A week in Genoa - What lessons for the anti-globalisation movement?

In this article, Dario Salvetti, a supporter of the Italian Marxist journal, FalceMartello, who actively took part in the Genoa demonstrations analyses the limits of the movement and draws a balance sheet of what should have been done. We believe that the lessons drawn should be taken on board internationally and applied in the future.

Editor's note:

Everyone will remember the massive demonstrations that took place last year in July during the G8 summit in Genoa (Italy). Tragically a young Italian student was shot dead by the police. The police, backed by the government, were clearly out to smash the movement. Could measures have been taken beforehand to avoid this and to better defend the demonstrations? Clearly the "leadership" of the movement was unprepared for what happened. In this article, Dario Salvetti, a supporter of the Italian Marxist journal, FalceMartello, who actively took part in the Genoa demonstrations analyses the limits of the movement and draws a balance sheet of what should have been done. We believe that the lessons drawn should be taken on board internationally and applied in the future. The Swedish police fired on demonstrators in Gothenburg. The Italian police shot a demonstrator dead. The brutality of the police is increasing on an international scale. This reflects the growing class contradictions within society. Gone are the days of "peaceful dialogue". The capitalist system is preparing to take back all the reforms granted in the past. This will lead to major class conflicts. The bourgeoisie is preparing its instruments of repression. The labour movement and the youth must also prepare. (February 13, 2002)


The demonstrations in Genoa were the outcome of several weeks - if not months - of preparatory work that brought political parties, associations and thousands of people on to the streets. They were also a very serious test for every group that took part. Every theory, idea, method and perspectives emanating from the anti-globalisation movement were put to the test by the events that unfolded in Genoa. That is why an analysis and an open appraisal of these events will allow us to understand the nature of the polemics that have emerged within the movement in Italy.

The "Public Forum" and the anti-globalisation "professionals"

As a university student I was able to stay in Genoa from the Monday to the Saturday and to participate in the whole week's proceedings and especially in the Public Forum. However it was obvious that most workers couldn't do this. The Public Forum was a debate organized between all the organizations that participate in the GSF (Genoa Social Forum). The purpose was to agree on the aims and the methods with which to advance the movement. The fact that the bureaucracy decided to organise the debate during working days (from Monday to Wednesday) was not by mere chance, nor was it a burning necessity. It shows how little most of the GSF are really interested in the working class and in extending the debate on globalization. In fact not only the people chairing the meetings, but even the audience was composed mainly of bureaucrats, journalists, lecturers, professionals and so on. All these people took it for granted that they were the only real representatives of the movement. The truth of the matter is that an immense abyss separates their views from those that led several hundred thousand people onto the streets of Genoa on 19, 20 and 21 July, 2002.

The desire for "notoriety"

Naturally the Public Forum proceedings had drawn a lot of attention from the press, radio and TV reporters, and so suddenly the different groups within the anti-globalisation network started vying with one another to attract the media by means of all kinds of gimmicks. Their only care seemed to be to do something unusual, something the mass media could be interested in.

On Wednesday, a reporter from Radio Popolare (a well-known left-wing radio) said to me: "There have been a lot of press conferences, but the sole matter at stake here seems to be the praising of oneself before the press. I attended an Attac public event: there were a thousand reporters looking at the word Attac on a sheet hanging from a bridge! People still know nothing about the strategy for the main demonstration, and I fear that they will get to know about every organizational resolution solely from the media ."

Driven by the demon of 'notoriety-at-all-costs', throughout the whole week the Social Forum had been interested solely in getting their views publicized through the media, ignoring completely any form of solid party structures or even its own information channels. Thus they were totally at the bourgeois press' mercy. And on the Friday evening all this turned against them, and the previous cosy relationship with the TV then became a deadly stranglehold.

In fact, after the killing of Carlo Giuliani some TV news programmes carried the false report that the next day the demonstration was to be called off. When the Social Forum leaders demanded a denial from the media, some TV networks announced that the demonstration was going ahead, but others continued to spread the idea that the demonstration had been cancelled. The organisers were totally panic-stricken, and only some hours later did they decide... to appeal to the people "to use every alternative channel available, and especially to use the party structures, to propagate the true news and correct information." These are the same people who maintain that "the class party structure is out-dated" and pour scorn on it. But once again, the party structure has been shown to be the only real last hope.

Friday, 20 July: the "Black Block", the police, and the infiltrators

On Thursday, 19 July, the immigrants living in Italy opened the demonstrations standing up for their rights. There were about 50,000 on the demonstration. The number was not big, but the political level was high, with less music and more political slogans than usual. It was a signal of something new in the air, and everything proceeded peacefully.

