Photo: Chris Nineham Photo: Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham interviews participants at an impressive gathering of the European movements in Florence 

Last weekend hundreds of activists from across Europe and beyond came together to mark the twentieth anniversary of the European Social Forum in Florence in 2002, and to discuss co-operation and solidarity in the current situation. The historic Florence ESF of 2002 brought together 70,000 activists, was accompanied by a march of one million in the city, and helped launch the international protests against the Iraq War on February 15, 2003, the biggest global protests in history.

Speakers at this meeting recognised that we are in a different situation but also that the cost-of-living crisis, the war in Ukraine and the gathering climate catastrophe all call for increased collaboration between the movements across the continent. Activists from over twenty European countries as well as from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran and Brazil outlined different situations faced by their respective movements. But there were important themes in common. Almost everyone who spoke reported a profound sense of anger and betrayal amongst working populations at the behaviour of their governments and the elites more generally. Given the economic situation facing the continent, everyone predicted that this anger will only deepen in the months to come.

There was also widespread frustration at the fact that in many places the electoral left has been incapable of channelling the anger that people feel. Despite the emergence of some new political projects in the least twenty years, and the recent success of La France Insoumise, many speakers talked of the problems created by the left focussing its energies entirely on parliamentary politics, and making compromises that risked their being identified with the political establishment. This failure of the left was identified as one of the main factors that has enabled right-wing forces to make headway in some countries.

There was also a good deal of stress on the importance of the issue of the war in Ukraine. The exact way the issue plays out varies from country to country, but many, including from Eastern Europe, spoke of a widespread popular opposition to the West’s role in the war, and a growing anger at the economic dislocation it is causing. Where the left has failed to oppose it effectively, in some countries right-wing organisations are beginning to channel anti-war sentiment.

There were, however, reports of growing resistance. Very effective general strikes have taken place in the last week in Belgium and Greece, there have been big demonstrations over the cost-of-living crisis in France and Britain, and a very impressive 100,000 strong march for peace in Ukraine in Rome on 5 November. The movement against climate change is starting to rebuild. Almost everywhere people reported signs of strengthening popular mobilisation and struggle. The meeting agreed to work to enlarge the networks of coordination, and discuss common actions in the weeks ahead.

The left faces enormous challenges but also real opportunities. I spoke to some key participants about the difficulties and prospects they face in their countries.

Raffaella Bolini
Arci, Italy

In these first weeks of her government, Giorgia Meloni is moving in two directions. On the one side, she has to assure the EU that she is credible in order not to be isolated and attacked in time of crisis. This explains the continuity with her predecessors on EU and Nato politics. This is despite the fact that during the election the right wing expressed scepticism towards the war in Ukraine and has promised to be critical of the EU framework. On the other hand, Meloni has displayed her hard-right credentials through new attacks on the migrant save and rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea. She has called for a European naval mission to block migrants coming from North Africa and refused permission for NGO ships carrying refugees to land in Italy. 

She also announced an attack on the basic income, which will have a massive impact on the poorest in society at a time when people’s lives are already becoming impossible. The basic income paid by the state to people in poverty, called the ‘citizenship income’, was an important measure brought in by the Five Star Movement in 2019, and it’s the main reason for the electoral support of the southern regions for the Five Star movement in the recent elections.

Scrapping basic income will not be easy for the new Government in terms of popular reaction, but Meloni has to meet the demands of the big and small entrepreneurs. They hate the basic income because it’s an obstacle to paying workers starvation wages. And the small entrepreneurs, many of them in crisis too with enormous problems created by fuel inflation, are a big part of the Meloni’s electoral base.

Unfortunately, unlike other right-wing figures like Matteo Salvini, Giorgia Meloni is a smart politician. She is keen to present herself as relatively mainstream for now, and capable of managing conflicts, inside her government and outside. At the same time, her victory has let hard-right leaders, already in power in many regional and local governments, off the leash. Some harsh attacks on women, LGBTQI+ and reproductive rights have been already started in some towns and regions.

