Millions involved in general strikes and demonstrations; deeply unpopular, often hated, governments – Europe is witnessing the re-entry of the working class and youth into struggle on a mighty scale.
This document on Europe is one of the resolutions from the CWI’s 10th World Congress. Documents were agreed on World Relations, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, Russia and Eastern Europe, and on the situation in Africa.
Against the background of economic turmoil and one EU emergency after another Europe is going through far-reaching upheavals. The continuing impact of the world economic crisis has produced one storm after another at both an all-European level and within different European countries.
The sheer size of some of the protests – millions on strike in Spain in September, 3 and a half million demonstrating on the streets in France in mid-October, 300,000 marching in Lisbon in May – are a reflection of the profound shake-up that Europe is now going through. While many trade union leaders attempted to limit these protests and prevent them developing into serious struggles, the mighty French movement against increasing the retirement age developed features of a pre-revolutionary situation. There a single spark could have unleashed a wider movement in a situation where opinion polls showed that 54% supported a general strike. Late November 2010 saw more protests with a massively supported general strike in Portugal, a mass demonstration in Dublin and widespread student and school student protests in Britain.
There is a worldwide crisis but there is simultaneously a deep rooted European upheaval symbolised by the fact that, amongst many capitalist commentators, questions over the future of the euro-zone, at least in its present form, are no longer taboo and are increasingly widely discussed. There is a new rhythm now, gone are the days of medium term stability or, in some countries, short term stability. Events rapidly follow one another – just as soon as one crisis is “solved” a new one develops. But most importantly from the point of view of the struggle against capitalism the working class has begun to actively come onto the stage, although this will not develop in a straight line. Despite only a minority actually going on strike the mass struggles in France, with eight days of action, were hugely supported and could have been victorious with a determined leadership. Now, in spite of the lack of success in stopping the new pension law, the movement entered more of a pause, rather than a retreat, in November.
Initially governments took urgent action to prevent the 2008 financial emergency leading to a meltdown of banks and markets that in turn could have produced a 1930s style disaster across the world. Only a few governments, like Ireland, fairly rapidly began direct attacks on living standards, although in the workplaces jobs were lost and incomes slashed as the economies shrunk. In Germany 2010’s budget deficit is likely to be the highest ever. But then in 2009 and 2010 the combination of the end of the crisis’s first phase and, symbolised in the Greek debt crisis, the pressure on governments from the financial markets to reel in the emergency measures and debt resulted in the start of brutal offensives by ruling classes and governments across Europe.
New wave of protest
This year’s determined attempts to cut living standards and turn the clock back provoked this start of a new series of class struggles in many countries, beginning in Greece. After the six general strikes in Greece the second half of 2010 saw strikes and mass protests pick up momentum in other countries, especially France, Portugal and Spain. In Italy there have been growing calls for a general strike while in Britain demands for active opposition began to develop from below and were enormously strengthened by November’s 50,000 student protest. In Ireland an explosive mood is developing but it is possible that this will be first reflected in the result of the early elections. Central and eastern Europe countries have not been immune from protests with big demonstrations and strikes against wage and social cuts in the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Romania and Slovenia. In Romania the combined impact of capitalist restoration and now economic crisis have led 49%, according to a September 2010 poll, believing life was better before December 1989, despite 69% saying that before 1989 there was a “lack of freedom”.
2010 saw youth in a number of countries begin to play an important role in the protests. The recent mobilisation of both university and school students in support of the French workers marked a new stage, while in Austria, Britain, Ireland and Italy large numbers of university students have also taken to the streets in opposition to education cuts. In Britain higher university fees and the abrupt ending of the small weekly grants to 16-18 year olds in education are provoking determined response from many school students. Youth have also played a key role in Germany in the mass protests against the resumption of the transportation of nuclear waste in November.
Throughout Europe most governments are deeply unpopular or even hated, despite the seeming exception of the re-election of Sweden’s conservative coalition which regained support just months before the election as the economy grew. In some countries it is not certain how long current governments can survive. The spectacular 2008 crisis in Iceland, and the brutality with which its population was treated by Britain and the Netherlands, shattered the right wing government. In Ireland the government is barely staggering on while in Italy the break between Berlusconi and Fini has posed the possibility of early elections. In Greece, despite it breaking most of its 2009 election promises almost immediately, the Pasok government continues for want of an alternative. The unprecedented high abstention rates in the November local elections indicated both the opposition to austerity and the lack of a mass alternative to Pasok. The massively supported long running protests against the “Stuttgart 21” railway station project in Germany illustrates the growing alienation from many state and parliamentary institutions in a number of countries..
Capitalist commentators have made much of the fact that, unlike crises in the twentieth century which saw significant swings to the left, the first phase of this current capitalist crisis has seen in a number of countries right and far-right political forces gaining electorally. But as the number of general strikes and mass protests showed the workers’ movement is moving into action and this is already started to create an anti-capitalist mood. This will undermine the only positive note for ruling classes faced with multiple problems, namely absence of workers’ parties challenging capitalism itself. This is a result of continuing impact of the collapse of the Stalinist states, the swing to the right in the workers’ movements and the transformation of most of the former bourgeois workers’ and stalinist parties.