The Social Forum leaders had planned the Friday demonstration solely as a big mass-media show, with music and balloons, but also with attacks on the "red line" with the use of catapults and skin-divers(!). [Note: the red line was the boundary of an area which had been completely closed off by the police in order to "protect" the G8 summit.] This was destined to become either a farce or a tragedy. Everybody knows that in the end it was a tragedy. The GSF had nothing planned and they abandoned more than 50,000 people to complete chaos. Everybody knew that clashes were to be expected, and everybody could see that dividing the forces was a dangerous mistake. But all that the organisers were interested in was their own "notoriety". They all participated in the GSF, but everyone of them was in search of their own audience. So there were five different "thematic meeting points" where several small demonstrations would march from. Furthermore, these meeting points were not organized along political affiliations. They were divided up solely according to how each organization intended behaving towards the "red line"!

The Black Block had started their provocations already by the morning. Their tactics were undoubtedly very clear: small commando groups destroyed everything they could and then mingled with the demonstrators, using these as a shield. Stupidly, they attacked some sites, burning shops or breaking windows - while they held thousands of people as hostages. Now, it is absolutely clear that the police had infiltrated the Black Block. But even if it were otherwise, it is clear that the Black Block played into the hands of the police, who attacked the political section of the demonstration with the pretext of containing the violence.

Of course the Black Block was only a pretext, and the police were solely responsible for what happened. The police were there with the clear aim of attacking the demonstration. They needed no Black Block as an excuse to attack. In fact they also attacked sections of the demonstration, where there was no Black Block at all. For instance, they attacked the isolated grouping gathered at Dante Square: here the demonstrators were quite harmless, and an iron railing separated us from the police. At about 4pm, just as we were peacefully retiring towards Kennedy Square, suddenly the police attacked us from the rear with tear-gas. Their aim was clear. At that moment the demonstration was regrouping at Kennedy Square and morale was rising again, so the police felt it needed to sow terror.

In the minds of some, street clashes are supposed to raise the consciousness and bolster the morale of the masses. Well, on the Thursday evening, after a demonstration, which had been quite peaceful, but rich in political content, the morale of the demonstrators was sky-high. On the Friday at noon, after a morning of street fighting, most people had lost all heart. It was seen as a complete defeat. All the demonstrations had already been dispersed even before they could start. The police charged in perfect unison and passed through these disorganized sections like a knife through butter. Some sections, the "White Overalls" for instance, were dispersed even before they could close their ranks. A few seconds were enough to prove how wrong the tactics of so-called "civil resistance" were. And the GSF had wasted several months discussing them! It was a distressing sight to witness. Small groups were wandering aimlessly over ravaged streets, amid columns of smoke from burning cars, banks and shops.

Friday evening: what was to be done?

At about 7pm almost everybody knew that a demonstrator had been killed, and that police had deliberately shot at the crowd: someone even showed some bullets he had found on the scene of the clashes.

The GSF was not in a position to organise any public debate so they just held a press conference, but the demonstrators took the initiative by organising several spontaneous debates. For about one hour, everybody thought that at last something was changing. They enthusiastically applauded whoever took the floor, and even the simple reporting of the day's events was enough to galvanize the people. But soon it became clear to everyone that the GSF was simply waiting, totally panic-stricken.

As things stood, the essential thing for the leadership would have been to give some clear direction to the movement. All the demonstrators should have been gathered together into one single big concentration. The parties and trade unions should have unified all their stewards under a central coordinating committee. What was needed was the recruitment of volunteers to defend the demonstration on the following day. And last, but not least, they should have been calling for a general strike as soon as possible, and for the resignation of the government.

Unfortunately, the GSF proved to be quite incapable of facing up to the situation and forced people to wait in vain for a long time. So, something that could have become a solid and compact concentration of forces became nothing but a trap. In fact, everybody knew that several groups of scared people were still wandering through Genoa, and that some small groups of demonstrators were still being attacked by the police. Many claimed to be helping them, but lacking a clear leadership most people felt lost. Some people - the most resolute or even the most impatient ones - began to demand that the demonstrators should go and confront the police again. They fell for the illusions of 'direct action'. The political weakness of the GSF "leaders" was abandoning people to clashes once again!

Only at about 11pm did the GSF confirm that the next day's demonstration was going ahead. They also made their official demands known, i.e. that the Minister of the Interior should resign, and that the whole police force should remain confined to barracks the next day. But, where were the forces that the GSF could rely on to achieve this? They had proven themselves incapable of building up any force capable of resisting the forces of coercion of the State. Indignation and shame have never by themselves achieved any turns in history.

Saturday, 21 July: the labour organizations and internationalism

Though the demonstration of 21 July was to start officially at 2pm, at 11am thousands of demonstrators were already marching through the streets waving thousands of red flags, and everywhere you could hear the cry of "murder!" and other slogans against the police and the State. Clearly there was a new mood gripping all those people. The previous day's events had had the effect of pushing the masses into action rather than cowing them. And, furthermore, now the working class parties and unions were the main protagonists, as opposed to the so-called circles of "civil society". The PRC (Partito della Rifondazione Comunista) presence was an imposing one - although its members were scattered all over the demonstration and were completely disorganized. There were also the Comunisti Italiani (Translator's note: the group that split away to the right of the PRC led by Cossutta,). There was a large delegation from the Cobas (rank and file committees that have broken with the traditional trade unions) and the FIOM-CGIL (metal workers' union). There were also some small left-wing or anarchist groups and a huge number of people who were not members of any of the mass organizations, but who nevertheless felt that these organizations should lead the struggle. The presence of people from other countries was also quite significant. For instance, the Greek KKE (Communist Party) had almost two thousand people on the demonstration.

