World Social Forum:

Globalization From Below in Mumbai 2004

by Paul Le Blanc

In each and every country, the need is great for fundamental economic, social, and political change — to prevent the ongoing degradation of our living conditions, the quality of our lives and communities, the integrity of our individuality and of our environment. The World Social Forum offers one element of the answer to the burning question pf how to bring about such change. A year ago I wrote about the World Social Forum of 2003 (in Stephanie Luce and Paul Le Blanc, “Gathering in Brazil for Global justice: A Report Back From the World Social Forum.”). This follow-up report continues lines of thought begun there.

Shortly after the dawn of 2004, from January 16th through 21st, in the Indian city of Mumbai (what used to be called Bombay), more than 80,000 activists from over 130 countries gathered for the fourth annual World Social Forum (WSF). The gatherings of the three previous years had been in the beautiful (largely “Europeanized”) Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, with substantial support from the PT (Workers Party) and an array of social movements in that country, connecting with a number of other Latin American left-wing parties and movements. Also decisive have been a variety of Western European parties and movements. Shifting the location from Porto Alegre to Mumbai reflects a decision to strengthen WSF participation from Asia and Africa.

A previous “Manifesto of the World Social Forum” has described this annual gathering not as an organization but as “a new international arena for the creation and exchange of social and economic projects that promote human rights, social justice and sustainable development,” and as providing “a space for building economic alternatives, for exchanging experiences and for strengthening South-North alliances between NGOs (non-governmental organizations), unions and social movements.”

The WSF has been projected as an alternative to the World Economic Forum — a yearly gathering of the global economic elite in Davos, Switzerland — whose perspectives on “globalization” dovetail with those of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization.

The great majority of this year’s WSF participants were Indians, but as many as 14,000 came from elsewhere: other parts of South Asia (2000); Korea and Japan (1500); other parts of Asia (1000 — including 15 from China, as well as many from Tibet protesting what they described as Chinese oppression); Africa (500); Europe (2000); the Americas (2000 — at least half from North America); as well as Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific islands.

Chaos and Coherence

The WSF space in Mumbai was far more compact than has been the case in Porto Alegre, resulting in a density of human beings that matches the 18 million population of Mumbai itself. Consequently, this year’s WSF gave an incredibly vivid sense — similar to the experience of going through the streets of the city — of the hackneyed phrase “teeming masses.” Reflected in this year’s participation was an intensive period of organization and preparation with numerous meetings on the state and local level throughout the India, to mobilize hundreds of unions, political party units, community organizations, women’s organizations, youth and children’s organizations, environmental groups, oppressed ethnic minorities (such as the 60 million indigenous Adivasis), so-called “untouchables” (self-identified with the non-pejorative label of Dalits), peasant organizations, and more.

Coordinating the six-day experience was an Indian General Council of close to 200 organization, out of which a working committee of 70 groups and a more compact organizing committee (with a membership fluctuating from 25 to 57) tended to a myriad of details, with the aid of 800 volunteers from 20 countries. Yet at first the WSF seemed an utter chaos. Delegates and participants seeking to go from one WSF session to another almost had to fight their way not only through dense crowds, but through countless little (and not so little) demonstrations and rallies that seemed to erupt every 20 minutes or so in various parts of the conference grounds, not to mention groups that were singing, playing instruments, dancing, doing guerrilla theater, reading and listening to poetry, and doing other amazing and unusual things wherever one went.

The attentive observer soon found a remarkable coherence emerging from the seeming chaos. My adjustment to this reality was similar at least partially overcoming the profound culture-shock of initial contact with India. One is overwhelmed by the all-encompassing poverty in a country where over 86% of its more than one billion people survive on $2 a day or less. But then one realizes that while this poverty has broken and destroyed all too many human beings, the great majority are vibrantly alive, energetically struggling for the survival, subsistence, and dignity of themselves and — in many cases — their families and communities.

And, in fact, a number of such people have rallied to the kinds of organizations and movements participating in the WSF. In fact, the myriad of creative and expressive activities on the grounds of the WSF consisted of the more politically conscious and socially active layers among just such people. If one just stopped, looked, listened to and absorbed what was noisily erupting throughout the grounds of the WSF, even without understanding Hindi or the 17 other non-English official languages of India, one could see and learn from what one observer termed “a festival of the oppressed.” The richness of such political participation has much to teach political activists from all lands — no less important than the many seminars, panel discussions, workshops, and other “official” sessions taking place during these six days.

The official themes to be given special emphasis at the Mumbai gathering were:

These themes were encompassed and luminously elaborated in the formal sessions (numbering more than 1200) as well as the innumerable informal activities of the World Social Forum. But the coherence, the meaning, and the promise of the WSF went far beyond this discrete list of official themes.

Meaning and Promise…and Contested Terrain

The World Social Forum provides an opportunity to share information and experiences of our oppression and of our struggles across borders, worldwide. We must build links, build a common global pool of knowledge and analyses, build strategies and campaigns globally — because our various, inter-linked forms of oppression are global and are perpetuated by a global system, by a global set of oppressors — the multi-national corporations of international capitalism, and the agencies, institutions, and governments that they control. If our struggles for peace and justice are not truly global — not just rhetorically, but in fact — we will be outflanked and overwhelmed but those who are determined to defeat us and exploit us.

