CWI: CWI international conference – Recession and class struggle across the continent

“Europe is experiencing a new phase of class struggle, from Italy and Portugal, in the South, to Germany, Austria and Britain, in the North,” said Tony Saunois, introducing the discussion on Perspectives for Europe, at the International Executive Committee (IEC) of the CWI meeting, in Belgium, 21-26 November.

CWI international conference.

In the second part of our series of reports on the November meeting, Niall Mulholland gives a summary of the discussion on Europe. cwi online.

Recession and class struggle across the continent

The new wave of industrial struggles takes place at a time of economic difficulties, Tony Saunois remarked. Rising tensions between the European states are not just over issues like the Iraq war, but also due to recession and stagnation. Gone are the super-optimistic days that accompanied the introduction of the euro currency. Growth rates are now low; 0.4% for Europe as a whole this year, and there are 14 million people unemployed in the EU.

The Growth and Stability Pact is now reduced to a farce. Germany and France openly breach its rules, yet smaller countries are expected to abide by the rules.

There are sharp tensions between big and small nations. The expansion of the EU to the East could not be taking place at a worse time.

Expansion will lead to big differences within the EU, Tony pointed out. For example, the new member states will only get 25% of agricultural subsidies presently available. Some existing EU states, like Spain, will see its influence weakened, while the bigger powers guard their positions against the new member states. Upon joining, Poland, for example, will be the 6th largest EU country. With an economy that is heavily reliant on agriculture, it will be badly hit by the re-negotiated Common Agricultural Policy. This will help to deepen class divisions in Polish society. The last year has already seen an increase in industrial struggles in Poland.

The tensions over EU expansion and the impact of the euro have emerged as part of the social and political crisis. There is hostility to the euro in impoverished Eastern Germany. The ‘no’ vote in the Swedish referendum against changing to the euro currency was also a vote against privatisations and cuts. Workers across the continent fear becoming “like Britain”. They do not want to go down the path of Thatcherite neo-liberalism with all its consequences.

The German social pact breaks down

In Germany the ‘social pact’ has broken down. The SPD/Green government’s ‘Agenda 2010’ plan of drastic cuts telescopes decades of Thatcherism into a couple of years. This is how Schröder responds to the crisis of the market economy system, which has created a budget crisis at federal, regional and local level. The capital Berlin is saddled with enormous debts, over 17% unemployment and the city administration wants to cut the wages of its employees by 10%.

Attacks on living conditions have created a profound shift in consciousness amongst working people and youth. People feel they were lied to by the SPD in last year’s general election. Not surprisingly, now the SPD languishes at 25% in the polls.

Strikes and protests are being organised in protest against the government’s plans, Tony said. Protests have shaken the regional state of Hessen, where even the police union has called for a general strike. On November 1st 100,000 people marched against cuts in Berlin in a marvellous demonstration which the CWI in Germany (SAV) initially called and campaigned for.

Of course, the trade union leaders try to use strikes and protests to let off steam. In Greece a 24-hour general strike earlier this year was used by the union tops for precisely that reason. Socialists therefore have to call for militant action and for committees of action to direct and develop the struggle further. A 24 hour general strike all across Germany is a necessary step towards further action until the government backs down.

The opposition Christian Democrats (CDU) in Germany want Schröder to do the dirty work of cuts. They hope to return to power once the SPD are completely discredited for policies that the CDU in reality agrees to. This brings home to socialists in Germany the pressing need for a new party that represents the interests of the working class.

Britain has also seen a stepping up of industrial struggles against a social democratic government, Tony commented. The fire fighters dispute was a sign the mood in workplaces is angry against Blair.

The postal workers took action and won. This ‘illegal action’ was against the most restrictive labour laws in Europe and shows to workers in Britain, and throughout the Europe, what can be gained through militant struggle.

The postal workers victory was relatively small but still important. It came in the teeth of management’s attempts to smash the union.

Importantly, the demand for action in the Post Office came from below. In today’s conditions, even the most powerful union conservative bureaucracies can be forced into action.

