For people watching the television news, the coverage of the anti-G8 protests has been dominated by reports of violent clashes between police and some protesters.
It is no surprise that the media chooses to report on this rather than on the huge numbers of peaceful protesters, their message of opposition to the G8 and their wish to see an end to war and poverty.
The lion’s share of the violence in today’s world is committed at the hands of those very G8 leaders. Over 655,000 civilian deaths in Iraq, 70 wars in the last two decades or so, and over $1,000 million spent on arms in 2005 alone by governments around the globe, mainly by the governments in the G8.
During the G8 clashes on 2 June, over five hundred protesters were injured, 165 arrested and there were over 400 injuries to police. However, demonstration organisers estimated that there were over 80,000 anti-G8 protesters in total and that the clashes, involving a minority, were not a major feature until after the end of the march.
Given the escalation in police repression against anti-G8 demonstrators over the last few weeks, columns of police marching down the sides of the demonstration and the whirr of police helicopters hovering above were not unexpected. However the extent of the police aggression was much greater than predicted. Dozens of water cannon and police vans sped through the streets and the sound of sirens was constant. At a protest in Hamburg last week police used pepper spray on those protesting outside a meeting of international finance ministers. In the weeks preceding the 2 June demonstration there were raids on the offices and homes of left-wing activists across Germany in an attempt to limit the expression of anger against the G8 leaders and to discredit anti-G8 protesters as ‘extremists’. This appears to have backfired somewhat as following these attacks there was a sharp increase in ticket sales for transport to Rostock. Another consequence, however, was to create the false impression that advocates of anarchistic ideas were the main opposition to the G8.
Some of the official demonstration organisers (ATTAC, charities, NGOs etc) say that the police are blameless for the violence. There have been reports of groups of people blocking a fire truck and throwing stones at the banks and the police. If true, these tactics carried out by small groups are incapable of stopping the summit, let alone abolishing capitalism. In fact they can be used by the police and the state as an excuse to increase repression and to prevent the real message of the need for an alternative to capitalism from being communicated. These tactics can drive a wedge between the protesters and the wider working class who can otherwise be won to the demands of the demonstration for an end to poverty, privatisation and war and also to the need for an alternative to capitalism.
Therefore, violent actions by small groups should be condemned, but it is necessary to also say that the actions of the police and the state against those who oppose the G8 leaders and their policies are the basis for such clashes. An estimated thirteen thousand police had been mobilised from across Germany. An enormous wall costing 12.5 million euros has been built to ‘protect’ the summit. Shops and other businesses in Rostock were urged to remain shuttered against the risk of damage from the protesters. Such measures have been taken to discredit and intimidate those who wish to demonstrate their anger.
Recent mass demonstrations against G8 summits and against the wars and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have been almost entirely peaceful. Across the world mass anger exists against the G8 and all they represent. In July 2005 a Make Poverty History march brought a quarter of a million people out onto the streets of Edinburgh against a G8 summit, in the hope that something could be done about the plight facing the world’s poorest and the planet itself. There was anger at that stage but also some illusions that a successful appeal could be made to Bush, Blair and Co. Members of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) and some other socialists made the point that it would not be possible to address these massive problems while we live in a system that puts the profits of big business before the needs of the majority. Since then it has been made clear to many people that this ‘group of eight’ has no intention of or capability to alleviate even the worst conditions. In fact conditions have worsened for many as even greater wealth is accumulated at the top. In India, where we are told an economic boom is taking place, the slum population has doubled in the last twenty years to 60 million people and far from consigning poverty to the history books, worldwide three billion people now struggle to survive on less than $2 a day.
It is not only in the poorest countries of Africa and Asia that deprivation exists. In the richest country on the planet, the US, 60 million people live on less than $7 a day. Here in Germany workers and youth have seen their living conditions deteriorate massively as huge attacks are made on wages and working conditions and there have been massive cuts in public services and social security.
We live in a capitalist system which is unplanned, chaotic, anarchic and fundamentally incapable of meeting the needs of people and the environment. However, among the organisers of the anti-G8 protests were charities and NGOs who still ask that we make an appeal to the likes of Bush, Blair and Merkel who act in the interests of big business. This has created a sense of frustration among some layers of youth who, angry at the continuation of wars, occupations and poverty, can have an impatient and desperate approach to the protests.
