10th CWI World Congress: Europe – Starkly changed economic, social and political landscape

Report of discussion on Europe at the 10th world congress of the CWI

The starkly changed economic, social and political landscape was the background to the inspiring discussion on Europe at the CWI’s 10th World Congress, introduced by Tony Saunois from the International Secretariat.

For the CWI, the challenge is to explain, prepare, intervene and build. The severity of the continuing world economic crisis is having a profound effect upon the entire continent of Europe, as financial bail outs are followed by unprecedented attacks on workers rights, jobs, pensions and conditions.

In countries like Portugal, Spain and even Belgium there is the continuing threat of sovereign-debt crises. In Greece and Ireland the IMF and EU has attempted to stem the financial haemorrhage, but tomorrow the danger of default looms. This raises the spectre of the unravelling of the eurozone and even the undermining of the European Union itself in its present form.

The Financial Times has warned that a default in Ireland or Greece would have a bigger effect than the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008.

Splits persist between the “austerians” – those calling for savage austerity cuts – and the “deficit-deniers”. The primary position of capitalism is one of increasing austerity but this does not preclude more bail-outs, interventions and stimulus packages should emergency circumstances dictate.

Europe has begun to be utterly transformed. The social reserves of capitalism are being eaten away. Youth unemployment stands at 40% in Greece and is officially 30% in Spain.

People’s lives have been shattered in Ireland and elsewhere. The scale of these brutal attacks has hit the middle class too, drawing all sections into the vortex of misery and struggle. For the first time in a generation, Irish youth are again choosing emigration.

Whilst there is still evidence of ‘lesser evilism’ as workers vote once more for some of the former traditional workers’ parties, to keep the right wing out of power, any lingering illusions quickly evaporate. The victory of Pasok in Greece has proven that the former workers’ parties rest securely in the camp of capitalism. This bitter experience can ignite mass resentment towards all political parties – an echo of the ‘out with all of you’ mood that gripped Argentina in 2001.

In crisis-ridden Ireland, prime minister Brian Cowen’s popularity ratings have crashed to just 8% and the main governmening party, Fianna Fail, is disintegrating. Sections of the Irish media have spoken of ‘national humiliation’ and have compared the latest brutal IMF package to a modern-day ‘Treaty of Versailles’. Interest on the debt is now equivalent to a staggering 10% of GDP, while the budget deficit at 32% of GDP is the largest anywhere in peacetime history.

The contempt in which the ruling politicians are held is illustrated by the fact that the IMF was viewed by many, if not as a saviour, then at least as a change from the crooks, spivs and money launderers who brought the ‘Celtic Tiger’ crashing down.

All the major European economies have investments in Irish banks and tremble at the threat of default. With Britain’s trade with Ireland constituting 7% of GDP (a greater share than with China and India combined), it is clear that the British government’s willingness to shoulder its share of the burden of assisting Dublin is motivated by the panic of contagion.

At the last World Congress, political events in Latin America were at the forefront, but at this conjuncture the movement of the working class across Europe is the decisive factor.

General strikes

Over ten million participated in September’s Spanish 24-hour general strike, while in Portugal 85% of workers have struck against the government’s vicious cuts programme in the biggest mass strike since the 1970s.

We predicted that the attempts by ruling classes across Europe to make the workers pay for the crisis of their system would cause mighty turmoil and lead to generalised protest on a scale not seen for decades. This prediction has been fulfilled in Italy, in France and above all in Greece, where there have been six general strikes, with a seventh planned for 15 December.

Now in Britain, just six months after the coming to power of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition hell-bent on cutting public services to their core, young people, supported by growing numbers of workers, have taken up the fight in a series of magnificent walk-outs, protests and demonstrations against attempts to triple university tuition fees and abolish study allowances for poorer college students.

Despite their spoken determination to continue with austerity packages, there is an underlying fear on the part of pro-capitalist governments of the consequences of these policies upon social relations. The IMF/EU bail-out of Ireland, coming hot on the heels of the Greek rescue package, is another indication of the chain of crises that now exists which will produce social and political explosions.

All that once seemed certain is now uncertain. The Greek economic bail-out seemed to pacify the markets and draw a line under the sovereign debt crisis only to appear in even more virulent form in Ireland where an acceleration of the economic unravelling is now possible.

Against the trend, German capitalism has recovered from the first phase of the crisis as a result of the strengthening of its export markets. Yet this growth remains precarious and dependent upon world factors, such as the continual growth in China’s economy. Unfolding sovereign debt crises in Europe deeply alarm the German ruling class, with Chancellor Angela Merkel warning that Berlin’s purse will not be as ‘generous’ as in the past.

