woensdag, oktober 27, 2004

Belated ESF sham-a-lam-a-ding-dong

Had a tremendous time at the European Social Forum in London.

Been back for a few days now actually, but, well, no excuses for not blogging at all really, other than being rather knackered.

Bit too much of a good time, truth be told. I did attend a few workshops and plenaries, but most of the time when I turned up to a meeting, I would run into old friends I hadn’t seen in years and ended up catching up with them instead of listening to the baritone Ms. German or whoever.

I should say first off that the whole dog and pony show was a lot less SWPificated and Ken-tabulous than I had expected. (But then, that's what depending on the Weekly Worker for one's objective coverage of the organising process will do for you) Indeed, the paper-selling swarms for the most part (with one humpty, true-believing exception) took a polite distance and in fact, by the end of it, I wondered exactly what the mayor had got out of the whole thing, however domineering his Socialist Action minions have been throughout.

To be honest, I thought it went off rather well.

Cards on the table. I come from an unusual perspective. I have been a member of the International Socialist Tendency (nine years with the International Socialists in Canada, on and off with the Socialist Workers' Party in the UK when I was living there and seven months with the Internationale Socialisten in the Netherlands when I was living in an Amsterdam bedsit) since 1993, and, as is common amongst those of us who have been in this Trotskyist happy-fun-time gang for that sort of time, I have a laundry list of complaints about the organisation. I think there is a manifest need for greater transparency, pluralism and democracy internally, as well as a lot less of: 'Why weren't you at the paper sale last week?!' 'Uh, uh, I'm sorry. I was in labour with triplets.' 'You call that an excuse? Revolutionary discipline, comrade!' However, as my criticisms over the last few years have intensified, I have also been moving about a fair bit geographically due to my career, and for the last year have found myself in Belgium, where the IST hasn't existed for some while. So any critique I have had has developed outside of being an especially active member, which does not open one to a receptive hearing if one were to raise doubts, and, to some extent, fair enough.

Because Eugene Debs said 'There is no such thing as an independent socialist', and because the IST is fairly close to the Fourth International - which does have a Belgian presence - I have thrown my lot in with them for the time being. And I've found it remarkably liberating. Despite their fishy 'bureaucratic workers' state' opinions (which have only caused one uncomfortable pause in the conversation so far) their internal regime is a democratic breath of fresh air.

In the lead up to the ESF I heard a stream of criticism from my local comrades about the way the SWP was behaving in the organising meetings that often corroborated much of what was being reported in the Weekly Worker. At the same time, when I arrived in London, many of the same comrades, as well as others in the League Communiste Revolutionaire, from France, told me they found the extant ESF to have surpassed their low expectations, and were particularly enthusiastic about the confidence of the anti-war arguments they had come across in London concerning solidarity with the Iraqi resistance, which they felt was lacking on the continent.

Inversely, I hope that the Swoppies and the rest of the UK far left feel similarly about the continentals, and have been sufficiently enthused by them to take on agitating against the neo-liberal European constitution in the UK.

After almost a year of this Brussels business, I have come to the conclusion that the continentals far too often tend to adhere to some semi-patriotic blind adherence to 'laicïsme' that leads them to defend laws against the wearing of the hijab and that blinds many of them to the racism projected at the Muslim minority in Europe, which in turn hampers the maintenance of a strong anti-war movement, while the British left, while having largely overcome its allergic reaction to people of faith, and thus being able to build a more robust anti-war movement - often ends up mirroring the xenophobic, anti-European stance of much of the British press and political establishment in its repeated refusal to engage with European political developments.

It is my hope that there has been some level of cross-fertilisation between the UK and continental European left at the ESF, with the limeys taking on some European arguments about agitating against the constitution from a progressive perspective, and the perfidious French taking on the idea that something can be simultaneously its apparent opposite - what should normally be a simple perspective for Marxists: that the hijab can be both oppressive to women and a willingly-worn symbol of resistance against racism and imperialism at the same time.


The best talk I went to over the weekend was the first one I attended, on the Friday, with Mike Marqusee, the sports writer and former leading activist with the Stop the War Coaliltion in the UK. Apart from the self-loving chair of the meeting, who drove me to distraction, and distracted others enough to leave prematurely, what was said was of such import, it's a shame the points raised were not more broadly considered in London.

Marqusee noted that despite the notable successes of the UK and European anti-war movement prior to the war's opening salvoes last year, since then there has been something of a collective failure in maintaining the movement. He did recognise that the building of anti-war demonstrations in the lead-up to an imminent and avoidable war would be easier than the maintenance of an anti-war movement over the longer term, which is correct, but also said that we had plainly failed in turning that early, successful movement into sustained activity against the occupation. I would agree with him here. We have, in the UK, the US and continental Europe, had a (necessary) turn towards electoralism while the extra-parliamentary movement has atrophied.

There were two other, related points he raised, which are worth taking on board. The first, related to the first argument, is that somehow there has been set up, especially in the UK, a false dichotomy between 'mass action' and 'direct action'. He rightly said, 'any movement worth its salt uses both tactics as necessary'. He is absolutely correct.

We need demos, and elected representatives, but we also, very desperately and especially in the UK and US, need blockades, occupations and other direct action by activists against companies profiting from the occupation, against arms dealers, etc., and by soldiers and their families and communities against the war in a much more immediate way. The latter is beginning to happen, and, quite obviously, is direct and not mass action, but yet is supported by those who argue only for mass action. This is such a silly dichotomy, but one that in effect is hampering efforts to move forward.

(Above all, we need mutinies and strikes, which are plainly mass actions, but we are still some distance from such activities being a reality)

The last point he made is that the Iraqi resistance, at least sections of which deserve our support and solidarity, is 'fluid and changing and does not conform to anyone's pre-formed ideas'.

This is an especially important point. Currently there are those on the right wing of the anti-war movement and amongst the chickenhawk 'left' who refuse to recognise that there is even a resistance and continue, despite extensive evidence to the contrary, to describe everyone who is fighting the occupation as a terrorist, and then there are others (like my roommate), with whom I have more sympathy, frankly, but who are still wrong, who say that whatever methods anyone takes to fight the occupation are legitimate, including kidnappings, beheadings and the suicide bombing of civilians.

Both perspectives come from taking pre-packaged analyses off the shelf without looking at what is actually happening on the ground.

I am of the opinion that while no resistance is pretty - and that those, like Hitchens, who look back on the FLN in Algeria or the Vietnamese Viet Cong, or the IRA or even the French Maquis or the ANC as having been exquisitely pristine in their avoidance of civilian casualties, are being wilfully forgetful at best - the western left still has room to support the democratic anti-occupation forces over the fundamentalist anti-occupation forces, just as we favoured the Communists over de Gaulle in occupied France and the POUM over the Communists in the Spanish Civil War.

Tomorrow: my two-euro-centimes-worth about the sham-a-lam-a-ding-dongs of the anarchists, Workers' Power and others at a couple of the meetings; as well as the so-called - a-wooga! a-wooga! - split in the anti-war movement in Britain.