Dead Men Left

Monday, October 18, 2004

ESF: quick thoughts

Non-existent posting over the last few days was the result of my attending the European Social Forum in London. If you weren't there, the next one will be in Athens, saving you the irritation of predictably bad London weather: the clouds, scenting an opportunity, duly massed over Alexandra Palace from Thursday morning onwards. (Equal predictable, mere hours after the final demonstration, is the blazing sunshine I can now see out of the window.) Still, the marquees at Ally Pally held up well.

But what to say? Bar one or two instances of unforgivable stupidity (one of which is pretty well recorded here; both of which I will return to at some point), the event was a huge success. Final attendance I'm not sure of: by Saturday, when large numbers of British delegates turned up, all the meetings - plenaries, seminars, and workshops - were packed to overflowing, alongside thousands more wandering between stalls, eating sandwiches, juggling, selling papers, and the rest of it. Presumably something over 20,000 attended. It all still seems a little overwhelming: between the huge delegations from Other Countries, the general hubbub and ruckus, and the exceptionally high level of political debate and engagement, assembling any coherent thoughts on everything at once is rather difficult.

Personal highlights can probably be guessed at: the Respect rally, held in Bloomsbury at the Friends' Meeting House on Saturday evening, was amongst the best political meetings I have ever attended. Like many comrades, I had a grim sense of foreboding about it, and attended expecting to find probably 300-400 familiar faces barely covering the ground floor seating at Friends. It was too far away from the main event, clashed with other clearly popular meetings, and, well, it's only Respect, isn't it?

Total room capacity in the main hall at Friends' is around 2,000: to find filled to the rafters was a genuine surprise. The point with Respect is that, despite long memories of defeats and near-misses electorally, the damn thing actually works. I suspect some of the knee-jerk hostility towards it on the left is as much a conservative reaction to this break from a well-established routine as it is to ingrained sectarianism, incipient Islamophobia, and political myopia - for example.

All the speakers were on top form, George Galloway and Tommy Sheridan particularly so. However, it was Olivier Besancenot, the young postal worker who stood for the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire in the 2002 French Presidential elections, who demonstrated well why over a million French citizens were prepared to vote for him. He provided a very clear analysis of left politics in Europe, centred on the reformation of the European working class, and its relationship of the anti-capitalist movement. This unashamedly theoretical speech was justly cheered to the rafters.

Elsewhere, Perry Anderson at the New Left Review's meeting on the US and the UN very rapidly demolished a series of arguments about the UN's allegedly progressive role in world politics. He described it - rightly - as the creature of Cold War politics, well-adapted to a bipolar world, and ran swiftly through its more obvious failings in the last fifty years: from the disastrous creation of Israel in 1947/48, to the First Gulf War in 1991, the idea that the UN exists as a magic wand for good liberals to make nice things happen was ripped apart. Again, an overtly theoretical meeting - Anderson speaking alongside Peter Gowan, Bernard Cassen of ATTAC France and Luciana Castellina of Rivista Italy - was crammed solid; the principal complaint made was that it was simply not theoretical enough.

Faustino Bertinotti's contribution to the plenary on "War, social movements, and political parties" was worth hearing: more for what was said, than the manner of saying. I hadn't realised just how high the regard for the general secretary of Rifondazione Communista was, Bertinotti being greeted by thunderous applause. Fair enough: he took brave step in leaving the so-called "Olive Tree" coalition with Democrazia Sinistra, rejecting the politics of neo-liberalism, and took a further brave step in engaging Rifondazione with the anti-capitalist movement, to great effect at the G8 protests in Genoa. He has now been making noises about re-entering a coalition with the social democrats, and his speech - carefully demarcating the lines of opposition to the "war on terror" and terrorism - seemed designed to reinforce such a move. It was worth hearing for the presentation of how a political party of 100,000 members can deal with the twin pulls of a radical anti-capitalist left, and strong tugging to the reformist right. Bertinotti, as does the whole of Rifondazione, thus performs a delicate and probably unsustainable balancing act: there is a real fight to settle the direction both he and his party will fall in.

Though I didn't attend, I'm told Salam Yaqoob's contribution to the meeting on the hijab, tackling and slicing up the arguments of supposed "feminists" opposing the right of Muslim women to dictate their own appearance. That is precisely the argument Yaqoob uses: that the debate about the ban on the hijab is a debate about a woman's right to choose, a right that applies to Muslim women as much as it does to anyone else. (As an incidental point, her comparison, whilst chairing the Respect meeting, of Tommy Sheridan to Mel Gibson in Braveheart brought the house down.)

I could carry on like this for some time. I think the critical political points that came through throughout the event were, first, that the attitude the movement adopts to the Iraqi resistance will be decisive for its future; and second, that the issue of political representation and political parties is swinging in the revolutionary left's favour. The whole ESF was far more radical than I - and probably anyone else - anticipated: French ATTAC appear to have decided against mobilising, removing one obvious right-wing bloc inside the movement, but the experience of opposing the Iraq invasion and occupation has undoubtedly forced the whole "movement of movements" to become both more theoretically exacting, and more radical.