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World Social Forum 2005

The fifth World Social Forum took place in Brazil in February. For several reasons this year’s event was significant. For the increased numbers of radical young people and workers. The reaction to Brazilian and Venezuelan presidents, Lula and Chávez. For the emergence of P-Sol as a potential new left force in Brazil. HANNAH SELL, who participated as part of the Committee for a Workers’ International contingent, reports.

THE ANTI-CAPITALIST, or more accurately, anti-corporate, movement began with action – demonstrations against the leaders and institutions of global capitalism. From Seattle onwards, however, it became clear there was a need to combine struggle with discussion and debate on how to take the struggle forward, on the nature of what we are fighting and the nature of the alternative.

The World Social Forums (WSFs), and later the European Social Forums (ESFs), have been seen by many of the organisers and participants as a means of enabling just such a discussion. From the beginning, however, they have also been used by more right-wing forces, including a section of the ruling class, to try to draw in and ‘tame’ the anti-capitalist movement. At more recent events this tendency has become stronger. For example, the 2003 ESF was partially funded by the right-wing French government and the Paris local authority. The 2004 ESF in Britain was largely financed, and its agenda strongly influenced, by Ken Livingstone, New Labour Mayor of London. It was no accident that there was only one discussion on socialism in the entire event (organised by International Socialist Resistance). Unfortunately, other socialist organisations involved in organising the ESF (primarily the Socialist Workers Party) made it easier for Livingstone by actively arguing against socialist discussion forming part of the agenda.

Similar processes were also evident at the fifth WSF held in Porto Alegre, Brazil – the birthplace of the WSF. Despite the formal ban on political parties Lula, the PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores – Workers’ Party) president of Brazil, was invited to address a major set-piece rally. He attempted to defend his dismal record of neo-liberal attacks on the working class and poor, and his complete failure to solve the land question (the pace of reform is slower than under Fernando Cardoso, the previous right-wing president). At the same time, attempts were made to silence opposition to Lula. For example, before the 200,000-strong opening demonstration, pressure was exerted on the new Partido Socialismo e Liberdade (P-Sol – Party of Socialism and Liberty) to refrain from having a sound system or chanting anti-Lula slogans – a pressure it correctly resisted.

Continental radicalisation

THIS WAS THE other side to the WSF. While all the negative processes were present, the positive aspects of the social forum movement were qualitatively stronger than at any previous WSF or ESF. This was demonstrated in the outlook of the majority of WSF participants and also in the number of workers, in addition to radical young people, who took part. Over the last decade the Latin American masses have been involved in wave after wave of heroic struggle against privatisation and neo-liberalism. In some countries this has stopped privatisation in its tracks and also entailed mass insurrectionary movements of the working class and poor peasantry. This has had a profoundly radicalising effect on the consciousness of the continent’s workers and poor peoples.

In 2003, at the last WSF in Porto Alegre, this was muted because of enthusiasm for the newly elected Lula government. The 2003 opening march, for example, was concluded by a triumphant speech from Lula. Two years on, it is a very different story. On the opening demonstration P-Sol and others led widespread chanting of ‘Lula, traitor!’ and ‘Lula, your place is in Davos!’ (the venue of the World Economic Forum meeting of capitalist leaders). This time the demonstration had no official speakers at all!

At the massive meeting addressed by Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela, a small group of Socialist Youth (the youth section of the Partido Comunista do Brazil – PCdoB – which is part of the PT government and seen as Lula’s political thought police) started chanting pro-Lula slogans and waving their party flags. In seconds a seething anger and bitter hostility filled the air. When the president of the CUT trade union federation, Luis Marinho, who is rightly seen a colluding in the government’s attacks on the trade unions and education, tried to address the meeting, he was literally booed from the stage.

Lula gave a very defensive speech on the first day of the forum, to an audience largely made up of people who were not part of the WSF. The speech did nothing to convince the tens of thousands of radical young people at the event. On the contrary, if anything it hardened their opposition to him. "Lula thinks he can have a foot in both camps – be for the capitalists and for the workers. But he can’t, he’s just a capitalist". This was the most frequently expressed opinion in discussions with young Brazilians. While many workers are still hoping against hope that Lula will start to deliver, a significant section of the working class has completely broken with the PT government.

It is significant that Lula felt obliged to refer to the counter-demonstration, organised by P-Sol and others, taking place as he spoke. He attempted to dismiss and patronise the demonstrators, calling them "the children of the PT" and saying that they would be "educated with love". But the fact that Lula made these comments contradict his point. He was forced to refer directly to the demonstration because it could not be brushed aside. The ‘children’ of Lula’s government, the young people growing up in Brazil, facing the government’s neo-liberal attacks on education, are increasingly looking for an alternative.

Chávez & socialism

THE CENTRE POINT of the WSF was the Hugo Chávez rally. It seemed as if the entire 60,000-strong youth camp were trudging for an hour through the heat to join the queue to enter the rally. In the event, 20,000 squeezed into the venue and maybe as many again were turned away. The stadium was filled with huge red flags while Chávez and his ministers all wore red shirts! P-Sol began the socialist chanting which was then taken up by the chair. The whole hall shook: ‘Brazil, Venezuela, Central America, a socialist fight is international’, and ‘Down with imperialism, long live socialism’. More than any other event at the WSF, this gave a foretaste of how, on the basis of their experience of struggle, the mass of the working class, in Latin America and worldwide, will push aside the confusion caused by the collapse of Stalinism and wholeheartedly embrace the genuine ideas of socialism.

