Europe: Preparing for momentous events amid continuing crisis and radicalisation

Report of the discussion on Europe at the recent meeting of the CWI’s International Executive Committee

For the past year, the European ruling class has been on an ideological offensive, claiming that “the worst has passed, we are seeing the beginning of a recovery”. But for the masses, the social crisis continues, with mass unemployment, poverty and even hunger. While the past year has not seen the same huge generalized movements as the years before – despite big movements taking place in Spain, Portugal, Greece and parts of Eastern Europe – anger is piling up and important changes have taken place in the consciousness of the hundreds of millions affected by the crisis.

Even where there has been a minor upturn, it has been utterly jobless, such as in Germany. While German capitalism continues to boast of the strength of its model, it remains a model based on low pay, and the undermining of workers’ rights, as seen with the millions of so-called ‘minijobs’. It was reported in the discussion that even in the car industry, wages as low as 3 euros an hour can be paid to some categories of workers. An example to illustrate the erosion of rights and conditions is that in 2012, there were a record number of workers active in the German labour market, but the total number of hours worked has been declining for 20 years! Of all workers, those not in “full time” jobs amount to 22%

In the euro area official unemployment now stands at 12.5%. The downturn continues in France and Italy and the eurozone crisis could quickly re-erupt. We are in an era of endless austerity, said Tony Saunois from the CWI’s International Secretariat, who introduced these points in his lead-off to the discussion.

France was described as a “powder keg” ready to explode. There is a deep crisis of the established parties all over Europe, where deeply embedded parties which have electorally dominated for decades see their social base erode rapidly. In France, this is symbolized by the lowest ever support for any government, with Hollande enjoying only 20% support in polls.

One million children live below the poverty line in France. Yet the government plans to impose cuts of 15 billion euros, which is more than what Sarkozy ever dared to do. Big anger is building up from below, partly seen in the “red cap” movement in Brittany against new taxes imposed by the government, which saw violent classes with the police, said a comrade from Gauche Revolutionnaire, the CWI’s French section.

The meeting concluded that the rhythm of the crisis; political, economic and when it comes the class struggle, has been differed between the north and south of Europe.

There have been 31 general strikes in Greece, several of which have been 48-hour strikes. Portugal has seen four general strikes, and in Spain several general strikes of over 10 million workers showed the willingness to struggle. But, at each stage, the governments in these countries have been able to hold on, saved by trade union leaders not willing to take the struggle to the next level.

The working class has moved but has not yet fully been able to overcome the barriers of the union leaders and the lack of a mass political alternative. This has led to frustration and a certain impasse in the struggle on a generalized level, said Tony Saunois.

National question

Comrades from both Spain and Greece reported how the struggles this year have taken on more of local, regional and sectorial character. Despite having two general strikes last year in Spain and none this year, the number of strike days this year is already 37% higher. Another important trend in Spain is towards more indefinite strikes. We have seen the occupation of workplaces in Valencia, the indefinite street cleaners’ strike in Madrid and the movement to occupy houses for families who have nowhere to live, said Victoria Lara, from Socialismo Revolucionario (CWI in Spain).

Spain and Scotland are countries that have seen the national question again rising to the top of the political agenda, with next year’s Scottish referendum as a reference point for national aspirations in many other countries.

It is no coincidence that the Spanish government has been intervening in the Scottish debate. The outcome of this referendum is a key issue for the bourgeoisie and can affect the national question in the whole of the Europe, including in Belgium.

While the rest of the Scottish left has suffered an ideological collapse in the last months, becoming cheer leaders of the capitalist independence campaign, we have continued to explain that there is no capitalist solution to the problems working class people face, even with Scottish independence. We give critical support to a Yes vote for independence but point out that the programme of SNP means maintaining 90% of the cuts made by the British government since 2010, no increase in the minimum wage, a cut in the corporation tax and so on, said Phillip Stott from Socialist Party Scotland (CWI).


In Greece, there is a huge movement against establishing new gold mines in the north of the country. The movement has faced extreme repression from the police. The ongoing criminalisation of protests was a theme throughout the reports from all over Europe and many speakers emphasized the importance of taking up democratic demands in favour of the right to protest.

Comrade Nikos Kanellis from Xekinima (CWI in Greece) also reported on how the great humanitarian crisis, caused by deep austerity has created an impressive solidarity movement. A Volos ‘rescue team’ cuts wood and distributes it to those who cannot afford heating. The ‘Social Medical Centre’ has treated more than 15,000 patients in Volos alone; the ‘potato movement’ sells cheap food; while the ‘social supermarkets’ give food to those who cannot afford it. While we are active in these movements, we try to get people active in political action, as well.

The social crisis in Europe has reached gigantic dimensions and continues to worsen. 120 million live in poverty or are at risk of poverty. 43 million do not get enough to eat each day. Since 2008, 20 million from the middle class have become poor. Small businesses have gone bankrupt on a scale never seen before, with 120,000 only in Italy, said Per Olsson Rattvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI in Sweden).

Even with the most optimistic growth figures for Greece which will not happen anyway, it would take 20 years for unemployment in Greece to drop below 10%. Meanwhile, austerity continues. The hospitals are like war zones. And now the government and the troika want to cut another 50% of the beds, said Nikos Anastasiades from Xekinima.

