Europe shaken by wars, climate change, economic crisis and class polarisation

Bucha main street after Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 (CC) 4 April 2022

The following document on perspectives for Europe was voted on and agreed by a meeting of the International Executive Committee of the Committee for a Workers’ International, which convened in London from 15-19 January 2024. Delegates to the IEC attended from Europe, Asia, Africa and North and South America.  

Europe, and within Europe, the European Union, is being shaken by events and developments that are directly related to the global developments outlined in the resolution on the CWI IEC world situation: crisis developments in the world economy, the wars in Ukraine, the Middle East and elsewhere, a massive shift in the global balance of forces, climate change, growing social and class polarisation, the rise of armament, militarism and repression, the crisis of bourgeois political institutions, the rise of right-wing populist and far-right forces and the ideological and organisational crisis of most forces of the “new” left, accompanied by a significant increase in class struggles and a certain revival in parts of the trade unions.

However, all these processes are taking place on a continent that is increasingly being torn apart economically and geopolitically between the two most important world powers, the USA and China. Fifteen years ago, the economies of the EU and the US were similar in size; today, the US economy is a third larger – and this is not only due to Brexit. The capitalist classes in Europe are falling behind: all seven leading tech companies come from the US, the EU’s share of the semiconductor market has fallen from 25 per cent to eight per cent in the last quarter of a century, car manufacturers are under pressure from Chinese competitors, etc.

Inflation, stagnation, recession

Overall, Europe is characterised by weak growth, persistently high inflation, low productivity growth and low investment. Of course, national differences are not insignificant here. But it is precisely the strong economies – Germany and France – that are experiencing low growth rates or, in the case of Germany, are struggling with stagnation and recession. There are also growing fears about the weaknesses of banks in Europe which could mean banking crises and bank collapses as we saw in Switzerland in 2023. Currently, inflation rates vary between just under eight per cent in Hungary and less than two per cent in Belgium, Finland, Italy, Latvia and the Netherlands. Overall, inflation seems to have peaked for now (while in some countries the figures have gone up again), but in most countries it is far from the two per cent target set by the European Central Bank. Over the last few years, prices in Germany, for example, have risen by twenty per cent. It cannot be ruled out that new external shocks – such as the restriction of trade routes across the Red Sea due to attacks by the so-called Houthi rebels on Western merchant ships – could lead to a renewed rise in prices.

In addition, support measures in some countries, such as the reduction in VAT on certain products and services or the subsidisation of energy prices in Germany, are now coming to an end and no further one-off payments will be made to the poorest sections of the working class. The “cost of living crisis” therefore remains a central problem for the working class – real wages in the EU fell by four per cent in 2022 – and therefore also for capitalism in Europe. The different levels of inflation are due to various factors, including differences in energy supply, but also different political decisions by governments. The fact that Belgium, a country with a sliding wage scale – albeit an inadequate one – has a particularly low rate of price increases gives the lie to the propaganda of the wage-price spiral.

Inflation has fuelled the class struggle in many European countries over the last two or three years and led to an increase in strikes – in some countries to outright waves of strikes. For us as Marxists, this is the most important development, even if these strikes have hardly found any expression at the political level and instead right-wing populist forces have been able to increase their support in polls and elections in many countries.

Nevertheless, the strike participation of hundreds of thousands of workers and their often first-time organisation or activity in a trade union has helped to shape the consciousness of parts of the class and will have a lasting effect.

In the next phase, there will be more cuts and attacks on the rights of the working class, as we saw last year with the anti-strike laws in the UK and the pension reform in France. Added to this is the increasing dismantling of democratic rights, expansion of state powers and increase in state repression. All of this, in addition to the fight for wages and working hours, could fuel the class struggle.

Instability

The economic difficulties are matched by an unrivalled political instability that affects all countries on the continent. Britain, Scotland, Germany, France, Spain, Austria, the Netherlands, Poland, Serbia – the list of countries in which there have been government crises, new elections or even changes of government is long and could be extended. Stability has become a foreign word in Europe.

Developments often take place at a breathtaking pace and there are sudden and sharp turns. In such an unstable situation, characterised by multiple systemic crises, it is impossible to make accurate predictions about events. Our task is to analyse the most important trends and direction of developments, to work out the most probable, but also the different possibilities, and to prepare for them.

Israel’s war against Gaza has also led to debates, polarisation and protests in Europe and further destabilised the situation. In some countries, such as Germany, Austria, France and others, governments have not only sided with the state of Israel, but have also labelled any criticism of the Israeli government and its war policy as “anti-Semitic” and significantly restricted the so-called “corridor of opinion” in the public debate. This affects not least Jews who are critical of Israel, but above all, of course, Palestinian, Arab and Muslim sections of the population. It can be assumed that this will permanently change the consciousness of these layers, especially the younger generation. On the one hand, this offers socialist forces the opportunity to build a base among these sections of the working class and youth, but at the same time it also harbours the danger that the forces of right-wing political Islam will grow and that there will be more terrorist attacks in Europe in the future.

