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"It is certainly not our task to build up the future in advance and to settle all problems for all time, but it is just as certainly our task to criticise the existing world ruthlessly. I mean ruthlessly in the sense that we must not be afraid of our own conclusions and equally unafraid of coming into conflict with the prevailing powers."
Karl Marx, 1844


Published: 5 April 2004

Oupa Lehulere* takes a critical look at Mumbai Resistance 2004, and argues that it fails to contribute to the debate on building an international anti- globalisation movement.

Since its first meeting in Porto Alegre a few years ago the World Social Forum (WSF) has generated a lot of debate. By the end of its second meeting in 2002, left militants began to advance many criticisms of the WSF. In the 1st edition of the Khanya Journal James Petras criticised the WSF and its domination by conservative and reformist political forces. So when in the last half of 2003 the Mumbai Resistance 2004 Against Imperialist Globalisation and War (MR2004) was formed, it generated a lot of interest among activists in South Africa. The excitement was due mainly to the fact that for some activists MR2004 seemed to represent a serious left alternative to the WSF, and therefore also seemed to take their own criticisms of the WSF a step further.

Although for those who were at the WSF in Mumbai, MR2004 failed to live up to a serious alternative to the WSF, the issues it raised remain important. The central question raised by the various left criticisms of the WSF is how do we build an international anti-imperialist movement in today’s conditions? How do we forge programmatic unity, a common strategic orientation that can accommodate a variety of tactical approaches in the struggle against imperialist-globalisation? What attitude should the international movement take towards different methods of struggle, in particular ‘armed struggle’? In this article I hope to contribute to this on- going debate through a critical look at the orientation adopted by MR2004.

A sectarian politics

An important issue that left militants and movements have to tackle concerns the process by which a programmatically unified international movement will emerge under present conditions. The MR2004 initiative is a striking example of all the mistakes we should seek to avoid when undertaking the process of unification at the international, or even national, level. Firstly, although the critique of the WSF advanced by MR2004 was prevalent among left militants internationally, there is no acknowledgement of this fact in the declaration and statements of MR2004. Secondly, there is no indication of any canvassing done by MR2004 among left and left-leaning initiatives that have been active in the WSF prior to the launch of MR2004 in August 2003. Thirdly, there is no indication of how movements who might be interested in building a more militant international movement can contribute to the process of elaborating the programme of MR2004, or any other process that succeeds it. The MR2004 initiative presented the international anti-globalisation movement with a finished product, to which one should subscribe on pain of being declared agent (witting or unwitting) of imperialism. In its entire conception and implementation the MR2004 initiative represents a dogmatic and sectarian politics that we should seek to avoid.

A weak understanding of the present movement

The extreme politics of MR2004 are matched by its weakness of analysis of the evolution of the present international movement. While MR2004 “considers itself as a continuation of the militant traditions set in the anti-globalisation and anti-war movements that assumed a new intensity after Seattle”, it goes on to treat the WSF not as a product of this wave, but as a plot by imperialists to deflect the peoples’ struggles. There are a number of weaknesses with this approach. Firstly, like all dogmatic politics it gives too much power to imperialism, giving it the capacity to ‘manufacture’ such gigantic historical processes as were seen for example in Mumbai itself. This is a defeatist politics hiding behind a radical rhetoric. Secondly, the MR2004 analysis creates a false dichotomy between radicals and reformists within the WSF process, and fails to see or acknowledge the fact that for the radical left the road ahead is not as clear as MR2004 would like us believe. In fact, the ideological and organisational weaknesses of the post-Seattle movement are not explored at all, and the question of why most if not all these movements are part of the WSF process is not even posed. Thirdly, the tendency to treat the WSF as one ‘amorphous mass’ means that the MR2004 fails to identify left or left-leaning initiatives within the WSF, and to elaborate a strategy of how these would be won over to a consistently anti-imperialist platform.

Of course, these specific weaknesses of analysis by MR2004 are a product of a much larger gap in its analysis: its failure to provide a serious and sustained analysis of the present international conjecture, and how it conditions the development of the international anti-imperialist movement. As a result the MR2004 provides a lot of declarations, but little by a way of a concrete programme.

‘Reflective thinking’ vs Action

Of all the criticisms of the WSF, the one on the lack of “action” by the WSF is probably the most popular, at least among South African militants. This is linked to another critique, namely that the WSF is conceived as a ‘space’, and is therefore not good enough for those interested in practical action. Firstly, this criticism is wrong even by WSF standards. The charter of the WSF gives various groups and initiatives within the WSF the right“… to deliberate on declarations or actions they may decide on…”, and the WSF “undertakes to circulate such decisions widely by any means at its disposal…”. Secondly, in 2003 the Social Movements Assembly, and in 2004 the Activist Assembly and the Global Anti-War Assembly issued calls for mobilisation against the war in Iraq without having to leave the WSF.

