THE EUROPEAN Social Forum will be an important rallying point for activists in the anti-capitalist movement. But it is also likely to reflect growing divisions over strategy. These divisions were already evident at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in February.
Those who attended the first World Social Forum in 2001 said that this year's event had a much more radical atmosphere. But a powerful wing of the movement has been uneasy about this shift. It is particularly associated with sections of the leadership of ATTAC-the French campaign against financial speculation that has now spread to more than 40 countries.
Bernard Cassen, until recently the president of ATTAC France, believes that the alternative to free market policies lies in strengthening the nation-state. The Genoa protests in Italy last year exposed what is wrong with this strategy. The state-in the shape of Silvio Berlusconi's riot police-proved not to be an ally of the anti-capitalist movement but its implacable enemy. The state repression of demonstrations began when Swedish police fired at protesters in Gothenburg in June last year.
This repression has prompted a section of the ATTAC leadership to oppose future mass mobilisations for fear of more violence. They were also reluctant to campaign against George W Bush's war of revenge after 11 September.
On the other hand, most ATTAC activists are well to the left of leaders like Cassen. The radicalisation produced by Genoa led to the emergence of the social forums movement, which has taken part in mass anti-war protests and in the resistance to Berlusconi's attack on trade union rights.
So the anti-capitalist movement in Europe is pulled between two centres of gravity-one that pushes for mass mobilisation from below against neo-liberalism and war, and another that pursues a much more top-down approach aimed at extracting economic reforms from the establishment.
Preparations for the ESF have come under some pressure from the right, who have strengthened their position in ATTAC France through some undemocratic manoeuvres. In Italy the ESF is getting support, not just from the left wing Rifondazione Comunista, but also from the main union federations and the Blairite Democratic Left (DS).
The DS, for example, is a powerful force in the municipal government of Florence, where the ESF will be held. The involvement of mainstream reformist forces is to be welcomed. It is a sign of the strength and the growth of the anti-capitalist movement. But they will try to extract a big political price for their support.
The wave of electoral defeats suffered by social democratic parties right across Europe in the past few months will encourage some reformist politicians to steer left and associate themselves with the movement in order to rebuild their credibility.
The reformists must not win control of the movement. Fortunately, the strikes and demonstrations in Italy and Spain are feeding the process of radicalisation. But the left will have to be organised and vigilant to ensure the ESF is a gathering of activists to hammer out strategy and prepare for future mobilisations.