This insight — which has been increasingly true as capitalism has evolved as a world system — as what is commonly referred to as revolutionary internationalism.

At the beginning of the 20th century there existed a massive and growing socialist workers movement in a variety of countries, a global force to make democracy, social justice, and economic dignity defining elements of the human condition. The Left went through a succession of disasters, heroic struggles, partial victories, and even greater disasters over the course of decades. Imperialism and war seduced, corrupted, and destroyed much of the socialist movement.

Yet this generated the rise of more militant currents that gathered around the hammer and sickle of Communism: vanguards representing the workers and peasants and oppressed of all countries, aflame with the revolutionary hope for a better future. This hope was defeated by a combination of the unevenness of the struggles, the immense power and destructiveness of capitalism, and the bureaucratic and sometimes lethal degeneration of the revolutionary movement. By the end of the 20th century, the Left — particularly in the form of the mass parties of Social-Democracy and Communism — appeared to be either hopelessly compromised or in shambles.

The need for such a global insurgency is greater than ever before. This can only be achieved by rebuilding and revitalizing left-wing organizations and radical movements and struggles in each country in ways that ensure that they are linked with each other, across borders, in common struggles and with increasing intimacy.

There should be no illusions — the World Social Forum is not and cannot be the equivalent of some purified Revolutionary International. It is a conglomeration of reformers, reform-socialists, left-liberals, radical-populists, anarchists, revolutionary socialists, and more, all jostling together in animated discussions and sometimes divergent trajectories, with a variety of plans and proposals that have varying possibilities of anything positive.

Among the non-revolutionary NGOs that play an important role in the World Social Forum (including around the not trivial matter of providing the $2 million-plus required by the 2004 event’s infrastructure), one finds organizations and funding agencies based in Europe, Canada, and the United States. Oxfam International, which has done so much to push back world hunger, plays a particularly important and visible role. Honorary president of Oxfam, Ireland’s Mary Robinson, urged that “we should seek ways to focus even more on promoting in practice the values of freedom, equality, solidarity, tolerance, respect, and shared responsibility which can unite rather than divide North and South, rich and poor, left and right, religious and secular, them and us.” Somewhat less sanguine, perhaps, was Sylvia Borren of Oxfam Netherlands, who commented: “we always said we have to make sure people get support to organize themselves on the ground in specific poverty or human rights situations, but we also have to look at the structural inequities, because our big aim is towards global equity.”

The United Nations was also present — particularly in the form of its Millennium Campaign. The goals of this campaign are: 1. eradicate extreme poverty (the more than one billion people living on less that $1 a day), and hunger (the more than 800 million people who are chronically hungry); 2. achieve universal primary education; 3. promote gender equality and empower women; 4. reduce child mortality (11 million die before their fifth birthday every year); 5. improve maternal health; 6. combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases; 7, ensure environmental sustainability; 8. develop a global partnership for development. Eveline Herfkins of the Netherlands, who is executive coordinator of this UN campaign, noted that while 160 governments have signed on to meeting these goals by 2015, “we are not on track,” adding: “Business as usual will not do, so we have to hold governments to account.”

For that matter, James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank — a central institution of the “globalization” vigorously opposed by so many WSF activists — was on hand to hail the fourth World Social Forum as coming “not a moment too soon.” Embracing the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, he asserted in a column published in TerraViva (a daily WSF newspaper) that 2004 could be “a year in which we move ahead together to join forces and resources behind a vision of a more balanced world.” He was especially appreciative of Lula’s government in Brazil for “pursuing a development strategy based on the premise that economic and social progress are inseparable” and for “maintaining fiscal discipline and attracting foreign investment,” through far-reaching compromises with business interests and neo-liberal policies. Wolfsensohn asserted that “conversations of many participants in Mumbai” would “be focused on the promise of this new type of leadership.”

In many ways the World Social Forum can best be understood as a “contested terrain.” The goals of the UN’s Millennium Campaign — many eloquently argue — will never be achieved by “uniting rather than dividing” with the globalization strategy urged by Wolfensohn. Vandana Shiva, Indian feminist and environmental activist, insisted that it is necessary to push back “the power and legitimacy of giant corporations, institutions that serve big money — the World Bank, IMF, WTO — and the violence, coercion and anti-democratic processes pm which economic globalization [is] based,” adding: “The struggle between people and capital is now an epic struggle between life and death.”

Another eloquent Indian activist, Arundhati Roy, denounced the “New Imperialism” as “a remodeled, streamlined version of what we once knew.” This was in a major speech on the WSF’s opening day. She added:

For the first time in history, a single empire with an arsenal of weapons that could obliterate the world in an afternoon has complete, unipolar, economic and military hegemony. It uses different weapons to break open different markets. There isn’t a country on God’s earth that is not caught in the cross-hairs of the American cruise missile and the IMF checkbook. Argentina’s the model if you want to be the poster boy of neo-liberal capitalism, Iraq if you’re the black sheep. Poor countries that are geo-politically of strategic value to Empire, or have a “market” of any size, or infrastructure that can be privatized, or, God forbid, natural resources of value — oil, gold, diamonds, cobalt, coal — must do as they’re told or become military targets.

