Many of us sensed that there was something new on Feb. 15, when millions around the globe marched against the U.S. government’s drive to war on Iraq.

This sense of profound change in the world was noticed by The New York Times. A front-page Times news analysis, headlined “A New Power in the Streets,” compared the global outpouring against war to the revolutionary upsurge that swept Europe in 1848.

It’s a comparison worth thinking about. Out of the 1848 upsurge came the international working class and communist movements that gave rise to today’s labor movement, and also to efforts to construct socialist societies based on human cooperation and fulfillment instead of capitalist greed.

Now, 155 years later, a movement seeking people’s power and alternatives to capitalist-driven war and exploitation is again sweeping the globe. This movement is embodied in the World Social Forum.

The Feb. 15 global anti-war mobilization got its start at the European Social Forum in Florence, Italy, last November. The meeting issued a call for the movements and citizens of Europe to start “continent-wide resistance to war” and to organize “enormous anti-war demonstrations in every capital on Feb. 15.”

War on Iraq, it declared, “should be opposed by everyone who believes in democratic, political solutions to international conflicts because it will be a war with the potential to lead to global disaster.”

This January, the third World Social Forum meeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil, made that initiative global, issuing an “International call to action against the war in Iraq,” starting with worldwide actions on Feb. 15.

The World Social Forum arose out of the international movement against corporate globalization that emerged in the late 1990s. A group of Brazilian and European intellectuals and activists came up with the idea of bringing together the diverse groups that were springing up, to share ideas and figure out how to change the world. Symbolically the meeting was set in a “third world” country at the same time as advocates of capitalist globalization met at their annual World Economic Forum in Davos, a luxurious resort in Switzerland.

The idea took off. About 20,000 people from 117 countries participated in the first World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in 2001. WSF 2002 drew about 50,000 people from 123 countries. This year, 100,000 people from 156 countries participated, representing 5,717 organizations.

Under the banner “Another World is Possible,” this year’s Forum packed 1,500 panels, conferences and workshops into four days. The participants jammed into stadiums and conference halls to listen to speakers and debate just about every issue on the minds of the people of the world: stopping war and militarism; labor rights and human rights; control of land, food, and water; saving the environment; standing up to the transnational corporations; democracy, equality and diversity; survival of small farms and farm workers; culture and politics; migrants and refugees; education and health; control of media and information; fundamentalism and intolerance.

The next World Social Forum will be in India in January 2004. Before then, regional and thematic forums will take place around the world. This is people power on a global scale.

Porto Alegre, Brazil,
Jan. 23-28, 2003

Lovemore Matombo, president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions: In the World Social Forum there are quite a number of key things, especially the sharing of experiences with other trade unionists. But what is most striking here is that everyone is unanimous against globalization driven by capital. Everyone is unanimous on an anti-capitalist approach to the social world. And we have learned about the manner in which the labor movement in Brazil consolidated itself for the last 20 years until it accomplished the historical mission of the working class, electing Lula [Brazil’s worker President] to the position of head of state. For us it’s quite an inspiration. We have a lot to learn from the Brazilian workers especially.

Analia Penchaszadeh, Jobs with Justice national staff: We helped coordinate a U.S. grassroots delegation of 120 rank-and-file workers, religious organizers, youth organizers and others. The World Social Forum has been a powerful experience for me and our delegation. Just being able to participate in a mass gathering like this demonstrates it’s possible to build power. It’s a shift from thinking about issues to showing real power. The opening march of 100,000 people from so many different backgrounds, with so many different demands, shows we can agree on one thing: the world is not functioning for the needs of working people. Being able to be here when Lula is taking power – like wow! This can really happen – a worker taking power! And there were a lot of amazing one-on-one conversations.

In the U.S. we are really isolated from broad-based world social movements. It has been really amazing to learn from other countries. These people have a lot to teach us. Just being in Brazil, we recognize that in the U.S. we are so far behind. We need to do a lot more popular education about what globalization really means. We need to integrate that into our organizing. It’s not a separate thing. The global justice movement is people fighting every day for equal justice.

Fred Azcarate, executive director, Jobs with Justice: We have a lot to learn and a lot to share. So much is about global corporate power. We need to build greater international solidarity. We need to do broader education about the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). We are starting to figure out mobilization for the FTAA ministerial meeting in Miami, Nov. 20-21. We have a big job – there has got to be a broader and deeper number of organizations engaged.

