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Socialism Today 138 - May 2010Europe: eruptions and fissures

In April, the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) held a European Bureau, bringing together socialists from around Europe, and further afield. Among many other issues, it discussed the overall political and social situation in Europe. The article below is extracted from the main political resolution passed by the bureau. Further reports – and the full text of the resolution – are available from the CWI website.

DEVELOPMENTS IN THE world economic and political situation form the background to the crisis facing the European ruling classes epitomised in the worst crisis to hit the eurozone since the single currency was launched. The world economy has experienced a very limited recovery which remains extremely fragile. The massive stimulus packages that were applied, especially in the US, China and Europe, have had some effect in preventing a complete collapse into a depression in the world economy, but have been limited and have not resolved the underlying crisis.

Although the most recent figures available refer to an increase in economic growth in the US and Europe, they do not represent a real growth in capacity and have not taken production back to the levels recorded prior to the onset of the crisis. The threat remains of a double-dip in the world economy. The World Trade Organisation predicts that global trade will expand by 9.5% this year. Even if this is achieved, it will not make up for the 12.2% drop in 2009.

The economic recoveries following the stimulus packages were based on schemes such as ‘cash for clunkers’ and, in Britain for example, a reduction in VAT. These are temporary, one-off measures. Investment continues to stagnate or decline. In February, eurozone unemployment was 10% officially. At this stage, most of the growth arises from restocking goods, with the creation of further bubbles from the increased liquidity pumped into the system by the state. China and Germany have boosted their exports but the decisive question facing world capitalism is the lack of demand and the absence of new markets. In the case of Germany, export growth has been at the expense of its rivals but with no real expansion in its domestic market. Now the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has revised downwards its 2010 economic growth forecast for Germany from 1.5% to 1.2% citing the weak financial sector and global trade as its main concerns.

The few bright spots for capitalism – such as China, Brazil and, to a lesser extent, India – could still be hit late by the crisis. China, which is experiencing a property bubble, could see an economic contraction which would provoke a social explosion which the regime is desperate to avoid. Even if the world economy returns to a period of absolute growth, inevitable at a certain stage, this would be insufficient to resolve the social horrors and deprivation arising from the crisis, and which face the mass of the world’s population, or the political consequences.

The current conjuncture, therefore, is not a recovery in the real sense. It is largely jobless, with mass unemployment remaining even where there is some limited growth. In fact, the last 30 years have witnessed an underlying depressionary period. This was partially masked by the credit-fuelled consumer booms and a series of speculative bubbles, which have now largely burst.

Each capitalist crisis contains within it some period of growth and partial recovery. At a certain stage, this will give way to a new crisis, recession or stagnation. The onset of the crisis three years ago represented a huge ideological blow against capitalism. This compelled the ruling class to respond with emergency measures of a state-capitalist character, with the state compelled to intervene in the so-called ‘free market’ to prop it up and save it. This is entirely different to the ‘post-war settlement’ and the development of the ‘mixed economy’ after the second world war. During that time, the bourgeoisie accepted quite a large element of state ownership and economic intervention accompanied by the introduction of significant social reforms. In contrast, today, intervention and nationalisations are sudden and short-term attempts to stave off imminent collapse, followed by fairly rapid proposals for privatisation combined with brutal counter-reforms and attacks on living standards.

Crisis in the eurozone

THE MOST SIGNIFICANT European development so far this year has been the drama erupting from the debt crisis in Greece. This has had international repercussions and triggered a major crisis in the eurozone and EU. It has brought to the fore sharp national antagonisms between Germany, Greece, France and other EU powers.

This has revealed the relative weakness of the euro and has brought into question its survival. This uncertainty represents a serious setback for the European ruling classes. To defend its own national interests, Germany refused to simply bailout Greece. The hard line adopted by chancellor Angela Merkel reflects the fear of German imperialism that, by bailing-out Greece, a precedent would be set, as impending crises erupt in Spain, Portugal and elsewhere. Showing a new assertiveness, Merkel threatened that countries which run into crisis could be thrown out of the eurozone. On the other hand, allowing Greece to default ran the risk of triggering new financial and political firestorms.

