In introducing the session on Europe in the CWI’s International Executive Committee meeting, Tony Saunois stated that since the CWI World Congress in January, world and European capitalist leaders had been “battered by events,” particularly Brexit and the election of Trump in the US. This is in the context of “sluggish growth” across the European Union economies with countries like Greece and Spain experiencing continuing “depression-like features.” More and more common across Europe is growing precarious nature of jobs- including the so-called “gig economy” and zero hour contracts which effect young workers in particular. However, this is increasingly becoming the norm including in “professional” jobs that would have been considered more secure in the past.
Tony said that “the EU leaders are reeling and British ruling class are stunned as a result of Brexit.” Many in the media and in the Left have drawn the conclusion that the Brexit vote was a racist vote marking a shift to right among working class people. The more thinking section of Tories and the ruling class have drawn similar conclusion to the CWI, that the Brexit vote was primarily about class- and reflected a growing alienation and anger at growing inequality. This is reflected in the language of the new British Prime Minister Theresa May who has attempted to brand the Tory party as party that will look after the working class.
In the discussion, Hannah Sell spoke about that other important development in Britain which has implications across Europe: the coup against Corbyn and his re-election. This flowed from Brexit. Hannah said that the second wave of people joining the Labour party in defence of Corbyn were more working class. This adds to the crisis of political representation for the capitalist class who don’t feel they can rely on their “second eleven” to represent their interests while the Tory party faces increasing division. The Blairites have tried to position themselves as the force to defend the European Union- but they are not finding a strong social base to build on. Hannah emphasised the point that in this regard Corbyn had made a mistake in not keeping to his historic positon of opposing the bosses EU. Since the referendum, Corbyn has defended the Brexit vote and put forward a positive programme calling for a Brexit that is in the interest of working class people - however he too faces division in the Labour party on this- it would be mistake for him to back track on this position.
Brexit also threatens to be the first in a series of significant setbacks which can raise the prospect of the breakup of the EU itself. On 3 December, the Italian government lost a referendum on undemocratic “Senate reform.” As Christine from Italy explained in the discussion, Renzi miscalculated on this referendum, claiming that to vote against the referendum is a “vote against me.” Two years ago, Renzi was presented as a new dawn for Italian politics but as Christine explained, what has changed in the last two years is that “nothing has changed.” The crisis continues in Italy with a GDP 9% lower than in 2007, actually still lower than it was in 1992. The IMF believe that it will take until 2025 to reach 2007 levels. This is in the context of the rise in support for the ‘5 star’ movement which has won the mayoral position in Turin and Rome. Italy also has high levels of debt as well as a deep political crisis, and has the potential to lead to run on the “bad” banks.
Crisis of Social Democracy
The situation which both Renzi and the Blairites in Britain face is common to social democrats across Europe. Because of the political crisis and the willingness of these parties to serve the interest of capitalism, their political support among workers and young people has been worn down significantly. Tony outlined how deep this crisis has become, with PASOK in Greece currently on 5% in polls, the Dutch Labour Party on 11%, the Irish Labour Party on 5% and the French Socialist Party President in some polls on an approval rating as low as 4%. The crisis has also effected PSOE in Spain. In Austria the traditional right wing party has been reduced to 19% and in Ireland where the two traditional right wing parties, between them could command an overwhelming majority of support in the past, Fine Gael now finds itself reliant on the support of Fianna Gail in order to remain in government.
The IEC meeting was greatly added to by the attendance of representatives from Izquierda Revolucionaria from Spain. Juan Ignacio Ramos spoke about the high level of agreement in analysis and programme between our organisations. He explained that there is a “crisis of all the traditional parties” in the Spanish state, born of convulsive movements of the working class. This is in context of continuing economic crisis, which has seen 27% unemployment and 52% youth unemployment at its height. He said he disagreed with those so-called Marxists who argued that there would be no return to class struggle as long there was no growth in the economy. He said the events of the last few years had disproved that argument- with workers and youth in Spain been prepared to struggle industrially through general strikes, struggle politically through the growth in support for Podemos, and important struggles of the youth like the indignados movement and the mass student strikes.
