CWI IEC: Europe and the development of new left parties

Class struggle and the far right

Robert Bechert introduced the session on “Europe, the new left parties, our tactics, the class struggle and the far right” that’ saw contributions from comrades from most European countries.

Europe and the development of new left parties

The entire European situation has swiftly changed, and is still changing fast, because of the economic crisis, the attacks on the working class and the resulting anger of masses. Some countries are facing bankruptcy, for example Iceland, where gross domestic product will shrink by 10% next year and one third of the population want to emigrate as a result. Other countries in central and eastern Europe could suffer the same fate.

The economic collapse has been rapid and deep, and in some countries and some sectors anger has already developed into protest. Ireland saw spontaneous demonstrations against health cuts for pensioners which forced the government to retreat on that particular issue. In Italy, France, Spain, Ireland and Germany students and/or school students, have taken to the streets.

The pay battles, and high wage demands, which took place earlier in the year, in Belgium, Germany, and elsewhere, have receded. There is a shift in the mood to defensive struggles, against lay-offs, redundancies and plant closures in industry, and against neo-liberal attacks on welfare services. In Portugal, there has been a big movement in the education sector, which could spread into other sectors and industry in 2009. There is also the first commercial crisis in Eastern Europe since capitalism was restored following the collapse of Stalinism.

The crisis, while affecting banking everywhere, has so far hit some countries more quickly and deeply than others. Italy, Portugal and some others were already facing severe economic difficulties before the world recession started. Countries like Spain, Britain and the Netherlands have been particularly hard hit by the collapse of speculative housing markets. Others, like France, Germany and Austria, are being affected by the general world situation which is slowing down their economies. Within the European Union, there have been contradictory attempts at unilateral and coordinated action. Thus the Irish government stepped in to guarantee all bank deposits ahead of other European Union nations, initially to the consternation of Germany, Britain and others. But the worsening of the crisis forced others to follow with similar or more extensive measures such as the British government’s part-nationalisation.

There has also been a re-evaluation in some countries of their relationship to euro. There may now be a majority in Denmark to join the eurozone, because the government has made big interest rate hikes to defend the currency, the krone. Many people in Ireland believe that being euro members has afforded some protection against the crisis by being part of a bigger currency zone. This has translated into suggestions there may now be majority support now for the Lisbon treaty and the government could hold a rerun referendum in 2009. On the other hand, the crisis can also lead to tensions and splits within the eurozone. As the crisis unfolds some countries which are unable to act as decisively as they wish because of eurozone membership may withdraw from, or be forced out, of the single currency.

Measures of a protectionist nature, supporting domestic industry, may also become more common. Sarkozy has committed himself to defending French industries and, demagogically, opposing laissez-faire capitalism.

How will the working class respond to the unfolding crisis?

In Ireland, there was a rapid response when the government wanted to attack the health entitlements of the elderly. In other countries action could be delayed, partly because of the stunning effect of the crisis but also because of the role of union leaders. The IG Metall trade union in Germany has agreed that companies could defer the recent pay deal until they say they could afford it! This is because, in the last period, many of them accepted neo-liberal logic and are not prepared to struggle, especially as many of them are integrated into “partnership” deals with the state and bosses. In this situation, workplace struggles could break out from below without the prior approval of the trade union tops. The union leaders can act as a brake for a time but they cannot keep the lid on forever.

As the crisis unfolds, there may be an increase in political support for “lesser evilism”, voting for the “least worst” or simply to keep the “worst” out. This happened to an extent in the recent polarised Austrian election where the Social Democrats (SPÖ) lost less than expected in an attempt to keep out the far right. There has also been increased support for the Irish Labour Party because of its limited amount of criticism of bankers, a similar left turn of the Social Democrats in Switzerland, while PASOK in Greece has adopted more leftist rhetoric and put pressure on Syriza, the left alliance. Growing anger may not be reflected in either former or new left parties, leaving space for the far right to attract support – as in the Austrian election, where they had the biggest support of the parties amongst youth because they were the only parties that appeared to challenge the ruling elite. That is a warning of the type of polarisation that could occur.

Racism and migration could become even more urgent issues in the next period as the crisis creates greater competition for jobs and resources’. Already there have been anti-Islam campaigns and general hostility in Northern and Central Europe towards Eastern European migration and in Southern Europe to migration from North Africa.