The political left in Italy barely exists. The Democratic Party, distant relative of the old Italian Communist Party, is entirely neoliberal while holding on to a rhetoric of civil rights. The left break from the old CP, Rifondazione Comunista, that played such a massive role in the great upsurges of the anti-globalisation movement, is a shadow of its former self. Another left-green fragment, Sinistra Italiana, in coalition with the DP, elected some MPs in the last elections. And the big majority of the leftist electorate has no political representation.

The Five Star Movement is deeply contradictory. Its electoral success rested on the fact that it seemed vaguely anti-systemic at a time when there was a vacuum on the left. Under pressure from growing popular anger it is, at least for now, moving to the left. And on the war in Ukraine it is supporting the peace movement platform, including the recent national march for a ceasefire and political negotiation in Ukraine, which saw 100,000 in the streets in Rome, with only two weeks of preparation.

The leftist social actors, social movements and the unions need to learn that in the current period we have to be bold, we have to take risks and shoulder our responsibility. People think that the anti-war movement in 2002-3 was somehow a given, that it was spontaneous. Actually it took us months of hard work to build it up, we never knew that we were going to create a momentous mass movement, we took a gamble and it paid off. 

There is once again a huge level of anger and frustration in society. There is in fact a much deeper contempt for the elites and the system than there was even twenty years ago, when we had millions in the streets. At that point we had to campaign to convince people of the problems being generated by globalised capitalism. Now almost everyone is cynical about the system, almost everyone feels betrayed. But, without a strong political representation, this anger and frustration is being channelled by the right, proposing easy scapegoats: the migrants, the poorest.

The experience of the cost-of-living crisis is progressively radicalising people. Local groups in my association Arci [Associazione Ricreativa Culturale Italiana] have had to become emergency centres for distributing food and basic necessities. In the process of that work they have come up against the crisis situation so many people are living through, including in housing, which is a desperate situation in the largest towns in Italy.

We now need to set about building serious mobilisations again over the cost-of-living crisis, over the war in Ukraine, and to face the climate tragedies that now are daily taking place in Italy too. When they happen they are welcome, but we cannot simply wait for spontaneous upsurges. The job of the left is to organise to fight to make change happen, to channel and deepen and make coherent the anger that people are feeling.  Otherwise we are nothing.

Maria Cernat
Romanian Journalist with the cooperative The Barricade

Polls shows that ordinary citizens are not in favour of war, either in Romania or across Europe. A recent European survey showed that only in Poland is there a majority in support of the war in Ukraine.

Another recent poll showed that Romanians are not in support of the war and many of them said they would flee the country rather than fight Russia if they were asked to. I would say the following: the elites in Romania are fanatically pro-war. By elites I mean the mainstream politicians, mainstream journalists and academics and media platforms.

To give you some idea how of how intense the pro-war sentiment is, just a few weeks ago, the minister of external affairs had to quit just for saying that we need peace and that every war ends with negotiations. We actually had President Johannes labelling this discourse as Russian propaganda.

There is also popular Russophobia, a product of the long and complicated history between the two countries. Russian troops behaved very badly in Romania after the Second World War, and people still remember this history. They certainly don’t support the Russian invasion, but they don’t want to go to war especially not for the elites who have betrayed them for decades.

People say the following; if a war starts what is there for me to defend? The corruption of politicians? The wealth that they stole from us? People would rather abandon ship than join a war. Already over the last two decades the country has lost 24% of its population. People feel abandoned and unrepresented.

A few rather right-wing journalists have been speaking and writing against the war. Their analysis has been quite sharp, almost a class analysis, emphasising that this is a war for financial interests and for resources. They say that the people who believe that the Americans want democracy in Ukraine are naïve or just plain stupid. They have a big readership and though they were banned temporarily, they have come back and are still widely read.

We have a very small movement which has organized protests with a hundred people or so. It is difficult to sell an openly anti-Nato slogan, but calls for peace and negotiations can have real traction.