This barely-disguised threat has manifested itself in sharp disagreements over Greece, with Merkel hinting that the euro project may have to be ‘amended’. The discussion is not simply about planning for the contingency of one or more weaker countries having to withdraw from the euro-zone, but in extreme circumstances, even Germany exiting and the reconfiguring of the entire project.

In reality the German economic recovery is taking place at the expense of other euro states. Some – like Greece, Romania and Latvia continue to experience negative growth.

Working class enters struggle

The key feature in this changed period is the entry of the working class into struggle. This, in turn, sharply poses the question of the need for working class leadership – both industrially and politically. Unfortunatley a competition could be held across Europe to judge which country has the poorest union leadership – the result would be hotly contested!

Where there have been one day general strikes in Spain and Portugal, these have been convened only as last resorts by the leadership bureaucracy. The leaders consider their job done after organising these stoppages. In Ireland, the union leaders held back the movement for a whole period, joining in the patriotic refrain that the country had to ‘pull together’. But now an explosive movement is developing again.

The question of the general strike raises important issues for the CWI. These strikes have assumed more of the character of protest, rather than a preparation to bring down governments. Broad consciousness has not yet reached the level where there is an understanding that a general strike poses the question of which class can run and control society.

This is linked to the crisis of working class political leadership and the lack of a viable alternative to the market system. There is not yet an understanding of the need in the future for all-out general strikes that have the objective of overthrowing governments and preparing for the working class to take power.

In CWI participation in struggles, we have to bring forward timely proposals that clearly identify the next steps for these movements. The idea of continuing the struggle must be elaborated in a concrete way. This will differ in each country according to the preparedness of workers to struggle and the existing level of consciousness. In Italy, we would pose at this stage the need to build for a one day general strike. In Greece, after 6 general strikes (and another one planned before Xmas) there is a need to go further and develop more extensive actions, underlining what will be necessary to conduct a more extensive all-out struggle.

Workers will realise that we do not face a short-term period of crisis but an organic crisis of the system. Abrupt changes can occur when events make this clearer. What may begin as ‘anti’ protests that identify symptoms of crisis – for example the pickets of Vodafone shops in Britain – will later develop into a broader anti-capitalist consciousness and later a conscious embracing socialism.

Our demands for non-payment of the debt, for the nationalisation of the banks under workers’ control and management, which the Greek CWI comrades have skilfully expounded, will be eagerly taken up as a path that can show the way to a different society. As part of this explanation, we must give specific definitions to what is meant by the idea of a workers’ government.

Where Left parties exist in Greece, Portugal and elsewhere, they have been found wanting in the new situation. The turn to the right by the Syriza leadership in Greece, and its poor vote in the 2009 election, reflects the confusion that exists in this and other left formations. The more recent local elections saw mass abstentions and little enthusiasm for Syriza’s abstract position on how to fight back. There has been a certain collapse in Syriza, while Portugal’s Left Bloc has policies hardly different to that of the former Portuguese social democracy.

In Italy, the PRC is on its last legs and more politically advanced workers are seeking an alternative. Some have embraced the FIOM (metal mechanics section of the CGIL trade union federation). It is receiving membership applications from non-metal workers desperate to find a formation that has the strategy, tactics and slogans to build a viable alternative to the tsunami of attacks unleashed by the employers.

Vacuum on the Left

The vacuum on the Left can allow the forces of the far-right to attract support, both from the middle class and demoralised workers. The neo-fascists obtained success in the recent council elections in Athens, while the far-right made electoral gains for the first time in over 20 years in the Swedish general election, as the Social Democrats recorded their worst performance in almost a century. In Hungary, the ultra-right Jobbik party, whose leader openly proclaims his fascist lineage, obtained 16% in the parliamentary election.

New EU rules will open up EU labour markets to the citizens of the EU’s latest entrants in May 2011. On the basis of capitalist crisis, this will worsen hostility towards migrant workers and must be countered by the building workers’ united action against wage-cutting and pressures on already diminishing services.

The national question can flare up too, not least in Belgium where the traditional parties have been incapable of forming a government in nearly six months. Belgian banks are also very vulnerable to the financial contagion, with a Gent professor warning that Belgium is on its way to the “slaughterhouse” of the IMF!

Die Linke (Left Party) in Germany has made a certain electoral impact, while the Izquierda Unida (IU – United Left) in Spain has been able to attract new layers of militant workers and youth with a more left programme and appeal. Standing in the polls currently at 7.5%, the party still struggles to link its programme to the consciousness of the working class. When asked what alternative exists to the dictatorship of the banks, it starkly replies, “the dictatorship of the proletariat”. In this period, such an answer is abstract. The CWI advances slogans in a transitional manner based upon existing levels of consciousness and seeking to link demands to concrete struggle. We are for the right of recall of elected figures, with elected workers’ leaders living on a skilled workers’ wage, and for the building of workers’ parties that show how the present political impasse can be overcome.