At the same time there has been an explosion in precarious jobs all over Europe. One in four German workers are now part of Europe’s biggest low paid sector and 22% of the workers are on temporary contracts. In Britain five million work on ‘zero hour contracts’.

While the struggles in Western Europe have been held back by a certain hope that “the worst is over” the opposite has been the case in the east. One of the features of the period has been the upheavals in Eastern Europe. Following capitalist restoration, there is a growing realization: the idea that capitalist restoration would mean that the east would catch up with the west, has been exposed as completely false. As a result of this and ongoing attacks, we have seen mass movements in Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia and now the Ukraine, said Tony Saunois.

The movements in Eastern Europe are also examples of the contradictory trends and sometimes confused consciousness. The lack of fighting unions or mass left forces to organise mass anger, means that far right and fascist groups can get support. In Hungary, fascists organize blockades of foreign banks over the 900,000 loans households hold in foreign currencies, which now because of inflation are very difficult to pay back, said Till Ruster from SLP (CWI in Austria).

Dangers posed by rise of the far right

If protests are not channeled through the Left or union movement, mass anger and frustration can be expressed through “rioting” or derailed into a reactionary character. This has partially been the case with the rise of the fascist Golden Dawn in Greece, and by the rise of the National Front in France, now the biggest party in some opinion polls.

Golden Dawn is the most dangerous face of the counter revolution. But following the murder of left activist and artist, Pavlos Fissos, they have been pushed back, with 20,000 marching in protest to the Golden Dawn headquarters. GD have been forced to close offices, even in strongholds like Piraeus. But why did the government strike against GD, with the arrest of their leader? While some parts of the ruling elite wanted them in government, other parts were more and more worried about GD getting out of control. The government wanted to send a double message with the arrests: “We want to control GD – but don’t want to destroy them.” They can be used to strike against the working class movement. Especially if a left wing government comes to power, said Nikos Kanellis.

While the left and workers’movement must struggle to organize and lead the resistance to the far right and fascism wherever it raises its head, it must also intervene with a skillful political approach and programme which offers real solutions, of united struggle for decent conditions for all, to the concerns (such as fears over mass immigration etc) which these forces cynically play on.

Left parties at an impasse

Eleni Mitsou, also from Greece, gave a clear picture of how the Syriza leadership now does everything to move to the right and try to lower the expectations of a future “left” government, led by them. The Syriza leadership does not mention nationalization of the banks any more, or refusing to pay the majority of the debt. Instead they say “freeze” or “renegotiate” the debt. Instead of arguing for a government of the left, they say that Greece needs a “Democratic government against the memorandum”

It is likely that Syriza will be in government sometime in the coming period. They will be faced with ultimatums from the Troika. Our job is to build a strong Left, uniting forces both inside Syriza and outside, to create a movement to break with the Troika and with capitalism. That is the only way to take the Greek working class out of today’s misery and to end the threat of new reaction and fascism, said Andros Payiatsos from Greece.

Syriza’s situation reflects a broader process taking place within Europe, whereby Left parties with strong potential, where they exist (such as with the IU in Spain, Left Block and Communist Party in Portugal and Front de Gauche in France) are unfortunately limited by the mistaken political approach of their leaders, who in many cases have actually moved to the right in the last period.

This is reflected in Spain, where following the growth of IU in the polls, its main leaders threaten to lead it into a disastrous coalition pact with the former social-democratic PSOE. The Front de Gauche is also polarized around the question of electoral pacts with the PS. Comrades explained in the discussion the necessity for a flexible approach when dealing with these formations, and where necessary intervening in the internal processes of these formations in order to struggle for a revolutionary direction.

Niall Mulholland from the CWI’s International Secretariat replied to the discussion, explaining how even if we would see some economic growth in the next months, this would not serve to ‘recover’ the situation for millions of workers. The desperate situation has had a stunning effect on some layers of the working class but has also has led to conclusions being drawn. In this period, with the absence of clear mass left alternative and fighting unions – some protests have almost had a semi-spontaneous character.

In this situation, unions with a fighting leadership can be an example for others to follow. In Britain, the Nation Shopstewards Network (NSSN) has and can in the future play a key role.

Despite a certain lull in the movements in some countries this year, big changes are taking place in consciousness under the surface. Comrade Kacper Pluta from Poland reported, for example, that 82 % in a survey wanted to nationalize the energy sector, 75 % wanted to nationalize the mines and railroads, and only 33 % believed that the “free market” is better than socialism. In Greece, 70% are against the privatizations and want to stop the memorandum, 50% think the banks should be nationalised and 84% think Greece should not pay the majority of the debt.

These figures show that new generalized movements that will develop can quickly take up much more radical demands than before.

We should not underestimate the anger that exists, and the huge class battles that will come. The ruling class is terrified. Even small populist promises from politicians are feared by the ruling elite because of the mood under the surface, explained Hannah Sell, from the Socialist Party (CWI in England & Wales).

For socialists, arguing for a break with capitalism, new waves of mass struggle will mean a more favorable situation to win mass support for our ideas.

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December 2013