Post-Marx From Mumbai

MUMBAI, India. -- The World Social Forum successfully channeled the energies of global justice and anti-war forces last week, while continuing to struggle toward a positive alternative that gives meaning to the phrase, "another world is possible."

The Forum was born in opposition to the entire alphabet soup of neo-liberal institutions like the WTO, IMF and World Bank, and the imposition of those neo-liberal policies by force in Iraq. It serves as a crucial outreach venue, or space, for action networks like Our World Is Not for Sale, which has led recent campaigns in Cancun and Miami against proposed trade agreements.

In addition, the Forum has touched a deep chord of global solidarity, as shown by the enthusiastic dancing, chanting and marching through Mumbai's streets at the close of this year's event. It is a rare achievement to bring together cosmopolitan intellectuals from the New Left Review with traditionally voiceless Dalits (untouchables), Adivasis (indigenous), and Brazil's landless movement.

The Forum seemed to realize, however awkwardly, that it cannot create a better world and once again leave out the Dalits or Adivasis, or demand that they change their cultural traditions as a condition for participating. In turn, the Dalits and Adivasis seemed to know from experience that there is another world filled with potential friends who support their survival. The result was a solidarity that went beyond the usual speeches and resolutions, a solidarity -- between the privileged and the damned, between people who might have inhabited different planets yet whose fates are inter-connected -- that seemed too fragile to maintain, yet too precious to give up.

The fact that the Forum, which originated in Brazil, could plant itself in the center of South Asia was an achievement in itself. The WSF organizers plan to return to Porto Alegre, Brazil, next year as the controversial deadline for concluding the Free Trade Zone of the Americans (FTAA) nears. The following year, the WSF expects to meet in Africa, perhaps in Egypt.

A New International

Since its inception, the Forum has raised expectations that it might become a "new international" replacing the traditional parties of the left, or a coordinating center for solidarity campaigns with workers, the landless, and indigenous groups excluded from the benefits of neo-liberalism.

Now the criticism is becoming public. From the ideological left comes the claim that the WSF has "no ideology, no organization, no alternative, no militant struggle, no programme," and is a tool of the Ford Foundation (which provided $500,000 to the first Forum and $300,000 for the second, but was rejected by the Indian organizers this year). Whatever their impatience with the Forum, however, most participants seem deeply averse to slipping into doctrinaire Marxism.

A wider criticism is that the new world is being made with too many old world habits. Speeches are invariably pedantic and too long, the ground covered is already familiar to the audience, and the time allotted for questions inevitably evaporates. Some leading Forum participants, like Naomi Klein, who did not attend this year, have proposed that anyone who speaks at a Forum should be forced to be a listener at the next one.

Others, like Vandana Shiva, complain that the WSF is beginning "to imitate the giganticism and centralized control of the dominant structures being challenged by citizens." Still others question the dominance of well-funded non-governmental organizations (NGOs) compared to struggling but effective grass-roots organizations. Many assert that the annual nature of the Forums drains and diverts resources from their local campaigns. They are promoting regional forums on every continent.

The most tender issue is how to manage the differences between those who ultimately favor political action with all its contradictions, like Brazil's triumphant Workers Party which grew out of social movements, and those who identify with the forces of direct action, land seizures and road blockades for the homeless, and disruptions of the WTO, FTAA and other bodies considered illegitimate.

These differences arise from real experiences and are grounded in a history sometimes forgotten. The Workers Party was the voice of Brazil's oppressed majority for several decades before the successful election two years ago. Its leadership, once in power, felt forced to accommodate to the IMF for global financing, and to challenge the WTO and FTAA from within, rather than confronting the American empire directly. A similar path in power was followed by the African National Congress (ANC) after its victory over apartheid.

These neo-liberal accommodations have left the social movements in Brazil and South Africa increasingly frustrated in the search for answers, wondering if another world is possible without another approach to politics altogether. The result is a crisis in strategy oversimplified as "reform" versus "revolution."

The WSF was created to address just such issues in an open, pluralistic process, but its floundering, bureaucratic process and 2,100 separate scheduled events make any consensus difficult to reach.

Thus the organizational challenges seem two-fold: First, how to achieve consensus on a positive alternative to corporate globalization without splitting into warring factions, and second, how to achieve creative participation on local levels without grooming a permanent, globetrotting elite of its own.

