The World Social Forum and Global Justice

Against the Current, No. 103, March/April 2003

Paul Le Blanc and Stephanie Luce

Overwhelming is the word many attendees have used to describe the experience of the third World Social Forum, held January 23-28 in Porto Alegre, Brazil.  With over 100,000 people in attendance, from 156 countries, this was the largest forum yet. According to official statistics, over 20,000 delegates, representing 717 organizations, turned out for the event.  Here people of many cultures and nationalities intermingled to learn from each other, representing several generations of experience—from the 25,000 women and men in their teens and twenties who stayed in the Youth Camp to the seasoned Egyptian revolutionary intellectual Sherif Hetata, addressing a session “Fundamentalism and Intolerance,” who concluded his sobering remarks with the comment that despite his eighty years his heart was made youthful through immersion in the World Social Forum.

The Forum and Its Context

A headline in TerraViva, a special daily 12-page newspaper published in Portuguese and English by the radical Inter-Press Service, caught the spirit of the World Social Forum with the headline: “No War, No Hunger, No Exclusion.”  The event took place in a special context – in a pleasant city of 1.3 million people in Brazil’s southeast (a region which includes some of the country’s largest cities, most highly industrialized and modernized areas, and 90 percent of the population), in the wake of the tremendous electoral victory of the Brazilian Workers Party (Partido dos Trabaladores -PT), in which Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, popularly known as “Lula,” won 61 % of the vote and the PT became the biggest party in the National Congress, with 91 deputies and 14 senators.  The U.S. equivalent would be the Labor Party, the Green Party, the Rainbow Coalition, along with various social movements and most socialist groups all merged into one massive political organization that has been swept into office.  The opening session of the World Social Forum brought the mayor of the city and a top aide to president of the country to welcome us with open arms and radical speeches.  (The governor of the state – Rio Grande de Sul – was from another party, the equivalent of a moderately liberal Democrat, who also came to welcome us, but was booed by many of the Brazilians, through treated politely by the PT leaders on the speakers platform.)

Those of us fortunate enough to stay in “solidarity housing” in Porto Alegre’s working-class districts, and to speak with Brazilian student activists on the buses going from one to another conference site, got an especially vivid sense of the excitement and expectations associated with the PT electoral mobilization and triumph.  For political activists from U.S., things in Porto Alegre seemed deliciously upside-down: hot summer days in January, a beautiful and livable city which has been governed for many years by a left-wing municipal administration, and a genuine commitment to peace (including an absolute opposition to the war against Iraq) and to radical social justice as the normal attitude of the general population.

What was the purpose of this amazing international gathering?  As with the first two World Social Forums in 2001 and 2002, this third Forum involved around 1,500 mass meetings, seminars, panel discussions, and workshops organized around five broadly-conceived principal themes.  The idea was conceived in 2000, in opposition to the Davos [Switzerland] World Economic Forum, a meeting that since 1971 has played a strategic role in the formulation of neoliberal thinking,” according to an official statement from its organizers.  By neoliberalism, the World Social Forum means a set of global economic policies that subordinate more and more aspects of human life to capitalist market forces and the profiteering of multi-national corporations.  Against this the World Social Forum gives priority to struggles for democracy and human rights, economic justice on a global scale, the preservation of the environment, and “a spirit of change and renewal.”

The five themes of the Forum were developed by an organizing committee made up of eight Brazilian organizations, in conjunction with and International Council comprised of 130 international organizations, movements and networks.  The five themes for this year’s Forum were:

  1. Democracy and Sustainable Development;
  2. Principles and Values, Human Rights, Diversity and Equality;
  3. Political Power, Civil Society and Democracy;
  4. World Democratic Organization, Combating Militarization;
  5. Media, Culture and Alternatives to Corporate Driven Globalization, and Counter-Hegemony.

The Forum seeks to involve more and more people from around the world in “a large planetary laboratory of ideas, projects, alternatives, and actions,” providing a forum to facilitate “the debate of ideas, the formulation of proposals, the exchange of experiences” which can stimulate the formation of coalitions and “common action” within a political environment “of diversity, and respect for difference and for the autonomy of positions and methods of working.”  Since the first World Social Forum, regional Forums have been held in various places, including the Asian, European and Pan-Amazon Forums held this past year.

Diversity and Complexity

Coming together in this context were hundreds of organizations: trade unions and workers centers, community organizations, environmental organizations, anti-racist organizations, women’s rights organizations, anti-war organizations, human rights organizations, innumerable non-governmental organizations (NGOs), not to mention elected governmental representatives from an array of left-wing parties of Europe and Latin America.  Some of the diversity suggested rich historical ironies and striking contradictions.

For example, among the representatives from Germany were those from the Friedrich Ebert Institute (connected to the staunchly reformist German Social Democratic Party) and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (connected to the ex-Communist and more left-wing Democratic Socialist Party) – each providing valuable information, analyses, and resources.  But about 90 years ago Ebert, as the President of the Weimar Republic that preceded Hitler’s Third Reich, represented the betrayal of the German workers’ revolution that Luxemburg had tried to lead forward to socialism.  In fact, Rosa and many others were murdered in 1919 by the Freikorps paramilitary death squads associated with the defense of Ebert’s newly-formed regime.

