From Mumbai with hope

"Can you ask them to go?" an anxious volunteer pleaded with Gautam Mody, trade union organiser turned honest spin doctor for January's fourth World Social Forum (WSF) in Mumbai. A group of politically motivated Buddhists were performing a dance outside the forum's media centre and taking up a lot of space.

March 1, 2004
10 min read


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper

“Leave them,” said Mody, as firmly as a conventional press officer might order a demonstration to end. “Why does it take so long for people to let go of the old way of doing things?” he grumbled. He went on to explain how the streets outside his union offices in Delhi are always cleared of anyone loitering with political intent. “We”re creating a new culture here,” Mody said. “In the past the labour movement too often preferred to meet behind closed doors, and we would even send people to investigate who was listening. The social-forum process is completely open. That is not always easy to accept.”

But by the end of the Mumbai forum (five days of festival, conference, demonstration, workshop and rally declaring “another world is possible, we can build it”) many more people understood what makes the WSF different. The square outside the media centre became a stage squatted by any group nifty enough to get there first and perform before a motley collection of the world’s straight and alternative press.

When it comes to organising an international social forum (apart from the WSF, there are also African, Asian and European forums), it’s not just a case of the trade unions having to open up their smoke-filled rooms. In many countries the anarchist-inclined movements for global justice have also had to depart from traditional practice: they have warily and conditionally agreed to participate in the representative assemblies and committees that are responsible for organising the forums. The local social forums that are springing up in towns and cities across the world operate on the principle of direct forms of democracy. But while the meetings that coordinate the international social forums are open to contributions from anyone who shares the basic principles underpinning the forum idea, their decisions are finally agreed by representatives.

There are many different ways of being a representative, of “making present” the views of those who cannot be present themselves. Some forms of representation are more direct and democratic than others. In the South, social movements – women’s, urban, peasants” and trade union movements – have invented ways of ensuring that their collective power is transmitted beyond the level of direct democracy through forms of representation that are strengthened by systems of rotation and recall. In the North, partly in reaction to the way parliamentary and labour representative structures have become emptied of vitality and radicalism, there is a strong sense of “only I can represent myself”; the experience of being represented has become so diminished that many people feel that only a pure form of direct democracy has any authenticity.

Events can change the meaning and nature of representation, however. Thus, the brutality with which Italian police attacked protesters at the G8 summit at Genoa in 2002 set the pace for bringing the social movements and trade unions together. “It created a desire to cooperate, which made it possible to build trust and organise the [November 2002] Florence European Social Forum in a way that involved everyone,” the Italian forum spokesperson and Aids campaigner Vittorio Agnoletto explained in Mumbai. Thus, after experimenting with creating -autonomous spaces”, Italian social movements now often work alongside the cautiously left trade unionists of the CGIL.

Political parties excluded

The organisations most challenged by the theory and practice of social forums are the traditional political parties of the left – both from the social democratic and Leninist traditions. The WSF’s principles specifically exclude the direct participation of political parties. The basic idea is all about building up the power of social and trade union movements. “The WSF,” says the forum’s Charter of Principles (agreed by the WSF International Council in 2001), “is a plural, diversified, non-confessional, non-governmental and non-party context that inter-relates organisations engaged in concrete action, from the local to the international, to build another world& Neither party representatives nor military organisations shall participate in the forum.”

This does not mean that the forum is anti-party. In Italy and Brazil many of those most energetically building the forum come from parties (Rifondazione Communista and the Workers” Party, respectively) that are trying to open themselves up to the influence and activity of the social movements. Indian anti-dam campaigner Medha Patkar described the WSF’s relationship to electoral politics thus: “Electoral politicians are not untouchables here, but the WSF is really an expression of people power and non-electoral politics. Non-electoral politicians need to build their strength to challenge elected politicians. Those representing an alternative view of development need to realise the commonality of their ideologies and strategies.”

In this way social forums put into practice the assertion of the women’s and ethnic minorities” movements of the 1970s, that movements of the oppressed and marginalised need autonomy to develop and identify their own needs, identities and sources of power. Political parties do not have a monopoly of the power to achieve change; indeed, generally they have flunked the task of reform.

The emergence of social forums doesn”t make the political party redundant. It leaves it a distinctive contribution to the wider process of struggle carried out by a plurality of actors: the role of linking extra-parliamentary campaigning with the very different timetables and tactical necessities of electoral politics. To perform this role effectively – to act as amplifiers rather than mufflers of the movements in the streets and the workplaces – parties have to open up their methods of organising and thinking. “Every way of reforming party policy has to start from an experimental approach,” Rifondazione Communista leader Fausto Bertinotti told Red Pepper. “Practice has to come before theory. The collective intellect is the movement, and the party is helping to contribute to that, but it cannot in itself be that collective intellect.”