It would be tragic if the effort fails, but not the first time in the history of the left. At this critical juncture, some history is in order to facilitate greater understanding of the challenges, starting with the actual history of the WSF and its roots in the history of social movements going back 150 years. The story will show that while the WSF is "post-Marx," that is, arisen with the end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union, its heritage lies in the solidarity movements originally created by Karl Marx long before Marxism was institutionalized.

A Brief History Of The WSF

The emergence of the United States as the "sole superpower" after the Cold War led to a new architecture of projected governance over future generations, symbolized by the centralized, undemocratic, secretive, business-dominated machinery of the World Trade Organization and NAFTA, along with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. The globalization of economic power globalized resistance, beginning with the Zapatista uprising against NAFTA in 1994. The 1999 Seattle confrontation brought to greater visibility a global uprising that already was underway. The corporations and media frantically minimized the threat as merely "isolated," but the rebels kept reproducing themselves at Quebec City, Quito, Genoa, Cancun, etc.

At the same time, the World Social Forum was being conceived in the vacuum left by the Cold War, mainly by groupings in Europe and Brazil. The first was associated with the publisher of Le Monde Diplomatique, Bernard Cassen, who also chaired a coalition that embraced a "Tobin tax," named after the American economist James Tobin, who proposed taxation on speculative currency transactions. The assertive name of the group was ATTAC, for Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens, and it was funded with $8 million in European Union funds. But the French realized that a resumption of progressive initiative after the Cold War would require new linkages with the South, among groups like Brazil's social and political movements.

Brazilians associated with the Workers Party were moving in the same direction. Their party had survived the twists and turns of Cold War politics, was radical at its core, had succeeded on municipal levels, recognized the importance of "civil society," and become deeply connected with the landless movement sweeping Brazil. They conceived of a broader dialogue toward creating a post-Cold War left, based on a Brazilian approach known as construcao, a process of consensus-building rather than the withering debates of the old left.

The French and the Brazilians met in early 2000 and the Forum was born officially. They obtained official support and funding from the municipal government of Porto Alegre and the state of Rio Grande do Sul, both controlled by the Workers Party at the time. Those government bodies committed $1.3 million (US) to the event.

The first WSF was held in January 2001 in Porto Alegre, with 5,000 registered attendees from 117 countries. It was overly intellectual, criticized for whiteness, and yet seemed to meet a rising global need. Coming after Seattle in 1999, the decision to be an in-your-face counterpoint to Davos seemed ingenious.

The second Forum saw a doubling of delegates. By the 2003 Forum, there were more journalists registered (4,000) than the total delegates at the founding one two years before, and over 75,000 turned Porto Alegre into a dream experience for radicals awakening from isolation. The continuous cycle of militant confrontations at WTO summits fostered the expectation that the Forum might become an inter-continental center of a new left, post-Communist, more inclusive than before.

The WSF was controlled by an internal organizing committee, which consisted of key leaders of the CUT (Central Unica dos Trabalhadores) and the MST (Movimiento does Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra) among others. Its larger steering committee, the International Council, has evolved to include representatives of the different organizations represented in the Forum. The bodies proceed by consensus, but leadership has rested with the Organizing Committee so far. The success of the Forum model, and the source of the emergent complaints as well, is that it avoids platform fights in favor of discussions, excludes political parties and groups supportive of armed struggle (except as individuals), and is a "guided" democracy instead of a participatory one.

But where to go with a body so internally diverse? Some clues were suggested during the Forum in an article by a Brazilian sociologist and civil society leader, Candido Gryzbowski, who called for a careful deepening of the Forum in "galvanizing the world." The Forum's greatest deficit, Gryzbowski concluded, is political. "We engage in a fully political act, but it seems that we fear the consequences." He described the tension as between "an old style of leftist politics" and an "anarchic force, impossible to condense," on the other. The only remedy, he seemed to suggest, is further dialogue and networking, in process rather than political conventions.


History suggests that these questions have been faced before, perhaps most interestingly -- and unexpectedly -- by Karl Marx and his partner Frederick Engels, who created the equivalent of a World Social Forum in their time. This will seem retro, obsolete, or politically correct to some, a history to be kept in a lockbox. Why dredge up a Communist memory that the vast majority of movement participants, myself included, left behind long ago or never learned?

But Stalinism and the Soviet model should not be allowed to bury the story of what Marx originally set out to do. A recent essay by August Nimtz, a professor at the University of Minnesota, rescues the history of Marx and Engels from the dustbins of both Communism and anti-Communism and revives what C. Wright Mills once called "plain Marxism" as distinguished from its dogmatic descendants.