Roy’s assessment of what constitutes “promising leadership” was, consequently, quite different from that of World Bank officials:

No individual nation can stand up to the project of corporate globalization on its own. Time and again we have seen that when it comes to the neo-liberal project, the heroes of our times are suddenly diminished. Extraordinary, charismatic men, giants in the opposition, when they seize power and become heads of state, are rendered powerless on the global stage. I’m thinking here of President Lula of Brazil. Lula was the hero of the World Social Forum last year. This year he’s busy implementing IMF guidelines, reducing pension benefits and purging radicals from the Workers’ Party. I’m thinking also of the former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. Within two years of taking office in 1994, his government genuflected with hardly a caveat to the Market God. It instituted a massive program of privatization and structural adjustment that has left millions of people homeless, jobless and without water and electricity.

Why does this happen? There’s little point in beating our breasts and feeling betrayed. Lula and Mandela are, by any reckoning, magnificent men. But the moment they cross the floor from the opposition into government they become hostage to a spectrum of threats — most malevolent among them the threat of capital flight, which can destroy any government overnight. To imagine that a leader’s personal charisma and a c.v. of struggle will dent the corporate cartel is to have no understanding of how capitalism works or, for that matter, how power works. Radical change cannot be negotiated by governments, it can only be enforced by people.

Roy had plenty of company among those advancing political perspectives in Mumbai. Walden Bello from the Philippines, executive director of Focus on the Global South, pointed out that “promising prosperity via accelerated globalization won’t work…since the overwhelming evidence is that, as even the World Bank admits, poverty and inequality increased globally in the 1990s, which was a decade of accelerated globalization.” He asserted that policies advanced by the U.S. government and businesses constitute “a mortal threat to global peace and justice.” In his opinion the growing and increasingly radical movements of civil society that struggle “to de-legitimize power and cut into corporate bottom lines” — while derided by “governments as disparate as Beijing and Washington” and deeply hated by the corporations — constitute a “rapidly expanding trans-border network that spans North and South [and] is the main force for peace, democracy, fair trade, justice, human rights, and sustainable development.” South Korean activist Kim Snghyun from the group Globalization From Below expressed the sentiment of many with the comment that “revolution is the only solution to the world’s problems.”

Contested terrain indeed! And yet this complexity was missed by many of the WSF’s left-wing critics. Something called the Mumbai Resistance — an array of groups that drew a few thousand people into a counter-event, charged: “Though the WSF was initially organized as an anti-imperialist international platform, it soon became an easy target of US and European imperialism and their financial organizations…who have managed to infiltrate it through the NGOs who have, by now, become the most important constituent of the WSF.”

This report will touch on what took place in a few WSF sessions. The contradictory swirl drawing so many thousands of people to Mumbai — far more than the “pure” deliberations of a “more-left-than-thou” handful — reflects the real struggles of our time. It is out of this more complex dynamic that a mass Left can be rebuilt, globally and within our various countries. And within such a context that revolutionaries can hope to become an effective force in local, national, and global struggles.

Parties and Social Movements

A major session on left-wing parties and social movements drew an audience of several thousand to hear an impressive array of articulate radical and revolutionary leaders, seeking to help comprehend how diverse forces on the Left could learn from past experiences and new developments — and also from each other — in order to win durable victories in the future.

João Veccari Neto, a veteran militant of Brazil’s Central Workers Union (CUT), emphasized the necessity of maintaining independent social movements even when — as in Brazil — radical social activists of yesterday had been swept into the government. He envisioned a global alliance that fight against neo-liberal policies all over the world, that would eventually socialize the economy, and that would change the world into a global democratic society for all. Yet important questions were then posed by an Indian feminist named Suniti, discussing the complex relationship between left-wing political parties and independent social movements. When the parties come into power they tend to repress the movements, they become agents of globalization with policies not very different from those of the capitalist parties. It is not enough to think that we can take power to solve the problems, because the corruption of politics will transform us — unless we struggle to build non-hierarchical and locally based social movements that are animated by different moral values. Alliances can then be formed with parties that will side with us.

Catherine Grèze of France spoke as a representative of the European Federation of Green Parties. She noted that social movements are diverse, that they can be more or less organized, more or less progressive, and that they can be just as hierarchical and elitist as left-wing parties. She noted that the nature of European social movements had passed through five phases. (1) Before World War II they tended to be subordinate to Socialist and Communist parties, whereas (2) after World War II — when the mass left-wing parties became somewhat de-radicalized — some of the movements (whether unions insurgents conducting militant strikes or activists fighting against colonialism) moved to the fore, even if still influenced by the parties. (3) Amid the radical “uproar” of 1968, when reform and revolution were counterposed and left-wing parties were seen as betraying their original ideals, radicalized social movements became independent — a trend not significantly reversed in the 1980s, as Communist parties declined and Social-Democratic parties won elections yet failed to bring major changes. (4) Proliferating social movements focused on diverse issues (particularly around environmental concerns, opposition to the exploitation of the global South, opposition to militarism, etc.), but without a unifying political approach. (5) The development of Green parties brought fresh air into political life — but as they achieved increasing influence and success, Greens found that they had to make compromises. Parties must compromise significantly on issues, while movements cannot afford to accept a significant compromise of their issues. Is it the case that there should be a new partnership between radical parties and movements with each being aware that they have different functions — or will social movements have to develop themselves as a new radical political force?

