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Ahmed Shawki

The fight for a different world

(July 2021)

From International Socialist Review, Issue 19, July–August 2001.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE MASSIVE demonstrations in Genoa, Italy, against the G8 meeting in July 2001 mark a milestone in the movement for global justice. These demonstrations represent a new phase in the movement’s development and raise new political and organizational questions. Genoa further defined the contours of a new left internationally and has made much clearer the tasks that we face.

A little more than a decade ago, the leaders of the Western world declared socialism dead and proclaimed that “there is no alternative” (TINA) to the market system and capitalism. But rather than a new world of economic growth in which “all boats were lifted,” the world economy has been witness to one of most rapid and dramatic shifts in wealth ever seen. TINA is being replaced with the idea “TMBAA” – “there must be an alternative” – or, more elegantly, in the words of the declaration of the first World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in January 2001, “A different world is possible.”

If the last decade and a half marked the ideological victory of the market and the “end of socialism,” we are witnessing the opposite now: the crisis of the ideology of the market and, more slowly perhaps, increasing economic difficulties for capitalism internationally. After a decade of economic boom, the global justice movement emerged in opposition to the effects of capitalist globalization. The system’s move from boom to slump will only expose more sharply its fault lines.

The most vulnerable economies today, Turkey and Argentina, are getting another dose of International Monetary Fund (IMF) medicine and the enormous social cost that this remedy exacts. This has only fueled the mood of opposition to the corporate and financial institutions that dictate the future of much of the world’s population.

Both the mood of opposition and the widespread idea that another world is necessary and possible were most striking about the three days of protests in Genoa. The sentiment brought tens of thousands into the streets – from the July 19 demonstration in solidarity with immigrants, under the slogan “Solo tutti clandestini” (”We are all clandestine”), to the July 20 civil disobedience protests, to the mass march of 300,000 through the streets of the old city on July 21.

The scale and breadth of the demonstrations were largely ignored or went unreported in the U.S. mainstream media. But the police assault on the protests and the media focus on violence and the black bloc should not be allowed to diminish the significance of what took place. Significantly, tens of thousands came together in spite of the fact that the Italian government and the media engaged in a systematic scare campaign to keep people away. Then, masses of people turned out on July 21, despite the murder of protester Carlo Giuliani the day before – and without the main organizations of the reformist left organizing it.

After Genoa, thousands across Italy turned out for protests that have created a political crisis for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government. Abroad, newspapers that initially focused on the violence of protesters ran front-page stories about the brutal police attack on the headquarters of the Genoa Social Forum, the main organizers of the protest.

For some, Genoa will become synonymous with violence – and this is certainly the line that many mainstream newspapers adopted. Unfortunately, so have some nongovernmental organizations. But there are two separate questions here. The first has to do with the violence of the state directed against the movement; the other is a question of how the movement deals with a small minority of self-selected individuals who choose to engage in a set of tactics that are detrimental to the movement as a whole.

The presence of the black bloc (or of agent provocateurs posing as black bloc members) should not be allowed to hide the real purveyors of violence in Genoa. Ever since the movement began, the governments and corporations that run the world have put forward a twin strategy that combines an attempt to discredit, divide, and repress the movement with the attempt to contain and subvert it. For example, in Seattle in 1999, the police were unleashed in what was widely described as a “police riot”; then came the carrot, in the form of Bill Clinton’s “I feel your pain” speech.

What was clear before Genoa is that the pendulum has swung in the direction of more repression and more violence. The demonstrations earlier this year in Quebec City, Canada, and in Gothenburg, Sweden, as well as in the police provocations in Barcelona, Spain, clearly evidenced this. What happened in Genoa reflects the decisions by those who rule this system that they will not tolerate dissent.

To those who try to equate the actions of the black bloc with those of the state, Carlo Giuliani’s father had an emphatic answer: “On Friday’s demonstration, Carlo wore a balaclava, yes. But you cannot equate the throwing of a fire extinguisher with a gunshot to the head.” Or, in the words of Luca Casarini of Tute Bianche, “There’s a huge difference between those who build a barricade to defend themselves and those who decide to smash a movement as large and articulate as the antiglobalization movement, in a military fashion.”

Nevertheless, there is a genuine black bloc – a self-selected group that organizes outside the main bodies planning the demonstrations, with a focus on provoking confrontations with police. Casarini was right when he told the Italian paper Il Manifesto, “They’re people who believe that all it takes to strike at capitalism is to break a shop window ... We think differently. We believe in a process of social transformation.”

The question of tactics, of violence and nonviolence, must flow from the aims of the movement. The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky once said that if all it took was to yell, “Charge!” in every battle, no matter what the balance of forces is, no matter the terrain, no matter who the enemy is, or no matter who’s on your side, then any idiot can be a revolutionary general. Those who run the system have shown that they will respond violently against our movement. We can’t go around simply talking about doing our own thing and expect that there won’t be a price to pay.

It’s not the first time that the question of individual violence has been raised in the radical movement. The Russian revolutionary movement started out with heroic individual acts against the Tsar. Karl Marx wrote lovingly and in complete support of Vera Zasulich, a member of the “People’s Will” who assassinated a hated Tsarist police chief. The jury was so impressed by her demeanor in the trial and full of hatred for the violence and oppression of Tsarism that they let her go free.

