Dying on its feet

Around 150 people gathered in the Konferenzhaus in Vienna to prepare for the next European Social Forum, which will take place in Athens on May 4-7 2006. Rifondazione Comunista's turn to government hung over the event like a Damocles sword - together with an unwillingness to take any decisive steps forward. Tina Becker fears that we might be witnessing the beginning of the end of the ESF as a vehicle for international cooperation

The latest European preparatory assembly (EPA) took place in a somewhat familiar venue: almost four years ago, on May 11-12 2002, one of our first assemblies took place here. Then, the mood was characterised by excitement and expectation, as we engaged in big debates about the future of the ESF, the participation of political parties and the need to reform the World Social Forum (see Weekly Worker May 16 2002).

The mood this time round could not have been more different. A certain ESF fatigue has set in: there were hardly any new participants present and most of those attending know each other and their politics pretty well by now (there were loud chuckles when the SWP's Jonathan Neale announced his affiliation - now he represents the Campaign Against Climate Change, not Globalise Resistance, although everybody knows he represents the Socialist Workers Party, of course). Political discussions no longer take place at all ­- in previous EPAs we had seen at least some smallish debates on a range of political questions. No wonder a lot of people spent much of the time chatting amongst themselves, smoking outside or reading books in the hall.

This fatigue was perhaps best expressed by the fact that no venue has yet been proposed for the ESF after next. In previous years, national delegations fought hard to stage the event and a two-year deal had to be struck to ensure that Greece would definitely get its bite of the cherry after Britain. This year, the few Germans present said at the conclusion of the weekend that they will ask their organisations to see if "maybe Frankfurt" could be host to the next ESF in 2007 or 2008.

No question, the ESF is trapped in a certain routine, and not a good one. At the beginning of the process, a lot of participants had hoped the ESF would become more than just an annual or bi-annual three-day jamboree. The CPGB has always stressed that our aim must be cooperation at the highest possible level - culminating in the formation of a Communist Party of the European Union. It was also hoped that, with the leading role played by trade union officials in the process, more effective union cooperation on an international level would eventually result. The setting up of international networks, which now meet on the Friday before an EPA, was seen by many as another opportunity to build something more than a festival-cum-talking shop.

Sadly, nothing of the sort has happened. Despite the existence of an ESF network, there has been no real international cooperation over the EU constitution, for example. In fact, the French comrades, while putting on some meetings with international speakers in the run-up to last year's referendum, insisted on running a national campaign and did not accept proposals for more international input. The vast number of trade unions still only cooperate on an international level through the European Trades Union Council (ETUC), which is nothing more than a huge, bureaucratic and self-serving paper tiger. Judging by the purely technical reports that the dozen or so networks gave to the EPA, they exist almost entirely to put on joint seminars at the ESF.

Our joint international activity is limited to a couple of demonstrations every year that happen to take place on the same day in different locations (against the EU's Bolkenstein directive on February 11; against the war on March 18, etc).

In fact, since the first, vibrant and exciting ESF in Florence in 2002, the process has been going downhill rather rapidly. Paris 2003, while enjoyable, was marred by its separation into four venues and the lack of any palpable result or outcome. October 2004 in London is today almost universally seen as a failure: orchestrated and financed by London mayor Ken Livingstone and stitched up on his behalf in an extremely undemocratic manner by the SWP. Minority voices were suppressed and critics like the CPGB excluded from meetings.

As a result of all this, conservative forces in the ESF around Attac France had no problem convincing the rest of the participants to postpone the next ESF to spring 2006. Since there was no increased cooperation in other areas by way of compensation, we have actually gone backwards. With EPAs taking place less regularly, the whole process has reached a dead end.

Rifondazione's turn

This has not been helped by the unfavourable political period we are still living through and the left's response to it. The project of human liberation is still hampered by the defeats inflicted upon us first by the transformation of the Soviet Union into a Stalinist prison camp and then by its collapse and the apparent 'triumph' of capitalism. Working class activity is at an historic low. The bourgeoisie's attempt to dismantle the welfare state is going ahead despite challenges.

The left across Europe has shrunk and is politically disoriented. Even a big player like Italy's Rifondazione Comunista (PRC) is, with around 50,000 members, a mere shadow of its former self (though it is still massive compared to the British left). Politically, the left has been desperately attempting to organise with 'new methods' - not recognising that the resulting 'parties of recomposition' often simply repeat old mistakes - over and over again.

This is most clearly seen in the case of the PRC. For two years (1996-98), Rifondazione supported the minority government of Romano Prodi, during which the parliamentary faction voted for the now infamous 'Neapolitan laws', which led to a policy of immigration quotas and the setting up of temporary detention centres.

Having recognised this as a "massive mistake", the comrades tried a totally different, but equally mistaken, strategy: they buried their organisation in the so-called 'social movements'. Not surprisingly, this led to profound political disorientation and the loss of many members - after all, why should anybody join a party if 'parties don't matter any more'? Now, of course, we have another about-turn with the plan to join Romano Prodi's L'Unione after the May general election - this time, they hope, as full members of a government coalition.

This latest political turn of the ESF's most important player is not only a disaster for the Italian left - it is a disaster for the left internationally. It could certainly spell the end of the 'social forum movement' in Europe - and with it the ESF. After all, the ESF was set up and led by the comrades from Rifondazione (no matter how reluctant they have been to do so at times). The current impasse can be explained by the lack of political will to transform it into a useful vehicle for the organisation of the left on a European level.

