Dead Men Left

Monday, October 18, 2004

ESF: Stalin's revenge

Earlier, I referred, in passing, to two unpleasant incidents that occurred during the European Social Forum last weekend. One of these, the disruption and cancellation of the "End the occupation of Iraq" plenary session, has become the subject of two particularly obnoxious posts from an "ex-Stalinist who's gone liberal and pro-war" at Harry's Place.

(Any post that starts, by the way, with Peter Tatchell's ludicrous, implausible version of events at a Palestine rally deserves to be treated with the deepest suspicion. But no matter. Let's stick to the main point.)

Many of the details in Harry's post are inaccurate to some extent. Taken together, the whole thing is ridiculous. Like the rest of the pro-war "left", Harry does not have the faintest idea, not the merest glimmer of understanding of what anti-capitalism, or the "movement of movements" is, what it represents, what values it holds to, or how it operates. For his information, at least, the ESF operates on a principle of trust: the Porto Allegre Charter of Principles, drafted by Bernard Cassen of Le Monde Diplomatique, amongst others, is specifically designed to promote co-operation between diverse groups. All of this can only operate on the basis of a high degree of mutual trust and respect. All of which means that calling for security - readily available, and provided by Alexandra Palace - to dispose of those determined to disrupt proceedings is politically very difficult, to the point of threatening the whole event. This ESF is a soft target for any disgruntled sectarians, of course; but the supportive and positive atmosphere, so obvious throughout the event, more than compensates for this.

With that in mind, I'll describe what happened on Friday evening. (I stand open to correction on points of detail here: I speak as an admittedly partial eyewitness.) The meeting space was enormous, and packed; capacity was around the 2,500 mark. Listed to appear on the platform were Lindsey German of the Stop the War Coalition; Sabah Jahwad, of Iraqi Democrats Against the Occupation; Fabio Alberti, from the Italian "Bridge to Baghdad"; Joanna Puszwacka of the ESF Polish committee; Tommy Sheridan, Scottish Socialist Party MSP; and Subhi Al Mashadani, general secretary of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU).

IFTU's London represenative, Abdullah Muhsin, had made an earlier appearance at the Labour Party conference to argue against TUC policy on ending the occupation of Iraq. IFTU itself is the only trade union recognised by the occupation authorities, in direct breach of ILO regulations. Understandably, Al Mashadani's appearance provoked consternation. He was, however, present on a clearly-labelled platform, alongside speakers with the most definite views on the occupation; he was the invitee of the British trade unions; and I, like the overwhelming majority of those present, were prepared to allow him to speak on those terms. Frankly, his having been invited, I was hoping he would be - verbally! - ripped apart by the rest of the platform, with the anti-occupation arguments strengthened as a result. As the last paragraph implied, it is the nature of the ESF that pretty large disagreements can co-exist within the Forum: the French hijab ban being a good case in point, with alleged "feminists" arguing in its favour against a wider opposition.

Earlier in the day, I was told that "Iraq Occupation Focus" had pushed an argument for staging a protest in the meeting. This attracted some support, as a statement of opposition ot Al Mashadani's presence. It was, however, a small crowd that initially began the disruption - perhaps no more than 100 - who stood in the central aisle, and booed and jeered as soon as the chair moved to open the meeting. At this stage, there were undoubtedly many who had some sympathy with demonstrators at least voicing a significant concern. It was not, however, my impression that they had majority support.

Sami Ramadani, a lecturer and an Iraqi exile, spoke from the platform to suggest a compromise position. Calling himself a "supporter of the patriotic resistance in Iraq", he proposed that those objecting to Al Mashadani's speech should walk out, and then return for the remainder of the meeting, having made their protest. This divided the protestors: those around Iraq Occupation Focus were in favour of leaving, and the protesting crowd diminished to some twenty or so. Some of these I recognised as supporters of Workers' Power; others were apparently from a Turkish Maoist organisation. Sections of the meeting took up the chant in opposition to "Let him speak"; I am glad to have initiated this.

It being impossible calm this vocal group, the chair placed a vote before the meeting on whether it should continue. Overwhelmingly, the meeting voted to continue. Lindsey German made a quite brilliant speech, straight over the heads of the protestors who she throughly ridiculed, and received a standing ovation as a result. However, as soon as Al Mashadani rose to speak, an attempt was made to storm the stage. His two minders bundled him off-stage; my understanding at this point is that neither the platform nor Alexandra Palace were confident about letting the meeting continue, and it was cancelled. The protestors had to leave down the central aisle through the abuse of the meeting; at one stage, a scuffle broke out.

Really, it is hard to find any excuse for the anti-democratic behaviour here. Workers' Power and its collaborators were clearly out solely to wreck the meeting; a stunt which, naturally enough, played into the hands of the right - sorry, pro-war "left" - as seen at Harry's Place. But to then find Harry's Place concocting a ludicrous plot or conspiracy theory, with the SWP at the centre, is just foul. It betrays an extraordinary political ignorance to simply lump all opposition to Harry's own peculiar politics - semi-post-Stalinist B52 liberalism - as one homogenous mass; though doubtless politically active Muslims are now used to such treatment at the hands of such people. In the end, I share Socialist Worker's assessment of events, sneered at by Harry:

But a couple of dozen people, with no connection to the anti-war movement, broke up the meeting through barracking and intimidation. They ignored appeals from, and a vote by, over 2,000 people in the audience for the meeting to take place.

The hecklers claimed they objected to the presence of a representative of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU).

Most of the audience also opposed the representative of the IFTU, but did not support the disruption. Well known opponent of the occupation Sami Ramadani told the audience that he opposed the invite to the IFTU, but the meeting must go ahead.

Those who disrupted the meeting have very effectively isolated themselves from the anti-war movement, and have only aided the occupation's most embittered supporters.