Prague: Reflections on S26

Against the Current, No. 89, November/ December 2000

Peter Olson

EVEN BEFORE THE clouds of teargas over Prague had dissipated, the mainstream media were eager to declare the September 26 demonstration against the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank a failure.  According to the New York Times, the international gathering of up to 20,000 protesters had tried “desperately .  .  .  and ultimately unsuccessfully, to shut down a global finance meeting.”

Typical of the sensationalist big business press, the official coverage focused obsessively on the activities of small handfuls of property destroyers who acted outside and against the spirit of the organized demonstration.

Furthermore, many in the press argued that the anti-IMF/WB movement is “aiming stationary cannons at moving targets,” since the institutions have supposedly responded to public pressure in the last year by making renewed promises of more “debt relief” and “anti-poverty programs.”

James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, wallowing in feel-good rhetoric, opened the meetings by saying, “our challenge is to make globalization an instrument of opportunity and inclusion—not fear.”

But for our part, as partisans of the emerging movement against capitalist globalization, it is important that we reject these false characterizations of the media and claim S26 as a victory, a step forward for our movement.  Our job is to critically assess it as an organizing experience rich with both positive and negative lessons that can contribute to stronger and broader mobilizations in the future.

Who Showed Up?

One of the greatest strengths of the demonstration was that it brought together a network of international and particularly European activists and radical youth who discussed, debated and planned the action for months in advance, building in the process a stronger and more tightly connected web of committed fighters for future global justice activism.

S26 was organized by the Initiative Against Economic Globalization (INPEG), a coalition created specifically for this purpose.  INPEG served as a loose coordination body for the protests, emphasizing the autonomy and self-organization of the various groups that were organizing in their respective countries.

Prominently represented were various shades of anarchists, socialists, environmentalists, as well as activists in established networks like Jubilee 2000 (for cancellation of the Third World debt) and the French ATTAC.

Some of the largest contingents on the day of action came from Italy (particularly from the Ya Basta network), the Spanish State (the anarcho-syndicalist CNT and various other social movement organizations), and Britain (direct action groups like Reclaim the Streets as well as the International Socialists/SWP).

Local and Labor Underrepresentation

One of INPEG’s most serious weaknesses, however, was the underrepresentation of Czech activists, and Central and Eastern Europeans in general.  Although there was a core of Czechs who played a crucial role in INPEG, the leadership was clearly dominated by Western European anarchists and also a handful of Direct Action Network (DAN) activists from the United States.

Consistent outreach to and input from local organizations was quite limited.  The overwhelming presence of foreigners on the 26th made relations with the people of Prague particularly sensitive, and there was a certain unavoidable degree of discomfort and misunderstanding on both sides as part of this dynamic.

Also strikingly absent in the mobilization was the mass presence of organized labor.  Eastern European unions, although in some cases making official statements of support, did not participate in large numbers.

Similarly, although there were small contingents of trade unionists from countries like Greece, Norway and Britain, there was no large scale mobilization by the Western European labor federations.  Their absence was particularly striking when compared to the level of official labor participation in the Euro Summit demonstrations that have taken place periodically during the 1990s (the next is December 2000 in Nice), or compared to the N30/Seattle and A16/Washington mobilizations in the United States.

This weakness can be attributed to a number of factors: insufficient or narrow outreach on the part of INPEG, the continued political conservatism of the union bureaucracies, and the lack of any legal mass rally to supplement the illegal direct action that was the focus of S26.

Disrupting Business As Usual

As in Seattle, Washington, or Melbourne, one of our greatest victories in Prague was that we caused a massive disruption of business as usual for the trade ministers.  S26, like the demonstrations that came before it, showed that it is now impossible for capitalist leaders to hold a major summit without effectively shutting down and militarizing the city.

The 11,000 police deployed in Prague, armed with army tanks, tear gas and water cannons, and under orders to use brute force if necessary to control unruly demonstrators (which they did, quite liberally), drove the point home.

The cancellation of the third day of meetings—according to the IMF because they finished their agenda “ahead of schedule”—could not have been unrelated to the swarms of people, banners, puppets and samba bands which besieged them at every turn on the 26th.

It is necessary to make a clear distinction between the confrontations with the police that occurred during the day of the 26th, as protesters challenged blockades set up to protect the meetings, and the property destruction that occurred in downtown Prague later that night, bringing on a new wave of indiscriminate police violence.

Although INPEG had a clear policy against the use of property destruction as a tactic, given the semi-autonomous style of organization there were few practical means of putting these small groups under the democratic discipline of the movement as a whole.

Based on meetings and discussions it was clear that the overwhelming majority of demonstrators were interested in mass protest, not in isolated acts of substitutionist `Black Bloc’ heroism (although it should be noted that official legal observers have filed charges against the Czech police for using agent provocateurs).

This remains a problem that will undoubtedly resurface in demonstration after demonstration.  Too often the problem is framed as a principled ideological debate between pacifism and something else. The discussion over what to do about it is most effective when we ask, what tactics currently serve to build a bigger, broader, and more socially powerful movement?

Clearly, property destruction in Prague did nothing to popularise an anticapitalist message; rather, it drove a wedge between us and those with whom we should hope to build a movement.

Political Direction

Most participants in S26 were completely unfazed by the charge that we were ignoring the enlightened reforms that were being initiated by the IMF and WB inside the meetings.  For most of us the idea of an “IMF with a human face” is more of a joke than anything else. But the shift in ruling class rhetoric is not entirely insignificant.

It is precisely because of popular struggles over the last several years that issues like the Third World debt have been forced into the center of official public discourse.  We have succeeded in putting the institutions of global capital on the defensive on certain key points.

Naturally, the cosmetic changes they propose do nothing to alter the basic functioning of global capitalism, the dominance of the multinational corporations and the imperialist states that back them up, or the role of institutions like the IMF, WB and WTO as the police and administrators of this system.

At the same time, their defensiveness gives us more space to build opposition, point out the gap between their rhetoric and their action, and ultimately call for their abolition.

Those NGOs that held official meetings and negotiations with politicians and trade ministers in Prague played virtually no role in the S26 mobilization.  Rather, the political atmosphere on the streets was characterized by the new, vaguely defined anticapitalism, infused with an understanding of the limitations of reform and the need to articulate alternatives.

Particularly among the newly radicalized youth, there was open discussion of revolutionary politics.  Here we can begin to see long term possibilities for a real renewal of an internationalist movement for socialism.  Now the task is to plow ahead with local organizing and also to begin making plans for future international protests such as the April 2001 Summit of the Americas in Quebec City.

Websites of interest:

Peter Olsen is a member of the Youth Caucus Steering Committee of Solidarity.  He spent several weeks in Europe and attended the September 26 mobilization in Prague against the International Monetary Fund/World Bank meetings.

ATC 89, November-December 2000