In more and more countries, the party landscape has undergone lasting and qualitative change, traditional social democratic and capitalist parties have fallen into crisis or in some cases have even (almost) disappeared from the scene. The French Socialist Party and the Greek PASOK are just as much a part of this as the Italian Christian Democrats or the French Republicans. The German Social Democrats have fallen from over forty per cent to around fifteen per cent in the last 25 years. Countries that were dominated by a few parties in the past now often have five, six or more parties represented in their parliaments. In Germany, the CDU/CSU and SPD still received over 75 per cent of the vote in 1998 and even over 81 per cent in 1987 in West Germany, whereas today this figure is only around 60 per cent in the latest polls.

Following the failure of the Rutte government in the Netherlands in July 2023, there was a veritable rollercoaster ride in the opinion polls in the run-up to the new elections in December. Both the recently founded farmers’ BBB party and Peter Omtzigt’s new socially conservative “New Social Contract” party experienced a meteoric rise and then lost ground again in the elections, while Geert Wilders’ Party of Freedom surprisingly emerged as the strongest force in the elections.

In various countries, it is difficult to form governments and multi-party coalitions or minority governments have to be formed, which are unstable simply due to the different orientations of the various parties and their direct party-political interests, which is exacerbated by the general economic and social instability. This applies to the governments in Sweden, Spain and the so-called traffic light (“Ampel”) coalition in Germany, among others.

Germany is once again the “sick man of Europe”. Economically, the country is teetering between stagnation and recession. A study by the Handelsblatt Research Institute concluded in September that “zero growth will be the new normal”. Accordingly, the German government under Social Democrat Chancellor Olaf Scholz is in a state of permanent crisis. Its poll ratings are at an all-time low.

The differences within the bourgeois about the best way to deal with the crisis are also having an impact here – and not just within the governing coalition. For months, there has been an open conflict over the issue of the constitutional ‘debt brake’, which was exacerbated by the judgement of the Federal Constitutional Court in November, which prohibits the government from shifting debt that was taken on for certain projects as part of a constitutionally declared emergency to other areas. This has led to a deep budget crisis, emergency spending cuts and intensified the debate about the pros and cons of the debt brake. However, this debate is not only taking place between the various parties, but also within parties, including the governing SPD. There are also differences of opinion in the opposition CDU, where there is already a fight between those forces that want to continue Angela Merkel’s course of social compromise and the forces around the new party chairman Friedrich Merz, who are in favour of harsher cuts and attacks on the working class and a certain right-wing populist orientation.

Currently, the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany is winning from these crises and instability in opinion polls. It has become the second strongest force in the polls nationwide and the strongest force in most of the eastern German states and has won its first mayoral positions in eastern Germany.

But in January, the former parliamentary group leader of the Left Party in the Bundestag, Sahra Wagenknecht, will found her new “left-wing conservative” party, which immediately achieved up to twelve per cent in some opinion polls and has a large voter potential. This Wagenknecht party will continue to shake up the party landscape. There is also the possibility that the more moderate right-wing populist Free Voters could establish themselves in several federal states (so far they are only part of the state parliament and state government in Bavaria). Against this backdrop, forming a government is becoming increasingly difficult. Above all, it is possible that in the three eastern German states where there will be state elections in September 2024, it will be impossible to form a government without the AfD on the one hand or Die Linke or the Wagenknecht party on the other. In any case, the situation is so crisis-ridden and unstable that early elections at federal level this or next year are becoming an ever greater possibility, even if representatives of capitalist associations have recently spoken out against this because they fear even greater destabilisation.

This also applies to Austria, where the conservative (ÖVP)-Green government is wavering and early elections have been called for next September. Here, polarisation is also more clearly expressed at the party political level. On the one hand, the right-wing populist FPÖ is the strongest force in the polls; on the other, the Communist Party (KPÖ) has achieved significant successes in two federal states, where it is now represented in the state parliaments, and has the chance to enter the national parliament for the first time in decades, while the social-democratic SPÖ has shifted to the left under its new chairman Andreas Babler, who has attracted over ten thousand new members (or in many cases re-entries). He is trying to give the party a classic social democratic profile as a workers’ organisation that stands for a clear redistribution from top to bottom and support for strikes. Some compare this to the Corbyn phenomenon in the British Labour Party, but Babler has not been able to have the same impact on young people and sections of the working class as Corbyn, nor do his programmatic proposals go as far as Corbyn’s (which themselves remained stuck in a framework of limited reformism).

In Spain, the government of PSOE and the new left-wing alliance Sumar was able to hold its ground in the early elections, but was dependent on the support of Catalan independence parties. This in turn led to a fierce backlash from the right-wing opposition of the PP and Vox, which carried out mass mobilisations against the amnesty for Catalan independence activists and politicians. This, too, is an expression of social polarisation on this issue, with some of those mobilising against Catalan independence doing so not out of Spanish nationalism, but also out of concern about the economic and social consequences of a secession of the relatively more developed and wealthier region. The fact that the PP and Vox did not make the breakthrough in the parliamentary elections that many had expected was the result of a backlash against Vox’s reactionary agenda, particularly from women and young people, which drove up voter turnout. However this should not be confused with active support or even enthusiasm for the Sánchez-Diaz government. But the fact that this government had taken some slightly more far-reaching social measures in the fight against inflation and the crisis may have played a role in ensuring that its support did not drop even further.