I suspect that there will soon be demonstrations against the rising cost of gas and fuel. It may well be that the social democrats will call some protests opportunistically, even though they are in government coalition with the right-wing national liberals. The social democrats will seize the opportunity to advance their interests because the anger is growing fast.

Hugo Braun
Attac Germany

The right is making some headway in Germany at the moment. In many small or middle-sized towns and cities they have been organising demos against state policy around the pandemic, around immigration and more recently over the cost-of-living crisis. They are not necessarily organised by the conventional far right, but by people influenced by it and sometimes within its orbit. Recently they have been channelling anti-war sentiment and raising slogans against sanctions and war on Russia.

In east Germany there is a very strong feeling against sanctions and for an immediate ceasefire and a negotiated peace. People in the east are not anti-Russian. They were living with Russians for over forty years. In general there is quite a strong pro-Russian feeling in the east, and this rather nostalgic feeling has been strengthened by the dreadful experience of neoliberalism over the last forty years or so.

One of the problems is that the left is afraid of organising demonstrations because they may be overtaken by right wingers. This is a serious mistake which is leaving the field open for the right. Another problem is that the left party Die Linke is in a very bad state, bordering on crisis. The main disagreement is over whether to be part of the system and work in electoral coalitions or to be a clearly anti-systemic, socialist organisation. The current leadership is very committed to the former path. In a situation in which their electoral performance has been getting worse, they are looking to coalitions with the Green Party and others who are a clearly neoliberal and pro-war. 

This can only make the position of the left weaker. A further problem is that the left is split on the question of Ukraine. Some are in favour delivering weapons, some are against. Some are in favour of sanctions, others are against. Even in Attac Germany, there is this split along these lines which shows no signs of being overcome. This makes effective opposition to the war very difficult and, once again, is in danger of playing into the hands of the right.

It is urgent that the left gets back onto the streets to organise their own demonstrations on the cost of living and, as soon as possible, finds ways to reflect the growing anger at the war in Ukraine which more and more people recognise is a contributing factor to the economic crisis.

Roberto Morea
Transform! Italy

We had a massive demonstration of 100,000 calling for a ceasefire and negotiations in Ukraine last week in Rome. The demonstration was given impetus by people around the Five Star Movement and the Pope. The trade unions, starting with the CGIL, and the rest of the left came on board.

The promotion was done by Europe for Peace, a network made up of unions, popular associations like Arci and an anti-poverty network. The demonstration was bigger than we expected. There is a widespread feeling that the war and the sanctions are a disaster and, in particular, that they are making the economic situation unbearable. It is the poorest people who are being affected worse.

Italian prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, is very pro-American in reality and she will continue to support the war as it stands, however, there are some splits in the right. Silvio Berlusconi (Forza Italia) and Matteo Salvini (Northern League) had friendly relations with Putin in the past. Even now sometimes Berlusconi discreetly tries to delegitimate Ukraine and give some support to Putin.

The economic crisis is causing wider strains in the historic bloc of the right. The increase in energy prices is impacting directly on employers and especially small enterprises. So the conditions are right to promote an exit strategy from the war.

While there are progressive networks operating deeply in society, our failure is that we have not been able to create a political space or representation of the movement. We do not have political actors who can respond, even though the demonstration was so successful.

Though the Five Star Movement helped this time, they were previously in the same government as the Democrats, and they voted for support for the war. They are not capable of consistent opposition to the US. In office, they increased weapons expenditure. So, the big question is how to change the political relations in society.

The radical left is much smaller than it was ten years or more ago when Rifondazione Communista had the opportunity to build something serious. The centre left and centre right has dominated politics, and the left hasn’t been able to break free from that. In elections, the call is constantly for unity with the centre-left Democrats in order to unite against the right and the fascists.

This has allowed the centre left to stay in power, but not to change anything. Now we are trying to advance a proposal for the radical left to unite in order to re-establish a left electoral project which is called Popular Union. This is a key task for us.