Although this effect of Stalinism’s collapse and the subsequent anti-socialist ideological offensive has meant that, so far, the European ruling classes have not faced a determined challenge to capitalism itself, the crisis has already had profound effects.
This has meant that so far, despite hostility to the banks and the call that “we are not going to pay for your crisis”, there have not been widespread protests against and opposition to capitalism itself. But the logic of this crisis, the fact that, for many, living standards are falling with no early prospect of recovery will, alongside the activity of socialists, prepare the way for capitalism itself to be put into question. This questioning will extend to include existing political parties, institutions and structures. The old ways of doing things will be challenged by a situation of, at best, stagnant living standards and, at worse, plunges into poverty. Many of those who were encouraged or forced to go into self-employment or set up small businesses will be savagely squeezed and the workers’ movement needs a programmatic appeal to them in order to try to forestall some of these layers moving rightwards. A key for the future is that the experience of struggle will pose the question of how the capitalists’ offensive can be resisted and, as workers, youth and many sections of the middle class realise this system cannot now offer any imminent prospect of a better life, what is the alternative?
Fluid political situations
In this crisis period the lack of stable governments and the desire to “incorporate” the opposition can lead to either official or unofficial coalitions, including “grand coalitions” between majority parties or “national” coalition governments, to “deal with emergencies”. But capitalism is very flexible. In Belgium the lack of a new government since the June elections has not prevented the “caretaker” government indirectly carrying through attacks.
Elections, whether held on schedule or early, can now produce their own complications for ruling classes. 2010 saw the great difficulty in forming governments in the Netherlands and Belgium (the latter mainly due to the complications of Belgium’s national question) and the first peace-time coalition government in Britain since the 1930s. These election results are the product of the breakdown in support of many of the traditional bourgeois, reformist and Stalinist parties plus the new volatile period. The crisis, and sometimes break-up, of many older parties, seen already in Italy and, to a lesser extent France, has simultaneously both opened the door and been the result of the rise of new forces of different characters.
While past opinion polls showed the possibilities for the NPA in France and Syriza in Greece, of the new left formations it has only been DIE LINKE in Germany that has been able to make a sizeable electoral impact. Although the NPA still has potential, mainly around its sometimes verbal radicalism and Besancenot’s personal standing, it is far from certain that this will be translated into votes. But as we have seen previously in Italy, France, the Netherlands and Scotland electoral successes are by no means a guarantee of further development. Part of the reason for Syriza’s poor showing in the 2009 Greek election, 4.6% compared with opinion poll ratings of around 18% at the beginning of 2008, was the “lesser evil” vote for Pasok. However, like many of the leaders of other new left formations, Syriza’s leaders did not understand this vote or how Pasok’s support would be undermined by the experience of it again being in government, and this is one reason, along with the Syriza leaders’ complete inability to respond politically and organisationally to the crisis and the demands of the class struggle, for the turmoil which has engulfed Syriza in the last year.
The more volatile economic and social situation has meant that elections in many countries have witnessed the sudden rise (and sometimes rapid falls) of different bourgeois or petty bourgeois forces like Wilders’ PVV in the Netherlands, the FDP in Germany, the LibDems in Britain, NVA in Flanders and the Greens in both France and Germany.
However election victories do not necessarily mean sustained popularity even, as in Germany, where the economy has grown due to exports. There the year after the 2009 election saw a tremendous collapse in support for the CDU/CSU/FDP coalition and especially the FDP itself.
But Germany’s economic growth, like that of other European countries, is fragile and may already be past its peak. The open speculation about the future of governments, the euro currency, the rivalries and shifting alliances within the EU plus the stepping up of protests are all harbingers of the turmoil ahead.
Thus 2010 has not turned out to be the year that the European ruling classes hoped for when they agreed the so-called “Lisbon strategy” in 2000. Instead the EU has faced one of its gravest crises yet as economic and political storms put the future of the current euro-zone, and even the EU’s present structures, into question.
The euro storm plunged the EU into bitter internal wrangles as national governments sought to vilify foreign forces or rival governments for causing the crisis. For a time Greece, and especially Greek workers, was the focal point of demonisation as both being responsible for the euro’s crisis and demanding “hand-outs” from the rest of the EU. There was an element of truth that a “sovereign debt” crisis in Greece could prove to be the weak link that wreaked havoc especially in the euro-zone, but it soon became clear that there are a series of weak lines in what is a “chain of crises”. Thus the speculators and capitalist commentators talked of the “PIIGS” (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain) as the euro zone’s crisis countries.