We shouldn’t morally condemn individual acts of violence – but we can and should argue that they are a dead end for the movement. Trotsky, again, wrote that our aim is not to target individual representatives of the system; the aim is to transform the entire society. That will not be done by the act of individual heroes:

The anarchist prophets of the propaganda of the deed can argue all they want about the elevated and stimulated influence of terrorist acts on the masses. Theoretical considerations and political experience prove otherwise. The more “effective” the terrorist acts, the greater their impact, the more they reduce the interest of the masses in self-organization and self-education.

We are for building a movement that determines its own future, builds its own organization, and imposes its own democracy. We cannot substitute the acts of small minorities for that process.

There are some organizations that decided not to participate in the July 21 demonstration because, they said, they couldn’t guarantee the safety of their members. In this sense, Genoa is also a crossroads for the movement.

The events in Genoa – and, in particular, the widespread demonstrations across Italy in the week that followed – show that the movement will not simply be cowed into silence. It is reminiscent of those who went through the 1960s and some of the demonstrations in the early 1970s, who watched the fire hosing and the brutality and said, “No matter. It’s right to protest, I will find a way to protest, I will find a way to make my views and my position clear.”

Carlo Giuliani’s father summed up what motivated the many thousands who turned out to Genoa, saying, simply:

Carlo didn’t accept the notion that eight leaders of the world should decide the life and death of hundreds of thousands of people. Here in Genoa you do not need to go far to see the victims of their policies. Come back after the G8 have gone and you will see the desperation of those who are left in hunger, those who are forced to flee their own countries and settle here, forced to survive without any dignity in the alleyways that surround the harbor.

But the movement now faces important questions as to how to defend itself, how to move forward, and how to effectively challenge the bosses and their governments. There is a real question of how to defend our basic rights – of free speech, of protest, and of assembly – without the threat of police violence.

The same question is also posed for the officials of the G8, the World Bank, the IMF, and their ilk. The mainstream press has questioned the future of such meetings and why they exist. Writes the London-based Financial Times, “The one thing that Genoa shows is that these meetings are really quite futile.” (Of course, it adds that the meetings shouldn’t stop immediately, to avoid giving the impression of a victory for the protesters.)

The bosses are grappling with the fact that that the summits are in fact largely symbolic gatherings of the rich and powerful, and that the real decisions are made daily by the owners and boards of the multinationals, the banks, the government bureaucracies, and their militaries.

The escalation by the state of the forces of repression has raised a strategic question: How do we effectively challenge such a mobilization of armed force? It would be a mistake to say that because the meetings are only symbolic, the movement should no longer attempt to mobilize in numbers to challenge them. But how does a mass movement begin to protect its demonstrations and set its own agenda in situations where the police attempt systematically to confront it physically, including through the use of infiltrators?

To begin with, we need to continue to increase the size of the demonstrations. Genoa was by far the largest protest to date, involving some four to five times as many people as Seattle. The Italian state could not suppress it, and that alone is a victory.

But we need more than numbers. We also have to attract groups of people who’ve previously not been involved, people who can bring their organized weight into bigger street mobilizations, but who also carry a social weight beyond the demonstrations: the working class.

We need not only to build bigger demonstrations, but to go beyond them to struggles in neighborhoods and, even more importantly, in workplaces and through the unions. The dichotomy between local and global, between demonstrating at the summits and demonstrating in the localities, can only be answered by a movement that aims to voice the aspirations and interests of the vast majority.

In Italy, this discussion has already begun on a significant scale as a result of the Genoa protests. The Tute Bianche, for example, are reexamining their emphasis on civil disobedience and on the politics of symbolic action. In a recent interview to the left newspaper Il Manifesto, Casarini put it this way: “Those are the factors that make me say that civil disobedience has made its day. Now we have to switch to social disobedience” – that is, the day-to-day social struggles in the communities and workplaces must be linked and become part of the struggle against the G8.

In the 1960s, after more than a decade of trying to use tactics of civil disobedience, nonviolence, and moral persuasion, the civil right s movement had to face a similar set of questions, which led not only to a reexamination of nonviolence, but also to a deeper class understanding of what the movement was fighting for. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to organizers of the movement in 1967 and raised some of the questions involved:

We must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are 40 million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, “Why are there 40 million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, “Who owns the iron ore?” You begin to ask the question, “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?” These are questions that must be asked. [1]

These questions still must be asked. A whole generation came to the conclusion at the end of the 1960s that if their struggles were to be successful, they had to challenge capitalism itself. Today, there is the rebirth of a left taking place internationally, and the system again is being called into question. Carlo Giuliani’s father ended his eulogy for his son by saying:

In some ways we didn’t understand each other. I am a member of the Democratic Left [former Communist Party] – well, I was, our branch has been closed for months. There won’t be his liveliness in our house anymore. We won’t have his jokes about football. And we won’t have our political discussions anymore. But maybe now is the time for new people to open up new branches so we can carry on discussing.

He’s right. Now is the time to start discussing, to start building. Socialist ideas and organization are critical in this project.

From The Communist Manifesto onward, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels argued against the idea that liberation from exploitation and oppression could come through the actions of an enlightened minority. But neither could sheer numbers alone overcome the armed power of the state. Only revolutionary struggle, based on the power of ordinary workers, could build an alternative:

Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, revolution; the revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the old crap and become fitted to found society anew. [2]

This is why today, any discussion of socialism, of transforming society, should begin with the words Marx wrote more than 150 years ago: “The emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself.”

Ahmed Shawki is the editor of International Socialist Review and is the author of the forthcoming book Socialism and Black Liberation.

* * *


1. Quoted in Jack Bloom, Class, Race, and the Civil Rights Movement (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1987), p. 212.

2. Quoted in Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution: The Politics of Social Classes (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978), p. 74.

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