THE EUROPEAN Social Forum (ESF) in Florence, Italy, vastly exceeded even the most optimistic predictions. It did not just succeed-it was a political triumph. Around 60,000 people took part in the three days of meetings leading up to the anti-war demonstration. People came from every continent, and from 105 countries. There were students and trade unionists, unemployed people and pensioners, activists and campaigners.
The forum was sustained by 1,000 volunteer workers, and made possible by translating many meetings simultaneously into five languages. No wonder the thought of it terrified the right. The Italian state, headed by Silvio Berlusconi, tried to stop the forum. There were threats to ban it, and then dire rumours about how vandals and anarchists were coming to burn Florence down.
All of this intimidation came to nothing. Berlusconi had to back off because of the groundswell of support for the forum and the trade union backing for it. The vast majority of Florence's inhabitants enthusiastically welcomed the forum. On Saturday's anti-war demonstration local people lined the roads to applaud the protesters, sing socialist songs with them, take up their chants, and hand out food, wine and water.
The forum organised 30 rally-type meetings, 160 seminars which were slightly smaller, and a further 180 workshops. These covered every important subject. On one morning you could go to big rallies-between 500 and 5,000 strong-on globalisation and the alternatives, food production, 'no justice, no peace', the emergence of the far right across Europe, in defence of people denied rights, or on how to take back control of the media and culture.
One on the threat posed to us all by the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) was so huge that it had to be held twice in the same session-and then there were so many still wanting to hear it that it had to be held again. On Friday evening around 15,000 people were listening simultaneously to meetings. The meetings were, in general, open to participation from the floor. And when they weren't there was criticism and hasty changes to future plans.
Of course not everyone agreed about what was said or said the same things. There were sharp arguments about whether you can work inside the present system or have to smash it.
A huge step forward
There were differences over the relation between the anti-capitalist movement and political parties. There were debates over whether leadership is needed, and what leadership means. But there was an overarching sense of unity. And every day the general feeling grew more radical.
But the meetings were just one part of the forum. All the time there were people selling literature, holding small unofficial discussions or showing their videos. In a giant hall you could walk round two floors of stalls put together by hundreds of unions, political parties, campaigns and movements. You could pick up a list of restaurants offering cheaper food to ESF delegates and be sure of a smile when you arrived wearing your ESF badge. The forum was a daily rolling 12-hour protest meeting, a popular university, and a place to discuss and make friends. It was an artistic space and somewhere to talk for hours about everything.
The first day was big. The second was almost twice as big. Tens of thousands of young people poured in. Whole classes in local schools were empty. Some colleges had to virtually close. The forum became a magnet for everyone who wants change. It was a focus for all those who are sickened by the war drive, who hate inequality and poverty, and who identify with the forum's slogan: 'Another Europe is possible. Another world is possible'.
The forum was a huge step forward for the movement that burst into view at the anti World Trade Organisation protests in Seattle at the end of 1999 and developed in Genoa in June 2001.
The pace and extent of the change is so great that perhaps after Florence we should talk of a new movement, a new European left which is offering a potential that has not existed for years. The forum met with the world in the shadow of war. It offered a cry against all the horrors of capitalism, but also pointed towards the battles that will be necessary to do away with those horrors.
ONE OF the most inspiring meetings in Florence was a 1,500-strong forum on Eastern Europe.
Andrej Grubacic from Belgrade in Yugoslavia set the tone for many of the contributions when he talked of the devastation caused by a decade of market capitalism. This had created so much bitterness that the danger was that people would look either to Stalinism or to fascism.
He said there was an answer in 'a return to the original socialist ideal' of genuinely democratic, participatory planning. There was a desperate need for an alternative, said Alexander Buzgalin from Russia.
But 'the fact that there are so many of us here shows that another world is possible.' He spoke about the deep class divide in his country and about a new spirit of resistance-'the first small steps in the building of a movement'.
We were there
'We have had a very big victory in Florence. We have shown the world the true face of our movement. We are democratic, diverse, peaceful. The future is on our side.'
Walden Bello, Philippines activist
'I am one of the founders of the association of victims of 11 September, and this will not be a war in their names. I am here because my brother was murdered that day. We need more marches against war.'
Colleen Kelly, sister of 11 September victim
'This event has been an inspiration for me. There are tens of thousands of people, from all kinds of backgrounds, united in our determination to understand the capitalistic system and how we can fight it. I've met people from around the world, from Latin America, Colombia, Brazil, and even from the United States. I have been to massive forums on neo-liberalism, on the war, on privatisation, on women, on everything.'
Serena Salelia, Florence