THE FIFTH World Social Forum assembles next week in Porto Alegre, Brazil. This great gathering will bring together tens of thousands of activists from Latin America and the rest of the world. It comes at an important moment in the history of the movement against corporate globalisation. It is now more than five years since that movement first became visible in the Seattle protests in November 1999.
This is no longer a brand new movement whose impetus comes partly from sheer exhilaration at the very fact of its existence. Moreover, the neo-liberal drive to turn every aspect of human life and the natural world into a commodity remains strongly entrenched in the seats of global power. George Bush’s victory last November removed any doubt that the imperialist and corporate offensive will continue worldwide.
This is not to say that the anti-capitalist movement has achieved nothing. On the contrary. To begin with, it has proved itself the most phenomenally successful engine of mass mobilisation in history. The first anti-capitalist protest in Europe saw 20,000 people besiege the International Monetary Fund meeting in Prague in September 2000.
Barely two years later, in November 2002, a million people demonstrated against the coming war in Iraq at the first European Social Forum (ESF) in Florence. This was also the launching pad of the unprecedented global day of anti-war protest on 15 February 2003. A French scholar estimates that over 35 million people took part in nearly 3,000 demonstrations against the Iraq war in the first three months of 2003.
Secondly, the movement against corporate globalisation has changed the language of politics. The enormous surge, not of charity, but of global solidarity that greeted the Indian Ocean tsunami is to some degree a tribute to the impact of the movement in expanding understanding of global poverty and environmental destruction.
Thirdly, the tide of resistance to neo-liberalism in Latin America has swept away governments across the continent and brought to office new left wing presidents—Lula in Brazil, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Tabare Vazquez in Uruguay.
But, for all that, Bush’s victory underlines that we have a long way to go. This has helped to create a sense of crisis among at least some activists, certainly in Europe. In part, this reflects the fact that, once that the initial glow of euphoria after Seattle began to disperse, political disagreements inevitably emerged. In Europe at least, there are three distinct currents.
First of all, there is a reformist right wing whose aim is to pressure governments to abandon neo-liberalism and return to the more regulated capitalism that flourished in the 1950s and 1960s. The most important representative of this viewpoint is ATTAC, founded in France in 1998 to campaign for the regulation of financial markets.
Secondly, and apparently further to the left, there are the autonomists. Influenced by theorists like Toni Negri and John Holloway, they are concerned with (as a fringe event at the last ESF in London put it) “Life Despite Capitalism”. They seek to create localised spaces freed from the domination of capitalism.
Finally, the radical left is more interested in achieving “Life After Capitalism”. Rifondazione Comunista in Italy, the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire in France, and the Socialist Workers Party in Britain all agree that the struggle for socialism can only be effectively pursued if the left helps to build the anti-capitalist movement.
Probably the most important way in which these divergences have become visible is over Iraq. The movement’s greatest expansion came in 2002-3, when it began to mobilise against the war.
This involved not just a growth in numbers but a political and intellectual deepening. People came to understand that capitalism isn’t just about financial markets and transnational corporations, but also embraces the system of states and military power.
But many activists on both the reformist and autonomist wings of the movement were unhappy at the prominence the war took at the ESF in Florence in November 2002 and then again in London last October.
Leading figures in ATTAC deny that there is any connection between neo-liberalism and war. They see campaigning against the war as a diversion from what they call “the social question”, which in Europe tends to mean opposing the neo-liberal European Constitution.
The autonomists tend to be hostile to mass demonstrations such as those against the war because they prefer “actions” organised by a small, enlightened minority.
Both autonomists and reformists also share the idea of an autonomous social movement. Both are therefore suspicious of the involvement of the radical left parties in the social forums. These political convergences produced a remarkable alliance between sections of both the right and the autonomist “left” of the movement at the London ESF. They now want to reorganise the “process” through which the next ESF, due to take place in Athens in spring 2006, will be prepared.
Lengthy discussions of organisational changes are now under way. This is potentially a very dangerous diversion. The real point of the social forums—including the most successful to date, the World Social Forum in Mumbai a year ago—is that they bring together very large numbers of people opposed to neo-liberalism and war, giving them a sense of their power and an opportunity to debate, discuss, celebrate, and mobilise together.
Compared to this, the “process” is a sideshow affecting a few hundred activists, many of them full-time workers for various social movements and political organisations. Much more important, there is no way that the movement can keep the political arena at arm’s length. The new left governments in Latin America illustrate this.
Lula has now been president of Brazil for more than two years. While skilfully distancing himself from Bush in international politics, he has pursued the same neo-liberal economic policies as Fernando Henrique Cardoso, his despised predecessor.
In Uruguay, the left wing Frente Amplio coalition under Tabare Vazquez will only take office in March. But so far all the signs are that it too will not pursue a dramatically different course from mainstream parties.
Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez has gone further. He depends on the active mass support of the poor to beat off the attempts of the Venezuelan ruling class, backed by the Bush administration, to overthrow him.
He has introduced some real reforms and is now proposing to take over big landed estates like El Charcote, owned by Lord Vestey and his family for the past hundred years. But there is a big difference between a mass movement that backs Chavez and one that takes power for itself.
Here in Europe we may face similar problems. Fausto Bertinotti, leader of Rifondazione Comunista, the biggest party identified with the anti-capitalist movement, wants to go into government with the Blairite Olive Tree coalition if they win the Italian general election later this year.
These experiences all pose the question that has faced the left repeatedly for the past 200 years—reform or revolution? Are we trying merely to make capitalism more humane or to get rid of it altogether?
Faced with a system that every day reveals its brutality, many wonder whether a revolutionary transformation of society may be the only way out. But convincing them will require building a much stronger radical left that isn’t just interested in winning votes and gaining ministerial office, but wants really to fight neo-liberalism and imperialist war. Hence the significance of initiatives such as Respect in Britain and the new Party of Socialism and Liberty (P-SOL) in Brazil that are seeking to build alternatives to Blair, Lula, and their Third Way politics.
The challenge for the radical left is to continue to unite a very broad and diverse movement around mobilising calls like the global anti-war protests on 19-20 March while building the political alternatives that can help to open the way to another world.
Alex Callinicos is a leading member of the SWP. His books include An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto and The New Mandarins of American Power