David Choquehuanca had been a leader of peasant, workers, and indigenous movements that had brought down the government of Bolivia because it was following policies dictated by neo-liberal globalization. He noted that similar dynamics had brought major political shifts in Paraguay and Ecuador as well. He denounced the multi-national corporations for destroying nature and the balance between nature and human beings. The business corporations want water and oil and access to markets and our labor, destroying our forests and our fresh air and our cultures. North American capital seeks freedom of trade from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego, but this doesn’t create freedom — it corrupts our governments, ends our power, takes control of our economies. But we want to decide for ourselves how much to produce — we don’t want the market to tell us. Social movements must fight this, and we must collaborate with each other and share our experiences. Our goal must be a society in which all live well — not just better, but well. We want to become ourselves, to achieve a balance — not simply social justice, but harmony. All should have the right to express opinions, ideas, needs — but we need to go beyond democracy. No majority should be allowed to oppress a minority. We need to recover a way of life, a balance, a consensus. This needs to reflect human rights but also cosmic rights, the rights of the earth, of plants, of birds, of stars — a balance of nature and human beings, a truly new world.

The spokesmen of the more traditional left-wing parties made some common points yet reflected somewhat different approaches.

One approach projects an alliance of social movements with the left-wing party, with a friendly division of labor between the two in the struggle against right-wing and capitalist assaults. A central figure in the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Prakash Karat, asserted that revolutionary working-class parties and independent social movements play different roles that can be complementary. His organization — the largest and most influential of India’s several Communist parties -- has held state power in certain areas for many years, ushering in some positive reforms but also resisting many changes demanded by popular movements. He expressed criticism of movements for tending to be against political parties due to “middle-class prejudices” of the movements’ leaders, but he praised the movements for having a capacity to highlight certain complex problems and to mobilize certain previously passive social forces. They have played an extremely important and effective role in opposition to imperialist globalization and the right-wing ethnic bigotry known as “communalism,” both of which are utilized by the ruling class to maintain its power. While a left-wing party has a programmatic orientation (encompassing a range of interconnected issues) around which it seeks to mobilize masses of people against the state (or better yet, to take over the state), it is sometimes not the best vehicle for identifying and mobilizing around certain social and cultural issues. In Latin America, the relationship between left-wing parties and social movements has been closer, which provides a positive example for activists in India and elsewhere. 

Another approach involves the merger with social movements into a “new politics” that will elect Social-Democratic parties. Luis Ayala is not only a leader of the Socialist Party of Chile, but also the president of the Socialist International. He emphasized the democratic revolutions that swept through Central and Eastern Europe, arguing that the democratic wave has also been sweeping through Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The global transition to democracy is not complete but is moving forward. But socialist parties face obstacles as markets rather than people have been placed at the center of political life. Such parties have also lost credibility because if they have taken power they have not been able to deliver on their promise of a better life. There is a need for a new politics, with socialist parties and social movements coming together to give back to democratic politics the hope of a better life. A global agenda is needed that restores multi-lateralism (instead of U.S. hegemony), that reforms the United Nations to make it more representative of all countries, that establishes more responsible financial institutions, that gives workers and peasants a better life, that creates a fair trade system, that ends poverty, provides equality, democracy and human rights for all. 

A more radical approach involves a transformation of the left-wing party through the influence of the social movements. Fausto Bertinotti of the Party of Communist Refoundation asserted that the challenge for all was how to transform politics in order to change the world. The global justice movement — from Seattle to Florence and Genoa to Porto Alegre — represents something new. Politics must embrace the world and must include pluralism. Our experience in Mumbai forces us to understand that, in speaking of “the world,” we had previously been thinking not of the actual world but of an enlarged West. We must have an expanded understanding of politics. Politics has to be radically changed — it must learn from life, from the lives of human beings. New forms of democracy and participation are criss-crossing the world, new forms of self-rule in communities. The social movements must influence political choices in a definite way. At the same time, we must go beyond protests — not just demonstrating against war, but stopping war, not just protesting neo-liberal policies but building alternatives. The social movements tell us another world is possible, but to make this so, politics must change itself. In the 20th century big changes were achieved. The workers movement tried to storm its way to heaven, and it was defeated. We must understand the deep causes of this defeat. There was a particular conception of power in the party and union movements — a culture from which we must separate ourselves. We start from a criticism of power — protesting against the authoritarian power of capitalist institutions. We must critique the idea of power. There should not be the delegation of power but the direct exercise of power by the people, which represents the life of the social movements. No government or union or party can demand the reduction of the independence of the social movements. We must criticize institutions that are separate from people and from society. To change the world, we must change politics.

Aruna Roy, among the most prominent of the social movement activists in India, identified points of unity between the left-wing parties and social movements represented on the panel and then pointed to serious divergences (at least when it came to the Indian organizations). They were in agreement on the need to fight against neo-liberal market globalization. They were in agreement on the need to fight against caste and racism. They were in agreement on the need to fight against fascism and undemocratic forces. This is a solid beginning for building bridges between parties and social movements, and also between struggles in different countries. But the areas of divergence require serious discussion. While there is agreement on opposition to the tyranny of the market, there are some specifics on economic development (on desired alternatives) on which there is not agreement. There are differences on the question of democracy: winning elections in order to take state power (elections can corrupt!) versus empowering the people. There are also differences regarding the notion of leadership: there is more democracy in the social movements and more hierarchy in the parties. On the other hand, the social movements must learn more about the leadership that is required to win victories. There is a need for a dialectical interplay between movements and parties in order to advance equality, social justice, and the meeting of the people’s needs.