In Greece, in 2008, it was not sufficient for CWI comrades to adopt Syriza’s slogan of ‘down with the government’ but to counteract that with the call for the election of a left-workers’ government. This must be linked to the question of cancelling the debt.

The debt crisis created a crisis in Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left), whose leadership failed to put forward policies to show a clear way forwarde for the working class.

The NPA (anti-capitalist party) in France still has potential, but whether it can build as a mass working class force is not at all clear. The NPA calls for a government based on struggle, but we have to be more explicit in calling for a government of the working class. These are not hair-splitting questions, but vital slogans that can arm the working class in the direction of building concrete parties that can fill the gaps on the left that presently exist in many countries.

The September/October movement in France saw millions take to the streets and despite only a minority taking strike action, there have now been eight days of protest. Pension ‘reform’ became the catalyst for all the disparate strands of anger in society – a lightening rod for action. The movement to stop the pension law however proved insufficient and there is now a pause in the struggle. Workers blockaded refineries and seek to cut off the oil supply to Charles de Gaulle airport. However this is still a long way off from 1968, when workers occupied their factories.

Overall Eight million workers participated in a demonstration or strike but workers need political demands and organisational forms to take struggles forward. The threat and use of legal weapons to curb the movement did have some effect in intimidating workers.

The imposition of the first ‘state of alert’ since the Franco dictatorship years, and the recent militarisation of airports by the Spanish government in response to industrial action by air traffic controllers, is another illustration of the growing anti-strike, authoritarian measures being unleashed by pro-capitalist governments. These can have a temporary effect but will further deepen hostility and prepare more dynamite in class relations.

In Britain, the Cameron coalition government seeks to curtail protest through ‘kettling’ tactics. Across Europe, the ruling class is laying down the preparations for the growing class wars that inevitably characterise this period.

In this fevered atmosphere, and without the formation of new workers’ parties, anarchistic and syndicalist moods can develop. The postal bombs sent recently to EU leaders indicates that even terroristic trends can take hold amongs the most alienated youth.

Europe no longer a ‘model’ for capitalism

In summing up the Congress discussion on Europe, Niall Mulholland from the CWI International Secretariat underlined that we have clearly entered a new period marked by the eurozone crisis and the entry into struggle of the working class. Europe is no longer the ‘model’ for stable and prosperous capitalism– elements of Africa or Latin America are coming to Europe. Events will unfold at different paces, but low growth, austerity and crises of both political and social characters will be dominant.

We must prepare for a protracted period of struggle. The working class can be temporarily driven back or even suffer some defeats because of the absence of strong workers’ parties and the still modest numerical force of Marxism. But there is a strong international dimension to the unfolding movement in Europe. Students in Greece are inspired by students in Britain, who, in turn, believe at last that they can take the ‘French road’ of struggle.

Bitter struggles can develop too around social and environmental questions, as shown by the ‘Stuttgart 21’ movement in Germany.

The common feature in all of the new left formations is an ideological and organisational weakness. Formally radical manifestos are not adequate or even attempted to be applied to match the depth of the capitalist crisis. A fighting programme that includes the repudiation of national debts, the nationalisation of the banks, the taking over of the major corporations under the democratic public ownership of the working class must become welded to the day-to-day struggles.

The CWI will continue to energetically build the political forces of the working class. Where opportunities present themselves for strengthening an electoral challenge, as in Ireland with the founding of the United Left Alliance, the CWI will enthusiastically participate. A real possibility exists of securing seats in the Dail (Irish parliament) at the forthcoming Irish general elections. As previously shown, the CWI made an significant impact with TD’s (MPs) like Joe Higgins, who is currently an MEP.

New questions will be posed in the future, not least that of the possible shattering of the euro-zone or its reconfiguration into a ‘premiership’ and lower ‘divisions’ or with some countries leaving it altogether. We have to emblazon our banner with a clear call for a United Socialist States of Europe as an antidote to this diseased system..

‘All that is solid melts into air’ wrote Marx and Engels in the Manifesto of the Communist Party in describing the impermanence of social relations and life itself. These words resonate in the new Europe – what has existed before is no more.

Illusions in welfare capitalism are being rudely shattered. The class struggle calls. In the ranks of the CWI stand the troops ready to do battle, armed with a method and programme that will engage millions in the future in building mass forces that will transform the continent and the entire planet.

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