We are living through one of the most dramatic periods in history
We are living through one of the most dramatic periods in history. The Greek workers, followed by the Portuguese and Spanish, are in the vanguard of the movement against capitalist barbarity, endless austerity. No one can now argue that the working class is passive in the face of the onslaught of rotten and diseased capitalism. In a series of great general strikes, they have resisted. They have yet to create a mass party and leadership worthy of them in the battle between labour and capital that will dominate the early 21st century. It is the task of the CWI through the theoretical clarity of our ideas, matched to a programme of action to help create this new leadership, which can ensure victory to the working class.
The unstable character of world relations – which can result in the outbreak of conflict in many areas of the world at any time – is indicated by the recent clashes between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. This was restricted to the exchange of rocket fire and a ceasefire agreement has now been reached. But the war could break out again and a ground assault by Israel against Gaza cannot be ruled out, which in turn would provoke turmoil throughout the Middle East and the possibility of a wider war.
The ‘Arab Spring’, or awakening, in the Middle East and North Africa, had already threatened to turn into autumn if not the onset of winter. As the CWI predicted, imperialist intervention in Libya – scandalously supported by some on the left, including some so-called ‘Trotskyists’ – gave the opportunity for imperialism to intervene and establish a bridgehead against the revolution in the Middle East and North Africa. This colossal movement of the masses had toppled Ben Ali in Tunisia and the Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt, with the Islamic jihadist forces largely impotent bystanders incapable of affecting the outcome of the revolution.
It threatened to do the same in Libya through a mass movement from below, expressed in independent workers committees in Benghazi in particular, which could have spread to the rest of Libya. This perspective, however, was cut across by imperialism and its local allies with catastrophic results for the people of Libya. The country is now divided into a patchwork of spheres of influence, with their own militias, including reactionary al Qaida-type Islamic fundamentalists. However having thrown off the dictatorial regime of Gadhafi the mass of the population were not prepared to tolerate the would-be mini-dictators and, consequently, have risen up in some areas to drive them and their militias out. This indicates the potential for an independent working-class programme for democracy and socialism. The fundamental process of the revolution is not dead but may be temporarily pushed into the background.
The situation in Tunisia, painted by bourgeois commentators as the rosy, successful story of the ‘Arab Spring’, remains profoundly unstable. Food prices and unemployment have risen sharply. The use of religious issues as an instrument of diversion by the ruling party Ennahdha, in the country with the strongest secular traditions in the Arab world, is essentially adding to the generalised anger. However, the Salafist movement is taking a certain grip among the most alienated layers of the urban poor. A looming power battle is taking place between elements of the old regime, federated under the wing of ex-provisional Prime Minister Caid Essebsi and his new party, ‘The Call of Tunisia’, which plays on secular credentials, and the ruling but crumbling coalition led by Ennahdha, which attempts to assert its grip over the state machine. Meanwhile, workers’ strikes and social protests continue unabated, as illustrated by the almost complete paralysis of phosphate production for a month in the Gafsa region in November. As in Egypt, the impasse of capitalism pushes the new rulers towards resurrecting the rottenness of the past, repression becoming a central method of rule. This cannot fail to lead to a new, wider backlash with the working class and the youth. The building of an independent working-class political pole of attraction, based on the immense power of the UGTT, is more urgent than ever.
May Day 2012 in Tunisia
The events in Jordan with a mass movement opposed to the King and the possibility of his early overthrow illustrates what is taking place. The emergence of majority Islamic fundamentalist forces within the parliaments of Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere has obscured temporarily the original aims of the revolution, which had a pronounced democratic and social character. But the Islamic parties and forces will now be put to the test by mass movements demanding increases in living standards, the solution to mass unemployment, which on a capitalist basis cannot be met, independent trade unions, etc. It is the rise in prices, particularly of fuel, together with the demand for democracy that drives the current movements in Jordan. Big movements on social issues, possibly triggered by events from the outside, for instance, from Europe, can exercise a decisive effect in changing the situation.
At the same time, a new regional war or wars is still possible. Syria is a powder keg with the Assad regime besieged and facing possible overthrow but with an opposition that is also divided along sectarian lines. We cannot support either Assad or the opposition. We have to steer a clear independent path towards those masses we can reach with a class programme and perspective.
Some of the minorities still seek shelter under the wing of Assad for fear of the consequences for them of an opposition victory, which clearly enjoys predominant support from the majority Sunni population, with a significant and growing influence of al Qaeda-type organisations. Moreover, the intervention of Turkey against the Assad regime has ratcheted up the tension between the two countries. Armed clashes could take place between them, which could then spiral out of control. The intervention of Shia-dominated Iran on the side of their co- religionists in Syria cannot be ruled out. Equally, the conflict could spill over into the Lebanon with the outbreak of sectarian conflict. This, in turn, could lead to Israel seeking the opportunity to launch air strikes against Iran’s alleged nuclear facilities, which would undoubtedly lead to retaliation with Iranian and Hezbollah rockets striking Israeli cities and facilities.
Gaza war November 2012
In the current conflict, the Israeli regime and the wider population have been taken aback by the capacity of Hamas rockets to strike in the very heart of even Tel Aviv. The CWI opposes the so-called ‘surgical strikes’ of Israel – which are nothing of the kind – that have resulted in at least 160 Palestinians being killed.