Olivio Dutra was the first PT (Workers Party) mayor of Porto Alegre, was the governor of Rio Grande de Sol from 1999 to 2002, and is now serving in Brazilian government as the Minister of Municipalities. He noted that the PT arose out of the social movements and has always respected the liberty and autonomy of the social movements. The government now faces big challenges in housing, transportation, sanitation and more. While the PT is one of the parties in the government, however, we do not govern alone — parties from left to center are represented in the government, and there are also the social movements. And there are also protagonists. We are working to reformulate the relationship between the state and society. There are special interest groups, privatization, and consumption-oriented attitudes. Paths for overcoming these challenges include: (1) adopting participatory management (democratizing pubic power with representative and participatory democracy); (2) renegotiating power between the federal government, the states, and the municipalities; and (3) dialogue with all segments of society (including social movements) and engagement in democratic conflict resolution. There have been efforts around social security reform, tax reform, economic growth, etc. There are also debates around the government’s plan with the business sector, social movements, ethnic groups, church groups, etc. We have done much. This is just the beginning — we will do more and better. 

Alejandro Bendana was for many years a leading member of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in Nicaragua, serving in the government from 1979 until 1990. He noted that the FSLN was part of a broader political current in Latin America and elsewhere that engaged in armed struggle against an oppressive regime. It was this armed struggle that made possible the development of democracy. In fact, the FSLN was a military organization that became the government. It was not the FSLN “party” that dominated the government, but rather the government that dominated the party. When the FSLN lost power, however, it had to transform itself into a party that could function in society and contend in elections. Very few FSLN militants knew how to operate as a party. This was also a dilemma facing some other Central American leftists in the 1990s. Their record as viable parties has not been good. Right-wing governments have succeeded in securing power through the elections. The Left has grown outside of the electoral arena despite the left-wing parties. The Left parties became involved in an institutional game in which the Right sets the agenda and framework. Structural changes have been accompanied by declining incomes and growing inequality, and an even more skewed distribution of power. The social movements had to break with the parties and become autonomous. The party ignores the movements because of its focus on the institutions of power. The movements have tended to become anti-ideological in reaction against verticalism and ideologism (authoritarian organizational practices and dogmatic ideology). Bertolt Brecht once said that some struggle for a day, which is good; some struggle for a year, which is better; some struggle for a lifetime, and they are the indispensable ones. We need indispensable people in both the social movements and the parties.

Working-Class Struggle and Opposition to War

Much can be learned from such evaluations of struggles and experiences from various countries. But one of the most important potentials of the World Social Forum — not fully developed, but incredibly significant — is the shaping of global strategies and campaigns. This is highlighted by looking at two major sessions as well as certain more modest efforts.

One of the larger sessions was entitled “The World of Labor: Freedom, Equality, and Labor Rights.” Panelists included the leaders of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), the World Congress of Labor (WCL), as well as representatives of the Women’s Commission of the European Parliament and of the International Labor Organization (ILO), plus a prominent Indian economist. The three labor federations come out of dramatically different backgrounds — the WFTU, formed at the end of the Second World War, was dominated by Communist-led unions, and early during the Cold War the ICFTU was formed by unions with anti-Communist leaderships. The WCL was initially an explicitly Christian labor federation consisting of unions not comfortable in the other two bodies, although its specific religious connection was set aside as the WCL took in affiliates from non-Christian areas in Asia and Africa.

One of the striking features of the session, given this history, was that each of the federation chieftains ignored their historic differences, pointed to similar problems experienced by workers due to the current form of globalization (though there were interesting nuances of difference), and expressed a commitment to labor unity both and between their worldwide labor federations.

Britain’s Guy Ryder of the ICFTU emphasized that labor activists are “internationalists by instinct and vocation” and that labor is “getting a very bad deal in this global economy.” Complaining that the “international community” has “put in place a market giving capital all sorts of privileges” at the expense of workers throughout the world, Ryder pointed to problems of privatization, unemployment, declining wages, evaporating benefits, and the dismantling of hard-won gains — whether previously written into union contracts or established through social legislation — in country after country. A minimum “floor” is needed to protect living and working conditions, but such a floor is being eliminated by present-day globalization, forcing workers to compete with each other in a “race to the bottom.” It is necessary to reject this globalization model being carried out on the backs of workers. Democratic labor-based organizations must struggle for immediate gains, but they must also must develop long-term strategy linking all unionized workers and also reaching beyond unions to unorganized workers (including those in the “informal” economy) as well as social movements and pro-labor parties.

The WFTU’s Alexander Zharikov of Russia echoed similar themes, taking special aim at multi-national corporations, the IMF, and the World Bank advancing a neo-liberal agenda that undermines the sovereignty of national governments, forces on them privatization schemes that gut the public sector and social service cutbacks that pull down working-class living standards. Seeking a union-free environment, and eliminating many millions of jobs, the corporations are grossly violating international law and ignoring such UN mandates as the elimination of child labor and establishment of full employment. Zharikov linked this to the invasion of Iraq, not to mention the billowing of militarism and military spending, wasting resources that could be utilized to eliminate joblessness, poverty and destitution.

