“The whole of Europe is a lake of petrol waiting for the match.”
This was the summary of Peter Taaffe in his introduction to the opening session, discussing Europe, at the 2017 CWI School recently held in Barcelona. The discussion covered recent developments in Europe, the rise of new left movements and the attitude of Marxists towards them as well as the danger represented by right wing populism and the far right.
The earth-shattering general election result in the United Kingdom provided much of the backdrop to the discussion. The Tory government lost its overall majority and has to rely on the right-wing Democratic Unionist Party’s MPs from Northern Ireland to achieve a fragile majority. This was due to the enthusiasm engendered amongst the working class, and particularly young people, by Labour’s most radical manifesto for decades.
There had also been the magnificent victory of our comrades, the Socialist Party in Ireland, against the trumped-up Jobstown charges, and particularly the threats to imprison activists, including Paul Murphy TD. These acquittals are a tremendous confirmation once more of the methods of the CWI. When attacked, we employ the maximum mobilisation of our forces and the labour movement nationally and internationally, leaving no stone unturned. This serious attack could have meant prison sentences and the unseating of Paul. In any battle, how we fight enables Marxists to widen our circle of support thereby providing us with the possibility of increased influence, whatever the immediate outcome.
The court victory was vital because as Kevin McLoughlin from Ireland pointed out, new Prime Minister, Varadkar, will be forced to bring in a harder form of capitalist rule as groups of workers take industrial action after years of austerity and its effects. 54% of young people said in an opinion poll that they would be prepared to get involved in an uprising against the Irish establishment.
Peter also highlighted the great victory of the students over the right-wing PP government in the Spanish state under the leadership of Izquierda Revolucionaria (IR), our new Spanish section. Their work leading students shows they are in the traditions of the CWI: of Liverpool and the poll tax in Britain, and the campaign against water charges in Ireland.
The collapse of Stalinism and the seeming triumph of capitalism imposed severe limitations, for a time, on our ability to reach wide sections of the working class. But the crisis of world capitalism since 2007-08 means greater possibilities will be posed in every country in Europe and in every continent.
We can see the opening lines of this new chapter in the political earthquake represented by Corbyn’s campaign in the recent British general election. Of most significance was the ‘youthquake’, mass rallies showing parallels with the Sanders campaign in the US or Podemos’ birth in the Spanish state.
Why has Corbyn had such an international effect? Perhaps because Britain since Thatcher was the prototype for worldwide capitalist counter-revolution, and has endured decades of neo-liberal policies. On top of this, Blairism shattered the base of social democracy.
However, we expected the effects of the 2007-08 economic crisis would inevitably be reflected in political earthquakes at a certain stage. Although movements have generally been delayed, they are now more powerful.
We were almost alone, at the start of the British election, in saying and believing that Corbyn could be Prime Minister with a radical socialist programme. Labour’s manifesto was a game changer, particularly the cancellation of tuition fees and the nationalisation of energy, water and railways. The mood changed literally overnight and generated enormous enthusiasm.
However, the civil war in Labour remains unresolved and there are still ‘two parties in one’. The right-wing Blairites were ready to plunge the knife in immediately after the election and call once more for Corbyn to go. They were thwarted by the election results for the time being.
To combat this, Corbyn needs to propose a new constitution for Labour, which would include reselection of MPs (the right of recall) and also open up the party to all those expelled. A return to a genuinely federal form of organisation would include the right of the Socialist Party (CWI in England & Wales) to affiliate.
Marxists, while engaging with and fighting to with or within formations like Podemos, the Left Bloc in Portugal as well as recent phenomena like the Democratic Socialists of America, have to put forward our programme and method, without showing an atom of sectarianism. However we do not act as cheerleaders or left ‘Corbynistas’, but always explain what needs to be done.
Today a new mass workers’ party can be a stage on the road to a mass revolutionary party, but the Labour Party in Britain is not yet one. The party’s 600,000 members on paper have yet to transform the organisation and break the right wing’s hold over the party apparatus and domination of its MPs and councillors.
Corbyn will not be the last word in political developments any more than Tsipras and Syriza were in Greece. Tsipras failed to act on behalf of Greek workers and capitulated to the ‘troika’. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble now praises “Greek austerity measures” implemented by the Syriza government. The Financial Times commented that “Athenians have adjusted to a forever crisis.” Syriza itself has become an empty shell, populated by ex-Pasok bureaucrats and has slumped in opinion polls. This is paving the way for the return of the right-wing, New Democracy.
