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Archaic left challenges the World Social Forum

About the author
Peter Waterman was is an author whose books include Globalisation, Social Movements and the New Internationalisms (Continuum, (1998/2001) and (co-editor) World Social Forum: Challenging Empire.

“The only people we hate more than the Romans are the xxxxxxx Judean People’s Front.”

(The People’s Front of Judea, in the Monty Python movie, The Life of Brian)

In early November 2003, the coordinating committee of farmers’ organisations from across India decided not to associate themselves with the World Social Forum. Instead, they are creating a separate ‘Global Peasant Forum under the banner of Mumbai Resistance-2004 along with other genuine anti-imperialist forces in India and abroad’.

Mumbai Resistance-2004 (MR2004) describes itself variously as a ‘genuine’, ‘anti-imperialist’, ‘class’, ‘activist’, ‘socialist’, ‘revolutionary’ forum (see

It is a counter-hegemonic movement from the period of national-industrial-colonial capitalism. This was a machine-age capitalism, and it gave rise to mechanical interpretations of Marxism. MR belongs, more specifically, to the ‘Marxist-Leninist’ (Maoist) tendency and is linked (in more than a cyberspace sense) with the International League of Peoples Struggles, (ILPS) and the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).

This movement considers discussion and analysis of the rights and wrongs of globalisation to be a derogation from a 100-year-old Leninist theory of imperialism. It is therefore suspicious of or hostile to the anti-globalisation movement. The only concession it will make to the new movement is that it has managed to capture a widespread and multifarious discontent internationally. It therefore becomes a suitable object for penetration and/or competition.

This movement pursues a Marxism of binary opposition, a Manichean Marxism with oppositions like these:

NGO/People’s Movement
Civil Society/Class Struggle
Revisionist Marxists/Revolutionary Marxists
Communist Party of India (Marxist)/CPI (Marxist-Leninist)
Workers Party in Brazil/Shining Path in Peru
False anti-imperialism/Genuine anti-imperialism
ATTAC/International League of Peoples Struggles

In such a Manichean Marxism, the Proletariat is either ‘suffering from false consciousness’ (misled by Reformism, Bourgeois Ideology, a Labour Aristocracy, a Union Bureaucracy, a Wavering Petty-Bourgeoisie, Imperialism), or led correctly by a Vanguard (representing Science, Revolution, the long-term general interest of the international Proletariat).

It has little or nothing to do with a dialectical Marxism, which recognises internal contradiction (for example, within each of the apparent opposites above), interpenetration (socialism within capitalism, capitalism within socialism) and, I would suggest, mutual dependency (that ‘reform’ and ‘revolution’ are part of each other’s meaning). Nor does it have much to do with a historical Marxism (specific to a time and place, developing over time, such as Marxism-Feminism, or Libertarian-Marxism).

Rather it is one that is Essential (fundamental, already present in Marx-Engels, or Immanent and later revealed by the speaker’s favoured prophet), Universal (applicable worldwide) and Infinite (true for ever). This tendency was well represented by Lenin when he said that ‘Marxism is All-Powerful Because it is True’. This can, did and does lead to unfortunate corollaries, such as ‘I am all-powerful, therefore what I say is true is Marxism’.

Whilst it is easy to recognise, and satirise, the discourse linking those associated with MR2004, it is more difficult to decide what attitude one should take toward them. There is a matter of who they meaningfully represent (as distinguished from their customarily-inflated claims, and their problematic notions of ‘representation’), and what kind of threat they represent to the healthy development of the process of which the World Social Forum is a central part.

The NGO as extreme evil

The best example – the major example – of Manichean Marxism on these sites is where they engage with the Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO). Within their discourse, the NGO occupies the position of Extreme Evil – even if the speaker’s particular party is not named as representing Highest Virtue.

NGOs, in this view, are agents of imperialism, confusing, corrupting and misleading the masses. Much evidence and argument is mustered to drive home these points. Statements from the World Bank, MNCs and other agents of imperial power are quoted to show how shamelessly these promote NGOs. Figures are provided revealing the extent to which the Ford Foundation in the US, or the ICCO in the Netherlands, may be funding or otherwise supporting the WSF. All this evidence may be accurate, if not particularly new. But the general interpretation of them is somewhat problematic.

Earlier this year, there was created in the USA a body called NGOWatch. The neo-conservatives behind this project share a Manichean – although not, of course a Marxist – view of NGOs, seeing them as unrepresentative, agents of communalism, and even enemies of major US corporations!

One awaits with some interest the Manichean Marxists’s response to NGOWatch. To be consistent with the Conspiratorial Manifesto, they would have to say that NGOWatch has been created in order to mislead the masses into believing that NGOs are not agents of imperialism!

What this confirms, in my view, is that ‘NGO’, like ‘Civil Society’ is a fiercely disputed term (like all the interesting ones), and that what they are or mean can only be understood according to how they are articulated with other phenomena and discourses, such as those of class, capitalism, patriarchy, imperialism and – today particularly – globalisation. This means, I guess, that we need to consider such concepts relationally, historically and concretely. And then to discuss different understandings so as to be able to achieve effective emancipatory action internationally.

Understanding NGOs

A dialectical and historical approach to the NGO phenomenon (Marxist or not) must come to terms with its complex and contradictory nature (see, for example, Mary Kaldor on accountability), and to surpass, rather than simply accept, a negative definition which only tells us what these are not.

