The London ESF was accompanied by plenty of political noise. To a significant degree this reflected the fact that our very diversity means that there are plenty of political disagreements. For example, many comrades, especially from France, didn't like the fact that the war in Iraq was very prominent in London, as it was in Florence.
In part this disagreement reflects differences in national context. In Britain the war dominates politics and is far and away the biggest mobilizing issue. Without the prominence of the war and the leading involvement in the ESF of the British peace movement, the Forum would have been a far less dynamic affair, and the final demonstration would have been little larger than the participation in the Forum itself.
But there is more involved here. The war in Iraq is also the dominant issue in world politics. This is not simply because of the divisions that it has provoked among the major powers. The Bush administration's unilateral assertion of military power, the brutality of the occupation, its accompaniment by the imposition of the full neo-liberal economic programme on Iraq - all of this for many activists sums up what is wrong with corporate globalization.
Others - and they are particularly influential in France - disagree. They believe there is no necessary connection between the Bush war drive and neo-liberal globalization. I think they are mistaken, and that every day that passes underlines the importance of understanding the links between economic and military power that are at the heart of modern imperialism. This is a substantive political disagreement with which we are going to have to learn to live while working together in the same movement.
Often it is more difficult to acknowledge the significance of these disagreements because they are presented as procedural problems. Thus a number of French networks have complained about the fact that the platform at one seminar were all agreed in defending the right of young Muslim women to wear the hejab, even though this does not seem to have prevented a very vigorous debate taking place from the floor. This seems to me like an evasion of the real issue.
The truth is very many activists in the rest of Europe find the support that much of the French left and union movement gave the law banning the hejab in French state schools quite incomprehensible. ATTAC France's recent assessment of the ESF complains about the role of 'confessional organizations' in London. But a secularism that excludes the most oppressed sections of French society is as communalist as any of the Islamist organizations it denounces.
The issue of the hejab is really a symptom of the real problem, which is how to expand our movement to embrace those at the bottom of European society who suffer both economic exploitation and racial oppression and many of whom, for that very reason, strongly attach themselves to their Muslim faith.
I wholly disagree with Callinicos. I think that, first, the war in Iraq is far less important than what should be the real issue for the Social Forum movement: the everyday and structural violence built into the present organisation of world capitalism. A focus on the war evades thinking through the real issues around globalisation. Worse, in the current climate, a focus on the war appeals opportunistically to various constituencies who do not care at all about dealing with these issues (Little England and Little Europe isolationist, liberals, etc) or who are straightforwardly reactionary (political Islamists and their fellow travellers). This opportunism, typical of the SWP and their patron Ken Livingstone, puts getting a good turnout (then read as a sign of some sort of upturn in class struggle) over thinking through - or acting on - the real issues. This opportunism is disingenously described by Callinicos as 'the movement expanding' to 'embrace' more people.
Related posts: The democratic imperium, The threat of internal extremism, Bem Gelada, Livingstone and the Left, Resistance?, Democracy in the socialist movement, No disrepect: the Kilroy of the left, Debating Iraq, Whose side are you on?