However much of what the EU presented as the “progress” in the 2000s was, in fact, a vicious neo-liberal assault on many of the gains that the workers’ movement had previously won over decades. This was the essence of the “Lisbon strategy”. It was no accident that Schröder’s social democrat/green German government called its 2003 neo-liberal cuts package “Agenda 2010”. Largely because of the trade union leaders this offensive did have an effect in holding down living standards in many countries. In Austria the share of wages in its GDP fell from 62% in 1995 to 55% in 2008, while the poorest quarter of Austrian workers suffered a 12% real drop in wages.
These sort of “successes”, plus illusions in the euro and continued world economic growth, partly explain why EU leaders were caught completely unawares by the onset of this crisis, a crisis which has thrown huge question marks over the so-called “European project” and the survival of the euro currency zone in its present form.
While the international crisis that started in 2007 was the final trigger for the EU’s failure to reach its 2010 targets, some European capitalist countries were already suffering from the global changes taking place in capitalism. Although this calamity caught practically all ruling classes and their politicians unawares, it was not some kind of “freak” event. Rather it flowed from the nature of capitalism itself and the character of the economic growth in especially the last two decades.
At the same time it also revealed the real character and limits of the EU. This is the significance of the new round of struggle between the EU powers and the now open debate on the euro’s future and discussion (and probably at least elements of contingency planning) of the possibility of at least one country being forced out of the euro-zone. But the discussion has not been limited to countries being forced out of the euro-zone but also, in an extreme situation, Germany pulling out.
Successive crises and the euro’s crisis
While May 2010’s huge 750 billion euro rescue package brought to an end the immediate crisis provoked by the revelation of Greece’s actual financial situation, this has only brought a temporary stability. Repeatedly since then sharp jumps in bond interest rates have indicated potential new crises, or the threat of crisis, as doubts resurface over individual euro-zone countries’ finances.
November’s renewed crisis around Ireland was partly triggered by Merkel forcing through in October an agreement that in future financial crises investors would have to take losses (“haircuts”) on their investments. The other EU countries were not in a position to challenge German imperialism which is the financial basis on which both the euro and EU depend. Merkel partly acted in order to forestall growing opposition within Germany to what was seen there as “bailing out” other countries.
However this October 2010 agreement speeded up, but did not cause, developments as finance markets quickly increased the interest rates they charged to lend to Ireland in an attempt to cover part of any potential future losses. Significantly while demanding that the working and middle classes suffer cuts, the financial institutions used their power to resist proposals that they should take any losses. The subsequent huge pressure on Ireland to accept a bail-out and even more austerity, plus the international “supervision” that went with it, reflected near panic. Many ruling classes feared that an Irish banking collapse could trigger a Lehmann style international crisis and/or that the crisis over Ireland’s debt could pretty soon put Spain under similar pressure. While “bail-out” can be offered to small economies like Greece, Ireland and Portugal, a Spanish crisis could put the whole euro-zone in jeopardy.
But the euro-zone’s future is not only threatened by a renewed “sovereign debt” crisis. There are also the tensions brought about by the strains and imbalances with the euro system, a system which in many ways has worked to the advantage of German capitalism against several of its rivals. As the CWI argued before the 2002 introduction of the euro notes and coins, this situation puts into question how long the euro-zone can survive in its present form. Clearly the integration of the European economy has gone a long way and produced a situation where, alongside the immense political upheavals, a euro-zone reconfiguration or breakup would be extremely disruptive. But this in itself would not be enough to prevent, in a time of crisis, either a country, or a group of countries, leaving the euro-zone or, as Merkel threatened in March 2010, being thrown out.
Repeatedly there are tensions and clashes of interests between the different European countries, something which China is attempting to exploit by its offers to financial support to Greece and Portugal. At the same time, amongst the larger EU powers there is a struggle for the leading role, if not yet supremacy. A result of the crisis is that Greece and increasingly Ireland, as euro countries, are being placed under increasing control from the EU, in reality Germany, the strongest euro economic power. Both in Greece and Ireland there is resentment, with anti-imperialist elements, at what is correctly seen as a loss of sovereignty to the EU, ECB, IMF and money markets. Popular opposition will grow towards this and Marxists will strive to give this an anti-capitalist rather than mainly nationalist character.
New economic downturn
Already before November’s storm it was clear that this year’s slight economic recovery, a mixture of a “dead cat bounce” and the continued growth in China, has not ended Europe’s turmoil. This was despite the fact that in a few countries, especially Germany, there are some who have hopes that the worst is over. However it is clear that this recovery is not firmly based or rooted in developments within the EU. Germany’s heavy dependence on exports is particularly fragile and, if reversed, would have big effects as was previously seen in the dramatic 6.8% drop in its GDP between the spring of 2008 and 2009. Across Europe there has been a growth in precarious, temporary or limited contract jobs, part-time work and workers forced into “self-employment”, all of which are a far cry from genuine full employment.
