european social forum: Capitalism condemned – but where’s the alternative?

Socialism is not merely an option – we face socialism or nothing.

cwi pictures

From 15-17 October, London hosted the third annual European Social Forum (ESF). Under the slogan ’Another world is possible’ up to 20,000 anti-war activists and anti-globalisation campaigners from across Europe converged on the city. They participated in discussions which ranged from the intensifying bloody conflict in Iraq and how to defeat US imperialism to combating racism and defending public services across the EU countries. Jim Horton reports.

Capitalism condemned – but where’s the alternative?

People new to the event would have been impressed with its sheer size and its international character. Throughout the weekend there was a wealth of facts and figures condemning capitalism but not a genuine clash of ideas. The best attended sessions included those promising debates on the way forward for the anti-capitalist movement and the alternatives to capitalism.

Unfortunately, none of the main speakers at the ESF elaborated on the main slogan ’Another world is possible’. Different sessions informed us that a better environment is possible, a better form of democracy is possible and a peaceful world is possible. But there was no explanation of how these laudable aims could be achieved.

Even those groups claiming to be socialist, like the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Britain, the French Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire (LCR) and Italy’s Partito Rifondazione Comunista (PRC), failed to advance a socialist programme, merely repeating that a better alternative to neo-liberalism is possible.

By contrast the Socialist Party, and members from its sister parties in the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) explained that the demands which the whole movement wants to achieve are not possible long term on the basis of capitalism and that only the public ownership and democratic planning of the world’s resources can end the horrors of war, poverty and environmental destruction.

Strategies and political alternatives

ONE OF the main issues that dominated the weekend was strategies for the movement and the political alternatives. Susan George, from the global justice organisation ATTAC, correctly pointed out that tens of thousands of people had come together but neo-liberalism had not been stopped. She called for the movement to campaign together on a winnable issue, like canceling third world debt or to save public services.

Highlighting the neo-liberal agenda to claw back the social gains of 100 years, she called for the rule of law to curb the insatiable appetite of the neo-liberals. But this demand fails to recognise that within the framework of capitalism it is impossible to curb the voracious greed and power of the multi-national corporations.

National governments and international institutions like the World Bank, WTO and IMF serve the interests of big business and cannot be reformed.

In Europe there has been a common assault by the bosses on working conditions, alongside privatisation and cut backs in public services. The capitalist neo-liberal offensive is about maximising the profits of the super-rich. The new EU constitution enshrines the free market and opposition to working class solidarity. The Bolkestein Directive will allow major companies to set up headquarters in any one of the 25 countries of the EU, Slovenia for example, with that country’s pay and conditions applying to the company’s workforce across the EU.

It is the working class across Europe who are at the sharp end of the capitalist’s neo-liberal offensive, and it is only the working class through protest and industrial action that can prevent the complete rolling back of all the social gains achieved from past struggles.

Those in the ESF who merely stress opposition to neo-liberalism, as if it is somehow distinct from capitalism, create the impression that a nicer, capitalist world is possible. This idea is reinforced by the failure of groups like the SWP, LCR and PRC to spell out a socialist alternative or even emphasise the need for working-class action to counter the bosses’ offensive.

Gennaro Migliore, international secretary of the PRC, vaguely called on people to change themselves to change the world. Oliver Besancenot from the LCR pointed to a new period and raised the demand for a new programme. But, like the SWP in Respect, in Britain the LCR believe it is not possible to win elections on a socialist programme. They ignore the electoral success of the Socialist Party which has councillors in Britain, Ireland, Germany and Sweden and an MP, Joe Higgins, in Ireland.

Socialists and the Iraqi resistance

A KEY feature of the discussion on war at the ESF was what attitude anti-war campaigners should take to the Iraqi resistance movement.

Bush and Blair hypocritically declare that troops must stay in Iraq to defend democracy and to prevent chaos and civil war when it’s their war on the Iraqi people that is responsible for the nightmare visited on that country. The troops should be withdrawn immediately, with the Iraqi people free to decide the fate of their country.

However, many workers who opposed Bush and Blair’s war for oil and want to see the troops withdrawn will have concerns about the potential for civil war in the aftermath of a pull-out from Iraq and about who will take over the running of Iraq. Such concerns cannot be ignored by socialists. The SWP were wrong when they crudely stated at the ESF that if you do not support every method of the resistance, including suicide bombings and the beheading of hostages, you are on the side of the imperialist occupation.

