Europe: A continent of capitalist crisis

CWI European Bureau meeting

Representatives from the Committee for a Workers’ International’s (CWI) European sections gathered in London, between 13 and 15 April. Discussions at the meeting focussed on the perspectives opening up for the next period in a continent of capitalist crisis, and the tasks facing the working class movement, socialists and Marxists, in responding to the capitalist onslaught. It also featured a discussion on building the forces capable of strengthening the workers’ movement and building support for a socialist alternative to the crises and chaos of capitalism.

Introducing a discussion on European perspectives, Peter Taaffe, from the CWI’s International Secretariat, stressed how in the situation which has unfolded since previous international meetings of the CWI, the perspectives of the CWI have been borne out in a remarkable fashion. Developments in the last weeks and months, with the deepening of the crisis in the Eurozone, and the explosion of the Greek debt crisis, have exposed the real instability of the situation and depth of the crisis in Europe, despite European capitalism’s mantra of a “return to growth”.

A “job-loss” recovery

As the CWI has commented in the recent past, while it has become possible for a number of European governments to declare the “official” end of recession, the anaemic “growth” that has taken place is almost solely the result of the massive bailout packages and interventions implemented by capitalist governments throughout the region and is not of a stable character, by any means. Peter spoke of the “state capitalist” measures implemented by European governments in response to the crisis. He explained, however, that these measures did not represent a generalised move by capitalism towards ‘state capitalist’ or Keynesian policies, but that these limited measures (which are explicitly temporary) were being combined with deflationary neo-liberal policies, such as savage cuts to public spending and the welfare state. They do not represent a “regulatory” turn on the part of capitalism, which fully retains its fundamentally reckless, unplanned character.

Even in countries where elements of a limited, partial “recovery” are present, this growth is taking place in the overall context of a period of world economic recession. While this “growth” has formed the basis for the arguments of world capitalism, to the effect that the end of the crisis looms, any serious analysis of developments reveals that the “growth” which has taken place is nowhere near significant enough to signal a return to the growth rates of the last period. The fundamental problems of investment and markets remain unresolved. The last period has seen the single greatest drop in overall world trade since 1945. The swelling ranks of the unemployed bear testament to the continuing depth of the crisis in Europe. Developing mass unemployment is already at depressionary levels, in countries such as Ireland, Spain and Greece. In many ways, the current phase of growth represents a “job-loss” recovery, with technical growth in production in some countries having taken place on the basis of a massive slashing of the active workforce. The absence of a prospective source of growth or major investment in the next period for capitalism, will give this unemployment an increasingly structural and permanent character, with a growing “reserve army” of the unemployed destined to be one of the characteristics of the next period.

Greek debt crisis brings turmoil to Eurozone

Political instability

The meeting reflected the fact that throughout Europe, it has become almost impossible to speak of a “stable” government, in any country. Governments in France, Ireland and Britain, among others, have seen record lows in opinion polls in the recent past. In France, 64% of the population oppose the Sarkozy government. The Fianna Fail / Green Party government in Southern Ireland enjoys a mere 25% support! The massive bailouts and cash injections doled out to the bankers and financial institutions, combined with the brutal austerity measures being implemented across the continent, have laid the basis for such profound anti-government feeling. However, the lack, at this stage of a mass, viable alternative on the left capable of arousing the enthusiasm and support of workers and youth and giving this opposition a sufficient expression, has thus far complicated the development of a genuine working class political response to the anti-worker policies of governments throughout Europe.

In some countries, the absence of such a force, with a fighting programme and profile, has contributed to the emergence of a significant trend of “lesser evilism”. In Greece, Britain, and France this has contributed to a certain revival in electoral support for parties of the so-called “centre-left”, who are seen as representing a less vicious form of austerity and attacks than the more traditional right-wing capitalist parties. In Britain, where the Conservative party had developed a double-digit lead in the polls in 2009, this sentiment, which is tangible particularly among older sections of the working class, with bitter memories of past Tory governments, including that of Margaret Thatcher, has led to a certain revival in support for New Labour, despite 13 years of anti-worker policies. However, comrades from a number of countries stressed that, in Britain and elsewhere, this type of support is largely of a reluctant and unstable character, with no real deep illusions existing in these parties. Indeed, a parallel feature of consciousness throughout Europe, is the increasingly discredited nature of the capitalist political establishment, generally, with the capitalist consensus of cuts and attacks aimed at the majority paying for the crisis shared by all major parties in most countries. Recent French regional elections, for example, which saw gains for the “centre-left” Socialist Party and significant blows to Sarkozy’s UMP, also saw France’s highest ever abstention rates (53% in the first round).

