CWI International Meeting: Upturn in class struggles across Europe

Euro-zone crisis deepens

Finghín Kelly, Socialist Party (CWI in Ireland)

The International Executive Committee (IEC) of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) met from 17 to 22 January 2011, in Belgium, with over 33 countries represented from Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa.

Following our first IEC meeting report on the world situation, Finghín Kelly reports on the crucial developments in Europe.

Last year, Europe saw a sharp upturn in class struggles, with significant mobilisations and protest movements taking place. Europe also saw the Occupy and Indignados movements sweep the continent. It was in this context and the context of economic, political and social crisis, that the IEC meeting discussed European perspectives, which was introduced by Tony Saunois and summed up by Clare Doyle, both from the CWI International Secretariat.

The ruling classes across Europe have been implementing vicious austerity programmes in an attempt to make the working class pay for the crisis in capitalism. Reforms that were won after decades of struggle, such as pension rights, welfare, labour conditions and social spending, are now under fierce attack. This process is eliminating all of the reforms and conquests made by the working class in the post war period. It is an answer to the reformist ideas of the post war period at a time of economic expansion, which have given way to a turning back of the clock in terms of living standards and the welfare state. This does not mean that reformist ideas will not emerge again.

The deepening of the Eurozone crisis, to which capitalism has been wholly incapable of responding, is a great illustration of the instability and fragility of the capitalists’ position. In response to this, and the growing fightback which working people have inevitably mounted in the face of the banks’ and markets’ agenda, governments have increasingly turned to authoritarian, anti-democratic or methods of “parliamentary Bonapartism”, with an increase in repression and undermining of “democrtatic” institutions.

Austerity attacks are evident throughout Europe; contributors to the discussion highlighted the nature of the cuts in each country and the revolt and resistance they have provoked. The austerity and the response to it were particularly acute in Greece. Contributions from Greek participants at the IEC meeting highlighted the explosive situation in the country. Greece has experienced 14 general strikes, including two 48 hour general strikes, over the last 2 years.

What austerity means for working people in Greece was vividly outlined by several speakers. Living standards have collapsed, with whole sections of society, including parts of the middle classes, ruined and facing impoverishment. There is mass unemployment, with youth unemployment now close to 50%. Surveys show that 91% of households faced a severe cut in income – the average cut being 30%. Now, 78% of household now have difficulties in meeting their needs. This has led to tragic examples of families giving up their children for adoption.
Emigration is a huge issue in many countries; Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Greece, in particular, are seeing mass youth emigration. As well as having devastating social consequences, it also creates complications for mass struggle and can act as a temporary ’safety valve’ for capitalism, as often the most energetic layers are taken out of the struggle.

Social movements

The IEC heard many reports of the social movements in Greece, including the non payment movement against a new household tax, and other campaigns against road tolls and bus and metro fares following massive hikes. The IEC also heard reports from the movement against a refuse landfill in a Greek town which is in open revolt against the authorities.

The significant movements were not confined to Greece; Portugal has experienced its biggest general strike since 1974. Britain and Northern Ireland also saw an historically large public sector strike called in opposition to coalition government attacks against pensions. Between 1.5 and 2 million workers took action, which was the largest single strike since the 1926 General Strike. Belgium also experienced large mobilisations and a public sector general strike in December and now faces a general strike on 30 January in response to austerity by the new government.

Spain was rocked by mass movements, which saw millions of workers and youth in struggle, a movement which played a key role in toppling the government of Zapatero.

As part of this, Spain saw the development of the Indignados movement, which took inspiration from the revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East and in turn spread across the world and fed into the Occupy movement. The IEC heard many reports from these movements .

These movements have been an important manifestation of radicalised youth that are suffering from high unemployment and feeling the brunt of austerity. In Spain, unemployment is at 21%, with youth unemployment now at 50%.