The recent disputes in Britain also have wider implications. In recent years, several unions elected new left leaders, reflecting the anger and militancy of the rank and file. This process represents an important step forward.

It is during struggles that these leaders will be tested. For example, Andy Gilchrist, leader of the Fire Brigades’ Union (FBU), has faced criticism from union activists for his role in the most recent FBU dispute.

There is a turn in the industrial situation, Tony remarked, but it has not yet affected all European countries. Government corruption however is widespread. So much so, that 50% of people in Ireland think all politicians are corrupt.

In Britain, the Establishment faces a crisis – in the Church, Royal family and other institutions of capitalism.

However there is a delay in the formation of new workers’ parties that can channel this discontent. The reasons for this are both objective and subjective. The working class is still influenced by the setbacks of the last decade and the forces of socialism are still relatively small in many countries.

The social democratic parties no longer even partially represent the interests of working people and attempts to transform them in this direction have fallen flat. The ‘Reclaim Labour’ campaign, in Britain, failed to even force a debate on the Iraq war at New Labour’s national conference earlier this year.

In Belgium, the social democratic parties made some headway in elections, presenting themselves as ‘modern’ and more in tune with the needs of working people. But such results do not represent the start of a turn by the working class into the traditional social democracies. These parties are now tied completely to the market economy.

In other cases, such as in Spain, the social democracy, PSOE (‘Socialist Party’), has failed, due to its policies, to make gains despite the huge anti-war movement and last year’s strikes against the right wing Aznar government.

Obstacles and possibilities for new left formations

France shows both the possibilities and the obstacles for new left formations. The LO/LCR (Lutte Ouvrière/Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire) left block won over 10% of the vote in the first round of the presidential elections last year. Today, up to 22% of people polled say they are now considering voting for the ‘far left’ in elections for the first time. It is not excluded that the support for the joint LO/LCR list in next year’s European and regional elections could jump to new heights.

The crucial question remains what these parties will do with the support they get. Lutte Ouvrière maintains their position that the workers movement does not need a new mass party to represent it and fight for its interests. And while the LCR, separate from the joint list with LO, has issued a call for a broad anti-capitalist party to be formed by the end of 2004 it is clear that they intend to further dilute the elements of a Marxist analysis and programme they still retain.

We would not necessarily argue against the setting up of a broad formation around an action programme that focuses on the immediate issues facing the working class. But in that case we would insist however that inside that broad formation the forces of Marxism and Socialism organise to build their forces and to campaign to win support for a rounded out revolutionary socialist programme.

George Galloway, the left MP recently expelled from New Labour, is considering standing in next year’s European elections. Galloway has widespread support for his principled opposition to the Iraq war. But, as yet, he has not put forward the perspective of using his position to campaign for a new workers’ party. Instead, Galloway has called for a “popular unity” movement with a nebulous charter and programme.

New formations on the left have no automatic guarantee of success. Success depends on how the organisations are built and their programme and policies. For example, the Prc in Italy – a country which has seen huge protests against Berlusconi’s domestic and foreign policies – has failed to develop past a certain point, largely due to its left reformist and coalition policies. Despite the huge opposition to the Iraq war in Spain, the IU (United Left) has also failed to make headway.

Tony then turned to the crucial issue of racism, asylum seekers and the far right in Europe. The politicians in many European states have played the race card in recent years and have often stolen the clothes of the populist right and even the far right. However Europe’s ageing population means the bosses in many European countries need cheap labour. The Blair government wants to allow asylum seekers to enter Britain on a ‘legal basis’, in order for them to take up the lowest paid jobs. In economic terms, the ruling class needs this new policy, but, on political terms, it brings potentially explosive problems. In conditions of cutbacks, housing shortages and increasing joblessness, and in the absence of a socialist alternative, antagonisms can heighten between the ‘settled population’ and immigrants. The right wing plays on this, including the neo-fascists, which have made some gains in elections. The fascist BNP now has 17 councillors in England, mainly in poor, working class areas in the north.