In the UK, we see a special crisis of British capitalism and the Tory Party. The question is not if the Tory government will be voted out, but when. Although Sunak was able to stay in office in 2023 – unlike his predecessors Johnson and Tuss in 2022 – this does not change the fact that the Tory government is hated by the working class and parts of the middle classes. All attempts to counter this with right-wing populist propaganda and, above all, anti-migration policies have failed. At the same time the majority of the British ruling class, following the crushing of Corbynism, does not fear a Labour government and would welcome an opportunity to attempt to re-establish the Conservatives as their reliable main party. Due to the majority voting system, it is more difficult for smaller parties to gain a foothold here and find parliamentary representation. Due to Brexit, the European elections in 2024 can no longer be used for this purpose as, ironically, was a possibility for UKIP last time in 2019. A Labour victory, possibly with an absolute majority of seats in parliament, is therefore more than likely. But again, this will not be accompanied by enthusiasm for Keir Starmer’s New Labour Mark II; on the contrary, a large section of the working class and youth will vote Labour with their fists in their pockets. It is also possible that under a Starmer government a right-wing populist or far right party will develop in the UK, maybe bit not necessarily through the Tories.

In France, Macron and the government are increasingly having to resort to Bonapartist measures and undermine parliament’s role in order to pass laws such as the pension reform. The disaster in the recent dispute over a new migration law is an expression of the divisions within the bourgeois and how right-wing populists can capitalise on this. After the votes of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) first led to a majority against Macron’s original draft law and then a stricter law was adopted also with the votes of the RN, this led to the resignation of health minister Aurélien Rousseau from the government.

The Dutch Rutte government had already collapsed due to a conflict over stricter immigration laws. In Italy, the right-wing Meloni government cannot fully implement its anti-immigration programme and had to agree to an increase in the immigration quota for labour migrants. This is an expression of the fact that, firstly, a section of the middle classes is aware of the dangers of giving in to right-wing populism in terms of increasing social instability and, secondly, that many Western countries need to increase labour migration due to demographic trends and shortcomings in the education sector.

Rise of right-wing populism

The mainly electoral strengthening of right-wing populist and in some cases right-wing extremist forces is a phenomenon that exists in one form or another in most European countries. We saw last year that this is not a straightforward process with the electoral defeat of PiS and Konfederacja in Poland and the weakening of Vox in Spain. Overall, however, we must recognise that the increasing social polarisation is currently being expressed more strongly on the right at the political level which also means that setbacks for forces like PiS or Vox can be temporarily and they might bounce back.

However, we must not confuse this with a shift to the right in society in terms of the consciousness of the working class and the balance of power between the classes. These are much more complex. To a certain extent, we also find this polarisation in the minds of individual workers and young people when, on the one hand, they fall for the right-wing populists on certain social issues such as migration or climate protection and cultural issues or hold regressive prejudices and views and, at the same time, support left-wing social and economic policy demands and develop an, often rudimentary, class consciousness. This circumstance makes it so crucial that socialist forces do not write off these layers of the working class as racists and do not fall into the trap of identity politics, but try to reach them with a socialist transitional programme and an internationalist class policy. That this is possible was shown by the fact that a proportion of Trump voters would have voted for Bernie Sanders if he had run as an independent and that Labour under Corbyn was able to win over a proportion of UKIP voters.

We must also not forget that, in addition to the strengthening of the right-wing populists, there is also a further trend towards an increase in the number of non-voters. These non-voters obviously did not and do not see the so-called established bourgeois parties or the left-wing parties as representing their interests – but they are also not taking up the offer from the far right. Studies have shown in the past that a disproportionate number of non-voters see themselves as left-wing. Reaching them should be a primary task for a left-wing party.

There is not only a trend towards the strengthening of right-wing populists in elections and opinion polls, but also the increasing inclusion of these forces in governments at various levels. The so-called firewall of traditional bourgeois parties in the direction of the right-wing populists is crumbling more and more or has already been torn down in some countries. At the same time, some bourgeois, but also social democratic parties and politicians are adopting elements of right-wing populist rhetoric and policies in the hope of stopping the further rise of right-wing forces.

Right-wing populist parties hold governments in Hungary and Italy. In Slovakia, the right-wing populist Figo recently won the parliamentary elections. In other countries, they are directly or indirectly involved in governments: in Sweden, Switzerland and Finland at national level, in Austria and Spain at regional level. There is a danger that Marine Le Pen wins the next presidential elections; in Austria, the Freedom Party (FPÖ) is by far the strongest force in opinion polls and an FPÖ-ÖVP coalition under a FPÖ Chancellor is looming for the first time; in eastern Germany, the AfD is the strongest force and it cannot be ruled out that it can only be kept off the government benches in some federal states by (almost) all-party coalitions. The situation is similar in Belgium, where Vlaams Belang, which only claims to represent the Flemish part of the population, is the strongest force polling 25 per cent in both Flanders and at national level.