Of more contemporary significance, one could find amid the rich array of organizations gathered in Porto Alegre the revolutionary Movement of Landless Workers (the MST, representing one of the most significant struggles in Brazil’s impoverished northeast) and the non-revolutionary Ford Foundation, which provided a lavish and well-attended reception at one of the city’s best hotels.  The generous and personable Ford Foundation representatives issued a call for proposals “to promote civic engagement and global governance,” providing a million dollars for projects involving “multi-sectoral coalitions … that combine civil society actors with the private sector and government.”  MST leader Gilmar Mauro stressed different themes – describing the need of “cadres patiently engaged in building mass struggle” to create a genuine democracy (people taking control of the conditions shaping their lives), not a superficial “democratism.”  He insisted that the most oppressed sectors must “liberate humanity through liberating ourselves,” and challenged listeners to “forge yourself in struggle.”

The major speakers and sessions of the World Social Forum were decidedly and unambiguously to the left, however, although the gathering was free from the jargon-and-slogan fireworks of competing left-wing groups.  Instead, there was a far more serious engagement of analysts and activists seeking to make sense of the converging crises afflicting our planet, and comparing notes – with thoughtful discussions and, sometimes, debates that helped identify key issues—on how best to struggle for a better world.

There were undercurrents of tension that sometimes came to the surface:

  • When Brazilian writer Marcio Moreira Alves—in a panel on “gaps and tensions between social movements, political parties and political institutions”—warned that sectarianism is the most dangerous disease afflicting the Left, Fausto Bertinotti of Italy’s Communist Refoundation responded that today it was moderation that is the greater danger, calling for a unity that advances, rather than diluting, radicalism.  In this context, while PT leader Jose Genoina emphasized the need to democratize the state, South African trade unionist Willy Madisha of COSATU warned that “when a democratic party takes power” as in South Africa with the ANC (and presumably Brazil with the PT) it becomes more necessary than ever for autonomous social movements and popular organizations to keep up popular mobilizations in order to counteract conservative pressures that can cause the new governments to compromise away what the masses of people had been fighting for. A young French activist Leyla Daklhi, sounding a libertarian challenge against voting for any political parties, emphasized the central importance of street actions and the transformation of human relationships “from below,” while Gladys Marin of the Chilean Communist party eloquently stressed—in a critical/self-critical tone—the need to “change the world while changing ourselves.”
  • When the newly-elected President Lula came to address the World Social Forum, in an open field that accommodated many thousands of enthusiastic listeners (lifting their arms and making an “L” with thumb and forefinger) welcomed him with the melodic chant “ole, ole-ole-ola—Lula, Lula”), he nonetheless felt it necessary to explain and justify why he would also be attending the World Economic Forum in Davos.  He argued that you can make a difference even when the institution or organization you are dealing with is corrupt—that when he first decided to get active in the labor movement, some of his friends said “the unions are corrupt and in bed with the state—don’t get involved,” but he did, and with work they changed the labor movement.  Pittsburgh-based South African poet Dennis Brutus was among many who questioned the value of attending such a summit of pro-corporate globalizers, suggesting that the President’s “time might be better spent” elsewhere.  “If Davos were an official organization, he would doubtless have a good reason to go” commented Susan George of the Trans-National Institute, “but this gathering of the rulers of the universe is the creation of a couple of … high-class con-men.”  A Brazilian student at the World Social Forum was quoted as supporting the Davos visit with the comment that “the confrontational approach has its limits, and it may gain a little for the people of Brazil who voted for Lula.”  In the opinion of Brazilian working-class activist Edimar Almeida, “it is okay for the president to participate, but not in any way that will help Davos or support its agenda.”  Several days later, an angry Brazilian opponent of the Davos visit protested by throwing a meringue pie in the face of PT leader Jose Genoina—an image that was front-page news.
  • When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez—a radical-populist general targeted for overthrow by the upper-class (and the Bush administration)—came uninvited to Porto Alegre, some at the World Social Forum was displeased (it was a “side-show” and “distraction,” in the opinion of the Nation’s Marc Cooper), yet many thousands of other participants were glad to rally to his support and to consider what he had to say in a defiantly anti-imperialist speech in which he also hailed the World Social Forum as ‘the world’s most important event.”

In fact, some were dissatisfied with the very quality of “bigness.”  Writing critically in the Guardian (February 1, 2003), global justice activist Naomi Klein commented:

The key word at this year’s World Social Forum, held this week in Porto Alegre, Brazil, was “big”.  Big attendance: more than 100,000 delegates in all. Big speeches: more than 15,000 crammed in to see Noam Chomsky.  And most of all, big men. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the newly elected president of Brazil, came to the forum and addressed 75,000 adoring fans. Hugo Chavez, the controversial president of Venezuela, paid a “surprise” visit to announce that his embattled regime was part of the same movement as the forum itself.