At a local and national level, the propaganda of the racists has to be fought with socialist policies – including demands for decent housing, jobs for all, a living minimum wage and a massive injection of public spending. Only a socialist programme can unite all sections of the working class against the real enemy – the boss’s system.

Tony Saunois concluded his remarks by emphasising the important changes that have occurred on the industrial, political and social fronts in Europe, even since the Eighth World Congress of the CWI, in November 2002. This provides the CWI with great opportunities to extend its support and influence across Europe.

Discussion on Europe

Chancellor Schröder’s social cuts have led to enormous anger amongst the working class and to defeats for the SPD in state elections, reported IEC members, Sascha and Aron, from Germany.

They explained how CWI members initiated the magnificent 100,000 strong demonstration in Berlin against the arguments of people in Attac, the broad anti-capitalist movement. Attac members claimed workers could not be brought onto the streets to protest and only local activities should be organised. But the November demonstration refutes this argument. Moreover, growing pressure forced trade union leaders themselves to call a national demonstration, however this is likely to be delayed until next March.

The trade union leaders realise they have to be seen to do something to reflect the angry mood against cuts. Trade union membership in Germany dropped from 12 million to 8 million in the last decade but the unions are still potentially very powerful. It is possible the mood from below can force the call for a general strike next year.

Under this pressure from the working class, differences are increasing within the unions, between so-called ‘modernisers’ who accept the bosses’ new agenda and ‘traditionalists’ who seek to maintain living standards but often fail to grasp the new situation. In these battles rank and file activists will also struggle to rebuild the unions as fighting organisations that defend members’ interests.

The working class has entered the scene of struggle. A one day strike is posed.

The huge budget crisis facing the government comes after two serious recessions over the last few years. The state of Hessen, run by the Christian Democrats, announced the biggest cuts in its history.

Levels of insecurity amongst working people have never been higher. Sections of the population are faced with poverty and unemployment for the first time.

The SPD government announced its attacks without first discussing them with the trade union leaders, marking a change in policy and a declaration of class war.

There is huge anger from working people against the attacks, but also a vacuum in society. The left in the SPD shows no way forward. A section of the left in the trade unions lacks the confidence to fight. The CWI in Germany can partially fill the vacuum, through our campaign in the unions, and in general, for militant action.

Euro referendum revolt

“2003 is a year of revolt in Sweden,” commented Elin, from Sweden. During February, 10,000 school students went on strike twice against the Iraq war, and the CWI in Sweden played a vital role in this action.

The council (Kommunal) workers’ strike this year also marked an important change. 80% of people supported the struggle for better wages. As an indication of the radicalisation of these workers, over 200 strikers have bought a year’s subscription to the Swedish CWI weekly paper. Once the dispute ended a new left platform was set up in the council workers’ union, called, “Angry Kommunalers.”

The ‘no’ vote result of the referendum, on whether to accept the euro currency, was another blow for the ruling class in Sweden. Every time the Establishment spoke in favour of a ‘yes’ vote, the ‘no’ camp gained in the polls. For the working class, the ‘yes’ camp represented the capitalist class and the right wing agenda of the politicians.

This vote indicates the level of mass hostility to the main parties. The Left Party, supposedly on the left of the social democracy, offers no alternative. It is in coalition with the governing party in many of the local councils that carry out cuts. And during the referendum the Left Party offered no alternative. Only the CWI in Sweden offers a class alternative to cuts and the ‘yes’ camp’s arguments over Europe, while also calling for a new mass party for the working class and youth.

Important political and industrial changes have also taken place in the Netherlands, according to CWI member Ron. He said a right wing coalition government came to power earlier this year following the collapse of the right populist Pim Fortyn List, which was in a short lived coalition. The new administration announced the worse package of cuts since World War Two, sparking off protest demonstrations and a series of strikes. Tens of thousands marched in October, in Amsterdam, against the attacks on living standards. The union tops, however, give no lead. The protests against the cuts were organised by a broad coalition of forces. The union leaders went into discussions with the government and accepted a cuts programme they claimed were less severe. Usually such deals are then discussed and voted on at union meetings. However, on this occasion, the union leaders decided to avoid defeat at shop floor level and instead to put the deal to a referendum of the union membership. Enormous media pressure was used to scare many passive union members into voting for the deal, which was seen by many people as the “best of bad choices.”

