Approaching crisis point

The European Social Forum is in real danger of disintegrating. All democrats and communists must work hard to prevent this. Despite our many criticisms of the process, it is currently the only real avenue that exists for the cooperation of the European left. Tina Becker and Ben Lewis report from the latest preparatory meeting in Frankfurt, which took place from March 3-5

First the bad news: while the organisation for the fourth ESF in Athens (May 4-7) is well underway, there is still no venue for the fifth forum. Whereas in previous years, national delegations virtually fought for the privilege to stage this huge event, there is now nobody who wants to organise it.

At the previous European preparatory assembly (EPA) in Vienna, comrades in Germany suggested that Frankfurt could host our next event. However, there are quite a few obstacles. The city is run by a conservative mayor who has not even heard of the ESF. And a German comrade told us that the trade unions are "not exactly keen" on helping to organise, let alone finance, the forum.

Other German cities are no option either. In Berlin, the 'red-red' government of social democrats and Linkspartei.PDS is snowed under with debts and say they simply "cannot afford" to stage the ESF. There are of course other cities in the east of Germany that are run by the Linkspartei.PDS, but they tend to be small and without the infrastructure to host 50,000 people. There is now talk of Vienna as a possible host city, but that would rely on German trade unions and organisations actively supporting and financing the process. Judging by the extremely poor numbers from Germany attending the latest EPA, I would suggest that this does not look like a realistic option.

The lack of a venue reflects very clearly the current nature of the ESF: there have been no great steps forward since our first forum in Florence in 2002. Some of the networks have developed a (sort of) life outside the ESF, but in general there is no more cooperation between our forces than there was before Florence.

There have been no new forces attracted to the preparatory process (which is undoubtedly far more important than the four-day extravaganza itself). The little political debate that there used to be at EPAs - normally a two to three-hour slot - has been scrapped and whether or not you hear a political sentence all weekend will depend on the nature of the network you are involved in. No wonder most of the 150 or so participants at Frankfurt chose not to listen to the extremely technical presentations and ensuing 'discussions', but preferred to chat to each other, read newspapers or smoke outside the hall. The sentiment of quite a few people was aptly summed up by a comrade who described this EPA to us as "a real drag".

Officially, the ESF still takes place every year. The long period between the last ESF in London in October 2004 and the Athens event was supposed to be an exception. However, it now looks as if the fifth ESF - if there is one - will by default be at least two years away.

Clearly, the ESF suffers from a lack of purpose and direction. Most people involved seem to agree that simply staging a bi-annual carnival is not going to rattle our ruling classes across Europe too much. But very few of the participants are prepared to fight for what is necessary - ie, the organisation of our class on the highest level possible.

One of the main problems is the current political track of Italy's Rifondazione Comunista, which was instrumental in setting up the social forum movement in Europe and has been the key player in the ESF. However, with Rifondazione now setting its sights on government seats as part of a new left reformist coalition, the comrades' input into the ESF has decreased dramatically and - with the exception of Franco Russo's involvement in the network around the 'Charter of principles for another Europe' (see opposite) - Rifondazione comrades have now taken a back seat. One bad political trajectory (chasing, and subordinating the party to, 'the movements') has been replaced by a disastrous one (eyeing ministerial posts).

Reflecting the level of class struggle across Europe, the second most important delegation at ESF meetings is the French one. However, the 20-30 representatives are often also the most conservative ones and even members of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire and the Parti Communiste Franà§ais tend to subordinate their politics to the demands of Attac France.

The Greek comrades are snowed under with organisational tasks and have never played a leading political role in the ESF in any case. All other delegations are small, varied in composition and/or are politically incoherent. Which leaves the ESF somewhat rudderless.

The good news

The fourth ESF in Athens itself will undoubtedly be a pleasant affair and the Greek left will descend upon the former Olympic Stadium - situated agreeably by the seaside - in their tens of thousands. Even the fact that the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) and some anarchist groups are organising rival events will fail to put much of a damper on the forum.

And, while there is not much in terms of good news to report, it is worthwhile pointing out that this year for the first time political parties will openly participate in the ESF. Nobody contradicted Petros Constantinou from the Socialist Workers Party's small Greek section, Genoa 2001, when he reported that there have been many seminar proposals from political parties and that by accepting them the Greek organisers had "recognised the reality of the Greek left".

It is just a shame that his comrades in Britain did not do the same when they were put in charge by Ken Livingstone to do the footwork for organising the ESF in London in 2004. Then, Chris Nineham, Alex Callinicos helped ensure the idiotic ban on political parties was kept in place.