All of these were themes revisited by Belgian Willy Thys of the WCL, who stressed that there can be “no real democracy without social justice.” He insisted that the trade unions are challenged to press for the creation of decent jobs with dignity for all, and an economy at the service of humanity. Democracy, Thys argued, is a catalyst for socio-economic development, and labor must lead in the struggle against the effort to “place the market above all else,” insisting instead on the elimination of poverty and social exclusion, with “the social security concept” regulating the globalization process.

Especially interesting in this session was the perspective sketched out by the widely respected economist Prabhat Patnaik, who has an international reputation as a talented and sophisticated Marxist academic. Noting the global and comprehensive attack on working-class wages, employment, working conditions, organizations, and rights, he stressed the need for the development of a global labor strategy. Critiquing common explanations for the rising unemployment of so many countries, Patnaik argued that globally mobile finance capital has sought to impose deflation on the various countries of the world, fearing state activity that could generate inflation with high levels of employment (which would cut into profit rates). But this situation would increase higher levels of demand, which would generate increased production, which would facilitate the achievement of high employment and wage levels. This suggests a global strategy for labor, with a clearly defined enemy and clearly defined goals for the world trade union movement — a strategy to press on every continent and in every country for implemention of inflationary and high employment policies, policies that would combat the ideology of the market, bring down unemployment, increase living standards, and truly make another world possible.

Another session reaching for a global strategy was the all-day Global Anti-War General Assembly, drawing 500 anti-war activists from around the world. This effort was initiated by activists from Thailand and the Philippines associated with the impressive group Focus on the Global South, whose best-known personality is Walden Bello. Drawing together an international working group of about twenty or so experienced activists from every continent (except Antarctica), the Focus-led team, coordinated particularly by Mary Lou Malig, masterminded a four-part agenda: session one provided a set of far-reaching analyses of the current world political situation as it relates to issues of war and peace, session two provided for a discussion of recent organizing experience and current perspectives, session three provided for a consideration of a variety of current/future campaigns, and session four was designed to draw together the various action strands on which there was sufficient agreement.

It was an earlier incarnation of this international anti-war network, coming out of the 2003 World Social Forum, that was largely for the incredible anti-war mobilization of eleven million people in cities throughout the world on February 11th of that year, on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Under the able chairing of Mary Lou Malig and Petros Constantinou of the Greek Stop the War Coalition, the body was able to consider analyses offered by Amir Rekaby Condi of Iraqi National Democratic Coalition, Oupa Lehulere of Anti-War Coalition South Africa, Britain’s left-wing Labor Member of Parliament Jeremy Corbyn, and Walden Bello. While the richness of the analyses will have to be elaborated elsewhere, it is worth touching on certain points particularly relevant for developing anti-war strategy — such as Condi’s observation that U.S. government occupation strategy has been unable to achieve its initial goals. There was Corbyn’s point that we must not allow our agenda to be set by the superficial perceptions propagated by mass media, but rather must look to the actual dynamics in which multi-national corporations and governments loyal to them (not only U.S. but also European) — seeking raw materials and markets, including outlets for a lucrative and lethal arms trade — utilize various pretexts (opposing drugs, opposing tyranny, opposing “evil”) to employ violence in order to get what they want.

Bello observed that “awesome” U.S. power had been thrown into question by Iraqi resistance on various levels, that U.S. empire is wracked by a crisis of overextension, and that the massive trans-border anti-war and global justice forces must not under-estimate themselves: in the present fluid situation we represent a sort of global “super-power” capable of confronting and perhaps defeating the U.S. drive for empire. Lehulere warned that the fading away of the Cold War’s “Red Threat” is unleashing a greater competitiveness between U.S. imperialism and, in particular, Franco-German imperialism. This is likely to result in growing challenges to U.S. power in the UN, NATO, etc., but also growing efforts to build up European military force and related meddling and violence by European powers in the global South — as well as U.S. government efforts to reassert its power through military means.

These and other analytical points were only partially and imperfectly incorporated into the later discussions of anti-war action, chaired in the second session by Arielle Denis of France and Luciano Muhlbauer of Italy, and in the third session by Salim Vally of Anti-War Coalition, South Africa, Diego Azzi of Brazil’s Social Movements Network, and Kate Hudson from Britain’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

And yet there was considerable unity and enthusiasm around March 20th as a projected international day of anti-war and anti-occupation mobilization. This was fixed as a central theme of the Assembly especially through major interventions by representatives from the United States — Rania Masri for United for Peace and Justice, as well as Gloria la Riva for ANSWER — ably seconded by Chris Nineham, for Globalise Resistance in Britain, Yung Chan Choi for South Korea’s Globalize from Below, and many others as well.

A variety of other campaigns and considerations were also advanced. One of the most effective was the linking of U.S. violence and occupation in Iraq with Israeli violence and occupation in Palestine, and of the powerful resistance to both sets of incursion. There was also an effective case made for a global campaign to close U.S. military bases. The Assembly was also able to consider thoughtful proposals advanced for anti-military and disarmament efforts and for a war crimes tribunal around aggression against Iraq.

At the end of the day, a common statement was adopted by the Anti-War Assembly. A couple of days later it was submitted to the Activists Assembly final declaration (where — to the chagrin of many — it was butchered, with only a few pieces incorporated into the broader document, already quite long). While having the quality of a stylistic “camel” (i.e., a horse designed by an unwieldy committee), the statement adopted by the Anti-War Assembly nonetheless captures the thinking and concerns dominant within this important international activist body:

We demand that our governments renounce violence and war. Instead we must prepare for peace through justice for all citizens of the world.

