Intervening in the World Social Forum in Mumbai was very much like intervening in one six day-long demonstration. The activity was more or less constant from eight in the morning until nine or ten at night.
The politics of the WSF and socialism
There were the uninteresting establishment centre-left politicians and celebrities, getting all the publicity and almost all the microphones. Alongside them were the NGO leaders, the ‘experts’, speaking at seminars, and the media people. But there was also a layer of workers and youth, with a critical attitude, searching for a serious alternative. The advantage compared to a demonstration was that there was more time for discussions, meetings and discussions with people wanting to join the CWI.
Two years ago, it was a big thing when the then ’socialist’ French government sent a delegation to the WSF in Porto Allegre. This time, ministers were no longer a sensation. The event was opened and closed by VP Singh, formerly both finance minister and prime minister of India. In fact, he introduced neo-liberalism into the country. Today, he has left the mainstream Congress party and is used by the ‘Communist’ parties as a rented leader. They want him involved to put themselves forward as a ‘secular front’ against communalism. This WSF was very much organised by the CPM.
In the same category was the Swedish minister of foreign aid, the Social Democrat, Carin Jämtin. According to some railway workers I met, she had told her seminar that the Swedish government was against privatisation and neo-liberalism. That came from a member of a government ruling in the period of the most privatisations ever in Sweden. Another minister was Brazil‘s minister of culture, Gilberto Gil, who entertained the closing ceremony playing a guitar and singing.
Many reports from the WSF contain quotes from anti-imperialist speeches delivered by ministers, authors etc. But their words are in no way matched by deeds. At the WSF 2003, Brazil’s president Lula attacked hunger and poverty. Thereafter, with little modification, he has continued the neo-liberal policies of his predecessor.
In Mumbai, even the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, the state of which Mumbai is capital, participated. This politician, Sushilkumar Shinde, however, was immediately chased by a crowd criticising him. The issue of the eviction of people because of the Narmada Dam has made him particularly unpopular.
The organizers of the WSF this time stressed subjects like the struggle against casteism, religious oppression and patriarchy. That is welcome, but they also meant that the fight against capitalist globalisation and imperialist war should be less prominent. But these struggles are of course interlinked. Socialists are in the forefront against discrimination, at the same as we stress that capitalism has to be abolished and a socialist society created to eradicate the roots of oppression and discrimination.
The speaker most in the spotlight was the Indian author, Arundhati Roy. Her opening speech contained sharp criticism of US imperialism, the Indian government and all politicians conducting privatisations, including Nelson Mandela, which is rare from a speaker at the WSF. She even said that only talking at the WSF, and not acting, could become an asset of the enemy. The action recommended, however, was a ’minimum agenda’, focusing on undefined actions against a couple of multinational corporations. She didn’t give any alternative, arguing against ’ideology’ in general.
The overload of establishment figures contributed to a low level of participation in the seminars. Halls with 5,000 seats had only a 100 -150 listeners. This was the case, for example, when VP Singh spoke at the major rally on world trade. An exception seems to have been the rally on ‘Food rights and trade’, when 4,000 people turned up. At the time of the WSF, the organisers claimed 120,000 visitors. This has now been reduced to 80,000.
The character of the WSF also led to the organising of a split-off event – Mumbai Resistance 2004 (MR 2004). Up to 10,000 participated at MR, organised mainly by Maoists. The two events were organized close to each other, so many MR participants also came to the WSF. CWI members visited the MR event, mainly giving out leaflets and discussing with people interested in our ideas.
At MR 2004, no NGOs were allowed to have a stall. At WSF, on the other hand, the NGOs dominated. Their multi-colour glossy leaflets and stalls seemed mostly to be there to satisfy the aid-giving agencies in Europe, saying: ‘This is what we do for the money’. Many of the people they mobilised to be there were just to serve as appendages. The NGO people in general had difficulty understanding that we are a party, fighting politically, not a social organisation.
Despite these weaknesses, the common political theme of the WSF was anti-imperialism. The only real decision was to endorse the global day of protest against the occupation of Iraq, 20 March. The most hated at the WSF were Bush, the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank and neo-liberalism. Our pamphlet, ‘Fight Capitalist Globalisation’ sold out the first print run – 99 copies – in a couple of hours on the first day.