For German workers this economic growth has had different effects. 2010 has seen, within some sectors, gains being made, for instance in steel a wage increase of 3.6% and equal pay for short-term contract workers, and also a few companies, especially in the auto industry, have implemented wage rises earlier than agreed in wage contracts. But 2009 was the first year since 1949 when not only real, but also nominal wages, dropped at the same time as management’s pressure inside workplaces continued to mount. Furthermore a majority of new jobs have been temporary, jobs that can be easily lost when the economy stops growing. Despite this the recent economic growth has created some hopes that the worst is over, in Germany and some countries economically linked to it. In November 2010 35% of Germans feared unemployment, compared with 59% a year earlier. This is a reason why the government’s new austerity measures, mainly aimed at the poorest layers, are not yet provoking large-scale opposition.
But many countries in Europe are faced with far, far worse economic situations and, more importantly, no easy way out. 2009 saw huge GDP drops in the Baltic states (Latvia suffering the worse with 18%) and large falls in countries like Finland (8%), Ireland (7.1%) and Iceland (6.8%). As 2010 progressed the rate of growth in other European countries slowed down.
The unstable situation is a reason for the continued divisions within ruling classes over how far and fast to continue attacks on living standards and whether to take further measures to alleviate aspects of the crisis,
What is clear is that within the EU there is no basis for a sustained economic recovery, a situation worsened by offensives most governments have launched to implement austerity measures. This is being brutally seen in Greece and Ireland whose economies, in reality, are still declining, while countries like Portugal and Spain are not far behind. The British government’s offensive is justified on the hope of an export revival but it is not at all sure that British capitalism can rebuild its non-financial sectors. Equally all the signs are that the world economy is once again slowing down and a “double dip” recession looms on the horizon. The prospects for the world economy are also key to Germany’s economic perspectives as its rapid recovery in 2010 has been purely based on exports. A combination of a decade of holding down real pay and the rates of converting national currencies into the euro boosted German capitalism’s competitiveness in both the euro-zone and internationally. For example over 20% of German auto companies’ output is now sold in China and Germany could face stagnation at best if, as seems likely, the world economy slows down again. A more serious world downturn would produce again another rapid drop in German output and have huge political and social consequences.
Resisting ruling classes’ offensives
Symptomatic of the fundamental character of this economic crisis, the attacks and cuts are, in many countries, hitting not only the working class and youth, but also broad sections of the middle class. For the first time since the 1930s wage cuts have been implemented in most European countries by direct pay cuts, like in Ireland and Greece, or reducing working with loss in pay or a combination of both. These attacks are not simply being carried out because of the drops in economic output, higher state borrowing and the ruling class’s desire to maintain profits and minimise taxation. Under cover of this crisis the ruling class are continuing their offensive to force through the neo-liberal agenda aiming to weaken the working class, cheapen labour and cut social spending. Thus in many countries it is the weakest layers of society and poorest areas that are being hit hardest.
The hopes of many being shattered by job losses, cuts in services and, in some countries, the burden of debt taken on in the “boom” times to finance housing or everyday life. Increasingly European youth, now suffering mass depression-style unemployment are not seeing any secure future. Rather they face a prospect of a mixture of temporary jobs, unemployment, the increasing cost of education and mounting debt. This crisis is affecting countries in different ways. Some countries, like Greece, Portugal and many in eastern Europe, are facing fundamental crises as there are limited prospects for them under capitalism. In these countries, and others like Ireland, some of the more energetic layers may emigrate in the hope of finding a way out. But many youth will want to fight back. Significantly wider layers of youth, including some from the banlieues, joined in the autumn 2010 struggle in France showing the potential to draw them into the class struggle. Governments are starting to meet the growing resistance of youth and the working class with steps towards more authoritarian and repressive methods against both demonstrations and workers’ struggles, as shown by Sarkozy’s use of emergency powers against oil refinery workers and the PSOE government’s effective militarization of striking air traffic controllers.
The past years have seen sharp shifts in consciousness. As the world crisis unfolded in 2007, 2008 and 2009 initially there naturally was a strong fear of the spectre of the 1930s and, in some countries, there were elements of a stunning effect as unemployment rose, reflected in some workers’ willingness to accept wage cuts. At the same time there was a wave of anger, especially at the banks, with protests centring around the call “we are not going to pay for your crisis”. However this first protest wave, lacking a socialist perspective, was dissipated to a certain extent in some European countries as hopes rose that government emergency packages would prevent a total disaster. Now there are renewed fears and anger, especially anti-banker, as the long term impact of this crisis in terms of living standards and prospects becomes clearer. This is creating the conditions for leaps in consciousness where the ideas of socialism will begin to revive within the workers’ movement and socialists will be able to get a wider audience for their ideas and proposals.
But, as the last years have again shown, the class struggle and protests do not unfold in a straight line. There can be temporary feelings of being overwhelmed by the crisis and that little can be done. Such moods will pass, but struggles themselves have a rhythm of advances, pauses and reflection before recommencing, perhaps in a new form.
Already since 2007 there has been a strong reaction and start of resistance to the crisis and the capitalists’ natural attempt to unload its costs off their shoulders. As the CWI has explained before, if there had been even strong reformist social democrat and Stalinist parties of the kind which continued to exist 30 years ago this crisis would have rapidly provoked questioning of capitalism itself and the growth of a socialist consciousness amongst a broader layer of the working class. But what has saved capitalism, so far, has been the political weakness of the working class, a result of the past decades’ falling back in class consciousness, that has meant there has been no general counter-posing of socialism as the alternative to capitalism.
