The socialist alternative to a continent in crisis
By Robin Clapp, Socialist Party (CWI England and Wales)
Hannah Sell from England and Wales and a member of the CWI Secretariat introduced a plenary session discussion on Europe at last week’s CWI Summer School, held in Belgium with nearly 400 attending from 33 countries.
The entire continent has been gripped by savage austerity as a result of five years of depression. Six consecutive quarters of falling GDP in the Eurozone have led to renewed alarm on the part of the capitalists as they struggle with the implications of the developing economic slowdown in China. This will further choke off the prospect of recovery in those few parts of the world that had seemed to be still able to act as locomotives for growth.
Germany, from having been the economic powerhouse of the eurozone, has now begun to stagnate, experiencing its sharpest contraction in GDP in the first quarter of 2013 in four years. With European markets mired in crisis, the German capitalists have partly turned in the last years to the Chinese market, benefiting from Beijing’s apparently insatiable demand, which has led to a doubling of its exports there since 2009.
Crisis opening up in heart of eurozone
It is dawning on Merkel that a new phase of crisis is opening up in the very heart of the eurozone. Germany faces its first potential closure of a car plant since 1945 and already the altering economic forecast is making itself felt in a number of small but significant strikes.
The EU car industry is in crisis, with producers’ massive over-production leading to annual losses of over $5 billion.
Across the eurozone, general levels of demand have fallen by 5% from the pre-crisis level enjoyed in 2007, while in Southern Europe demand has collapsed even more dramatically by 15%.
Perhaps the most shocking expression of Europe’s crisis is the unprecedented rise in unemployment, particularly affecting young people. The social consequences of this time-bomb will be felt in every country. Youth unemployment stands at 60% in Greece, 50% in Spain and 40% in Italy and Portugal.
Not one corner of the EU is unaffected and in country after country there is an exodus of young people leaving their homeland in search of work. In Ireland, Laura explained, emigration has reached the level of the mid-19th century famine years.
Often young Europeans travel to their countries’ former colonies, with legions of Portuguese looking for work in Angola and Mozambique, for instance.
Sweden once had a reputation as the model for Social Democratic post-war ‘welfarism’, yet inequality there has grown faster since the 1980s than in any other European country. A quarter of young people are now without work. In working class areas the figure is higher still. The recent explosive riots in Stockholm indicate that here as everywhere else, it is unsustainable to have systemic unemployment without social explosions.
Elin from Sweden explained how the CWI was able to make an important intervention into this movement, seeking to channel the understandable moods of anger, despair and anti-party sentiment into an explanation of why a socialist alternative is vital. Over 500 people attended a meeting in the Husby community where the riots started, to support our demands for an end to police brutality and for jobs and homes for youth.
Revolutionary movements are an inevitable consequence of the deep crisis across Europe, which the more far-sighted capitalists are well aware of. Hence their desperate, but wholly inadequate recent attempts to discuss job creation schemes for young people at an EU jobs forum.
Even where young people have jobs they are often part of the ‘precariat’, struggling to live on zero hour contracts with no security. Over 1.6 million young Italians subsist in temporary low paid jobs, while even in Germany 9 million workers earn less than €8.50 an hour, mostly in jobs that are called ‘mini-jobs’.
Angelica from Germany pointed out that so low are the wages earned by many German workers that it is increasingly known as the country of the working poor. Belgian companies situated near the German border complain that they are being forced out of business by unfair competition.
The last five years have seen struggles by the working class across the entire continent. Yet these have been only the overture to mighty movements that will develop in the next period.
Greek capitalism’s social base
In Greece, where living standards have been attacked in a way that that not been seen in Europe since the days of pre-war fascism, there have been countless one day general strikes as workers and the middle class have sought to defend themselves. Capitalism’s social base has been shattered as doctors, lawyers, teachers and bank workers join the dole queues or beg on the streets.
Had the Greek working class possessed a sizable revolutionary party it could have taken power several times, but the capitulations of the former Social Democracies and even those new left forces, like Syriza, which are unwilling to comprehend the scale of the crisis and therefore the need for a social revolution that overthrows capitalism, means that the austerity agenda is still dominant.
The speed and enormity of the crisis has to varying degrees stunned workers. This, combined with the lingering effects of the collapse of Stalinism, the degeneration of the former workers’ parties to pro-market positions and the failure to build and sustain new mass workers’ parties, all mean that the working class still lacks a broad socialist consciousness.
These complications mean that the revolutionary process will be drawn out, even though objectively the situation is ripening rapidly for socialist change.
Further struggle is inevitable in every country. Even where workers’ levels of organisation have been thrown back, struggle will develop consciousness and our intervention can facilitate this as the example of South Africa shows.
