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The European Social Forum: time to get serious

Paul Kingsnorth | 21.10.2004 19:48 | European Social Forum

Will political and commercial dogma crush the liberating energies of the world’s social justice movements? The European Social Forum in London leaves Paul Kingsnorth with mixed feelings.
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It was when they silenced the free-tea man that I knew something was wrong.

A friendly young man had brought a kettle, cups and a few packets of tea bags into Alexandra Palace, site of the third European Social Forum (ESF), and had set himself up in one corner of its great hall, underneath an endearingly felt-tipped sign reading “Free Tea”. He was suggesting donations for his local peace group in exchange for the drinks. An enthusiastic queue had formed.

This, I thought to myself, was the kind of small but important detail that made events like this worthwhile. This, after all, was what it was all supposed to be about: people from all across a continent sharing experiences, free space, inspiration and hot drinks in the search for a better world.

It didn’t last long. Soon, a security guard with a buzzing walkie-talkie arrived. A short conversation ensued in which the free-tea man was politely but firmly asked to cease his largesse. He was, it seemed, in direct competition with the official caterers, who were charging £1.40 a cup. Muted outrage ensued. A potential drinker started haranguing the security guard, but the free-tea man tried to defuse the situation. “It’s all right”, he said resignedly. “He’s only doing his job.”

The 2004 European Social Forum was not a success. It was not quite a failure either, and it certainly wasn’t a disaster. Nevertheless, there were deep, wide and widely-noticed problems with it, which many people commented on. The free-tea man’s experience brought just one of them home to me, but it was by no means the only one.

In this article I’ll seek to lay out honestly and starkly what, in my opinion, were the strengths and weaknesses of the London event. Whatever others think of my analysis, it’s important that everyone is able to openly debate this – because only that way will the fast-snowballing phenomenon that is the social forum movement be able to grow in the right direction, and avoid some of the mistakes of the past.

Open or closed doors?

Let’s start with the problems that the event encountered. The free-tea man’s story was indicative of a larger problem with the organisation of the whole forum – not just the way it was organised, but the principles on which it was organised.

Previous social forums have been largely open events. Entrance prices, where they existed, were kept deliberately low, spaces were provided for all to participate, free accommodation was provided and organising committees were deeply, even if often frustratingly, democratic. All this is in keeping with the overall principles of the social forum movement, dedicated to creating open, free, largely non-hierarchical and democratic spaces for serious debate about the future.

In London, unfortunately, things were rather different. It wasn’t possible to get in in the first place unless you bought a ticket for £30 (though there were concessions). If you wanted to stage an event you were expected to shell out over £200 for the privilege of doing so.

Food – most of it terrible, incidentally – was provided by commercial organisations who employed low-paid workers on long shifts. The whole event seemed commercial, centrally-organised and strangely antithetical to what much of this movement has always been about. It had, overall, more of the feel of a large trade-fair (or a Labour party conference, as one disgruntled activist put it to me, ironically) than an open and open-minded forum.

Control freaks

Much of this, in turn, stemmed from the way the event was organised. For over a year there has been serious criticism of the event’s organisers for trying to control the process themselves rather than opening it up to all-comers. When you discover that the key organisation involved was the notoriously anti-democratic Socialist Workers Party (SWP), this may not seem surprising. But in combination with Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Authority (GLA), which put an estimated £400,000 towards the event, it was a potent and frustrating combination for many.

Dave Timms, press officer for the World Development Movement, was involved in the long process of organising the London ESF. He explained to me how the SWP in particular had worked from the very start to make the London forum “their event”, run to “their agenda”.

“I’ve been in plenty of meetings where at least a third of those present are SWP members, in various different guises”, he explained. “It’s always the same people, and they consistently packed meetings and voted their own people in as chairs, speakers and organisers. Often we would have meetings in the UK which would be stitched up by the SWP. Then we would take it to a European level and European activists would overturn all the decisions and complain about the lack of democracy in British activism.”

