cwi: international conference – “Going with the grain of history”

The mood of the meeting was summed up by a speaker who said that the CWI was now "going with the grain of history".

International conference.

While the biggest weekday demonstration in British history flooded the streets of London, the democratically elected leadership of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) – the International Executive Committee (IEC) – held its annual week-long conference. IEC members from sixteen countries, spread across the world, discussed and debated the events of 2003 and, more importantly, perspectives for 2004. Hannah Sell, an IEC member from England and Wales, reports. cwi online

"Going with the grain of history"

Since the beginning of the decade the CWI has argued that the difficult period for Marxists that existed in the 1990s were coming to an end. That period of acquiescence – when levels of class struggle were low and socialist and Marxist ideas were pushed to the margins by a tidal wave of neo-liberalism and pro-capitalist propaganda – would be replaced by dramatically different times, when a decade of pent-up anger and bitterness would be expressed in struggle.

Without doubt, 2003 was the year when that perspective was conclusively and powerfully confirmed.

This was a year of mass demonstrations and general strikes – from the magnificent anti-war movement, to the nine-day general strike that paralysed Nigeria, to the 100,000 workers who began the fight against the German government’s neo-liberal offensive by taking to the streets of Berlin.

The task of the IEC was to trace the main features of these developments and draw the necessary conclusions for the work of the CWI.

The world after the Iraq War

Iraq is "the centre of world politics," Peter Taaffe explained in his introduction to the first session of the IEC meeting. And it is in Iraq that the might of US imperialism has floundered far faster than anyone expected. The clique that controls Washington was described as: "the most stupid ever to have held power in the US".

All of the dreams that Bush and Co held only months ago have turned to ashes. The price of oil, far from coming down, has increased significantly.

The estimated bill for “reconstructing Iraq” has gone from $1.7 billion, before the war, to $86 billion now. More US soldiers have been killed in the last six months than were killed in the first two years of the Vietnam War. And for every one that is killed, seven are injured.

In the US, 54% of the population are now opposed to Bush’s handling of Iraq. Philip Locker, from the CWI US section, reported that in Washington 50,000 had attended a demonstration calling for an end of the occupation. This was the first such demo in the US since the fall of Baghdad and far larger than demonstrations at a similar stage of the Vietnam War.

Bush’s humiliation was summed up when Wolfowitz, the leading light of the neo-cons (people who seriously imagined history would laud them for playing a heroic role in changing the world by invading Iraq!), appeared on international TV amongst the ruins of his bombed Baghdad hotel, naked but for his underpants and a lot of concrete dust!

Under the impact of such failure and the growing Iraqi opposition, Bush retreated very quickly in words – talking about a rapid “exit strategy”.

However, as Lynn Walsh argued, the reality of plans to ’Iraqi-ise’ Iraq was inadvertently summed up by Chalabi (who was initially the favoured choice of the US state department for Iraqi President), when he explained: "We will still have US forces but they will change from an occupation to a force here at the invitation of the Iraqi government."

The IEC meeting agreed that any attempt by the US to withdraw from direct military occupation would be likely to be both a humiliating defeat for them and to be mired in difficulties. On the other side, if they stay they face a Vietnam-style disaster, as it is absolutely clear that the majority of the Iraqi people will never accept US occupation.

Far from creating a new stable democracy in the Middle East, the Bush clique has created a new centre of instability for the whole region.

Their dream of a secure, cheap supply of oil is further away than ever as the Saudi regime teeters on the edge of overthrow. And oil is more crucial for US imperialism than ever – by 2020 it is estimated the US will need to import two thirds of its oil.

The CWI has a vital role to play in building the mass movement against the occupation.

Economic stagnation

The political instability created by the war has heightened the already growing economic tensions between the imperialist blocks of the US, Europe and Japan. In reality, a shadow trade war is taking place. World trade growth rates today are half what they were in the 1990s.

There was agreement at the IEC meeting that there was no prospect that the current reports of improvements in the world’s stock markets represented a long-term sustained recovery in the world economy.

The Euro-zone is stagnant. As Aron Amm explained, Germany has entered its second recession in two years and is: "both the powerhouse and the sick man of Europe". Japan remains mired in recession, despite signs of weak and partial growth in some areas.

The US is claiming significant growth for the third quarter of this year, largely accounted for by another increase in consumer spending on the back of Bush’s massive tax cuts to the rich and ever more credit. US household debt increased by 11%, in 2003, but these rates are not sustainable in the medium term.

The real nature of the current ‘recovery’ in the US is underlined by one figure – only 74% of productive capacity is being used in the US – lower than at any time since the 1970s.

Levels of poverty in the US have not been as high for forty years. It is no longer uncommon for workers and the unemployed to have to resort to eating at soup kitchens.

Brian Koulouris from the US reported that the average job lost in the recession paid $35,000 per year in wages, whereas the average job created pays just $15,000.