There, even with modest forces, we have been able to intervene decisively on the basis of having a correct programme and orientation to the mine workers. The creation of the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP) marks a crucial step forward for the entire working class.
Class, national and ethnic tensions
The capitalist crisis will not only intensify class tensions, but also national and ethnic tensions. There will be setbacks, complications and defeats facing workers, but these will not generally have the character of fundamental defeats that leave workers crushed for a whole historical period. In Italy a pre-revolutionary situation lasted for a decade in the 1970s.
Then, as now, the key question is that of leadership and our challenge is building the revolutionary party and intervening to construct mass workers’ parties that can be both schools for the development of the class struggle and structures in which the method and programme of Marxism is debated and taken up.
Widespread despair exits in sections of Greek society. The left-wing Syriza leadership has moved to the right. Gone are the jeans and t-shirts worn by its leaders, replaced by sharp suits and a programme that quietly abandons debt repudiation in favour of only withholding interest payments on the debts. Its leader, Tsipras, has seen his personal poll ratings fall to 10% – less than that of Prime Minister Samaras.
Despite this, a Syriza-led government is still the most likely prospect after new elections and this could lead to a new upsurge in the class struggle in Greece. There are already a number of factory occupations, as workers move to take practical steps to defend their jobs and these would grow on a much wider scale under Syriza.
Gold Dawn in government?
There is discussion within the Greek capitalist class about whether the neo-fascist Golden Dawn might be brought into the New Democracy-led right wing government coalition, either now or in an attempt to form a government after the next general election.
Such a move could create an explosion across Greek society, echoing the mighty Asturian rising in 1934 when the ultra-right Gil Robles was brought into the Spanish government.
Ekaterina from the Greek section of CWI emphasised that although Golden Dawn’s electoral support has risen to between 10%-15%, there has not been a big increase in its street fighting capacity. The threat has however necessitated the building of the anti-fascist committees in which we play a key role.
Undoubtedly a victory for Syriza would precipitate further crisis, out of which Golden Dawn can grow if unchallenged. In the longer term, the ruling class in every country will prepare for big class conflict, including civil war, as the old class norms are shattered.
All the institutions of capitalism are increasingly exposed and undermined as the crisis intensifies. In the Czech Republic and Luxembourg, leaders have been forced out by spying scandals, while the Bulgarian government has been forced to resign in the face of the biggest demonstrations for 20 years.
Like its counterpart in Spain, the Portuguese government has been called ‘dead men walking’ as ministers resign following a general strike that explicitly called for all of them to go. Eighty per cent of the workforce participated, including section of the police and the armed forces.
The ongoing corruption scandal engulfing Prime Minister Rajoy, in Spain, has exposed the rottenness at the heart of government. El Mundo newspaper correctly talks of a pre-revolutionary mood gripping sections of the masses. The only reason the government has not yet fallen is that the capitalists have no viable alternative and are fearful of the increase in support for IU which is only just behind PSOE in current opinion polls.
Rob from Spain explained that there has been a partial lull in struggle so far this year, following a ferocious miners’ strike in 2012 that contained seeds of civil war, occupation of hospitals across the country and two general strikes of 10 million and 11 million respectively. But it has been a year of meetings and intense discussion, with one local assembly of the left attracting over 1,000 people to discuss the next stage forward in the struggle.
We have raised the demand for a 48-hour general strike linked to the setting up of assemblies across the country for the purpose of struggling to bring down the government. There must be a united front of the left with the social movements based around the slogans of ‘no to the bosses Europe’, for ‘nationalisation of the means of production’ and the ‘right to self-determination’ for Catalans and other nationalities who demand it.
Erik stressed the unprecedented ferocity of the attacks being made upon workers by the Belgian capitalists. Belgium was without a formal government for 540 days, as the ruling class squabbled about the way forward in the face of growing national antagonisms. Neither the majority of the capitalist class nor the working class desire the splitting up of Belgium, but in a period of crisis, divisions can become more acute in both Flanders and Wallonia.
But inevitably given the lack of a widespread socialist alternative on offer to the masses, there is also a rise of anti-EU and nationalist sentiments.
In Southern Europe the troika is hated, but even in Greece there is widespread caution among workers about demanding an exit for fear of what the alternative would mean.
Sascha from Germany pointed out that our starting point is for a European-wide struggle against austerity. We saw last November the first attempt at a coordinated 24-hour strike across several countries.
We are not only facing a question about a failing currency, but a failing system. No Keynesian-style alternative economic policies can permanently plaster over the fundamental cracks that have been so sharply revealed in the last few years.