Timms is not alone. Leading NGOs in Britain and many European activist groups involved in the process of organising the 2004 ESF have made similar complaints. In June, the Italian mobilising committee for the ESF published a statement about how the SWP had behaved at a European meeting: “They … were constantly unwilling to enter into real dialogue, tried to impose their own way and were often arrogant or used blackmail, repeatedly refusing to accept decisions and titles which had already been decided hours before. The result was that many of the other delegations were exasperated and were frequently compelled to raise their voices or in turn threaten to leave.”

There is no doubt that the SWP and the GLA worked hard to ensure that the focus of the event, from the themes chosen for discussion to the people selected to speak and chair meetings, was in their hands as much as possible. The consequence was that many activists refused even to come – holding an “alternative ESF” elsewhere in London – and many who did were disappointed. So much so that 300 people invaded a speaker meeting on the Saturday night at which Ken Livingstone had been due to speak to protest about the “undemocratic” nature of the forum.

Nick Dearden from War on Want, who has been involved in social forum organising for years, told me that this one had been the worst yet. “It has sown real bitterness”, he told me. “The SWP have literally pissed off the whole movement in Europe. Even their former European allies won’t work with them again. I think this event has actually set things backwards.” Whether Dearden is right or not in his pessimistic analysis, it has certainly not engendered the kind of atmosphere that social forums are supposed to about creating.

Going with the flow

In 2003, Susan Richards wrote on openDemocracy about the hard left’s attempts to seize the agenda at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Such attempts, she wrote, misunderstood the nature of social forums: they are not “events” to be controlled from the top, but happenings, which gain their strength from below. She was right about that: in London, again, the hard left showed that they had no idea what this was really supposed to be about, and that they weren’t particularly interested.

The danger, though, is that their attempts to grab this movement for themselves could drive away precisely those people who made the movement happen in the first place, and leave a hollowed-out shell of empty leftist rhetoric in its place. It would hardly be the first time.

This organisational problem is partly, though by no means wholly, responsible for another. Many people commented on how many of the speaker meetings and plenary sessions had a “samey” feel to them. One attendee told me, glumly, that it seemed as if every panel was made up of “two boring trade unionists and a Trot.” This was an exaggeration, but one which summed up, somehow, the atmosphere of a forum the main events of which, at least, seemed coloured by the dead hand of the old left.

But there is a wider issue. This is not something that this forum, or even European social forums in general can be blamed for, but it is a problem encountered wherever radicals get together.

The problem is twofold. First, there is simply too much focus on what’s wrong, and not enough on what we can do about it – and how. We all know global capitalism stinks. We also know that war is a nasty thing, American foreign policy is bad, racism isn’t nice and oil companies are unethical. Why, then, do we need speaker after speaker standing up and telling us so? Why do we need to spend any of these three precious days repeating truisms and patting ourselves on the back for agreeing with each other about how bad things are? Five years ago this was useful. Now it’s unnecessary.

This leads neatly onto the second aspect of the problem: why do so many people here agree on so much? It might seem a strange thing to ask of a forum in which Trots, anarchists and NGO moderates were often at each others’ throats, but it is a valid one.

[edited] To read the rest of the article see

[note of imc-editor (andi): we have received a request from to at least backlink to the original, see ]

Paul Kingsnorth


Hide the following 11 comments

Ther Are Solutions

22.10.2004 00:36

Your view is very useful and sheds light on le movement. Many other honest views are needed to get a fuller picture - some of which have already been published here - but I don't think it is too premature to start talking about solutions, some of which can easily be plucked from your good analysis.

Some of the truths you explain can be combined to give a way forward for the Social Forum and to edge the movement into, and begin to prepare it for, a life after capitalism, which was discussed at the Plenary you attended.

