The movement is the message

By Oscar Reyes
1st December 2002

Oscar Reyes is a PhD student on the Ideology and Discourse Analysis programme at the University of Essex. He is a founding editor of the Independent Student Media Project -

Reform or revolution? If Bernstein met Marx on the way to the European Social Forum (ESF), this is a question of strategy that neither of them would ask. As delegates to a gathering whose stated aim was to forge a movement of movements, they would both, perhaps, concede the importance of building radical and democratic alternatives to the neoliberal social order in which we find ourselves. Marx would likely admit that he had "no ready-made utopias to introduce par décret du people." Berstein, for his part, might agree that "the movement is everything." In fact, on the evidence of the recent ESF in Florence, it would seem that the question of reform or revolution no longer haunts debates on the contemporary left. But what is the alternative? In this paper, I suggest that today's social movements coalesce around a series of demands for a radical "rupture," defined as a change in the parameters of the politically possible. I also argue that the strength of the Social Forum movement lies in its ability to forge new bonds between heterogeneous political and social organisations, without reducing them to one essential struggle which mediates all the others.

Let us begin with the question of revolution. The majority of the 60,000 delegates gathered in Florence in November 2002 seemed sufficiently tuned in to the dynamics of modern society to conclude that the prospect of a revolution in the Marxist sense - whether as the full realisation of a working class consciousness, or a Bolshevik-style seizure of state power by violent means - is so unlikely as to make it an irrelevance. (Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell the English Socialist Workers' Party, who started chanting "one solution, revolution" every time they got too close to an open-minded debate). Moreover, the idea that a vanguard Party will lead us to the promised land of socialism runs counter to virtually everything that today's social movements stand for, and have stood for, from the fall of the Berlin wall to Seattle and beyond.

Yet freed from the spectre of actually existing communism, the reformist project of Western European social democracy has also found itself in disarray. Weighed down by the prospect of being the sole defenders of socialism, most of these parties have stopped sauntering down the path of neo-liberalism (as they had been doing since at least the late 1970s) and started running down it. The politics of Blair, Schröder, Simitis, and even Jospin, speak loudly of this fact. Their approaches to the defining questions of war and neoliberalism - Schröder's admirable stance on the Iraq crisis notwithstanding - have shown that the US-led drive towards the market society and permanent war cannot simply be mitigated. Indeed, it is these same parties of the mainstream left which have done the most to legitimise such policies in Europe in recent years. This is why the European left that is left proclaims that "Reformism is dead," as a confident Fausto Bertinotti (national secretary of the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista) announced to an enthusiastic home crowd on the first day of the ESF. What, then, is the alternative?

The short answer, as platform speakers from the humblest local activist to the world's most famous farmer repeatedly pointed out, is the need for a grass-roots movement of movements against neo-liberalism and war. At which point, we could politely thank them for offering us this new magicians hat, but go on searching for our rabbit. Another world is possible - in the words of the Social Forum movement's most famous soundbite - but how will it become the new reality? Like many delegates, I stalked the numerous seminar rooms and conference halls of Florence's vast Fortezza Da Basso in search of an answer to this question. I heard a bewildering array of speakers attack rampant capitalism, war and Bush. Many concrete proposals were also on offer, covering a wide array of issues: building an alternative media, levying a Tobin tax, closing NATO bases, or re-establishing food sovereignty. Indeed, the sessions that worked best were these smaller-scale practical workshops, where tactics were exchanged and networks built (or, at least, email addresses exchanged). Yet the shortcomings of this first ESF were not difficult to come by: many of the sessions were repetitive, or peddled sub-academic assertions, or lost their way, or remained unintelligible despite the best efforts of the aptly named "Babel" translation service. It would, of course, be possible to put a positive gloss on all of this: "coalitions are starting to be built using a common language," as Bernard Cassen of ATTAC France suggested. Yet I rather suspect that the common language we did find - celebrating democracy, equality and, above all, socialism - actually conceals some substantive differences that will need to be worked through in the years ahead. And whenever I got close to finding what another world would look like, this vision rapidly dispersed into a haze.

At first glance, then, the Blairites and Socialist Workers might seem to be onto something - perhaps There Is No Alternative. Yet a closer look reveals more than a few signs of hope. Although both reform and revolution seem implausible, the ESF nevertheless offered a variety of starting points for progressive change that coalesced around different versions of the demand for a radical "rupture": changing the parameters of the politically possible. This means contesting neoliberalism and its shadowy double, the globalisation of US-led military adventurism. Since Seattle, this has been the one big success of the movement for global justice, which has been able to demonstrate how the market ideal has become corporate globalisation's best-selling product, the embodiment of the commodity form itself. The market has been mistaken for the measure of all things and sold to us as the new "universal equivalent." Health, education, food and water … piece by piece, our basic resources are being sold off to the highest bidder so that, in today's Europe, mainstream politicians appear to be the marketing managers of this neoliberal franchise. First this message was sold to us by conservatives, but "social democrats" soon realised that they could sell out by inventing their own brand of neoliberalism. And so they did.

The Florence ESF, and the World Social Forum (WSF) which spawned it, marks the coming of age of an initiative to contest this neoliberal consensus and advance an alternative form of democratic globalisation. If the two previous WSF meetings at Porto Alegre revealed a tension between movements of national liberation and those aiming at a democratic globalisation, as Michael Hardt has suggested, then the Florence meeting saw the emergence of the latter as a definite winner. But the recent success of the PT in Brazil, and the fairly universal celebration of this fact amongst ESF delegates, suggests that something more complex is at work. Whereas Hardt thinks that the national vs. global question corresponds to the organisational question of parties vs. networks, many parties would in fact seem to support and actively participate in the drive for an alternative globalisation. Indeed, if a hegemonic challenge is to be raised to the current political order, then mass parties (like the PT or Rifondazione) are required in order to articulate progressive demands at the level of the state. Such parties no longer pretend to act as machines for the self-emancipation of the working class, but (in their best moments) work as instruments for the advancement of a plethora of progressive causes which have their origins elsewhere. This is what Bertinotti means by the "contamination" of movements and parties, and what the PT means by its promise to "share power with the movements from which we came." And it is also what gives the Social Forum movement its strength: the ability to forge a "movement of movements" without compromising the autonomy of each component organisation, or stifling its ability to engage in a popular struggle to achieve specific goals.

Ultimately, the collective brain of the ESF's 60,000 delegates could never have been expected to think through a single vision of "another Europe" (let alone another world). But the collective will of the activists present, and the movements we represent, is already starting to enact one. Another Europe will be a participatory and democratic region, whose civil society groups, trade unions and parties reject the elite-driven bureaucracy of today's Europe of bankers and businessmen - and all the anti-democratic practices that go along with it. Moreover, if we are to overcome the national-populism of the extreme right, which is fuelled by the very real sense that the fundamental decisions that affect our everyday lives are becoming remote, then we need to enact a different and more progressive form of sovereignty. Contrary to the hopes of some of Europe's leading social democrats, this isn't something you can simply legislate for - even if the project to preserve the achievements of social welfare and democracy in a European constitution wins out over conservative attempts to revive a Christian Europe. The return of sovereign power instead requires the reinvention of Europe's progressive traditions - socialist, feminist, pacifist and republican (amongst others) - in the form of a collective body whose relative unity is forged from the heterogeneous movements gathered in Florence. A movement of movements that does not close its doors to the emergence of new political demands, or seek to privilege certain sectors as the prime agents of political change. A movement that seeks to offer not one solution, but many.

By Oscar Reyes