Sections of the bourgeoisie see no alternative to including right-wing populist parties in government coalitions and hope to curb them by doing so. It is true that these parties cannot simply implement their full programmes in government. At the same time, participation in government does not transform them into “normal” bourgeois parties, and they remain a source of instability and unpredictability from the point of view of the capitalists. The Austrian FPÖ is the best example of this. Nevertheless, right-wing populist participation in government shows that being in government does not mean being in power. The Italian head of government and post-fascist Meloni recently had to accept higher immigration numbers because this was necessary for the labour market from the point of view of the Italian capitalists. She also had to adapt her attitude towards the EU to the attitude of the dominant parts of the Italian bourgeoisie, and her traditionally pro-Russian coalition partners could not prevent Italy’s continued support for Ukraine. At the same time, however, the Meloni government has been responsible for massive attacks against refugees and LGBTQ+ rights.

The rise of far-right and right-wing populist parties after 1989-91 had three main foundations: the economic and social crises (i.e. the failure to keep the capitalist promises of “blooming landscapes” and the “end of history”) and the associated growing dissatisfaction among the population, state racism and the shift to the right and inaction in the leadership of the organised labour movement and the left.

In recent years, however, the right-wing parties have also been able to capitalise on other political factors and issues. Disappointment and bitterness with the established parties remains decisive. The main motivation for voting for right-wing populists is often to hit the established parties. This goes hand in hand with the social promises made by some of the right-wing populist parties. This was one of the secrets of PiS’s success in Poland and many, especially young, voters of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands cited the Party of Freedom’s social and housing policies as the reason for their vote.

The issue of migration has also become more central again in recent months and will continue to play a major role for political developments given the fact that wars, poverty, natural catastrophes will continue to force millions to leave their homes in search for a better future. Particularly in view of the catastrophic infrastructural situation, an increase in immigration figures is triggering social fears among many with regard to the supply of housing, the situation in education and healthcare, childcare, etc.

A new factor is the debate about climate protection measures. If those in power have their way, the transition to “green capitalism” should be paid for by the masses of the working class. Debates such as the one surrounding the so-called heating law in Germany have triggered deep insecurity in large sections of the working and middle classes. Right-wing populists can therefore find a sympathetic ear among some of them with their denial or downplaying of the dangers of climate change.

The war in Ukraine is also a factor that right-wing populists can use to score points in some countries. The growing unease with the endless military support for the Zelensky government offers right-wing populists in some countries the opportunity to present themselves as an anti-war force and give the slogan “This is not our war” a nationalist content.

In addition, right-wing populist forces are increasingly focussing on anti-feminist and anti-LGBTQ+ propaganda and fuelling a culture war and can exploit a feeling in parts of the poorest sections of the working class that liberal and left-liberal forces are more concerned with, for example, politically correct language than with their pressing needs.

All these issues can be exploited by the right because the left and the labour movement do not formulate a strong, convincing and unified class position on these issues and do not succeed in formulating and mobilising for the common interests of wage earners regardless of nationality, religious affiliation, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Identity politics positions in parts of the left reinforce the perception that the focus is on what divides rather than what we have in common.

EU in crisis

The EU is an alliance of capitalist states to assert their economic interests within the global bloc competition. As we have always explained, there are conflicting dynamics within the EU – those that work towards integration and those that intensify the national conflicts of interest between the EU member states. As we have also always explained, the development of the EU towards a single European state is impossible because capitalism is not capable of overcoming the nation state. Nevertheless, European integration has at times gone further than we had expected. The euro crisis following the great recession of 2008/09, Brexit and the Covid pandemic have shown the divergent tendencies within the EU.

The weak economic situation of the EU and its member states, the high national debt of some member states (especially Italy) could lead to a new euro crisis in the event of future crises and jeopardise the continued existence of the euro or even the EU in its current form. This is true even if, or perhaps precisely because, the war in Ukraine has increased the pressure on EU member states to cooperate and the EU currently appears more stable and stronger at first glance, also because opinion polls show that rejection of the EU has declined in many countries. This also has something to do with the perception of Brexit, which has caused support for the withdrawal of nation states from the EU to decline for the time being, which incidentally also affects the attitude and propaganda of most right-wing populist parties, which have articulated their anti-EU stance less clearly or even made programmatic adjustments. However, this may change in the future, not least if the realisation prevails that, despite Brexit, the UK is not qualitatively worse off economically than, for example, Germany. Above all, it is likely to change as the crisis of capitalism on the continent deepens leading to attempts by the capitalist classes of the dominant EU powers to make the working class of the weaker nations pay for the crisis, combined with propaganda blaming the weaker nations for the suffering of the working class within the dominant countries. This could push right-populist governments like in Italy, Hungary or now Slovakia to move back to a more anti-EU policy.

There has been a change in EU policy, which is increasingly dominated by geopolitical interests, which is reflected in the opening of accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova, which were decided at the EU summit in December 2023, but also in the granting of EU candidate status to Albania, North Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina at the end of 2022. The aim here is, on the one hand, to save face with regard to Ukraine and prevent the mood in Ukraine itself from tipping and, on the other, to achieve closer ties with the Western Balkan states in order to counter the growing influence of Russia and, above all, China in the region.