Of course, confronted with the high-tech military hardware of imperialism it is understandable that some Iraqis will in desperation resort to every possible tactic to drive the occupiers from their land. This has been true historically in every national liberation struggle, including Vietnam. But who is leading the resistance movement and the methods used are not secondary issues for socialists in Britain or for the Iraqi working class. The Socialist Party argues for mass resistance by the working class and poor masses of Iraq rather than policies of kidnapping and suicide bombings, conducted by small and unrepresentative groups acting ’on behalf of the Iraqi people’.

While rightly blaming American and British imperialism for all the brutal horrors being inflicted in Iraq, most workers internationally will be repelled by the reactionary Islamist groups who carry out kidnappings and beheadings. They will instinctively fear that such groups, who are hostile to the interests of the working class and aim to set up a theocratic state similar to Iran, will use the same barbaric methods against workers fighting for their rights.

At the ESF George Galloway MP, one of the founders of Respect said: "We are the citizens of an imperialist country attacking other countries; our job is not to analyse the anti-imperialist forces but to oppose the imperialist enemy." But the majority of people in Britain are not responsible for Blair’s slavish support for Bush’s war. While calling unconditionally for troops out, we have a duty to the Iraqi masses to put forward what we believe is the only road to successfully defeat imperialism and build a society free from poverty and oppression. We cannot be indifferent to the situation that confronts the Iraqi masses in a post-occupation Iraq.

It is a mistake to ignore the dangers of Iraq descending into greater anarchy on a capitalist basis, including the Balkanisation of the country. Notwithstanding the unity on occasions between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the anti-imperialist struggle the danger of polarisation along sectarian lines is implicit in the situation.

The Iraqi masses will confront privileged elites within their own religious and ethnic communities who will use any method, including sectarian division, to defend their privileges. This can be reinforced if right-wing political Islam takes grip on society.

It is vital that workers in Iraq mobilise independently, forming a multi-ethnic armed militia to lead the resistance and to stop moves towards sectarianism, linked to building independent workers’ organisations in the workplaces.

The struggle against occupation needs to be linked to the fight for basic needs, such as electricity, clean water, and proper health and education facilities. The task of rebuilding Iraq can only be achieved with the country’s resources being placed under the ownership and control of the Iraqi working class in order to implement a socialist plan of production.

Where now for the ESF?

The organisers of the ESF promote the social forum as providing ’space’ to hundreds of campaigning organisations and thousands of visitors and have argued that the way to take the movement forward is to make it bigger and broader.

While 20,000 delegates attending London was still impressive, the turnout was much less than the 60,000 in Florence two years ago and the 40,000 in Paris last year. This can be partly explained by the current stage of the anti-war movement. But it also reflects the shortcomings of the ESF structure and its failure to advance a coherent alternative to war and capitalism.

This year there were also complaints about the bad organisation of the event and the lack of democratic decision making, with representatives of the Greater London Authority (GLA), backed by the SWP, forcing through their agenda, unaccountable to the thousands of activists who attended.

The Socialist Party supports a broad movement against war and capitalism, which needs to be based on working class struggle to succeed. But for the ESF, going broad meant allowing the GLA, headed by Ken Livingstone, a member of Blair’s New Labour, to be the chief financial backer.

While Livingstone opposes the war, he supports the basic tenets of Blair’s economic policies. According to Livingstone’s own officials, new transport schemes in London will be financed through public/private partnership (PPP). In a column in the Evening Standard (8 February), Livingstone boasted that his team would "work with business and the capital markets", arguing that "partnership will be key". Tube workers meanwhile have faced constant intimidation, including sackings, from a hard-nosed management, backed by Livingstone, determined to confront the unions. Livingstone himself called on tube workers to cross picket lines during a recent RMT strike.

The speakers at the GLA rally on the first night of the ESF, who all called for a better world, included the leader of Haringey council which has handed over education services to the notorious private contractor Jarvis and has also begun the process of privatising the borough’s housing stock.

Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams spoke, but failed to mention his party’s support for privatisation of health and education services in Northern Ireland. Thenjiwe Mtintso of the African National Congress (ANC) likewise neglected to refer to the biggest ever public sector strike against the policies of the ANC government in South Africa. Dave Prentis general secretary of the public sector union UNISON, spoke at one of the ESF sessions. Yet at Labour Party conference went against his union’s policy and voted for continuing the brutal occupation of Iraq.