New left parties

As the CWI has regularly discussed and reported, recent years have seen some new parties of the left being formed. In some cases these have been as a result of splits from the old, former parties of the working class. In Germany a key part of Die Linke (The Left) originated from a split from the social democrats (SPD), the WASG, particularly of middle-ranking trade unionists who were later followed by Oskar Lafontaine. The WASG merged last year with the PDS, a party that originally came out of the bureaucracy of the former East Germany. But generally there will be varied paths to new formations but there will be tremendous scope for our organisation and to build our own forces

In some countries where there have been longer-existing left formations, they have faced internal crises. Rifondazione Comunista (Prc) in Italy was wiped out in the general election and the right-wing of that party then attempted to dissolve it, but this was rejected by the rank and file at its July conference. Since then the Prc right wing has formed its own organisation and is clearly preparing for a split, but it itself is divided and some may stay in the Prc. While Marxists are arguing for a real left turn towards the mass movement that can build the Prc into a mass force it still not clear what the future is for the Prc: continue as a party, dissolve or fuse, probably the ‘Italian communists’, to form a new party with a even vaguer programme.

The perspectives for the Socialist Party in Netherlands also remain open as it has moved to the right since its election success. The leaders of some other new left parties have also moved to right in their initial response for crisis.

An example given in the discussion was Greece where mass struggles have taken place this year against the right-wing government’s attacks. There have been three general strikes this year. Yet against this background Syriza’s leadership initially shifted right and proposed a non-socialist programme. Xekinima (CWI Greece) members became the catalyst for an opposition, both nationally and locally, that succeeded in the alliance adopting a programme that sets socialist aims. Part of the reason for this rightward mood was that Syriza leadership felt under pressure to be “practical” when the alliance started to score high opinion poll ratings. Syriza’s vagueness on actually how it will act, combined with PASOK’s verbal move to the left, has squeezed support for Syriza to 12% from 18% in opinion polls. All of these formations have weaknesses and uncertain futures but are steps on the way to new mass parties.

For some time there has been tremendous potential for a new left party in France but both Lutte Ouvrière (LO) and the (Ligue Communiste Revolutionaire (LCR) have missed opportunities to launch a new party in the past. Now the LCR is forming a ’new anticapitalist party’ (NPA). The NPA has two sides to it. Currently it is the only party in France invoking enthusiasm. Its spokesperson Olivier Besancenot is the fourth most popular politician in France. The NPA has enormous potential but the LCR is limiting its development. The LCR itself is moving to the right though and the new party is an excuse for them to dissolve their own organisation. However they also want to control the NPA. They are proposing a list for the European assembly elections in 2009 and this could gain significant votes, already in 2007 Besancenot won just under 1.5 million votes. The NPA has potential to grow but whether, or how, it develops as a party is an open question. A new factor is the split of two parliamentarians from the Socialist Party who are forming a party modelled on the German Die Linke and immediately calling for a left front with the Communist party and NPA in next year’s Euro elections, something that may have an effect on the NPA’s development.

Die Linke in Germany is seen as the socialist opposition in Germany. However recent developments show its potential and its weaknesses. It has reached a plateau of support in the last year at about 13-15% even though now there is constant debate on capitalism and socialism in Germany. One of the reasons why its support has levelled off, in this crisis, is that its leaders moved to the right. Currently the Linke’s national leaders do not campaign for nationalisation, yet a recent opinion poll in Germany showed support for nationalisation at 77% for oil and gas, 64% for banks and even 25% for the car industry. Die Linke has not seriously campaigned for nationalisation; it was equivocal on the bankers’ bail-out. Government participation of Die Linke will be a key issue in the next period, both in Berlin where it continues to preside over cuts through its coalition with the SPD and possibly later in other German states.

Increase in struggles inevitable – opportunities for socialists

The crisis could initially bring pressure for “national” governments or pacts, including the trade union tops, which could combine emergency measures to try to mitigate the crisis while continuing neoliberal attacks on living standards. But, given the hatred towards the banks and growing demands for action to “bail out” working people, demands for ’progressive’ or ’left’ governments will become more popular in the next period. There will be big opportunities for the CWI as the crisis threatens tens of millions. It is clear this is a crisis of capitalism and is not caused by workers. How we intervene and what our demands are will be important questions for us in the next period.

In this discussion and in further sessions on the NPA and Die Linke, comrades from all over Europe raised important issues on the mood of workers in their countries and the possibilities for struggle, and how new formations are developing.

