On the Eve of the WSF in Mumbai, India

Truth about the World Social Forum and the Brazilian PT

by Kunal Chattopadhyay

[The following is an excerpt from the author’s longer article “The  World Social Forum: What It Could Mean for the Indian Left,” the full text of which will be posted on the Labor Standard web site.]

Some Ultraleft and Sectarian Attacks—Their Partial Validity and Ultimate Failure

An ideological think tank connected to some Maoist groups in India has come out with a publication asserting that the WSF is a creation of imperialism. In a nutshell, the following is a summary of the points made by the publication entitled “The Economics and Politics of the World Social Forum: Lessons for the Struggle against ‘Globalization’” by the Research Unit for Political Economy (RUPE):

A militant protest movement against the depredations of international capital came to the fore at the December 1999 Seattle conference of the World Trade Organization, and raged for one and a half years thereafter.

Failing to curb this movement by open force, imperialism sought a political strategy.

It was in this context that the WSF was initiated by ATTAC, a French NGO platform devoted to lobbying international financial institutions to reform and humanize themselves, and by the Brazilian Workers Party, whose leftist image and “participatory” techniques of government have not prevented it from scrupulously implementing the stipulations of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The WSF meetings in Brazil for the past three years have tapped the widespread, inarticulate yearning for another social system. However, the very principles and structure of the WSF ensure that it will not evolve into a platform of people’s action and power against imperialism.

In the WSF, decisions are controlled by a handful of organizations, many of them with considerable financial resources and ties to the very countries which control the existing world order.

The WSF gatherings are structured to give prominence to celebrities of the NGO world, who propagate the NGO worldview. Thus, in all the talk about “alternatives,” the spotlight remains on alternative policies within the existing system, rather than a change of the very system itself.

Not only does the WSF as a body receive funds from agencies which are tied to imperialist interests and operations, but innumerable bodies participating in the WSF too are dependent on agencies like the Ford Foundation.

“Globalization,” a misleading word for the current onslaught by imperialism, can be resisted, and even defeated, by a combination of struggles at various levels, in various countries, in various forms; and forces fighting “globalization” will need to join hands in struggle against it. However, a careful analysis reveals that the World Social Forum is not an instrument of such struggle. It is a diversion from it.

The picture presented by the RUPE, as summarized above, is substantially unreal. Of course imperialism will inevitably try to penetrate any movement. There are radicals who, while opposing imperialism, do not even take time to think whether they should criticize the Taliban. Their grounds are that the Taliban are actually fighting the U.S. Activists on the extremist fringe of Maoism have expressed anger over people’s failure to solidarize with the Taliban. What they did not mention was that they and the U.S. had both supported the Taliban once upon a time, against the secular Soviet-backed regime. It was a serious mistake, even a crime, for the USSR to have invaded Afghanistan. But revolutionary developments in Afghanistan, especially the government of Taraki, preceded the Soviet invasion, and the period that began with the 1978 revolution (which brought the Taraki regime to power) was the one in Afghan history when social progress was achieved in some measure. Imperialism opposed that regime, and funded diverse Islamic fundamentalist groups, all in the name of the right to self-determination and democracy. When imperialism fell out with the Taliban they in turn were attacked.

The same radicals who support the Taliban are now turning their guns against the WSF, guided by the hoary old Maoist conception of “the principal contradiction” and “the principal aspect of the principal contradiction” (derived from Mao’s essay On Contradiction). When so-called “social imperialism” (the Soviet bureaucracy and its allies) was considered the main enemy, Maoists were willing to support a Taliban-U.S. alliance. Today, having woken up after the collapse of the bureaucratized workers’ states to the reality of U.S. imperialism, they are under the impression that only by building a front of the “pure” can they resist imperialist penetration of social movements.

In fact, this shows their utter failure to understand social reality. Imperialism is not something standing outside society. We live in a capitalist world, and every mass movement will be tainted by capitalism and its ideology, especially in its early stages. Marx’s method was not to argue that Communists should enter into no movement unless it was led from the beginning by them. Rather, he stressed that Communists should enter real movements and gain influence within them. The rise of the NGOs was, in India as well as elsewhere, often due to the manipulative and bureaucratic politics of the Maoists. It is surprising that even some civil liberties activists in India, like the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights, take the position that they will not collaborate with any NGO, because all NGOs are funded, ergo, agents of imperialism.

There are two souls of the NGOs, as we discussed earlier. On one hand they represent a desire to break out of the entirely party-dominated political culture, a desire to find or create space within civil society. On the other hand they also reveal major weaknesses — not merely because they are funded organizations, but also because, as single-issue organizations, overall social transformation as an idea gets diluted, and struggle for a very specific aim takes such precedence that as long as that specific goal will be advanced, they are often willing to settle happily for lobbying bourgeois politicians and capitalists. The 65,000 whom I witnessed at the European Social Forum were mostly young, mostly committed to radical social transformation. The over 20,000 who thronged to the Asian Social Forum in Hyderabad likewise contained many who desire real social change. The way forward consists of trying to seriously link up with their concerns and, to paraphrase the Communist Manifesto, of raising within these struggles the historic goals of the toiling people.

