About the US Social Forum meeting in Detroit, June 2010

(Talk at the Detroit Workers' Voice Discussion Group meeting of July 15, 2010)

by Mark Williams

At the end of June, the US Social Forum came to Detroit. This was a gathering of thousands of activists and left-wing groups. Supporters of the Communist Voice Organization attended, setting up a literature table in a hall with scores of other groups.

Our attendance does not mean we agree with the mainly reformist politics presented by the leadership of the Forum and most of the attending groups. But this was a mass gathering of activists participating in the environmental and anti-war movements and those fighting for better worker conditions, against racism and sexism, etc. And we felt it would be good to bring our revolutionary working class politics to this gathering, seeing as there would be many activists still sorting out their political views and to get our stand around the left in general.

The reformist outlook

What do I mean when I talk about the reformist outlook that dominated the views of the Social Forum? Certainly, workers must engage in the fight for certain reforms, certain improvements in their condition. So we aren't opposed to that. But there is the question of how this struggle is conducted, and we have a different approach than the reformists. We also believe that capitalism is preparing the conditions for socialism, and that, when the future class struggle reaches a certain point, there will be the potential for a revolution sweeping away capitalism and establishing the rule of the working class and starting the building of a socialist society.

For us the problem with reformism is its failure to really believe in the class struggle as the engine of change for both today's battles and the larger revolutionary battles of the future. In today's battles, reformism looks toward allegedly progressive capitalist forces as vehicles for change. Or it looks to establish this or that community project that will allegedly solve the problems of the masses without really fighting the capitalists.

This can be seen in the stands of various of the Detroit leaders of the recent Social Forum.

The Metro Times of June 23-29 had a big article on a meeting they had with these leaders. One of the leaders they talked to was Rich Feldman, a former union official at the Ford Michigan Truck Plant and now a board member of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership.

Feldman is a complete apologist for the present UAW leadership, a leadership which has sold its workers down the river. Ron Gettelfinger was recently replaced as the sellout leader there by Bob King. Feldman's excited "with the upcoming election of vice president Bob King as president" which he says means that the UAW will again be participating in "social movement[s]" and will be an eager participant in the Social Forum. Indeed Bob King and other union sellouts were featured speakers at the event. Feldman is praising UAW president King, totally ignoring King is a buddy of Gettlefinger, who oversaw massive job, wage and benefit losses for the autoworkers, and that King is excited about the new Obama-led aid to the auto capitalists which required massive attacks on the workers.

Or take Elena Herrada, another former union leader (auto cafeteria). She doesn't say much in the interviews. But she helped found Centro Obrero, which gets funded from the AFL-CIO and others. Centro Obrero teaches English and provides legal aid for mainly immigrant workers. Such aid can be of help. But it is not oriented toward building a mass movement of workers. (She recently got appointed to the Detroit school board to replace Mathis, the guy who was recently indicted for groping himself in front of a female school official. But it's not clear from newspaper accounts what she wants to do there.)

The same Metro Times article also interviews other members. Largely they talk about things like urban farming and various artistic projects. These may have some benefit, but whatever their benefits, they are not going to solve the main problems facing the working class like joblessness and wage cuts, wars, environmental disaster, etc. And they are notably projects which get developed independent of any mass struggle with the capitalists.

So this is a small look at the type of forces organizing the Social Forum.

The state of the mass struggles

But there was more to the conference than just the harmful reformist views. No matter these views, there are activists there that are coming into the struggles and coming to terms with their political stands. They are searching to find other activists, learn from them, and exchange views. They are mainly not revolutionary-minded, but are fed up with the present system in one manner or another.

Their opposition to the status quo is very important. First, it's important the struggles move ahead so that the masses aren't run over. Second, their efforts to change things will push them towards looking for the most effective means of doing so, and we believe we have something to say about that. Thirdly, a section of activists will become hostile to capitalism itself and look for a revolutionary alternative, which we think is anti-revisionist communism.

The Social Forum itself was not a gathering to promote revolutionary organizing. Indeed, unlike a lot of conferences, there was no effort to line up everyone behind a specific program or political view, but what happened was to just let the predominance of reformism hold sway spontaneously, so to speak. So there really wasn't debate at the Social Forum that it should have this or that stand.

But overall, the Social Forum did reflect the actual state of things in the mass movements at the moment. Presently, there is not a strong revolutionary trend as there have been at other times, for instance, at the end of the 60s and during the early 70s. Indeed, though reformism was still the main force then, there was a considerable force taking up revolutionary politics, and even a sizeable trend proclaiming itself not just for revolution, but for genuine communism, not the fake communism of the then Soviet Union, and against Trotskyism, which proclaims itself against Stalinism, but promotes the regimes of the fake communist countries. Today, you have various activists coming up, and they are fighting important battles and looking into what needs to be done, but the efforts to build up new revolutionary trends are relatively tiny.

Our approach

We put out a leaflet for the Social Forum where we tried to take into account the present situation in the mass movement. We encouraged the various struggles. And we put forward the idea that the class struggle is the path forward for them. What does this mean at present?