This is a setback for the working class. But it will have big repercussions in the unions. CWI members report angry meetings of KLM workers and rail workers, who blame the union leaders for the package of cuts now facing them. Workers will move to take control of their unions.

The movement against the cuts, and the demonstrations against the Iraq war, show the potential that exists for developing a political opposition to the right wing parties. Unfortunately, the broad left Socialist Party, which the CWI participates in, failed to capitalise on the new radical mood. This follows disappointing parliamentary election results for the party, whose leaders moved to the right during the election campaign and therefore lost support, especially from youth.

Eric said Belgium was behind over European states in regards to the tempo of class struggle. Nevertheless the policies of the government are creating the conditions for big clashes.

The majority of workers are unionised but the weight of the bureaucracy is huge. There is no left alternative in many unions and militants are often isolated. However, given the likely attacks on workers’ conditions, the unions’ leadership cannot hold back the membership for long.

In 2004 the government plans to accelerate cuts, bringing the country into line with neighbouring Germany and the Netherlands.

The political landscape is changing. The Christian Democrats were destroyed by corruption scandals, and there is a struggle between the VLD (Flemish Liberal Democrats) and Social Democrats over which can be the main instrument of capitalist rule. The Social Democrats are also trying to win a bigger influence over the Trade Union Confederation (ACV) linked to the Christian Democrats, and they may succeed, given the shift to the right by the Christian Democrats.

The Green Party is down to 7% in polls and so the Social Democrats are trying hard to get some of their vote.

The CWI in Belgium (LSP/MAS) is now in a great position to make headway. The other main left force, the Maoists, have had a base in Belgium for 20 years, but are facing a serious political crisis. They formed an opportunistic alliance with the Arab European League (AEL) in the last parliamentary elections and lost a third of their vote.

Largest ever working day political demonstration in London

Judy from Britain reported that up to a quarter of a million people protested this week against Bush’s visit to Britain. This was the largest ever working day political demonstration in London. It was common to hear protesters say that ten more of their workmates had hoped to attend the protest.

The anti-war mood is clearly not dissipated. The mood on the demonstration was political and angry; people are furious that Blair and Bush so brazenly lied to justify attacking Iraq. People protested against the occupation of Iraq and also on other wider issues; for example, against Bush’s refusal to sign the Kyoto Agreement on the environment.

Enthusiasm for the protest picked up over the last week. There was outrage that Bush is the first US President since Woodrow Wilson to be given a state visit in Britain. Most people saw it as a publicity stunt for Bush and resent the huge sums spent on organising the visit and the policing.

The police wanted to create an “exclusion zone” to stop protesters going into central London, but the mood of protesters was so determined they had to back down and allow the right to protest. As it was, there were 5,000 police guarding Buckingham Palace and no traffic was allowed in central London.

The protest was more middle class in character than working class. This is probably partly explained by the fact it is harder for most workers to take a day off work.

The Socialist Party (CWI in England and Wales) ran eight street stalls on the demonstration route, sold 1,100 papers and distributed 20,000 leaflets. The SP and International Socialist Resistance 500 strong contingent on the demonstration was one of the liveliest.

The media, of course, tried hard to play down the scale and character of the protest. They were handed a trump card by the horrific and reactionary bombings in Istanbul against British targets, carried out on the same day as the London demo. The indiscriminate attacks killed 27 people and wounded 400, nearly all of them Turkish civilians.

These types of terror attacks complicate the situation; confusing many people. Opinion polls in Britain indicate there is polarisation over Iraq. However the anti-occupation mood is growing and so is opposition to Blair’s domestic policies.

Some workers have illusions that Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, would be a more pro-worker prime minister and Labour leader, although there is no enthusiasm for his policies. Socialists have to point out that fundamentally Brown is no different to Blair. Brown is part of the New Labour project of neo-liberal policies.