According to Klein, “participatory democracy is being usurped at the World Social Forum by big men and swooning crowds,” and she denounces “the hijacking of the World Social Forum by political parties and powerful men.”  While the “big men” that Klein complains of certainly grabbed headlines, the focus she places on them distorts the reality that many of us experienced.  Elsewhere in her column she acknowledges what was, in fact, the dominant reality – “the forum, in all its dizzying, global diversity,” with “plenty of circles, with small groups of people facing each other.  There were thousands of impromptu gatherings of activists from opposite ends of the globe excitedly swapping facts, tactics and analysis in their common struggles.”

For some, the “dizzying” and often disorganized qualities of the “bigness” were more serious problems than the impact of major political figures.  Certainly the almost overwhelming size of this radical “happening” generated logistical problems.  It was not only the size of the forum, however, but also political circumstances that added a few glitches in the planning.  In addition to being busy with elections for much of last year, the main host of the WSF, the Worker’s Party (PT), lost control of the state government of Rio Grande do Sul only months before the forum.  Changes in the government meant a loss of state resources, including money and database coordination.  As a result, programs of events were not ready at the start of the forum, causing much chaos for workshop speakers and forum delegates.

Despite the confusion caused by scheduling, language differences and translation, and distances between conference venues, and despite the varying quality in workshops, most participants appeared to be happy to be a part of the event.  About 1200 people from the U.S. attended the Forum – many more than the previous years.  Jobs with Justice did an admirable job convening a diverse group of organizers and rank and file activists and union members to attend; most left energized and ready to step up anti-war and global justice efforts at home. The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), long-time Quaker-based peace and justice organization, also participated energetically and visibly, as did the San Francisco-based Global Exchange headed by Medea Benjamin and Kevin Danaher, Z-Magazine, plus local Social Forums (partly generated through the efforts of Dennis Brutus) in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington, DC and New York City. Labor participation included formal representatives from the radical United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers to the “mainstream” United Steel Workers of America.

Opposition to the impending U.S. war in Iraq was the focal-point of a massive session attended by thousands addressed by Medea Benjamin of the U.S. group Global Exchange, British-Pakistani journalist Tariq Ali, Egyptian economist Samir Amin, and Hungarian-British social philosopher Istvan Mezaros, but there were other sessions on this as well. One of the most successful of the smaller anti-war sessions drew 300 people together to hear and interact with a panel that included Dennis Brutus, Medea Benjamin and Kevin Danaher of Global Exchange, Rania Masri of the Southern Peace Research and Education Center, Chicago trade unionist Rebecca Hanscom, and Lee Sustar of the International Socialist Organization.  The American Friends Service Committee conducted an especially impressive workshop on militarization and globalization – with AFSC field workers from the U.S., Colombia, and Angola linking the military-industrial and prison-industrial complexes in the U.S., repressive policies along the U.S.-Mexican border, and destructive U.S. policies in Colombia and Angola.

The Forum was book-ended by two large-scale marches: the first against neo-liberalism, the second against the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) and against war. The outpouring was powerful and inspiring – but so too was what took place in-between: delegates packed into classrooms and stadiums to hear about and to discuss everything: from the fight against privatizing water; to the struggle for food and land; to the experiences of young people and the elderly and women and oppressed ethnic and racial groups; to the efforts of those who labor to defend their rights and assert their dignity; to a diverse range of educational and cultural and artistic endeavors; to the struggle for human rights and genuinely democratic decision-making; to topics that most Forum participants never heard of before, such as something called “social threefolding.”


In discussions held after the World Social Forum, organized by members of the Fourth International, particularly from the Socialist Democracy (DS) tendency within the PT in Brazil, a diverse range of activists gathered to analyze of the current economic and political situation and reflections for the socialist left. Particularly inspiring was Heloisa Helena, a Senator with the PT and member of the DS, who spoke of limitations, disappointments, and challenges facing those who struggle for a better brazil and for a better world.  Although the struggle is arduous and painful, she insisted that “it is better to have your heart broken than to feel as if your soul has been sold.”

In his talk on the globalization movements, Alexandar Buzgalin of the All-Russian Social Movement commented that the World Social Forum and its counterparts themselves represent a vision of a new kind of socialism we want to build.  The Forums are organized by loose networks of organizations with great differences, yet that manage to pull off inspiring and beautiful events.  Yet without the militants from left parties, Buzgalin argued, these movements and events would be nothing.  While it is not necessary to promote politics as one organization, one platform, and one way of doing things given from above, it is still necessary to have the level of organization and vision that comes from the left. Indeed, it’s important to note that the WSF was not just a gathering of individuals, but also a meeting of (and organized by) real working class organizations some of them with a mass base.

Although the Forum has been criticized for its size, its disorganization, its mélange of issues, we believe it is crucial for leftists to get involved or stay involved in the Forums.  Plans for a North American Forum appear to be underway, and the next WSF will take place January 2004 in India.  As Flavia D’Angeli (from Italy’s Communist Refoundation) argued, we need to be activists in these movements, build them for their own sakes, build them to be democratic, and anchor our work within them on the belief that a socialist world is possible.

For more information on the World Social Forum, see

ATC 103, March-April 2003