Time to Get Serious
The European Social Forum has to sort itself out, or
it will fail
openDemocracy, October 2004
This is one of three pieces I wrote about the 2004
European Social Forum. Click
here to read my initial impressions of the event.
here to read an attack on involvement of the Socialist
Workers Party, which I wrote for the New Statesman.
It was when they silenced the free-tea man that I knew
something was wrong.
A friendly young man had brought a kettle, cups and
a few packets of tea bags into Alexandra Palace, site
of the third European Social Forum (ESF), and had set
himself up in one corner of its great hall, underneath
an endearingly felt-tipped sign reading Free Tea.
He was suggesting donations for his local peace group
in exchange for the drinks. An enthusiastic queue had
This, I thought to myself, was the kind of small but
important detail that made events like this worthwhile.
This, after all, was what it was all supposed to be
about: people from all across a continent sharing experiences,
free space, inspiration and hot drinks in the search
for a better world.
It didnt last long. Soon, a security guard with
a buzzing walkie-talkie arrived. A short conversation
ensued in which the free-tea man was politely but firmly
asked to cease his largesse. He was, it seemed, in direct
competition with the official caterers, who were charging
£1.40 a cup. Muted outrage ensued. A potential
drinker started haranguing the security guard, but the
free-tea man tried to defuse the situation. Its
all right, he said resignedly. Hes
only doing his job.
The 2004 European Social Forum was not a success. It
was not quite a failure either, and it certainly wasnt
a disaster. Nevertheless, there were deep, wide and
widely-noticed problems with it, which many people commented
on. The free-tea mans experience brought just
one of them home to me, but it was by no means the only
In this article Ill seek to lay out honestly
and starkly what, in my opinion, were the strengths
and weaknesses of the London event. Whatever others
think of my analysis, its important that everyone
is able to openly debate this because only that
way will the fast-snowballing phenomenon that is the
social forum movement be able to grow in the right direction,
and avoid some of the mistakes of the past.
Open or closed doors?
Lets start with the problems that the event encountered.
The free-tea mans story was indicative of a larger
problem with the organisation of the whole forum
not just the way it was organised, but the principles
on which it was organised.
Previous social forums have been largely open events.
Entrance prices, where they existed, were kept deliberately
low, spaces were provided for all to participate, free
accommodation was provided and organising committees
were deeply, even if often frustratingly, democratic.
All this is in keeping with the overall principles of
the social forum movement, dedicated to creating open,
free, largely non-hierarchical and democratic spaces
for serious debate about the future.
In London, unfortunately, things were rather different.
It wasnt possible to get in in the first place
unless you bought a ticket for £30 (though there
were concessions). If you wanted to stage an event you
were expected to shell out over £200 for the privilege
of doing so.
Food most of it terrible, incidentally
was provided by commercial organisations who employed
low-paid workers on long shifts. The whole event seemed
commercial, centrally-organised and strangely antithetical
to what much of this movement has always been about.
It had, overall, more of the feel of a large trade-fair
(or a Labour party conference, as one disgruntled activist
put it to me, ironically) than an open and open-minded
Much of this, in turn, stemmed from the way the event
was organised. For over a year there has been serious
criticism of the events organisers for trying
to control the process themselves rather than opening
it up to all-comers. When you discover that the key
organisation involved was the notoriously anti-democratic
Socialist Workers Party (SWP), this may not seem surprising.
But in combination with Ken Livingstones Greater
London Authority (GLA), which put an estimated £400,000
towards the event, it was a potent and frustrating combination
Dave Timms, press officer for the World Development
Movement, was involved in the long process of organising
the London ESF. He explained to me how the SWP in particular
had worked from the very start to make the London forum
their event, run to their agenda.
Ive been in plenty of meetings where at
least a third of those present are SWP members, in various
different guises, he explained. Its
always the same people, and they consistently packed
meetings and voted their own people in as chairs, speakers
and organisers. Often we would have meetings in the
UK which would be stitched up by the SWP. Then we would
take it to a European level and European activists would
overturn all the decisions and complain about the lack
of democracy in British activism.
Timms is not alone. Leading NGOs in Britain and many
European activist groups involved in the process of
organising the 2004 ESF have made similar complaints.
In June, the Italian mobilising committee for the ESF
published a statement about how the SWP had behaved
at a European meeting: They
unwilling to enter into real dialogue, tried to impose
their own way and were often arrogant or used blackmail,
repeatedly refusing to accept decisions and titles which
had already been decided hours before. The result was
that many of the other delegations were exasperated
and were frequently compelled to raise their voices
or in turn threaten to leave.
There is no doubt that the SWP and the GLA worked hard
to ensure that the focus of the event, from the themes
chosen for discussion to the people selected to speak
and chair meetings, was in their hands as much as possible.
