20 years ago this July approximately 300 Irish activists joined in with demonstrations against the G8 in Genoa. The demos, taking place over three days, turned out to be something of a bloody street war between the leading political militants of a continental generation & the heavily-armed Italian security forces. That it could turn out to be a dangerous adventure was known in the abstract to all of us who signed up to go from Ireland, but that didn’t make the real onslaught we ended up being subjected to any easier to deal with.
One Italian, Carlo Giuliani, was murdered. Many hundreds including dozens of Irish were injured. All who went were tear-gassed, baton-charged, water-cannoned, terrorised. It was mayhem & we barely got away with being massacred, & yet it ended up a decisive & inspiring political victory for the far-left that seemed at the time to augur greater victories to come.
Until the lasting transformations wrought by 9/11, the Genoa protests were far and away the most discussed & argued about international political event of 2001. As a participant, one felt immersed in an energetic & rapidly expanding movement the likes of which had not been seen since the 1960s. We all felt the movement was only getting going & that the next few years at least were going to dominated by it. We had a world to win & throwing ourselves heart & soul into building the anti-capitalist movement was how we were going to win it.
The movement which did battle at the Genoa demo (the latest in a worldwide series of colorful, & rebellious demos kicked off by the Seattle uprising against the WTO in December 1999) was mainly concerned with issues of Global economic, political, & ecological justice. The movement had many affiliated acronyms & many constituent parts, each with their own issue & approach, but most agreed that strength lay in unity & that we had much to learn from each other. Hence the demos were accompanied by what came to be known as Social Forums – activist universities & hives of information, debate, education, & alliance-forging.
The Irish contingent had three main wings. Anarchists organised through the Workers Solidarity Movement, who emphasized Direct Action. A broad left organised through Globalise Resistance, an initiative of the Socialist Workers Party with support from some trade unions, NGOs, & other left wing parties, notably Sinn Fein. GR emphasized mass movement building & participation in united front activities. And then various political individuals & campaign/NGO representatives, some of whom were chiefly there for the Social Forum rather than the demos.
Most who went over were in their twenties & starting out in life & activism. Some are still centrally involved in the Irish Left, including TDs, councillors, leading anti-fascists, housing campaigners, & environmental activists. Others, having made their contribution (more than most), have drifted away from the left.
The vast bulk of those involved with today’s Irish Far Left were not involved back in 2001.
Which, alongside the obliterating dynamic of 9/11, is one of the understandable reasons that, although it seemed the most important political movement since 1968 at the time, the anti-capitalist movement has faded into obscurity after only two decades.
Speaking from a strictly historical materialist point of view, whatever fades into political obscurity deserves it, & all those who have failed in the past have little to teach those who are trying to win in the now. So I’m not writing this to offer a lesson or lessons, but as an act of recall & reflection.
Like most who participated in Genoa, I was young at the time & I am middle aged now. Looking back gives me, and maybe more than me, a chance to wonder about the connections & the disconnections between then & now in political life, & in our personal biographies.
What motivated such a diverse group of mostly young people back then to put our lives at risk in a foreign country, & for the sake of people suffering half a world away from us?
The context of the activist left at the time was quite different to now. It was smaller, but had been revivified in the mid & late nineties by a new wave of young activists influenced by anti-stalinist politics. Whether anarchist or trotskyist (many were a bit of both) these young people wanted to build & participate in an international revolutionary movement of the kind their political ancestors had been central to back in 1848, 1917, 1968… We joined because we wanted to overthrow capitalism & we saw that as an imminent possibility, the arrival of which the new anti-capitalist movement made more likely, & sooner rather than later.
We were not chiefly focussed on elections at the time. The SP’s Joe Higgins was a lone red flame in the Daīl, & the SWP had just started to run a handful of candidates in local elections, to little avail. The anarchists, who were sizeable & influential & way ahead of the rest of us in new media innovation at the time, were hostile to electioneering. While there were occasional & local campaigns of many kinds that we were constantly involved in, most far left activists at the turn of the millennium had little to do with elections. This made us marginal to the day to day political life of the country & its localities, & entirely excluded from mainstream media save as occasional objects of derision or libel, but freed us up to focus a lot more on discussing & refining big political ideas & strategies for revolutionary change, & participating in international movements.
Naively perhaps, we spent our intellectual energies on debating the dynamics of Imperialism & its relationship to debt slavery & endless war & devastation, & our physical energies trying to put together an international movement to challenge all this from below. Genoa was one of a dozen or so sizable international anti-capitalist events at the time which the Irish far left not only attended, but also contributed to planning & running.
Not that we saw the international as unrelated to or uninvolved in the local, or vice-versa. Far from it. Gino Kenny TD, a hospital porter at the time, believed then that “the anti-capitalist movement is relevant to Neilstown where I live and where most are disenfranchised & disconnected from politics. Raising the big issues of economic justice & political power gives us chance to connect with some of these & explain the fundamentals of why they are disenfranchised & start building a movement in our own area”.
We believed that the bigger a splash the movement could make in Genoa, the more political ideas would be discussed & political systems put under scrutiny in every workplace & local neighborhood. In our minds, Genoa was to be a springboard for a new revolutionary movement all over Europe & beyond.
This is part 1 of a 3 part essay
In part two I will give a participant’s account of the 3 day battle of Genoa, & in part three I will discuss its aftermath in Ireland & Italy.