Creating a New Canvas

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At last month's Globalise Resistance conference in London, and at the European Social Forum mobilising committee meetings in London, proposals have been put (and defeated) about setting up an English Social Forum.

The argument is unlikely to totally disappear, so the experience of the social forum movement in Italy needs to be assessed critically.

This form of organisation, which contains all strands of political thought from Blairism leftwards, grew out of the protests against the G8 summit in Genoa last July. There are currently 169 social forums in Italy, each of which has several working groups. The scale of activity needs to be stressed to understand the basis of its existence--the Genoa Social Forum got 300,000 people to come to the city, despite all kinds of difficulties. Following police violence in Genoa, over the following week half a million people demonstrated throughout the country. In localities all over Italy activists asked each other: 'What should we call ourselves?', and the answer they spontaneously came up with was 'a social forum'. So the movement emerged from a mass mobilisation, on a far higher scale than anything so far seen in countries such as Britain.

In recent months the attacks of the Berlusconi government against rights at work have detonated an even bigger movement, that of the organised working class, which in turn has exposed some of the weaknesses of the social forums. For example, in demonstrations during the general strike in April many big cities had two marches in the morning--one organised by the official trade unions, the equivalent of the TUC. The other, often 50,000 to 60,000 strong, were led by rank and file groups such as Cobas. The question arose, who would the social forums march with?

Because the forums have been built on the basis of 'pluralism' and 'diversity' they could not agree where to go, so in many cases they decided to organise a separate march in the afternoon. Very few people who support the creation of social forums outside Italy would agree with such a move. But it is a reminder that basic class divisions can suddenly rear up and 'sandwich' an organisation that thought it could 'bypass' them. This is a bit like the notion that Naomi Klein and others had before Genoa--that you could suddenly 'move round' the question of state power and its tendency to repress dissent and organisations hostile to it.

'Traditional' politics have also resurfaced over the question of standing in elections. Although Italy is still undergoing a fascinating and inspiring period of mass mobilisations, it is not a fundamentally different society to a year ago. So electoral politics and trade union mobilisations still dominate the thinking of the majority of left wing voters and activists. So elements of the movement have been unable to resist the temptation of standing in council elections at the end of May. In Genoa Giuliano Giuliani, Carlo's father, stood for the centre-left DS party. One of the main organisers of the Genoa Social Forum, Massimiliano Morettini, also stood for the DS in his home town. Yet a Genoese spokesperson for the Catholic Lilliput network, which has formally left the social forum movement, criticised the decision: 'entering institutional channels only weakens the movement'.

The same is true outside of Genoa. Communist Refoundation has offered many social forum activists a place in its list of candidates. There is a social forum candidate in Cosenza in the south. And in the far north, Vicenza, the leader of the 'disobedient' wing of the movement, Luca Casarini, also ran as a councillor. So the social forum movement is still far from destroying the dominance of conventional politics although it remains the largest and most exciting movement to emerge in the post-Seattle period, and could still develop further.

Outside of Italy we need to be wary about mechanically trying to reproduce what has happened there. Simply proclaiming an English 'social forum' will not bring about the mass mobilisations upon which the Italian experience has been based. Furthermore, simply calling something a 'social forum' does not change the underlying reality. Indeed just 18 months ago nobody in Italy had heard of them. And six months ago in Argentina no one was talking about or attending things called 'popular assemblies'.

The important thing over the coming months is to build our forces, getting as many people to Florence as possible. If we multiply our forces many times over, the need for a new form of organisation may well arise, and people may well want to give it a name. So let's create a new huge, colourful painting. Then we can think about what to call it.

Tom Behan

Canterbury