The New International: A Report from The European Social Forum

By Jeremy Gilbert
1st December 2002

"The name of new International is given here to what calls to the friendship of an alliance without institution of those who, even if they never believed in the socialist-Marxist international, in the dictatorship of the proletariat, in the messiano-eschatological role of the universal union of proletarians of all lands, continue to be inspired by at least one of the spirits of Marx or of Marxism (they now know that there is more than one) and in order to ally themselves, in a new, concrete, and real way, even if this alliance no longer takes the form of a party or of a workers' international, but rather a kind of counter-conjuration, in the (theoretical and practical) critique of the state of international law, the concepts of State and nation, and so forth: in order to renew this critique, and especially to radicalise it."

Jacques Derrida (1994) Spectres of Marx, translated by Peggy Kamuf , Routledge.

Reflecting on the Marxist legacy to the end of a very long century, French philosopher Jacques Derrida suggests the possibility of a 'New International'. What exactly such a thing would look like is unclear, and the very ambiguity of the term has prompted at least one volume of speculative essays in response (Parallax, Volume 7, Number 3: The New International, edited by Martin McQuillan, Routledge 2001). If a New International looked like anything, however, then it would probably look like this. Forty thousand people, gathered beneath the Tuscan hills to discuss the parameters and potentialities of a new European left, must rank as a historic and inspiring sight, whatever its legacy to the future.

To my knowledge there has been no such Europe-wide gathering of the left since the days when the communist and socialist internationals were living and vital organisations. Then the various national parties could periodically pool their organisational resources, enabling the faithful of their respective orthodoxies to meet, discuss, and gird themselves in the armour of international solidarity. That no such uniformity of purpose or structure underpinned the co-ordination of this grand festival of opposition only makes its very existence more impressive, and is a testament to the imagination and dedication of the international organisers (in particular the Italian hosts).

Not that all involved would like to keep things that way. Let there be no mistake: this was an event which in terms of both its organising framework and its political content was dominated by the hard left. What exactly that meant depended, it seemed, largely on the political character of the 'hard left' in the various represented countries. In some case 'hard' would appropriately designate a militancy proper to the current world situation. In particular the representatives of Italian organisations such as No Global and Rifondazione (the Re-founded Communist Party) were inspiring in their capacity to imagine a new left in which new social and political movements, trade-unions and political communist parties, NGOS and anarchists would all learn from each other in a spirit of festive experimentation, creative disunity and intransigent resistance to neo-liberalism. It's ironic, but heartening, to note that it is Rifondazione, initially constituted as a fundamentalist rump, rejecting the whole Eurocommunist tradition which informed the Italian Communist Party's self-transformation into the Party of the Democratic Left, which is leading this process.

On the other hand, 'hard' can also mean 'rigid'. I lost count of the number of times a speaker exhorted the audience of some packed room - an audience numbering in some cases a couple of hundred, in others a few thousand - to realise the ineluctable necessity for a workers party to co-ordinate class struggle as the only way of mounting effective opposition to capital. The spectacular agents of the 'new' direct-action politics - Reclaim the Streets, Earth First, the tutte bianchi - were not in evidence at all in these debates or amongst the myriad stalls, and nor, despite the visible participation of Italian environmentalists, were the Green parties who have done so much to challenge conventional politics in several European countries. Anarchism was represented only by the traditional red and black flag of the more-Marxist-than-the-Marxists Anarcho-Syndicalist current. Groups and individuals concerned with cultural politics or informed by traditions of radical thought other than Marxist - Leninism were decidedly thin on the ground. All in all, the multicoloured pluralism of the possible new International seemed only to be represented by the Italian participants.

Why this should have been the case with regard to the input from other countries, I can only speculate. However, there can be no doubt as to the reason why the British delegation was dominated by mobs whose main contribution was to chant mindless slogans while other people were trying to hold workshops. The English mobilisation for the Forum has been, as discussed elsewhere on this site, dominated by Globalise Resistance: one of a long series of wholly-owned subsidiaries of the reactionary, centralist and ultra-orthodox Socialist Workers Party, whose deathly grip is as sure to choke the life and energy out of anything it touches as that of any wayward Jedi. If only the NGOs, activist groups and individuals who had been initially drawn to the prospect of a European Social Forum had not been effectively excluded from decision-making by the SWP, then things might have been so different. That the single most interesting and thoughtful speaker I heard over the whole 3 days was in fact a British contributor, Hilary Wainwright (editor of Red Pepper), says much about the largely unrepresented contribution that the British independent left could have made.

A case in point was the seminar discussing of the concept of 'multitude' in Hardt & Negri's recent book Empire (Harvard University Press, 2000). The term is an enigmatic one, with its origins in early modern philosophy, and is used by Hardt & Negri to designate a productive, energetic, heterogeneous mode of collective being different from the type of shared uniformity implied by a collective term such as 'people' 'nation' or even 'proletariat'. The discussion consisted mainly of denunciations of the very use of the term as a deviation from Marxian correctitude, backed up by the claim that no significant changes to the class structure of developed societies (other than that of the UK) had been observed in the latter quarter of the twentieth century. Representatives of French and British Trotskyism, asserted that not only are Hardt & Negri dangerous in their deviation from the classical topology of class (a topology from which, incidentally, they do not deviate, as a Spanish contributor pointed out), but that any calls for a re-think of revolutionary strategy which such a new terminology might inspire must constitute an absolute betrayal of the workers.

