Issue 253 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review
'Many of us have dreamt of this day.' That was how dockers' union steward Bruno Rossi opened his address to the international meeting of the Genoa Social Forum in Italy in May. And you could see what he meant. The Genoa dockers' union hall where the meeting was taking place can never have hosted such an event before. It was packed full of peace campaigners, trade unionists, left wing councillors and drop the debt campaigners. Ya Basta! was there, there was a big delegation from Attac France, there were trade unionists from Greece, councillors from the left wing Italian party Rifondazione Comunista, an environmental group from Germany, and members of Jubilee South from Argentina--all planning together how to take on the world's most powerful men in Genoa in July.
The election results in Italy are a blow to the left. But rather than allowing Berlusconi's victory to demoralise people, activists argued to use the G8 protests as a rallying call for the opposition. 'It was mass protests that finished off Berlusconi in 1994--we'll do it again in July,' one speaker announced.
The anti-capitalist movement is growing in leaps and bounds everywhere. The Quebec City protests showed that, the Genoa conference showed that, and the May Day demonstrations across the world confirmed it. May Day brought the movement home to Britain. Despite the media hype and the police intimidation, at least 8,000 people turned out in London alone, and the media couldn't hold the line that we were mindless thugs. For days after, the anti-capitalist movement was the centre of discussion in the media and elsewhere.
Throughout the movement there is a fantastic instinct for unity and inclusiveness. At Quebec there was a high level of cooperation and discussion between environmentalists, socialists and trade unionists. At the GSF meeting in Genoa no one spoke just to differentiate themselves or take formal positions. People had come to organise a real movement, and all the varied groups and individuals present were keen to work together to ensure the biggest possible turnout in July. This is a crucial starting point. We have a chance to forge a real mass movement against the system and any attempt to boil the movement down to those with a particular ideological line amounts to throwing away that chance.
At the same time big events like Quebec and May Day inevitably raise questions and debate. The question that keeps coming up is how we deal with police repression. The job of anti-capitalists is to point out that the growing movement is actually organising against a desperately violent system. Neoliberal policies kill, and our governments are doing nothing to stop the carnage. European governments have spent at least 50 times more on arms than they have on debt relief in the last year. Our worldwide protests against pharmaceutical patents, on the other hand, have undoubtedly saved lives.
What's more, faced with the kind of police repression seen at anti-capitalist protests from Seattle on, we have to have the right to self defence. The way the police treated us at Oxford Circus, it is a miracle there wasn't more trouble. There was some damage to property--some windows were smashed and there may have been some looting. But then, as one speaker said at the Globalise Resistance conference, 'Window panes don't cry the way starving children do.'
The practical question of how to deal with police violence leads to a more general strategy discussion. Some argue we should have nothing to do with violence. There are many very brave pacifists in the movement, and passive resistance does have the advantage of gaining us the moral high ground. The problem is that it is relatively easy for the police to deal with physically. We do want to win hearts and minds, but we also need to win some really big victories. Others argue for self defence groups or Ya Basta! type human shields. But these kind of tactics can be elitist and tend to create a macho impression of protest unlikely to encourage more people into the movement.
The real key is numbers. It was the size of the turnout in London on May Day that ensured the protest got to Oxford Circus. We need to make a leap of imagination about our movement. One of the reasons at least some sections of the media felt they had to take the anti-capitalist movement seriously after May Day is that they realised from the phone-ins and the postbags that the May Day protesters had a lot of sympathy. This is not surprising--most people have suffered from neoliberal policies over the last decade or so. Most people have watched a local hospital close, or seen a school sold off, or been forced into a low paid, casual job.
|Not so candid camera. Despite police repression thousands took to the streets of London on May Day this year|
The slogan 'Put people before profit' makes sense to millions. We have to turn this sympathy into active support. If we do that next May Day, a demonstration that unites trade unionists with direct action campaigners, environmentalists and peace campaigners could attract ten times the number who came this year. Demonstrations on that kind of scale are much harder for the police to deal with. In 1990 the police lost control of central London to 200,000 people demonstrating against the hated poll tax. The experience shook them and the government, and a few months later Thatcher went and the tax was withdrawn. If we can get 100,000 to Genoa we have a real chance of disrupting the G8 convention.