Germany and France are also using the enlargement debate to push through reforms within the EU, above all to achieve a policy of majority voting and abolish the unanimity principle – this was only achieved in the case of the opening of accession negotiations with Ukraine by the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán leaving the room for a “coffee break” during the decisive vote. However, he prevented the disbursement of a further fifty billion in aid payments to Ukraine. Notwithstanding the current ‘unity’ of the majority of EU states tensions exist between them, not just on immediate issues but longer term ones. Since Brexit there has been a rebalancing of power within the EU. Germany is pushing for an even more dominant, also in military terms, position. This can lead to a counter-reaction of French or other imperialisms and could lead to new alignments between other European states and even push them to look for cooperation and alliances with China and Russia.

However, an actual enlargement of the EU to include Ukraine, Moldova or the Western Balkan states is very unlikely in the foreseeable future. Ukraine’s accession in particular would change the EU to a large extent and increase the financial burden on the other member states enormously. The German Economic Institute has put the cost of Ukraine’s membership at between 130 and 190 billion euros for the period from 2021 to 2027, which would represent an additional burden of 15 per cent for the EU. Ukraine would account for around a quarter of the EU’s farmland (41 million hectares out of 198 million hectares) and agricultural subsidies for other member states would be reduced accordingly if overall subsidies were not massively increased, which Germany and France would certainly prevent. The Western Balkan states are less likely to become member states of the EU also because they develop into a direction of greater instability with national tensions heating up in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosova.

Instead of Ukraine being accepted into the EU, tensions within the EU are likely to increase over the issue of concrete support for Ukraine. Viktor Orbán and Slovakian Prime Minister Figo are already speaking out against the continuation of financial support for Ukraine. Should Geert Wilders form a government in the Netherlands, the EU’s third largest net contributor would probably join them.

As socialists, we are opponents of the capitalist EU, are against the accession of further states and do not see it as a vehicle that can be used for socialist change. This is primarily from the point of view of the working class of the countries concerned, who have nothing to gain from joining the EU and because we cannot support the strengthening of this imperialist bloc. With regard to the question of Ukraine’s accession, EU membership would also lead to an obligation to provide support in the event of war, which, according to the EU treaty, should include “all assistance and support within its power”, which would not exclude military support.

As the EU’s promises are not kept, this will sooner or later lead to a backlash in the countries concerned, which are waiting for membership, and trigger a turn towards Russia and China in parts of the population, but also in the ruling classes (as we can observe in Central and West Africa), but also exacerbate national tensions, for example in the former Yugoslavia or between the minorities in Ukraine and the central government, in the face of continuing economic crises.

Upswing in class struggles

Last year saw a clear upswing in class struggles in many European countries, particularly in the form of strikes over pay rises. This was fuelled by high price increases, which forced workers to fight to defend their real wages. However, this was favoured by the experiences of parts of the class during the pandemic, when it became clear that they hold society together and are “systemically relevant”. On the one hand, this increased their self-confidence and, at the same time, triggered disappointment and indignation when the applause and words of recognition from politicians and governments were not followed by anything. The real wage losses that had already occurred in many countries and for many groups of employees in previous years also meant that there was and is little room for manoeuvre and little willingness to make sacrifices, while the relatively low unemployment figures in many countries are also a factor that strengthens workers’ self-confidence.

In most cases, strikes occurred in official collective bargaining between trade unions and capitalists or public employers. Unofficial strikes, wildcat strikes from below, strikes against plant closures and political strikes in the sense of struggles against government measures were the exception. There were only general strikes in Norway and a strike called by the Italian grassroots unions in autumn 2023, as well as the “feminist general strike” in the Basque Country, which also found support among male workers because the demands to improve the situation in care work were understandably in the interests of the entire working class. Nevertheless, the last two years in Europe mark a turning point for the class struggle. This is particularly true in the UK, but also in Germany.

In the UK, the number of strikes and workers taking part in strikes has reached its highest level for 34 years. A new generation of workers have taken action or organised in the union for the first time. A significant number have also started to become active in trade union structures but it has to be seen if or for how many this will be of a lasting character. At the same time, the strikes reveal inexperience and the loss of traditions of struggle. Even if the labour disputes often lasted for a long period of time, they were generally not indefinite strikes, but strikes limited to one or a few days, sometimes recurring, which had more the character of protest strikes than enforcement strikes. Even pickets today no longer generally have the character of convincing colleagues to go on strike or preventing strike-breakers from entering the workplace, but are rather protest demonstrations and in some disputes they haven’t been organised at every workplace. But the lost traditions will be reclaimed in the struggles of the future, not least when strikers are increasingly confronted with repression, as was the case last year at the now privatised British Royal Mail, where 400 union representatives were disciplined (although 93% of those sacked won reinstatement). The fight against anti-strike laws, such as those enforced in the UK and being discussed in other countries, can also have a radicalising and politicising effect and generalise struggles. A massive public sector ‘generalised’ strike regarding pay took place in Northern Ireland on 18 January. 

In France, the strike movement against Macron’s pension reform was larger than previous strike movements, but at the same time at a weaker level politically and in terms of self-organisation. The trade union and left leaderships proved incapable of expanding the movement and raising demands that would have had to go beyond the question of the retirement age in order to mobilise broader layers of the working class. As a result, the movement petered out and Macron was able to push through his pension legislation. This was undoubtedly a defeat, but not a “resounding defeat” in the eyes of the working class, which would have a lasting demoralising effect. In France, as in other countries, strikes continue to take place at company level, but they are isolated and isolated from one another.