Andros from Greece emphasised the need for a balanced, careful and specific approach according to circumstances when assessing our relationships with other left forces. Our friendly but firm approach to Syriza on programme before its move into government has now attracted other left forces towards our organisation.
Peter explained that the Corbyn movement allows us to draw some general conclusions particularly on tactics towards any new formation that arises, meaning a general orientation to mass movements where they develop and tactical flexibility to respond quickly to changes in the situation. These new movements are like ‘clouds’ lacking solid organisation. Our tactics would differ towards a party like PSOE in Spain, with a more organised structure, if a mass left-wing developed following the recent battles in that party.
The general anti-austerity, anti-system mood in Britain was reinforced by the catastrophe of Grenfell Tower. An electoral uprising has been followed by a social and political one. It would be quite false to say the election revolt was against ‘Brexit’ or reinforced ‘Remain’; it was mostly a revolt against austerity. The Tory government hangs by a thread; it could last a couple of months, a year or longer. But the party has splits of Grand Canyon proportions, with fault lines greater than any for almost 200 years.
This is a consequence of the weakness of British capitalism. It is no longer capable of playing the card of ‘balance of power’ in relation to Europe. The only thing unifying them is the spectre of a Corbyn ‘Marxist’ government coming to power! Such a government would have the potential to be pushed much further to the left whilst also being one of crisis.
Developments will be closely connected to the economic conjuncture which remains the key. The capitalists are claiming a revival of the world and European economy. However, what growth experienced is debt-fuelled and even then there is stagnation in demand, resulting in the accumulation of further debt.
It is true that in some countries expectations have been raised by a small growth in jobs. But what kind of jobs? There will be no return to high-paid, permanent jobs despite claims austerity coming to an end. The position of young people is indicated in Italy which has 40% youth unemployment; 85,000 people applied for 30 bank jobs!
On the other hand, a small revival of a section of the working class after a long period of retreat can have big effects. For example in Central and Eastern Europe, there have been a number of large-scale strikes, with the working class taking advantage of the shortage of labour because of mass emigration. These strikes in Slovakia, Slovenia and Serbia, and the protests in Romania against corruption may be harbingers of a real revival of the workers’ movement in Eastern Europe.
This point was amplified by Kacper from Poland which has seen mass movements against the right-wing government’s economic and social policies, by Vladimir from Romania and the battles against corruption and where the CWI has a new group, and by Denis from Russia who described the movement around Navalny, a pro-capitalist opposition to Putin, but one whose social demands have resulted in students and youth becoming the main force in the movement. If the movement spreads to wider layers, movements like the Euromaidan in Ukraine may develop.
Peter also mentioned the inevitable growth of often long-dormant national conflicts which have the potential to become more explosive. Corbyn got it wrong in Scotland, where he did not support the right to self-determination. True, his anti-austerity message led to a partial revival for Labour in Scotland but not enough to push him over the line. In the Spanish state, particularly Catalonia, conflict looms with the right-wing PP government over the forthcoming referendum.
Philip from Scotland and Miguel from the Spanish state developed the Marxist approach to the national question. Big clashes are possible over the blocking of the Catalan referendum. There is polarisation on national lines but also enormous opportunities for class battles and socialism. Marxists support more self-determination, up to and including independence, but with the rights of minorities guaranteed, while arguing for a break with capitalism.
Peter mentioned the banking crises that have taken place in Spain and Italy. The Italian government had to launch a bank bailout despite criticisms by the ECB but the capitalists had no alternative. The rescue of banks caused outrage in the rest of the EU. Banco Popular had to be taken over by Santander in Spain.
Italy is in crisis with ingrained unemployment, particularly of the youth. It is now facing increased migration from Africa. The death rate of migrants has doubled in the Mediterranean in the last year.
There is a political crisis in Italy. The Five-Star Movement (M5S) has shown its right-wing face and was defeated in local elections. When new general elections are held, the outcome is uncertain as to the character of the next government, with a number of possibilities on the table yet none of them comfortable for the capitalists. Giuliano from Italy explained that they view a M5S government with terror. The Italian working class remains a “sleeping giant”.