The consequence was that many activists refused even
to come holding an alternative ESF
elsewhere in London and many who did were disappointed.
So much so that 300 people invaded a speaker meeting
on the Saturday night at which Ken Livingstone had been
due to speak to protest about the undemocratic
nature of the forum.
Nick Dearden from War on Want, who has been involved
in social forum organising for years, told me that this
one had been the worst yet. It has sown real bitterness,
he told me. The SWP have literally pissed off
the whole movement in Europe. Even their former European
allies wont work with them again. I think this
event has actually set things backwards. Whether
Dearden is right or not in his pessimistic analysis,
it has certainly not engendered the kind of atmosphere
that social forums are supposed to about creating.
Going with the flow
In 2003, Susan Richards wrote on openDemocracy about
the hard lefts attempts to seize the agenda at
the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Such
attempts, she wrote, misunderstood the nature of social
forums: they are not events to be controlled
from the top, but happenings, which gain their strength
from below. She was right about that: in London, again,
the hard left showed that they had no idea what this
was really supposed to be about, and that they werent
The danger, though, is that their attempts to grab
this movement for themselves could drive away precisely
those people who made the movement happen in the first
place, and leave a hollowed-out shell of empty leftist
rhetoric in its place. It would hardly be the first
This organisational problem is partly, though by no
means wholly, responsible for another. Many people commented
on how many of the speaker meetings and plenary sessions
had a samey feel to them. One attendee told
me, glumly, that it seemed as if every panel was made
up of two boring trade unionists and a Trot.
This was an exaggeration, but one which summed up, somehow,
the atmosphere of a forum the main events of which,
at least, seemed coloured by the dead hand of the old
But there is a wider issue. This is not something that
this forum, or even European social forums in general
can be blamed for, but it is a problem encountered wherever
radicals get together.
The problem is twofold. First, there is simply too
much focus on whats wrong, and not enough on what
we can do about it and how. We all know global
capitalism stinks. We also know that war is a nasty
thing, American foreign policy is bad, racism isnt
nice and oil companies are unethical. Why, then, do
we need speaker after speaker standing up and telling
us so? Why do we need to spend any of these three precious
days repeating truisms and patting ourselves on the
back for agreeing with each other about how bad things
are? Five years ago this was useful. Now its unnecessary.
This leads neatly onto the second aspect of the problem:
why do so many people here agree on so much? It might
seem a strange thing to ask of a forum in which Trots,
anarchists and NGO moderates were often at each others
throats, but it is a valid one.
Take, for example, a debate entitled Hijab: a
womans right to choose, which focused on
the French law banning religious insignia in schools.
There were seven members of the panel for this event,
and every one of them were in agreement. The French
law was racist and Islamophobic,
part of a giant worldwide conspiracy against Muslims
by the racist west. Every speaker referred to the law
as a headscarf ban, omitting to mention
that it forbids all blatant religious insignia, including
skullcaps (why no panel of angry Jews complaining about
this?) Some audience members felt short-changed, and
rightly so. What kind of debate features
no opposing views? And what kind of progressive
movement promotes the case for religious exceptionalism
and hardly mentions the case for secularism, long a
key principle of the left?
Time after time, a line was pushed by panels
of people with virtually identical views on subjects
as diverse as Israel (apartheid state),
George Bush (a fascist), Iraq (imperialist
war), immigration controls (racist).
We have to ask, surely, not only why so few dared to
challenge the consensus, but why there was a consensus
at all at least one presented so aggressively
and often unthinkingly. And come to that, how can anyone
over the age of 16 chant the slogan one solution:
revolution with a straight face at an event which
is supposed to be about serious analysis of what we
can actually do?
Im not sure I know the answers. I know therell
always be a fair smattering of unthinking raving at
any event dedicated to radical politics. But I know,
too, that my patience is wearing thin with it, and that
Im not the only one. Would I, I asked myself several
times over the weekend, bring a non-political or uncommitted
friend here and try and convert them? No. Why not? Because
Id be too embarrassed at much of the paper-selling,
flag-waving, chanting, unthinking grandstanding that
was on display in far too many parts of the forum. This
movement needs to move on to serious thought and action
pretty fast: events like this should be showing the
way. Overall, this one didnt.
From exchange to solutions
But they can. So before I, or anyone reading this,
gets too depressed about it all, lets look at
what did work about the London event, and about the
social forum model in general and at what might be improved
First, its always worth reiterating an obvious
but overlooked point: it is a wonder that events like
this happen at all. The social forum movement began
life at Porto Alegre just four years ago. It was a single,
tentative event. Nobody knew what would come of it.
What has come of it is a mass explosion of forums, all
over the world, from international to city level and
everything in-between. Every event is or at least
is supposed to be a positive, forward-looking
occasion. Social forums are not about protest
they are about change and how to achieve it. In less
than five years, they have become a global phenomenon,
and one which testifies better than anything else to
a real and growing appetite for significant change amongst
many of the worlds people.