Chávez himself reflected the mood of the meeting, declaring for the first time that "capitalism can only be transformed via genuine socialism – a just and equal society". However, while Chávez made many other very effective points, and has carried out some limited but very welcome nationalisation measures in Venezuela, it is not enough to support the idea of socialism, a programme to achieve it is also necessary. Unfortunately, Chávez did not advocate a clear programme that will allow the working class to overthrow capitalism and establish a socialist planned economy.

His speech also contained a number of incorrect ideas. For example, he spoke warmly of his close relationship with the Chinese regime and Colonel Gaddafi and praised Vladimir Putin as doing a good job in standing up to US imperialism. For most of the audience the most disappointing part of his speech was when he finished with praising Lula, describing him as "a good man and a friend of ours".

Desire to applaud his speech overall stopped most people from booing this remark, but a section of the audience could not help themselves. In fact, a noticeable aspect of the Chávez meeting was that, while there was rightly universal praise for Chávez for standing up to imperialism, this did not mean an uncritical or unthinking support for all his policies. An important layer of those attending the meeting consciously sees the need for a revolutionary socialist alternative. Others, while enthusiastic about Chávez’s remarks on socialism and public spending, were uneasy with the radical Latin American nationalism that accompanied it. This is partly a reflection of the strong traditions of the workers’ movement in Brazil, which came into conflict with radical bourgeois nationalism in its formative period. Nonetheless, it shows the development in consciousness of layers of the Brazilian working class, and the potential for a radical socialist party to build a base.

P-Sol shines

IN THE FIVE days of the WSF, P-Sol intervened energetically as a dynamic, clearly socialist, new party. As a result, it became a point of attraction for all radical young people at the forum. This does not mean that they will automatically join it. There is an understandable questioning on the issue of democracy and a fear of a repetition of the betrayal of the PT. The need for any new party to be based on struggle is also widely understood. But while many of these young people will have to be convinced to join, P-Sol is now pushing at a wide open door.

P-Sol held its second national meeting during the WSF. More than 1,800 people, mostly existing P-Sol members, sat for ten hours in the baking heat in a meeting, as the chair put it, "for struggle, happiness and solidarity". In fact, if the meeting, or a separate P-Sol rally, had been advertised widely during the forum many thousands more would have attended. The meeting was marked by its enthusiasm and its democratic spirit. At the beginning, hundreds of young people marched into the room carrying banners and flags, singing and playing drums.

P-Sol activists had every reason to be pleased with their progress to date. To register as an official party in Brazil it is necessary to collect 450,000 signatures. P-Sol has already got 430,000 and has a target of 500,000. Throughout the meeting, speeches and greetings were given by trade union activists and leaders who have broken with the PT and are considering joining P-Sol. The meeting was also notable for its internationalism. Trotskyist and left parties from around the world were invited to give greetings. Joe Higgins TD and I spoke on behalf of the Socialist Parties of Ireland and England/Wales.

The meeting agreed a number of resolutions. A short political resolution outlined campaigning priorities – including taking part in, and leading, struggle against the attacks on education, against privatisation, for land reform, and for the withdrawal of Brazilian troops from Haiti. The resolution also proposed a debate on standing Heloísa Helena, the leader of the party and a very popular mass figure, for president in 2006. She is already receiving 3–5% of the vote in opinion polls. The resolution was an addition to the political programme which was agreed at the first national meeting last June, which included an explicit call for socialism and revolution. P-Sol’s programme and democratic approach put it on a higher level than any new formation in Europe. As a party formed primarily by revolutionary and Trotskyist currents, it is not a ‘broad’ party in the sense that it has abandoned clear socialist objectives, but it potentially has a broad, mass appeal to the radicalised masses of Brazil.

It is a new party, however, and its character is not yet fully determined. It was extremely positive that the meeting also agreed to a founding national congress, with democratically elected delegates, to take place in November or December of this year. In the period running up to the conference there will be a period of debate in which a number of issues will be raised. One issue being discussed is the degree of emphasis the party puts on electoral success. While there will clearly be opportunities for P-Sol to use elections to raise its profile, a primarily electoral strategy would not allow P-Sol to reach its potential amongst the radicalised and poor masses of Brazil. However, as the WSF demonstrated, if it continues to develop as a combative, fighting, socialist party – with an open and democratic approach – it has the potential to become a major force amongst the Brazilian working class.

Next year, the WSF will not be taking place. Instead, regional social forums will be held, including a Forum of the Americas in Venezuela. The inner contradictions of the social forum movement – between the majority of the leadership who are moving in a rightward direction and the increased radicalism of the young people who are drawn to it – are becoming starker. It is possible that this will lead to an end to the social forums at a certain stage. In Europe, recent forums have certainly been smaller than the initial ones. If the forums do not provide the answers that radical young people and trade unionists are looking for, and are not part of the living struggle, they will not continue to attend indefinitely.

The fifth WSF raised a different prospect. As class consciousness and combativity has risen in Latin America, the young people who attend the WSF are beginning to draw definite conclusions about how to change society – a minority are drawing revolutionary socialist conclusions and many more are heading in that direction. As they do so they are increasingly coming into open conflict with right-wing elements within the WSF. In the coming years these young people, whose political lives began in the anti-capitalist movement, can play a crucial role in the development of mass workers’ organisations capable of leading the working class in the struggle to change society.


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