Prathima Panuelka, from Mumbai, India: I represent an international network, ENDA – Environment and Development Action in the Third World. We are a group of like-minded professionals, academics, grassroots workers, activists, people who represent farmers’ unions, women’s organizations, youth groups in various countries. ENDA works in Latin America – in Brazil, Colombia, Santo Domingo; in French-speaking Africa; and on the Asian continent in India and Vietnam.

The ENDA philosophy is respect for basic traditions, a strong belief that communities, neighborhood groups can resolve their own issues, can find solutions provided they are able to evolve the right technology. We are not against technology but are definitely for technology that strengthens people’s hands rather than diminishing their power. … I’ve been involved in activities related to the open slum areas, where the major issue is assisting communities to access proper water and sanitation and the right to land – land tenure. Currently a major concern of mine is forceful eviction of communities. …

As people working at the grassroots level we are continuously looking to the various examples that Latin America has thrown up, of small community groups coming together, finding their own solutions, and also battling larger giants. It’s appropriate that this is the continent that brought these forces together in the World Social Forum.

I think the World Social Forum and other forums that have taken place in the last two decades may converge, unless, like in the Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development, those get totally hijacked by multinationals. I attended Johannesburg and one of the major problems was the overbearing presence of the multinational companies and the push towards privatization and globalization. Therefore perhaps it will be forums like this that will really represent the voice of the people. So there is good hope.

tTwo Belgian trade unionists: We are from FGTB, what we call the Socialist union. We are here because we also want worker justice, equality between the people.

Mario and Marcela, from Incarnacion, Paraguay: We have the Paraguayan Forum, a regional forum, in our city. Our organization wants to be at these kinds of events to be a conscience for our people. We need change because in our country we have a corrupt government, the most corrupt in Latin America, and we want to change that. The young people want that. That’s why we are here. The election of Lula is a big step for Latin America and for us. We really hope that Paraguay can take that step too. … About the negative U.S. role: everybody in Latin America thinks that it’s not the people of the U.S., it’s the government of the U.S.

tTwo French delegates from the Catholic Committee Against Hunger and for Development: Our objective is to work with people of the third world, to help them. In France we belong to a network that each year launches campaigns to sensitize people to the problems in the Third World. We think the election of Lula here in Brazil is something that can change the relation of forces in the world for the better. He brings hope to many people and this is very interesting for the French people.

Delegate from a women’s organization in the Sudan: We are working in the field of women’s and children’s rights. We offer legal services helping women and children in the courts. I’m here as part of the African Social Forum.

Under the structural adjustment policy – the package of policies imposed by the IMF as a condition for granting loans – the country has to devalue its national currency and cut the budget, cut expenditures. So automatically the government cuts employment, cuts services, and privatizes a lot of industries and institutions, and a lot of people have been thrown out of work. The privatized company “modernizes,” computerizes, and will not train the old employees, instead they throw them out and bring in new staff.

Sudan has been following these “reform” packages since the late 1970s, and our currency has been devalued more than 100 times. With the new system of “cost recovery” in the health sector and in the schools, the dropout rate is very high because the people are poor, they can’t pay for services. Ninety percent of Sudanese people are living under the poverty line.

It’s high time to put pressure on the leaders of developed countries – they are shaping the economy of the whole world but we are not part of this, we just receive their instructions: do this, don’t do that, grow this, don’t grow that. In the case of Iraq, nobody likes Saddam Hussein, he’s killing his people, destroying his country, but the American government doesn’t want to throw him out because he’s a bad ruler, it’s because of its interests, regardless of the Iraqi people’s interests.

Cynthia Rodriguez, vice president, City Division, Service Employees International Union Local 73: We represent public workers and we’re most concerned about privatization of services. The World Social Forum is a crash course in globalization: To go to Latin America and see how they’re fighting privatization of utilities, water – just survival! The thought that electricity is a basic right, and in South Africa they’re fighting for that – while we don’t even think about it!

Students from the University of Guadalajara, Mexico: We are here to see the protest of civil society against the system that has continually created more poor. It’s very interesting for us to see how the richness of diversity is manifested here, and how the youth are very interested in this movement. Also, this event is important because it’s like a festival. A festival in which all those in the world who think in more or less the same way, who believe there has to be a change in the way we are governed, we are all here to propose alternatives, to construct a new world. We don’t have all the answers. But this is a space that will give us strength; we will leave with the strength to create a new world.

Interviews by Susan Webb

The author can be reached at


Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more.