The ninth world congress of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) took place in Belgium in mid-January.
Delegates and visitors from 25 of the 36 countries in which the CWI organises, came together against the background of a worldwide increase in struggle against the effects of brutal 21st century capitalism.
world congress 2007 - Rising anger and discontent in Europe
The CWI congress session on Europe, to which delegates and visitors from 16 different countries contributed, highlighted the volatile political situation in many countries. On the one hand massive ’neo-liberal’ attacks are being carried out by governments and bosses virtually everywhere and, on the other hand, there is a broad rejection of these policies combined with people’s anger and bitterness which occasionally explodes into action.
The discussion also highlighted, however, the sometimes ’criminal’ role of trade union leaders in holding back action and, also, the present lack of mass alternatives to the main parties.
The main policy of European governments is neo-liberalism - i.e., maintaining and increasing the capitalists’ profits by driving down workers’ wages and conditions, cutting spending on public services and opening up the public sector to private profit. These policies have been championed by British governments - Tory and New Labour - for over 25 years.
In much of Western Europe mass opposition held back the full brunt of neo-liberal attacks for some time. However, these attacks have increased in recent years, often in a more rapid and sharper way than experienced in Britain. Many of these attacks are being carried out by ’social democratic’ parties in government, parties that were originally built by the working class to represent their interests.
Neo-liberalism has provoked movements in countries where there has been no large-scale action for years, such as in Austria and the Netherlands. In Sweden, the social democratic government was thrown out after 12 years in power due to its policies of cuts, and within weeks of the new right-wing government being elected there was a mood for strikes. In Denmark, one of the supposed success stories of the EU, there has been the biggest mass movement for 20 years, over welfare cuts.
In Germany, only 50% of the workforce now has 35-40 hour a week jobs. 11 million workers are part-time and the number of workers on short-term contracts has doubled. Unemployment benefit has been slashed, with the introduction of one euro an hour jobs, which effectively means having to work for benefit money.
The scale of these attacks had a stunning effect for a while but increasingly the mood is potentially explosive, particularly now as company profits soar. There have recently been some bitterly fought local struggles and, just after the CWI congress, large protest strikes against a proposed increase in the retirement age from 65 to 67.
It was out of anger at the previous social democratic Schröder government that the new left party, the WASG, was born. (WASG - Election Alternative for Work and Social Justice - a broad anti-neo-liberal electoral alternative launched in 2005, which contains a variety of political currents including the CWI.)
Lack of alternative
There is universal underlying anger and bitterness and massive distrust of capitalist governments by a majority of workers and sections of the middle classes. Even right wing capitalist parties are feeling this anger, and, like the Tories who claim to champion the NHS in Britain, are pretending to be on the side of workers.
The Moderate Party in Sweden, the largest party in a new governing coalition, felt compelled to present itself as the "New Moderates" and even as being a new workers’ party!
The underlying anger is one of the reasons why governing parties can lose elections even when there is economic growth.
In Austria, the right-wing People’s Party was shocked to lose the recent elections, but so was the Social Democratic Party shocked to win - it lost votes in workers’ areas and only won narrowly.
The Swedish social democrats were not voted out because of a rightward shift in society, but because of their own failure.
The instability of governments means that the capitalists can be forced to make concessions.
For example, in Italy, the new ’centre-left’ government of Prodi initially had an austerity budget, but faced with strong opposition from workers (and with tax revenues being higher than expected), Prodi stepped back temporarily from some of his attacks. But the capitalist strategists still demand a neo-liberal drive, so governments will only make concessions to gain time and stabilise, only to return to attacks later.
Most of the former Labour and social-democratic parties, which in the past were seen by many as representing the interests of ordinary people against the bosses, have, like New Labour in Britain, become parties of big business.
The absence of mass-based alternatives to the main capitalist parties is one of the key features in Europe currently, and hinders the development of class struggle and support for socialist ideas.
Consequently there is a tendency for people to vote for ’the lesser evil’. For example, Prodi in Italy, despite previously carrying out cuts when in government, was narrowly voted in against the right-wing Silvio Berlusconi.
