It is just over six years since the great protests in Seattle of November 1999. And it is almost three years since the great anti-war protest of 15 February 2003.
Enough time has passed for us to assess the overall trajectory of the process of radicalisation that became visible in Seattle. There is a clear contrast between this period and the 1990s.
What we saw in the 1990s was the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Stalinist regimes. This led to a reinforcement of the neo-liberal offensive that was already underway, and to a climate of pessimism on the left.
But the collapse of the Soviet Union was not a counter-revolution, or a restoration of capitalism. It was a transition from one form of capitalism to another. Also, the underlying basis for the capitalist system was enormously fragile. There were deep fractures that would generate crises for the system and openings for resistance.
We first saw this with the uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, in 1994 and the French public sector strikes of 1995. These represented the beginning of an arc of mass resistance to neo-liberalism and imperial war that continues today.
We can identify three main zones of resistance. The first is Latin America, where we are seeing the most advanced forms of struggle against
neo-liberalism. This resistance has taken an electoral expression with the election of a whole series of centre-left governments, the most recent of which was the victory of Evo Morales in Bolivia.
The second zone of struggle is Iraq. The resistance to the occupation in Iraq isn’t as politically advanced as what’s happening in Latin America, but it is the single most important front in the struggle against imperialism. By tying down the US in a war that it cannot win, the Iraqi resistance is creating the room for manoeuvre that allows other movements around the world to go forward.
In Venezuela you have the phenomenon of Hugo Chavez representing himself as a symbol of Latin American resistance to the US and neo-liberalism. He can do that for three reasons — popular support in the country, high oil prices that are giving him the money to implement serious reforms, and the fact that Uncle Sam’s back is turned.
The third zone is Europe. In the last year we have seen a number of serious defeats for the neo-liberal agenda. The French and Dutch referendums defeated the neo-liberal European Constitution from a predominantly left basis.
The elections in Germany saw the two main parties — the social democratic SPD and the Tory CDU — lose the election. They were forced into a “grand coalition”. The elections also saw the breakthrough of the new Linkspartei.
All these movements have moved beyond the initial euphoric phase where the prevalent ideology was some form of autonomism that proclaimed the independence of social movements from politics and sought to keep political parties at a distance.
The question of what kind of political alternative can emerge to give expression to the demands of the movement is very important.
Some of the supposed political alternatives represent an attempt to try and turn movements back in the direction of social liberalism and conventional politics — such as the Lula government in Brazil and the Kirchner government in Argentina.
But there are also a number of new political formations of the radical left that are trying to build alternatives that break with social liberalism. Important examples include the Left Bloc in Portugal, the Linkspartei in Germany, P-Sol in Brazil and Respect here.
One indication of these new left formations is that organisationally they are quite loose. Their future relies on winning the sort of people who traditionally looked to the social democratic parties. That’s why we need the open structures and the open organisation that goes with them.
This openess means there can be a powerful pull in a reformist direction. So we should not contemplate liquidating revolutionary organisations within these formations. Revolutionary socialists have an important role to play in the development of a dynamic radical left — but the debates over revolution and reform are far from over.