The reaction of other European powers, especially France, turned the situation into a European crisis. That exerted immense pressure on Germany to modify its position. The decision to include the IMF in bailing-out Greece is a blow against the prestige of the eurozone bourgeoisies and the European Central Bank (ECB). One of the initial ideas behind the formation of the single currency and ECB was to establish a counterweight to US imperialism and the IMF. So, recent developments are a far cry from the halcyon days of triumphant European capitalism, when the euro was launched with high expectations of economic growth, a strong currency and a smooth path towards ever greater European integration. Some argued that this would eventually overcome national antagonisms and result in the end of national bourgeois states in the EU.

These pipedreams – consistently opposed by the CWI – have been exposed by the sharp rise in national antagonisms. The crisis has revealed the impediments to real integration and the failure to overcome the limitations of the nation state and the interests of the ruling class in each country. The degree of European integration has probably reached its limits, with the process stagnating, even going into reverse.

The euro crisis will not mean that the currency will be simply abandoned. However, some countries may fall out of the straitjacket it imposes. The degree of national antagonism, provoked by Germany’s defence of its own interests, was seen in references to German imperialism’s role in Greece during the second world war. French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, was quoted in Le Monde saying that German imperialism "has not changed". This conflict represents a departure from the previous period when France and Germany tended to act as allies, at least within the context of the EU. At the same time, it leaves French imperialism in a precarious situation as it does not want to ally itself with British or US imperialism.

German capitalism has been able to exploit the exchange rate to its advantage, and has used its power to compel an unwilling France to accept its position. Germany is the motor for European growth. And it is trying to put the rest of the continent on rations, demanding drastic austerity programmes, especially in the weaker EU economies.

A ferocious nationalist campaign has been conducted by the German ruling class against the Greek people. This indicates that nationalist sentiments can be bolstered by the ruling classes as the crisis unfolds. This has to be counteracted by strengthening the idea of a united struggle by all European workers against cut-backs and attacks. While it may be premature to demand an all-European 24-hour general strike, at this stage, the idea of European-wide protests can be taken up energetically.

Features of depression

THE CRISIS HAS been devastating for central and eastern Europe. The high hopes that came on the back of capitalist restoration, following the collapse of Stalinism in 1989-90, have not materialised for the masses. The economic meltdown in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia is on a par with the great depression of the 1930s. Hungary is faring little better. Although Poland appears to be the exception, the growing public debt, which threatens to breach 55% of GDP next year and 60% soon after, will force cuts and attacks on the working class. To this must be added the catastrophe unfolding in Russia. Unemployment is probably higher than in 1994 when production collapsed. The regime is beginning to split and a social eruption is a serious prospect in a relatively short period of time.

National antagonisms can also manifest themselves in a resurgence of the national question and tensions within countries, such as Spain and Belgium. In Northern Ireland, the impossibility of solving the national question under capitalism is reflected in a growth of sectarian conflict in the communities despite the continuation of the so-called ‘peace process’ at the top. As the crisis has hit Spain extremely hard, so the wave of struggle by the working class has developed rapidly. At the same time, there has been a growth of regional and national sentiment, especially in the Basque country, Catalonia and other areas. Forty percent of state expenditure is administered in the regions and provinces. This can become a focal point of conflict with the national government. The national rights of the peoples of Spain need to be defended at the same time as fighting for a socialist confederation and struggling for a united working class throughout the Spanish state.

In a sense, the threat of a default by Greece includes elements of 1980s Latin America – including the demand of non-payment of the debt. Significant as this is, it is an anticipation of the even bigger crisis waiting to erupt in Portugal, and especially Spain. With nearly 20% unemployment and up to 40% youth unemployment, a social revolt at least as strong as in Greece is posed. The effects and depth of the crisis have not been uniform. But Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain have been devastated and show some features of a depression comparable with the 1930s. The Irish economy is still contracting. These countries, under the insulting acronym, PIGS, have been widened to STUPIID: Spain, Turkey, the UK, Portugal, Ireland, Iceland and Dubai!

Compelling workers to struggle

INTERNATIONALLY, THE RULING classes seek to drive down further living standards, wages and conditions. The political and social consequences are decisive issues. Perspectives and tasks have never been more intertwined. In general, the impact of the crisis on the class struggle has still to be fully felt. Yet, already, important mass movements have erupted, especially in Greece, Spain and Portugal. In other countries, working-class struggle would have gone a lot further but for the cowardly role of the trade union leaders who have reflected, in general, the interests and pressure from the employers rather than fought to defend the working class.

