CWI Summer School: Class struggle in Europe and new left parties

Upsurge in workers’ struggles and new opportunities for the Left

This excellent discussion was introduced by Peter Taaffe, from the International Secretariat of the CWI. There were contributions from comrades in Poland, Germany, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, England and Wales, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Scotland, Ireland (north and south), the Netherlands and Sweden.

There were 3 main themes that emerged from the discussion:

  • The economic and political crisis of capitalism throughout Europe
  • The re-emergence of significant struggles of the working class
  • Developments in the building of new left parties in Europe.

European capitalism is entering into a period of prolonged economic, political and social crisis. Economic growth has fallen dramatically in most European countries, for example, in Italy economic growth stands at just 0.4% and in the south of Ireland, the home of the ‘Celtic Tiger’, the economy has collapsed to just 0.3%, over the last year.

The working class across Europe have faced massive increases in the cost food and fuel prices, provoking movements in a number of countries, including Spain, Portugal and France. In Britain, just last week, gas companies increased the price of gas by between 40 and 50%. Paula, from England and Wales, pointed out that 1in 6 households in the UK face fuel poverty while the gas companies make major profits.

At the same time, we are seeing increasing unemployment and attacks on workers conditions and living standards, as well as increasing poverty. Alex, from France, pointed out that French President Nicolas Sarkozy has introduced no less that 116 attacks on the working class, including attacks on pensions, massive job cuts in the public sector and privatisation of the universities. Christine, from Italy, spoke about how the newly elected president Berlusconi launched massive attacks on the working class, massacring jobs, including plans to sack 120,000 workers in the education sector (20% of the workforce!). Christina, from Greece, also highlighted the attacks on the working class in Greece, including attacks on pensions, education and pay.

The ruling class across Europe is extremely weak and there is not one stable government across the region. In Britain, Gordon Brown has become the most hated prime minister, in the space of just 10 months. Sarkozy in France has the lowest popularity for a first time government in the history of the French republic.

This weakness of the ruling elite was also reflected in the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland. Michael, from the south of Ireland, pointed out that the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland was a real blow to the Irish and European ruling class and also to the process of European integration. Despite the best efforts of the political establishment, the church, the leadership of the trade unions and the media, 53% of the population voted against the treaty. In the main, it was a rejection by the working class of the impact of neo-liberal policies. The CWI, and in particular, Socialist Party member, Joe Higgins, played a crucial role in ensuring that the anti-working class nature of the treaty were brought to the fore. This is an excellent example of how small socialist forces can have a real impact.

The EU leaders are scrambling to find a way out of this mess and holding another referendum in the short term is unlikely. A recent opinion poll indicated that 71% of the Irish population are opposed to holding another referendum and 62% said they would vote against it if one was held! The ruling class are desperate to find a way forward; whether that is possible remains to be seen.

Re-emergence of struggles

A lot of discussion focused on the increasing re-emerging of struggles among the working class. In Belgium, there has been a massive increase in the numbers of strikes. Boris said there have been 80 different strikes in response to the wage agreements. The trade unions, in response to the growing mood of anger about the below inflation pay offers, organised a demonstration of 80,000 people. An important feature of these strikes in Belgium has been the involvement of new young workers taking action for the first time.

In England, Wales and Scotland there have also been developments in the class struggle. There was a two-day strike of local government workers in England and Wales, in July, against a below inflation pay offer. There has also been a national strike by teachers over the question of pay – the first national teachers’ strike in 21 years. 250,000 local government workers in Scotland are planning a one day strike on the 20 August, against a three year below inflation pay offer.

Christina reported there have been 3 general strikes involving 3 million workers in the last year, in Greece. There has also been an important strike of teachers and school students, who went on strike for 2 months, winning some concessions.

Casper, from Poland, spoke about the important developments in that country. Poland has seen a whole series of strikes against attacks on pensions and on the question of pay. These strikes have involved workers in the mining industry, dockers, transport workers and workers in the private sector. There was also the first ever strike of Tesco supermarket workers.