On the Brazilian Workers Party, or PT

The attack on the PT is also a sleight of hand. It is particularly easy in India, where few have any idea about the kind of party the PT is, or of the tendency struggles in it. For Indian readers mainly, let me therefore summarize briefly the complexities of the PT, as well as the meaning of its participation in the WSF. The PT is a new working class party. By new, I mean it was founded in 1980. It was the result of class struggle proletarian currents deciding in Brazil that the old left was not good enough, and that they needed a new party of the working class, looking neither to the Moscow bureaucrats nor the Peking bureaucrats, nor to national capitalism. Radical forces, particularly Trotskyists, played an important role inside the PT. They included the Brazilian section of the Fourth International, the current known as the Socialist Democracy Tendency (SDT). There were also others, like the International Workers League, whose comrades are no longer inside the PT, but have a fairly strong radical left party named PSTU (United Socialist Workers Party) outside the PT. The SDT, by contrast, decided to continue working within the PT and played an important role in shaping the structure of the PT, including its internal democracy, the right of organized tendencies to exist, their right to be represented in leadership bodies in accordance with the proportion of votes received at the national Congresses of the PT, and so on.

Seven slates competed at the November 1999 PT Congress. Their relative strength was shown by the votes they received in the election for the National Directorate (DN). Listed in descending vote order, the five main slates were:

Democratic Revolution, the leadership slate, grouped around the Articulation Tendency of PT union leader and presidential candidate Luis Inácio (Lula) da Silva and PT President José (Zé) Dirceu, with 44 percent of the votes;

Socialism or Barbarism, grouped around Left Articulation, the largest left tendency in the PT, with 21 percent of the votes;

PT Movement, the self-proclaimed “center” slate, with 13 percent of the votes;

Our Time, the left slate grouped around the SDT, with 10 percent of the votes; and

Radical Democracy, the right slate, with 8 percent of the votes.

This internal democracy, and respect for the rights of differing tendencies, marks off the PT from both the CPI(M)-style left, which steamrolls internal opposition, and the Maoists, who go into the fission mode whenever differences occur.

Participatory democracy was a concept that emerged from the left wing of the PT. It had its limitations. The clearest limitation is the transformation of a partial solution into a final solution. But if we take the most advanced pre-Stalinist socialist experience—that is, the experience of Soviets, or workers’ councils—we should recognize that in today’s world that model is inadequate in a number of ways. A purely workplace-based setup would leave out huge numbers of proletarian and semi-proletarian masses. At the same time, some Trotskyists evidently had an overenthusiastic view of the participatory budget. As Adam Novak wrote in International Viewpoint several years ago:

“These policies are underpinned and reinforced by the expansion of the participatory budget from Porto Alegre [the capital of Rio Grande do Sul, where the PT has headed the municipal government since 1989] and the other municipal PT strongholds to the state administration. The process has been surprisingly successful, and is already transforming the relationship between the state and society.

“The participatory budget process is based on open public meetings at the local level. These establish local priorities for government spending, and elect delegates to a regional level, which discusses in greater detail. State officials provide assistance and information, but have no vote in the assembly, which approves and supervises implementation of the final budget…”

But the most lasting contribution of the PT project in Rio Grande do Sul may prove to be its reappropriation of democracy as a fundamentally progressive concept. According to Ubiratan de Souza, “The participatory budget combines direct democracy with representative democracy — which is one of humanity’s greatest conquests, and which should be preserved and developed. As we strive to deepen the democracy of human society, representative democracy is necessary, but insufficient. It is more important than ever before that we combine it with a wide variety of forms of direct democracy, where the citizen can not only participate in public administration, but also control the state. The participatory budget in Porto Alegre and the process of implementing a participatory budget at the level of Rio Grande do Sul state are concrete examples of direct democracy.”

The participatory budget in Rio Grande do Sul was undoubtedly an important learning experience for the workers and others who participated in the process. It undoubtedly contributed to the participants’ understanding of economic and political questions and their desire for more control over the decisions that affect their lives. And this concept was not developed by those who would ultimately surrender meekly to the IMF. However, as long as the state apparatus remains in the hands of the capitalists, the extension of democracy to direct democracy would not be as massive a change as Novak seems to have imagined. There would be a necessary conflict between the aspirations of the toiling people assembled in the participatory budget’s discussion processes, and the demands of the IMF, of imperialism, of Brazilian big capital and the central banking system.

As Lula, the historic leader of the PT, came closer to victory by 2002, this contradiction became evident. And Lula chose adjustment with capitalism. For the left wing, it was a difficult choice. They could not give up the PT before the masses supporting the PT could be convinced. So they fought for an alternative line within the PT. As several SDT leaders explained in articles and speeches, including at a conference where this author was present, it was an agonizing choice, which they made because they had been in the PT from the beginning, they had contributed hugely to the building of this party, and they could not afford to turn their backs on it until a significant part of the working class also decided that there was a need to fight Lula. In other words, it was the choice that radicals inside mass parties have often faced. They could not afford to look sectarian in the eyes of the very masses they were trying to convince.

