LSF attracted some international support: the Greek Social Forum and Attac France both sent representatives who spoke from the platform. They also took an active part in discussing the London bid for the next European Social Forum (although in the case of Attac this was not always done without self-interest - see below).

Interestingly, the meeting was not dominated by anarchist or autonomous currents, although they are of course involved. Rather there seemed to be a lot of recently politicised young people present. The bulk of the participants, however, gave the impression of having been involved in one leftwing organisation or another - and being burnt by the experience. Many identified themselves as ex-members of the SWP, the ‘official’ CPGB or other groups.

In a workshop on ‘the anti-war movement’ Mike Marqusee - formerly a leading light in the London Socialist Alliance - briefly outlined his experience as press officer of the Stop the War Coalition and how the undemocratic practices of the SWP and chair Andrew Murray led him to resign. However, most of his opening concentrated on the positive lessons of the anti-war movement - drawing on his experience in the US anti-Vietnam war protests, he emphasised that movements can go through many leaderships, as lessons are learned and tasks change.

The workshop on ‘democracy’ - with around 50 participants one of the biggest - featured a lively discussion on the undemocratic nature of many socialist and communist organisations, but, interestingly, some speakers also criticised the untransparent and bureaucratic way in which many anarchistic groups organise. “A few years ago, I was involved with Reclaim the Streets,” one man said. “We always had apparently very democratic meetings, in which nobody seemed to be the leader. But they were also very unproductive and we never took any real decisions. A group of insiders, though, would go off to the pub afterwards and decide what the organisation would do next.” He identified a “tyranny of structure”, which the SWP embodies. But, quite rightly, he pointed to the “tyranny of structurelessness” as being no less dangerous.

Currently, the LSF has no leaders, no organising group, no facilitating committee. On paper anyway. The reality, of course, is that you cannot organise even the smallest meeting without somebody taking charge of this or that aspect. As with Reclaim the Streets, it seems there is a small group that stays in the pub after a meeting to discuss further actions, to compile statements to be distributed in the name of “the LSF” and to make suggestions as to which LSF representative should speak at November’s ESF in Paris (I was actually one of the people being put forward by LSF comrades). A de facto leadership, in short, but unelected and therefore unaccountable to other participants.

To be fair, the comrades are aware of these shortcoming and are beginning to discuss them. Some believe that a social forum should only be “a space for discussion and plurality”, not a body to organise activity, and so does not need a leadership. When Workers Power presented a motion at the end, it provoked a serious debate - not so much about what it said (which totally misjudged the nature of the event and tried to commit us to fight for a number of named campaigns), but about the nature of the LSF. Should it run campaigns? What if some organisations involved do not support them? Should organisations even be allowed to put forward motions or was this simply an “attempt by Workers Power to hijack our assembly”, as one of the organisers put it?

The most pressing problem, then, is undoubtedly that of leadership. Unless a structured debate that could clarify these and other problems ensues, the LSF will exist in a kind of semi-political bubble. Most comrades who are currently part of the leading inner circle reject the idea of a formally elected committee. But they need to make a bold step forward and recognise that democratic structures are a crucial necessity. The possibility of the ESF coming to London next year might be the welcome trigger for this development - overdue for the ESF as a whole.

London bid

A number of groups and individuals involved in the LSF have called a public meeting for October 19 to discuss the bid to stage the European Social Forum in London out in the open. This will be the first public debate on the subject in Britain, as up to now negotiations have been held behind closed doors. However, things are not going too smoothly. Judging by Chris Nineham’s reaction to the proposal, we might be in for a tough fight. The involvement in the LSF of Bernard Cassen, founder of the French soft lobby group, Attac, could also prove less than helpful.

During the LSF launch, the possibility of the ESF coming to London was raised over and over again. Most people had either heard rumours about the bid or read about it in the Weekly Worker and naturally felt curious as to what is really going on. So the LSF organisers invited people to another meeting the following day, which would specifically discuss the bid.

Around 20 people turned up, including Christophe Ventura from Attac France and Panayotis Yulis from the Greek Social Forum. Most comrades agreed that in general we would be in favour of the bid, as it presents a great opportunity for smaller organisations and social forums to develop and for the left to come together and make an impact on British politics. However, everybody criticised the secretive nature of the process, stressed the need for it to be opened up immediately and agreed that we will have to fight hard to make it an inclusive and transparent process. The public meeting on October 19, to which all organisations involved will be invited, was seen as a way to start this democratisation.

Christophe Ventura then presented a discussion paper that, he assured us, “had not been drafted by Bernard Cassen”. However, a few of us had been present at a dinner with Cassen two days before, at which he had explicitly announced that he would write such a paper. The bad English was another big giveaway. So comrades went on to call the draft the “Not the Cassen paper”, to the mild annoyance of comrade Christophe, who finally admitted that Cassen might have been one of the people who sat together to draw it up.