In the legitimate struggle against Isreali state terrorism we do not support the methods of Hamas, which has unleashed indiscriminate rocket fire into the heavily populated towns of Israel. This has only served to drive the population of Israel into the arms of Netanyahu, with a reported 85% supporting retaliatory action and 35% now supporting a ground invasion of Gaza, in which hundreds and thousands of Palestinians as well as Israelis would be killed and maimed. The Palestinian people have the right to resist the Israeli government’s terroristic methods but this can be best accomplished through mass movements against the encroachments in the occupied territories – with the aim of splitting the working class of Israel from support for the vicious Netanyahu regime. In the event of an invasion of Gaza or anywhere else in the occupied territories, the Palestinian people have every right to resist, with arms if necessary, against the invaders.
At the same time, the increasingly provocative colonialist methods of Israel – particularly sections of the Israeli settlers who continue to encroach on and occupy Palestinian land – if they continue unabated, may push a part of the Palestinian population further towards a change in the outlook of an eventual settlement of the conflict. Up to now, support for a ‘two-state’ solution – a Palestinian state, or homeland alongside Israel – has been seen by a clear majority as a means of resolving the conflict.
In the short term, the attack on Gaza by Israel has probably increased support for the idea of a separate state for the Palestinians. However, we have pointed out that on a capitalist basis a Palestinian state would be an abortion. It will not satisfy the Palestinian masses’ demand for a secure homeland, given its limited character and the absence of a firm economic base. We therefore advocate a democratic socialist Palestine alongside a democratic socialist Israel in a socialist confederation of the region.
Notwithstanding the influence of geopolitical factors on the course of events – which can seriously alter perspectives in some circumstances – the main features of the present situation are the deepening crisis of world capitalism and the combative response to this of the working class and the poor. This is symbolised by the magnificent reawakening of the South African working class led by of the miners. The heroic strikes, like the earlier revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, have inspired the working class in the advanced industrial countries.
But following the miners other sections of the South African working class resorted to action in a strike wave which is currently the biggest and most bloody in the world. This has also been characterised by a high degree of consciousness, of socialist consciousness by the working class – a legacy which was not completely wiped out following the abortive revolution of the 1980s, which preceded the ending of apartheid. This is expressed in the demand for new fighting unions for the miners in place of the utterly corrupt mineworkers’ union, the NUM. Confronted with an equally corrupt ANC, the miners – with our assistance – have launched the call for a new mass workers’ party. This will strengthen a similar demand for independent working-class representation in all of those countries – the majority – where the mass of the workers have no party, even one which only partly represents them.
Even the Economist magazine, the voice of international big business, has stated: “The best hope for the country in years to come is a real split in the ANC between the populist left and the fat-cat right to offer a genuine choice for voters.” This seems surprising if not incredible at first glance. No capitalist journal advocates this for Britain! Yet what alarms the Economist is that so discredited has the ANC become– a gulf of Grand Canyon proportions now exists between the ANC’s lords , chiefs and kings, and the working class – that the impoverished masses have begun to turn sharply to the left and embraced real fighters and socialists, the members of the DSM (CWI South Africa). They will therefore move heaven and earth to try and prevent the masses moving in our direction, even if that means setting up a ‘populist’ alternative to a real mass workers’ party. They are unlikely to succeed if we do our job properly.
The movement in South Africa has also served to expose the weakness of South African capitalism. At the turn of the century, the country accounted for 40% of the total GDP of the 48 countries south of the Sahara. Nigeria, three times larger in terms of population, on the other hand, was way back in second place with around 14%. The remainder of the countries of Africa in terms of GDP were much smaller than these two giants. Yet economists now estimate that, despite Nigeria’s dislocation and obvious drawbacks, it will overtake South Africa within a few years. Part of the explanation is that there has been a 6% growth in the economies of countries north of the Limpopo River, although much of this growth is due to commodity production, whereas South Africa’s rate of growth has slowed to barely 2%. It is also rated very low in terms of education, science, maths, etc. Endemic mass unemployment of officially 25% is probably nearer to 40%. A third of South African workers exist on less than $2 a day. Massive inequality has actually grown since the dismantling of apartheid and the gap between rich and poor is one of the largest in the world.
The spectrum of an escalating crisis in the chronically unstable region of Eastern Congo, and the recent deadly ethnic violence in Kenya – which used to be presented as a beacon of stability – show that in the absence of a strong and united workers’ movement, social disintegration, sectarian clashes or even a complete break up can take the upper hand. Mali, also for a long time portrayed as a model of democracy in west Africa, is facing an unprecedented and multi-dimensional crisis, for which the masses are paying a heavy price. To date, an estimated 450,000 have fled the north of the country, which is effectively under the control of armed reactionary faction. The mineral wealth of Mali as well as its geo-strategic position are good reasons why it has stired-up the greedy appetite of the imperialist powers, with France at the forefront. Another factor is the fear of the neighbouring states that should Mali break up then this will set a precedent for their own countries. The possibility of an imperialist backed intervention in the north, via neighbouring states, runs the risk of further destabilisation of the entire region.