There are also workers who cannot stomach the idea of voting for New Labour again and they are open to a radical alternative. Since the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) took over Socialist Alliance it has proved incapable of offering this alternative. Now the SWP want to set up a broader electoral alliance, trying to include the tiny Communist Party and Muslim Association of Britain which has been supporting the Liberal Democrats in recent elections. But this will not be a left, socialist alternative for working people, which is what is needed.

The Socialist Party calls for a new party for the working class, built on firm socialist lines that can incorporate the new generation of radical youth. In the meantime, we put forward a socialist opposition to the main parties in elections, where this is possible.

[Since the IEC meeting, in early December, the Socialist Party won a second council seat in Lewisham, South London].

Austria has been transformed this year with , so far, 708,090 strike days “lost” reported Sonja as the working class has moved into action for the first time in decades. The strikes have been against government cuts; especially the attacks on pensions (a 30-50% cut is expected for women).This is another attack on the dignity of the working class in all countries. Nevertheless, the fight-back by Austrian workers is a new welcome departure from recent years. It is a return to the rich traditions of workers’ struggles, including the 1934 workers’ uprising and the 1950 general strike.

Greek IEC member, Nikos, said that polls in Greece showed people found class issues more important than race issues, despite the rise in racism in society.

Although there is growth in the economy, of around 4.1% this year, the major Greek parties all suffer from internal divisions. The social democracy, PASOK, and the Communist Party, suffer from splits.

There is room for the radical left to grow. The CWI in Greece doubled its membership over the last year and many of the new members are recent immigrants.

Jim, from Scotland, described the political situation in Scotland and also developments inside the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), which the CWI is part of. The SSP won new seats during the Scottish Parliament elections this year and has grown in membership. Unfortunately many SSP leaders put forward left reformist ideas. These have included calling for a ‘mixed economy’. The CWI makes a big impact inside the SSP, opposing these reformist policies with its internationalist, Marxist platform.

Mass movements in France

The important strike wave in June, in France, was described in detail by IEC member Alex. The last eight years have been marked by regular class movements.

Last year’s presidential elections, which saw a big vote for the LO/LCR block, was the third opportunity in the last decade that could have been utilised as an excellent springboard to launch a new mass workers’ party. But the chance was squandered by the LO and the LCR, due to their opportunism and sectarianism.

The CWI was justified in calling for a blank vote in the second round of these presidential elections, when there was a run off between Chirac and Le Pen. The media and Establishment campaigned hard for a second round vote for Chirac against Le Pen, who they considered too unstable to rule in their interests. The CWI, of course, opposed Le Pen’s racist policies and called for protests and demonstrations against the NF. We also pointed out that Chirac was certain to win and, in these circumstances, socialists should not have voted for Chirac and his Thatcherite policies.

As we warned, as a direct result of Chirac’s large second round victory, new attacks were made against working people.

If the LCR/LO had adopted the same independent class approach to the presidential elections, Alex said, they could have attracted tens of thousands of workers and youth and used it as an opportunity to launch a new socialist alternative.

Chirac felt confident to make his attacks on workers’ conditions due to the elections and also because he believes the union leaders will not forcefully resist.

However, rank and file workers did force important strike action earlier this year, but the large “far left” parties failed to bring this struggle forward. The LCR called for a general strike repeatedly but did not say how to build for it. The LO never called for a general strike. Both these groupings have an incorrect policy of waiting until the ‘official’ left is discredited and then expect workers to turn to them. This is an opportunist and dangerous approach.

During the June strikes, the CWI in France called for a 24-hour general strike, involving public and private sector workers. We called for the spreading of workers’ general assemblies at local, regional and national levels, and for these to be democratically controlled by workers. These measures would be a first step towards defeating Chirac’s plans.

The LO/LCR have now said that they will fight as a bloc in the 2004 European and regional elections. They could pick up a great deal of support from the 22% of the population that say they would vote for the “far left” for the first time. Chirac is increasingly unpopular, while recent student strikes were very popular. Again, the LO/LCR could be provided with the chance to launch a broader socialist party.