This reflected a great thirst for political explanations and ideas of how to go forward. Apart from our intervention, however, very few organisations attempted to offer anything.
The prevailing mood exposed the media hype about India booming and even offering a way forward for the world economy. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the Indian politicians and economists were treated as heroes, giving some hope to crisis-ridden leaders and capitalists from the US and Europe. In Mumbai, workers and youth gave the concrete facts of how they get nothing out of this boom. On the contrary, it is the extension of privatisation and increased exploitation which worsen the conditions for workers. General Electric, one of the biggest companies in the world, has set up its second biggest research unit globally in India. But in its factories, they are sacking and harassing workers, as the workers explained in an interview we did.
Nevertheless, the media in India is full of headlines like “Bright times for India". On this basis, and with the renewal of peace talks with Pakistan, the ruling BJP party and its prime minister, Vajpayee, reckon to win the election later in the Spring. In some sections of the middle class etc it can create illusions, but among workers it will also lead to feeling that there is more to fight for. The 50 million strong general strike against privatisation in, May 2003, was an important first generalisation of this struggle.
The alarming weakness, however, is the lack of any political alternative. The two CPs (it is almost impossible to understand the difference between them) offer no different economic policy than that of the BJP or Congress, and their aim in the election campaign will be to form some kind of secular front against the BJP.
Material is needed to spread the real facts more widely in the advanced capitalist countries, in reply to the illusion of India (and China) being on the way to prosperity. Still one third of the 1.2 billion people globally living on a dollar or less per day are Indian. That is 400 million people.
The people we met
We had a constant stream of people to our stalls – one official one, indoors, and another outside. Many of them were ex-CP members, a layer were young people who had been in no organisation before and others came from different trade unions.
We interviewed and had discussions with:- GE workers; the Garment Workers Union from Bangalore; the leader and others of United Labour Federation (ULF) from Chennai (Madras), who organised striking ghee (food oil) workers; people from the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) – an umbrella organisation for independent unions; and numerous others groups and individual workers. Several of these had already cooperated with the members of the Indian organisation affiliated to the CWI in different campaigns and struggles.
The last 2-3 days, we organised discussions all the time at our stall. Groups of youth from Mumbai, Tamil Nadu, New Dehli and Kolkata, as well as from Indonesia and others countries, wanted to know more about the CWI, both politically and how we are organised. Some of them had been in other organisations, but most had not.
One more example is a network of independent Trotskyists in Bihar, claiming to have around a thousand people. We will now start a dialogue in writing with them. Bihar is the poorest state in India.
We also met several people who although were not immediately prepared to join the CWI were still very interested. One example is the deputy editor-in-chief of the magazine of the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour, who bought Peter Taaffe’s book on the Vietnam War, ‘Empire Defeated’. We sold 29 of this book and all the copies we had of his other recent book on Cuba.
Building the CWI in South Asia
Our aim with attending the event was to meet people interested in building the ideas of genuine socialism in the Asian sub-continent and building links with trade union activists. That meant first of all to find those interested, but also to establish dialogues and connections which increased our own understanding of the situation.
In total, we distributed 40,000 leaflets (20,000 English, 15,000 Hindi and 5,000 Tamil). Most of these four-page leaflets were read instantly, and very few could be seen on the ground, which was covered with other flyers. On top of that, we sold a lot of books and pamphlets, plus our Indian paper, in the Kannada language. As an example, 121 papers were sold at one seminar.
Other international socialist groupings had nothing comparable. The left groups which were present did not comment on the situation in India or South Asia. The USFI leaflet was so general that it could have been written any time in the last ten years. Most of the left in India seem to stress the ideological battle between secularism and communalism at the cost of the class struggle.
One hundred and ten people expressed an interest in joining the CWI in India, and additional names in other countries: Nepal, Mauritius, Bhutan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
For all of us intervening in the WSF 2004 -comrades from India, Sri Lanka, Australia, Britain, Russia, Austria and Sweden – it was an experience we would not like to have missed. It underlined the acute need for a socialist society internationally, and the similar need for clear socialist ideas. Building the CWI in South Asia is a key task to achieve that goal.