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Dan Gordon

 

 
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Return to Part One of this article

In search of a debate rather than a rally, I headed for Strategies for Social Transformation, at which the thesis of John Holloway’s book Change the World Without Taking Power, was discussed, and almost unanimously rejected. Hilary Wainwright reflected on her experiences in the 70s socialist feminist movement of the practical limitations of trying to do your own thing without state funding. Fausto Bertinotti, General Secretary of Rifondazione Communista, enthusiastically cheered on by some young compagni at the back, put the case for parties still being relevant, while giving those of us trying to dispense with the headsets some free Italian practice by speaking slowly and clearly. (Bertinotti’s latest Theses were available in English in booklet form at the Rifondazione stall, alongside Milano espressos). Sadly Daniel Bensaïd of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire was too ill to attend, leaving it a thoughtful-sounding member of the LCR’s obscure British offshoot Socialist Resistance to explain why the Argentinian uprising of 2001 failed due to - yes, you’ve guessed it - the absence of a revolutionary party, and the ubiquitous Alex Callinicos to pop up from the audience and proclaim that he was an ‘unrepentant Leninist’. One member of Callinicos’s party did the usual rant on why revolution is necessary before disappearing straight away without even taking the trouble to listen to anyone responding to him.

That afternoon, the sparse attendance and outdoor tent venue of The place of the Have Nots within the ESF confirmed the very point the session was intended to make. This meeting, chaired by Gus Massiah, was one of the few places within the Forum where there was an honest, non-accusatory, debate about why the ESF is attracting the progressive middle classes, and some workers in secure jobs, but not the very people who have lost out most from neoliberalism. The participation of ‘les exclus’, the ‘No Vox’, Massiah suggested, was indispensable: an ESF without them would be severely deficient, and if they rejected the whole process and struggled alone without allies, that would probably lead as in the past to jacqueries and failed revolts. A representative from the French homelessness campaign Droit au Logement outlined the barriers to participation, a question he had become interested in after seeing at Porto Alegre the question of poverty being discussed mainly by the progressive middle classes. These barriers were partly financial, but also partly a question of priorities: social and housing issues have been less prominent than war and racism at this ESF.

Vincent Mansharan, of the Thalis (‘Untouchables’) campaign in India, explained how the caste issue in India is linked with globalisation: upper caste Brahmins were now in alliance with multinational corporations to the detriment of the poor and low caste. He emphasised that their struggle was not for wealth and power but for the reclamation of human dignity. A speaker from the French unemployed movement Agir ensemble contre le chômage pointed how there was an increasing divide in Europe, even within social movements, between ‘workers with’ and ‘workers without’. There was no need to hold the ESF in a ‘château’ (Alexandra Palace): more priority should be given to food and accomodation. At £20, the concessionary ticket price was surely too high, and a concessionary rate for those working but on low pay (a category the host country is hardly short of) would have been welcome. In the same vein, Ancelmo Schweltzner from Brazil emphasised the need to build another world with the people, not for the people. Speaking from the floor, an unemployed Frenchman emphasised that the unemployed want the rights which are theirs (a concept which, incidentally, has almost disappeared from British public debate), not charity. Alain Lipietz, a French Green MEP, responded to and agreed with the call for politicians to listen to the ‘have nots’, adding that for equal access to rights, we need to have something to have access to. One Hungarian speaker angrily stated that whereas under communism there were no homelessness, there are now more than thirty thousand on the streets of Budapest alone, with no papers and hence no way of finding work, with courts recently ruling that they have no right to housing.

On this depressing note, on after the break to the next session Taking political action to stop climate change. A representative from the Campaign Against Climate Change, which started as a vigil outside the US embassy in London and which now consists mainly of an annual march on the anniversary of Bush rejecting the Kyoto Treaty, outlined plans to step up the campaign. Emphasising that, like CND during the Cold War, this is the most important issue there is, which will overwhelm all others, he called for an annual ‘Aldermaston March’ of the environment, to be as politically broad as possible. And, logically, he has a point: there will be little point discussing the distribution of resources within this planet if it gets to the stage where the planet is no longer habitable. Perhaps if the same amount of energy went into this campaign over the next two years as into opposing the war over the last two years, we might be able to force real action? Unfortunately, another speaker argued, public concern on the issue is lower than the government’s, and current social trends (to more air travel and buying more goods imported from afar) are making it worse. He emphasised the 2005 G8 summit as a key opportunity to get going the mass movement on climate change which has so far eluded us. One speaker from the floor raised the problem of self-flagellation: shouldn’t we targetting the authorities for, for example, allowing firms to relocate to out-of-town sites without public transport access, rather than individual consumers? True, the reply came, but personal choices still affect the problem: the key is to take small steps rather than being overwhelmed by the enormity of it all. Some suggestions that were made by a Green councillor from Somerset included: turn off taps (each time you turn one on you use a diesel engine), shop less in the run-up to Christmas (and tell local newspapers why), and share what space you have (falling occupancy rates are an important factor in increased household emissions).