New Left parties

This situation gives added emphasis to the CWI’s political perspective, for the development of new mass left parties of the working class and youth, following the transformation of the former ‘workers parties’, such as New Labour in Britain and the PS in France, during the last period into wholly capitalist formations. Important steps in this direction have been taken in a number of countries, with the formation of new Left Parties with the potential to develop in a mass, socialist direction, such as Die Linke in Germany, the NPA in France and SYRIZA in Greece, in which CWI comrades in each of these countries participate. However, contributions at the meeting underlined the questions and problems that have been raised for the development of these parties, most importantly, the importance of a socialist programme capable of galvanising the opposition to the capitalist crisis and putting forward real socialist solutions.

In Germany, while a new draft programme for Die Linke being proposed for the party’s 17 May national conference includes certain shifts to the left, including the raising of the “property question” and the necessity of socialism, comrades stressed that this programme needs not to be merely adopted and consigned to the filing cabinet, but to be incorporated into the public profile and life of the party. There is also a necessity for greater clarity and determination in how a socialist programme is posed by the party, with demands for the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy, including the financial sector, under democratic workers’ control. SAV (the CWI in Germany) is fully engaged in the struggle to build the Left Party as a mass, fighting socialist alternative, including in its youth wing, SOLID, where SAV comrades work enthusiastically, despite recent attacks by the organisation’s leadership.

In France’s aforementioned regional elections, the same key issue, of the need for the development of a programme and strategy for the development of the NPA (New Anti-capitalist Party) as a mass, socialist formation, were raised in the discussion. The NPA’s poor performance (around 2.5% nationally) has provoked much debate and discussion within its ranks about what needs to be done in order to seize upon the opportunities present in France for a mass anti-capitalist left. The abstention of over 80% of young people of voting age, and over 70% of manufacturing workers, in the elections, gives an indication of the ground open for a fighting left alternative. Gauche Revolutionnaire (the CWI in France), which is a current within the NPA, campaigns for the NPA to uphold an independent anti-capitalist position. Comrades from Xekinima (CWI in Greece) reported on the situation regarding the left formation SYRIZA, and its struggle, along with others within it, to develop the party as a mass voice for the explosive struggles developing in that country.

In Britain, Belgium, Austria, Hungary and other countries, the danger presented by the growth in support for far-right and racist parties was also discussed. Austrian comrades reported on the attempts by the far right to appropriate elements of left and anti-capitalist rhetoric in an attempt to garner support from disillusioned working class people. This further underlines the necessity of new left formations to intervene in the correct manner with a programme of united struggle against the crisis and onslaught on living standards.

Eurozone crisis, Greece, ‘PIGS’ and ‘STUPIDS’

The particular depth of the crisis in a number of European countries, especially the so-called PIGS, and the impact of this on the wider European economic situation, was a consistent feature of the discussions. The economies in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Latvia have plummeted at a devastating rate, with strong elements in existence of depression, not only recession, in these countries. Spain, with an unemployment at over 4 million (19%) and over 40% of youths without work, has seen a profound social crisis developing, with millions thrown into destitution and an overflowing black economy. The rapid collapse of the Latvian economy has left 26% of the population living in poverty. The meeting was told that throughout Europe, over 80 million (17%) people face the immediate risk of falling into poverty. Indeed, recent weeks have seen the disparaging ‘PIGS’ acronym, with which capitalist commentators have insulted the workers of Spain, Ireland, Greece and Spain, added to. Some commentators now speak of the STUPIDs! (Spain, Turkey, UK, Portugal, Italy and Dubai).

The political and economic turmoil unleashed by the development of the Greek debt crisis, and its impact in terms of exposing the crisis and instability, which plagues the EU and Eurozone institutions, was dealt with in contributions by a number of comrades. The crisis has undermined the viability and legitimacy of the project of European “unity and integration”. The fallout from the Greek debt crisis, with the raising of national tensions and rivalries surrounding the EU and Eurozone’s response to the Greek situation, represents a vindication of the position of the CWI, which has consistently pointed out the limitations and ultimate unavailability of genuine European integration on a capitalist basis.

