Last week, the CWI held a successful European Summer School in Leuven, Belgium. Over 300 people from 26 countries attended the event, which was marked by serious and sober discussion, assessing the situation and charting the road forward for the class struggle and the building of the forces of revolutionary socialism on a world scale. Plenary discussions were held on the world situation, Europe, and the building of the CWI, as well as over a dozen commissions to discuss a series of issues and regions, including Latin America, South Africa, the Middle East, the Transitional method, National question and many more. Here we publish a written report of the plenary discussion on Europe. More reports will follow in the next days.
Six years on from the most devastating crisis in the post-war period, the plenary session on Europe provided the CWI with an opportunity to look back at the events since then and to look forward to the likely developments.
In its wake the crisis brought panic among Europe’s ruling class. They feared the economic devastation would lead to the break-up of the EU, their pet project designed to coordinate the exploitation of Europe’s working class. Billions were poured into the banks. But it also led to the most vicious austerity measures in decades.
In country after country across Europe the working class came onto the streets in heroic struggle in response, attempting to defend the working and living conditions. But across the continent their leaders failed them and they lacked the democratic structures or mass working class organisations, both trade unions and mass workers’ parties, to pressurise or remove and replace them.
But these were not movements without consequences. Since the start of the euro-crisis, twelve governments have been pushed aside in an expression of the anger and opposition to their austerity measures.
In our discussions CWI members always start with a clear and sober assessment of the situation, neither prettifying nor wringing our hands, but analysing the current scenario and the likely developments, with a confidence that the working class will answer the attacks on it.
The contributions to the discussion showed that, without doubt, the claims by the ruling class that they have stabilised the situation in the aftermath of the crisis are utterly without foundation. As Tony Saunois, CWI Secretary, said in his opening remarks: “their propaganda claims to have achieved peace and tranquillity but in reality all they’ve done is kick the can down the road”.
Niall Mulholland, from the CWI International Secretariat, later summed up the excellent discussion, which featured over 20 speakers from all across Europe, and pointed out that socialists would welcome a recovery that represented an improvement in the conditions of working people – not least because it might restore the confidence of the working class to struggle. But none of the underlying causes of the economic, social and political crisis have been resolved. That fact underlies our perspective for the next period of time.
The figures bear this out. Niall pointed out that 120 million Europeans live in or are at risk of living in poverty. France, the continent’s second biggest economy, had 0% economic growth this year. Portugal, once hailed as the ‘poster-boy’ for austerity, actually had a fall of 0.7% and at the time of the school it appeared a new banking crisis could be brewing there. Bulgaria is just one of the other countries where as Tony called it, a “series of unexploded bombs” could go off in the banking sector.
In the discussion Paul Newbury showed how Poland, held up as the great success story of capitalist transformation, was anything but. The shipyards of Gadansk, the cradle of the Solidarity movement, have been virtually destroyed. The number of shipyard workers has fallen from 17,000 to one thousand. He explained that Poland’s ‘success’ has been based on outsourcing, off-shoring and subcontracting.
But of course the social crisis has been deep-going, ravaging lives in many countries. Just one fact gives a powerful glimpse of this: in Greece an estimated one million workers are receiving no wages. Half of Greece’s hospital beds have disappeared in this crisis. In Italy, the second largest manufacturing power after Germany before the crisis, 32,000 companies have simply disappeared.
No wonder there has been widespread growth in scepticism in the EU and all its institutions and the governments that participate in it. Mass abstention was a feature of May’s Euro elections, most in evidence in eastern Europe. While the break-up of the euro is not necessarily imminent it is inherent in the situation. As Niall said it’s a massive deflationary trap for many European economies.
The cracks are showing in other ways. European governments, attempting to defend their own capitalist classes, were split on the question of sanctioning Russia over its actions in Ukraine.
