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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Left Goes to Athens

The European Social Forum 2006 is under way in Athens. From Wednesday through Sunday, activists from ecology groups, left-wing political parties, human rights organizations and other social movements across the continent will discuss strategy and tactics, agree on coordinated action, plan joint campaigns and argue over ideology.

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Since the first World Social Forum in Port Allegre, the movement has spread to all continents. This is the fourth European Social Forum, and in the majority of countries, including Russia, preliminary local forums were staged. Many people have criticized these undertakings for their "reformist" and "moderate" approaches -- as well as for their lack of practical results. Yet these forums are in fact becoming more radical and more oriented toward concrete action.

Nevertheless, it can't be denied that the movement is going through a crisis. If the first European Forum in Florence drew some 60,000 people, the London gathering of 2004 brought together no more than 15,000. Many complained that decisions were made undemocratically, and some confirmed that in planning sessions anarchy had come to coexist quite nicely with bureaucracy.

Athens should represent the answer to this crisis. Its theme was announced as "enlargement," in two senses: geographically, referring to a new and sizeable contingent from Eastern Europe, and politically, signaling a more inclusive and more distinct representation of different social groups and civil movements.

To counter authoritarian tendencies within the movement, preparatory assemblies were organized. Conducted every two or three months, the gatherings are expensive to run; but through them a certain transparency has been achieved. Representatives of organizations from all over Europe have had a chance to take part in the decision making leading up to the forum, witnessing the "cooking" in the forum's "political kitchen."

But alas, transparency does not always solve problems. The preparation period brought out all of the difficulties and disagreements, national and international. The Greek organizing committee couldn't fix a date for the forum because the Italians demanded that it be put off until their elections were over. Then a new date could not be set because the Greeks started arguing among themselves. The East European delegations used the preparatory assemblies to complain about discrimination, while the French and Italians protested the dominance of the English language -- which led the Hungarians to ask why, if French was to be promoted in status, their language couldn't be too. The translation committee came up with some brilliant solutions on the interpreting front -- but somebody was always offended anyway.

Delegations from different countries have competed for attention. It was clear in London that honoring everyone's claims for seminar scheduling in Athens would be impossible. Many groups, informed by bitter experience, put in extraneous claims for seminar time -- claims used exclusively as bargaining chips. As a result, a number of separate seminars have ended up scheduled for the same times and places -- and with the same speakers. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian delegation has shunned Athens altogether, opting instead to go to Vienna to meet Hugo Chavez.

Yet the forum's main problems were not technical but political, and largely of East European provenance.

The Athens forum has coincided with a crisis in the ranks of the Russian left. At the same time that the delegation for the forum was being chosen, the Communist Party announced a scandalous decision: to invite the ultra-right Movement Against Illegal Immigration to take part in the May Day demonstration. The party's youth contingent protested. The majority of Russia's independent left, which had never felt any great sympathy for the Communists, was outraged. But there immediately appeared various advocates of reconciliation who patiently explained that the KPRF was the largest opposition party, and quarreling with it was out of the question. If the mainstream Communists consider it necessary to cooperate with fascists, the explanation ran, that means that the democratic left should also march along in common formations with admirers of Hitler.

This schism will not be overcome. It will end with a final split, a demarcation of the left from the nationalists and those who admire the totalitarian past. There will be no more getting together under slogans of mutual love and solidarity. The crisis of the Russian left also provides a definitive answer to the question of the future of the European forums. This future now depends not on international planning, but on how things work out everywhere on the local level.

Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Institute for Globalization Studies.