The Forum can be organised and run, as it would be in a life after capitalism. This is the sort of model put forward by the Autonomous Spaces. I think this is fundamental, and crucial, and not trivial as some would say, particularly those advocates of ‘one solution revolution.’

Of course if you are of the opinion: 'one solution revolution' your only priority is to get your team together and wait to take power on revolution day. In this case the strategy is to continually denounce the status quo, do nothing, and stop others doing anything because it's a distraction.

And another way, as you say, is to fight for macro-reforms, in the case of Susan George's highly desirable ones. But these are in fact revolutionary in a world dominated by neoliberalism. They can be fought for, and, at best, some of the less ambitious ones won.

Even though these reforms can not be fully realised, the struggle for them has value in itself. I think to achieve Susan George's reforms a parallel revolutionary struggle needs to take place, from below, which can realise those refroms and more. There are indications that those revolutionary forces exists. They are many who know this revolution and there are many more in le movement who feel and want it in their hearts.

This revolution must start with the organisation and interaction of le movement itself, creating the seeds and small scale examples of another possible world. These things can be achieved on the micro level: the social centres of anarchists and libertarians are a good example of this.

I think you can see the efforts the aternative spaces made to be a part of the ESF, and to demonstrate for a participatory democracy in process to enable all of the movement to work together indicates an effort to go in this direction. But there are conservative forces opposing this, for example, the 'one solutiuon revolution' crew again.

These two parts of the movement can work together and can physically come together in the Social Forum. And for a short time another possible world can exist in which ideas, intellectual social and practical skills, are developed that make ready for life after capitalism: taking the problems and carrying out solutions.

Harry Hamlet


22.10.2004 02:59

this is a thoughtful article.One of the best I have so far read.


Time to get serious indeed.I

22.10.2004 05:34

Paul Kingsnorth mailing is entitled "time to get serious "but amounts to little more than an anti SWP rant.The ESF was a magnificent event and all credit to those who worked long and hard to bring it to London.The violent attack on Weyman Bennett ,the joint secretary of Unite Against Fascism by a masked gang ,however it is dressed up,was a disgrace.This important meeting called to discuss how the fascists and far right in Europe can be halted was wrecked by the anti democratic actions of a small group of unaccountable individuals.This is not the first a radical event has been attacked by masked gangs .I remember for example in the mid 1980 s an anti nuclear rally being attacked when a CND speaker had numerous rockets fired at her from about 20 metres when speaking on stage.

Yes ,comrade it is time to get serious and organise to oppose the fascists.Only three weeks ago Weyman Bennett came down too Swansea to speak at a large open air rally called to protest at the racist murder of Kalan Kawa Karim a Kurdish Iraqi refugee.Weyman was given a warm and enthusiastic welcome because he was prepared to stand up and speak out against the fascists and racists.We need more of that spirit and less of the masked democracy from the violent individuals who disrupted the ESF in North London..


Well done, a volunteer

22.10.2004 13:58

So you'll be organising the next ESF, I assume?



Masked and dangerous

22.10.2004 15:22

The comrade who wrote the mailing "time to get serious"has actually written another ill informed and tedious anti SWP rant.The ESF was a magnificent event and all credit to those involved in bringing it to London. The meetings I attended were serious purposeful and informative.
However,the attack on Weyman Bennett ,the joint secretary of Unite Against Fascism was an absolute disgrace and those masked individuals who carried out the assault and wrecked an important meeting about how to oppose the far right in Europe have much to explain.
Weyman spoke at an open air rally in Swansea only two weeks ago called to protest at the racist killing of Kalan Kawa Karim, a disabled Iraqi refugee.He was warmly applauded by the large crowd of anti racists present who welcomed his call to unite against the racists and fascists.There are important lessons in history we need to learn and relearn and one is that faced with a growing fascist threat the maximum possible unity is needed.Attacking one of our leading anti fascist organisers and disrupting the work of the ESF shows that there is need to get back to some basic solidarity .