We call on people of all countries throughout the world to join together on March 20th in an international day of protest against the war and occupation in Iraq by US/UK and other coalition forces.

Anti-war forces in each country need to develop their own slogans and tactics to ensure broad participation and mobilization.

Opposing any drive for global empire, and the proliferation of war and violence that it generates, we say:

No war, no occupation, no empire!

US/UK and other coalition forces out of Iraq!

Oppose corporate profiteering!

Self-determination for the people of Iraq!

We support the calls of the Iraqi people for free and democratic elections and we refuse to acknowledge any legitimacy to the transfer of power to the Iraqi civilian governing council because it will be controlled by US/UK and coalition military forces of occupation, and we condemn the imposition of policies that would put Iraq and its resources on sale.

We say: No to the occupation wall Israel is building in Palestine, and support the Palestinian people’s struggle for its national rights.

Join together on March 20th against the war!

We Shall Overcome — And All That Jazz

There were a number of other promising indications in Mumbai from January 16th through 21st which seem to promise future efforts, across borders, to mount effective resistance to the destructive forms that “globalization” has taken in our time. A five-page document from the World Parliamentary Forum — made up of elected legislators of various countries participating in the WSF — had much of importance to say, including this: “The combined impact of the implementation of worldwide neo-liberal economic policies and of the dynamics of war is very deep….We…recognize the specific importance, in such a context, of the present rise of the movements against corporate and military globalization, of the workers’ struggles to defend social rights and public services, of the worldwide anti-war mobilizations and, within them, of the social forum processes. New solidarities are being tied, international convergences for common actions are being built, alternatives to the dominant economic and military world order are being collectivized.”

A different kind of political gathering — taking place away from the WSF grounds, but initiated by strong WSF supporters — involved over 40 revolutionary parties and organizations from six continents. They reflected a variety of strands from largely Maoist and Trotskyist traditions, some with substantial followings, many with strong roots in the labor movement, in anti-war and anti-imperialist movements, in struggles against racial and ethnic and national oppression, in women’s rights efforts, and more. Many seemed to feel there was a basis for more consistent and systematic cooperation, especially around anti-war and global justice efforts. There seemed to be consensus that this informal meeting was a positive first step, that nothing should be hurried, that this was a discussion and exploration which should continue.

There were innumerable smaller events at WSF-Mumbai that reflect the meaning and promise of the larger gathering. One was a workshop that I helped to organize, which was co-sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, Global Exchange, the Center for Changes (associated with Solidarity), and the Center for Economic Research and Social Change (associated with the International Socialist Organization).

“Peace and Global Justice or War and Empire? Struggles of U.S. Social Movements” was the title of this workshop, featuring the following panel: Claudia Rodriguez-Zinn (Global Exchange), who chaired; Paul Le Blanc (Solidarity); Njoki Njehu (50 Years Is Enough); Rev. Calvin Morris (Jobs with Justice); Jessica Marshall (National Youth and Student Peace Coalition); Jason Erb (American Friends Service Committee); Ahmed Shawki (International Socialist Review); and Dennis Brutus (Pittsburgh Social Forum).

There were several miracles that helped to make session a resounding success. One miracle was that all of the speakers showed up at the right place and the right time. Another is that the estimated number of people actually were interested in hearing what the speakers had to say and showed up to do so — at no time were there less than 150, and overall about 200 attended one or another portion of the workshop. The consensus is that the presentations were of high caliber — reflecting the kind of diversity of ideas and experience, and the clarity and stimulating nature of presentation that we had been reaching for. More than one person told me afterwards that it was one of the better sessions that they had been able to attend in Mumbai.

Claudia Rodriquez-Zinn (a last-minute replacement for Medea Benjamin, who found herself suddenly unable to go to Mumbai) did an incredible job chairing — between speakers and at the session’s end helping to summarize and weave together key points of the presentations quite articulately and with considerable poise.

Paul Le Blanc’s presentation, while reflecting the socialist views of Solidarity, also provided a general unifying political framework for the workshop, touching on themes that were elaborated on by other speakers. General remarks on globalization, war, and injustice included information on the vast inequality in wealth and power in the U.S. and the world, relating this to militarism, war, racism and repression. Noting that these problems are deep and have grown under both Republicans and Democrats over the past century and more, he emphasized that gains have only been made, and can only be made, by independent mass movements struggling for peace, justice, human rights and human needs. He concluded that the World Social Forum is important for our work in U.S. struggles, and a key advance that we should reach for to strengthen the necessary links is the development of a North American Social Forum.

Njoke Njehu brought an eloquent radical-internationalist dimension that is at the heart of the work her organization, 50 Years Is Enough, has been doing so effectively. It was particularly fitting that hers would be the first major talk, given our common commitment to the struggle for global justice against the destructive profiteering of multi-national corporations aided by international agencies such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Rev. Calvin Morris, in a truly marvelous presentation, blended freedom songs from the old civil rights struggles with incredibly insightful comments on past, present, and future struggles in the United States, with special reference to Martin Luther King, Jr., with whom he worked, and an emphasis on reaching out to and including the masses of “ordinary people” whose participation in the freedom struggle is essential for its triumph.