Openings in Eastern Europe
Vlad, representing a new group of CWI supporters in Romania, explained that in the early 1990s many people supported the idea of “liberal capitalist democracy” in Romania and across the former eastern bloc. However, today these countries are dominated by right wing governments and the population suffers massive poverty. In Romania this has meant that of a population of 22million, 3million have been forced to emigrate and workers there receive five times less than the EU average wage. At the same time, forces on the right have been trying to whip up reactionary ideas against LGBT people, and in this they have been aided by Social Democrats who supported a constitutional amendment to ban same sex marriage.
Right wing forces across Eastern Europe and beyond, will increasingly attempt to whip up division among working class people- attacking immigrants, women and LGBT people. The experience of Poland shows that we will be met with a new generation that is prepared to fight for and defend their rights. The enormous women’s strike in Poland against attacks on women’s right to choose- was an important expression of that with placards on the demonstrations reading: “This government will be overthrown by an angry polish women.” As Kacper from Poland explained, this strike has had an effect on other workers including health workers, miners and teachers who have been prepared to take strike action.
Danger of populist right
The undermining of the traditional parties of capitalism and particularly the crisis of Social Democracy is creating a massive political vacuum in Europe. Increasingly, there is a danger of populist and far right forces filling that vacuum. In Austria, the far right FPO have been strengthened in the recent presidential elections and in Germany the new populist right AfD have being doing well in opinion polls and in the state elections. Tony outlined in part what is happening is that these forces are “stealing the language of the left”, talking about the working class and claiming to oppose the elites. More openly, fascistic groups can grow also in this context. Jonas from Sweden explained how 600 nazis marched in Stockhom. At the same time there have been important struggles in some Scandinavian countries, including in Iceland where a movement developed in response to the Panama papers, exposing the deep levels of corruption that existed in Iceland and many other capitalist countries.
In France, the growth of the National Front poses serious challenge to the establishment but also to the workers’ movement. The response of the establishment has been to attempt to “out-racist” the National Front. François Fillon is likely to emerge as the main candidate of the right in the Presidential elections, running openly on a Thatcherite programme of destroying half a million jobs and is associated with some of the worst attack on workers’ rights including as Prime Minister under Sarkozy. Meanwhile, Le Pen will engage in demagogic appeals to working class people. The other side to what is happening in France is the series of industrial strikes - 100 every week. Movements of the youth, including the Nuit Debut movement, also took place against labour reforms. The election will also see a challenge from left wing politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon who has launched a new movement, “France Insoumise”, and has been performing better than Hollande in recent opinion polls.
New Left formations
A deep and rich discussion took place at the meeting on the question of the New Left formations whose emergence has been an important part of the political crisis of capitalism. These new formations, such as Podemos in Spain, the Left Bloc in Portugal etc, represent an important step forward, expressing the class struggle and the shift towards the left in mass consciousness under the impact of the crisis.
However, as the CWI predicted, these parties are not mere carbon copies of the old reformist or Social Democratic parties, prompting the need for Marxists to discuss and understand these new Left formations. These formations have all tended to pass through crises very quickly after their inception and their leaderships have tended to vacillate between shifts the Left and Right. In the introduction, Tony explained that within these new volatile formations, which thus far have not become mass workers’ parties in the fullest sense, elements of “Left Populism” have been present. This characterization was further discussed and comrades from the IS, Spain, Germany, Greece and others participated in a lively debate on this issue, which will continue into the future.
Juan Ignacio Ramos explained the sudden and recent shift to the Left in the speeches and rhetoric of Pablo Iglesias, the main leader of Podemos. This is taking place under the pressure both from below, but also in the context of a challenge from the right of Podemos, led by Inigo Errejon, to Iglesias’ leadership. The magnificent strikes of the Spanish Students, organized and led by the Sindicato de Estudiantes (Students’ Union), which led to a first and extremely significant victory against the new PP government, represent a breaking of the dam. The new phase of struggle which has opened up in Spain will have a big impact throughout Europe in the next period.
