World Capitalist Crisis: Class struggles on the rise

This week, the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) is holding its annual Summer School, in Belgium.

Over 400 people will attend overall, including from across Europe, Russia, Central Asia, India, the US and Quebec and the Middle East. will report from some of the main School discussions, beginning with a report of the first plenary discussion on The World Capitalist Crisis and Class Struggle in Europe.

The 2010 CWI School is taking place in Belgium, this week, against the background of capitalist governments, throughout Europe and internationally, taking savage measures against the working class to cut the huge rise in budget deficits following the collapse of the world banking system in 2008-09. The first discussion, on the World Capitalist Crisis and the Class Struggle in Europe, was introduced by Peter Taaffe from the International Secretariat.

The scene for the discussion was set by a short film showing some of the explosive struggles of working class and youth which have taken place internationally already.

Peter explained that in 1938, Trotsky wrote in the Death Agony of Capitalism (Transitional Programme) that the capitalist class internationally was, “Tobogganing towards disaster with its eyes closed”. Was this not an apt description of the situation today?

Capitalism is beset with crises everywhere. US imperialism has been enmeshed in the unwinnable war in Afghanistan now for 10 years, longer than its intervention in Vietnam. In Iraq, there is an uneasy ’peace’ and sectarian civil war could reignite, leading to the division of the country.

Similarly, the inevitable despoliation of planet will occur if capitalism left in control. The BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is the latest demonstration of complete irresponsibility and lust for profit. We have already had the ‘war for oil’; now water disputes are numerous, including in Central Asia and Latin America. The United Nations says one in three people will live in countries affected by water shortages. There are already 450 million people, in 29 countries, where tensions over water rights are likely to grow. The Copenhagen Summit on climate change was an absolute failure.

But Peter pointed out that capitalism’s greatest incapacity is shown over the world economy, which is ultimately the most important factor shaping all other issues in society. Only a matter of months ago the capitalists internationally defended their fiscal stimulus plans. But in a dizzying switch at the Toronto G20 summit, a majority of the capitalist leaders swung over to ‘austerity’! Obama was isolated, which is a sign of weakness in that he could not impose US capitalism’s will, despite it still having the biggest economy in the world.

EU drum beat of austerity

European capitalism marches – at the moment – to the drumbeat of those favouring ’austerity’, like the British Conservatives and Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor. But the road of austerity will enormously compound the economic crisis. The economic ‘recovery’ was mainly due to restocking. There is now a ’sovereign debt crisis’ because government debt soared due to the state bail-out of the banks and the rise of unemployment and welfare payments.

Peter concurred with American Keynesian economist Paul Krugman, when Krugman said that the crisis would be more like the depression of the late 19th century, which was a drawn-out economic stagnation, than the 1930s crisis . Keynesianism cannot solve the problems of capitalism in the long term because eventually either the working class pays through increased taxes and inflation or the capitalists go on an investment ’strike’, if they are made to pay. One writer in the Guardian newspaper (London) claimed that Keynesianism was ‘dead’ following the G20 summit. But further stimulus packages may be necessary to rescue the system, particularly if there is a tsunami of mass protests.

Neither will the private sector solve the problem. In Britain, 750,000 public sector jobs are to go and as a consequence 600,000 private sector jobs will also disappear, yet the private sector is supposedly to create two million ’new’ jobs! The weakness of Britain’s industrial base will shatter the illusion that it can export its way out of the crisis. Germany has had some increase in exports but the rest of the de-industrialised world, particularly the rest of Europe, will not be as lucky. And China is now facing a slowdown due to overheating and a property collapse. There has been over-investment and massive surplus capacity. China’s decision to revalue its currency, the renminbi, has seen a miserly rise (0.77%) so far and is not having the desired effect of cutting China’s trade surplus with the US.

Even if there is some economic revival in Germany, it will not be noticed by the masses because of the increase in unemployment, accumulated losses in income and the fall in living standards. Millions of workers in Europe now are on worse conditions than existed before crisis, with the general enforcement of neo-liberal policies. The capitalists will push more workers into the less formal and insecure sector, so they are easier to sack.

Britain’s new coalition government leads the way in attacking workers’ conditions. Brutal cuts plans will cut redundancy payments to civil servants and the whole public sector faces a reduction in pension entitlements. There is a European-wide assault on pensions. In France, President Sarkozy wants to raise the pension age to 62 by 2018. Anatole Kaletsky, in the Times newspaper (London), bemoaned the fact that people live too long after retirement. He suggested that pensions should only be paid for 10 years after retirement and people who live longer should lose their vote!

Peter pointed out that Greece is now seen as the weakest link in the chain of European capitalism. The European capitalists see Greece as a ‘stress test’ of the ability of the working class to resist. There has been an unprecedented propaganda barrage of lies. Workers have responded with six general strikes. Comparisons with Argentina in 2001-02 have been invoked both by capitalist politicians like Mitsotakis, the former leader of right-wing party New Democracy, and also by the CWI comrades of Xekinima. It is a very good analogy, as there were eight general strikes in Argentina, the storming of supermarkets and the occupation of factories. If attacks continue, this is the future for Greece and not just Greece. The working class in Greece is now digesting its experiences and will “wait till the autumn”, which is going to be hot politically.