The question of coordinating struggles plays a central role and was one of our main proposals for the strike movements. This can take different concrete forms. The proposal for a one-day general strike was in the air in strike movements like the British one, but we cannot raise it light-mindedly. It must correspond to the rhythm of the struggles and the consciousness of the class. In Britain, our comrades raised the demand at a certain point, but then dropped it when conditions changed again. In Germany, where the strikes last year affected important sectors of the public sector, the demand for a one-day general strike involving private industry workers would have been out of place, partly because the consciousness had not developed to a point where significant sections of workers saw the need to break the institutionalised legal framework of collective bargaining in order to achieve their goals. Here we raised the question of coordinating the simultaneous collective bargaining movements, joint strike days and demonstrations. Significantly, for the first time there was a joint day of strike action by Deutsche Bahn (railway) employees and federal and local public service workers, known as a “mega strike”, and a joint day of strike action by the environmentalist Fridays For Future movement and local public transport workers.

The legal framework, traditions, trade union structure and leadership are all factors that vary from country to country. In Britain, the legal hurdles for taking strike action are higher. In Germany, the trade unions have sometimes set themselves certain hurdles in their statutes that can be used by the trade union bureaucracy to slow down struggles, such as the need for 75 per cent approval in ballots for indefinite strikes (while so-called warning strikes can be called here by the union without a vote).

Leadership makes a crucial difference. Where more left-wing sections of the bureaucracy lead a union, as in UNITE in the UK, this has – despite their limitations – an impact on the struggles that are waged and often means that struggles are waged at all because the leadership does not see its role primarily as preventing a struggle. But this still applies to most trade union leaderships internationally: they are, on balance, agents of the bourgeoisie in the ranks of the labour movement and use their position to prevent struggles or put an early end to them. In Germany, the trade union leadership entered into a “concerted action” with the government and employers to negotiate measures against inflation and the crisis in a spirit of social partnership. DGB (German TUC) chairwoman, and former SPD general secretary, Fahimi even criticised the government for not wanting to pay subsidies to companies that pay dividends, saying that these were “no times for criticism of capitalism”, and IG Metall organised a demonstration of 10,000 members in favour of a state-subsidised industrial electricity price. At the same time, the bureaucracy has a dual function: both to defend the capitalist state and capitalist relations and to assert the economic interests of workers within this framework. The trade union bureaucracy must therefore yield to the pressure of both main classes and can and is repeatedly forced to fight by its membership – which is at the same time the basis of its social position and privileges.

To generalise, it can be said that there has been an upsurge in struggles and a revival of trade unions in the last year, but the bureaucracy has not been forced by the ranks to relinquish control.  In terms of the outcomes achieved, this means that the compromises negotiated by the leaderships have generally – with some exceptions in the case of the Royal College of Nurses (RCN) and others in the UK – met with majority support among workers (where they have been voted on at all). However, there was widespread discontent among postal workers, Deutsche Bahn and public sector workers in Germany with the pay settlements and a relatively high level of dissent of up to over 40 per cent expressing the dissatisfaction of the rank and file.

Through our initiatives during the strikes and against the acceptance of the bad compromises and through the very successful intervention of two Sol members at the national congress of the trade union ver.di, we were able to start working with a larger layer of critical activists and bring them together in the “Network for a Combative and Democratic ver.di” that we founded years ago. In Britain and Northern Ireland, CWI comrades play an important role in a number of trade unions. Last year we played a key role in securing a new left majority on the NIPSA executive and our comrade Marion Lloyd only narrowly lost the election for General Secretary of the PCS.

The development of opposition groups within the union is a decisive component of our trade union policy, even if we are not yet able to implement this everywhere due to our present size and the often very bureaucratic structures. However, we must also be prepared for workers to develop new forms of organisation, such as action committees or council-like structures, or to join smaller, sometimes anarchist or radical left trade union organisations or to try to repair professional organisations in their fighting interests. We see such processes for example in Spain where there exists a lot of hatred amongst workers towards the traditional trade unions UGT and CCOO. This has led to a layer of, especially migrant, workers to turn to smaller anarchist unions. Even when membership of trade unions increases and their overall reputation improves, loyalty to them in some countries may not necessarily be as strong as it was in the earlier days of the labour movement. This means that waves of new members may be followed by waves of resignations or workers joining other trade unions if they feel that their interests are not being represented.

Our task here is to escalate the struggle over the distribution of surplus value, to argue against the false modesty of the demands that the trade union leaderships put forward, to link this to the necessity of the struggle against the capitalist system and to propose promising strategies of struggle. For the latter, the broad, democratic involvement of the members is of decisive importance. Therefore, demands for democratic elections to strike committees, strike delegates’ conferences, etc. are of great importance. In this respect, there have been important debates, at least in the German trade unions, and changes in the right direction in some areas – partly based on the organising concepts of Jane McAlevey, which we must, however, view critically. But we must participate constructively in such processes with our own proposals and not stand on the sidelines simply saying that our supposedly correct proposals are necessary.