This has been exacerbated by the failure of the trade union leaders to assume a leadership role in the movement. The absence of the organised working class on the demonstration weakened it hugely. No other section of society has the capability of defeating the G8 and the bosses’ system they represent. The working class suffers daily at the hands of the likes of Bush, Merkel and Sarkozy and yet workers’ leaders in the trade unions have not drawn the conclusion that a massive fight-back is needed. Instead they attempt to negotiate with the likes of Merkel. In Britain we have witnessed the spectacle of UNISON leader, Dave Prentis, asking his health service members to hope against hope that Gordon Brown, the butcher of the NHS, will listen to their demands.
In fact in Germany these protests take place against the background of strikes of telecom workers. Through a combination of increased hours and lower wages these workers faced a cut equivalent to 40% in their wages. There have been strikes for over three weeks with around 70% support from ordinary Germans. However their leadership did not draw the conclusion that they needed to join the protests. Nor has the German DGB (Trade Union Confederation) mobilised for these protests and instead sowed illusions that negotiations with Merkel could provide concessions. These negotiations, which took place two weeks ago, achieved nothing, but no call to go on the anti-G8 demo was made. For the telecom workers’ strike to have a chance of succeeding the trade union leaders need to escalate the action and try to spread the strike to wider layers of the working class. A huge opportunity existed during the G8, as telecom workers could have isolated the summit from the media by taking industrial action at the same time. This also could have put the trade union movement to the fore and made concrete the idea that the working class must be the basis of a movement to really change society.
Not only was this opportunity missed, but the absence of the trade unions on the demonstration is in part responsible for the partial breakdown in effective protesting. A trade union presence, with its method of organisation and struggle would have brought an added seriousness and a discipline to the protest. It also would have served as a link between the wider working class and the radicalised youth who tend to be most vocal opponents to capitalism at this stage. Within the trade unions, members of the CWI argue for the workers’ movement to forge links with radicalised young people. Without the heavy battalions of the working class no movement is capable of significant victory. Only the organised working class has the potential to bring society to a standstill and to then organise it in a way that would be capable of meeting the needs of all. Unfortunately the wrong and dangerous tactics of the anarchists give excuses to the trade union leaders to keep the labour movement separate from the anti-capitalist movement.
Committee for a Workers’ International – activists with ideas
Having set up camp amongst the five thousand or so protestors at the international camp we formed an orderly group and made our way to the starting point for the demonstration. We assembled a fantastic contingent of up to 200 members and supporters representing our sections in Germany, Ireland North and South, England and Wales, Scotland, Sweden and the Netherlands. Festooned with posters, banners and placards, our truck headed the contingent. From here marchers heard speeches from SAV councillor Christine Lehnert (Germany), WASG NEC member from the SAV Lucy Redler (Germany), and UNISON NEC member Roger Bannister (Britain). Rapping about issues ranging from war and poverty to the cuts in social security to the lessons for today from the Communist Manifesto, SAV member Holgar Burnar put the message across that we need a socialist alternative as well as ensuring our bloc on the demo was among the liveliest.
From 10am to 6pm when we left the closing rally of the demonstration for our CWI rally, CWI members worked tirelessly distributing leaflets, selling 500 papers and raising 3,000 euros for our campaigns by selling political badges and t-shirts. In a situation where all sorts of ideas are being raised, we were able to discuss with that highly significant layer of people who had come to the protest in the hope of finding a solution to the problems of capitalism. This was reflected in the 150 people who attended our evening rally and by the fact that already a number of people have agreed to join the CWI. They included people who had travelled to Rostock with SAV members but who had not before been convinced of the need to join our ranks officially. But in Rostock the CWI stood out.
No other group had as many members who were confident to go out distributing material and engaging protestors in the crucial discussion of how the G8 and their system can be defeated. No other bloc on the demo was so well stewarded or so clear in its political analysis. The chant of ’the workers united will never be defeated’ was made concrete and urgent by Christine when she explained the need for the trade unions to come out in support of the telecom workers and in defence of all workers’ rights and conditions. Speakers from our platform differentiated socialism from the rotten capitalist system we now suffer under but also from the undemocratic Stalinist system that had existed in the old GDR. We explained, in our material and in the dicsussions with youth, the crucial role that must be played by the working class, the need now for new mass workers’ parties and for a socialist transformation of society.