To this must be added the crucial question of the currently limited level of political consciousness of the working class – inherited from the previous period and hindered by the failure of the official workers’ leaders to offer a real socialist alternative. These weaknesses mean that the crisis will be complex and protracted. Despite this, massive social explosions, and industrial and political struggles, will unfold and can allow socialist forces to build rapidly, with the correct slogans, tactics and explanatory socialist propaganda. This will not be an automatic or straightforward process. The rhythm of the struggle and the development of political consciousness will vary from country to country.

Added to the economic and political crises is that of the environment and global warming. Increasingly, the consequences of global warming are becoming an issue among the working class, as they are felt mainly by the workers and poor. This has been the case even in Europe, as witnessed in the movements over water supplies in Andalucia. A section of the bourgeoisie has raised the prospect that new ‘eco-industries’ offer a solution to the economic crisis. However, it is highly unlikely that this provides a rapid, short-term road to recovery or new markets on which the capitalists can sell their products.

Despite the contradictions in political consciousness among big sections of the working class and youth, it would be a mistake to underestimate the underlying bitterness and anger which is present. This is not, in the main, reflected in the official trade unions or their structures.

There have been significant industrial movements of workers in many countries in response to the crisis and attacks on the working class. In the main, these have been defensive. The first half of 2009 in Ireland saw important strikes and protests. The public-sector strikes and three massive general strikes in Greece graphically illustrate how the working class has been compelled to struggle. The public-sector strikes in Portugal and the threat of a general strike illustrate the desperation of the situation faced by workers. The massive demonstrations and overwhelming demand for a general strike have terrified the ruling class in Spain but also in Europe as a whole. Although Turkey is not geographically fully a part of Europe, socially and politically it has increasingly become part of the European discussion. The tremendous TEKEL strike represents a crucial change in the situation there.

Spain, with a larger economy and more powerful working class than Greece, could be thrust to centre stage at any time. Significantly, the fear of such an explosion has compelled the government to withdraw its proposal to raise the retirement age. There were elements of a pre-revolutionary situation during the height of the movement in Greece. The failure of the official workers’ leaders to offer an alternative, the more limited level of political consciousness, together with the weakness of organisation from below, were the main obstacles. Yet, the masses are further to the left than the leadership.

Similar pre-revolutionary elements can develop in this new era in a number of European countries in the coming months and years. But the processes will be more complex and protracted precisely because of the absence of mass workers’ organisations.

In Britain, following last year’s industrial struggles at Lindsey, Linamar, Vestas, and by postal workers, 2010 has seen national strikes at British Airways and by government workers. Rail workers could soon join the list. This indicates a new situation. France saw a national strike called on 23 March. In Belgium, some strikes have been initiated from below.

These and other movements have happened in spite of the trade union leaders who have been terrified by the crisis. In France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Spain and Sweden they have sought to re-establish ‘social dialogue’ and ‘social contracts’, and avoid calling serious national action. They have argued for wage cuts to stave off unemployment and acted as arbitrators between the employers, their governments and the working class. Generally, when the trade union leaders have called protest action, it has been merely to let off steam. The willingness of some workers to struggle was reflected in Ireland by the 83% vote for action in the CPSU government employees’ union. A similarly high vote for action was seen at British Airways.

The general strike

IN ITALY, DESPITE a growing wave of opposition to prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi – shown in massive demonstrations in Rome and Milan – the CGIL union confederation only called a four-hour general strike. Objectively, the question of the general strike is present throughout Europe. When relevant, this should be advanced as a main slogan. In countries like Greece, where a series of general strikes have been called but have not been pursued with a clear programme of action and a political alternative, the call for a 24- or 48-hour general strike needs to be raised. If that does not compel the government to retreat, more decisive and protracted action could be posed, including an all-out strike.

However, the situation today is more complex than in the past because of the character of the trade union leaders and the political consciousness of the working class. The general strikes, or partial general strikes, which have taken place have assumed the role of protest actions – more comparable to those in some European countries prior to the first world war. Further action, perhaps of a lengthier time than 24 or 48 hours, the election of action committees, and the need for a KKE (Communist Party) and SYRIZA government on a socialist programme, were raised in Greece. Similar demands will need to be developed in other countries where appropriate. Ultimately, an indefinite general strike will pose the question of power. Yet, at this stage, the political consciousness of the working class lags behind that task. Specific, concrete proposals during industrial struggles – how to organise, and what action to take – are especially important because of the lack of experience in struggle by a new generation of workers.

