By Mike Gonzalez
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European Social Forum: A Forum for the Future

This article is over 19 years, 1 months old
The hugely successful Florence European Social Forum showed a new face of politics in Europe.
Issue 269

An elderly man spent his days at the European Social Forum in Florence with his multicoloured umbrella open above his head. It wasn’t raining; for most of the time it was bright and cold. But his umbrella carried a message: ‘Grazie ai ragazzi’ (thanks to the kids). His point, I think, was not so much to celebrate this multilingual, multiethnic gathering. Rather he was acknowledging that this was a gathering of a new kind, with a new vision.

A meeting was called on the Friday night to discuss the relationship between the anti-capitalist movement and political parties. It began late–largely because the enormous hall could barely accommodate the 10,000 people who came to discuss the question! This was the clearest signal of how far the movement had come in the three short years since the Teamsters and the Turtles met at Seattle. And it was also a sign of what was to come on the following day, when close to a million people came to protest against the coming war in Iraq. The banners and flags and groups from all over Europe marched proudly through the city, led by the workers of Fiat. This was a young movement, but it was also a movement of the left. The menaces of the Italian state had not affected them. And as we marched past the working class housing blocks, the white sheets symbolising peace and the applause that greeted the march suggested that there were many many more who recognised who the real enemy was.

Asking the big questions

Globalise Resistance earned some special attention from Berlusconi’s people; we were demonised, alongside the ‘disobbedienti’, the direct action activists. Perhaps that is why the Globalise Resistance meeting attracted well over 3,000 people, who applauded every mention of revolution and resistance. That is not to say, of course, that the whole movement has adopted a revolutionary perspective–but it is to recognise something very significant. That the revolutionary socialist tradition, like our own International Socialist Tendency, had been acknowledged as a key actor in the anti-capitalist movement–and that it was central to the great debates that would now begin to unfold–in Florence and after.

The movement has reached an important crossroads. A new political space is opening up, a new debate about politics and the future. Its starting point, across Europe, has been a growing recognition, particularly among young people, that social democracy has nothing to offer. What came across very strongly in Florence was the sense of a common search for a new left politics, ideas that could consistently challenge neoliberalism and war–the two faces of global capitalism. The revolutionary alternative now has a new and growing audience.

The terms of the argument have changed even within the last year. At the World Social Forum at Porto Alegre in February, for example, the political discussions were dominated by the non-governmental organisations, the left social democrats and the broad organisations represented most centrally by Attac France. On the one hand, there were those at the forum who were still arguing for opening channels of communication with groups within the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation. And on the other, many of the Latin American delegates seemed to be returning to the idea that a strong and determined state could protect its social gains and resist the neoliberal agenda.

In Europe the same view seemed to have a degree of purchase. The French delegation at Porto Alegre, for example, brought along four presidential candidates of the centre-left. The spirit of the Italian delegation, in their yellow caps and sweatshirts and their chants about Genoa, was completely different. There was no doubt that the confrontations in that Italian city in July 2001 had radicalised the movement there and reinforced its internationalism. When Susan George of Attac France was expressing her concern that 11 September would destroy the anti-capitalist movement, the Italians responded by making the connection between neoliberalism and war in a series of tremendous demonstrations in the final months of 2001. In Spain and Greece early 2002 gave the lie to the persistent rumours that the movement could not survive the echoes of 11 September in the most dramatic way. In March 500,000 gathered to protest in Barcelona. The World Bank, probably wisely, decided to cancel its planned meeting.

In France, by contrast, the anti-war protests were largely noticeable by their absence. Attac seemed paralysed by the tensions within its own ranks–and indeed seemed to regard the construction of a mass anti-war movement as divisive. Yet the presidential elections of 2002 in France sent a very clear message about the reality of European politics in the 21st century; the very large vote for Le Pen and the fascists on the one hand, and the 3 million votes cast for candidates of the revolutionary left on the other, were the sign of an increasing political polarisation in many European countries.

1989-91 was in many ways a low point for the working class movement. The fall of the Berlin Wall, and the exposure of the corrupt and oppressive Eastern European regimes left those who had defended them discredited. The ruling classes felt a renewed confidence, and pronounced that we had reached ‘the end of history’. Bush Sr’s New World Order demonstrated its violence on the Basra road, bombing and burning a fleeing Iraqi column, and the new global economic order began to be constructed under its menacing umbrella.

It took very little time for the true face of this new neoliberal order to reveal itself. The first wave of privatisations, the attacks on benefits and pensions, and rising unemployment were already producing a first reaction. In 1994 Berlusconi–the multimillionaire media magnate–won the Italian elections and formed a cabinet that included an openly fascist minister. That year an annual march commemorating the victory over fascism and the struggle of the partisans attracted 300,000 people–ten times the average number of previous years. Later that same year a threat to reduce pensions levels brought vocal reaction from the working class movement. In December a general strike paralysed the country.

In France a wave of strikes in the public sector through November and December 1995 announced a renewed working class resistance. In Germany by 1996 the Kohl government was facing challenge after challenge from a working class movement unwilling to tolerate the package of benefit cuts that it was proposing. A massive, official protest in June was followed by a wave of strikes and protests by workers, students, anti-nuclear and anti-fascist protesters.