It is vital that the CWI builds on the important base we have developed in Africa, particularly in Nigeria and South Africa. Our Nigerian comrades have pursued heroic work of a mass character, including participation in a number of general strikes. However, a combination of the trade union leaders policies and the absence of a mass workers party has led to new complications in the situation. Particularly the rise of Boko Haram. The great experience we have accumulated in Nigeria and South Africa will pay big dividends in the next period.
Bourgeois economists and commentators are predicting an ‘African renaissance’. It is true that some countries have outstripped in terms of growth their former colonial masters, like Angola and Portugal. This has attracted immigrants from Portugal, Brazil and elsewhere. But this growth favours a very thin layer of educated professionals. It is highly unlikely that the masses will gain greatly given the world economic crisis, which will impact even more severely in the neo-colonial world than in the advanced industrial countries. Any ‘renaissance’ in Africa is likely to be of the revolutionary Marxist kind, in which we will play an important, if not decisive role because of the position we have built in the two main countries of Africa: Nigeria and South Africa. We must now seek to spread this to other countries in Africa, establishing the CWI on an all-Africa basis.
The most important event in the past period, at least in the capitalist West, was the re-election of Obama in the US elections. He was the first president to be re-elected since 1945 with an unemployment rate above 7.5%. Some strategists of capital – including some who imagine they are, like George Osborne, the Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer (British finance minister) – have drawn totally false conclusions from this election. They argue that the main reason why Obama was elected was because the American people blamed Bush, the previous president, for their present economic catastrophes. This undoubtedly was a factor but it was not the only one and not decisive. In in Britain, the government will be judged on their current policies, which are having a devastating effect in cutting living standards. A big polarisation took place with Obama voters – despite their disappointment since he was elected – turning out to prevent the candidate for the ‘0.01%’, the rich, the plutocrats, from effectively winning the election through Romney.
There was a real fear of what a Romney victory would mean in turning back the wheel of history and undermining welfare, the limited health reforms, etc. This helped the turnout, which although not as high as 2008, was nevertheless quite high by historical standards. The popular vote was closer with Obama winning by 50.8% to 47.5% but, crucially, the majority of women supported him, with an even bigger majority of young women. He also won 80% of minority voters – Latinos and Afro-Americans, of course, while significant sections of unionised workers – such as the auto workers, worked for and supported him. In this election, it was not just a question of the victory of ‘lesser evilism’. That was there, of course, but significant layers were also prepared to give ‘more time’ to Obama to ‘fix the economy’. There was also a strong defensive mood amongst wide sections of society to defend themselves against a perceived onslaught against them should Romney have won. Obama will not, of course, be able to fix the economy, because of the character of this economic crisis, which will be drawn out.
The marvellous success of Socialist Alternative candidate in Seattle with a splendid 29% of the votes was a triumph, not just for the American supporters but for the whole of the CWI. So too was the re-election of our comrade in Australia. It was a mighty confirmation of our idea of standing independent workers’ candidates leading to a new mass workers’ party. Moreover, this took place in the very heart of the strongest capitalist power in the world. This victory is a harbinger of what we can expect elsewhere, particularly in South Africa and Europe in the next period. These elections show the potential which dialectically exists in the US for the ideas and programme of socialism. The heritage of social-democratic and Stalinist betrayals does not exist in the US. This makes it more favourable terrain for the genuine ideas of socialism than most places in Europe and elsewhere at this stage. So also is the victory of Obama from our point of view. His second term could prepare the way for a third party, but this time a popular, radical and even socialist party of the working class. Although, it may not initially be committed to socialism in its first period, the emergence of a new radical left party as a step along the way would represent a big step forward in the USA. Of course, all perspectives are contingent on how the economy develops in the US and throughout the world.
World Economy – Brics
Prospects for the world economy remain the key to the perspectives for world capitalism. And there is no region of the world now that offers the prospect of even a medium-term escape for the system. The idea that the Brics would be able to ‘decouple’ from the world economy has been dented by the slowdown in China and the spin-off effects of this for the prospects of those economies relying on the exports of primary products. The growth rates of Brazil of up to 7.5% have dropped precipitately to an estimated 1.6% in 2012. Following from this, Brazil and other countries whose economies grew – Australia for instance with a 21-year boom – can expect increased social tensions and strikes with the working class now sharing the fate of the rest of the world, which in turn allows more scope for combined international action along the lines of 14 November in Europe. In Brazil, the very development of the economy was a positive thing in the sense that, paradoxically, it strengthened the working class and led to strikes, as we had predicted, with the working class demanding its ‘share’ of the increased profits of the bourgeois.