Trade Unions and the crisis
This has not been just because of the decay and transformation of the old reformist parties. For many years now most trade union leaders have sought to block trade unions playing a political role, especially challenging capitalism, despite the socialist roots and socialist objectives of many trade unions. The last decades saw a renewed integration of much of the trade union tops into bourgeois society, whether intertwined with the state or company managements. This left many of them completely incapable of giving any form of fighting response to this crisis.
Some trade union leaders, like those in Ireland, ended up accepting the ruling class’s arguments and agreeing to wage cuts. But, because of the roots of the trade unions, they can still come under some pressure to at least make gestures as when the Austrian ÖGB had to reverse its initial welcome to the government’s 2011 budget. But the pro-capitalist elements always seek to limit struggle, whether it be the southern European trade union leaders striving to ensure that one day protests are safety valves rather than mobilisations for further struggle. The German DGB was pushed into organising “weeks of action” but strove to ensure that the protests were not the start of any serious campaign, something they were able to do because 2010’s economic growth lessened the pressure on them. In Britain the TUC delayed holding a national demonstration as long as possible and then sort to tie it into a Labour Party election campaign.
This is why socialists, as part of the struggle to make existing trade unions into fighting organisations, strive to help build an active rank and file membership that can put pressure on existing leaders, be a base for a future militant leadership and, where necessary, take initiatives themselves. The bureaucratisation of the trade unions, the integration of many leaders into capitalism and legal restraints also prepare the way for the possibility of spontaneous movements erupting. However France, and other countries like Portugal and Spain, illustrate how pressure from below can force even right wing union leaders to lead at least some action, although how far they will be prepare to go is a different question. Such pressure can also produce a polarisation within the trade unions that can produce new leaderships or even splits. In the recent French struggles it was significant that the leftwing Sud unions, created in 1988, and the CGT, the oldest and largest trade union centre, were the most prominent in the protests.
The decline in trade union membership in most countries means that special bodies, like assemblies along with factory or action committees, need to be created to involve both unionised and non-unionised workers in the preparation and carrying out of struggles. But, as France has shown most recently, national struggles, especially against the government, need to be both co-ordinated and have a clear strategy, including when they develop spontaneously or from below. This, in turn, raises the question of who politically is guiding the struggle. Whether formally or not most of today’s trade union leaders are members of the “class collaborationist party” and they need to be replaced by members of the “class struggle party”, the most conscious of which will be Marxists.
In many countries the ruling class have enacted new laws to limit trade union rights and the impact of strike action, like the incredibly complicated rules for strike ballots in Britain or Sarkozy’s laws to force the maintenance of so-called “minimal service” during strikes. Further anti-trade union measures can be introduced as part of the process of governments taking new, more authoritarians powers, to try to deal with future protests and struggles. But such class laws can only have an effect so long as workers do not feel the necessity and confidence to challenge them.
General Strike back on the agenda
As Ireland has shown trade union leaders can delay, but not indefinitely prevent, workers taking action. This has already been shown by the way in which the question of the general strike has come back onto the agenda despite the attempts of many trade union leaders to avoid the issue. Already general strikes have taken place in countries like Greece, Portugal and Spain, and in Germany the issue of the right to call a general strike is sometimes raised by Lafontaine and the more leftward elements in DIE LINKE. Significantly in Spain and Portugal the trade union leaders were forced into calling a one day general strike by pressure from below and in Italy the call for a general strike was hugely popular on Fiom’s October demonstration in Rome.
For Marxists one day, two day or even three day general strikes are an important weapon to unify the working class and other oppressed layers, give confidence building demonstrations of strength and warn the ruling class, but they need to be part of a strategy to build the movement, not to be purely symbolic letting off steam. Otherwise they can be used to exhaust rather than mobilise.
The development of struggle can pose the question of an unlimited general strike, something that could even develop almost spontaneously in a situation similar to France 1936 and 1968. Clearly both the ruling class and most current trade union leaders would attempt to reach a deal to enable them to end such a movement. Even if such a general strike began more as a protest, the longer it continued the more it would challenge the government and pose the question of who runs the country. This, as France 1968 showed, quickly puts squarely on the agenda the question of the concrete programme and steps that the workers’ movement has to carry through in order to overthrow capitalism.
Currently even where there are parties that still formally talk of socialism or struggle this has been combined with a day to day reformist approach and, in the case of the Greek KKE, sectarianism that has helped prevent united struggles developing. These parties may, like DIE LINKE does in its draft programme, talk of “socialism” but in reality they have not counter posed socialism as the alternative to the mounting misery of capitalism. In France the NPA while sometimes making radical sounding statements has not even lived up to its formal name and, in its day to day activity, not argued against capitalism itself.