But the far right can also gain from popular disillusionment with the main parties. Le Pen’s Front Nationale (FN) hopes to make gains in the elections. They are hoping to do well in one of three regions (Marseille, the Parisian region, or the North) and could possibly win in one of the three departments. We have to prepare our members for such a possibility and significantly neither of the other far left parties are, for the moment, preparing their members or youth for this scenario.

Italy has also seen strikes and huge protests, reported Clare, from the CWI. During October, a four-hour general strike brought out 11-12 million workers and 1.5 million on demonstrations, in protest against Berlusconi’s plans to push through “pension reforms”.

The Berlusconi government is the longest running administration since WW2. This does not reflect popular support for its policies, of course, but rather the lack of a formidable left alternative. The PRC’s left reformist policies, for example, fail to attract support from new workers and youth.

Per, from Sweden, described the broad offensive by the ruling classes across Europe. This is a more vicious phase of cuts. There is a concerted attack against pensions and health care. Unemployment will continue to grow across the continent. But the bosses’ prescriptions are no solution for the working class. For example, the Netherlands has the most ‘flexible’ and ‘competitive’ labour force but the worst economic growth.

Tens of millions of workers have taken strike action against pension ‘reforms’ and other attacks, including a fifteen minutes general strike in Finland. However the political movement is lagging behind

Rob, from Moscow, reported that during the IEC meeting, the Georgian parliament building was stormed by angry crowds and Eduard Sheverdnadze, the authoritarian president, was forced to flee the building. His attempt to hold onto rule by calling a state of emergency failed.

The mass revolt came after years of strong-arm misrule by Sheverdnadze and growing poverty for the majority of Georgians. This political revolution by the masses is similar to the uprising against the rule of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia. Unfortunately, the working class in Georgia, like Serbia, does not have a party of its own. The new masters in Georgia are pro-Western and will introduce neo-liberal policies.

The forthcoming Duma (parliament) elections in Russia will see the pro-Putin party, United Russia, winning the lion’s share of votes. The mass media is pro-Putin and the government has made it very difficult for other parties to register for elections. It is estimated it costs US $1milllion for every seat in the Duma.

In Greece, general strikes can be called by union leaders but they will have limited effect on the working class, explained Andros, from Athens. This is because the union leaders use strikes as a way to let off steam, rather than as a serious attempt to stop government attacks. However if workers think the strike issues are important they will respond.

The social democracy, PASOK, cannot recover from the fall in support it experienced in the last few years. The party has undergone a complete “Blairisation”.

PerAke, from Sweden, commented on the euro. Referring to the euro-zone Growth and Stability Pact rules, the Belgian Prime Minister said, “These rules are our bible.” Yet the bigger powers, like Germany and France, are breaking the rules to defend their economies.

People’s experiences of the euro are poor. Not surprisingly, 73% of 18-24 year olds oppose the euro in a recent all European poll. Another 70% said they would vote no to the euro if given the chance.

Els, from Belgium, discussed the extreme right and reactionary ideas in society. The far right Vlaams Blok (VB) in Belgium has won some support amongst working people by concentrating on issues like joblessness and housing. VB also plays on demoralisation, disappointment and despair that exist amongst some sections of the working class.

But when workers move into struggle, the far right are set back. Dockers in Antwerp recently went on strike against neo-liberal policies, and sharply rebuffed local Vlaams Blok members visiting their picket lines. Vlaams Blok is in the Antwerp council and supported the liberalisation of the docks.

Hannah, from the England and Wales CWI, discussed the recent industrial action by post office workers in Britain. A recent ballot for strike action was lost by a small margin. Management saw this as an opportunity to go on an all out offensive against the union. Soon postal workers took action in local areas over many issues, including management intimidation. The action became national, and meant striking workers defied anti-union laws. The bosses were forced to back down and a victory was scored by the workers. However jobs and conditions are still on the negotiating table.