The price to be paid for the lack of a clear fighting socialist programme is a heavy one. This can be graphically seen in the capitulation of SYRIZA in Greece, which is now responsible for implementing austerity. As Andros from Greece explained this has been a big blow to the working class in Greece- who heroically struggled industrially and politically against austerity only to face betrayal. Andros explained that the “best news this year for working class people in Greece came from abroad,” including the news that Britain had voted to leave the European Union-which can help rebuild confidence in working class people that they can break with the EU and the Euro. SYRIZA themselves have also lost support and New Democracy now lead in the polls as SYRIZA loses its base. It is also likely that Greece itself will need a further bailout and it is not ruled out that despite everything, Greece is forced out of the eurozone.
Nikos Anastasiadis from Greece also explained how most Left organizations in the country face crisis. He explained the surreal experience of SYRIZA members at their recent conference chanting “In prison and in exile communists never surrender,” yet of course that exactly what SYRIZA did last year. Those organisations, like ANTARSYA, who felt they would grow simply out of the betrayal of SYRIZA have also faced splits or in the case of the Communist Party (KKE), have lost support. Nikos stressed that the left wing split from SYRIZA, Popular Unity, has not properly learned the necessary lessons from Syriza’s capitulation. He said they act simply as the “Syriza from before”. They call for breaking with the euro and the EU but fail to link this with the socialist programme that is necessary to mobilise working people and overcome their real fears as to the effects of leaving the euro. While many on the left face crisis and split, Xekinima (CWI in Greece) has been able to maintain a sizeable organization and has played an important role in strikes, for example of bus workers in Athens who have been on strike demanding wages owed to them.
Gonçalo Romeiro from Portugal also discussed the complications faced by the Left where the Socialist Party government, with the backing of the Left parties, the Left Bloc and the Communist Party has temporarily frozen austerity but has not rolled back on it. This has led to strengthening of the Socialist Party in the polls but the left parties have lost ground. It is important that bold socialist policies are put forward in order to win support. Unfortunately, that has not been the approach of the leaders of the Left Bloc who have unfortunately gone as far as seemingly a witch hunt of CWI members in the Left Bloc.
Several comrades from the Spanish state, Scotland and Ireland spoke of developments in their countries relating to the national question. In Scotland and in Northern Ireland, Brexit has sharpened the national question. The Brexit vote has seen a shift to the right in the Scottish National Party, who are focused on keeping Scotland in the EU. Their rightward turn has seen them attacking trade unionists taking strike action. At the same time, a third of their voters voted to leave the EU and actually this approach risks demobilising those working class people who would vote for independence.
Crisis and turbulence
In summing up the discussion, Niall Mulholland from the International Secretariat of the CWI stressed that the EU bloc which has seen sluggish growth could now be pulled back into recession. The general situation can be characterized by crisis and turbulence. The election of Trump can have an effect in relations between the US and the EU, which could result in increased protectionism. He said that Trump’s rhetoric in relation to NATO can speed up steps toward more EU miltarisation. As the CWI has argued consistently, the economic crisis of 2008/9 is not a temporary blip but is a structural crisis of capitalism. It is wearing down support for both social democracy and the traditional right. In this situation, new forces can emerge and be tested out. The task of Marxists is to build political organization of the working class- strong enough to transform society and find a way out of this ongoing crisis.
In many ways, the situation in Europe can be summarized by the words of the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, who said “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” It this situation it is more important than ever to have a Marxist analysis of the processes in society but the Committee for a Workers International will not simply be passive commentators on events. In Greece, Germany and Scotland the CWI is playing a leading role in several small but important disputes. In Ireland, where three Socialist Party (CWI) members are MPs, we have an important role in the fight for abortion rights, in the new industrial struggles that have opened up and importantly in facing a high profile trial which will see Paul Murphy, along with other socialists and working class people, face trial for the crime of having led the successful battle against water charges. In Spain, Izquierda Revolucionaria has played a crucial role in the recent victory of the students. This all shows the potential to build Marxist parties in this period.