Matyas Benyik
Hungarian Social Forum

The anti-war movement is at a low ebb in Hungary because people are more interested now in the difficulties of everyday life, the rising prices, the problems of surviving in an economic crisis which is, ironically, partly caused by the war in Ukraine.

The Orbán government says it is on the side of the suffering people in Ukraine, but in reality it backs Putin. The government is saying that the sanctions against Russia are the problem, and of course the sanctions are having a bad effect on the economy, but this narrative allows Orbán to avoid discussion of the more systemic elements of the problems. It is the whole capitalist system which is the real problem and, of course, capitalism and war go hand in hand.

Between the wars, we had a virtually Nazi government and some of the symbols of those years are being rehabilitated. At the same time, there is a falsification of history, an attempt to claim that communism was the same as fascism. Attacks on left traditions are proceeding at high speed, including the renaming of streets and the pulling down of monuments from the socialist time. There is no resistance to this from the population.

During the forty years of transitional neoliberalism, radical left-wing ideas have been marginalised. The right wing has to some degree managed to take over the slogans of the left. At the same time there is some resistance. There was an important demonstration recently which brought together students and teachers. The teachers are campaigning against very low salaries. The government is saying they cannot raise the salaries because they are not getting the money that they should be getting from the EU. This is a smokescreen. The reason is that still in this in this period, the oligarchs and those close to the Fidesz party are still making a killing.

People are criminalised and harassed who organise these demonstrations. Practically there is a problem that they will lose their jobs. Some of them have already been sacked. There is a law in Hungary that says there has to be a minimum service maintained at all times in the public service, and this has the effect of holding people back.

The demonstration was only 10,000 or so, but the government is changing its attitude now and sitting down with the representatives of the teachers. I think they sense that there are so many connected problems around health care, public services and so on, that dissatisfaction is bound to grow. I think they are right and that in the future it will bring more people into the streets.

Marga Ferre
Transform! Spain

Today there is a huge demonstration in the city of Madrid to defend the health service. This is because the right-wing regional government has been attacking the health service there. So it has become not just a fight over the health service but an ideological battle too. It is partly an expression of the people’s anger at the far right attacking the left government of Spain. Spain is ruled by a progressive coalition of the Socialist Party, Podemos, The United Left and Catalunya in Common. 

The participation of leftist parties in the government is helping to protect working people from the worst attacks. The tragedy is that until recently these measures have not been defended in the streets.

There have been some sectoral protests, but there is not so far in Spain the kind of massive mobilisations that we saw in the period from 2008 to 2015. It is a different kind of response.

The people are not in the streets in large numbers because there is a feeling that the left is in government. This is dangerous because a left government needs to be pushed from below, from the streets.

There is always the danger that a left government will become comfortable, too used to working with the social democrats. There are real problems with this government. It has done good things on the question of rights, but very little on the economic questions. I think we must be honest too that there are internal problems inside Unidos Podemos, and we may not see the same coalition of the left in government after the next elections.

Now the unions are beginning to mobilise on the question of taxing the rich and of dealing with poverty, this will be the big struggle in my country in the next year. The protests are being organised by the social movements plus the trade unions, but the vanguard is likely to be the social movements, certainly that has been the case historically. 

There is a very strong movement against Nato here in Spain and we had an impressive demonstration at the Nato conference in the summer. The United Left itself came out of the campaign against joining Nato in the 1990s, which the left only narrowly lost.

On the question of Ukraine itself, there is some division, but Podemos has a pretty good position from my perspective. Podemos and other left parliamentarians are against sending weapons to Ukraine. Partly as a result, Spain doesn’t send many weapons to Ukraine which means that it is not a massive issue. The problem, though, is that the government, led by the Socialist Party, has introduced a massive increase in arms spending. So there is a contradiction there in a country which is largely anti-Nato and neutral, and therefore there is much campaigning to do.

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Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.