Nimtz reminds us that Marx and Engels created the original "transnational movement of workers," or First International, organized as the International Working Men's Association (IMWA) which Marx led from 1864 to 1872. These efforts led to the eight-hour day and the formation of the first workers' parties in Europe, from which the Brazilian Workers Party descends. What occurred during and after the Soviet Revolution should not erase the process begun decades earlier.

Marx and Engels sought to create a "proletarian" and democratic consciousness among workers to transcend the narrow boundaries of nationalism and religion. They believed that the globalization of capital in their time could not be checked by local movements alone. In 1845, they formed a transnational network called the "Society of Fraternal Democrats" with its goal "to succor the militant democracy of every country." They next formed the Communist Correspondence Societies, based on Thomas Paine's legacy of transnational networking. Finally, they wrote the Manifesto for a new organization, the League of Communists, in 1848, a time exploding with revolutions on their continent.

It is interesting that these first networks were premised on discussion rather than explicit programs, so that space would exist for participants to "clear things up among themselves," as Marx wrote. There was a major emphasis on "drawing lessons" by documenting and discussing class struggles in given countries. Engels alone clipped some 27 papers each week, an international "indy-media" in his own right.

The American Civil War was an immediate reason for the creation of the First International, which campaigned against British intervention on the side of Confederate cotton growers. Marx's letters appeared in the New York Daily Tribune and were cited in Congressional debates at the time. The anti-intervention movement was successful. Soon the IWMA became a "de facto worldwide strike center," aiding bronze workers in Paris, the building trades in Geneva, coal miners in Belgium, and pressuring British trade unions to support Irish self-determination.

Marx and Engels favored campaigns around single issues, such as the Reform League which demanded the extension of suffrage to male heads of households and, most importantly, the eight-hour day, which the IWMA embraced in 1866 and became the repeated focus of coordinated campaigns on the first of May. Marx believed the "limitation of the working day," as he called it, would free workers for intellectual development and political action.

Marx and Engels saw two dangers on the political front. On the one hand the British trade unions "flirted" the government of liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone, which amounted to "class collaboration." On the other hand was the anarchists led by Mikhail Bakunin who advocated abstaining from politics in favor of direct power for workers. The first was a "bourgeois trap" of reformism. While Bakunin's path sounded more revolutionary, Engels wrote, simple abstentionism would leave the workers no alternative but to be pushed into the same bourgeois fate.

Their alternative was the organization of the working class as an independent political force, including the formation of workers parties. It was, according to Nimtz, "the first explicit call for what would eventually be Europe's mass working-class political parties." The eventual empowerment of the European working class was critical "for the final breakthrough to democracy."

The rest, as some say, is history -- or is history repeating itself? Setting aside the legacy of Stalinism, which cannot be blamed on Karl Marx, the original endeavor of Marx and Engels was an example of transnational networking with repercussions for generations to come. The U.S. New Deal and the European welfare states were built not only as alternatives to Communism, but from the very traditions that Marx and Engels initiated in the 19th century.

Now that those traditions appear weakened, or absorbed into co-existence with corporate power, it is no wonder that so many contemporary activists feel contempt for politics-as-usual. But capitalism never forgets, which is why the corporations are campaigning today not only for increased access to developing countries economies, but to roll back the gains in wages, health benefits, pensions, vacations and overall quality of life achieved in earlier decades by socialist or social-democratic movements and political parties. The fall of authoritarian communist states should be celebrated by democrats, but the danger today is that the vacuum is being filled by arrogant multi-national corporations, rapacious oil companies, mafias large and small, arms traffickers, and sordid scavengers for profits of any kind.

Can decentralized social movements alone stop the pillage of the global commons?

If not, can the World Social Forum become an international coordinating center for solidarity campaigns, lobbying, boycotts and civil disobedience?

If the eight-hour day was achieved by a transnational social movement, who today will similarly achieve a global living wage, a reversal of the arms race, and participatory democracy?

If the progressive parties of the past have achieved their purposes and entered a terminal phase, will political parties of a new type replace them? If not, how will enforceable workers rights become law or global environmental treaties be enforced? Or does democracy exist only in the streets?

How is it that movements so frequently arise from mystery, first appear at the margins, march into the mainstream, achieve a new majority, only to fade again like waves of the ocean?

Those are the questions facing the World Social Forum today. It may be helpful to know they have been asked and answered before in the heat of battle by our radical forebears, that there is a history to be learned from and enriched by, as history now begins anew.

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