Comment on ESF Article

22.10.2004 16:07

I would like to thank you for posting this article on a direct experience of the ESF. People on the newsgroups I subscribe to, notably the Independent Socialist List, have favourably commented on it. It reflects the frustrations that many feel about the authoritarian practice of much of the left.

I was particularly struck by the account of the discussion on the French secular law setting down rules against ostentatious religious symbols in schools. As I would have feared there was obviously no discussion of secular republicanism and why so many French feminists of North African background support the ban on the wearing of the veil (le voile - they don't use the word the word foulard, headscarf). I note the organisers never invited the foremost grassroots organisation of North African young women in France, Ni Putes Ni Soumises, (neither slags nor doormats), who back this view. Monday's Le Monde had a report of this anti-secular meeting at Alexandra Palace and cited the level of lies opponents of secular liberty resorted to, such as claiming that women were refused urgent hospital treatement in France because they wore the veil.

For alternative views one can look at many French sites (above all that of Ni Putes Ni Soumises, try Google), or read some of the articles posted on the What Next? site:

On Left politics one could read Rumy Hussain's material, or in the forthcoming issue section, a contribution I have written, In Defence of Militant Secularism.

Andrew Coates

Andrew Coates

More exclusions

22.10.2004 16:51

"No matter how hard the SWP tried..." writes Kingsnorth, attempting to claim the "Trots" wanted to exclude people from the Forum. Yet what's this? Kingsnorth reports from the "Life After Capitalism" meeting; and completely fails to mention the platform contribution of Jonathan Neale, honest Texan and SWP raconteur par excellence. Indeed, Galloway's own speech was largely made in critical response to Neale's.

A further "exclusion" on Kingsnorth's part? Oh, surely not.

Dalston Kingsland

more friendly free things people...

22.10.2004 16:59

thanks for this report.
In Camden Center, we had a print man who produced masses of amazing leaflets for free (and nobody stopped him :-)

I didn't get out of Camden Center much during the ESF-days. But others did:
"In Alexandra Palace, in some places it was hard to understand the speakers because there was the echo of 4 other sessions". One of the arguments of the offial ESF organisers from the swp against using consensus, transparence etc was that the ESF would need to be organised professionally. Maybe the professionality didn't refer to banal practicalities like sound, but to a traditional set-up of sessions? Another quote: "It was boring. Looked like Marxism today. Speakers on panels, audience on rows of chairs". No sign of vibrant dialogue. Or maybe the SWP concentrated on valuable content? Since thousands of workshops and panels had to merge down to the assigned number, many sessions were a patchwork of speakers from different organisation, who wanted to discuss very different topics with little connections between them. So it took a very high level of focus, concentration, adaptability, and goodwill to get a session to swing.

Some people came back from "Beyond ESF" in Middlesex Uni. Faces glowing, happy smiles, relaxed bodies. One woman told me how she tried to calm down her child at Alexandra Palace - but there was no quiet room for her and the child. So she left and went to Middlesex - where the child (and the mother) could relax. I was told that there was amazing "buzz" at beyond ESF - I wish someone would write a bit more about it!



22.10.2004 20:11

So, looks like the socialists loved the ESF and other people are not so sure. There has been a LOT of criticism from people outside of the SWP side of the movement.

I don't want to be a trot-basher. Paul Kingsnorth has written a very good book called One No, Many Yeses but he is a trot-basher and I'd rather work with them than slag them off. What's wrong with selling newspapers? I don't have a problem with that. I also rather enjoyed the chaos of the event - it was lively and gave it a certain energy.

However, like I say, there's been a lot of legitimate criticism. About the lack of democracy and transparency, particularly the way the SWP and GLA had everything stitched up whereas decisions should have been democratically made by everyone who was involved.

And the people who are saying the ESF should be run on lines that will mirror how we want to live after capitalism are in my opinion right. However you look at it, there was no excuse for having corporate food vans with underpaid overworked staff and there was no excuse for having no recylcing bins when there should have been lots.