The recent spate of strikes is different to the strike waves in the 1970s. At that time, effective shop stewards organisations existed and kept pressure on the union leaders. Today’s “awkward squad” of union leaders were elected due to the anger in the workplaces, but the rank and file largely plays a passive role. A key task for socialists is to rebuild broad lefts in the unions.

A majority of the left union leaders still claim they can fight to change New Labour, or give passing support to the left. They do not clearly break with New Labour and campaign for a new political alternative.

Turning to youth, Hannah said there has been a noticeable change in youth consciousness, with more young people coming to socialist conclusions. Last weekend (22 November), 110 delegates attended a successful conference of International Socialist Resistance, in London.

Polish miners march on Warsaw

Karl, from the CWI, spoke about Poland, the largest country set to join the EU from Eastern Europe. There is huge anger at the country’s corrupt elite and the politicians and protests have taken place against privatisations. With the growing influence over the Polish economy by foreign capital, predominantly German, is clear for everyone to see the Polish economy is under pressure from the EU to close outlets in the traditional manufacturing and industrial sectors. By doing this the EU is making the new member states pay for the already existing overcapacity of the EU economy.

Among the sectors affected in Poland are the mining, agriculture and steel industry. Polish governments shut mines over the last ten years, and it is estimated the total number of miners will plummet from 450.000 at the beginning of the nineties to 142.000 at the moment.

Workers’ struggle is developing across the country. On 12 September, miners marched in Warsaw, armed with iron bars and Molotov cocktails they attacked the SLD headquarters.

The SLD (Democratic Left Alliance) government is under enormous pressure. It came to power as a result of a ballot box revolt against the previous neo-liberal government. The ex-government parties lost all their seats in parliament. Now the same type of electoral meltdown possibly faces the SLD. The Polish ruling class and their European and American minders are panicking about this prospect which would leave them without any stable political instrument for their rule but could see parliament filled with right wing populist parties and extreme right wing parties.

Karl made the additional point on the developments in the trade unions in France. The fact that up to 80 000 members could leave the CFDT (Democratic French Confederation of Labour) is a repetition of what happened in 1995 but on a bigger scale. At the same time the CGT (General Workers Confederation) leadership, the union where most of these trade unionists would go to, has been trying to move their organisation to the right for a number of years. The documents of their latest national congress spoke about the need to reform the CGT from a ‘union of protest’ to a ‘union of proposition’. The leadership expressed their willingness to accept part of the responsibility for the economic situation. They haven’t put up any serious fight against the wave of redundancies in the private sector. The continuing wave of redundancies in turn has intimidated these workers and strengthened the feeling of isolation.

The last speaker in the discussion, Kevin, from Ireland, provided background to the forthcoming Assembly elections in Northern Ireland. Over one year ago, the Assembly was suspended by the British government and direct rule re-installed. This was the fourth suspension of the body since its inception.

There is no real enthusiasm for the elections, which people expect will be a sectarian headcount. The elections will most likely see a big vote for Sinn Fein and for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a hard-line Unionist party. These parties could overtake the ‘moderate’ sectarian based parties, making a new agreement extremely difficult to realise in the medium or even long term.

This does not mean a return to the sort of conflict we saw during the decades of ‘Troubles’. But sectarianism on the ground, and sectarian polarisation between the communities, is growing massively.

The Socialist Party (CWI in Ireland) is standing two candidates in the Assembly elections, in East and South Belfast. [See reports on the CWI web site for details of the election results and the SP candidates’ results]. This offers youth and working class people, at least in these areas, a class alternative to the bigots. The sectarian character of the elections makes for extremely difficult terrain for socialists, but it is necessary to put forward a class alternative. The increase in industrial militancy, including last year’s fire fighters’ strike, and strikes by public sector workers, for example, shows that Catholic and Protestant workers do unite and fight on class issues. In fact, the leader of the fire fighters’ union in Northern Ireland is standing as the SP candidate in South Belfast. A new socialist party representing workers’ interests is needed to step up the struggle to end the domination of right wing, sectarian politics.

“Sicily without the sun.”

Robert Bechert replied to the discussion on Europe. He spoke about the political and economic polarisation taking place across Europe.