The support for traditional parties has eroded dramatically, with former social democratic parties who support and implement austerity particularly affected. Pasok in Greece is now virtually a ‘non-party’, the Irish Labour Party was almost wiped out in May’s election, and support for French President Hollande is collapsing in the polls to historic lows.
The crisis of legitimacy engulfing Europe’s capitalist parties is only added to by the moral decay and unprecedented level of corruption, as Niall pointed out. The sexual abuse scandals emanating from the British parliament go to the heart of the rotten establishment. This is one factor in the splits that are and can develop in the ruling class.
For workers and the poor, eye-watering changes have been wrought on living conditions, with features of Latin America now in evidence. In Spain and Greece more than half of the young people there cannot get a job. There is no word for the growing gap between rich and poor other than grotesque. But this crisis has not singled out only the lowest paid and most vulnerable. Its effects are lapping enthusiastically at the feet of the middle classes.
Tony quoted one analyst who predicted that: “If born in 2014, then by 2060 you are either a 45-year-old barrister or a 45-year-old barista. There will be not much in-between. Capitalism will be in its fourth decade of stagnation.”
However it is not possible to look at Europe as one homogenous block where all the effects of austerity and crisis are played out at the same pace. The recent European elections saw a general rejection of austerity-implementing governments but there were a couple who bucked the trend. In Germany Chancellor Merkel is riding high in the approval ratings.
On the basis of Germany’s relatively healthy economy, although still below the pre-crisis peaks, she proposed some limited concessions, such as a lowering of the pension age for some workers and the introduction of a minimum wage next year, albeit with many exemptions.
Still fresh in the job , votes for Italy’s prime minister Renzi’s PD went up. Workers are hoping for a way out of the unprecedented level of crisis but Renzi is there to act for the capitalist class. He provided a sliver of sugar coating, €80, but plans an austerity agenda of vicious proportions. Can he rely on the absence of a working class movement continuing? Individual struggles reveal the Italian working class’s tenacity when it has an effective leadership, such as in Genoa where a council workers’ unofficial strike setback privatisation plans. Resistance to Renzi could help such battles link up nationally.
Beppe Grillo’s 5-Star Movement has failed to provide any assistance to workers fighting back. It is in a state of crisis itself. Its character was revealed when it voted to form a block in the European parliament with Ukip, a right-wing populist depository for protest votes in Britain.
A hatred of parties developed with the 2008-9 crisis. So far, this has not yet ripened into mass participation in the building of working class political alternatives. Tony explained that in large part this was due to the experience of what had gone before, particularly the collapse of the Soviet Union and the idea that capitalism had triumphed over the planned economy that came to the fore in the 1990s. This has been coupled with the treacherous role of the trade union bureaucracies in most countries.
That is not, however, to say that there have not been significant developments in that direction. But so far the new formations, formed or growing in the teeth of the crisis, have been let down by leaders who have retreated in the face of the austerity onslaught and have moved to the right. This is true to varying extents of Syriza in Greece, the Left Bloc in Portugal and of the United Left (IU) in Spain. This has created a certain blockage in the struggle – with the working class checked to some extent on the industrial and the electoral planes. Nonetheless the recent European elections saw a surge of revolt.
But with gains being made by right-wing populist and far-right parties they revealed another development. With this blockage in struggle a certain mild reaction features. As Tony explained, we shouldn’t exaggerate this; it isn’t bloody reaction and certainly doesn’t reflect a crushing of the working class. But where the workers’ movement is held back, other forces can come to the fore, including the populist right.
But the living conditions and perspectives for capitalism that pertain will compel the working class to struggle and with that the situation will change once again, and most likely change dramatically with mighty movements rising up, steeled by events and experience, to challenge the misery of capitalism.
Some forms of reaction are extremely dangerous and must be challenged – such as the 10% support for the openly neo-Nazi Golden Dawn in Greece.