In France, a layer of people will vote for the previously discredited French Socialist Party, whose presidential candidate is Ségolène Royal, to try to prevent Nicolas Sarkozy, the presidential candidate for the UMP party (equivalent to the Tories in Britain) from being elected. At the end of last year there was a rush of people registering to vote, many in order to vote against him.
In these situations, who should socialists call for a vote for? In 1997 in Britain, CWI members were sympathetic to people voting Labour to get rid of the Tories, but rather than call for a vote for Labour, we explained that New Labour would carry out Tory policies.
A delegate to the CWI congress from France reported that CWI members in France will understand why a layer of people will vote tactically for Royal in the coming presidential elections.
But they will point out the capitalist nature of the French Socialist Party’s programme, its previous role when in government and explain that the only way to counter Sarkozy’s policies is to organise around workers’ demands and start the process of building a new workers’ party. They will call for a vote for the small anti-capitalist parties, LO and LCR, in the first round of the ballot, and a blank vote in the second round.
In the Netherlands in 2006, there was a fall in the vote for the governing Christian Democratic Appeal party but also a decrease in the vote for the Labour Party, which lost nine parliamentary seats despite then being in opposition. Important though, was the greatly increased vote for the Socialist Party (a radical party in which CWI members participates but whose leadership is moving to the right), which increased its seats in parliament from nine to 25. This showed that a layer of Dutch workers were prepared to reject all the main big business parties and vote for a party seen as a left alternative.
Trade union leadership
Across Europe trade union leaders are blocking workers’ action, or ensuring there is only token protest rather than genuine struggle. They appear to be more afraid of their own rank and file than they are of the bosses. In Britain, for example, the so-called ’awkward squad’ of union leaders have done nothing to defend car workers’ jobs.
Last December in Italy, at the Fiat factory in Turin, national trade union leaders were shouted down when they defended government attacks.
But the experiences in France and Greece show that anger and discontent will inevitably burst through, despite the barriers. The movement of students and workers in France last year against the ’First Job Contract’ (CPE) came from the ranks below.
In 2005 the French government implemented measures against workers in small workplaces - the CNE - that meant they could be easily sacked in their first two years. The CPE in 2006 proposed to expand this to all workers under 26.
In 2005 the trade union leaders did nothing. By the time of the CPE, there was an understanding that people could not just wait for a response from the union leaders, who at best would just lead a protest with no strategy for victory. Students also realised they had to turn to the working class. The result was a three million-strong movement in France that forced the government to withdraw the CPE.
In Greece there have been continuous austerity measures for 21 years, which have intensified in the last few years. There is no shortage of militancy among workers but the role of the trade union leadership has been to sabotage the building of a unified movement - including calling short, token strikes with no strategy to win.
In the last year there has been an almighty movement of university students, school students and education workers. This showed preparedness to fight and a militancy on the part of the workers and students involved, but also posed the need to build a union leadership that is up to the tasks ahead.
CWI members are not just commentators on events but are participants, and can be influential in how events develop. The role of our public representatives - such as Joe Higgins in the Irish parliament - can be vital.
CWI members are playing a leading role in Northern Ireland on the issue of opposing water charges; in Belgium and Poland we have been instrumental in the development of preliminary steps towards new workers’ parties; in the Berlin WASG we have been crucial in the stand against capitulation to cuts and privatisation.
In Britain we play a central role in the PCS union which is leading the trade union fight on job cuts, pay and pensions and there are many other examples. Even the role of individual CWI members in some situations has been decisive in securing victories and demonstrating what is possible - such as in Britain in leading strike action at Whipps Cross hospital in East London, and at the Visteon car parts plant in Swansea.
In addition to a political climate of growing insecurity and fear for the future, there is great concern about environmental pollution and global warming. As well as campaigning against attacks on workers’ living standards, it is therefore also necessary for the CWI to counter this fear with our optimism on solving all the major problems created by capitalism, including the environmental crisis, by building a socialist future.
One factor in the upturn in class struggles in a number of countries is that there has been continued economic growth in Europe, with big increases in profits achieved through increased exploitation. Now, workers are demanding their share.