In the meantime I would like to suggest that the rise of NGOs is simultaneously an indication of an ideological/political crisis of capital and state (increasingly challenged from civil society) and an attempt to circumvent or dominate this (through the creation, surveillance and discrimination of NGOs). To assume that because those with power favour, fund or legitimise something, it is reduced to their mere instrument is to underestimate both the social forces working in another direction and the sophistication of the bourgeoisie.

If, for example, the Ford Foundation is funding the World Social Forum, as it is, this suggests to me that the Ford Foundation is cleverer than the Manichean Marxists. Do contradictions hold up when they reach the doors of the Ford Foundation? I don’t think so. Contradiction is everywhere. I recall, in 1970, asking a US radical, researching workers in Northern Nigeria, how he could possibly be funded by Ford. He said: ‘I am the internal contradiction in the Ford Foundation!’. I do not recall his consequent PhD as being notably functional to US imperialism. Lisa Jordan, who works for Ford, has produced a thought-provoking, if telegraphic, slideshow on NGO accountability. This could, again, be considered functional to Ford, but it actually raises democratic challenges to NGOs where the Manichean Marxists simply issue rhetorical condemnation.

The Ford Foundation has to also legitimate itself in the public eye. It is a rich, powerful and quite obviously unaccountable force (except for such legal requirements as may apply in the US), funding the WSF, or participants therein. But to assume that what it is, or does, or wishes, will express a unique interest (or function on behalf of a similarly single capitalist interest) is to engage not in dialectical analysis but in conspiracy theory.

Indeed, I would like to suggest that both Kaldor’s and Jordan’s pieces on NGO accountability could and should be used in relationship to the vanguardist political parties, the unions and women’s organisations, and the WSF itself! At least until and unless the latter produce more appropriate criteria and practices on the matter.

The World Social Forum – contested terrain

The World Social Forum is a field in which many forces are at play. It combines features of a ‘new’ politics with those of an ‘old’ politics (see Sen, Jai, Anita Anand, Arturo Escobar and Peter Waterman – eds – The World Social Forum: Challenging Empires. New Delhi: Viveka, forthcoming). So, it may talk about equality, horizontality, transparency, accessibility, accountability and plurality, whilst itself practicing hierarchy, verticality, secrecy – and being heavily influenced by the culture of the international NGOs of the 1990s.

This is where the pejorative concept of ‘NGOisation’, or ongización, comes from. But the critics are themselves involved with the new social movements, the NGOs and global civil society, and seek to remedy the problems.

Nevertheless, many of the criticisms being made by MR supporters hit home.

It is, for example, true that Prakash Karat, then an activist of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) produced a major tract in the 1980s – of the ‘NGOs = Imperialist Agents’ genre. This was called Foreign Funding and the Philosophy of Voluntary Organisations. It is also true that the CPI(M) today, a major force within WSF2004 in India, has pragmatically abandoned this position, and thrown itself energetically into the funding practices it previously demonised. Without, as far as I am aware of any similar major – or even minor – tract, explaining and justifying its reversal of position. Karat is now a national Politburo (Soviet language) member of the CPI(M). Indeed, he recently participated in an event in West Bengal which not only referred, neutrally, to (state- or party-approved?) NGOs, but implied that such were to be subject to CPI(M) supervision:

“The NGO office-bearers must remain accountable to the state/district/zonal/local committees in accordance with their geographical area of operation; in the task of organising festivals and fairs, Party’s committees concomitant to the location/area of the event must be consulted with and the event must be organised under the supervision of the concerned Party committee.”

(This report is worth reading in full, in so far as the bureaucratic-authoritarian style, of ‘‘criticism and self-criticism’ reproduces that of Stalinist parties, whether in power or not). The failure of the CPI(M), or Karat, to publicly qualify or reverse a major theoretical/strategic option of the past, is unsurprising. Power (however petty) has its reasons, which do not require justification or even explanation, to the Powerless – or even to those with simply Less Power.

It is also true that those with power within the World Social Forum – or such regional emanations as the European or Asian Social Forums – are both willing and able to interpret WSF Charter principles (e.g. on the presence and role of political parties, or their front organisations) at will, and customarily without explanation or justification. There even seems to be, within the WSF, a more particular sensitivity toward the ‘threat’ from the old militarist left and the new libertarian one, than toward those on the right. Even leaders of the activist Call of Social Movements within the WSF, are less transparent, less open to challenge, less willing to engage in dialogue than they might claim to be – or to urge on others (see Waterman 2003).

A final problem is formed by the endorsement of the Mumbai Resistance boycott/alternative by a whole range of Indian organisations, including at least one major network of farmers. In so far as this network seems to similarly raise a question about its relationship with the ‘International Farmers’ Movement’ – for example Via Campesina – the matter goes beyond the WSF to affect the global justice and solidarity movement more generally. Via Campesina is a new international network of peasant and small farmer organisations, independent of the World Social Forum and taken to be an example of the new social movement internationalisms.

This piece is not intended to provide an adequate response to the Forward March of the Manichean Marxists. It merely provides some evidence, attempts some analysis, and raises some problems.

If MR2004 is now reproducing, with respect to the global justice and solidarity movement in general, a traditional vanguardist politics (which can include ‘entryism’ as well as condemnation and external competition), then the WSF is going to have to draw on all the resources of the new counter-hegemonic movements in order to surpass the challenge of the old.

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