In Greece and many other countries, CWI members have led important initiatives to challenge racism, explaining that united working class struggle is needed to combat both racism and austerity. Raymond reported that in Sweden, where the far right Swedish Democrats have made some small electoral gains, CWI members organised a local protests which triggered the biggest anti-racist demonstrations in Swedish history.
Right wing populism
In many countries it has been right-wing populist parties who have benefited from the political vacuum left by the workers’ movement, such as Ukip in Britain. Paula Mitchell described some of the seeming contradictions that exist, where over a million public sector workers went on strike a week before the school, but Ukip topped the poll in the European election although they oppose strikes and are in favour of even greater austerity.
In reality Ukip voters are to the left of Ukip’s policies and the policies of the main capitalist parties, supporting renationalisation of utilities, for example. Paula explained that the developments in the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, that includes the RMT transport union (which founded the Labour Party – now an openly pro-capitalist party), are central to challenging both racism and austerity.
In France the vote for the Front National is a cause for concern but must be understood against the backcloth of the collapse in support for Hollande, but also the failure of Melanchon’s Front de Gauche to enter the fray in a way which made it clear they were for serious workers’ struggle and opposition to austerity.
However there has also been growth on the left. In Spain, the combined vote of the governing right wing PP and the opposition social democratic PSOE has been no less than 80% since the end of the Franco dictatorship but this year it fell to below 50%! The bursting onto the scene of Podemos in Spain shocked many. From nothing they won 8%. With the IU and the left nationalists, the left commands up to 25% in opinion polls.
The evolution of Podemos is rich in lessons. As Rob McDonald from Spain explained, it is a reflection of the conversations taking place as workers and young people draw conclusions from their experiences. The Indignados movement took its inspiration from the revolutions that brought down Mubarak and Ben-Ali in Egypt and Tunisia. It was strongly anti-party, to the extent of being anti-political and anti-elections.
But abstention helped see the election of the vicious PP. Some in the movement have drawn conclusions – but there is not yet a clear programme, nor democratic and accountable structures. Nonetheless this is an evolving picture and it is the job of socialists to help history move on, participating, making the case for united fronts of the left, around a programme that can appeal to the trade union rank and file, the developing social movements, such as the anti-eviction campaign, and the wider working class and all those suffering under austerity.
Sonya Grusch from Austria showed how the deep-going crisis in eastern Europe has brought forth new developments on the left. In Bosnia-Herzegovina and Slovenia there have been significant steps taken, with the potential in other countries ravaged by crisis.
On the other hand, Cecile Rimboud from France gave a graphic description of how the vote for the FN had given confidence to violent far right groups who were kicking young immigrants in the Metro and anti-fascist activists. She explained how the failure of the left to provide a programme and explanation has been a contributing factor.
The left must take a principled position on the issues of immigration and racism. Unquestionably the issues stem from a growing humanitarian crisis. An estimated 600,000 desperate people on the North African coasts are waiting to get boats to leave the horrors of Africa. Razor wire, even border police shooting live ammunition, has not deterred people so horrendous are the conditions they flee. And so the workers’ movement must defend the rights of immigrants, while also defending the rights of the existing workers and young people in Europe.
Hannah Sell from England and Wales explained that at times of crisis the capitalists have to find some way to shore up their weakened base and they often resort to racism, nationalism and anti-immigrant propaganda. In Britain all the major parties have upped their anti-immigrant rhetoric – but the capitalists demand super-exploitable immigrant labour.
SP gains in Ireland
While the road to developing a mature new mass workers’ party is neither short nor straight, it does not mean that the ruling classes across Europe can be complacent. In Ireland, for example, a Dublin West byelection coincided with the European and local elections, which saw the Socialist Party’s Ruth Coppinger TD (member or parliament) elected.
There is growing competition to be seen as the anti-austerity party. And it isn’t only some of the right-wing populists who seek to grab this mantle in an attempt to win electoral support. In Ireland Sinn Fein presented itself as the main anti-austerity party. But, as Fiona O’Loughlin explained, unlike the Socialist Party they have no confidence in working class people to struggle so they don’t put forward clear strategies based on mass resistance to the austerity measures raining down.