The US economy – which is one of the few to regain the production levels of pre-2008 – has slowed to its weakest pace since 2009, growing at less than 2% while the world’s biggest economies have lost steam simultaneously. If the Republicans refuse a deal with Obama, if the US topples off the fiscal cliff, this could almost automatically plunge the world economy – which is basically stagnant – into a new deeper recession. The interests of capitalism should logically compel the Republicans to seek a deal with Obama. But the political system in the US, designed originally for an 18th-century population of predominantly small farmers, is now completely dysfunctional, along with the Republican Party. Obama, in one of his more revealing outbursts speaking to American bankers in 2009, stated: “My administration is all that is between you and the pitchforks.” But in the election, this did not earn him the support of the American bourgeois as a whole who favoured Romney in the main. This just goes to show that a class does not always recognise its own best interests! It is the strategists and the thinkers of the ruling class, sometimes in opposition to those that they supposedly represent, who are prepared to stand up for the best interests of the capitalists and chart a way forward. The problem for them today is that the choice is between different roads to ruin for capitalism.
The decay, their loss of confidence, is evident in their refusal to invest, as well as the warnings from the hallowed institutions of capitalism: the IMF, the World Bank, etc. Their predictions of a quick escape from the present crisis have been dashed and they have now swung over to complete pessimism. They now agree with our analysis, concluding that this crisis will be drawn out and could even get worse, much worse. Cameron and the Governor of the Bank of England warn that the crisis might last another decade; the IMF whistles a similar tune. The theme first employed in Japan of ‘zombie banks’ is now used to describe not just the banks but the economies of America, Europe and Japan. And like Japan, bourgeois economists are predicting a ‘lost decade’ for some countries and for Europe as a whole. Some speculate this could last for two or even three decades. A comparison with the 19th-century depression from 1873 to 1896 is being made, at least for Europe. Martin Wolf in the Financial Times mused: “Is the age of unlimited growth over?” extensively quoting from a new study “Is US Economic Growth Over? Faltering Innovation Confronts the Six Headwinds.” [NBER Working Paper no 18315.]
This raised the vital question of the role of innovation and inventions generally in the development of capitalism, and particularly in driving forward the productivity of labour. The authors of the above study concluded that there have been, in the main, “three industrial revolutions” since 1750 that have been crucial in the development of capitalism. The first was roughly between 1750 and 1830, which created steam engines, cotton spinning, railways, etc. The second was the most important with its three central inventions of electricity, the internal combustion engine and running water with indoor plumbing in the relatively short period of 1870 to 1900. Both these revolutions required about 100 years for the full effects to percolate through the economy. After 1970, productivity growth slowed markedly for a number of reasons (which we ourselves have analysed in answer to the arguments of our South African and Liverpool defectors). The computer and Internet revolution – described by the authors as industrial revolution three (IR3) – reached its climax in the dot-com era of the late 1990s. But its main impact on productivity, they say, has withered away in the past eight years. They conclude that since the year 2000 invention has been largely concentrated on entertainment and communication devices that are smaller, smarter and more capable but they do not fundamentally change labour productivity or the standard of living in the way that electric light, motorcars or indoor plumbing did. This is not to say that there are not the potential inventions for enormously lifting productivity but the dilemma is the current state of capitalism in decline, which is incapable of developing the full potential of the productive forces. The tendency for the rate of profit to fall – and actual falls in profitability – discourages the capitalists from taking up inventions which can develop the productive forces.
Then there is the problem of ‘demand’ which in turn has led to an ‘investment strike’, with a minimum of $2 trillion of ‘unemployed capital’ in the cash piles of US companies. And, on top of this, exists the colossal debt overhang. Satyajit Das in the Financial Times berates the American bourgeois who “seem unable to handle the truth – the prospect of little or no economic growth for a prolonged period… Ever increasing borrowings are needed to sustain growth. By 2008 $4-$5 of debt was required to create one dollar of US growth up from $1-$2 in the 1950s. China now needs $6-$8 of credit to generate one dollar of growth; an increase from $1 to $2 15-20 years ago”. Trotsky commented about the situation confronting capitalism at the end of the 1930s depression: “Mankind’s productive forces stagnate. Already new inventions and improvements fail to raise the level of material wealth. Conjunctural crises under the conditions of the social crisis of the whole capitalist system inflict ever heavier deprivations and sufferings upon the masses. Growing unemployment, in its turn, deepens the financial crisis of the state and undermines the unstable monetary systems.” [Transitional Programme]
We must draw all the necessary conclusions from this, which sections of the bourgeois, from their own class standpoint, are already attempting to do. Capitalism faces not one crisis but a chain of crises. They are trying to reconcile the working class to the prospect of little or no growth and therefore of severely reduced living standards, as Greece demonstrates. We must counter this through our programme and emphasise the limitless possibilities – evident even today – if society was organised on a more rational, planned way through socialism. (China is to build the world’s tallest building – at the rate of three storeys a day – in just 90 days. Of course given China’s record of ignoring health and safety hazards, as well as the environmental costs, many are opposed to this. But this does show the colossal potential which cannot be used properly under capitalism but can be harnessed in a democratically-planned economy.)
The economic crisis in Europe is the most serious facing world capitalism. The depth of the crisis is partly a product of the introduction of the euro. It is manifested through the level of mass unemployment with 18.49 million people without jobs in the 17 countries sharing the euro, with an extra 146,000 joining the ranks of the unemployed in October alone. Across the whole 27-nation European Union, almost 26 million men and woman were without jobs in October – an increase of 169,000 in two months, while the overall unemployment rate stayed at 10.6%.