The stretching of the EU and Eurozone’s economic capacity, which was seen in the “bailout” given to the Greek government (with a significant percentage being contributed by the IMF, representing a blow to the prestige of the EU institutions), offers a glimpse into the turmoil which could rock these institutions in the next period. The still unresolved case of Greece – with many serious capitalist commentators predicting the inevitability of a further default or “re-structuring” of its debt – combined with the predicaments and possibility of the development of similar crisis for other economies, such as Spain (with an economy 4 times the size of Greece), is destined to test further the viability of the Eurozone project in the future. Numerous speakers at the meeting discussed the spectre of the exit of countries from the Eurozone in the next period, or even the breakup of the Euro, a threat which will loom large over European capitalism in the next period.

The CWI stands for an uncompromising working class internationalism, as opposed to the nationalist posturing of capitalist governments throughout Europe. The meeting discussed the necessity of European-wide days of action and protest to raise and popularise the idea of international resistance and an international socialist alternative. Comrades in Germany and Greece reported on their CWI sections took initiatives aimed at cutting across the recently expressed insulting nationalist sentiments touted by the Merkel government and its Greek counterpart.

Greece at forefront of the fightback

Explosive struggles developing

As well as in relation to the Eurozone crisis, Greece was also a certain focus of discussion as far as the development of a fight-back by workers and youth, faced with the current situation, is concerned. In a country which was recently rocked by three general strikes within a four week period, the massive and deep anger which has met the government’s colossal austerity package shows no signs of abating, with further general strikes certain to develop soon. In every country in Europe the scale of the assault on living standards, which has resulted from the crisis and capitalism’s response, implicitly poses the question of a general strike. Developments in countries such as Spain and Portugal, indicate the prospect of general strikes developing in response to the ‘slash and burn’ attacks of governments.

In France, Greece and Italy, recent times have seen general strikes but in a manner that reflects the role and character of the right-wing trade union bureaucracy. These “leaderships” often approach the mobilisation and action of workers in an attempt to “let off steam”, rather than to wage a real struggle to defeat attacks etc. This poses the need for a struggle within the workers’ movement of an alternative programme of militant action. The meeting heard how in Ireland a recently agreed public sector pay deal, which represented an historic sell-out by the country’s union leaders. The ‘deal’ includes no real guarantees on pay and a four year “no strike deal” in the face of massive attacks. It stands in danger of being rejected, after a groundswell of opposition forced most of the country’s public sector unions to come out against the deal. Comrades discussed that in countries where general strikes have already taken place, such as Greece, the question of a further escalation of the fight-back is also posed, including 48-hour general strikes. The programme necessary to face such a situation was a key aspect of the discussions at the meeting.

Building a socialist alternative for workers and youth

In replying to the discussion on European perspectives, Tony Saunois re-emphasised the explosive character of the current period, as well as the one ahead. Along with comrades from Russia, he invoked the example of recent revolutionary events in Kyrgygstan. These events illustrate the potential for the rapid development of struggles and consciousness, with socialist demands, such as nationalisation under workers’ control and management, gaining a powerful mass echo. The radicalisation brought about by the crisis among significant layers of workers and youth in Europe, and beyond, was a key plank of the discussions which took place at the meeting.

Amongst the youth, in particular, who face an increasingly dismal and uncertain future under capitalism, with mass youth unemployment a feature in most European countries, the potential for political radicalisation and an increasing openness to socialist and Marxist alternatives to capitalism is apparent. The meeting heard how CWI sections in France, Britain, Austria, Greece and Germany have played key roles in the significant youth and education struggles which have developed in these countries. In Britain, Belgium, Sweden and Germany, and across Europe, sections have actively taken up the struggle against youth unemployment. This includes active campaigns which seek to organise the fight for a decent future. This needs to be linked to the necessity for a generalised struggle of workers and youth against the crisis and for a socialist alternative to the capitalist system.

The meeting ended in an optimistic and determined mood regarding the building of the forces of the CWI in the stormy and explosive events which are to come. The building of the CWI was reflected at the meeting, which included participation from comrades from Iceland and Portugal. Along with a building of the forces and influence of the European sections of the CWI in the struggles and movements which are developing, the extension of our forces into new and important countries such as Portugal and Spain will offer enormous opportunities for the popularisation of and growth in support for socialism and Marxism. This situation will also see the potential for the further development of the CWI as a key factor in the tumultuous period of struggle and change which lies ahead.

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April 2010