Crucial to this rethinking of the role of political parties, especially their relationship to social movements, is a challenge to conventional ways of understanding knowledge, whose knowledge is important and how it is produced. Traditional parties of the left have long acted as if knowledge can be centralised for dissemination to a passive membership. The mass membership have not been seen as creative, knowing, autonomous and interconnected human beings; they have been treated as supporters, voting fodder or, in the military analogy, “the rank and file”. Historically, this attitude has deprived “left” parties of a huge source of creative power.

By contrast, the hallmark and source of strength of both the new movements and the older feminist, peace, green and radical trade union movements on whose traditions they build is a fundamental belief in the importance of practical, indigenous, personal knowledge. Portuguese philosopher and activist Boaventura de Sousa Santos organised a workshop at Mumbai on combining different kinds of knowledge – the theoretical and practical. He said: “There is a recognition running through the way these forums are organised, especially in Mumbai, that knowledge embedded in practice cannot always be codified and documented. Indeed, the horizontal, networking ways of organising these movements is in part a result of the need for practical, non-traditional ways of sharing that knowledge.”

Creating diverse sources of power

The sharing of knowledge is closely linked to the discovery and creation of different sources of power. The campaigning movements and networks that met in the old warehouses and newly constructed tents at the WSF site in Mumbai do not assert a rival monopoly to that of traditional political parties. Rather, they demonstrate, in practice more than in theory, a belief in diverse sources of power. One purpose of social forums is to find ways of connecting those different sources of power and making them more than the sum of their parts.

Everyone at Mumbai expressed the excitement of connecting their struggles with those of others. Homa Kadeep, for example, helps coordinate campaigns defending the rights of forest people to land and natural resources across India. She said: “What is happening here is that we are connecting with people from Brazil, South Africa, Canada& We go home knowing we are not alone. We are also discovering how to be more effectively coordinated.”

This sense of opening possibilities was shared by young Zimbabwean activist Kelvin Hazangwi. “I”m organising against the privatisation of water,” Hazangwi said. “But I want to learn from a group that’s working on freeing the people of Tibet. I want to know the struggles they”re facing. But I also tell them how we are fighting the struggle against water privatisation. And my cause in Zimbabwe can also be part of a cause against water privatisation in Mali. These linkages can now be made. What I”m saying is that there should be coordinated linkages.”

Coordinating linkages that are horizontal rather than vertical, that function across popular movements rather than up from the masses to the party leadership, was the original vision of the social forum founders. Chico Whitaker, an activist intellectual from Brazil with a history of involvement with the Workers” Party and radical movements associated with the Catholic Church, was one of those who formulated that vision. A modest man, now in his 60s, Whitaker believes that the forum idea draws on the most important political discovery of recent times – “the power of open, free horizontal structures”. He told Red Pepper: “It is this idea that explains the success of the first three WSFs in Porto Alegre as well as of Seattle and the 15 February demonstrations [against the war in Iraq] and now Mumbai.”

The purpose of the WSF is to develop this “horizontal social articulation”, as the networking of the global justice and anti-war movements is clumsily described. This, Whitaker argued, required a “space to serve a common objective” of creating alternatives to neo-liberalism and war. That space would “function as a public square without leaders or pyramids of power. It is intended as -a factory of ideas- or an incubator from which new initiatives aiming at the construction of another world can emerge”.

In this way the social forums, whether internationally or locally, are experimenting (not always successfully, it must be said) with new ways of integrating the particular – ie, demands and campaigns on “single” issues – with the universal – the wider effort to bring about a radical transformation of the whole of society. Historically, this was exclusively the function of the political party.

So, this is what the social forum movement aspires to: it seeks to provide a purposeful space in which activists can create new alliances and extend their networks of resistance, and help them turn their organisations into the sources of alternative policies, stronger strategies and more convincing visions. And this is our task in hosting the next European Social Forum in London: we must develop the forum so that it is not only a celebration of diversity and international solidarity, but also an innovative collective intellect nourished by people’s daily resistance to the pressures of the global market. First, as the Indians managed to do in Mumbai, we have to break from the old closed ways that so irritated Gautam Mody. But, again like the Indians, the Italians, the Brazilians and the French, we also have to find a way of developing new ways of organising that build on what’s left of the foundations of democratic organisation and collective strength that the trade unions historically laid.


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


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