It is also our task to politicise the trade unions. The wars in Ukraine and against Gaza have also led to debates in many trade unions. In a few countries, such as Italy and Belgium, workers have refused to ship weapons to the war zones. The right-wing trade union leaders have clung to the coattails of their governments and supported the respective policies in favour of the Zelensky regime and the Israeli state. In many cases, however, this has not gone unopposed. At the ver.di (public and service union) national congress in Germany, the leadership was challenged, also with the participation of our comrades, when it honed the union’s peace policy principles and more opposition than expected was mobilised – but this could not prevent a majority decision in favour of the leadership. At the IG Metall congress in Germany, the pro-imperialist position proposed by the leadership was at least watered down by the delegates. Questions of war and peace, state repression and, in future, austerity policies and generalised attacks on the living standards and rights of the working class will shift the struggles from the purely collective bargaining level back to struggles over wider economic, social and political questions.

New workers’ parties dual tasks and crisis of the left

The multiple crisis of capitalism cries out for socialist change and for the construction of a socialist alternative in the form of socialist workers’ parties. A major contradiction of our time is this objective need for workers’ parties and the fact that not only do they not exist in most countries, but those left parties that could have represented an approach for the development of workers’ parties are far from meeting the demands and have fallen into crisis politically and ideologically in recent years.

This means that the process of rebuilding the labour movement and building political representations of the interests of the working class with a mass base continues to be delayed, even if developments are taking place differently in different countries.

In Europe, the Great Recession of 2008/09 and the subsequent euro crisis led to class struggles and mass movements that saw the rise of new, and in some cases older, left-wing parties in various countries. These have generally failed, adapted or directly betrayed the working class. This is a key reason why right-wing populists in particular are currently able to capitalise on crises and instability.

The most obvious cases of this failure are Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. Syriza’s betrayal has not only paved the way for the current government of the conservative Nea Democratia, but has also set the Greek left far back. The party has fallen further into crisis following its defeat in the 2023 parliamentary elections. Following the election of investment banker Kasselakis as party leader, 11 MPs have left the party and some may form a new left-wing party. However, it is questionable whether this will be able to realise the potential for a new workers’ party given the political record of these Syriza MPs. In opinion polls, the Greek Communist party, KKE, benefits from this situation, whose party leader was actually the second most popular politician in the summer. Although the KKE is characterised by pronounced sectarianism, it has significant roots in parts of the organised working class and has developed a fundamentally internationalist position, not least on the issue of the war in Ukraine where it does not support the pro-Russian position many of the old Communist Parties have adopted.

In Spain, Podemos has disappointed many hopes through its participation in government in the coalition with the PSOE and therefore bears great responsibility for the rise of Vox. As a result, Podemos has not only lost voters, but also part of its active membership base. On the Spanish left, the new alliance Sumar has now formed under the leadership of Communist Party Chairwoman Yolanda Díaz, who achieved a certain degree of prominence as Minister of Labour, which marks a step to the right compared to the Unidad Podemos alliance and presents itself more as a civil society movement. As in Greece, the process of forming a new mass party of the working class has been set back by the pro-capitalist government policies of Unidad Podemos and it will probably take a wave of new generalised class struggles before a new attempt can be made.

In Germany, the Left Party has split. Here too, the split around former parliamentary group leader Sahra Wagenknecht represents a right-wing split that has completely abandoned socialism, aggressively advocates an ‘ordoliberally’ organised market economy (a ‘social market economy’) and strikes a nationalist and anti-immigration tone in terms of economic and migration policy. At the same time, Wagenknecht comes across as a radical critic of the government who distances herself more from the establishment than the Left Party that sits in various state governments and makes no noticeable difference there. Large sections of the party’s left wing have formed an unprincipled bloc with parts of the party’s right wing in recent years and have adapted to the politics of government participation in pro-capitalist coalitions with the SPD and Greens. At the same time, the Left Party has not adopted an independent socialist class position on the central socio-political issues like the measures against the coronavirus pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the war on Gaza. It always appears to be the somewhat more left-wing or social part of the bourgeois establishment, which ultimately does not represent a fundamentally different course from the governing parties. This is the decisive reason for its large drop in support in elections and opinion polls. The new Wagenknecht party could be the parliamentary death knell for the Left Party, at least at national level. Despite the entry of over two thousand new members since Wagenknecht’s split, including many activists from social movements and radical left-wing groups, it is unlikely that the Left Party will have a new appeal to workers and young people in the foreseeable future, not least because these new activists may reinforce Identity Politics within it.

Our section in Germany has adapted its relationship to the Left Party in practical and propaganda terms to the new situation and is placing a greater focus on activities under its own Sol banner, has founded an independent youth organisation with Youth for Socialism and has shifted priorities in its practical work more towards industrial and trade union work, while part of the membership remain members of the Left Party and we continue to be active in the Left’s structures where it is promising and advocate a socialist programme. At the same time, we argue in favour of a united front policy towards the new Wagenknecht party in those cases where this is politically possible, because we assume that a section of the working class will initially see this party as a representing their social interests and it is possible that a layer of left-wing activists who see themselves as socialists will join the party and may argue for a different course within it. How this party will develop and whether it will possibly quickly take on a purely bourgeois-national character remains to be seen.