Making this forum happen, then, was a hell of an achievement
in itself. And despite the far-from-perfect way it was
organised, it was still an occasion on which a huge
diversity of people from across Europe and further afield
could get together, talk, debate and, perhaps most importantly,
plan how to work together in the future.
Which leads onto the second positive aspect of the
event: its diversity. No matter how hard the SWP tried,
they couldnt limit the forum to Trots alone, and
a huge variety of people and causes were there. An estimated
25,000 people attended, and many would have had the
chance to hear about things they had never encountered
before. The ongoing oppression of the people of Iran
by its Islamist regime, for example: a number of Iranian
exiles were at the forum with a disturbing display of
the brutality of the mullahs. A similar stall highlighted
the reality of life in Burma, while trade unionists
from Colombia spoke about the repression of their fellows
by the military regime and called for solidarity.
Then there was the assembly of the social movements,
a large and growing part of all social forums, in which
grassroots groups from across Europe gathered to discuss
pooling resources and campaigning on common topics for
2005. Where else could such a meeting be held?
There were, too, solutions on show. Not as many as
there should have been, and they were not given the
attention they deserved; but they were there. Panels
suggested what to do about climate change and ecological
debt. Stands promoted renewable energy solutions. Economists
promoted schemes to radically reform the global economy.
Farmers promoted food sovereignty as a political tool,
and municipal leaders from across Europe showcased the
participatory budgets an idea whose time is coming
that they have put into practice in recent years.
If you knew where to go, you could find plenty to inspire
But it wasnt enough. The next European Social
Forum, to be held in Greece in 2006, will have to work
better. A question needs to be asked: do we want these
events to be a serious display of alternatives to the
current order? Do we want real, hard, difficult discussions
about what to do and how to do it, together, with all
the hard work, serious thinking, strategic disagreements
and political battling that this involves? Or do we,
instead, want a back-slapping display of our angry opposition
to all the Bad Things in the world, after which we all
hold a big march and then go home and do what we were
doing before? The former path might lead to something
big. The latter could lead to extinction for this movement.
Two sides of the left
The veteran activist Susan George put this starkly
to the audience in one of the Forums best events
and one which summed up, for me, both the strengths
and weaknesses of the whole weekend. It was a debate
entitled Life After Capitalism, and she
was on the panel.
She preceded her suggested solutions with a warning:
There is a serious possibility that this unstable
global economy could actually collapse. We could then
be faced with a Weimar-type situation. We could experience
war, dictatorship, instability and military takeover.
Remember that life after capitalism could be worse than
what we have now. This movement has got to get serious
in thinking about how we could avoid this outcome. We
have got to take capitalism as seriously as it takes
itself, because it is relentless.
George then followed up her warning with a number of
positive suggestions, which seemed to enthuse the audience.
They included a crash programme to tackle climate change;
an international clearing union to make third-world
debt impossible in future; legislation to allow corporations
to be closed down or re-chartered for transgressing;
the creation of global public companies to provide obvious
public goods, like software and pharmaceuticals, which
the market is failing to distribute fairly; and the
creation of an acceptable inequality ratio
to ensure that concern about people falling below the
poverty line should go hand-in-hand with concern about
those above an acceptable wealth line.
All this was intriguing, and potentially inspiring
stuff. Then George sat down, and another George
George Galloway MP, leader of the Respect coalition,
stood up to speak. The contrast was remarkable and telling.
Where Susan Georges talk had been a thoughtful
dissection of the weaknesses of our own movement, and
a serious attempt at structural solutions to some of
the worlds major problems, George Galloways
contribution was a speaker-shaking rant about the wonders
of Castros Cuba. He roared, he ranted, he bellowed,
he accused and he showed, better than anything else,
exactly how not to take things forward.
The difference was stark, and it was one which contained
within it a telling lesson about the whole event. For
this social forum was a showcase for the dual nature
of this movement. On one side there is the old left,
barren of ideas, wilting in numbers and influence and
drawing all its lessons from the past. In the absence
of mass support it is forced to turn to underhand tactics
to maintain its influence.
On the other side there is a still-new, still-young
movement of people a new generation who
can see that the solutions to the problems of todays
world will have to be new, novel and above all, democratic.
Neither Castro nor Marx nor George Galloway is going
to save us. Honest debate, serious analysis, damned
hard work and a determination to stand up to power just
The trouble is, there is no guarantee that we will
succeed. Susan George, again, put it well. Im
70 now, she explained to the audience, and
Ive seen an earlier radical movement grow up then
die. Theres no guarantee it wont happen
again. The road from here to Life After Capitalism is
going to be a very long and hard one. Lets not
make it any harder than necessary.
It is, indeed, time to get serious.