One thing we emphasized was the need to have a clear understanding of the Obama administration and the Democrats in general. We think this is a class issue, because the Republicans and Democrats are both in the pockets of the capitalists. This is a big issue in the movements. Much of the reformist left wound up supporting Obama in the election. But whether they had faith in Obama or not, many activists at the conference and elsewhere are unhappy with things they see Obama doing, and some activists never had faith in the Democrats. At the same time many of the conference leaders were unable to really speak clearly about Obama. They may be upset at this or that thing. In fact the top sellout AFL-CIO leadership is displeased with certain things. But they think he's just gone astray or needs to be nudged a bit into being on the right side.

Our leaflet showed that whatever Obama's differences with Bush, he sides, on issue after issue, with the same class interests that Bush did. We showed that Bush and Obama both believe in "free market" economics and that this means bailing out the financiers and letting the workers rot, both native-born and immigrant workers. We showed how the free market policies have undermined meaningful health care changes or measures to protect the environment. And we noted the continued imperialist politics with wars in Iran and Afghanistan continuing to rage.

We then turned to the issue of the class-collaborationist union bureaucrats. Unfortunately, the idea of the reformist left is to have faith in the bureaucrats who have stifled workers struggles for decades on end. And they teach this to the activists who go into the mass movements. We cited the auto workers being sold out by the UAW in collaboration with the Obama government, as well as examples from the postal workers. And we put forward things that would help bring about independent class organization among the workers.

The environmental issues were big at the conference, and we strove to show how a class stand is needed there. We need strong regulations, and serious planning to convert to clean energy. But Obama's idea is to let the market bring this about magically by issuing pollution permits that can be traded between capitalists. We said that the workers must be organized as stewards overseeing whatever regulation and planning takes place.

On the issue of war and imperialism, we set out what our views on that would be as well. For one thing, we pointed out the class forces that need war to maintain their system of profiteering around the world. And we also raised the issue of having a class stand in support of the workers and poor in the countries the US is fighting, rather than promoting Hamas, or Ahmedinijad (Iran) or the Taliban, as do many reformist forces. These forces may dress this up as "anti-imperialist" because these local tyrants are opposed to the US. But they are also crushing their own people, which also undermines the anti-US struggle.

This was an issue at the Social Forum. There was, for example, a group of anti-Zionist Jews, which is a good thing for Jews to be, because Zionism is the political stand of the Israeli rulers who are big bullies in the Middle East and are beloved by the US rulers. But, they also felt it important to tout Iran's support for the Palestinians who are being oppressed by Israel. Iran is a tyranny, and Hamas is based on fundamentalist bigotry, which is no big help to the Palestinian masses.

A big example at the Forum was also the support given to Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and to Evo Morales, the Bolivian leader. Chavez has made some reforms that help the masses, but he doesn't represent the workers. Latin American history is full of such leaders, whether from the military like Chavez, or not. Their reforms are not nearly enough to satisfy the needs of the masses, while the capitalist business elite cements itself in power, even if it's forced to adjust to some reforms. Our view is that the workers in these countries must establish their own class organizations and not rely on Chavez. Morales is less of a reformer than Chavez, but the Bolivian ambassador to the UN was a featured speaker at the end of the Social Forum. This is undermining what's needed by the masses in these countries.

Replacing capitalism

Activists are not only concerned about immediate issues, but also what are the underlying causes of these problems, and other types of social systems to replace the neo-liberal capitalism that has been ravaging the world. There are many answers put forward, although the Social Forum itself has no definite stand. At the Forum, there were some groups advocating replacing our present system. For many reformists, this is a matter of electing more liberal Democrats who will allegedly curb the bad capitalists. There were other groups touting the "socialism" of the likes of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, or promoting the reformist government of Morales in Bolivia. There were also promoters of Cuba, where private capitalism is growing rapidly under the state capitalist bureaucracy. The RCP was still promoting Maoism, which cut short the revolution in China and helped build up the state-capitalism there. And there were other trends as well, such as supporters of the parecon system, a system developed by some left-wing economics professors (Albert and Hahnel) which promotes a version of anarchism that supposedly overcomes capitalist society.

Our organization put forward the view of a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism by the working class and the building of socialism. For a lot of workers, this stand is associated with the old Soviet Union of China or Cuba. And the class inequality and political tyranny in these countries has discredited the notion of communism. So in our leaflet, we highlighted why we consider those societies to have developed a new type of state-capitalism with all the attendant ills. We noted their fake communism had nothing in common with the views of Marx, Engels and Lenin.

Now of course, in our leaflet we were limited to what we could say about these issues, but we wanted to introduce them to the activists and encourage discussion. We have written a good deal about the state-capitalist political and economic views, as well as parecon and anarchism. We have also written a good deal against Trotskyism, a view that arose as critical of Stalin and other revisionist leaders, but which nonetheless wound up supporting revisionist regimes as pro-worker and anti-capitalist. In fact we sold five pamphlets just on the question of Trotskyism to activists at the Social Forum.

So this was our approach to the Social Forum. Though our participation was limited due to our small forces, we were able to circulate 900 leaflets such as I described above. And activists also purchased a fair amount of copies of our journal Communist Voice. We also had activists sign up to be contacted to get further literature or to be otherwise contacted by ourselves. So we had some success. []

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