This situation of mighty opposition to heavy attacks but no clear lead can, in the absence of a strong Marxist force easily lead to the growth of confused ideas. In cases of extreme desperation frustrated layers, especially of youth, could begin to undertake terrorist actions, something that has resurfaced in Greece.
The Far Right, Migration and Nationalism
A combination of the absence of a strong workers’ alternative, along with large scale migration in some countries, has given opportunities in different countries to a mixture of right wing populist, nationalist, far right and semi-fascist forces. Generally they base themselves on hostility to the “elite”, the increasing uncertainty about the future caused by neo-liberalism and the crisis, while also whipping up fear of migration and nationalism.
In some cases, as in Austria, Hungary and the Netherlands, these forces have established significant, but unstable, electoral support, in the FPÖ’s case for a number of years now, and in Belgium and France it is possible that there will be a resurgence of the VB and FN. Having seen the massive problems that gripped the Austrian FPÖ after Haider agreed in 2000 to join the government, they are, at this stage more cautious about getting drawn into office. Wilders’ PVV in the Netherlands is trying to avoid this danger by supporting, but not joining, the new VVD and CDA minority government. Jobbik in Hungary that won nearly 17% in the last election is also keeping out of government, at least for now. Chrysi Augi’s recent increase in votes in Greece is a symptom of the polarisation that social crisis can bring and a warning of how disappointment with governments, nationalism and the absence of clear socialist alternative can give the far right opportunities. At the same time successes for the far right can spur on significant counter-movements as has happened in Sweden since the Democrats secured election to the parliament. But, as Austria has shown, while these counter-movements can mobilise some layers, without a programme taking up the issues the far right exploit they will not necessarily undermine their support.
In many countries it is not just the far right but also government parties that use migrant communities as scapegoats for economic and social problems. Sometimes this is dressed up as a “clash of cultures”・, mainly against Islam. At the same time the fact that migrants are driven out of society and often the first victims of cuts can give reactionary forces and fundamentalist religious groups opportunities to make inroads into these most oppressed parts of the working class. Some traditional bourgeois parties attempt to copy at least parts of the programme of the far right parties. That has been most obvious in Denmark, where both Social Democratic and conservative governments have adopted the policies of the racist Danish Peoples’ Party. Even the Socialist Peoples’ Party has cooperated with the DPP and used islamophobic propaganda. Another danger following increased votes for far right parties is a rise in neo-nazi violence and activities
Migration has become even more of a powerful issue in this period of economic and social crisis. Already before the crisis hit migration from the new EU states and from outside Europe had been a big issue in some countries. Apart from Germany, most large European countries have recently seen big population rises, Spain seeing the biggest increase from 39,803,000 in 1999 to 45,989,000 now. This migration was encouraged by bosses looking for cheap labour but the unplanned capitalist system could barely cope with, resulting in mounting social issues like pressures on housing, services etc. The fact that Germany’s population has started to slightly fall has not stopped a debate starting there after the recent publication of Sarrazin’s recent book on the integration and non-integration of Germany’s migrant, especially Muslim, communities. These are issues that need to be dealt with in a way that both defends the migrant communities against attack and prepares the way for joint struggle by answering the fears and questions of all workers. Without a clear strategy of building workers’ united action against wage cutting and job losses the May 2011 opening of EU labour markets to citizens of all the EU’s latest entrants can further fuel hostility to migrant workers a further boost.
A Fortress Europe against migrants and refugees is one of the key features of the European Union. A literal wall has been built in North Africa, and inhuman camps of refugees have been established in border countries such as Libya. A military force, Frontex, with aircraft, helicopters and ships has been set up. Asylum-seekers that do arrive in Europe are treated as criminals and exploited as super-cheap labour without rights.
Sarkozy’s attempt to head off the struggle against his pension changes by attacking Roma was a blatant divide and rule move which utterly failed. But these sorts of tactics, usually accompanied by nationalism, are to be expected. The earlier international bourgeois attacks on Greek workers were an attempt to both put pressure on the Greek population and to bloc an international response. It is clear that sections of the bourgeoisie attempted to do the same in regard to the French workers struggle to prevent the retirement age being raised from 60. Like with Greece there was a deliberate attempt at misinformation, but it was quickly clear that there was tremendous international solidarity with the French struggle, indeed many workers looked to France to set an example of defeating austerity measures and in some countries, like Belgium, took solidarity action. The September 29 ETUC protests were a small step in the right direction, but predictably these trade union leaders have not tried to build upon these protests. The CWI has already played an important role in raising clear demands that can be used to build an international fight back in which we can also build support for a democratic socialist federation of Europe, on an equal and voluntary basis, as the alternative to the capitalist EU”.
In many countries national questions have resurfaced or are resurfacing with resultant tensions. In the Basque country the Northern Irish solution is being presented as the example for ETA to follow even though it has not resolved the issues and allowed sectarian forces opposed to the “peace process to grow. While in Belgium the recent election success of the NVA has raised the spectre of the possibility of a new national crisis in that country. In the Balkans there are still unresolved issues in both Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo, plus the unresolved dispute between Greece and Macedonia. Greece is also involved in disputes with Turkey over Cyprus, the Aegean Sea and military air space.