Some people argue that the ESF was not actually designed to perform this function. However, the left across Europe clearly needs a vehicle that is capable of waging an effective fight against the Europe of the bosses, bankers and bureaucrats.

Equally clearly, the newly established European Left Party is neither willing nor able to provide such a vehicle - the ELP does not even provide a forum for genuine debate and clarification (see Weekly Worker November 3 2005). It is merely a lash-up around the lowest common denominator, with Rifondazione and the German Linkspartei as the main components - both of which, of course, are looking forward to taking up seats in bourgeois governments. Neither does the ELP organise any European-wide actions. It has chiefly been set up to secure the substantial funding from the EU parliament that is restricted to European-wide parties.

Short of some dramatic and unexpected transformation, the ESF seems certain to die on its feet in the not too distant future.

What's in a date?

The Italian elections on April 9 dominated the Vienna EPA for another reason: they clash with the initial date set for the Athens ESF (April 6-9). Sadly, this issue led to biggest debate on the weekend - a debate which had no apparent political basis, apart from an obvious desire of the SWP's International Socialist Tendency (IST) to prevent a consensus being reached by all means possible.

For months, the SWP's small Greek section, Genoa 2001, had opposed a one-month postponement of the ESF, insisting on the original date of April 2006. Various Greek ESF assemblies failed to come to a decision, because this minority refused to go along with the consensus. The SWP in Britain behaved similarly dishonestly in the run-up to the London ESF: whenever it was in a majority in a meeting, it demanded that a vote should be taken on controversial issues. When it was in a minority, however, it vetoed decisions it did not like, claiming a lack of consensus.

Unfortunately, most comrades involved in the ESF still insist on this undemocratic and time-consuming method of decision-making (or non-decision-making) - it is all part of doing things 'differently'. That it actually puts off a lot of newcomers does not seem to concern them.

Some comrades who had travelled hundreds of miles to Vienna were understandably upset at spending around five hours on this technical discussion and many heckled the comrades. Most irritating was the fact that the IST comrades did not actually explain their reasons. So no wonder others started to speculate: a Greek comrade suggested that they do not actually want the Italians to be at the ESF - the smaller the event, the more visibly will the SWP's forces stand out. Then there are of course the local elections in England on May 4, during which the SWP will be pulling out all the stops to gain councillors for Respect.

Whatever the real reasons, the comrades refused to accept the change of date to May 4-7. Instead, they suggested that, instead of either April or May, the Athens ESF should be postponed until the autumn. A few hours later, they proposed deferring it by just one week, to May 11-14. And when it transpired that everybody else was against this proposal, they suddenly had "no problem" with accepting May 4-7 and went on to cheer loudly when this was finally announced by the chair.

No, the IST comrades did not make many friends...

Political parties matter

As tedious as this discussion was, it clearly showed that political parties matter. Though many participants were visibly and audibly unhappy with Rifondazione's current trajectory (there were quite a few cries of "Don't join the government!"), comrades clearly supported the aim of getting rid of the Berlusconi government.

The ESF still has a rather dishonest formulation in place, which bans parties from taking part in the ESF itself, but allows them to get involved in preparations on a national level. In reality, of course, it was political parties that set up and run not only the ESF, but also the so-called 'social movements' across Europe (Attac in France, the local social forums in Italy, etc). Most participants at EPAs are members and often representatives of political parties, even though the vast majority hide behind various fronts.

When myself and Jonathan Neale (who is still in hiding himself, of course) pointed out this fact, suggesting that the rules be changed, a number of European delegates made feeble attempts to explain that the elections had "nothing to do with political parties. The issue at hand is the question of citizenship and regaining public space", said comrade Rafaela Bollini rather cryptically. And it is true: her organisation, Arci, is not linked to Rifondazione - but to its government coalition partner-to-be, the Democratic Left (DS). Not really that convincing then.

What kind of 'other Europe'?

As mentioned, most of the dozen or so networks seem to exist simply to coordinate efforts in preparing meetings at the ESF itself. Only a couple have (a rather limited) life outside the ESF, one of them being the education network. Another is the group that is involved in preparing the 'Charter for another Europe', which held an interesting conference in Florence at the end of 2005 (see Weekly Worker November 17).

Although this network is also hampered by a lack of political will, it appears to be the only one where political differences get discussed. It is certainly the only one that has now set itself the aim of properly debating these differences at the ESF in Athens. There will be a range of seminars sponsored by the network, including a not yet specified number that will concretely deal with the political disputes that came to the fore at the November conference, including: the role of the UN in the fight against war; the difference between resistance and terrorism; our view on the future of the EU's institutions, etc.

To this end, the discussion papers debated at the November conference will be circulated before the ESF - including a statement on the controversial issues. This is certainly a step in the right direction, even though I am somewhat doubtful as to whether this charter will actually ever see the light of day. Its fate is bound up with that of the ESF - and this far from certain.

A cultural revolution is clearly needed, not just in the ESF and ELP, but across the whole left in Europe. It remains to be seen if today's core forces are capable of achieving such a change. In any case, communists and socialists have to go through the existing attempts to coordinate our forces.

However painful this process of uniting the left in Europe has become - revolutionaries have a duty not to bail out. We must patiently explain and fight for principled working class politics. Social democratic, anarchistic and Stalinist methods of organisation might have a certain opportunist appeal - the simple problem is, they don't bring about what is needed. We have to be ready for the time when the re-emerging forces of the working class are confident enough to try out the only programme that can really lead to human liberation: the programme of genuine Marxism.