The “Occupy” movement has come as a first response by many young and working class people to this historical crisis. It is an extremely significant and important movement which has gone deeper and had more effect than the anti-capitalist movements of the last decade. This movement contains elements of the “social movements”, which emerged throughout Latin America during previous decades as struggles were built from below to fight in the interests of key sectors of society. As with these movements, the question of linking up of the Occupy movement with the brewing battles of the organised working class to build a force capable of changing society, is decisive. It is necessary to link the social movements to the movements of the working class. CWI comrades in Brazil have faced a similar situation and fought for the formation of the new trade union centre, Conlutas, which included the social movements while based on the organised working class.

Anti-capitalist mood

The movement represents a developing anti-system and anti-capitalist mood. In many cases, the movement has a lack of clear alternative of what to replace capitalism with. Another significant feature of these movements is that, despite having the active participation of only a minority at the moment, there is widespread support for the movements amongst the working class.

There was some discussion about the presence of an ‘anti-party’ mood in these movements. This mood reflects scepticism and even hostility towards the established political parties. Marxists must have a dialogue with these movements and enter into a discussion with the movement about an alternative to capitalism, making the case for socialism and to link the movements of the organised working class and communities, defending the idea of the need for a political instrument for the working class to assist in the struggle for socialism.

The developing consciousness of different sections of society, and the working class, in particular, was discussed at the IEC. Many workers still hold out hope that reformist or Keynesian policies could overcome the crisis, while others are coming to see that capitalism is in a dead end.
The system is obsolete
The system is obsolete

The ‘lesser evilism’ seen in the election or success in polls of social democratic parties was also discussed. This does not reflect deep illusions in these parties but more a hope against hope that they may lesser the effect of austerity measures. The support for these parties can be eroded very quickly. This seen in Ireland, where a Fine Gael/Labour coalition was elected last February with a massive majority, in hope that they would ‘burn bondholders’. But these hopes have been dashed by the cuts policies of the new coalition government.

The question of lesser evilism has been raised in a number of countries, such as France, where the “Socialist” Party may defeat Sarkozy this year (especially following the loss of France’s triple A rating), and is closely bound up with the lack of mass alternatives to the left of the established parties. The failure of the NPA in France to capitalise and develop as a mass point of reference in a context of growing radicalisation was also key to this. In Spain, this same factor led to the coming to power of the PP right-wing, who despite not massively increasing their support, were turned to by many to deliver a blow to the PSOE government, which was massacred in November’s elections.

Speakers outlined how a relatively low level of socialist consciousness among the mass of the working class is a key factor in limiting the mass opposition movements. This is undergoing a change and we can expect leaps forward in class understanding as struggles develop, and this will greatly widen the appeal of socialism. The idea and name of “socialism” has been stained, both by Stalinist regimes and a series of “Socialist” governments in Southern Europe which have introduced the austerity programmes. This reinforces the importance of the role of genuine socialists and Marxists, in explaining and popularising a socialist alternative based on democratic public ownership and control of society’s key resources and industries through a workers’ government.

Role of unions

The role played by the tops of the trade unions and the left parties was identified as a factor in holding back the development of mass radical consciousness. Where union leaders have called strike action it has usually been done through ‘gritted teeth’ and only after massive pressure from below. In some cases, unions have been largely emptied out of activists and are not attractive poles of attraction for radicalised youth and the unemployed. Some of the union apparatuses have in reality become “yellow” or “corporate” organisations acting as a arm of the employers. This is a complication for the struggle. It is an essential task for militant activists to fight to build opposition groups in the unions and try to reclaim the trade unions. Socialists do not adopt an ultra left or sectarian approach to the trades unions but need also to ready for splits and the formation of new union organisations.

The failure of new left parties and formations to fully capitalise on the situation was discussed at the IEC. Many have failed to be attractive to radicalised sections of youth and have not been active in struggles. They failed to radically grow in membership, despite in some cases gaining some good electoral results and opinion poll showings .

It is clear that the economic crisis is intensifying internationally; Europe and the euro currency is at the heart of this crisis . A major rupture of the euro is posed and with it the potential reconfiguration of the EU. How this crisis could develop and the consequences of it were discussed in-depth at the IEC meeting in detail.

The downgrades by the ratings agencies show that they have no faith in the austerity programmes offering a way out of the crisis. The question of default is still very much posed, the ‘markets’ and many capitalist commentators indicate that default by Greece and Portugal is a distinct immediate possibility. This would be the first default by a Western country in 70 years.

class struggles across Europe3


Future of euro?

