Report of second plenary session at the 2018 CWI School in Barcelona
Judy Beishon from the CWI International Secretariat introduced the session of the CWI School on European perspectives.
She commented that there are no stable governments or regimes on the continent. This is despite the recent small economic growth towards the end of the crisis-ridden last decade. Germany, the most powerful state in Europe, has now joined the chaos with the Merkel government recently facing near meltdown.
The introduction pointed to the growing tensions undermining the project of the European Union and the Euro. There is no economic consensus on how to deal with the debt in the banks and Macron’s vision of an integrated Eurozone budget cannot find enough support. Merkel has to oppose the idea in substance because of the pressures in her own government and party. Politically, nationalism has been growing, including the populist far right, as is hostility generally to the EU.
Judy highlighted that these trends will be reflected in the coming European elections, with disillusionment leading to another low turnout. Macron is trying to put together a new pro-EU bloc in the European Parliament. Across the continent the rising populist right have linked opposition to inequality with opposition to aspects of the EU, which often the new left formations have not effectively opposed with an independent pro-working class socialist alternative to the bosses’ EU. The most stark example being the Syriza government in Greece capitulating. Importantly, in France, Jean-Luc Mélenchon - leader of the left formation France Insoumise - is campaigning for a new anti-austerity bloc in the European Parliament excluding Syriza.
Dangerously, the emerging right populists mix opposition to EU fiscal austerity with anti-immigrant rhetoric. It is likely that the far-right Sweden Democrats will make gains in Sweden’s general election in the autumn. However the CWI does not agree with pessimistic commentators who superficially see only a definitive “move to the right”.
The CWI takes the threat of the far right seriously, particularly in countries like Italy, where there is increased violence against migrants. We are to the fore across Europe in confronting this. However, many workers who are drawn towards these forces could also be drawn by a more effective fighting programme from the left. Judy pointed out that these populist right formations can soon become exposed once in power and unravel because of their contradictions. They are not effective in opposing austerity. The Five Star - Lega government in Italy had promised to introduce a limited universal basic income but postponed implementation of this in the face of opposition from the EU.
The European capitalists face gloomy economic prospects. Growth in the Eurozone is slowing. Italy is a potential disaster for the Eurozone in the next recession due to its very high bank debts, which make it ‘too big to bail out’. The debt situation in the Eurozone is actually worse than ten years ago. Brexit could also trigger a crisis; as could increased trade protectionism, or further oil price rises. The next economic recession could kill the present Eurozone. The EU has to proceed with caution in relation to Italy and also with Britain over Brexit since tough policies could radicalise the situation; at the same time it won’t grant major concessions that would significantly undermine the trading bloc.
In response to political instability, regimes across Europe are becoming more authoritarian. We have seen the independence of judges being attacked in Poland and anti-terror legislation being used against trade unionists and anti-government protesters in France. In Catalonia, with the uprising over the national question, the Spanish state has used truncheons, rubber bullets and lengthy pre-trial detentions.
Significant mass struggles have been seen in Europe over the last year, the largest being over the national question in Catalonia, with real revolutionary potential. The Spanish state as a whole is where class struggle is most advanced in Europe at present. There we have seen women to the fore in the mass feminist general strike last March. In Ireland, the mass movement during the Abortion referendum campaign was historic in terms of the ‘establishment’ and the Catholic church losing their grip on society and the youth.
Across Europe, pensions are a key issue for workers, with major mobilisations recently in the Spanish state and, to a lesser extent, Russia. While this summer has seen mass protests in Austria against the legalisation of a 12 hour working day.
Critically, however, as Judy explained, the class struggle is held back in Europe by the role of the trade union leaderships. They often apply the brake instead of organising effective action. This is seen in France, where a national rail strike and many scattered disputes have not been brought together in a powerful mass movement, or in Britain, where the TUC called a national demonstration in May but failed to raise political demands calling for an end to the Tory government or to organise urgently needed co-ordinated action. In some countries of Europe, though, such as Germany, important sections of workers have managed to win above-inflation pay increases.
Judy also raised that the main left formations have not been clear politically and have made mistakes which mean they haven’t been able to mobilise the mass of the working class. Also an incorrect position on the national question can set them back considerably, as seen with Podemos and the United Left in Spain who have in practice opposed self-determination in Catalonia.
The prospect of a Corbyn government in Britain inspires hope among workers across Europe. However, despite Theresa May’s government being on the ropes - with 79% believing she is doing a bad job on Brexit - and deep divisions amongst the Tories, Corbyn compromises with the Blairites instead of boldly challenging their positions, and local Labour councils carry out cuts – all helping her to hang on to power. Brexit itself shows the weakness and decline of British capitalism.