One of the most direct ways to mass mobilisation is through the unions. Trade unionists are natural enemies of corporate power. They are at the sharp end of the privatisations and the cutbacks pushed through by the neoliberals. Trade unionists have a power that terrifies the authorities. The turning point in the Seattle protests came when a huge trade union contingent arrived in the centre of town-the chief of police made a decision to call off his thugs, and for a few hours the WTO convention was paralysed. The police didn't even try and take on the 100,000-strong trade union protest in Nice in December last year. It is one thing to attack groups of students or environmental activists--it is raising the stakes massively to batter organised steel workers, dockers or nurses.
We don't have to wait till next May Day. The protest against the G8 in Genoa on 20-22 July gives us a fantastic opportunity to expand the movement now, and the 400-strong Globalise Resistance conference was a great start. Speaker after speaker explained how easy it is to book people to come. Unison and the NUJ have backed the protests nationally. We should be getting groups booked up in every school and college across the country, raising Genoa at every trade union or campaign meeting we hear about, getting Socialist Alliance and Green Party groups to come en masse. As Tony Blair puts a massive new wave of privatisation at the heart of his manifesto, taking the anti-capitalist movement to a new level is not just possible but absolutely necessary.
|Steel workers on the march in Quebec recently|
Here's Carolyn Egan, steel worker, speaking after the Quebec City demonstration.
'Finally we started to march, approximately 2,000 of us. "So--So--So--Solidarité!" was the unifying chant among the anglophone and francophone workers. We sat down in an intersection blocking traffic. Then someone shouted, "The students are coming! The students are coming!" We began marching forward at a fast pace, and then we saw them. Probably three times our size. The same chant echoed from their mouths. It was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life when the two groups came together and warmly and wildly embraced each other. Two women in my local [union branch] said that they were moved to tears. One said, "it was like we were handing the torch to them. Now it's your turn to take up the fight!" The other said, "No, it's the young people in the streets coming together with older trade unionists, and now we are going to fight back together!"'
Since Seattle, when the anti-capitalist mood turned into a movement, it has not been clear whether the ingredients which made it so explosive would combine again in quite the same way. After the Washington protests last spring there were pessimistic analyses of the movement that complained that, since the labour participation was much weaker than in Seattle, the movement was in decline. Quebec's events show the opposite. There was more labour participation in Quebec than Seattle (68,000 compared to between 40,000 and 50,000), more people involved in direct action (15,000 to 20,000 compared to between 7,000 and 8,000) and far more union members who were prepared to challenge the marshals and join the youth in direct action. Quebec will not resonate through the movement with the same force as Seattle. Canada is not the US. Mass actions generalise with far more force when they originate in the US, the centre of world capitalism. Nonetheless the Quebec events mark an important stage in the movement.
Thousands of people are now experienced in open confrontations with the state. There is a dialectic of action and reaction which is radicalising the movement. The fear of another Seattle prompted authorities to construct a fence to protect the delegates from protesters. But the existence of the fence provided a focus for the anger of thousands of people, many thousands more than would normally be expected to participate in direct action. The massive use of teargas--the 'natural' accompaniment to a fenced in compound--had the effect of generalising the rage from the front of the crowd at the fence to the thousands further down, away from the fence. As the clouds of gas caused people far away from the fence to gag and choke, anger at police violence pulled thousands more into direct action.
New forms of organising are becoming established in city after city. Throughout English Canada, groups like Toronto's Mobilisation for Global Justice have established themselves as serious centres for discussion and mobilisation. In Toronto there was the additional element of a multitude of local neighbourhood based anti-FTAA coalitions that had the effect of taking the mobilisation much deeper into working class areas of the city.
In Quebec the process of developing anti-capitalist organisations is more advanced. Most closely resembling the 'Mob4Globs' is Montreal's Le Groupe Opposé à la Mondialisation des Marchés, or Gomm. Predating the Gomm are Salami (which originated around the anti-MAI protests in the mid-1990s, and is on principle committed to non-violence) and the Anti-Capitalist Convergence (or Clac), which was central to bringing down the fence on the Friday in Quebec. All of these groups have shown themselves capable of mobilising thousands.
