Workers’ fury at austerity and capitalist system will find more expression
The following is a report of the plenary discussion on Europe held during the 11th World Congress of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), in Belgium, from 24-30 January 2016. The very successful week-long Congress was attended by 125 delegates and visitors, from 34 countries.
The discussion on Europe at the 11th World Congress of the CWI displayed clearly the tumultuous nature of the political period we are living through across the continent and beyond.
Hannah Sell, member of the International Secretariat of the CWI, introduced the session and Tony Saunois, CWI secretary, replied.
Hannah pointed out that a common theme in many countries is a complete upheaval of the existing political parties through declining support, fracturing and splits. The right wing PP in Spain lost 3.6 million votes in the recent elections there, and no party has yet been able to form a government.
Similarly in Portugal, as explained in the discussion by Goncalo Romeiro, the right-wing government elected in October was impossible to enforce and collapsed after only weeks, replaced by a ‘Socialist’ Party government. This was supported by the parties of the left, though they correctly have not joined this new government.
In Britain, even though the Tories were unexpectedly elected with a majority, they received the votes of only 24% of the electorate.
Cecile Etternavn reported that the upcoming presidential elections in France see 75% saying they do not want any of the three main candidates – Le Pen, Hollande or Sarkozy.
This process throws open electoral possibilities. A polarisation is being expressed in a growth of both right and left wing populism. As Hannah said, this represents “revolution and counter-revolution developing together”.
But it is the conditions facing the working class that lies behind both trends. The economic crisis continues to loom large, despite the recovery rhetoric of governments and the bosses. No statistics can disguise the reality of low pay, unemployment and food banks from working class people. And Tony explained that increasingly middle class layers are being pulled into this too, as shown by the junior doctors’ strikes in England. This is a result of the governing parties of the ruling classes attacking professions which have traditionally provided a significant part of their social base.
And so the right wing is forced to hide its neo-fascist roots and use some left or pro-worker rhetoric, such as has been the case in the Front National in France with Marine Le Pen’s attempt to distance herself from her father and his more open extreme reaction.
But, while we have to acknowledge and organise against the threat of the right, it is also the case that where a credible left wing alternative exists, the working class has overwhelmingly turned in this direction. In Spain, Podemos won 5 million votes, and Izquierda Unida (United Left) nearly a million. Danny Byrne explained that the Podemos vote came after a period of falling support for the party. But in these elections the right-wing parties concentrated their campaigns on being against the radicalism of Podemos. The battle was pitched as between the old order and the new and through this the masses again associated Podemos with being anti-establishment and with struggle.
The Left Bloc is also growing again in Portugal and drawing in radicalised youth. Kacper Pluta from Poland reported that Razem, a left force, already has a membership of between 3 and 5,000 and won 3.6% in the elections, though has not managed to make an impact among the mass of working class people yet.
The trend can even manifest in existing parties where the masses see an opportunity to push them left, such as the Corbyn ‘political earthquake’ in the British Labour Party. Nobody foresaw this exact expression of the search for a working class political voice, but the CWI has always said that one would be found. Corbyn now finds himself at the head of one side of a civil war in the Labour Party, with the right wing still in control of the parliamentary party and the machine.
Sarah Sachs-Eldridge explained how the Socialist Party (CWI England and Wales) has been able to have an impact on events, despite not being inside the Labour Party. This has involved putting forward a clear strategy for the movement – of what would be necessary to transform the Labour Party fully and of how to stop austerity. The historic role played by Militant, the Socialist Party’s forerunner, and the more recent role of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition in standing anti-cuts candidates in elections, is a constant reference point.
The CWI is leading and initiating these developments wherever we can, notably in the Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA) in Ireland, which is entering a general election campaign and aiming to increase its representation in the Irish Parliament. Laura Fitzgerald put this challenge into the context of all the main parties being tainted in the eyes of the working class, and of significant struggles against the establishment including on the ban on abortion and various workers struggles.
But in most cases, it is not CWI members in the political leaderships of these forces. In fact the politics put forward, compared to the reformism of the past, is incredibly weak, with a tendency to capitulate immediately – shown by the Syriza sell-out in Greece and by various backtracks by Corbyn in Britain.
Although in the future under pressure from the working class and mass movements, these figures and organisations can be forced to go much further than they are currently prepared to. In fact, the same is the case for right-wing governments. For example, Merkel in Germany knows that immigration is needed for German capitalism, and yet under pressure is clamping down on it.
Hannah outlined the varied fault-lines that exist for the European ruling classes. Not only is a new phase of economic crisis likely, especially in the context of the slowdown in China, but the tools that exist to them to deal with the problems have been exhausted in the phase since the 2007/8 crash.
The national question and tensions between states have increased. On the other hand, in Cyprus, Athina Kariati said, the main capitalist parties, north and south, have raised the prospect of new referendum being called to find new governing relations across the island. This faces big problems and it remains to be seen how far this process can go but on the basis of capitalism, the national divisions cannot be completely overcome and indeed can reappear with a vengeance at a later date.