The balance between intervening in the official trade union structures and, where appropriate, proposing the formation of unofficial, democratically-elected action committees outside the official structures is especially important. This has been re-enforced by the decline in the number of unionised, especially young, workers and the role of the union bureaucracy. The growing number of younger workers who have temporary jobs without permanent or fixed contracts is also a factor.

Although significant, the industrial movements which have taken place only represent the first reaction to the impact of the crisis. There have also been different phases in the development of the political consciousness of workers. Initially, a certain radicalisation took place among many. Following an outburst of anger and anti-banker, anti-rich awareness in some countries, there has also been a certain stunning effect at the depth of crisis: ‘We have to accept some belt-tightening’. In others, there has been a hope-against-hope that the crisis and its consequences would be short term. This was followed by a certain expectation that the stimulus packages would solve the problem and life would return to ‘normal’.

In Ireland, the cowardly role of the trade union leaders has compounded the problems of working-class political consciousness and confidence. After more than 20 years of economic growth, the working class has been faced with an economic tsunami. A bitter, reluctant acceptance that cuts are ‘inevitable’ – that there is no alternative in such an economic collapse, and in the absence of a mass alternative – has prevented a movement from below developing thus far. However, this can rapidly give way to a massive social explosion and, sometimes, can be triggered by a relatively small attack following a series of harsher measures.

The lack of a strong socialist alternative

THE ABSENCE OF a clearly defined and powerful socialist alternative and consciousness is the main obstacle to a mass mobilisation for socialist change. The bourgeoisie can count itself lucky that it does not encounter even a powerful left-reformist or centrist force with roots among the working class as existed in the past. The absence of a mass socialist alternative is reflected in a higher rate of abstentions in elections in many European countries.

Hardly a single government in Europe can be regarded as stable. This instability is reflected in Merkel’s government, with open clashes between the CDU, CSU and FDP right-wing coalition ministers. In Italy, the resurgence of opposition to Berlusconi and the fall in his approval ratings are further indications of this, although the expected collapse of the centre-right in regional elections did not take place. The Italian ruling class is clearly concerned about Berlusconi. The existence of a powerful left force in most countries would have swept the existing governments or parties from power.

Faced with this, the emergence of ‘lesser evilism’ marks out the situation in many countries. For a time, this was reflected in Greece with the re-election of the social-democratic PASOK. Regional elections in France saw the proportional growth in the vote of the Parti Socialiste. In Ireland, the Irish Labour Party rose in the polls. Even in Britain, after 13 years of New Labour, fear of a Tory government means that Gordon Brown could get a better result than appeared likely a few months ago. This could even bring a minority New Labour government, possibly in an unofficial coalition with the Liberals. A minority Tory government also remains a possibility but, such is the inflamed social situation, such a government could be extremely short term.

Proportional increases in electoral support for the former social-democratic parties, however, are not on the same basis as in the past. They have far weaker social roots and the expectations in them are much less. The parties which proportionally have grown electorally have not experienced an upturn in active, working-class membership. There can be extremely rapid changes in mood, with growth in electoral support for a political party evaporating and turning into bitter opposition.

Most graphically, this was seen in Iceland following the election of the Social Democratic/Left-Green Alliance. Within a few months, hopes in this government – the first time a Social Democratic government has been in power in Iceland – were dashed. The government proposal to accept the repayment terms demanded by the British government met with fierce opposition. Even the right-wing president was compelled to reflect this mood and refused to sign the agreement. This opened the way for the referendum in which 93% rejected the deal.

The new left formations

GENERALLY SPEAKING, THE new left alliances/parties have failed to fill the political vacuum. Their futures are unclear. Faced with an historic crisis of capitalism they have tended to move to the right and a further ideological collapse has taken place. This is one of the main reasons why these new formations have not developed recently. The NPA (Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste) in France and SYRIZA in Greece have fallen back from opinion poll high points. The election result of the NPA (2.5%) and the Dutch Socialist Party were in marked contrast to the tremendous electoral victory in Ireland of the Socialist Party’s Joe Higgins in the European elections. In Germany, Die Linke, despite a marked shift to the left in words in its recent Draft Programme, has remained static at around 11%. However, it may succeed in entering Germany’s largest regional parliament, North-Rhine Westphalia, for the first time. This will be seen as a success.