So serious and intractable does the crisis appear, with austerity clearly not working, that a spat has broken out, with the IMF warning against the “excessive austerity” applied by national governments in Europe with the benediction of the EU authorities and the European Central Bank. On the one side, as we have explained, the ECB has devised and sought to implement, like the US Federal Reserve and the British Bank of England, a form of Keynesianism through the purchase of government bonds as well as cheap loans to some banks and countries. On the other hand, these very same authorities – the ‘troika’ – have been the instruments for austerity policies. They have been stung by the implied criticism of the IMF, which has pointed out that a negative “multiplier effect” operates when severe austerity is implemented – cuts in government expenditure, loss of jobs, etc. – and therefore reduced income to the state. The ECB and national governments counter with the ‘absolute necessity’ to cut state spending, accompanied by all the other measures of austerity, privatisation, etc. Despite all the pleas and expectations of growth, austerity has had the effect of snuffing out even the economic embers that remained during the crisis.
It is true that Keynesian policies have failed to generate growth. In the current situation, it is like “pushing on a piece of string”. This has led new-born Keynesians, such as former Thatcherite monetarist Samuel Brittan, to lobby for bolder measures; he advocates what amounts to a giant game of ‘treasure hunt’ in a desperate attempt to get the economy moving again. He suggests, only half-seriously, that hordes of cash should be buried and then the adventurous souls who discover it will then go out and spend it! There is no indication of this happening, however. The largesse that has been distributed so far has been used to clear debts not to increase spending. This is an indication of the desperation of the ruling class for some improvement at this stage. Keynesianism has been partially tried and failed but this does not mean that, faced with a revolutionary explosion, the capitalists would not resort to far-reaching Keynesian measures. Concessions can be given and then the capitalists will attempt to take them back through inflation at a later stage.
Even now, the EU authorities are attempting to avoid the default of Greece by suggesting that more time is given for its debts to be paid off. This will not prevent the savage attacks on the Greek working class, which are being applied remorselessly by the EU. Nor will it solve the basic problems of Greece which will still be lumbered with colossal debts. Therefore, a Greek default is still likely, which will have huge repercussions throughout Europe, including Germany, which is heavily indebted to the banks of other countries. It is even possible that Germany itself could take the initiative of leaving the euro, such is the political opposition within Germany itself to bail-outs. Even the proposal to give Greece some more time to pay off its debts is meeting with opposition from the German capitalists because it means writing off a small portion of their debt. It is possible that, in relation to Spain and some other countries, the “can will be kicked further down the road”. But eventually the can will become too big to kick! Therefore, a breakup of the eurozone still remains on the cards. Opposition to Europe as a big business club is also growing with the demand for referenda in countries like Britain and possibly elsewhere. The majority in opinion polls in Britain is now for withdrawal from the EU. The capitalists of Europe are not at all certain that the present uneasy situation will not lead to even greater upheavals in Europe in the next period if they do not take some kind of emergency action.
Even the Chinese express alarm at the turn of events in Europe with a top Chinese official, Ji Liqun, sitting on top of a massive state-controlled sovereign wealth fund of £300 billion, warning that the European public are at “breaking point.” He had previously argued that Europeans should work harder but now recognises that the depth of public anger could lead to a “complete discarding” of austerity programmes. “The fact the public are taking to the streets and resorting to violence indicates the general public’s tolerance has hit its limits," he commented. "Unions are now involved in organised protests; demonstrations and strikes. It smacks of the 1930s." Not least of his unspoken concerns is that the example set by the European working class could spill over into China itself as well as his fear for Chinese investments in Europe.
Eastern Europe and Russia
Eastern Europe and Russia are also experiencing big upheavals. The regime in Russia is facing growing opposition. Putin, is no longer seen as invincible. Minor concessions made in the face of mass protests have been negated by the strengthening of authoritarianism, and Putin is increasingly relying on reactionary forces like the church. Recently we have even seen the introduction of Cossack patrols to maintain “order” and combat “illegal immigrants”. These measures will not save the regime. Two decades after the overthrow of Stalinism, the Russian people have begun to recover. Initially with an explosion of anger against the falsification of elections. As the protests developed over the year, even the pro-capitalist media commented how these protests were moving to the “left”, with a large block in defence of education and the increasing isolation of the failed liberal politicians and media personalities who “lead” the movement from the mass of participants. But often in history when the middle layers of society move against an unpopular regime, this opens the door to a movement of the oppressed masses. Up to now, the working class has not come out in a mass sense under its own banner. But it will do, demanding and organising independent workers’ organisations both in the trade unions and of a political character. This process will also be reinforced when economic circumstances change, as they will begin to do in the next period.
Unfortunately, the forces of the left are very weak in Russia. Those who come from a Stalinist tradition largely boycotted the protests making it easy for the liberals and far right to maintain their dominant position whilst other “lefts” tail-ended the liberals and even urged unity with the far-right forces. Although our forces are small, by taking up the democratic issues and linking them with social and economic demands in a transitional way, we succeeded in having a significant impact, gaining over 10,000 votes (about 14%) for our leading candidate in the election for an opposition co-ordinating committee. Our intervention in these protests has gone a long way to assist in establishing ourselves as on of the main left organisations in Russia.