The breakup of the euro would have huge consequences for the European and world economy. It is estimated that 1 million jobs would be lost in Germany alone and German GDP would be lowered by 25%. The German and other ruling capitalist classes will therefore do all they can to save the euro. Eurobonds or an increased role for the ECB is put forward by many capitalist commentators as a way out of the crisis and some on the left support these measures. This was discussed in the meeting by many contributors. The different capitalist powers will act to protect their own national interests. German capitalism does not want to see the use of Eurobonds at the current stage. However they could be driven in that direction by the pressure of events and in a desperate bid to save the European economy from disaster. But even this would not be a long term or even medium term solution to the crisis.

The increased tendency for the by-passing of ’normal’ parliamentary democratic processes and the erosion of democratic rights was also highlighted and discussed by several speakers at the meeting. Last year, saw the imposition of ‘technocratic’ governments in Italy and in Greece, when the markets and the EU powers lost faith in the ability of the existing governments in these countries to successfully carry out huge austerity cuts . The Italian government that was installed was, in reality, a government of the bankers as every member of the cabinet has a background in or close connections to the big banks and financial institutions.

There has also been increased intervention by the European commission in many countries; this is seen very clearly in the so-called ‘programme’ countries, where detailed programmes of austerity are planned by the ‘troika’ in conjunction with the national governments. Even in non ‘programme’ countries we have seen this increased intervention. In Belgium, the Commission demanded that the government meet over a weekend to find more cuts when the cuts did not go far enough for the Commission.

Authoritarian measures

It is not just at a parliamentary or government level that we have seen an erosion of democracy; a general tendency for the use of more authoritarian state measures and repression and the criminalisation of protest was discussed. This was seen in the attempts in Spain and elsewhere to end the Occupy movements.

The erosion of democratic rights is very evident in Hungary, the first EU country to get IMF bailout during the economic crisis. Delegates reported how attacks have been launched on the right to strike, a new labour law eroding workers’ rights has been passed and labour camps for the long term unemployed established. As in other countries, pensions and early retirement rights have been attacked. Repression against the Roma people has increased. A flat tax has also been introduced, increasing the economic burden on the poor. The freedom of the media has also been eroded, with a new ‘media law’ introduced. A new constitution introduced by the government is eroding many basic democratic rights.

As well as an economic crisis, the capitalist classes across Europe are facing a political crisis. The political reserves of the bourgeoisie are running out, because the traditional establishment political parties are discredited by their cuts policies . We have seen a whole series of governmental crises across Europe. All the countries in the forefront of the Euro crisis have seen political change, with Italy, Spain, Greece, Ireland and Portugal all seeing a change of government in 2011.

Even in Germany, where there has been some economic growth, this has not given any boost to the ruling parties. The FDP is in crisis , for example, and faces the prospect of losing its parliamentary representation.

Tumultuous events in coming months

Former workers’ parties have moved further to the right during the crisis and have become more discredited in the eyes of workers. Labour in Britain have said they will not reverse the Con-Dem government’s cuts when they return to government. In Italy, the PD voted for Monti’s cuts!

In a number of countries, the political vacuum is being partially filled by far right forces. The Front National in France is cynically using anti-bank, populist rhetoric to try to increase its support. The emergence of the neo-fascist Jobbik party in Hungary was also discussed, as an example of how the far-right can attempt to fill the vaccuum. The danger of the far right and racist threat must be combated by the workers’ movement with a clear class programme that unifies workers against neo liberal attacks and fights for jobs and homes and a decent welfare system for all, and for real system change.

The national question will re-appear in this situation. Developments in Scotland and Spain were discussed by speakers from those countries, where the crisis has seen growing national tensions and raised the question of separatism etc. The CWI’s forces while defending the right to self-determination, counterpose an alternative of united struggle and socialism to narrow bourgeois nationalism.

It is very clear from the excellent and rich discussion that Europe will face tumultuous events in the coming months and years as the economic and political crisis deepens . This will bring huge opportunities for the CWI to build support for socialist ideas.