Those who have argued that social and cultural and changes of recent decades have created specific difficulties for the contemporary left have tended to argue that such changes necessitate a re-thinking of conventional strategic methods; that the revolutionary party on a Bolshevik model may not be the best means of achieving social change in the twenty-first century. What has always remained mysterious to me is how those who deny that such social changes have occurred at all manage to avoid drawing the same strategic conclusion: if the ground on which the left fights has not changed, and yet the left has still met with such a spectacular lack of success, then what other conclusion can possibly drawn than that the methods it has used intrinsically flawed? Nonetheless, any such departure from revolutionary orthodoxy was indeed met with indignation by the French Trotskyists, with blinking, enraged incomprehension by the British Socialist Workers (Gumby tendency). On such occasions one can only observe that, as powerful and valid as the insights of the Marxist tradition remain, an insistence on the need to remain loyal to rhetorics and modes of organisation which have been failing to win popular support for the past half-century seems unlikely to take enable this movement to reach far beyond the confines of the Fortezza Da Basso.

It would be quite wrong to imply that this was necessarily typical of the forum as a whole. As Jo Littler points out elsewhere on this site, the range of sessions on offer was such that no two people's experience of the forum was likely to be the same. Personally, I made a point of trying to attend sessions at which the topic offered some scope for reflection on questions of theory and strategy, as well as for the ubiquitous mutual reassurances that all over Europe there were people who really do hate neo-liberal capitalism. Unfortunately, what I learned is that an inability to address issues of theory and strategy remains the crippling weakness of the organised left throughout most of Europe. While the 'movement of movements' is undoubtedly generating a whole series of new sites of struggle and new means of tactical engagement, it was apparent just how resistant many of that movement's leaders are to any serious consideration of the problems raised by the novelty of the world situation today. 'Debates' over strategy almost inevitably concluded with vapid calls for co-operation between 'parties' and 'movements.' The problems and possibilities inherent in such relationships were barely discussed, when one might have hoped that they would form the main topic of discussion.

Even these fairly empty conclusions only seemed to have any relevance to the political situation of the left in France and Italy, where parties of the revolutionary left remain, if not electorally significant, then at least visible. In fact, from a British perspective, such debates had an archaic ring to them, reminding one of the moment of the early 1980s when figures such as Tony Benn called for the new social movements to affiliate formally to the Labour Party, with, for instance the women's movement being offered a seat on the national executive committee . Significantly, this was the only time in its history when Labour was both a radical socialist party and one with zero chance of making a significant electoral impact in the foreseeable future. Today The UK situation is very different from that of 1983 or that of Italy and France today, and whether we are 20 years ahead of our continental comrades or 20 years behind them, only time will tell. Either way, the questions facing us are quite different. While Marxist nostalgiasts still believe that retaining the link between Labour and the unions is a sine qua non of successful class struggle, many now recognise that it is the labour movement 's over-investment in the Labour Party - which now barely exists in any real sense, it's empty husk functioning only as a protective shell and source of financial nourishment for the agents of New Labour - which is preventing it from acting as an effective force for change. The chances of any new left party emerging, or any established one becoming significant enough for anyone to care about its relationships to 'the movement', is simply too remote to be worth discussing.

The question that was not even on the agenda at this or any of the meetings I attended was simply: how might the 'movement of movements' reach out to the many people who do not currently identify with its values, its programme, its imagery or its past? The fact that in the developed world, the number of people supporting not just one but any of the strands of this multiple movement make up a relatively small minority rather puts into perspective the secondary question of how to more tightly weave those strands together. The sessions on issues like consumer culture, contemporary cinema and cultural policy were astonishing in their na´ve simplicity: as if Cultural Studies had never happened, we heard Hollywood and the high street condemned like Sodom and Gomorrah. The idea that the left might have to learn what it is that enables those institutions to hold such a fascination for people, to work with and not against the desires which make them possible and, and indeed might have to learn to enable people's pleasures rather than condemn them, was nowhere to be heard. The question which remains foreclosed within such a context is always the twin question of strategy and the popular: strategy, the plan for winning over people who do not agree with us already, must always coincide with a respectful appreciation of the power of the popular, the real desires and experiences of the people we are trying to win over. This was the issue raised most famously by the communist leader Antonio Gramsci, writing 70 years ago in the fascist prison cell which was the home of his last years. In one of the cities in which a street bears his name, it is the question which was still being forgotten.

And yet, this was not an occasion moment for dark thoughts or depression. Advocating a relentless 'pessimism of the intellect' for the revolutionary activist-thinker, Gramsci famously insists that it must be tempered always by 'optimism of the will'. These are early days for the social forum movement ,which has already contributed to the election of a Workers' Party government in Brazil this year: one of the greatest victories for the Latin American left in 20 years. How could this first uncertain meeting of different traditions, experiences and languages have been anything but confused, dissatisfying, at times superficial? It was also inspiring, exciting, and undoubtedly significant: an expression of 'optimism of the will' arguably unprecedented in the experience of anyone too young to remember 1968. Most important of all, this is only the first of many such fora. The next European Social Forum will be held in Paris, November 2003. The problems and weaknesses identified in Florence should inspire those of us who come from traditions other than revolutionary communism not to walk away from this project, but to do all we can to ensure that it grows healthy and strong .

To get involved with the English mobilisation for the next ESF visit www.mobilise.org.uk/twiki/bin/view/ESF/WebHome.

By Jeremy Gilbert

he teaches Cultural Studies at the University of East London. He is co-editor (with Timothy Bewes) of Cultural Capitalism: Politics After New Labour (Lawrence & Wishart, 2000).