ESF organisers also invited Subhi Al Mashadani, general secretary of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) to address two of the sessions. IFTU leaders have spoken in support of imperialist troops remaining in Iraq. One was used at the Labour Party conference to put pressure on the British trade union leaders to back Blair’s stance on the occupation.

While the ESF has a role play in providing a forum for debate in the anti-capitalist movement, there are clearly limitations to what it can achieve. At the ESF, Bob Crow, RMT general secretary, again raised the idea of a new party to represent working people but with the qualification that it was a long term goal. The Socialist Party and the CWI however, believe that the building of new mass workers’ parties to link together the struggles of workers and to challenge capitalism is a pressing task facing the working class across Europe.

A socialist world is possible

The workshops sponsored by the Socialist Party, the CWI and International Socialist Resistance (ISR) were very successful. Chairing the hugely inspiring Socialist Party rally on the Saturday night ISR organiser Sarah Sachs-Eldridge declared: "After the collapse of stalinism others on the left said we could not win people over to the ideas of socialism, but the CWI is building an international socialist organisation."

In a meeting of just two hours the audience heard more about workers’ struggles across Europe and the socialist alternative than in thirty hours at the ESF.

Sergei from Russia explained that even though the old Soviet Union was not genuine socialism, the planned economy did at least guarantee a decent level of income, free education and healthcare and subsidised housing and transport. The restoration of capitalism has not brought in genuine democracy but resulted in privatisations and economic catastrophe.

Kristina, active in the Greek Social Forum, explained how the anti-war movement had radicalised new layers of young people and workers and made fools of world leaders. But to stop the war would have taken strikes of workers.

Hannah Sell for the Socialist Party declared that a socialist world is not only possible, but necessary and urgent. While it is possible for workers to achieve victories under capitalism on the basis of struggle, the ESF had failed to draw the conclusion that capitalism was incapable of taking society forward.

The Socialist Party supports the Tobin Tax, a wealth tax on international transactions, which could provide millions of dollars to alleviate the desperate plight of millions of people across globe.

But who would implement it? The bosses would resist. You cannot control what you do not own. Only by taking the commanding heights of the economy into public ownership would it be possible to plan for people’s needs.

The working class has the power to change society. Our task is to link the struggles of workers against privatisation and job cuts to the fight for socialism. Hannah appealed to people to join the Socialist Party. "We think we have a programme that can change the world".

Joe Higgins, Socialist Party MP in the Irish Dail (parliament), described how global capitalism is on a rampage like never before. He cited the issue of pension rights and also the "slash and burn philosophy" of the Irish government with its preparations to hand over Air Lingus to venture capitalists. Joe also showed that there is no forum we won’t raise the ideas of socialism, as he recited his encounter with Kofi Annan at a National Forum on Europe. (see page 3)

NUT member Bob Sulatycki said other left groups were looking for easy solutions, but are in reality building on sand. He pointed to the significant vote Socialist Party member Martin Powell Davis recently received in the NUT general secretary election. Karin from Belgium explained that the ruling class in Belgium was now trying to catch up with the rest of the EU in their attacks on the working class. In the next few years the government aims to scrap benefits for 30,000 unemployed.

Sinead from Scotland reminded the audience of the magnificent struggle of the Scottish nursery nurses. A member of the CWI in Holland described the 300,000 strong demonstration against government attacks and cuts. Laura reported on plans by Opel in Germany to sack 10,000 of its 19,000 workforce.

Socialist Party general secretary Peter Taaffe summed up the rally. "What has the ESF achieved and how has it advanced the struggle?", he asked. The working class should come together on a European basis to fight EU-wide assault on workers jobs and conditions.

Between 1950 and 1975 capitalism gave concessions to the working class. Today across Europe and the globe the capitalists have launched a common assault against workers in their drive to increase profits.

The struggle over the surplus produced by workers constitutes the core of the class struggle. The work/life balance will not improve under capitalism. German workers now being paid as little as two, three, four euros an hour, a few years ago this would have been unthinkable.

Some in ESF want reform and cite the example of Venezuela. But the capitalists have tried eight times to overthrow Chávez and will not give up. We already have the example of the successful US-backed coup against Allende in Chile in 1973. Socialism is not merely an option – we face socialism or nothing.

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

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October 2004