This left wing is very underrepresented inside parliament — which is once again historically the usual case. In the first critical vote, when a right-winger was appointed governor of the Brazilian Central Bank, Senator Heloisa Helena (of the SDT) did not vote for him. By the time Lula moved in for gutting the pension funds, a few more MPs had joined her in opposing the PT leadership’s rightward drift. And instead of walking out of the PT, Helena is systematically criticizing Lula, forcing the PT right into expelling her, thereby showing in an exemplary manner to the Brazilian working class that the PT leaders have moved away from their origins.

By flattening out the differences in the PT, by pretending that the authors of the participatory budget and the authors of the current course of the Brazilian regime are one and the same, the RUPE article does not provide a really serious basis for understanding the PT experience. To recapitulate, the key positive aspects of the PT experience are: the rise of the PT on the basis of class struggle [at a time of mass strikes, led by Lula’s union, against the Brazilian military dictatorship in the late 1970s]; the construction of the PT as a democratic working class party, clearly committed, at least in its early period, to socialism; and the important role of the radical left within it. That radical left might prove to be a hybrid left-centrist current, if we use a now not very much understood jargon, which means forces straddling revolutionary socialist and reformist politics, taking one step left and the next one right. The PT participation in the WSF, till Lula’s election, did not represent a reformist attempt at cooptation of radicalizing tendencies, but a democratic attempt at creating space for radicalism beyond Brazilian boundaries as well.

As outsiders to the WSF process, the RUPE ideologues and their cothinkers use labels on those who do participate in the WSF. It is certainly true that huge numbers of reformist, or nonrevolutionary, organizations participate in the Social Forums. They include well-meaning reform-minded groups like those fighting for housing for all, and so on, to sheer cranks. But on November 9, 2002, when Florence was brought to a standstill by a million-strong demonstration against the planned imperialist war on Iraq, that too was associated with the European Social Forum, the European regional version of the WSF. It was quite an experience to be marching in that demonstration! Are we to suppose that those who called that march are also subtle agents of imperialism? In that case, at least they provide more support to the revolutionary cause by such huge mobilizations than anything they provide imperialism.

But there is a point in the criticisms of RUPE, or of the Gujarat-based members of the Inquilabi Communist Sangathan (ICS). The latter issued a statement, falsely in the name of the entire Indian Section of the Fourth International, though they had not discussed it with anyone from outside Baroda [a city in Gujarat], and not even with all their Baroda comrades. This intervention was simply one that stressed the undemocratic character of keeping political parties at arm’s length. There are real problems here. The RUPE essay similarly takes on the WSF because it excludes forces that use individual terrorism (in a somewhat different formulation). This does rule out some forces on the radical left. At the same time, some of the arguments are disingenuous. Forces like the Communist Party of the Philippines, or the PW or MCC in India, have used violence indiscriminately. They have murdered other left activists in their turf wars. Unless they show a real willingness to have dialogues with other types of radicals, unless they are serious about pluralism and wider democracy, it is difficult to see how others on the left can provide them with much space.

The leaflet of the Baroda ICS is different. It represents the kind of flag-waving sectarianism that has no positive content. The PW, while opposing the WSF, has been trying to mobilize forces. The leaflet under discussion simply lectures activists about how central to social change a revolutionary party is. This kind of sterile and abstract lecture is useless. Unless radical parties or would-be radical parties can play serious roles as builders of mass struggles, of feminist struggles, of environmentalist struggles, in the Indian context of anti-communalist and dalit-liberation struggles, and unless they can rework their concepts of class struggle and revolutionary party to ensure that these dimensions are properly represented, they will remain armchair revolutionaries. The Baroda group that has issued the leaflet has been doing its best to push out the most important trade union activists, environmental activists, feminist activists, etc., from its fold because these activists refuse to allow “Marxist” experts who have no experience of the actual struggles to dictate to them how they should function in the mass movements.

If we expect the WSF itself to become the focal point for anti-imperialist struggles, we would be suffering from illusions. But if we think that we can ignore this, one of the world’s major anti-imperialist gatherings, we would simply be handing the thing over to reformist politicians. They come in droves. They come as CPI(M) leaders, and as European Social Democrats. And by the way, it is not quite correct that parties can have no role. One of the key debates around the European Social Forum was over whether and how to build a party of the European left, and the temperature suddenly mounted in Florence when the representatives of the French Communist Party and of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, French Section of the Fourth International, crossed swords. The WSF is a real event. Revolutionaries have to go in there, be a part of the real movement, and thereby seek to influence others in the movement. Forces like the NAPM, and others, have clearly taken a dual-track approach, building the movement and at the same time criticizing the NGO dependence. This alone shows the way ahead. Will the Indian left grasp this unique opportunity?