Had the ESF allowed or encouraged the open participation of political parties right from the start, there is a chance that today we could have been in a qualitatively different position. But by pretending that most of us only represent semi-organised 'movements' (which cannot possibly be led, but must 'flourish' by themselves), we have actually been digging the ESF's grave.

Nothing ever remains the same and, by failing to go forward, the ESF had to decline. Add to that the lack of an elected leadership and the effective withdrawal of Rifondazione and you can understand why the ESF is approaching crisis point.

Future of the ESF

It is a sign of hope that this problem was at least recognised over the weekend. True, we only spent the last 40 minutes

of the EPA debating it. But it is a step forward, and an overdue one at that. The fact that we had so little time to discuss this key question reflects the unfortunate way the EPA was structured: as there was no other opportunity to raise this issue, it had to be forced into the session on the 'assembly of the social movements' (ASM), which is always last on our agenda.

The ASM is a silly, halfway-house type structure, which is supposed to be separate from the forum itself: the self-imposed rules of the ESF state that we are not allowed to decide on any actions or make joint declarations in the name of the ESF. However, in the ASM (which has a three-hour slot in Athens), we can - bureaucracy permitting - actually take decisions and it was the ASM that called the first internationally coordinated anti-war demonstrations of February 15 2003. Naturally, it is the same groups and organisations that play a leading role in both the ESF and the ASM.

Thanks to Pierro Bernocchi (from the Italian union, Cobas), this last session quickly focussed on the future of the ESF. He suggested that "our movements have had some success, but generally we are still very weak". He proposed that we should take some "time to openly debate where the ESF is going". The weekend had shown how important it is to take up his suggestion.

Comrade Bernocchi was backed up by comrades from Greece, Turkey and Germany, as well as by Raffaela Bollini from the Italian left political institute, Arci, which is linked to the Democratic Left. She complained that over the last few years a "self-appointed leadership" had decided amongst itself who would be allowed to speak at the ASM and what action would be agreed. "I will not give any more legitimacy to this method," she threatened.

Funnily enough, comrade Bollini has herself been part of this ESF elite (which is identical to the ASM elite). But, instead of supporting our call for an elected, and of course recallable, leadership that could facilitate such activities and debates in an open and accountable manner, she still thinks that 'the movements' could somehow, almost magically, organise the ASM by themselves. However, comrade Bollini too was brave enough to demand that we should "stop and restart the process of where we are going".

Tina Becker from the CPGB suggested that the appearance of this self-appointed leadership was no accident. It is a (deliberate) 'design fault'. If we do not set up democratic and transparent decision-making structures, undemocratic ones will appear. We must address the issue of our decline, the total disappearance of any kind of political debate at the EPA and the purpose of our cooperation: "Surely we must move up a gear or two," she said, "and strengthen our joint work and debate - and not let the ESF slip away."

More than half of the 15 or so speakers in this session supported this stance. However, our friends from the SWP were not among them. Chris Nineham suggested that the ASM "must lead to two, three or four common days of mobilisation across Europe" - ie, demonstrations. He had nothing to say on the future of the ESF. Ditto his comrade, Jonathan Neale, who demanded that in the ASM we should "celebrate our victories" (and not waste too much time on futile debates, obviously).

Earlier on, when reporting back from the 'climate change' network, comrade Neale said that in the network's seminars, "We want speakers who focus on action, action, action". Concretely that means rejecting "long, theoretical speeches" in favour of plans to mobilise for the November 4 demonstration against climate change. There is no need, apparently, to discuss the impact of climate change. Let alone if and how it could actually be stopped.

Unfortunately, the SWP are not the only ones afraid of self-reflection and self-criticism. Their conservative view on the ASM was echoed by both speakers from France, who suggested that the ASM should merely "make visible our different forms of opposition", as Annik Coupé from the union G-10 Solidaires put it.

Quite possibly, the ASM is not the right place to debate this important question and a comrade suggested - five minutes before the end - that we should organise a separate, proper conference on this issue alone. Because of time restrictions, we did not come to a solution. However, the issue will be further discussed on Wednesday May 3 in Athens - the day before our fourth ESF begins.

Democrats and communists should push hard to make this meeting focus on the kind of structures and political debate we need if we are to develop real, effective alternatives to the Europe of the bosses, bankers and bureaucrats.

The ESF is still the only viable avenue that exists for the cooperation of the European left. The European Left Party is currently nothing more than a minimal lash-up on the basis of the lowest common denominator (its main purpose is to secure extra funding from the European parliament).

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