Post-independence referendum, the political terrain in Scotland has been radically altered. But Philip Stott from the Scottish section pointed out that far from the No vote silencing the national question, a second referendum remains on the agenda.
In most instances, the dominant factor in a resurgence of the national question has been opposition to austerity and thinking that independence offers some way to resist. But Eric Byl explained that in Belgium there is another side to the coin; the bourgeois and middle classes are split on the best way to implement austerity –federally or not.
Lenny Shail described how in Britain the prospect of a referendum on membership of the EU is terrifying for the European (and British!) ruling class. Because the majority of the establishment is lining up to support a vote to stay, there is the potential for it to become a referendum on the Tories, who could be forced into a split over divisions on their approach.
The tensions in and to the east of the EU remain high. Rob Jones reported from Russia where the events in Ukraine, and viciously nationalist anti-western propaganda maintains support for Putin. But shortages of basic goods and sky-high inflation are being linked to the annexation of Crimea. In Crimea itself electricity is only now being restored and banks do not operate. So this ‘patriotism’ could easily be undermined.
The risk of Greece – or Italy, Portugal or Spain – being forced from the eurozone remains. This would raise again the possibility of the breakup of the EU in its current form. This is why there was such desperation by the ruling class following the heroic No vote in the referendum in Greece on yet another austerity memorandum. Nikos Kanellis reminded the congress how determined the masses had been to win a No vote, regardless of worries about what that may mean for the Euro, but that Syriza did nothing to mobilise the vote – despite officially calling for a No. Immediately after the victory on the referendum, came Tsipras’ capitulation to the Troika.
But perhaps more likely to threaten the makeup of the EU is the refugee crisis. This is a crisis for the working class and poor people forced to flee from their war-torn home countries and face the desperation of the boats and the camps.
But it is also a crisis for the capitalist class who have no solutions and are divided on the way forward.
As Tony pointed out, the EU is unable to absorb the number of refugees arriving, but also unable to stop them. And the situation could be further exacerbated by new waves of refugees if other economic and political upheavals hit new areas of the globe. Lucy Redler from the German CWI section said that divisions are emerging in the right-wing parties in the country because the capitalist class does not want closed borders but is also facing huge political pressure over the scale of the crisis.
The response of people to this situation goes in different directions, with instinctive internationalist solidarity being a strong feature. But, for example, many of those in Greece who helped refugees arriving on the beaches in the summer are now the same people worried about the scale of the problem and the lack of resources. This is whipped up by talk of using Greece as a giant ‘holding’ camp – essentially a prison – and trapping all refugees there as they arrive.
Socialists must lead the fight against such barbaric and dangerous ideas and organise mass working class, anti-racist movements. Many solidarity demonstrations and campaigning aid events have been organised. But as Sabastian Kugler from Austria said “we need more than ethics.” A socialist programme to answer the lies of the right is vital.
In his conclusion, Tony pointed out that all of these issues show a tendency for fragmentation of the EU, but that it is not most likely that there will be an immediate collapse. Rather they may be a drawn out series of processes which lead to its reconfiguration, potentially including a British exit and a smaller Schengen zone.
A key factor in cutting across the right-wing reaction to the crisis will be workers’ struggles, which there have been important developments of in the recent period. In Ireland, the Socialist Party (CWI Ireland) has played a leading role in the mass movement against water charges. There was a big strike movement in Belgium and general strikes in Finland and Norway. Strikes in Germany are also on the increase.
Unfortunately, almost without exception, the trade union leaders have played a terrible role in holding these movements back. This does not go unnoticed by the working class. Giuliano Brunetti gave the stark example of Italy, where a survey of opinions on various political institutions was very revealing. Confidence in the army and police was 84%, in the church 69%, in the European Parliament 51%, in the national parliament 40%. By dismal comparison the trade unions achieved only 31% confidence. The survey added that 45% think that the situation would be exactly the same if trade unions did not exist!
But as has been shown time and again, workers will find ways to express their fury at austerity and the capitalist system, and so different types of movements can erupt. The huge working class mobilisation to vote Yes to marriage equality in Ireland was an example of this. New Occupy style movements also remain a possibility.
Hannah concluded from these varied opportunities that every section of the CWI must “get a bit more Greek”. Andros Payiatsos pointed out that Xekinima (CWI Greece) has had to adopt many different tactics, at different times, and even between different cities, depending on the situation. And in summing up the session, Tony highlighted that the need for this flexibility will only increase, particularly given the perspective that the next stage of the crisis will not purely be a repeat of what has happened since 2007.
It was clear from the analysis and reports from sections across the continent given during the discussion that the CWI is well armed with Marxist ideas and well placed to be a leading force in the developments ahead.