Jessica Marshall, an extremely talented leader of National Student and Youth Peace Coalition, bringing a decidedly “youth” focus to the panel, provided thoughtful and energetic remarks that more than one person has described to me as “awesome.”

Jason Erb, heroically battling the effects of a flu-like cold, outlined the impressive work and conveyed some of the rich experience of the American Friends Service Committee — in the Middle East, in the United States, and throughout the world — in its efforts to build links, consciousness, and meaningful activities to advance peace, social justice, and human rights.

Ahmed Shawki impressively blended an overarching revolutionary socialist analysis with poignant accounts from the actual lives of people in the United States whose lives have been impacted by the U.S. government’s drive for war and empire.

Dennis Brutus, a central figure in this year’s World Social Forum (ably chairing and addressing the anti-war rally that drew 20,000 people), rounded out the panel with the quiet and eloquent voice of a poet, a political visionary, and a keen analyst.

The discussion that followed was at times quite animated, engaging many people with a serious and searching exploration of the challenges we face, in some cases the differences in our evaluations, but also in the common purpose that unifies us. We ended the session a little early, as the discussion was beginning to wind down. This allowed time for some good informal interchanges before it was time to clear the facility for the following workshop.

One of the greatest accomplishments of the workshop was the realization of one of its central goals: enabling a number of diverse groups and activists to work together, and get to know each other a little better, with the perspective of allowing us to work more closely on common efforts in the future -- including a possible North American Social Forum in 2005.

Two other “happenings” had special meaning for me.

One was a modest little workshop on “Organizing Local Social Forums,” organized almost as an afterthought — at the insistence of Dennis Brutus — by the Pittsburgh Social Forum. Hardly knowing what to expect, three of us waited in the assigned meeting area and were astonished that more than thirty activists showed up from a variety of cities and countries and continents to share their experiences and thoughts on building the World Social Forum as a local, grass-roots phenomenon. It was an unexpected surprise and a rich discussion, culminating with an e-mail list that may yield fruitful projects and communications.

Numerically more impressive was the January 21st demonstration through Mumbai of tens of thousands of WSF participants. I was able to connect — by accident — with Pierre and Sally, dear friends from France and the Philippines, as we wound our way through the streets of Mumbai while many thousands watched this polyglot variety of human rights activists, pacifists, environmentalists, communists, anarchists, socialists, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and God knows what else. Pierre, who had played a central role in helping to organize this amazing thing, kept stopping to talk with dozens of people he knew from various countries, while Sally and I trudged along reminiscing about old times and savoring the spectacle all around us.

One of the most amazing contingents, for me, was a group of what appeared to be Dalits (or partly Dalits), carrying radical banners and colorful cardboard cut-outs of Gandhi. They had a little band — I remember especially trumpets and drums, maybe tambourines — that played songs which many without instruments were singing. It reminded me of the kind of jazz marching band that I’ve seen in documentaries about Mardi Gras in New Orleans. They were playing, and singing in words that I couldn’t understand, with joy and conviction, a wonderfully jazzy and up-tempo version of “We Shall Overcome.” And my mind was once again, as had been the case so often during these six days, swirling as I tried to comprehend the meaning of it all.

And then we found ourselves in a vast green field in the middle of the city, as thousands of activists prepared to hear various speakers who would intertwine the many issues animating us.

Several weeks later, I had the good fortune to hear Saladin Muhammed — a union organizer and a leader of Black Workers for Justice — comment about his experience in Mumbai. Commenting that he had been moved and enriched by this experience, he added a warning worth repeating. It is too easy, he said, for some North Americans (and probably others) to become World Social Forum “groupies” — to treat this as an exotic and almost mystical experience, as the ultimate in “meaningful” tourism. Such a thing cannot be justified in any serious political sense. Anyone going to the World Social Forum has a profound responsibility to connect with people of other countries, and to follow up with further communication, integrating this into more effective political work that can help to change the world.

I would go further. Those who are serious about changing the world, and about building effective social movements in their local and national contexts, have a responsibility to relate to such developments as the World Social Forum. This should be a priority for organizations seeking to bring about a better world.


William F. Fisher an Thomas Ponniah, eds., Another World Is Possible: Popular Alternatives to Globalization at the World Social Forum (London: Zed Books, 2003)

Mumbai Resistance (Newsletter Bulletin No. 7), January 18, 2004

Jai Sen, Anita Anand, Arturo Escobar and Peter Waterman, eds., World Social Forum: Challenging Empires (New Dehli: Viveka Foundation, 2004)

Sarina Singh et al, India (Melbourne: Lonely Planet Publications, 2003)

TerraViva (independent newspaper of World Social Forum, published by Inter-Press Service), issues #1 through #5 (January 17, 18. 19, 20, 21, 2004)

Michael D. Yates, Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global Economy (New York: Monthly Review, 2003)

I offer thanks to Pierre Rousset, on the staff of the European Parliamentary Forum, to Dr. Manisha Diedrich of the Commonwealth Civil Society Project based at the University of London, and to Mitul (an activist from Calcutta involved in the Anti-Capitalist Alternative) for sharing useful information. Also thanks to other members of the Pittsburgh Social Forum who were in Mumbai with me (Dennis Brutus, Willie Manteris, Deborah Uttenreither), and to Denise Davis and Sunanda Ghosh of the American Friends Service Committee. None is responsible for my mistakes, but each contributed to my understanding.

—February 15, 2004