Political horse-trading

European Social Forum

The closing ‘assembly of the social movements’, which took place on Sunday November 16, took some important decisions. Unlike the ESF itself, which has been condemned by the World Social Forum to remain a mere talking shop, unable to organise any activities, the assembly of social movements - officially a separate gathering - did exactly that.

Set up by the Italian comrades for last year’s ESF in Florence, the assembly provides a way around the attempt to keep our movement artificially weak. Previously, the French organising committee had attempted to scale down the assembly and even tried to abolish the working group that prepared for it. Eventually, they gave in to pressure from the rest of the European left, in particular Rifondazione Comunista. In cooperation with a number of national delegations, they prepared an appeal, which set out some of the political and organisational objectives for the next 12 months.

The text of this appeal has unfortunately, but typically, been put together for the most part behind closed doors. A product of horse-trading between various leading elements of the ESF, it combined some good political formulations with woolly liberalism. One of its most positive aspects is its emphasis on the fight for democracy, and there are also calls for a campaign for the free movement of peoples across Europe, for real equality between men and women, for citizen rights for all and for the right to self-determination for peoples within Europe. Specifically there is a plan to organise a day of action across Europe to coincide with the ratification of the European constitution on May 9 around the slogan, ‘For another Europe’.

On the negative side, the text does not contain any mention of the working class, let alone its necessary leading role in the fight for democracy. It also bears witness to some backsliding on the issue of Iraq. Where before organisations involved in the ESF had agreed on a position of being against the war and harboured no illusions in the UN, the text now simply calls for the withdrawal of troops - with the question of how that is to be effected left open.

At an organising meeting on Saturday evening (the day before the assembly) there had been a big argument over this. It was explained by Sophie Zafari and Pierre Khalfa, speaking on behalf of the French mobilising committee, that some within the ESF saw the UN as playing a progressive role in Iraq - most likely the rightwing leadership of Attac France. Concessions had to be made to them on this question. Comrades Zafari and Khalfa, the two most prominent figures on the organising committee, were criticised by others within the French mobilisation of betraying their own organisation, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire. However, it seems this duumvirate know where their first loyalty lies. The only amendment the comrades were prepared to accept was the inclusion of “For the immediate restitution of sovereignty to the Iraqi people”. Comrade Zafari explained that, unless there was a functioning state in Iraq, UN troops should be in charge. She appeared more annoyed than uncomfortable with the allegations that she was selling out.

This meeting was also chaotic because it had not been democratically organised. It was not advertised and unless you were within the inner circle - or knew somebody who was - you were not invited. There was no real agenda and Zafari made it clear that the statement, which was circulated with only 15 copies to the 100 or so people present, could not be changed “in any major way”. As the meeting broke down and people became frustrated, the clear need for proper and accountable organisation within the ESF was underlined once again. Luciano Muhlbauer of Rifondazione Comunista excused the problems by saying that it had been very difficult to meet properly over the week, as people were staying in four different places. Yet the year before, in Florence, a small group of people met for almost the entire duration of the ESF in order to work on the text. That made the appeal maybe a little better, although it was hardly more transparent or democratic.

The three-hour-long assembly itself, which was attended by roughly 2,000 people, was a rather dull and no less undemocratic affair. Not only was the appeal not available in any form - comrade Khalfa simply read it out. Worse, all 40 contributions had been agreed beforehand, during the meeting the night before. “We will have 40 speakers at three minutes each,” comrade Zafari had announced, after she read out a long list of issues that in her opinion needed covering by those 40 people. “So if comrades have suggestions for speakers, please put them forward now.” This led to all groups present rushing to send one or two people to the front, which looked more like a scrum on a rugby field.

Another cause of controversy was the dates for action in the coming year. Workers Power - now parading themselves as the League for a Fifth International - in particular pretended to be upset that the ESF was not planning to organise a general strike across Europe early in 2004. In Germany and Italy, the trade unions have called for days of action on February 15 in order to protest against cuts and privatisations. While Workers Power comrades breathlessly demanded that this date should be included in the appeal, other comrades patiently explained that trade unions in other countries might choose different dates. It was hardly within the power of the groups assembled in Paris to organise strike action themselves. Still, the WP comrades considered it a sell-out, but it was difficult to see why. With an international day of action against the war on March 20 and another mobilisation on May 9, there is no lack of commitment to act.

Certainly May 9 does not hold much interest for most of the British left. At a meeting earlier in the week Chris Nineham informed everybody that the European constitution was “not an issue in Britain”. Not for the Socialist Workers Party anyway. The SWP does not seem to have noticed how it has been increasingly featured in news reports over the last few months. Or how it has split the establishment in Britain right down the middle. It also seems blissfully unaware of the consequences for the working class in Britain. There was no mention of the proposed constitution in any SWP contributions during the forum - except to dismiss it as being about bourgeois democracy and therefore by implication of no concern to the masses.

Thankfully the left in Europe and particularly in Italy are not so myopic. Speaker after speaker at the closing assembly spoke of the need to take militant action on May 9 to pose an alternative Europe to that of the bourgeoisie. They linked social questions with the need to take on the existing European Union in a positive and united way. Here they are showing the way forward.

As a matter of urgency, we must fight for the ESF to become a body that can take decisive action and build militant and effective networks and cross-border organisations. Calling for days of action is a good start, but is hardly enough to stop the attacks against the working class on a European-wide scale.