World Social Forum -- Forum for nonviolence?

Howard Clark

The World Social Forum is the latest -- and one of the more attractive attempts -- to provide an international process to strengthen cooperation between a wide range of related movements of social resistance based on more or less common values. After five years, this process shows sign of institutionalisation -- it's popular enough for some governments (national governments such as that of Chavez in Venezuela or the regional government of Cataluña) to want to be seen as supportive. Yet at the same time the process remains open enough to clarify and update its analysis, for instance last year adopting a statement from Women Living Under Muslim Laws offering a feminist critique of so-called anti-war movements that align themselves with patriarchal religious fundamentalism.

I imagine that at every Social Forum -- be it regional or global -- there have been activists present in some way associated with the WRI. I say "imagine" because we are rather a loose network. Something like a Social Forum offers useful networking opportunities -- and frankly in some ways can be as useful as some events we organise for ourselves (and at our own expense!). This used to be the case in the 1980s with the European Nuclear Disarmament Conventions -- indeed I met some WRI members there who I never met at WRI meetings.

The END Convention, however, was about war and weapons. The Social Forum deals with much wider issues. Indeed, the Charter for the World Social Forum does not specifically mention war and the only reference to the military is that military organisations will not be represented. However, it does speak of nonviolence. Towards the end, in Para 13, we read that "the World Social Forum seeks to strengthen and create new national and international links among organizations and movements of society, that -- in both public and private life -- will increase the capacity for non-violent social resistance to the process of dehumanization the world is undergoing and to the violence used by the State, and reinforce the humanizing measures being taken by the action of these movements and organizations."

So here is a clear point of reference for WRI. Our own WRI declaration doesn't specifically mention nonviolence. The first part is our refusal to support war, the second part our commitment to remove the causes of war -- which for many years we have taken to mean our commitment to promote nonviolence to remove the causes of war. Hence all our debates on manifestos for nonviolent revolution, our statements about active nonviolence as an alternative to armed struggle, our conferences on nonviolent social defence, and our more recent work on "nonviolence and social empowerment".

WRI cannot exist as an isolated organisation -- we have to take our place among those social movements whose goals we share. That is our sphere of action. There are times, when we feel marginal -- and certainly it is more appropriate for WRI to be seen at the recent alternative social forum in Caracas than cheering on the Chavez government -- but there are times when we connect with vital issues and impulses which, organisationally, we otherwise have to put to one side as being beyond our limited resources. Right from the beginning WRI has posed a radical social analysis -- an analysis far more wide-reaching than our organisational programme can be. Also we promote values, values to practise not just in the organisation but in our daily lives and reflect a much wider consciousness than bald anti-militarism. Together, these put us firmly among the "movement of movements" that gravitate towards the Social Forums.

However, there is something else we have, and that -- for all the controversy over nonviolence -- has been welcomed when we have offered it. This is a record of careful preparation and honest, critical evaluation of nonviolent action. These have rarely been actions organised by or in the name of WRI or its affiliates, but actions in which our members have participated, which we have discussed and which have given us ideas to apply in our own situations. From outside, sometimes people view us as being like a "club for the nonviolent". One of the challenges we face is to show that ours is not an exclusive nonviolence, nor a nonviolence fixed in time or part of a particular culture -- but is continually re-creating itself in fresh contexts. Our conference Globalising Nonviolence should be an important step in this direction.

Howard Clark has recently helped April Carter and Michael Randle to compile People Power and Protest since 1945 -- a bibliography of nonviolent action to be published by Housmans in March. (Sorry, but it only covers publications in English.)