At this stage, the new left parties/alliances have not attracted large numbers of workers into their ranks. This partly reflects their failure to offer a clear, consistent, socialist alternative. It is also an inability by the leadership to combine election work with intervention in struggle. In part, it reflects a general anti-party sentiment by many workers and youth who do not yet see why they should get actively involved in a political party.

This will change as workers – though the continuation of the crisis, their experience in struggle and the intervention of socialists – conclude that they have no alternative but to develop their own political voice. This is not straightforward. It may require a series of struggles before a powerful left force with a substantial active participation by workers is built in any European country. It remains unclear whether the existing forces will develop further or if new organisations will emerge. Nonetheless, participation in existing organisations is important, to try to shape how they develop, and can have a significant impact, as in SYRIZA and P-SOL (in Brazil). The emergence of various left-wing groupings in SYRIZA represents an important step forward and may shape how it and a mass, working-class socialist party develops in Greece. The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition in England and Wales is also significant arising, partly, from effective intervention in industrial struggles. There will be many twists and turns along the way, and tactics will need to be adjusted accordingly.

The formation of new parties is not an end in itself but a lever for safeguarding and improving the rights and conditions of the working class. Even once they are formed as powerful parties involving important sections of the working class and youth, if strong Marxist forces do not help shape their development, reformist or even centrist elements can undermine or destroy them through a wrong programme, tactics and methods. That was the experience of the PRC (Rifondazione Comunista) in Italy. Where this is allowed to happen, the disappointment which follows can make building a new force even more complicated. The vote for the Left Federation – a bloc of the PRC, PDCI (Italian Communists) and other left groups – averaged a mere 3% in the regional elections. The failure of the PRC, combined with the Democratic Party’s ineffectiveness, has opened the way for the emergence of the Purple People movement. Similarly confused and amorphous developments can emerge in other countries if new mass workers’ parties are not built.

The formation of new broad workers’ parties is an important task for the working class and socialists, but their absence is not a barrier to strengthening socialist influence. While a larger layer of the working class would be drawn into such parties, an important layer can also be drawn directly into socialist parties.

One of the issues to emerge in Die Linke, SYRIZA, PRC, NPA and PSOL is that of coalitions and alliances with former social-democratic parties. This requires taking a principled position alongside skilful explanation which takes into account the illusions in such coalitions. In the past, this question was more readily understood by left-wing activists, a further reflection of how consciousness has been thrown back since the collapse of the former Stalinist states.

Reaction… and radicalisation

THE ABSENCE OF a left alternative has resulted in the growth of the far-right in some countries. The renewed growth of the Freedom Party of Austria, the possibility of a strong vote for the British National Party in Britain, Le Pen’s electoral resurgence in local elections in France (on average winning 17% where the Front National stood), the gains of the far-right in the Netherlands and the growth of the Liga Nord in the Italian elections illustrate the danger. The impact of the economic crisis is reflected in a reactionary way in the growth of racist, anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic sentiment among some layers. Far-right and right-wing forces have frequently used right-wing populist rhetoric to win electoral support. Anti-racist activity needs to be put to the fore. Demands and programme need to be developed to oppose racism and fight for class unity by engaging in a dialogue with all layers of the working class.

With attacks on education and the rapid growth of unemployment (21% of youth who want to work are unemployed across the eurozone, according to the OECD), an explosive situation is unfolding. The movements on education in Germany, Austria and Spain anticipate other struggles which can develop throughout Europe. The attacks arising from the Bologna agreement are having devastating consequences on education and can provoke even bigger protests. These mobilisations need to turn towards united struggle with the working class. The youth act as the light-cavalry and are an anticipation of the more powerful movements of the working class which often follow them. And a significant layer of young people are entirely opposed to the existing parties, to the establishment and system as a whole. Many are in a constant struggle with the police and state machine. Some are becoming increasingly alienated from society.

A layer has been drawn towards anarchistic organisations and ideas. The degree of alienation of some youth is already reflected in Greece with the emergence of some terrorist groupings. This negative reaction can also develop in other countries. The anger and bitterness of the best of these youth are justified and need to be reflected by socialists. While not succumbing to ultra-leftism, the political approach to young people should not be too timid. Despite all the problems facing the workers’ movement, there is a new, favourable situation in Europe for the development of more substantial Marxist parties.


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