The paper itself is quite harmless (if badly translated) and mentions some of the concerns that comrades have been discussing during the LSF launch: “… the LSF welcomes the principle of holding the ESF in London in 2004, but only insofar as the conditions of representability and pluralism of its organising committee, and of democracy and transparency of its functioning, are effectively met. Post experience, when hegemonic and anti-democratic methods of small group, itself just a facade of a political party, leads us to think that everything remains to be built in this field.”

One might wonder why Cassen should take such a keen interest in the LSF and even sit up in the middle of the night drawing up discussion papers for us. To understand what is really going on, it is necessary to look at it from the European perspective. Attac is one of the biggest leftish organisation in France, with over 60,000 members. It was set up by a number of university professors and intellectuals like Cassen on the one hand and the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire on the other. Since then, the Communist Party of France and other groups have joined. Although the unity around Attac is starting to fray a little, the comrades are still at one in their desire to scale back the ESF (see Weekly Worker October 2).

Their motives are anything but clear. What is clear though is that Cassen is concerned about the influence of revolutionary organisations within the ESF. Repeatedly, comrades from France have put forward rightwing motions (for example, calling on the United Nations to intervene in Iraq) and have been at the forefront of those wanting to prevent political parties openly participating. At this year’s ESF in November, it could be that political parties might no longer be allowed to organise workshops - the only events they have been permitted to stage up to now.

Cassen certainly has no great love for the SWP and is quite vocal in his criticisms of their undemocratic and sectarian behaviour - although this is slightly hypocritical, as the French organising committee has been behaving in a similarly bureaucratic way.

Additionally, Cassen is certainly unhappy about the absence of any functioning Attac branch in Britain, where his co-thinkers have so far attracted no more than 10 people. His way of trying to get a foot in the door in Britain and simultaneously hitting back at the SWP is by influencing people in the LSF. And so far, unfortunately, he has had some success. He has been one of the main advocates of its current undemocratic structurelessness, which in turn allows him to sway the key organisers at informal dinners, rather than having to put his ideas forward openly. He has been instrumental in putting the LSF on an explicitly anti-SWP course - leading LSF organisers are sometimes unable to conceal their hatred of Chris Nineham and co. Needless to say, this often proves to be entirely counterproductive, since comrade Nineham and his GR comrades return the feeling with equal intensity.

SWP control

At a meeting on October 6 to discuss some vacant spaces for British speakers at the ESF, attention quickly turned once more to the London bid. A wide range of comrades voiced criticism of the behind-the-scenes negotiations. “It seems that comrades from GR are picking which of their favourite organisations they want to be on board,” said Stuart Hodkinson of Red Pepper. “This looks like a very undemocratic process indeed.”. Resistance supporter Toby Abse agreed: “We cannot have a repetition of the Stop the War Coalition, where the executive was all set up in advance and political groups who disagreed with the SWP’s positions were kept out,” he said, referring of course to the exclusion of the CPGB and the AWL.

Comrade Nineham at first gritted his teeth, but eventually succumbed to uncontrolled anger. “Of course there will be public meetings,”, he snapped. “I don’t know when, because we have to talk to the big players involved, but I assure you that nobody has to fear being excluded. But,” he added, “there is a temptation to call a public meeting and then think this is democracy.” Perhaps that is why he refused to answer my request to commit himself to attending the October 19 meeting: “I really do not think that the LSF can just go ahead, call a meeting and expect organisations to turn up. I really doubt if we can take the LSF seriously.”

Comrade Nineham concluded with a warning: “If you behave again like you did on August 31, you are not going to be a player - I can tell you that.” He was referring to an assembly meeting of the English ESF mobilisation, where some comrades, including LSF supporters, had the temerity to challenge the SWP over its proposals for selecting ESF speakers (see Weekly Worker September 4).

“We might want to have an LSF representative on the executive,” he went on - “if you show proper commitment to the bid.” This only served to make explicit what many have feared - ie, that the SWP would take all the real decisions on the executive’s composition as a fait accompli that would be voted through at a public meeting at some later stage.

The comrades are actually skating on very thin ice, however. Not only might some of the so-called “big players” be put off by SWP control-freakery that is too obvious. There is also the real danger that the bid might still fall through, if a small minority at the next ESF assembly meeting on November 10 in Paris decide to bloc with Attac rather than give a free hand to an organisation that is not held in the highest esteem (as we are operating on a ‘consensus’ principle, even one person could theoretically veto any decision). The French committee has been keen to ensure that a decision on the frequency of the ESF should be taken before the location of the next one is chosen. If they succeed in their attempt at postponing things until 2005, another country might be persuaded to put in a bid.

On a positive note, however, there are a wide range of groups and individuals united around a fight for the ESF to come to London in 2004 - on the basis of democracy, openness and transparency.