There have also been important strike movements in the Scandinavian countries. Lina, from Sweden, spoke about the 5 week long strike of nurses, which the CWI, in Sweden, gave big support to. She also highlighted the strikes of health workers in Denmark, involving 93,000 workers.

Another key feature of this discussion was the criminal role that most of the trade union leaders play, acting as a block on strikes and, in some cases, colluding with employers. In Britain, a key issue is the link of most of the unions to the Labour Party, which has causes widespread revulsion, in particular, among public sector workers.

Against the backdrop of the economic crisis and attacks on the working class, the question of the need for the building of parties that take up and represent the issues that confront working class people is vital.

Left Party

There have been some crucial developments in Germany, Greece, France and Italy, in this regard.

Lucy, from Germany, spoke about the developments in DIE LINKE, the Left Party. The Left Party, led by Oscar Lafontaine, now has between 10 and 15% support in recent opinion polls and is Germany’s third biggest party. It also has political representation in a majority of regional parliaments. This party is now seen as a poll of attraction challenging neo-liberalism for many working class people. Lafontaine has, in recent months, under pressure from events, shifted to the left and he openly speaks about ‘socialism’, although the programme of the party is not socialist. Lucy also pointed out that while there is massive potential for the growth of the Left Party, it is being held back by its focus on elections and by not enough focus on orientating towards the movements of the working class.

Stefan, also from Germany, spoke about the radicalisation of school students that has already seen 10,000s participate in school strikes this year and the possibilities for “solid”, the Left Party’s youth wing, to develop. Over 1,500 young people, many of whom describe themselves as Marxists, attended a "40 years since 1968 Congress" organised by “solid” and the Left Party’s student group. The CWI in Germany is intent on ensuring that we turn towards these workers and youth, in the coming weeks and months.

Andros, from Greece, reported on the new formation, Syriza, which has rapidly emerged as a significant left opposition to the pro-capitalist parties. Syriza has between 12 and 19% support in recent opinion polls in Greece, which represents more than 1 million Greek workers looking to this coalition of left parties. The CWI in Greece joined Syriza and is working to build the new formation, arguing for a clear socialist and anti-capitalist programme for the party.

Syriza and the Greek Communist Party have between them 30% support in the polls, which raises the possibility of the election of a “left government” in Greece.

LCR proposals

In France, the CWI is participating in discussions on the proposals by the left party, the LCR, for the launching of a new anti-capitalist party, provisionally referred to as the NPA. While still at an early stage, if it was launched in a bold way, with a clear socialist programme, and based on an orientation to the working class, there is great potential for a new party. However, it is not clear that the LCR are prepared to do this, and the LCR does not want a federal type structure, with the right of participating organisations and platforms to have their own public newspapers.

Some of these new left formations are facing pressure to enter into discussion about possible coalition governments with the failing social democratic parties. The dangers of this are clear when you look at the experience of the PRC in Italy, which was recently brought to the verge of extinction, after taking part in the previous ‘rainbow coalition’ government, led by Romani Prodi. The anti-working class character of this government paved the way for the return of the hated Berlusconi. The communist movement ended up with no MPs in the Italian parliament, for the first time since the fall of Mussolini. Berlusconi said of the collapse of the PRC: “This is the collapse of the Berlin Wall in Italy”.

However, Marco, a member of Conto Corrente, a left opposition group in the PRC, explained that the recent congress of the PRC saw the defeat of the Bertinotti wing of the party, meaning there is a chance of rebuilding it into a fighting workers’ organisation, in opposition to current coalition government of big business parties. This move could have the potential to inject new life into the PRC and give the working class in Italy a political voice in the impending battles that lie ahead.

Tony Saunois, Secretary of the CWI, in summing up the discussion, pointed to the decisively changed situation in Europe. He described the prospects that this can open up for a new stage in working class struggles, as well as for the building of new left and socialist formations to challenge the capitalist establishment. The CWI, in a number of countries, will play a key role in these developments.

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August 2008