Searching for ESF positives

The politics CPGB comrades encountered in the various workshops and seminars at the May 4-7 European Social Forum show that the danger of organisational fragmentation the ESF faces stems from the programmatic crisis of the workers' movement across the continent, says Huw Bynon

l Seminar, May 4: 'Defending fundamental rights: the UN, EU and international rights'. Speakers included Anne Mc Shane (CPGB), Rafaela Bolini (Arci, Italy), Vittorio Agnoletto (Italian MEP) and Pierre Barge (League for the Rights of Man, France).

Comrade Mc Shane spoke first in a meeting split, somewhat bizarrely, into three sections. She presented a strong case against any illusions in the United Nations and international law. She pointed out that the UN had been born out of a pact between the Soviet bureaucracy and the imperialists to police the world in their interests. Since the late 1970s, the language of 'human rights' had become the lexicon of US imperialism, a justification for invasion and suppression throughout the world. We must have no illusions in the democratic pretensions of bodies such as the UN, comrade Mc Shane concluded. We must fight for genuine democracy won from below, under the leadership of the working class.

Pierre Barge countered that it was "ludicrous" to suggest that the formation of the UN was a negative thing. In particular, "The UN convention for human rights was a very positive step forward and we should support it." Comrade Barge - along with Franco Russo from Italy's Rifondazione Comunista - has been one of the driving forces behind the attempt to formulate a joint response to the European Union's draft constitution, as well as a 'declaration of social rights'. While this shows a refreshing willingness to take issues of high politics seriously, the comrade has a worrying softness in relation to the institutions of imperialism. He was clearly annoyed by the first presentation and his position was very much in tune with the majority of the audience (many had been restless during comrade Mc Shane's opening - some openly derisive). It was very wrong, he asserted, to criticise the UN in such a way.

The chair, Rafaela Bolina, closed with the observation that the role of the UN was obviously a contentious one and we needed to continue to debate this question in future meetings. In fact, the only contention had been introduced by the CPGB: apart from us, there seemed to be a consensus that the UN and similar transnational imperialist clubs were at least potentially progressive.

l Workshop, May 5: 'Russia: The 1917 revolution, capitalist restoration and the tasks for the left today'. Speakers: Mark Fischer (CPGB), Boris Kagarlitsky (Institute for Globalisation Studies), Hillel Ticktin (Critique).

This was an interesting, although totally chaotic, meeting of about 70 comrades. Over half the audience came from the ex-USSR - comrade Kagarlitsky reported a good contingent had come from the Moscow Social Forum. The main difference that emerged was over the concrete experience of the USSR. Hillel Ticktin firmly restated his position that nothing positive or progressive was present in this unviable social formation. Comrade Kagarlitsky and some of the (Russian) contributors from the floor recalled aspects of collectivity, of social purpose and national élan in the Soviet state, features that had been lost since the failed transition to capitalism. Some comrades spoke of the relative successes of the USSR's space programme, of the development of industry and so on.

In his summing-up, Boris pointed out that - under the USSR - the population was extremely atomised in terms of societal relationships, but, by way of compensation, organised very collectively at the level of personal lives, family, friends, networks, etc. This has been lost since 1991.

Interestingly, the comrade's point about fragmentation seemed to be illustrated by the unruly nature of the meeting itself. Mark Fischer appointed himself chair halfway through in order to impose what he - only half-jokingly - called an "iron rule" over the audience. Russian comrades were engaged in loud conversations throughout the meeting (not translations, it seemed).

At one point the proceedings were interrupted by the attempt of one Russian comrade to impose himself on the top table and the comrades in general had quite a cavalier attitude to the discipline of the speakers' list. According to comrade Ticktin, this was pretty typical of many of the conferences he attends in the ex-USSR.

Aside from the atomised nature of their society today, a partial explanation may be that the comrades had spent so long under bureaucratic socialism having to internalise dissent and sit silently through interminably tedious meetings being told transparent lies. Their new freedom to express themselves has unleashed a degree of bedlam (one comrade joked that perhaps there was something to be said for the deadly control and iron grip of Stalinism after all).

More importantly, the actual political content of many of the contributions of the comrades from Russia (comrade Kagarlitsky being a notable exception) was shallow and incoherent - a point made in a commendably blunt manner by comrade Ticktin in his summing-up. He told the ex-USSR comrades that they had been taught a non-Marxism for 60-plus years: their libraries may still be packed with ostensibly Marxist volumes, but very little, if any, Marxism was contained between the covers. They must go back to the very beginning, he said.

l Seminar, May 7: 'Which democratic institutions for which democratic Europe'. Speakers included Benedikt Javor (Protect the Future, Hungary) and Antonis Manitakis (Synapsismos, Greece). Chaired by Tina Becker (CPGB).

Half-a-dozen seminars and so-called controversy tables dealt with the 'Charter of principles for another Europe', which is the closest thing the left has to a joint programme for the continent. It has serious limitations, though. The biggest problem is that it avoids almost any hint of concrete proposals - or a means of achieving the "Europe of peace and solidarity" the charter envisages. At the moment, it is a charter of platitudes (see Weekly Worker March 9).

The seminars were supposed to further clarify where we agree and disagree. However, most of the meetings had to be merged with other events, so that there was often a rather obvious lack of focus, to put it mildly.

For example, in this meeting, Benedikt Javor used his 15-minute speech to call for the European Union to commit itself to "its own ombudsman for future generations". Not for today's children, you see, but those not yet born. Apparently, the Finnish government has such an ombudsman and it's working a treat. Needless to say, the other speakers were a little puzzled - and declined to debate the question.

Comrade Antonis Manitakis (from the Greek soft-left party, Synapsismos) had actually written the relevant part in the charter and highlighted in his speech the "need to fight for public space for debate". Unfortunately, it did not get much more concrete than that.

In fact, the only thing the speakers did agree on was their opposition to the proposals made by the CPGB's Tina Becker, who chaired the event. She put forward the view that the European parliament should consist of a single, sovereign chamber, directly elected by the peoples of Europe by universal suffrage. The majority of the other speakers insisted that a second chamber was needed in order to provide "checks and balances", as one speaker put it. Comrades from Italy in particular are of the opinion that regional and local governments should be represented in such a second chamber, because this is where the Italian left (currently) has strong representation.

Communists argue against such restrictions upon the direct will of the people - second chambers exist to negate the democratic pressure of the masses on representative institutions such as parliament.

There might be light at the end of the tunnel though. At a final meeting to discuss the outcome of the seminars, a fair number of speakers agreed with comrade Becker's assessment that we need to make our charter a lot more concrete: "If we want to effectively challenge the Europe of the bankers, bosses and bureaucrats we actually need to debate concrete measures that get us to 'another Europe'," she said. Other speakers thought the charter should be "almost totally rewritten".

A small 'Charter of principles' working group (which includes comrade Becker as the only representative from any British organisation) has been selected to prepare for our next meeting, which will take place during the ESF preparatory assembly in September, and to propose ways in which the charter should be amended.