While MR2004 has made lack of ‘action’ at the WSF one of its main criticisms, it fails to elaborate its own position on anti-imperialist ‘action’. What constitutes ‘action’? Do the 15 Feb and 20 March anti-war mobilisations constitute ‘action’? The various platforms of MR2004 fail to engage in any serious discussion of ‘action’, or forms of struggle, and instead hide behind high-sounding rhetoric. As militants in the anti-globalisation struggle we need to openly discuss different forms of action, and the place these have in the general struggle. We need to ensure that the forms of actions we engage in bring broader and broader masses of people into struggle, instead of them being seen as exclusive. This can and should be done while at the same time deepening our anti-globalisation critique, and elaborating a clearer political and strategic path.

On the other hand, it is important that at all stages of the development of the movement we value and defend the space for “reflective thinking and debate” within the movement.

This is particularly important at this point in the development of the movement, given that many of the old ideological and strategic prescriptions of the left lie in ruins in the wake of the collapse of Stalinism and other currents within the anti- imperialist and anti-capitalist movements.

Violence, and forms of struggle

Another criticism of the WSF is that its charter “restricts constituent organisations to non-violent forms of struggle”. MR2004 goes on to argue that it “specifically closes the door to all other forms of struggle”. Of course, the left cannot support a blanket exclusion based on specific forms of struggle, especially when this is stated – as in the charter of the WSF – without any qualification. For an initiative that seeks to provide international leadership as the MR2004 does, however, this critique should be the beginning, and not the end of the discussion on violence as a form of struggle. For example, we expect MR2004 to make clear its political attitude to al-Qaeda’s violence, and all similar violence, which style themselves as anti- imperialist and anti-USA.

The left has a rich history of debate on this question, and MR2004’s light treatment of what is a difficult question once again shows its failure to make a meaningful contribution to resolving critical questions facing the left today. For us in South Africa this is of particular importance, especially in the light of the fact that there is a tendency in some quarters to confuse violence and ‘storming the barricades’ with militancy. From this rich history of debate on this issue, there are a number of basic principles that should guide us as militants. Firstly, for mass movements struggling for social change violence is not a weapon of choice. Indeed, violence by the movements is undertaken as a defensive measure against the violence of the ruling classes. Secondly, even when (defensive) violence has become necessary, at all times it should be subordinated to mass mobilisation and to open political work – no matter how difficult the conditions of such work. Thirdly, the use of violence is not, and should not be treated as an issue of principle. Our movement cannot be “committed to armed struggle” since it does not define a political orientation. Therefore, the left cannot initiate a split in the broader movement on the basis that violence as a method of struggle is excluded. The task of the left is to be within “non-violent” movements, and to explain that where it has had to adopt violent measures, it is a means of self-defence. Indeed, during the Global Anti- War Assembly in Mumbai, the gathering supported the right of the people of Iraq to self-defence against the violence of US-led aggressors.

Towards a new International?

The failure of MR2004 to make a serious contribution to left politics still leaves on the table the question of building an international anti-globalisation movement. The question is not an easy one, and will not be resolved by dramatic grandstanding or rhetoric.

As far as the WSF is concerned, this debate is already underway, and activists in South Africa need to take active part in this debate. We need to avoid substituting our lack of participation in this debate with support for politically infantile initiatives like MR2004. We need to develop our positions on issues like the structure of the WSF, the place of militant social movements within it, the place and role of political parties, the further development of its charter, and many other issues.

Our attitude to the role and place of the WSF in building the broader anti-imperialist movement in our time will have to be located in a larger debate on strategies for halting, reversing and finally defeating imperialism.

At the heart of this debate, and “reflective thinking” will be a number of issues. Some of them are:

Firstly, how will left forces relate to reformist but anti-neoliberal movements? Although many left militants belong to currents that still believe in democratic centralist Internationals, we need to be mindful of the fact that these Internationals emerged in the course of struggles for hegemony within broad reformist movements. Secondly, we need to debate the extent to which the development of the international anti-globalisation movement is conditioned by the rhythms of the struggles in individual countries as well as internationally. In other words, is there a form of organisation of the International that is valid for all phases of the development of the popular and class struggles? Thirdly, we need to debate our attitude to different forms of struggle – non-violent and violent. We need to develop forms of struggle consistent with the forces at the disposal of the movement today, as well as being consistent with our long-term political perspectives. Thus, where we are forced into adopting defensive violence, how do we conduct this form of struggle in a way that reflects our essentially non-violent future society? Fourthly, and underpinning all these other issues, is the need for us to be constantly discussing the character of the present conjuncture, and the processes and forces that are constantly transforming it. This includes, in the South African context for example, an ongoing analysis of the character of the neo-liberal ANC government, the forces acting on it, the state and levels of consciousness of the general population – and not just the working class and the poor, the state of organisation of the mass movement, an analysis of the socio-economic structure on which all these rest, and so on. Throughout this process of “reflective thinking” or theoretical analysis, we need to bear in mind Marx’s injunction to Bracke: “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes”(!)
Originally published here: https://khanyajournal.org.za/kc-journal-no-5-april-2001-mumbai-resistance-2004/

"Ideas that enter the mind under fire remain there securely and forever." -Leon Trotsky

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