Judy concluded on the subjects of immigration and the refugee crisis - key issues for the workers’ movement. Socialists need to counter the racist positions of the main capitalist parties. Being sensitive to workers’ concerns about over-stretched resources due to governments’ austerity measures, lack of provision of decent jobs, etc, they need to put forward a programme to end cuts and provide housing, jobs and services to all on the basis of public ownership and the democratic planning of the use of resources. Under capitalism – with its wars and mass poverty - enough desperation is caused for people to stop at nothing to cross borders.
Natalia from Sweden described the decline of the weight of the Social Democrats, losing cities like Gothenburg. The social safety net in society is also being ripped up. The far right Sweden Democrats’ racist rhetoric is dominating the forthcoming election, with the Social Democrats moving to the right in response. This is giving space and political opportunity to neo-fascist groups which the CWI section, RS, is to the fore in confronting.
Micha and Linda from Germany gave a background to how the populist right AFD had entered the national parliament for the first time in last year’s general election, becoming the third biggest party. Even as Germany is coming out of a boom, 40% of incomes are lower than 20 years ago, rents are increasing and precarious work is rising. In response to the rise of the AFD a section of the Left Party leadership has moved to the right on migration which caused conflicts at the Left Party’s national conference. Sections of the ruling class put forward a mantra that ‘Germany cannot take all the refugees’ and this creates space for the AFD. Our forces participate in the Left Party putting forward a working class internationalist position, particularly in the youth wing, and have been able to have an effect on helping to drive party policy to the left, including in relation to its policy on nationalisation.
Giuliano from Italy reported on how the general election result shocked the EU ruling classes, with the financial markets reflecting their concerns. Anti-establishment forces won – Five Star in the South and Lega in the North - and the votes of traditional parties collapsed. The populist parties which made gains reflect the anger of the middle class and working class and a section of the ruling class that opposes globalisation. They have gained in the absence of a mass left alternative. The new Interior minister, Salvini, has used racist rhetoric against migrants, threatening mass deportations and will also support measures against the working class and trade unionists. The Italian ruling class looks over the precipice with a debt crisis in banking and the possibility of leaving the EU being openly discussed.
Sarah from England and Wales spoke on the potential after the 2017 general election in Britain with 50% of young people supporting the nationalisation of the banks. There was also a thirst for socialist ideas at this summer’s demonstrations against the Trump visit. But this potential has not been realised by forces like Momentum, with its top down approach. Momentum’s leadership seem to think a seamless election victory for Corbyn will take place, which is complacent. Even where left Corbyn supporters lead Labour councils like in Haringey, London, a clear anti-austerity alternative is not raised. We point to the positives of Corbynism but also warn of the danger that a compromise with capitalism could take place and, without a mass movement, the ruling class will sabotage Corbyn’s policies.
Rob from England and Wales showed how these developments have had an impact in the trade unions in Britain and are part of the background to a challenge being made in the PCS civil servants’ trade union to Socialist Party member Chris Baugh’s position as PCS Assistant General Secretary. The RMT - a fighting trade union for transport workers - has held back from affiliating to Labour because it isn’t yet clear whether Labour’s right wing will be prevented from having a decisive influence.
Top down methods and a lack of political clarity also weaken the potential of the PTB-PVDA (Workers’ Party) in Belgium as Bart explained. Although currently they score over 15% in polls in the French speaking part of Belgium and are likely to win 20 parliamentary seats at the next election, their growth is limited by a lack of involvement in the class struggle and unwillingness to go beyond fighting for limited reforms. This has a consequence, as the potential shown by the general strike movement in 2014 dissipated after the terrorist attacks. The PTB-PVDA refuses to collaborate with LSP/PSL (CWI) on electoral lists. In this year’s local elections our party is running on our own list in some areas such as in Brussels and is calling for a critical vote for the PTB-PVDA elsewhere.
Goncalo from Portugal spoke of how the Left Bloc as effectively a junior coalition partner to the SP government in Portugal has propped up austerity and together with very limited reforms, and is rapidly losing support. Eleni from Greece gave a picture of the social catastrophe Syriza’s capitulation has created, with sections of the working class going unpaid. Struggle has gone onto the environmental arena - where the CWI leads a campaign against a waste incinerator in Volos.
Juan Ignacio from the Spanish state reported on the explosive situation in the state with a quarter of the population having been mobilised in protests in recent years. Our role in the Sindicato de Estudiantes (Students Union) is key to the youth mobilisation. The fall of Rajoy and the PP government shows parliamentary politics finally starting to catch up with the mass movements on the streets. The new Pedro Sanchez government is under massive pressure.
Worker comrades from the Spanish state also contributed in the discussion on significant strikes of metal workers in Cadiz that challenged the union bureaucracies in the UGT and CCOO federations, and of the repression faced by working class activists at Ford Valencia.
