With the second European Social Forum meeting in Paris this November, "social forums" are suddenly all the rage on the left. But what exactly are they? To understand the social forum movement, you need to know a bit about its history...
World Social Forum
The first World Social Forum was called in January 2001 to coincide with the World Economic Forum - an annual meeting where some of the key players in global capitalism sit down to discuss how to best run the world in their own interests. The idea of the WSF was to counterpose "social" values of equality, democracy and solidarity to the profit-oriented capitalist economics represented by the WEF.
The WEF met in Davos, a luxury resort in Switzerland; the WSF met in Porto Allegre, a Brazilian city where Workers' Party (PT) administrations have for some years experimented with local forms of participatory democracy. A big part of the drive for the WSF came from an organisation called ATTAC - at first the Association for a Tobin Tax for the Aid of Citizens, and now the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens - a French group which campaigns for a "Tobin tax" on financial trading to fund the abolition of world poverty. The first WSF was huge, attracting over 20,000 participants from across the world - a mix of labour movement, peasant and other grassroots activists with representatives of rich non-government organisations (NGOs) such as ATTAC and even agencies of the United Nations (on the problems inherent in this peculiar mixture, see below).
Porto Allegre 2002 was even bigger (50,000) and decided to call for regional social forums later in the year. This is where my personal experience of the movement begins.
European Social Forum
The first European Social Forum met in Florence, Italy, in November 2002; I attended as part of a delegation organised by the No Sweat campaign, which brought 50 trade unionists, students and anti-capitalist activists over to the ESF on a coach from London. The event attracted 60,000 people from all over Europe - and after three days of meetings and workshops on issues ranging from Palestine and Iraq to feminism, campaigns against privatisation and fighting the far right, culminated in a magnificent, one million-strong anti-war demonstration through the centre of Florence. Even without the opportunity to meet activists from and learn about struggles in dozens of other countries, this demonstration - undoubtedly the most vibrant and enjoyable I have ever been on - would have made the trip to Florence worthwhile. This year's ESF meets in Paris between November 12th and 16th. No Sweat will once again be taking a demonstration, and I'd urge Bolshy readers to bunk off school or college for a few days and come along.
Pros and cons
This brief history should serve to illustrate both the importance and limitations of the social forum movement from its birth. Clearly, the creation of large-scale forums in which left-wing activists from across the globe can discuss and debate the issues facing our various movements is hugely positive. However, that does not mean that the social forums can substitute for building ongoing, long-term socialist and labour movement struggles in our own countries. They are not a substitute for the socialist fight against capitalism.
ATTAC, for instance, is not so much anti-capitalist as "anti-finance"; it lobbies existing governments to marginally reshape the world by taxing one section of capital, rather than seeking to organise a working-class or popular movement which can challenge capitalism itself from below. Similar things are true of other NGOs. Worse still, these organisations have often tried to exclude left-wing political parties and groups from taking a full and open part in the social forums. As well as being undemocratic and bad for debate, this kind of nonsense simply means that the strongest groups simply stop being honest about who they are - eg the SWP turning up as Globalise Resistance, or the Italian group Communist Refoundation dominating the ESF (as the PT dominated the WSF) through sheer force of numbers. There are huge and vitally important differences of opinion in what is still a loose movement, and these cannot - and should not - be glossed over by banning some ideas at the expense of others. For instance, the PT has proved to be far from an anti-capitalist force, forming alliances with the right to attack its working-class and peasant base since it won the Brazilian presidential election earlier this year; for socialists involved in the WSF not to criticise this openly would be crazy.
Many of those involved in the social forum movement would see the world as divided into a rich, exploitative "north" and poor, exploited "south", as opposed to the socialist view of class struggle between rich and poor, capitalists and workers, within every country.
The future of the social forums Social forums are starting to be organised at a national and local level -the first Irish Social Forum recently met in Dublin, for instance, and there have been attempts to organise social forums in a number of English cities. So far, rivalry between different groups (and crucially between NGOs and the left, aggravated by the sectarian, we-must-dominate-everything behaviour of the SWP) have prevented these important initiatives from coming to much. My feeling is that socialists should take a full part in building the movement, but criticise its problems and limitations too.