In the US, potential exists in the coming months and years for the movement against the occupation to connect with an increased militancy of the working class. A number of strikes are taking place involving sections of the lowest paid, such as the 170,000 supermarket workers in California and the Midwest, who are striking to defend their healthcare benefits.

Over 100,000 marched in New York on a trade union-backed demonstration in October demanding the repeal of Bush’s post-September 11 ‘Patriot Act’. This was the largest-ever demonstration in the US to defend immigrant rights.

European working class awakens

While the working class is stirring in the US, the discussion on Europe showed how that workers’ movement has truly awakened. The capitalist governments of Europe, whether they supported or opposed the war on Iraq, have not come out of it strengthened. In fact, the roots of all the mainstream capitalist parties are being undermined.

The same is true of the institutions of the EU. The stability pact has become a joke and while the immediate unravelling of the Euro may not be posed, the strains will undoubtedly increase. The defeat of the Swedish referendum on the Euro was seen by the working people of Sweden as a blow against the establishment.

It is a feature in several countries that anti-Euro feeling is a strand in the mood of the working class. Sascha Stanicic explained that in Germany, for example, 70% of people say they would vote ’no’ to the Euro if a referendum was held.

Against a background of economic stagnation and vicious neo-liberal cuts, the working class is fighting back. In Italy another wave of strikes against pension ’reform’ has taken place.

In Poland, in the mining areas, where there is now 38% unemployment, desperate strikes have been taking place. Workers have occupied the roads and attacked the headquarters of the governing party, the LSD. In Austria, in June, one million took strike action against the government’s proposal for a 30% – 50% cut in pensions.

Role of the CWI

In many of these struggles the CWI’s forces have been able to play an important role. It was our party in Germany that took the initiative to call for a national demonstration against the cuts, in opposition to the right-wing national trade union leadership. Such was the response to this call that they were forced to back the demonstration.

Around 100,000 marched, with, as Aron described, at least 10,000 people just joining the march as it went past, complete with all their shopping bags!

When a member of the CWI spoke at the demonstration, and called for a 24-hour general strike as the next step in the campaign, he was loudly cheered. Over the next few months it is possible a general strike could take place in Germany, in part because of the role of our party in campaigning for it.

In Ireland, our party is leading a major battle against the introduction of charges for rubbish collection.

Socialist Party TD (member of the Irish parliament) Joe Higgins came to the IEC, having served, along with other socialists and community campaigners, a prison sentence for his principled stance in this campaign.

Kevin Simpson of the CWI remarked: "We could not have played the leading role in this struggle without our political analysis and ability to take tactical decisions. But there is another vital ingredient that both our party and countless community activists have shown – the guts and determination to face down the ruling class when they tried to impose this retrogressive double-taxation."

The CWI’s role is not limited to Europe. In Nigeria, where we have the second biggest section of the CWI, there have been two general strikes this year. One, over increases in fuel prices, lasted eight days. The strikes united the whole of the Nigerian working-class and brought the country to a standstill.

Unfortunately the national leaders of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) accepted a verbal assurance from the government that fuel prices would not be raised. This was promptly reneged on when the strike was called off.

We argued for a continuation of the struggle. Segun Sango, the Democratic Socialist Movement (Nigerian section of the CWI) General Secretary, was a member of one of the national bodies formed to run the strike. DSM members were also strike co-ordinators of two of the NLC’s four zones in Lagos.

In other countries, such as Sri Lanka, India, and Northern Ireland, our sections are doing important work against the difficult background of increased religious, national or ethnic tensions. The IEC also had a very rich discussion on Sri Lanka and the national question.

Conclusions

The general consensus at the IEC was that there would be no return to the low levels of struggle of the 1990s. However, the level of consciousness of working people will take time, and experience of struggle, to catch up with objective developments.

It was clear, for example, that the mighty general strikes that have taken place in many different countries were not generally considered by the workers involved as a challenge to the power of the capitalist class.

Put simply, while the working class has the objective strength to take power in its hands, it is not conscious of that power. So, at this stage, general strikes tend to be limited to a defensive measure or to wrest limited concessions from the capitalist class.

Similarly, while the need for new mass parties of the working class was apparent across the globe, there are relatively few countries where mass or semi-mass working class or socialist forces exist.

Again, in many countries it would take time for major sections of the working class to draw the conclusion that the task of building a new political force was their task.

However, the potential for such forces to grow very quickly once they are formed was shown in France, where 22% of people have said they would consider voting for the ’far left’.

Most importantly, however, the IEC demonstrated very clearly the vital role the CWI’s socialist forces can play. It also showed that we have entered a time when we can grow, if not yet into a mass force, at least far more quickly than we have done over the last few years.

In the last two years, the Greek section of the CWI has doubled its membership, while other sections have grown considerably. In the next year the specific task of the Socialist Party in England and Wales has to be to equal their achievements.

This article will appear in the next issue of The Socialist, the paper of the Socialist Party in England and Wales

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