On 7-10 April, representatives from European sections of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) met in London. The first day of the meeting the 40 representatives discussed the world situation and the developing world economic crisis. One fifth of the United States is officially in recession. There are 2 million people who are expected to lose their homes. In a relatively short period of time the number of people who receive food stamps has risen from 26 million to 28 million. We can already see the political impact of this. In opinion polls 86% of the US population says they are experiencing a recession. About the same percentage of people supports the statement that “The US is heading in the wrong direction”. This will be accompanied by a political backlash against finance capital, the multinationals and the US government. A recent demonstration of people who had already lost their homes invaded Wall Street declaring the government was willing to help Wall Street but was forgetting about Main Street. The economic crisis will not be limited to the US but is already making itself felt in other areas of the world, in particular in China. The US finance minister declared recently that because of the crisis the US lead campaign to have access to the Chinese finance and banking sector will be put on hold.
One part of the meeting included a report of the political situation in Latin America and the development of the CWI work in that continent.
The main discussions focused on recent events in Europe, with particular attention for Greece, Germany and France. A thesis ("World economic crisis: The consequences for workers’ struggles in Europe") had been written to aid preparation for the meeting. Following the discussions, some amendments will be added.
On the fortieth anniversary of the European upheavals of 1968, the working classes of Europe are once again flexing their muscles. Struggle today is not yet on the scale of the mighty revolutionary movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s, crowned by the events of May 1968 in France when ten million workers occupied the factories.
Nonetheless, it is absolutely clear that the declared aim of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, to "liquidate the legacy of May 1968" is doomed to failure. On the contrary, the experience of the brutality of twenty first century capitalism will drive a new generation to rediscover its legacy.
Already, in the ten months since Sarkozy came to power, his poll ratings have plunged. In last month’s local elections, Sarkozy’s ’centre-right’ received only 47.5% in the second round while the Socialist Party (PS) got 49.5%. This, with the array of town and city councils they have captured, does not denote support for the PS but is a ’vote of censure’ for the government.
The worsening economic situation played a key role in the election result. There was enormous anger that, while Sarkozy preached wage restraint for the millions, the chief executives of the major French corporations granted themselves wage rises of, on average, 40%.
Rising food and fuel prices, pay restraint, deregulation, pension cuts, and longer working hours are the norm for workers in every country of Europe -even before the effects of the US economic crisis really hits the shores of Europe. There is no doubt that this economic ‘tsunami’ is coming.
When Britain’s chancellor, Alistair Darling, stopped bleating for a moment about Britain’s economic fundamentals being ‘sound’ and admitted that the world is facing the "biggest economic shock" seen since the 1930s Great Depression, it is clear that the coming crisis will be severe.
Every country will be effected, although not all equally or at exactly the same speed. Italy, of which the Financial Times recently said, “if it was a company it would be declared bankrupt”, is facing zero growth this year. Five to six million Italians are forced to have two jobs in order to make ends meet.
Spain, which has boomed on the basis of a massive speculative housing bubble in the last decade now faces a particularly sharp economic crisis. A measure of the scale of the construction boom there, is that in the last few years Spain has used half of the cement used in buildings in Europe. The Spanish housing crisis is more akin to the US, with a significant plunge in house values because of ’oversupply’, than it is to Britain, for instance, at this stage. Ireland is in a similar position to Spain. Its high growth rate is set to collapse to 1.6% this year.
The coming economic storm will have an effect on the consciousness and combativity of workers across Europe. This will not be uniform, but will vary both according to the severity of the economic crisis in different countries, but also the experience of the working class over the previous period.
For example, a sudden deep recession could have a temporary stunning effect on the working class, at least as far as industrial struggle is concerned. Fear of unemployment, and the desperate struggle to survive, can temporarily drown out the possibility of struggle. The role of right-wing trade union leaders across Europe in holding back struggle, could add to this effect. Tied to neo-liberal capitalism, they are unwilling to resist the onslaught of the employers.
However, it is also possible that recession will be met by a wave of militant resistance. This is what happened in Britain in the 1974/75 recession, for example. This is particularly likely in the many countries of Europe where, prior to economic crisis, workers are already entering the field of battle. In the epicentre of the fight back at present, are workers in southern Europe; particularly in Greece and Portugal. In Portugal, a massive strike wave is developing against changes to the ‘labour code’ which will make it easier to fire workers.
Greece has been shaken by the biggest strike wave in fifteen years as workers attempt to prevent the government’s attacks on pension rights. Opinion polls show that 85% of the population opposes the government’s plans on pensions. There have been three general strikes since December 2007. The last one, on 19 March, was one of the greatest strikes in Greek history.
It was preceded by three weeks of widespread industrial action across many sectors including the dockers, dustbin, transport and electricity workers. The latter were on strike for three weeks. When the management of the electricity company took legal action, the courts said that the strike had to stop and that the trade union would have no right to strike again against the pension cuts! However, in an illustration of how workers in Britain will sweep aside our anti-trade union laws in the future, the strike continued, with the local unions taking responsibility for the struggle. The following week, the bosses tried to take other groups of striking workers to court. They were stymied, however, because the lawyers were on strike!