We shouldn't ignore criticism. It's important that we improve on these things for next time - we owe it to ourselves.

Lastly, I disagree that the anarchist intervention "ruined" the anti-fascist event.
I think if this movement can't tolerate dissent within its own ranks then that's very worrying. If it's ok for the SWP to stage a protest at (for example) the G8 when why is it not alright for the anarchists to stage a protest against the SWP?

A) They only took the stage for 30 minutes and then the debate continued.
B) They had VERY valid points to be made that people had tried to make throughout the organising process but had been marginalised.
C) There was widespread agreement from people on the floor.

The following letters appeared in the guardian.


We are appalled at Lee Jasper's attempts to silence genuine criticisms of this year's ESF by playing the race card (Letters, October 19).

Any form of physical aggression is obviously to be condemned, but the direct action protest against Ken Livingstone's abortive participation in the ESF session on racism and fascism had nothing to do with race and everything to do with the undemocratic way in which the ESF was organised this year.

Whatever one thinks about direct action, the tremendous response the stunt received from the audience shows that the protesters were not alone in the belief that the London ESF dramatically parted company from the democratic, transparent, non-party and consensual principles upon which the World Social Forum movement was established in Porto Alegre in 2001.

Attempting to paint the 200 or so protesters as racially motivated white thugs when they actually included many black, Hispanic and Arabic activists is disgraceful.
Asad Rehman
Member of the UK ESF organising committee
and eight others


ESF protest was not racist

Wednesday October 20, 2004
The Guardian

Lee Jasper, senior race advisor to Ken Livingstone (Letters, October 19), engages in a crude attempt to portray as a "racist attack" what was effectively a protest against the lack of democracy and consensus by the GLA in the organisation of this years European Social Forum. As members of some of the UK's leading anti-racist organisations, we feel compelled to ask Lee Jasper to stop using accusations of racism to provide political cover for what was clearly political dissent aimed at his employer, the GLA, and the mayor of London.
We witnessed the protest, and while there is never any excuse for any sort of "scuffle", the protest was supported by large sections of the audience, with banners highlighting the Labour party's policies on racism and war, and calling for its representative, the mayor, not to be allowed to speak in the forum. Whatever the rights or wrongs of such protests, Lee Jasper and the GLA must not play "the race card" to silence these voices.

But the ESF did clearly highlight that our real fight is against David Blunkett and his policies, which have done so much to legitimise popular racism and herald the re-emergence of the BNP. Let's save the accusations of racism for where they really belong.

Piara Power Kick It Out

Ashika Thanki Newham Monitoring Project

Suresh Grover National Civil Rights Movement

Cilius Victor Black Racial Attacks Independent Network

Rajiv Menon NMP Educational Trust



23.10.2004 13:10

Size vs process, focus vs pluralism these are some of the questions
the left has to deal with in relation to the Social Forum Movement.
Any assessment of the ESF surely has to start with some (to me)
obvious observations, it was young (good thing), big considering the
cost and location in Europe (I’ve heard 25,000 registrations plus as
a figure) and it finished with a large anti war demo that made mass
circulation papers (Mirror). The ESF also ended with a coherent
statement from the assembly of Social Movements which allows for some
kind on Europe wide demo (like the Feb 15th call from Florence)
against the occupation.

I am surprised that Paul has not raised any of these points either
above or in his New Statesman article. But there is a pattern here,
which is repeated in the posts put up on Indymedia. I mean look at
the number of comments posted next to articles on this site, how does
that relate to the thousand that attending the ESF?, why hasn’t
Indymedia achieved its potential for becoming a news and debating
forum for the movement? Why is the big picture missing?