In Britain, the Corbyn project within the Labour Party has failed and Sir Keir Starmer and his pro-capitalist Blairite apparatus are firmly in control of the party. Corbyn is no longer even allowed to stand for the party in his Islington constituency in London. However, due to the hatred of and disappointment with the Tories plus the majority vote system, Labour is likely to win the next general election by a clear margin, even if there will be little enthusiasm for the party. However, if Corbyn, other left-wing Labour MPs and sections of the trade union leadership were to organise a left-wing candidacy, it could possibly achieve some breakthrough and win a group of MPs even in the current circumstances. Our comrades in England, Wales and Scotland are rightly raising this within the left and the trade unions, while preparing a limited candidacy under the TUSC banner, which without prominent support is likely to achieve only modest results. Nevertheless, this is an important preparation for the future, setting a marker as the objective situation will put the question of a new workers’ party more on the agenda as a result of the experience of a Starmer government.

In France, the NUPES alliance is in crisis. The formation of NUPES was already an expression of the lack of perspective of Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise to develop a mass party from its electoral successes and large support. On the one hand, NUPES achieved success for “the left” in the parliamentary elections, but at the same time relatively strengthened and kept alive those forces to the right of LFI which joined NUPES. Due to the polarised situation regarding the war in Gaza, these forces have now taken Mélenchon’s declarations of solidarity with the Palestinians as an opportunity to question the alliance or put it on ice. Our French rightly continue to intervene in LFI and make proposals and demands to LFI. Unlike other parties of the left in Europe, LFI has not yet discredited itself in the eyes of the working class, but neither has it seized the opportunity to build a party with a mass base.

The same applies to the Party of Labour (PTB/PvdA) in Belgium. This ex-Maoist party has built up a broad voter base through a kind of opportunistic ‘soft left’ turn and is currently polling at 10 per cent in the Flemish and 15 per cent in the French-speaking parts of the country plus 18 per cent in bilingual Brussels. Presently it is nationally the second biggest party in the polls for June’s general election, although this is partly because all other parties have split into completely separate Flemish and French speaking parties. We were able to observe a similar phenomenon with the Dutch Socialist Party, which also comes from a Maoist tradition, but has since lost a large part of its support due to municipal government participation and a substantive political adjustment process. The PTB/PvdA faces a similar fate if it does not build up an active mass base among workers and young people and begin to play a driving role in the class struggle by advocating a fighting socialist programme rather than the left reformist, taxation based, demands it presently uses.

However, the success of the PTB/PvdA shows, similar to the growth of the Workers’ Party of Turkey (TIP) or the success of the Austrian Communist Party in Styria and Salzburg, that there is no one-sided right-wing development in Europe, but rather a potential for left-wing, socialist parties that can also be partially filled by forces that do not have a clear socialist programme if they come across as fresh, not part of the system but oppositional. Such developments could be the starting point for the development of mass parties of the working class. However, due to the ideological weaknesses of the leading forces in these formations, the left parties, which experienced a certain upswing after the Great Recession of 2008/09, failed to a large extent or were unable to develop in the direction of workers’ parties with a mass base.

This does not change the fundamental perspective that the working class will in most cases not come to revolutionary Marxist conclusions in a direct way and that the development of broad workers’ parties will in most cases be a necessary stage in the development towards revolutionary mass parties. Accordingly, the “dual task” we developed in the 1990s continues to exist – building the revolutionary organisation and participating in the broader reconstruction of the workers’ movement (building trade union structures, re-developing socialist consciousness, building new workers’ parties). At the same time, we must not have a mechanical understanding of this dual task.

We can play an important role in the development of broad workers’ parties at certain historical moments, but we cannot bring them into being simply by our own work irrespective of the objective situation. If in certain periods, as is currently the case in most European countries, such broad workers’ parties neither exist nor are on the agenda at the moment, this part of the dual task can be primarily a propaganda one, while in practice the building of our revolutionary organisation takes centre stage. Similarly, it is not impossible that in some countries we – or other forces that see themselves as revolutionary – can build a small mass base and build revolutionary parties that, depending on the structure  of future broad workers’ parties, will either become part of them (in the case of federalist structures) or approach them with the united front method.

Conclusion

Europe is a continent in decline. Not only because capitalism is in decline worldwide, but because Europe has fallen behind in the global power struggle. All the symptoms of capitalism’s death throes can therefore be found on the continent – both in the rich and economically developed states and in the poor states on the European periphery. In some respects, the European Union has been given a breather, but it cannot raise integration to a qualitatively higher level and, in the course of future economic crises, will also find itself in a possibly existential crisis, either as a euro currency area or as an alliance of states. This is especially true if an upswing in generalised class struggles leads to the development of strong militant trade unions and workers’ parties that can challenge the ruling class. Social and political polarisation will continue, but will then also find expression on the political left.

Our task in the phase immediately ahead is to use the growing opportunities for building revolutionary Marxist organisations and to develop a cadre that will be able to significantly influence the course of events in the future.

Liked this article? We need your support to improve our work. Please become a Patron! and support our work
Become a patron at Patreon!