SOMETHING EXTRAORDINARY happened during the long weekend of 15-17 October. The beautiful, crazy, creative chaos of a great social forum—which I have witnessed in Porto Alegre, Florence, Paris and Mumbai—came to rainy, grey north London.
The main site of the European Social Forum at Alexandra Palace was seething with people, noise, political projects, stalls, and hubbub of many different languages. It was, in George Galloway’s words, a true Tower of Babel.
Just like at the Fortezza at the first European Social Forum in Florence and the site of the last World Social Forum in the Bombay suburbs, having the ESF mainly in one place helped both to concentrate and to release the energies of the movements against capitalist globalisation and imperial war.
How did London compare with the previous ESFs in Florence and Paris? My impression, and that of the people to whom I have spoken, is that the discussions were more serious and focused.
There were fewer plenary sessions at which a long row of platform speakers would make repetitive denunciations of neo-liberalism. Certainly the sessions I attended were of a very high standard.
All had interesting and controversial introductions, large, engaged audiences, and substantial discussion from the floor.
All of this is an indication of an intellectual maturing of our movements. But London was also, like Florence, red—deeply shaped by the politics of the radical left. This was on show, for example, in the plenary on challenging US imperialism, by all accounts one of the best sessions at the entire ESF.
Along with, among others, Fausto Bertinotti of Rifondazione Comunista and Andrew Murray of the Stop the War Coalition, I spoke at a packed plenary on political parties, social movements and war. Contributors from the floor criticised the left wing MP Diane Abbott for remaining in the Labour Party.
This set the scene for a magnificent Respect rally on the final night of the forum that brought together representatives of the political challenges to Tony Blair’s kind of Third Way politics from right across Europe.
There was a downside to the ESF. There were a few ugly incidents that marked the re-emergence of the anarchist Black Bloc whose thuggish behaviour during the Genoa protests of July 2001 played so disastrously into the hands of the police.
The Black Bloc was supported by some small and unrepresentative groups that had been consistently hostile both to the ESF itself and to the coalition that brought it to London.
The physical attacks these people made on the forum no doubt reflected frustration at the fact that the various rival events they organised attracted very small numbers. But this was a minor blemish on an overwhelmingly successful event.
The positive effects of the London ESF are likely to be seen in three ways.
First, while the anti-war movement has been very strong in Britain, the anti-capitalist movement has been much weaker. There is a broad anti-capitalist consciousness evident, for example, in the popularity of Naomi Klein and George Monbiot.
But the organised networks aren’t on the scale of ATTAC in France or the No Global movement in Italy. The London ESF should help to make anti-capitalism a more powerful force in Britain.
Secondly, there are the mobilisations that will emerge from the ESF. The final day’s Assembly of the Social Movements agreed international protests against neo-liberalism and war on 19-20 March 2005 and the mobilisation against the Group of Eight summit in Gleneagles next July.
Finally, the success of the London ESF will help to frame discussion about the future of the movement. A French comrade said that activists in France and Italy were struggling to find the “second breath” needed to re-energise their movements.
The vitality on display in London should help give us the confidence to continue. Of course, we face very great challenges—the punishment served out to the peoples of Fallujah and Gaza in recent weeks bears witness to this. But after last weekend I am sure we have the capacity to take them on.