I don't want to have to pay £1.40 for a cup of coffee or £5 for a
tray of rice and curry either. I was also inspired by the French
activists who made sandwiches and gave them out for free at Alexandra
Palace, because in symbolic terms it’s a great statement, but there
are also huge advantages in making the ESF a mass event. Are you
really suggesting that the ESF organising committee were seeking
either make money or promote neo-liberalism? If you want to put on an
event for 25,000 people in the UK at the present time then what
option do you have but to seek to use commercial firms, and accept
the baggage that comes with that. I don’t care how enthusiastic any
ESF volunteers may have been prior to the event, the organising
committee would have been slated if food and drink wasn’t put on in
sufficient quantities. Surely the benefit of mass involvement
outweighs the down side. Yes the prices excluded people, but the
irony is that trying to run the event along totally self
organisational lines would have excluded even more.

So do you want a mass event that brings in and politicises new people
(yes even if they read about it in the Guardian or Unison bulletin)
or do you want a pure movement, tiny but built on consensus, like a
glorified anarchist bookfair perhaps- that’s the question. The answer
for me lies in what you think the ESF is and what it can become. For
me the SF movement is an initiative from the radical reformist left
(ATTAC/Brazilian Workers Party) that puts on big political meetings
that can radicalise young people and trade unionists. I don’t see it
as an embryo peoples world government. There are two possible
dynamics, either the radical left can use the involvement of
mainstream reformist organisations as an opportunity to get its
message into the mainstream or the reformists can use the process to
suck young people back into the Socialist Party, PT or Labour etc.
It’s a bunch of big meetings and a demo, it isn’t the
anti-capitalist/global justice movement, just a forum/tool within the
movement. If you stand around the fringes shouting ‘impure!’ then
your just going to depress yourself.

Florence and Paris were cheaper because they were more heavily
subsidised by local authorities with healthier left reformist
traditions not because they were less ‘hierarchical’, how is that the
fault of Livingstone or the SWP? Livingstone got heat for the money
he did spend. Again the autonomous spaces and alternative ESF events
were also set up for the Florence and Paris forums, as I recall
People Global Action said exactly the same kind of things about
Florence and chose to stay ‘outside’ it. Yet you portray these things
as a new phenomenon, again your SWP/Livingstone comments sound like a
personal mantra and they make a debate about no doubt genuine short
comings more difficult.

Personally I would say that the alternative ESF project was an
inevitability because of the politics of the anarchist left. The WSF
process was established by ‘hierarchical’ groups, even though the
founding statement sought to be pluralistic, and since day one the
strands of the movement that have been inspired by ‘non hierarchical’
politics, rooted to some degree in the anarchist tradition, have
found this problematic. If you say that we will work with anyone as
long as they accept non hierarchical principles, then you’ve built
yourself an instant ghetto, given the fact that people are socialised
to accept hierarchy under capitalism, no wonder that ‘hierarchical’
groups like the SWP have found it easier to influence the Social
Forum movement.

I think the point about lack of opposing views in the veil debate is
totally right, it would have been much better to have more genuine
debates, I’m not sure how the process works in this respect, are the
speakers allocated from each county asked to provide information
about their political positions? The lack of debate was also mirrored
in the debates over the war. The SWP pushed the idea that was a
central debate was between those who want the movement to continue to
focus on the war and those who want to shift the focus back to
anti-cooperate/global institution reforms, yet I never saw this
argument polarized in a meeting. The mood seemed firmly behind the
idea that the war is central. Was this because the proponents of the
second view ducked the arguments, or did I miss the relevant debate
or was this a false division. Judging by Susan Georges article in the
Guardian, I don’t think it was. (That doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t
rather listen to Susan George than George Galloway).


SWP exposed

25.10.2004 09:15

The anti war blather from the SWP is exposed as that when they have done nothing practical to stop the war. They have directed peoples energies into vain Marches and Demonstrations.
They have made no effort to support the troops and make this country ungovernable, they leave our Army stuck out on foreign adventures to be killed for the greater profit of foreign Capitalists.