We understood from the outset that the euro project was unsustainable. Only the prolonged boom which lasted up to 2007, postponed its demise. Now we witness the beginnings of a slow motion chain reaction that at a certain stage will fracture the eurozone.
Already this process is apparent in Cyprus, where following the aftermath of the banking crisis, the imposition of capital controls by the capitalists flies in the face of EU rules, but is justified by the exceptional gravity of the situation. Its economy is a catastrophe and is expected to contract by a staggering 25% next year.
Portugal is on the brink of a second bail-out, while Brussels bureaucrats lie awake at night fearing future meltdowns in Spain or Italy whose collective debts total more than €3 trillion – six times the sum in the ESM rescue pot.
Everything is being done to avert another crisis this side of the German general election on 22 September. But problems are piling up and becoming more acute. Italy’s sovereign bonds are regarded as having almost junk status, but equally concerning for the capitalists is the near zombie-like state of many banks, which even in Germany and Austria are on life-support.
Working class not passively accept austerity
A real EU banking union cannot be achieved under capitalism and while timescales cannot be predicted and the process of EU unravelling may be quite protracted, it is clear that further crises can erupt anytime and in future be too large to contain.
What is clear is that the working class will not passively accept the misery that is being imposed on them.
In every country, union leaders act to hold back the struggle. There is a refusal, at this stage, despite enormous pressure, to call 24-hour general strikes in Spain and Britain. The TUC in Britain has been ‘discussing’ the question for 11 months, while in France the unions have finally conceded a day of action in early September.
Christine from France underlined Hollande’s deep unpopularity. Elected with enthusiasm after the brutal years of Sarkozy, he is now the least popular President in the fifth republic’s history, less popular even than Sarkozy!
Leila added that every day 6 strikes unfold across France as workers’ purchasing power is pushed back to the level of 1984.
Only by the development of movements from below and the growth of pressure from the working class, will the unions organise action. We are playing a very important role in Britain through the NSSN to build for this.
Even some left trade union leaders display hesitancy on this and other questions. Capitalism exerts tremendous pressure upon them to ‘behave responsibly’, but ultimately they can and will be pushed by the pressure of the working class into declaring action.
In a period of social upheaval moreover, every trade union struggle has the potential to spill over into a more generalised conflict with the system itself.
In Greece, 17 of the most militant trade unions have come together to hammer out a programme for struggle. The electricians’ union, in particular, articulate demands that we agree with. But in this period action is decisive, not merely written programmes.
The blockage cannot be contained for ever. The magnificent struggle of workers to oppose the closure of the ERT broadcaster in Greece shows how movements can and will develop from below, despite workers appearing to be bound hand and foot.
In Ireland the household tax campaign became a lightening rod for all the accumulated bitterness towards austerity. The imposition of the brutal bedroom tax in Britain can be a similar catalyst for wider social and industrial struggle.
The movement against evictions in Spain has, so far, achieved over 1,000 successes. When it began there was a hysterical assault by the media which referred to protestors as ‘Nazis’ and ‘terrorists’. Yet 89% of people support the movement, a much better poll rating than for all the politicians lumped together.
The hatred towards parties is an expression of workers’ growing anti-capitalist consciousness, though not yet translated into a conscious support for socialism. It is perhaps strongest in Spain but is a growing continental phenomenon.
Cynicism with corrupt, austerity-wielding politicians is an inevitable stage in the development of consciousness – almost an outer shell of a future revolutionary consciousness. We have to understand this process and intervene sensitively by fighting for independent political representation for the working class.
In the meantime, the vacuum can be partially filled by all kinds of peculiar populist forces, both of a right and left character. Italy’s highly unstable 5-Star Movement appeared to come from nowhere, but despite receding in support since the general election, where its success stunned the establishment, it still enjoys 18-20% in the polls.
The Belgian ex-Maoist PTB party has also benefited from this process. The right-wing populist and nationalist UKIP in Britain scored spectacular success in the recent local elections on an anti-EU, anti-immigrant platform.
There is a real possibility of UKIP becoming the largest electoral force in next year’s EU elections in England and even consolidating itself alongside groupings like the French FN and Austrian FPO. This perspective is far from certain however and in all of these countries the establishment of genuine workers’ parties can cut across this process.
This is partially illustrated in Portugal where the communist party and the Left Bloc enjoy support of over 20% in polls. Had they formed a ‘United Front’, as CWI supporters called for, together with the Social Movements there could have been a real alternative on offer. They would have attracted millions more to a banner that proclaimed the taking of power and not merely more protest.
Failure to do this has led however to a partial electoral recovery for the Socialist Party (PS) which is now seen as the more viable alternative to the right-wing government.