Nevertheless, around 1pm the mood suddenly changed, and an icy silence fell over the whole demonstration: in spite of what had happened on the Friday, nobody thought that the police would attack a quite peaceful demonstration. But the police did attack and this took almost everybody by surprise.

Near Kennedy Square, the police broke the demonstration into two groups and then started to attack at both ends, systematically breaking it up. Their clear intention was not simply to stop or drive it back: their clear aim was to break it up altogether.

For at least a month before the demonstration the GSF had known that the police would attack and that Kennedy Square would be the weakest point on the route. Therefore why was there no organized stewarding to defend the demonstration at that point and in general along the whole route? What made this even worse was the fact that for months some of those taking part in the preparatory assemblies - such as the Cobas union - had been demanding that some unified self-defence structure be set up. But every time, the GSF leadership expressly refused to engage in such a thing.

Some of the more serious organizations had their own stewards, but without a common defence strategy nothing could be done. On the day of the demonstration those taking part realized for themselves that this is what was in fact needed. They reacted immediately against the police charges by trying to build a unified defence cordon. Once again the actual course of events has clearly demonstrated what a huge gap there is between the masses on the one hand and the organizers on the other, who were shown to be incapable of understanding what was really required. All those leading the GSF enjoy the advantages that flow from being in the GSF structures but they are not prepared to take upon themselves the responsibilities that flow from this.

The real face of the State

In general, ordinary people have been taught since childhood that the police defends law and order, and they see in their uniforms so-called 'champions of justice', who would never break the law! But this is a very dangerous illusion. The GSF leaders had limited themselves to providing people with some legal advisers instead of organizing the stewarding! They illuded themselves that "the Law" could stand up to the state apparatus.

In fact during the night of 21 July, the State showed all its regard for that rather odd idea. The police broke into the GSF headquarters, and they even arrested several lawyers. Moreover, during the demonstration these lawyers proved to be the worst tactical advisers. They understood nothing about street dynamics, so that they could only stand by and hold their heads.

We Marxists on the other hand, understand that, usually, when the State "seems" to remain neutral (as if the matter was of no concern to it) and demonstrations go ahead peacefully and without any conflict, this means that the state apparatus is aware of the fact that only some very secondary aspects of capitalism are being questioned.

But as soon as the capitalist system as a whole is threatened, the State immediately steps in with all its might. It reveals its true face and intervenes brutally in an attempt to destroy the movement. In Genoa the sole aim of the police was to break up the demonstration and to intimidate those taking part and also to arrest as many as possible as an act of reprisal. The police have not forgotten the methods it used to use in the 1970s. All the weaponry and the tactics developed then have suddenly reappeared today in Italy: fire-hoses, tear-gas, armoured cars as well as agents-provocateurs, bombs, firing into the crowd and snatch squads.

All this shows the importance of the subjective factor. The State apparatus has a memory, and it remembers precisely the way it behaved in the past, whereas the demonstrators did not. We know that a revolutionary party consists mainly in being the historical memory of the working class. In Genoa this memory was lacking. Many workers and young people had to learn everything about the police tactics by themselves, from scratch, there on the day itself.

A revolutionary process in the making

In this brief account we have laid heavy stress on the mistakes and the limits of those who led the movement in Genoa, the Genoa Social Forum. One of those individuals who was mainly responsible for this disaster, the leader of the "white overalls", Casarini, made a statement to the press in which he said that "all the organizations in the GSF should be declared as being in a state of emergency." Well, this is, at least, one thing that we can agree with!

In Genoa, the question was not simply that there was a lack of organization. All the organisational problems simply reflected a lack of political leadership. Most of the groups taking part in this movement faced these events with inadequate theories, structures and perspectives. The events themselves have shattered any illusions that there may have been in so-called "social networks", "civil resistance" or in achieving "notoriety" through publicity stunts for the benefit of the mass-media.

The main point is that some tens of thousands workers and youth protested and showed all their hatred towards the capitalist system. The demonstration was badly coordinated and lacked serious stewarding and therefore it ran serious risks. However, what we can say is that it was only a first taste of the discontent, which has been smouldering under the surface of society. This discontent will be the starting point of future revolutionary developments.

What happened in Genoa also confirms another basic understanding that we have always had. None of the so-called "theories" that have been developed in any bourgeois Public Forum can ever be of any use to the working class. In order for a revolutionary process to be successful, the movement must adopt new ideas and a new political leadership based on Marxist theory. It is events themselves that will prove that only these ideas are those that meet the needs of the movement and that can guarantee victory in the long run.

(This is a slightly adapted version of an article that appeared in issue 151 of FalceMartello, October 2001)