european social forum: A socialist guide to the ESF

THE ESF is an off-shoot of the World Social Forum, (WSF) which following its first event in Porto Allegre, Brazil in 2001, drew up a description of the WSF as being: "an open meeting place for reflective thinking, free exchange of experiences and interlinking for effective action, by groups and movements opposed to neoliberalism and to domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism".

The European Social Forum (ESF) is now celebrating its third year, following previous gatherings of over 50,000 people in Florence and Paris. With its slogan "Another world is possible", the ESF can attract many, particularly young, people who are questioning the system as it stands and wondering if a better one could exist. As the ESF gathers in London, Judy Beishon examines its significance and looks at how it’s organised.

A socialist guide to the ESF

The issues discussed at the forums are a reflection of a wave of mass protests internationally in recent years – especially in Latin America – against the effects of neo-liberalism and globalisation.

Together with these has been the rise of the anti-capitalist movement, which began with a huge demonstration against global capitalism in Seattle in December 1999 and continued against every meeting of the major international capitalist institutions since.

Anti-globalisation leaders

ESF participants coming to London will have the opportunity to hear leading campaign activists from around the world, who will graphically describe the hardships and attacks on living standards suffered by ordinary people in Europe and world-wide today.

But unfortunately, while many have earned authority in the anti-globalisation movement through their work, there are few who will offer an analysis of why the capitalist system is an increasing nightmare to live in.

This would require a Marxist analysis, as it was Karl Marx who laid bare the workings of the capitalism, providing an essential tool for explaining its past achievements and present failings.

Some speakers will propose measures that can be campaigned for, with welcome aims such as to reduce the gap between rich and poor, or to improve the environment. However, they are often unable to explain how their goals can be won, partly because many of them don’t base themselves on working-class struggles, which are vital for winning major concessions from the capitalist class.

Also, despite the slogan "Another world is possible", virtually all the main speakers will speak in reality only of a continued capitalist world, with attempts to improve this or that aspect of it.

But many of the improvements they argue for would not be achievable for even a limited time, never mind on a permanent basis, while we live under capitalism – a system that is run on the basis of a drive for profit by a super-wealthy minority in society.

It is even less possible for them to explain how gains can be won and maintained at a time when the world economy is far from healthy – both from a Marxist estimation and according to many top capitalist economists, it is hovering on the brink of further crisis.

Political parties

A number of leading speakers are even members of major pro-capitalist political parties that are carrying out attacks on workers’ living standards. For instance, Ken Livingstone is Mayor of London for New Labour, a party whose leaders are in the forefront of the neo-liberal onslaught in Europe.

How does this fit in with the Charter of Principles of the WSF, which declares opposition to "neoliberalism and to domination of the world by capital"?

The WSF and ESF were originally intended to be anti-capitalist forums, but as with any event, ’he who pays the piper calls the tune’. It is not just workers’ organisations, such as trade unions, that are financing the London ESF. The chief financial backer is Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Authority (GLA), which is far from being an anti-capitalist body.

It is also true that despite the fact that the WSF Charter states there should be democracy with no censorship or restrictions, the finances of the London ESF are shrouded in secrecy, instead of being open to inspection and debate.

Unfortunately, the Charter expresses confusion on the role of political parties. It states that parties can have no part in the forum process, but also that "government leaders and members of legislatures" can participate in a personal capacity.

To try to abide by this, the London ESF has selected many speakers who are members of political parties, but have presented most of them as representing themselves, or a campaigning organisation they belong to.

They sweep under the carpet the fact that they are also leading members of political parties with specific ideas.

A desire to exclude pro-capitalist parties from the ESF is understandable. Why include members of parties that are supporting or carrying out privatisations, public sector cuts, intervention in Iraq and so on? But excluding anti-capitalist parties makes no sense in a forum that is discussing how to achieve a better world.

Socialist alternative

The Socialist Party and our sister parties in the Committee for a Workers’ International are involved in many campaigns internationally that are generally in keeping with the WSF Charter. We can also play a vital role in promoting Marxist analysis and a socialist alternative. However, we, like other parties, are only supposed to participate on the basis of covering over our central ideas and concentrating purely on some of the many campaigns we are involved in.


Decision-making in the ESF should be more democratic. The Charter is ambiguous on how decisions should be arrived at, but it has become a general rule that decisions are made by consensus with no votes taken. Having full democratic discussion to reach consensus where it is possible to do so, should be supported.

However, in a movement that encompasses a large number of organisations with very different ideas, it is impossible to arrive at consensus on every issue in every meeting. Unfortunately, in the UK forum, when consensus has not been reached, a small group of organisers (mainly from the GLA, backed up by members of the Socialist Workers Party) have steamrollered through their own proposals.

Rather than taking this authoritarian approach, even though some practical decisions may have to be based on the views of a majority of organisations present, great care should be taken to ensure that all minority views are heard at the ESF events organised.

When a minority (including a Socialist Party representative) in the ESF Programme Committee argued that general secretary of the PCS civil service trade union, Mark Serwotka, should be invited to speak at the London ESF, the proposal was rejected by the group in effective control of the meeting.

The PCS is entering the front line of the struggle in defence of public services following the government’s announcement of 104,000 civil service redundancies. Having the PCS leader speak would have helped mobilise support for this vital battle. But the mistaken approach shown in the ESF preparatory meetings can lead to lost opportunities for building for victories in the workers’ movement.

Young people, in particular, are horrified to be facing a world of increasing inequality, war, unemployment, discrimination and pollution. In addition, there is now the threat of terror operations internationally on the scale of 9/11 and the Beslan school attack of this year.

With the fear for the future all this generates, the idea of the ESF is attractive to those looking for an alternative. Socialist Party members and members of our sister sections in the Committee for a Workers’ International will be campaigning during the ESF to publicise Marxist ideas, explaining clearly how a socialist world is possible.

The Socialist Party at the ESF


(also sponsored by International Socialist Resistance, the Committee for a Workers’ International and Socialist Students)

Saturday 16 October, 6.30 – 8.30pm, Friends Meeting House, Euston Road, London.

Speakers include: Joe Higgins TD (Socialist Party MP in Southern Ireland) and socialists from Russia, Germany & Greece.

Translation to French, Russian and Spanish.

ESF workshop Socialism – a viable alternative to capitalism

Hosted by the socialist newspaper and International Socialist Resistance

Friday 15 October, 1-3pm

Congress House, Great Russell St, London WC1

Anti-war Demonstration

Sunday 17 October

Join the Socialist Party and ISR contingent.

Meet in Russell Square, corner of Bernard Street and Woborn Place, London WC1 from 11am, for a joint Socialist Party/cwi rally.

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales

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