There is a ruling class offensive against living standards and also a military offensive by Blair and Bush. But the blows of reaction have ignited resistance – the anti-war movement and industrial struggles – especially in the last year that has seen some of the largest ever demonstrations in Europe and large scale strikes.

There are different features to the economic crisis. Including lower growth, increased competition and currency movements. The euro zone states suffer from a loss of flexibility. Internal consumption rates were down on average by 0.9% in the last year. The states in the zone, especially Germany and France, are forced to ignore the euro-zone criteria. This means the larger states are flouting the very rules they insisted imposing on smaller states.

There is growing opposition from working people across the continent to the euro and the EU. Living standards are generally getting worse. Wages are cut or frozen. More people are realising that the best days of capitalism in Europe are over.

Capitalism also faces a “demographic time-bomb.” The population of Europe is getting older and is likely to fall. People are told by bosses and governments they have to work longer and harder.

In many countries there is a general feeling of bitterness and betrayal towards the system. There is a serious loss of trust in the institutions of capitalist rule. In France a media debate has broken out over whether the country is in “historic decline” or not.

Referendums on the EU Constitution are due to take place in Denmark and Ireland. But a key question is who will lead the opposition? There is a danger in many EU states that the populist right will exploit the discontent, unless socialist forces come to the fore.

The Central and Eastern European states joining the EU will be low wage economies and a pool of cheap labour for the West. As an indication of what the candidate member states can expect, the “booming landscape” never materialised in Eastern Germany after unification and now the area is referred to as “Sicily without the sun.” For many workers in these countries it will become clear that central and Eastern Europe will not reach the level of the West.

There are common features regarding developments in Europe, most significantly, the stepping up of industrial struggles. They are not at the same tempo, but the new wave of militancy is very important.

The need to rebuild the unions

In some countries, like France and Greece, workers and youth have accumulated a great deal of vital experiences from big struggles over the last decade. There are other countries where workers have re-entered struggles after a delay, such as Britain, Germany, Austria and Sweden.

Unions need to be rebuilt, in many cases, not just have their policies improved. Many of the union leaders are living in the past and do not grasp the changes in the workplaces. Others do register the new class conflict taking place, but see no alternative to capitalism. They can swing to the right, and the left, under the impact of events, and due to pressure from the union membership.

In the period we are entering, there will be swings from the political field to industrial field, and vice versa.

The proposal by the LCR to form an electoral bloc with the LO in next year’s European elections is getting a positive response. A big vote for this bloc would provide big opportunities for a new left force. However the LCR is moving to the right and while the new party it proposes may gain some support, if it has a reformist programme it will be an instrument to fundamentally change society.

If Le Pen’s FN does well in elections a mood could grow for an “anti-FN unity slate”. We would react to this sympathetically but also point out that although broad united fronts can be created against the far right danger, the working class needs its independent party and policies.

Notwithstanding the changed class character of the former mass workers’ parties, developments in and around these parties can effect steps towards creating new class organisations. The expulsion of left MP, George Galloway, from New Labour, presented him with an opportunity to campaign for an inclusive, democratic, socialist party. But, so far, George Galloway is concentrating on alliances with the SWP and others. This indicates they want to create a formation that is very broad. If such a formation is run like the SWP-dominated Socialist Alliance it will fail to attract workers and youth.

The future of new formations on the left is not assured. The Prc in Italy did not gain on its early promise because of its leaders left reformism and willingness to form coalitions with the old centre-left. Earlier this year, the Socialist Party in the Netherlands did much worse than polls initially indicated in the Dutch parliamentary elections, after the party leaders indicated they would take part in a Labour Party dominated coalition government.

The future success of left parties depends on programme and tactics and policies, which means adopting an independent socialist position.

Robert concluded by saying that the new generation stepping into struggle understands that the situation is more serious today. Wars, terrorism and economic recession bring this home to them. The task of the CWI in Europe is to reach these layers of youth and workers and to win them to the struggle to transform society on socialist lines.

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December 2003