Greece and Portugal may be at the forefront of the struggle at the moment, but they do not stand alone. In France, tens of thousands of school students have taken to the streets to struggle against education cuts. Belgium has seen a wave of spontaneous strikes.
Germany has been convulsed by a series of mass warning strikes, which in an opinion poll enjoyed 74% support of the general population, part of the ’shift to the left’ that even capitalist observers comment on. These strikes have been motivated by the intense class hatred of workers for the super-profits piled up by the bosses and have taken place before the real effects of an economic crisis hits Germany. While the boom still appears to be continuing, albeit against the background of redundancies and wage cuts in some industries, the prevailing view of the working masses is ’we want our share’.
Britain is not yet ‘a Germany’ never mind ‘a Greece’. However, the righ-wing trade union leaders are finding it increasingly difficult to prevent struggle on the question of public sector pay restraint. On 24 April the teachers, many civil servants, Birmingham local government workers, and probably FE lecturers, will all be taking action on pay in the broadest single day of strike action since New Labour was elected. This strike will result in members of Unison, the biggest public sector trade union, putting phenomenal pressure on their right wing leadership to follow suit.
In every country where the tide of struggle is rising, the need for a mass political voice for the working class is sharply posed. This process could be speeded up by economic crisis. At the same time, it will be necessary to argue for socialist ideas in these parties, not least because capitalist state intervention, quasi-Keynesian ideas, will lay the foundation for the beginning of reformist trends.
Even in those countries where the working class initially holds back industrially, this will not prevent them searching for a political solution to their problems. In a number of countries there are important developments in this direction.
In Germany, Die Linke (the ’Left Party’), has recently entered three regional parliaments, and has a presence in 10 overall - a symptom of the changed situation. It is now on 14% in the opinion polls.
In France, in the first round of the local elections, the lists put together by the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) got 4% in the polls and the small forces of Gauche Révolutionnaire (the French section of the CWI) were successful in winning a similar figure in the cantonal election in Rouen. The LCR is presented with a big opportunity now if it avoids the mistakes of the past and lays the basis for a new significant party of the working class. Its leading public figure Olivier Besancenot is the fifth most popular public spokesperson in France. However, they are uncertain about what kind of party, including what kind of appeal, they will make.
In Greece, the industrial struggles have been reflected in political developments. Syriza, a recent political formation, is an amalgam of various left groups and parties, the biggest one of which is Synaspismos - a party that reached 3% in polls previously. Syriza received 5% of the vote in the September 2007 general election, and has shot up to over 15% in the last opinion polls.
The fundamental reasons for this are the lack of any alternative policies to the government from the main opposition party, (so-called ‘socialist’) Pasok, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the fact that Syriza is taking steps to the left, and comes close to voicing the demands and struggles of workers and youth.
The ruling class is worried that the two-party system, which previously secured its interests, is in real danger. Based on the polls over the last couple of months, it would be impossible to have a majority government. Pasok used this fact to call on Syriza to ‘work together’ for a ‘common’ government but Syriza rightly refused.
The Greek section of the CWI, Xekinima, closely collaborates with Syriza and called for a vote for Syriza during the last election. Since last autumn, Xekinima has discussed working closer with Syriza.
Across Europe the decline of capitalism, combined with mass struggles, will reshape the consciousness that in past years was still affected by the collapse of Stalinism, the ideological campaign of the capitalist class and the economic boom. However, radicalisation will not be the only trend in the coming period. The danger of an increase in divisions in the working class, particularly increased racism and nationalism, will also exist. In some countries at least, we could see the growth of racist, nationalist, anti-immigration far-right parties.
The existence of left parties which are seen by the working class as an alternative can cut across the growth of far-right parties. In Germany, for example, growth in electoral support for the far right has been held back, at least for now, by the growth of the Left Party.
However, where over a period of time, such parties fail to provide a real alternative for the working class, as has been the case with Rifondazione Comunista (PRC) in Italy, it can temporarily strengthen the feeling that ‘all parties are the same’.
While the PRC may still retain a significant electoral base, its role in the last government and its continuing swing to the right has lead to a deep seated disillusionment with it. This leaves the Italian working class with no political channels through which to channel its enormous anger. However, this is unlikely to prevent workers from meeting the ‘shock therapy’ that a Berlusconi government, if elected, would like to implement, with a mighty movement.
The CWI is involved in the day-to-day struggles of the working class across the continent. At the same time we welcome every potential step towards mass political representation for the working class; while advancing a socialist programme that would ensure that new parties are actually capable of meeting the aspirations of workers. We are confident that, in the stormy struggles of the coming years, there will be an enormous growth in support for genuine socialism in Europe, as the European working class once again finds its voice.