But Kevin McLoughlin showed the potential for the AAA to grow. There are hundreds of working class people actively involved in the Alliance who are not yet members of any political party. An estimated 8-900 people assisted with the leaflet distribution for recent election.
The discussion demonstrated that the tactics employed vis-à-vis the new political formations are based on the concrete conditions that exist in a given country at a given time. In this period, where political flux dominates, there is a need for flexibility in tactics while maintaining the ideas and organisations of the CWI. Andros Payiatsos showed how political clarity is the only thing that can be relied upon when the situation becomes very difficult, as it has done in Greece. The CWI won three councillors in recent elections in Greece, standing on three different lists.
A social catastrophe is ensuing from the betrayal of the Greek trade union leaders of the mighty movement that has been the epicentre of the struggle in Europe. A heroic 30 general strikes and more have taken place. But today, that generalised movement is in retreat and although Syriza topped the poll in the May elections, 50% did not vote. Half the Greek masses feel that no party adequately voices their concerns and demands!
The CWI takes enormous pride in our party in Greece. One of the crucial factors that has allowed them to maintain their forces while the rest of the left faces crises, splits and depression, has been the ability to bring forward a programme that gives an honest and open analysis of the situation at each conjuncture. That means explaining when there is a defeat but also providing a programme to rebuild and develop the movement.
Greece could still be one of the keys to major eruptions across Europe. Should Syriza win the next election, despite its limited programme and desire to collaborate with forces beyond the workers’ movement, it could re-open the question of struggle. While Syriza’s leader Tsipras may not be entering the elections with the plan to abandon austerity, the masses may not allow him to steer the ship in that direction.
One of the fractures through which the crisis has revealed itself is the national question, especially in Scotland and Spain, but elsewhere too. The outcome of the referendum on Scottish independence has major implications for the workers’ movement and for the British ruling class. But it is clear that the vote will not be the end of the process.
Luke Ivory described the fantastic response to the idea of fighting for an independent socialist Scotland. In large public meetings CWI members in the Socialist Party Scotland argue that an independent Scotland must be based on public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy to ensure it meets the needs and aspirations of the majority of people living in Scotland. A speaking tour of 60 meetings has had an average attendance of over 200 with between 20 and 40 people buying the Socialist newspaper as an indication of the thirst for ideas.
The referendum could impact on Northern Ireland. Daniel Waldron reported on the evidence of the failure of the ‘peace process’ with 20% of young people expecting an all-out return to sectarian conflict in the next ten years. He explained that the Socialist Party analysis has been borne out and the peace process has in fact institutionalised sectarian division. But there is evidence also of a willingness to fight for change – the 4,000 who marched against racism and the disgust of young people feel for the homophobia and sexist laws of the ruling parties. The role of the organised working class will be decisive in shaping events there.
Tony remarked that this is just one drop of the metaphorical petrol that is being poured all over Europe. Given the seething anger that exists below the surface, a small spark could ignite massive explosions – as was the case in Brazil with the fare rise protests that erupted into a mass movement, or the mass protests in Turkey last year.
Across Europe the ruling class is preparing itself to resist – arming itself with greater anti-trade union laws, with more repressive legislation and even with actual weapons such as the London mayor’s newly acquired water cannon.
The job of the CWI is also to prepare for sharp changes in the situation. We must build our forces in size and quality, seizing opportunities, creating opportunities and paying attention to the arming of our organisations with a deep understanding of the processes afoot.
This will allow the CWI to be better positioned to provide the struggling masses with the ideas necessary to once and for all rid themselves of the exploitative, divisive, miserable capitalist system and to replace it with one where cooperation, on the basis of a democratic planned economy can allow a true united Europe to start to exist.