There are two main factors for the economic growth: exports and private consumption fuelled by debt. The Netherlands has the highest rate of personal indebtedness in the world but there is a similar picture elsewhere. Spending is often fuelled by homeowners’ new borrowing on the basis of huge increases in house prices.
Capitalist governments know their economies are on shaky foundations. The Euro-area growth rate of 2.6% in 2006 was hailed as the best for years, but it is still lower than just six years ago when it was over 3%, and it is projected to fall in 2007 and 2008. Unemployment in Germany and France remains high at around 10% of the workforce.
None of the main big business parties hold out the prospect of a rosy future. There is general insecurity and fear of the future. Workers are told they have to work longer and will get smaller pensions; there are attacks on sick pay, unemployment benefits etc; there are sweeping cuts and privatisation of public services. The saying - the rich get richer and the poor get poorer - has never been truer.
In Germany, between 1995 and 2005 there was a huge increase in profits - nearly doubling from 230 billion euros to 420 billion euros - yet the real hourly wage for workers last year was lower than in 1990.
In Italy, the richest four families own more wealth than the entire Italian budget and the wealth of the richest family has increased by 100% since 2005!
Globalisation is used as a major method to drive down living standards. ’Outsourcing’ (moving production to countries with lower wages and less regulation), not always to Asia but to eastern and central Europe too, has been used to drive down wages and increase profits. As well as massively increasing exploitation in the production that is transferred, simply the threat of outsourcing is used to try to force through wage cuts in Western Europe.
Increasingly, migration is also used as a tool to drive down wages and conditions. Migrant labour is used on a large scale in Spain, Italy, Britain, as well as in smaller countries like Greece. This is either cheap labour or trained labour, or both together.
Countries in Africa and Asia train doctors and nurses and then Western governments poach them. Similarly in construction - the former Stalinist regimes in east Europe have more trained builders and so west European bosses now poach them.
Conflicts could develop between indigenous workers and recent migrants over jobs, housing etc. We have to be alert to this and to the dangers of racism
Racism and the far-right
With the absence of a mass left alternative, in many countries there has been some growth of the far-right. In Germany, the neo-Nazi German National Party (NPD) won 7.3% of the vote in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania last September, and now has seats in three of East Germany’s five state parliaments.
The far-right Sweden Democrats received 2.9% of the vote in the September 2006 Swedish general election. The reactionary Freedom Party made gains in the 2006 Austrian election, achieving 11% of the vote - a recovery from 2002 but still less than half of its 1999 vote. With the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the European Union, there is now a small bloc of far-right representatives in the European parliament.
As well as the racism fostered by the far-right, mainstream right-wing and ex-social democratic parties are also increasing their use of racism and nationalism. In Germany, for example, there is a racist campaign developing against Muslims, suggesting they are not integrated properly into German society, which is leading to growing polarisation. This has encouraged neo-fascists to be more confident in putting forward their views and there has been a 23% increase in racist attacks.
The far-right can also gain support in central and eastern Europe. In these countries workers suffered an enormous fall in their living standards after the collapse of Stalinism in the early 1990s and, after 15 years, have still not recovered their former level.
Unlike in Western Europe, where the capitalist classes accumulated capital over generations, the present capitalist classes in eastern Europe have robbed and cheated their way in rapidly, simply taking over as private property industry that was previously publicly owned. But the current weakness of the labour movement in many of these countries means that there is no explanation or challenge to capitalism from the left.
In Poland, for example, workers are experiencing brutal ’gangster’ capitalism, mired in corruption and scandal. The ruling parties carry out right-wing homophobic, racist and sexist policies - for example the mayor of Warsaw banned a gay-equality parade and encouraged neo-fascists to attack gays, and now the government intends to ban abortion. But because of the excesses of brutal exploitation and the scandals swamping the government, support for the main parties is slipping.
CWI members in Poland are active alongside August 80, a leftward-moving trade union with its main base amongst miners that has initiated a new left-wing anti-capitalist party, formed a committee to defend victimised workers and has championed gay rights and abortion rights.