The breaking of a section of labour towards the anti-capitalist movement--which is politically the most significant aspect of the Quebec events--has been the product of literally months of organising and argument. It is not surprising that the role of labour in the anti-capitalist movement has been more developed in Ontario than elsewhere. The Ontario labour movement, just a few years ago, experienced 11 one-city general strikes in a movement against that province's Tory government. The general strike movement was eventually sold out. But it pulled hundreds of thousands into activity, radicalised tens of thousands, and created links between many militant workers and sections of what is today a new left.
The first significant collaboration between labour and the new left in the anti-capitalist movement occurred last June in Windsor, Ontario, during the anti-OAS (Organisation of American States) protests in that city. Militants from the Canadian Auto Workers union worked closely with a selection of the direct action militants to win the small group of anti-capitalists who were present to unite their direct action with the labour march of 5,000. This was a critical moment. There were no more than about 700 young anti-capitalists present, only a small minority prepared to engage in direct action, and had they acted independently from labour, they would have been easy pickings for the 5,000 cops present. By uniting with the labour march, they were able to engage in direct actions and be supported by militant workers.
The links forged at that event have been nurtured ever since. The respect for the young activists inside a layer of the union movement led key militants to argue firstly that there had to be labour present on 20 April, the day of direct action, and that the 21 April demonstration should break toward the perimeter and not away from it. The second argument was lost. There was an official decision not to break towards the perimeter. But as a result of the argument, the 'compromise' position--to form a labour affinity group and participate in the Friday direct actions--proved enormously successful.
There is now a growing respect and a months-long history of collaboration between people in the anti-capitalist movement and key militants in the labour movement. When 700 people showed up in Toronto for a report back meeting on the Quebec events, the panel included young anti-capitalists, revolutionary socialists and a leading member of the Canadian Auto Workers. This would have been unthinkable even 18 months ago.
The depth of the penetration of the anti-capitalist sentiment into labour is hard to measure and should not be exaggerated. Without a doubt, it is still a small minority in the labour movement who openly identify with the young anti-capitalists. But that minority is extremely important.
The continuing links between rank and file unionists and the anti-capitalist movement are putting the question of the union bureaucracy into sharp focus. Many are rightly furious with the way in which Quebec union leaders prevented the labour march from joining the direct action. But that anger in the English Canadian labour movement rings a little hollow. Some of the union leaders in Quebec who were willing and eager to 'defy' the marshals were the same leaders who earlier in Ontario had sat passively and let that province's magnificent general strike movement go down the drain. The issue of confronting our passive bureaucracies at home looms larger the more the labour movement rubs shoulders with the young anti-capitalists.
Within the left as a whole there is a profound realignment going on. In Quebec there has been an electoral breakthrough. In the Mercier riding [constituency] in Montreal, Paul Cliche--backed by the Rap (Rassemblement pour une Alternative Politique), the PDS (Partie de la Démocratie Socialiste) and several unions--won almost 25 percent of the vote, a breakthrough for Quebec provincial politics. There is now talk of a full slate of left candidates taking the field in the next provincial election.
In English Canada there has been a sudden proliferation of organisations on the left, growing because of the anti-capitalist radicalisation. The Council of Canadians, with between 100,000 and 160,000 members, is the largest of these. It has been central to the anti-capitalist organising and has moved considerably left from its left-nationalist roots. A section of the independent left in Rebuilding the Left has had meetings of hundreds in cities across the country. Inside Canada's labour party, the NDP (which is in considerable disarray), there are some signs of a push to the left as the party responds to the pressure of the anti-capitalist movement outside its ranks. But there are also the beginnings of a Blairite counter-attack from the party's right wing. The party will find it hard to paper over the differences between the two wings in the coming months.
What the fixture holds is not entirely clear. There is a profound urge for a united left force to combat the institutions of capitalism. But inside that urge for unity exist a myriad of debates. What is the role of violence? What is the role of the working class? How can we combine the fight against racism, sexism and homophobia with the fight against capitalism? Building a united response as we work through these debates, all the while deepening the activity and presence of the anti-capitalist movement, will be the tasks for the coming months.