In central and eastern Europe there are a whole series of unresolved national issues, border questions and the rights of national minorities. The anger amongst its neighbours provoked by Hungary’s decision to grant citizenship to those of Hungarian origin living outside the current borders imposed in 1919 by the First World War victors is one example of how these tensions can develop within the EU itself.
Limits of reformism
The workers’ movement cannot ignore these questions which can come even more to the fore if it shows no general socialist way out of the crisis.
Reflecting the different objective situations consciousness in the different European countries is more differentiated now than at the start of this economic crisis.
There is the very real possibility of countries, especially some of the ex-stalinist states and the smaller countries, being plunged into a deep, fundamental, catastrophe. In such countries there would be outbursts of bitterness, anger and desperation, but at same time doubts about what can be done. The question would be posed of what future under capitalism such small states have. Already there is increased emigration from Greece, Ireland and Portugal, let alone Baltic and central European states etc., but unlike before, it is now not so easy to go to the US, South America or Australia. And of course a large global economic crisis would tremendously hit the big EU countries, especially Britain with its dependence on global finance and Germany’s export based economy.
However answering the question of “What can be done?” is not simply required in small countries, it is needed in all countries. With the relentless propaganda that. “there is no alternative”, that the markets cannot be ignored and the fact that no capitalist strategists are even attempting to paint a bit of a rosy future the workers’ movement means that socialists need to give a clear idea of what would be immediately possible when capitalism is overthrown. Concretely it needs to be shown how living standards could be improved by using existing capacities and technologies once the rule of profit is broken, and then how a socialist society can offer a society which will genuinely be better tomorrow than it is today. This is one of the tasks of the transitional approach today.
The inevitable search for a way out of this capitalist morass and the limitations imposed by generally pro-capitalist leaders will inevitably lead to workers switching between, and combining, different fields of struggle and resistance – protests, strikes and elections.
“Lesser evilism” and the challenge of building new workers’ parties
This is one reason why we have seen some of the former traditional workers’ parties win elections on the basis that they were an alternative, “not so bad” or a “lesser evil”, even though often very little positive was actually expected. This was the basis for Pasok’s 2009 victory and the coming to power of the Icelandic social democratic/Green-Left coalition in early 2009. Today the Irish Labour Party and the PS in France have gained in opinion polls.
But this electoral recovery is not automatic, especially as these parties lose their base and roots within the working class. In Germany the SPD has, so far, not really gained from the crash in the Merkel government’s support and is still losing members. This is a reflection that significant sections of the working class have not forgotten the SPD’s record in government, especially Hartz IV, and illustrates the potential opportunity that left formations now have amongst critical and radicalised workers and youth. In Britain the Labour Party is slightly gaining as the ConDem coalition loses support, but it is handicapped by its record in government, its own call for national cuts (albeit “slower”) and the fact that at local level it is implementing cuts. This is why individual election successes for the old parties, like Pasok had in 2009, do not necessarily mean a sustained revival.
However, despite the opportunities that existed, recent years have seen many false starts for the new left formations that began to develop in a number of countries in the last two decades. Although the objective situation was difficult, it was mainly subjective weaknesses that lost opportunities. Generally their leaderships had a very different beginning from the founding of parties from either the Second or Third International which, despite their subsequent history, built their initial support on basis of clear opposition to capitalism, participation in struggle, striving for socialism and, in most cases, no compromise with the ruling class. In recent years many new formations developed in a completely opposite way with no clear opposition to capitalism, no clear class demands or strategy and a willingness to do rotten deals with the former reformist parties.
Partly this reflected the legacy, amongst the leaders, of the post-stalinist collapse, a lack of confidence and not having the perspective of building a mass workers’ party, rather seeing themselves as a pressure group. This is something clearly seen amongst the ex-LCR leaders heading the French NPA. It is also linked towards these groupings looking to governmental alliances with other forces, something which prepared the way for the Prc’s collapse after its 2006-8 participation in a pro-capitalist government coalition. Today the Dutch SP is moving in a similar direction towards becoming the “left” in a government. In Germany a similar debate is taking place within DIE LINKE on strategic alliances with the SPD and Greens, and is a reason why its leadership are not really striving to build the party or lift its support above the 11.9% it won in 2009. On a federal state level DIE LINKE, continuing the path of the former PDS, is currently in coalition with the SPD in Berlin and Brandenburg and the leading right-wingers within party leadership wish to follow these examples more widely.
Understanding the electoral pressures of “lesser evilism” does not mean entry into rotten alliances or governments with pro-capitalist parties which the leaders of many of the new, or “newish”, left formations clearly aspire to. As these leaders do not seriously pose the task of building a party that can challenge capitalism and strives to win a majority of the working class, they do not have the perspective that the entry of the old parties into government will provide an opportunity to build, something that already has been repeatedly seen in different countries. Marxists need to explain, at least in their general propaganda, the need for a workers’ government that will transform society and counter-pose this to governments operating within capitalism. This has to be expressed in a way appropriate to the current situation in each country, generally in most countries at this stage Marxists putting this objective in terms of the need to build a workers’ movement that can defeat capitalism.