Syriza’s rightward swing
In Greece, the question of what the left must do is posed very acutely. Syriza’s initial call for a left government saw its support grow hugely. The subsequent abandonment of any commitment to widespread nationalisation and Syriza’s refusal to back the teachers strike ballot, where 90% voted for action, have disorientated and even repelled its former supporters.
Now a new constitution has been imposed on Syriza, creating a ‘unified’ party that outlaws dual membership and makes the party safer for capitalism.
Although widespread scepticism exists towards Syriza, Andros from Greece explained how we are using our stature as an independent force to intervene in the various social and industrial struggles, including the building of the anti-fascist committees.
At the same time, we are seeking to build the ‘Initiative of 1000’ – left forces inside and outside of Syriza – and to work closer with those on the Left who are gravitating towards the need for a transitional programme that calls for a ‘united front’ of workers’ parties and for a government of the left and socialist policies.
A big step forward in Spain, and an indication of workers being prepared to support left formations that put forward even the outline of a fighting programme, is the resurgence of IU (United Left) which now commands 16%-17% support. IU calls for the resignation of the government and has now switched its position from opposing self-determination in Catalonia to one of supporting the right of Catalans to decide.
Still the process is not one-sided however, as sections of the IU leadership have their eyes on a coalition with the social democratic PSOE, which is in place already in Andalucía. Yet because of the fact that the IU is a fluid party that is still susceptible to rank and file pressure, it is not pre-determined that a rightward shift will succeed immediately.
Marxists must seek to organise the widest possible forces of the left, including the social movements and those inside IU who oppose ‘coalitionism’, with pro-austerity PSOE forces.
At the same time, here and everywhere else we have to develop a Marxist core that can act as the spinal column for the left.
British Labour’s attacks in UNITE union
New possibilities are opening up in Britain in the struggle to build a new workers’ party. The attack on the UNITE union by the Ed Miliband Labour leadership – for UNITE trying to make the party more accountable by seeking to have union members selected as candidates in national elections – illustrates the futility of trying to ‘reform’ New Labour.
Miliband called in the police to investigate UNITE’s behaviour [the police have said there is no case to answer] and has embarked upon a policy of preparing to break the union link. This has caused outrage among trade unionists, with even some right-wing General Secretaries raising the question of whether their members will want to pay into Labour as individual members.
The North West Region of UNITE, under a Socialist Party initiative, has now called for disaffiliation from New Labour – a small but potentially historic step towards the building of a new workers’ party, something we have pioneered with the rail workers’ union, RMT, through the formation of the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition.
Tony Saunois replied to the discussion on behalf of the CWI International Secretariat. The crisis is of a protracted nature and this is primarily the result of the capitulation to the market of the former workers’ parities, which, in turn, has left the working class without fighting political organisations.
There is a different rhythm to the unfolding events between northern and southern Europe, at this stage. Although the ruling class will endeavour to ride out the crisis and may even benefit from periods of temporary lull in mass struggles, these will be short-lived and not based upon real recovery and solid foundations.
Millions of lives across Europe have been shattered in the last five years. Given the severity of the crisis, workers have been frustrated that events have not moved faster. Primarily this is as a result of the historic betrayals of the so-called official leaders of the workers’ movement, in country after country. No mass parties of the working class have yet come into being and appeared capable of both opposing neo-liberal austerity and articulating a socialist programme that maps a route of this crushing crisis.
But the capacity of the working class to struggle, pulling in behind it the middle class and the legions of disaffected youth and others, has been established beyond doubt. No more so than in Greece, where general strike after general strike has sought to beat back the forces of neo-liberalism.
The rise of the far-right and even the emergence of openly neo-fascists as real threats in countries like Hungary and Greece, is a reminder that in periods of massive crisis, the seeds of counter-revolution can be watered when the workers’ movement fails to offer an alternative.
Golden Dawn is an expression of despair. Though its core is neo-fascist, many others can be drawn from entering its ranks by offering a socialist alternative in Greece.
Profound lessons are being taken on board by workers and young people as under the surface consciousness changes. Significant numbers of workers are beginning to grasp that capitalism equals austerity and therefore a fundamental change is needed in the way society is run – a socialist change.
We must be prepared for those explosive developments that today appear to be far from the surface, but tomorrow will be erupting everywhere. We should be ready for new waves of mass struggles, including strikes and possible factory and workplace occupations.
We can help to push history along. Our task is to speed up this molecular development through our interventions in every country. We have to skilfully develop our programme, tactics and demands, to reach the working class which has demonstrated many times already its willingness to struggle.