On workers’ trade union struggle, comrades from England and Wales explained how in certain situations we have been able to lead fight backs, such as in the car industry, where the Socialist Party members in the National Shop Stewards Network successfully proposed calling a national meeting of car workers in February. Swedish comrades raised how their party’s councillors in Luleå had opposed the social democrats’ proposal to sack 100 cleaners. Swedish comrades also raised the danger of the racist Swedish Democrats getting into parliament at the next election.

An immediate example of how the crisis can, in certain circumstances, lead to rapid developments came from Ireland where there was palpable anger on October health demos in Ireland following the government’s budget announcement of cuts to health benefits. Massive betrayal was felt by angry pensioners and their supporters against the government and on several occasions government speakers were howled down! The general feeling was that the government had bailed out the banks at the expense of pensioners. Since then there have been large demonstrations around the country against the budget’s attacks on education attacks, yet the trade union leaders are still in partnership with the government. Overwhelmingly there is a feeling of shock as the years of economic have suddenly stopped, with significant numbers remembering the warnings of a coming crisis that Joe Higgins made while he was a Socialist Party (CWI) member of parliament.

Reference was made to the Economist’s survey, “20 years of capitalism – was it worth it?”, published just before the meeting that painted a damning picture of capitalist restoration in central and eastern Europe. Only 15% believe there is less corruption than 1989, in this region production fell by a third to the mid-1990s, then stagnated and only regained its 1989 level of output in 2006! Before the crisis Polish workers were fighting back with pay struggles earlier in the year and significant trade union demos took place. But now workers in Poland and the other ex-stalinist countries are facing a savage crisis that will deal brutal blows to the hopes and illusions in capitalism that developed since the late 1980s.

Tony Saunois of the IS referred to the explosive events opening up in both Spain and Portugal. In those countries and others, because of the confusion of consciousness, developments will not be one-sided in favour of socialists who will have to deal with racism and counter-revolution. Consciousness should not be seen in a rigid and schematic way, the crisis’s impact can produce sudden leaps in consciousness but anti-rich consciousness as well as anti-financiers consciousness is developing. The situation is changing rapidly and we need to respond rapidly.

In the discussion on the development of Die Linke, introduced by Lucy Redler, comrades explained how the question of government participation in regional governments such as Berlin, where it is implementing cuts, and its attempt to support a SPD-Green coalition in Hesse, had made this issue important in the party.

The CWI in Germany, Sozialistische Alternative (SAV), is actively part of Die Linke and its youth organisation “SOLID”, putting forward campaign proposals and arguing for the party to be built on the basis of bold socialist policies. However, some leading members of Die Linke have opposed SAV comrades joining the party. Several have been refused membership and will, along with others, have to argue with the party’s regional and national control commissions for their right to be members.

The exclusion of SAV comrades would be seen as a turn to the right in Die Linke but SAV comrades have received great support from the ranks of Die Linke. Whatever the outcome, SAV comrades will fight to give Die Linke and “solid” the programme, strategy and tactics necessary to face up to the crisis in Germany .

Comrade Alex Rouillard from Gauche Révolutionnaire France gave details on how the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA – New Anti capitalist Party) was proposed and its development as it heads towards its formal launch in January 2009.

Against the background of Sarkozy’s 2007 election victory and the current crisis, in which he has denounced ‘laissez-faire capitalism’, there is now an even greater urgency to form a new workers’ party. The launching of the NPA could be an important step towards such a party in France. However, the LCR are specific in not wanting to create a “workers” party with a socialist programme but one with a vague policy which orientates towards the ‘anti-capitalist’, ‘environmental’ movements, and others.

The NPA could be a big pole of attraction for workers opposed to Sarkozy and wanting a socialist alternative. Sadly, the NPA may not develop in that way, especially as it has not, so far, tried to intervene as a fighting force in the struggles that are currently underway in France. The comrades of Gauche Revolutionnaire will campaign to build the NPA into a mass force should it get off the ground but neither will it pass over opportunities that will present themselves from outside this new formation.

Niall Mulholland wound the discussion up for the CWI International Secretariat. He said the economic crisis would see disaster visited upon millions of workers and their families. This year, the 70th anniversary of the formation of the Fourth International, Trotsky’s transitional programme is coming into its own again as a programme of demands to deal with capitalist crisis. The last period has been difficult but it gave us time to develop our forces. He reiterated that now we do not have the luxury of time and have to act decisively. If we do, our parties and the CWI will gain in strength and play an important role in the battles of the working class.

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December 2008