The country is over-dependent on the oil price, which soared to record heights in the past but has now begun to decline and is likely to drop even more because of the contraction in the world economy and particularly of China. Some commentators claim that the US could become self-sufficient in energy by 2035 and this would have an effect on the oil producers’ income, including Russia, but also affecting Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States producers. This is highly questionable but it raises interesting geopolitical issues as to whether the US will still be committed to defending the Straits of Hormuz in the event of a conflict with Iran.
The same applies to many of the countries of the former Soviet Union. In the teeth of great difficulties and with the assistance of both the Russian comrades and the CWI we have continued to make great efforts in sustaining our organisation over a period of years. This can result in spectacular results in the next period. The spiteful repressive measures taken by the Nazarbayev regime only serve to spread the circle of opposition and will result in revolutionary upheavals. There are few societies in the world in which the gap between the top tiny elite and a mass of impoverished people is greater than in Kazakhstan. The same destruction of the middle-class took place here, even in advance of Greece. The working class is faced with mass unemployment, compounded by the denial of elementary democratic rights, in particular the right to organise trade unions and their own party. We have conducted a marvellous campaign internationally of solidarity which has combined action with our European parliamentary representatives alongside trade unionists, cultural figures, and workers and youth, not only to express sympathy and support but also in travelling on visits to the country, thereby forging international bonds between the Kazakhstan working class and the labour movement in Western Europe and internationally.
We need to continue the work of building the Socialist Movement Kazakhstan with the potential of uniting in a wider organisation of all the best class fighters in the country whilst taking further steps to ensure that a strong Marxist cadre is built capable of guiding the movement during the tumultuous events that will inevitably unfold. Any success in Kazakhstan in establishing an independent movement of the working class will also have big international repercussions, especially in Russia, as well as the countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe itself.
In Eastern Europe, we have had a general strike in Romania, a similar movement in Slovenia, and important strikes in the Czech Republic and elsewhere, which represent the entry into the arena of struggle of the masses of Eastern Europe. In Poland, the defeat on the increase in the retirement, age to 67 has led to bitterness in the workers’ movement and the first steps to building a regional general strike in Silesia. On the other hand, in the absence of a mass workers’ party, the against the far right-wing are stepping into the vacuum and there is a resurgence and consolidation of the far-right. In Hungary there has been a massive opposition movement in Hungary against the far-right government of Fidesz and its allies in Jobbik, with its paramilitary forces. The whip of the counter-revolution has been unleashed in Hungary but this will inevitably provoke a big counter-movement of the masses. We must endeavour to strengthen our small forces in these countries that can become an important arena of class conflict, with the re-entry of the working class onto the political arena.
Ireland is from many points of view a vital country for the CWI. Firstly it has experienced the most severe austerity programme in Northern Europe which parallels what has happened in southern Europe. Within a matter of years it is has been plunged from a country with one of the highest living standards in Europe – if not the highest, according to some measurements – not into a recession but a depression. Given the craven class-collaborationist position of the trade union leaders – used to decades of ‘social partnership’ – it is no surprise that the Irish working class was initially stunned by the severity of the crisis. But class anger has grown as accounts of breath-taking corruption of the capitalists, particularly the banks and the government has grown. This has been fuelled by the meteoric rise in unemployment to at least 15% of the labour force, increased dispossession of houses with the homeless alongside ‘ghost estates’. And then there is the draining away of the flower of the youth through emigration.
On top of this the government has imposed the infamous household tax. We have occupied a prominent position in the leadership of the campaign against this tax which has been successful in persuading at least 50% of the population not to pay it. However the Irish government is now proposing to replace this with a much more punitive property tax, which will give the working class and us much more scope to develop a mass campaign. The presence of our parliamentary representative in this and many other national and international campaigns has been invaluable for our organisation in Ireland and throughout the international. The resignation of one of our MPS from our ranks has disappointed some, but was linked to our struggle to defend our ideas and methods and will help us to move forward to seize the undoubted opportunities that will occur for us in the stormy period that is opening up in Ireland. Similarly in Northern Ireland, despite the enduring sectarian divide, our comrades managed to heroically organise a march against unemployment and commemorate the anniversary of the 1932 Belfast ‘riots’ also against unemployment which saw Catholics and Protestants come together in a unified demonstration against the means test – which was designed to cut unemployment pay.
Ireland is also important because of the United Left Alliance, in which we of course have participated. We have encountered difficulties from ‘expected quarters’ – ex-members together with the SWP – which have in turn led to the defection of one of the founding organisations from the ULA. It is vital that we continue to build our organisation in order that we can establish a powerful lever for Marxism in Ireland in the next period, as the successful conference of the Irish section showed.
The death of a young Asian woman, because the doctors refused to terminate her pregnancy on the grounds that Ireland was a ‘Catholic country’ and abortions were illegal, has caused outrage. This was despite the fact that the doctors concerned clearly understood that her life was in danger if the termination was not urgently carried out. Joe Higgins, our MP in Ireland, correctly described this as “medieval”, with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church still able to insist on reactionary measures like this in gross violation of the right of women to choose what happens to their bodies. This incident has led to protests and demonstrations of men and women demanding that the law be changed. This incident indicates that the struggle for women’s rights still has a long way to go – and not just in Ireland – if real equality between the sexes is to be established, which can only be fully achieved through a change in society. This, however, does not absolve us campaigning now – as sections have done – to fight to improve the position of women in the home, at work, where women are still grossly underpaid, and in society generally.