Kevin from southern Ireland showed how the CWI can be a leading subjective factor in events such as the Abortion Referendum in Ireland, including the important role played by Solidarity TD (MP) Ruth Coppinger, and Rosa, the Socialist Feminist Movement. There has been a marked politicisation of a layer of young women and particularly teenagers. Coming after the victory in the campaign against the Water Charges, including the acquittal of the defendants in the Jobstown trial just before last year’s CWI School, this was a further illustration of the CWI’s role in Ireland.
The situation in France is potentially going to escalate given the collapse in support for Macron. He survived the 50th anniversary of the revolutionary events of 1968 but continues to have low poll ratings. Cecile outlined how Mélenchon and France Insoumise have the potential to fill a vacuum on the left as he got over 7 million votes in last year’s presidential election. But this formation has limited structures and democratic space to participate in and doesn’t orientate enough towards the class struggle.
The discussion showed that the national question is a constant unstable factor for the ruling classes in Europe. Andros from Greece explained how this has been seen over the question of the names of nation states in relation to Macedonia. Our position in favour of “Northern Macedonia” as part of a socialist confederation, inflicts a blow to the right-wing nationalists on both sides.
Kevin from Northern Ireland and Philip from Scotland both highlighted the unique and vital role of the CWI’s programme on the national question compared to other left forces. On the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, sectarian polarisation is reflected in the electoral results for Sinn Fein and the DUP and the collapse of power-sharing has increased it, fuelled further by fears of a hard border with Brexit. Violence has broken out over the last few weeks and the issue of the Irish language has also increased sectarianism. Kevin explained how, unlike in Scotland and Catalonia, a referendum on Irish unity would not reflect class anger in a positive direction. Rather, with demographic changes pointing towards a catholic majority in Northern Ireland, it would become a dangerous sectarian headcount. The Socialist Party (CWI in Ireland) defends the traditions of workers’ unity in the labour movement: we are playing a leading role in the largest trade union NIPSA and in the struggle for abortion rights in the North.
In Scotland, despite the left leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and the newly elected Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, support for Labour and its leadership is falling. Not, as Philip explained, because of opposition to anti-austerity ideas but because a layer of radical workers and youth are frustrated that the Labour leadership, influenced by a Stalinist approach, opposes self-determination and the democratic right for a second independence referendum. The CWI - Socialist Party Scotland - also opposes a left nationalist trend that argues for independence without raising the need for socialist transformation.
Athina from Cyprus explained how the Greek and Turkish Cypriot ruling classes south and north on the island also cannot solve the national question. Particularly now, as gas reserves have been discovered, leading to a conflict over revenues. The CWI section in Cyprus opposes both national chauvinisms there too.
Other contributions - all adding to the rich discussion – were made by comrades from the Netherlands, Poland, Turkey, Austria, Romania and Russia.
Robert Bechert replied to the discussion from the International Secretariat. He commented that despite the recent lack of mass generalised class struggle across most of the continent there are significant changes in the objective situation, particularly in the Spanish state and Ireland. In both these states the CWI has played an important role in developments. Where the left is weak, such as in Italy after the collapse of the PRC, reaction and the ruling class can use migration to cut across class struggle up to a point.
The CWI perspective raised in the 1990s of the emergence of new left formations has been confirmed across Europe. But what we have seen is that these formations are extremely unstable. And when such organisations fail, like the PRC did, or opportunities for the left are lost, like in France after the 2002 elections, the reaction, often using a combination of right populist slogans and nationalism, can gain.
The present situation of these left formations is mixed. While the Left Party’s election result in Germany showed rising support in the West, it fell in the East, with in some cases support transferred to the AfD. The challenge for the Left Party is whether it can gain from the steady weakening of the ruling parties. In Britain the mass membership growth of Corbyn’s Labour Party is not reflected in increased day-to-day activity and the Blairite pro-capitalist wing are fighting back.
Robert concluded by saying that the CWI’s support for migrants’ rights – and rejection of racist immigration controls and brutal measures at borders – must go hand in hand with making sure there is no space created for the far right by left parties failing to answer workers’ concerns. At the time, CWI comrades explained during the high point of the refugee crisis in 2015 that capitalism in crisis could neither meet the needs of the existing or migrant populations. We argued that what is needed is a joint struggle for a socialist alternative - it has been the absence of this which has given the far right and right populists an opportunity to grow.
Europe is entering a stormy period as the mass protests in Spain and continuing struggles in France have shown. The EU is increasingly divided. Many governments, like Germany’s “government of losers”, are weak. Ruling classes are divided, like in Britain, and “new faces” like Macron can quickly lose their shine. And all this is before taking into account the clashes with Trump and the possibility of renewed economic crisis. The polarisation between left and right is inevitable; the challenge is to build the socialist forces that can offer a way out of capitalist crisis.