General strikes or general strike possibilities are rooted in the situation in many countries of Europe, said Peter. France has had two public-sector strikes in the last month against pension attacks. These could be the most determined actions since the strikes against the Juppé plan in 1995. We have also seen similar strike action in Italy, Spain and Portugal, with a pronounced shift towards the left in Spain, in particular, but also in some workers’ organisations in Portugal. The trade union leaders are desperately trying to apply the brakes to fracture resistance. In Britain, the CWI sections are calling for a national demonstration against the most serious and brutal attacks since the Geddes attacks of 1922, which helped prepare the anger that led to the 1926 general strike. A national demo should be preparation for future industrial action.

Issues posed by general strikes

We have always made the point that general strikes generally pose the question of power. The working class brings the whole of society to a standstill. However, recent general strikes have been more in the nature of protests. Therefore our slogans have to take account of this. In Greece, there have been 24-hour then 48-hour general strikes that have had magnificent responses. But the Greek working class will have to go further, if it is to force the government to back down.

But the big difference today, in all situations where general strikes loom – in public sector but also encompassing those in private sector – is the absence of broad organisations which can shape the struggle. This is different to the 1980s when there was also a broad socialist consciousness allied to workers’ parties that played a role. In time, the working class arrives at socialist conclusions through their experience; the CWI rejects the ultra-left approach of bringing ‘socialism’ to workers from the outside. But the lack of broad socialist organisations today holds back the working class, even as capitalism demonstrates to the greatest extent in its history its incapacity to satisfy basic human needs. It leaves the working class unprepared because of the acceptance of the market by ex-workers’ leaders and organisations. Workers will go through the experience of new mass left formations (and the next CWI School discussion will deal with this question in more detail).

Peter went on to the question of slogans and demands. Timely intervention with the best slogans gains the ear of workers. In Greece, we have had a big impact with our demand to ‘cancel the debts’. This demand echoes Latin America in the past and shows the character and the stage of the crisis. This demand leads on to the call for the nationalisation of the banks, under the democratic control and management of working people. We are the only organisation seriously putting forward these demands and they are having a great impact.

Not every country is at the same stage of struggle. In Ireland, the scale of cuts has been colossal and has stunned the working class, particularly after experiencing for around two decades the highest living standards in Irish history. There have also been elements of this in Britain. But mass consciousness can change very quickly particularly if a head-on collision of the classes occurs. Workers’ anger is mostly directed against banks and the big finance houses, at the moment, but putting forward socialist ideas will assist in raising consciousness.

Peter warned of the far right and the growth of nationalism and racism, as seen in Austria, Italy and elsewhere. The right may appear to gain in the first stages of a crisis, if no mass alternative is available. Another complicating factor could be the growth of the national question. We must put a socialist position when it arises. The recent mass demonstration in Barcelona in support of Catalan nationalism is an indication of what could develop.

Peter then dealt briefly with the crises in other parts of the world. In the Middle East there is no possibility of agreement between Israel and Palestine. Obama will largely not act due to the ‘proximity’ of the midterm elections in the US. The whole of the Middle East is affected by the economic crisis; Egypt especially is in a catastrophic position and is on the brink of big social movements.

The collapse of economies in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union is stirring opposition. In Kazakhstan, CWI supporters have a tremendous position, with a chance to fill the vacuum, with the broad formation ’Kazakhstan 2012’, which is the outline a mass movement. A horrible vision of the future, if there is no mass alternative, was provided by the recent ethnic clashes in Kyrgyzstan, where there is evidence ethnic divisions were whipped up.

What we have seen in China, with strikes and protests for better pay and against terrible working and social conditions, is an echo of the stirrings of workers in Russia in 1896. Workers in China today are raising the need for independent unions.

Under capitalism the terrible prospect of “all against all” is raised. This is graphically illustrated by the nightmare of Mexico and the drug wars which have enveloped a section of society. The only way to avoid this is if the working class measures up to the tasks of history, embraces struggle, socialism and revolutionary ideas, and then carries through the transformation of society. We discuss ideas to act. But if you do not have correct theory you will have no guide to action. Our task is to try to politically arm the working class.

CWI analysis

The CWI analysis has been clearer than any other tendencies particularly over the last 12 months. We participated in workers’ struggles more audaciously and effectively than any others. Our comrades are prepared to make tremendous sacrifices for great historic aims. The working class will come to socialist ideas through its experiences of class struggles, of defeats and victories. The CWI must be prepared to grow, organise and to win the forces needed for shaping this century in the direction of socialism.

A common feature of contributions in the discussion was governments’ cuts and what is being done to fight them by the working class and the different sections of the CWI. Another theme was the anger and uncertainty building up amongst millions of people internationally who have seen a dramatic drop in living standards. Many comrades from Europe, the US, Asia and Australia illustrated vividly the situations in their countries. The world is on the verge of further explosions, in one country after another and the CWI will be prepared to intervene in the mighty events to come.

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July 2010