I then made it to the session on Strategies for Peace and Global Disarmament – against nuclear weapons and military bases, just in time for the long-awaited live link-up to Mordechai Vanunu. This was hampered by technical problems: Bruce Kent, wearing a kitchen apron with anti-war badges pinned to the front, at one point placed the microphone to his ear, and the mobile phone on which Vanunu was speaking to his mouth, to general hilarity. Meanwhile, the parallel session on The End of Asylum Rights in Europe was approaching an acrimonious end, as activists accusing the Refugee Council of turning away homeless refugee women from its facilities and of becoming the agent of government anti-refugee policy seized control, shouting at the Refugee Council speaker present. Similar confrontation ensued that evening, when, while I was standing chatting in the foyer of Alexandra Palace, a sizeable group of determined anarchists shouting "ESF! Capitalist!" suddenly marched in with a banner and stormed through closed doors into a meeting at which Ken Livingstone was due to speak. Having an instinctive fear of confrontation, I decided that this was the moment to exit. Celebrity then spotted on the platform at Alexandra Palace station: Scottish Socialist Party leader Tommy Sheridan.

Over those two days in Alexandra Palace, one thing that became clear was that the ESF was not proving to be a great shop-window for the British left internationally. This manifested itself most clearly in the issue of language, which as many speakers pointed out, is of fundamental importance within the movement. Another world can scarcely be built if it is to be built in English alone, thus replicating the existing cultural imperialism of the lingua franca of global capitalism. Though the Babels translation volunteers did a sterling effort, it is interesting that many speakers chose not to use the translation facilities, but to speak in English instead, even though it may only have been their third language – or even to apologise for speaking their own language rather than English. Why should they feel this compulsion? Even to speak in one of the five main languages of the ESF (English, French, Spanish, Italian, German) was already an accomodation for some (e.g. for a Basque to speak in Spanish). Tellingly, it tended to be only French speakers that made a political virtue out of speaking their own language ("I believe in cultural diversity, so I shall express myself in French"). Worse still, some British speakers refused to comply with requests to slow down their rants so that the translators could keep up, whereas international speakers were used to speaking slowly for translation. It was observable that leftists from other countries did not in the main behave in the aggressive manner that is often the style of the British far left. Is this because in countries like France or Italy, where the organised Left had and has much deeper roots in society, anticapitalists are closer to mainstream values and so do not feel the need to behave like raving preachers on the margins of society? Or is it because British society in general, because it was the first to go through the Industrial Revolution and the first to have Thatcherism, is just generally more abrupt and functional, and produces a Left in its own image?

Sunday

On the Sunday morning, I managed to catch the end of a pertinent workshop in a packed small room in ULU on Another World is Possible – until then, how do you survive in an unsustainable inequitable world?, organised by the Leeds Institute for Environmental Science and Management. Small groups produced different lists of advice to give to someone seeking to lead a more ethical lifestyle. Among those that were felt to be most important were: be nice to strangers; get involved in your local community; make two achievable changes in your consumption patterns. Debate ranged over such issues as: Is it OK to own a car as long as you use it less? Or for an activist to travel around Rome on his moped, causing pollution, whilst making another world possible? Will people be convinced by moralising, or is it better to help them in making environmentally friendly choices that dovetail with their other needs? (E.g. asylum seekers in Glasgow getting together to found a scheme to obtain the fresh fruit and vegetables which they took for granted at home, but are a problem in British inner cities). The language barrier, though, again raised its head. One Bulgarian living in France, spoke, in English, although this was was at best his third language (probably fourth after Russian I would guess), and I had to help him translate the French phrase ‘acquis sociaux’ into English. He was, I think, misunderstood by a British man as suggesting that it had been wrongly claimed in an earlier session that everything was rosy in Cuba, when the thrust of what the Bulgarian was saying was that some positive projects had been achieved under communism despite its coercive nature.

At Russell Square, where the end-of-ESF demo was gathering to march off, the usual motley crew of Socialist Worker sellers, whistle salesmen and bicycling power generators were given an added cosmopolitan flavour by Belgian trade unionists in matching green oversuits and militant Greeks marching in formation down Tavistock Place, confusing a member of the Metropolitan Constabulary trying to identify them on his radio, by having their banners in Greek. I had, though, an assignation at the Ibis Hotel in Euston, to meet with the Collective for a European Citizenship of Residence. It was a privilege to hold their banner (albeit right at the back of the demo, sandwiched uncomfortably between ARCI and the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist)), with Saïd Bouziri, from Tunisia, who led the first ever sans-papiers hunger strike in 1972 and now heads both the Ligue des Droits de L’Homme’s campaigns on immigration and Génériques, an organisation which has done more than any other to promote the history of immigration in France. International discussion and sightseeing freely flowed, the French contingent being especially amused by the Inland Revenue building in Somerset House, and the propensity of London railway stations and squares to be named after Napoleonic defeats. Our banner attracted to it various onlookers from various countries.

Given the circuitous route of the march, we did not arrive in Trafalgar Square almost until nightfall, and had to take shelter in a Whitehall pub from the ensuing downpour, before emerging to hear the last of the bands play. And observe the official ESF banner "Against war, against racism, against privatisation, for another Europe of peace and social justice", which may qualify as the first positive reference to Europe I have ever seen in Trafalgar Square. Not that this was the message that got across: one of the few meagre exceptions to the general mainstream British media blackout on the ESF was to report the demonstration simply as an anti-war, anti-Bush demonstration – as, it has been alleged, the SWP intended, thus decoupling it from the more tricky issue of what kind of Europe we actually want to live in. But these quibbles aside, the general feeling as the rally dispersed was positive, and I have no regrets about attending what was at times an inspiring three days. All the more so, when I found that the next day’s Guardian had found space to mention the call for a European citizenship of residence, that did get in to the final conference declaration.

And now I must get round to reading all those leaflets!

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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