It is in Southern Europe where, in general, the most politically convulsive events are taking place at the present time. We have witnessed the general strikes in Greece, including four 48-hour general strikes, the massive movement in Spain, including two general strikes in eight months, with demonstrations of a million, in Portugal a million striking and taking to the streets, as well as a half-day general strike in Italy. For the first time on 14 November, coordinated European-wide action took place with the strongest support for the strike in what the capitalist press call the ‘Club Med’ countries: Spain, Greece, Portugal and Italy. The turnout in Greece did not compare to the earlier general strikes because of the sheer scale of the actions previously taken by the Greek working class. In southern Europe, TV studios were occupied, in Italy and Spain clashes took place while the railway tracks were occupied in Brescia and Naples. It is clear that a semi-insurrectionary mood exists in opposition to the austerity programme pursued on a continental-wide level.
In northern Europe also the masses are beginning to move. In Britain, for instance, the conference of the TUC, under the pressure of our organisation, together with the National Shop Stewards Network and left unions like the PCS, the RMT, and the Prison Officers Association (POA), in September voted in favour of considering a one-day general strike, for the first time in decades, in opposition to the austerity programme of the Tory-led coalition. A rearguard opposition is being pursued by the right-wing bureaucracy in the trade unions to the general strike demand. Also, the most punitive anti-trade union laws in the advanced industrial countries, which the employers and the government will not hesitate in using to prevent a strike, are an obstacle to overcome. But on the other hand a head of steam is building up for a one-day general strike because of the sheer scale of the cuts that have taken place, but particularly those that are in the pipeline. The Cameron government seems to have concluded that it is unlikely to win the next election and is therefore prepared to try and bulldoze through a draconian series of cuts similar to those introduced by the then Tory government in the period prior to the 1926 general strike. It is seeking to do this safe in the knowledge that an incoming Labour government led by Ed Miliband would not restore cuts in services. In fact, at the TUC demonstration of 150,000 in London on 20 October, Miliband was booed by the crowd when he admitted that he would not be able to cancel the cuts introduced by the Tory led coalition government.
A one-day general strike is likely to take place in Britain in the next period but the timing of such action is uncertain, partly because of the slower rhythm of the British labour movement but also because of the foot dragging of the right wing trade union leadership. Once a one-day general strike takes place in Britain the whole situation will be transformed. Of course, this partly depends on how it is prepared and whether it goes beyond workers in the public sector and the existing trade union membership, which stands at 26% of the labour force, a total of 6.5 million workers.
However, the appetite for decisive action to confront the government will inevitably grow as the attacks on the working class increase, not just through cuts, but also because of further government threats to trade union rights. The government is proposing such measures as prohibitively increasing the cost of appealing to tribunals against the bosses’ disciplining and dismissing workers, as well as curtailing ‘facility time’ for workplace trade union officials to represent union members. If a general strike does take place then the festering discontent at all levels of British society will gather behind it. Although Britain is not yet on the scale of Greece today, it is already Greece in slow motion. In the attacks on the most vulnerable sections of the population, the poor, disabled, etc., the British ruling class, through Osborne, has once more demonstrated its cold cruelty. Osborne was booed at the Paralympics, because the disabled people in the crowd and even some of the athletes themselves would soon have facilities and benefits taken away from them under government proposals. The middle-class as well as workers are coming under serious attack. Wages and salaries, for instance, have dropped by about 13% since the onset of the crisis. General strike action in Britain may therefore be similar to a ‘hartal’ in India and sri lanka – a strike not just of trade unionists in the urban areas but involving the middle layers of society, professionals and small businesses in towns – once action is undertaken in Britain.
A similar mood is beginning to take shape throughout Europe on a continental level. Perhaps only Austria – and it will catch up as a result of the generalised crisis – and one or two smaller ‘states’ such as Luxembourg and Liechtenstein, will be temporarily able to escape the full effects of the economic and social crisis. This, of course, is at its sharpest in southern Europe. Even Cyprus is now faced with the possibility of a bailout or default over its huge banking crisis. But ‘Greece, Spain and Portugal’ can come to Northern Europe much quicker than is anticipated, even by the cadres of the CWI. An element of ‘South Africa’ could also be transported to Europe through a similar movement within the trade unions to overthrow and replace those leaders who refuse to organise the working class to resist the onslaught of capitalism.