However the weakness of the new left formations does not mean that all of them have exhausted their potential. In France Besancenot, the NPA’s public leader, recently still had a 56% approval rating in an opinion poll, something that still could be translated into concrete support for the NPA. But the policies of the present NPA leaders would mean that such support would not be used to lay the foundations for a new mass workers’ party, rather they strive to become a left group putting pressure on the PS and PCF. Already within the NPA an opposition, in which the CWI plays an important role has emerged to this strategy in the NPA, something similar to developments which have also taken place in other parties like the Prc, Syriza and DIE LINKE.
This stormy period means political instability and puts into question the longevity of governments. Many will have been elected because of opposition to previous governments or just hostility to rival parties. At present the “lesser evils” like Pasok have rapidly disappointed, something that could happen next in Ireland. In October Icelandic MPs fled from their parliament’s backdoor to avoid protesters angry at the Social Democrat-Left Green coalition’s austerity measures and failure to protect living standards. In Greece’s November 2010 local elections it was only the hostility to the main right party that prevented Pasok’s loss of more than half its actual vote resulting in a similar loss of actual seats.
Problems with new left formations and the opportunities for the CWI
While there is the potential for a mass left force to grow in Greece, the political weaknesses of Syriza and ANTARSYA, which make their future development and even survival uncertain, plus the sectarianism of the KKE, severely undermine these prospects in the short term. However even with a correct approach and a growth of a new left force a broad disappointment with a “lesser evil” government can open the doors to a temporary victory for more right wing parties getting into government. But this type of development would not prevent Marxist forces growing from the more radicalised layers.
It cannot be excluded that in extreme circumstances, like a collapse of the banking system, governments could be forced to take temporary, “state capitalist”, steps to alleviate crisis situations, although they would try to reverse such measures as soon as possible. Such steps would not alter the main strategy of the world’s ruling classes to lower living standards, but would be a short-term response to events. Emergency situations or explosions of anger could create situations with features similar to the mid-1930s with governments forced to take some steps to alleviate a crisis.
The Prc’s virtual collapse clearly has had a very negative effect, something that may also happen with Syriza in Greece. This is especially because the Prc had, at one time, real roots in the Italian working class and youth. Inevitably its collapse has produced scepticism about the possibility of building a new workers’ party and, amongst some, an opposition to trying to build a new party on the basis that they always fail. While understanding such moods, the CWI argues why a workers’ party is necessary while clearly stating that it must learn the lessons of the past and not be a Prc mark 2. The fact that the Fiom, the militant Cgil metal workers’ section, is now attracting support and membership applications from non-metal workers is a reflection of how sections of Italian workers are striving to find a weapon they can use to fight back. But the disappointment with the Prc, coming after the Pci’s collapse, can also strengthen syndicalist tendencies amongst workers and anarchist ones amongst youth.
But it is not just in Italy that militant workers are searching for a way to fight back. In countries where they retained some support within the working class it is possible that some of the surviving former Stalinist can play a role in attracting and building from radicalising workers and youth. This seems to be happening in Spain with the IU. In other countries the situation is more complicated, especially with the KKE in Greece having the support of key sections of the working class but combining an utterly sectarian approach to other workers with a combination of nationalism, vague demands and glorification of Stalin. In French and Portuguese situation differ with the PCF in an uneasy front with PG (Left Party) while the PCP appears to be radicalising and opening up more for debate In Cyprus as the president is moving away from implementing minor reforms towards making cuts, his party, AKEL, seems to be distancing itself from the government in an attempt to maintain support.
In this stormy situation, the debates and discussions on what the workers’ movement needs to do will provide wide opportunities for Marxists in different arenas, including newly active layers and amongst both the membership and those interested in the new or radicalising parties. Now significant layers of workers and youth are already being radicalised, moving into opposition to capitalism and open to, or even themselves drawing, socialist conclusions. This is creating the conditions in which Marxists can grow rapidly amongst them. Where no left formations currently exist Marxists will intervene in struggles and carry out activity to build their own forces while keeping in their programme the call for new mass workers’ parties.
There have already been mighty class battles, but in reality these are a prologue to what will happen in the coming period as it becomes clearer and clearer that capitalism cannot offer a better future. This is why the vision of what would be possible, not just economically but also socially, environmentally and culturally, if capitalism was overthrown is absolutely critical to building the socialist movement. The CWI’s call for a democratic socialist federation of Europe is not simply an objective, it is the reason why we endeavour to link together the struggles in the different parts of Europe and build an international movement that can end capitalism in its historical birthplace. The crisis in capitalist Europe and the EU will put the question of the socialist alternative for Europe increasingly on the agenda of the workers and youth fighting the ruling classes’ offensive.