The beneficiaries of this new militancy were, without question, the social democratic parties in Europe. In Greece the broad front led by socialists–Pasok–took over government in 1993. In Italy in 1996 the Olive Tree coalition that replaced Berlusconi commanded the support of socialists and communists. In France in 1997 the ‘plural left’ gathered around Lionel Jospin’s Socialist Party won the elections. In Britain Blair’s New Labour came to power in an atmosphere of disillusionment with Thatcherism. In Germany the unexpected defeat of Kohl in 1998 was the culmination of the two years of protest with the new government of Schröder and the Red-Green coalition.

Europe, it seemed, was moving left. That was true in different senses, though. The defeat of a series of right wing governments expressed a deep disillusionment with the existing political establishment. In France, Britain and Italy the corruption of the ruling class was emblazoned across the front pages almost every day. The real import of their economic policies, their ‘restructuring’, their ‘public-private partnerships’ was now clear beyond doubt; cutbacks in public spending, the opening of the economy to the depradations of private capital, a rationalisation of industry within and across national frontiers, whose effect would be large scale unemployment and casualisation coupled with an aggressive assault on trade union organisation. The response had been a rebirth of working class activism.

The mask falls

It did not take very long for the iron fist to emerge from the velvet glove. By 1997 the Italian Olive Tree coalition was in crisis. It had been kept in power by Rifondazione Comunista (RC), but its closer contacts with both the workers’ movement and the burgeoning anti-capitalist movement was opening rifts and arguments within its own ranks that led finally to a split in 1998. RC was born in 1991 out of a split in the Italian Communist Party. Effectively, it took the best rank and file activists–many of them still wedded to a Stalinism which both resisted the truth about Eastern Europe and insisted on the central role of the working class in changing the world. It was an odd and often strained combination. On the other hand, those Communist Party members who were entrenched in the labour and regional bureaucracies went to the Socialists, the PDS.

In France, Jospin was continuing the economic policies of the previous regime while cynically turning the political agenda towards populist issues like immigration and crime. In Germany, Schröder was moving ever closer to an overtly Blairite position. In 1999 the war in the Balkans showed that the new social democratic governments were devoted to the defence of the existing political system and the neoliberal order. The political crisis of social democracy was deepening, and at a speed that few people had anticipated.

At the same time a new movement was emerging. The anti-capitalist movement was drawing together activists who, by and large, operated outside the realm of party politics. Yet these movements did not necessarily see theirs as a common struggle with the newly militant industrial activists who had changed the picture of European politics in the late 1990s. The anti-capitalist movement, or at least significant parts of it, quickly saw through the rhetoric of the new European governments that were using the language of the racists, stealing elements from the agenda of the fascist parties, and pursuing the ruthless privatisation policies they had denounced their predecessors for. There were others who still maintained links with social democracy, albeit with its left wing. Attac, for example, born in France but now building sections elsewhere (it currently claims 50 national groups) still maintained close relationships with sections of the old left.

But there was still a distance between even the most militant sections of the new working class activism and the anti-capitalists–though Brussels, with its huge trade union presence, Genoa, and most recently Florence, suggested at least the beginnings of an organic connection. It was Fiat workers and the Italian rank and file committees (Cobas), after all, who led the anti-war demonstration in Florence.


Until recently, the dominant politics within the anti-capitalist movement was one or other variant of ‘movementism’, or ‘autonomism’–an insistence that the breadth, inclusiveness and lack of definition of the movement was a quality rather than a problem. The recent book by Hardt and Negri, ‘Empire’, celebrated the shifting ‘multitudes’ who they saw as the heart of the new resistance. The ‘movementists’ also expressed a hostility to organised politics. It was seductive to imagine a movement without structures whose politics would somehow evolve from shared experience. But while it was a salutary reminder that revolutionaries should always marry theory with practice, it also signalled a weakness in the movement.

The consequence of that lack of political definition became dramatically clear in the wake of 11 September. The leadership of Attac seemed paralysed in the aftermath of the Twin Towers attack and the war against Afghanistan; it continues, apparently, to have profound difficulty in defining its position as the war against Iraq comes closer. In Italy, on the other hand, the leadership of Rifondazione suffered no such doubts–in this sense they were closer to the movement on the ground. The ‘war against terrorism’ was neither more nor less than the means of legitimising the imposition by force of a new global capitalist order–the very order the movement was born to resist. The waves of demonstrations in the latter part of 2001 in Italy, and the great national strike of April 2002, made incontestably clear the connection between neoliberal economic strategies, the prosecution of global war, and the resurgence of fascism and racism. The strike and subsequent demonstrations in Seville in August reinforced the point.

Social democracy has nothing to offer the movement–its leaders will find reasons to support the war on Iraq, with or without UN validation or not, even if Chirac and Schröder are currently negotiating the terms of that support. The new working class militancy, which has now reached Britain, in the most dramatic way as the firefighters face New Labour, has no champions in the Blair/Berlusconi/Aznar axis. Its allies and its supporters are among that wide range of people who oppose global capitalism on a hundred different fronts.

When we marched through Florence you had the sense that everyone there had reached similar conclusions. But where do we go from here ? The 10,000 who attended the meeting on parties and the movement were there to debate what kind of political vision can provide a vision of that different future world, and develop the strategies and practices that can identify and unite the forces that can bring about that transformation. That is the debate we are now entering–and to which the revolutionary socialist tradition has so much to offer.

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