Sweden and Scandinavia as a whole is being dragged into the whirlpool of the crisis. Already 28% of young people are unemployed in Sweden. Moreover, industrial output in Sweden dropped by 4.1% in September. Overall unemployment is almost the same as Britain at 7.8%. Sweden was a testing ground in the 1990s in particular for the policies of neo-liberalism. Both social-democratic and right-wing governments have sought to continue this in the fields of health and particularly education. Opposition from workers is beginning to grow as factories close and resources that have been built up over a long time are transferred to Eastern Europe and elsewhere. The rotten and bureaucratic leaders who presently suffocate the trade unions in Sweden will face the most serious challenge for generations by a working-class which is beginning to stir into action. Big opportunities will develop for our section in Sweden in the next period. We already have a formidable record of struggle in what up to now has been a difficult objective situation.
he Danish social democrats are also at their lowest position in the polls for a century! The social-democratic Prime Minister who presides over this collapse is the daughter-in-law of the discredited Neil Kinnock, who led the attacks on us in the Labour Party in Britain in the 1980s on the basis that we were an electoral ‘liability’. He succeeded in losing every election he fought as leader of the Labour Party! Despite winning the election this year, his daughter-in-law seems likely to resume the family trend!
Germany, hitherto the economic powerhouse of Europe with one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe, is nevertheless beginning to be affected by the crisis. Other beleaguered members of the EU look towards Germany to act as the locomotive to drag Europe out of the crisis. But they will be disappointed as slowing growth has meant that Germany’s ruling centre-right coalition has decided to put on the brakes and cut the government’s net borrowing requirement for 2013. The chill winds blowing from China and elsewhere have severely curtailed German exports. German capitalists up to now have retained labour in the expectation of a resumption of European and world growth but are now abandoning this policy, which could lead to a rapid increase in unemployment in Germany. The government also faces federal elections in September next year. Merkel will be compelled, if she is to retain power, to once more seek coalition allies, but this time it is unlikely to include the increasingly discredited Free Democrats. There is speculation that she may even share power with the Greens, who are now a pro-capitalist party, in a ‘black-green’ coalition. Such a combination, some analysts think, “might be the most conservative government since the foundation of the German federal republic”. Both parties agree now on the environment with Merkel supporting the scrapping of nuclear power and also on “strict fiscal discipline.” This indicates just how far to the right the Greens have moved. They would still prefer a ‘red-green’ coalition with the SPD and the two parties already share power in a number of states. But the SPD is stuck on around 30% in the polls, while the Greens are around 12-15%; therefore at present it seems possible that any coalition with a majority would have to include the CDU. The involvement of the SPD and Greens in government, whether together or separately, could open up space for the development of Die Linke – within which we work – which could take on flesh on condition that it develops a serious left programme, which is the only way to find a big echo amongst the working class in the changing situation in Germany.
These abrupt changes in the economic fortunes of European countries are also reflected in the political about turns and convulsions that we have seen in a number of countries in the last period. The elections in the Netherlands resulted in a ‘centre-left’ coalition government of the liberal VVD and the Labour Party, which then almost immediately faced a rapid deterioration in the country’s economic position. The government introduced an austerity programme and met with a mass outcry.
The final formation of a national government in Belgium 541 days after the June 2010 election has not brought stability. Last October’s local elections saw a further big advance by the Flemish nationalist NVA. At the same time, there have been regular trade union protests, including a one-day general strike last January against job cuts and threatened attacks. Belgium was the only northern European country which saw significant strikes take place on 14 November, protests fuelled by the sudden announcement of the complete closure of the Ford plant in Genk. In both parts of Belgium, notwithstanding the continuing efforts of the Francophone PS to maintain a ‘worker-friendly’ face, there is growing discussion in the trade unions on the need for a new political force to present the working class.
In France, François Hollande and the Socialist Party won a majority in the presidential election and a left majority in the National Assembly just six months ago. However, Hollande has flip-flopped on crucial issues affecting the working class, first appearing to rule out austerity and then introducing severe cuts. He then proposed a wealth tax only to water this down when it met with opposition from French capitalists who were threatening to leave the country. Consequently, his standing in the polls collapsed and he is now at 36%, a record decline in popularity for presidents in the Fifth Republic after six months in office.
France also faces a severe economic decline, in particular manufacturing industry contracting to a level perhaps equivalent to Britain, which is now in the second or third rank of industrial powers due to the devastation wreaked by Thatcher in the past. Big class battles loom as workers react to an avalanche of redundancies – typified by the 6,000 Peugeot workers in the Paris region and the steel workers who are facing the sack. The political alternative on the left remains as vital as ever, particularly as the threat from the far-right National Front endures and has even grown. The NPA no longer offers a profitable field of work. This may change if a proper balance sheet is drawn up of its failure to seize the initiative on the left in the past, lessons are learned from this and it establishes the basis of a small mass party. The shift to the right of the Socialist Party and the failure to counter this by the left forces may lead to a revival of the NPA but at the moment this is far from taking place.
The ‘Left Front’ of Mélenchon has not yet developed into a serious opposition force. There are also many independent struggles taking place like the virtual regional revolt against a new airport in the West of France. At this stage the Left Front and Melenchon, its main spokesperson along with the PCF, have not yet built a real opposition to Hollande or intervened in those struggles which have taken place. However, this may change and we need to be prepared for important developments including around the Left Front.
Europe is the key to the world situation at the present time, where the class struggle is at its sharpest and with the greatest opportunity for a breakthrough for left and revolutionary forces. But if this is so, then Greece is therefore the key to the situation in Europe, with Spain and Portugal not far behind in the chain of weak links of European capitalism. We have carried
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