Victor from the Spanish state raised that the capitalists were using growth in the economy to say everything was getting better: Spain would be “the new China of Europe”! Yet 6 million workers are poor, earning only as much as 130 top business leaders. The rank and file of both PSOE and Podemos reacted to attempts by the capitalists to move those parties rightwards, although PSOE is not in the same position as the Labour Party; the most advanced layer is orientating to Podemos. Podemos governs major cities but has a reformist programme and is not fundamentally changing anything. This will lead to struggle on the streets, which we will defend.
Goncalo from Portugal commented on the international illusions in the ‘Portuguese solution’ – where the Socialist Party government is backed by both the Communist Party and the Left Bloc from outside. Yet these organisations and the trade unions are not posing an alternative to capitalism .This has sown disillusion in them but militant union action is increasing, especially in the public sector.
Peter underlined that the strongest power in Europe is still Germany. It has been using its economic power to play a more assertive role internationally. In the run-up to its general election in September, Chancellor Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union are around 15% ahead of the Social Democrats (SPD). Like May in Britain, Merkel is busy borrowing policies from her rivals. Although the far right has been weakened in Germany it will not disappear; while in Austria the far-right Freedom Party could be in the next government after October’s elections there.
The French elections saw the election of Macron as president and his forces gain a parliamentary majority. This is important because his victory is being used by the capitalists as a model for the rest of Europe. In Austria for instance, the new leader of the Peoples’ Party Sebastian Kurz is copying Macron. But it is very difficult when ‘centre’ parties have been destroyed by the crisis and class polarisation. In reality, Macron is ‘old wine in new bottles’.
Leila from France pointed out that Macron won the support of 16% of the electorate in the first round of the presidential election and a majority abstained in the parliamentary elections; the most prominent mood of working class and youth is of disgust.
France is likely to have the most explosive developments in the next period threatening a new ‘1968’. There is mass opposition already to the dismantling of social gains and attacks on the trade unions. Left-wing leader Mélenchon could build a major left force around his France Insoumise movement but it is not yet a party and the youth are not organised.
Many workers saw the presidential elections as a choice between two ‘devils’: ‘fascism’ (personified by Marine le Pen and the Front National, although it is not actually fascism she offers) and ‘finance’.
Macron has declared war on working class. The ‘streets will decide’. The right-wing CFDT trade union is seeking to collaborate with Macron but militant trade unionists will challenge this.
Peter’s conclusion was that the picture emerging is of a Europe still gripped by economic crisis, with anaemic growth for some countries but with the majority still on their backs. There are also enduring economic, social and environmental crises that are insoluble on the basis of capitalism.
Slowly but surely the forward-thinking workers are searching for an alternative. The CWI puts forward a thoroughgoing analysis, programme and policy to show a way out for the working class and the poor of the continent. We have been successful in digging roots in the working class and have made some important breakthroughs. This is an essential stage to gaining influence on the basis of huge mass movements. This in turn will lay the basis for reaching not just small groups but far greater numbers in the future.
The Corbyn movement has shown that a small group of individuals can become the leadership of a mass movement. This has important lessons for Trotskyism and Marxism in building a powerful force and appeal to others. If we show decisive leadership it can transform the position of the working class, which can lead to socialist change throughout the continent and worldwide.
From the IS Danny Byrne said that the current world crisis is now 10 years old, enough time for many workers to draw conclusions. There has not been a consistent raising of living standards since the crisis began and a counter-revolution against workers’ rights has been carried out. New left movements are putting forward reforms, often under the pressure of mass movements, but they will also come under counter-pressure from the capitalists sooner or later. The putting forward of nationalisation – though of a partial and insufficient nature - of utilities and some key industries by Corbyn and others allows Marxists to explain what genuine nationalisation and socialism would be like, and the steps necessary to break the power of the ruling class.
And in his summing up, Tony Saunois for the IS said that our analysis requires constant evaluation as we are dealing with new phenomena which do not have exact parallels with the old organisations. There is a general feature of the ruling class miscalculating – as in Spain and Britain – which reflects the fact that events are not entirely within their control. Marxists need flexible tactics and sometimes sharp changes. The movement is only starting now. Though very radical in the current context, Corbyn’s programme was anti-austerity and mildly social democratic, objectively way to the right of the 1983 Labour manifesto which was a product of the support then for socialist demands within the Labour Party. Nevertheless Corbyn’s opposition to neo-liberalism and offer of change evoked tremendous enthusiasm.
However reformism ultimately neither satisfies workers not pacifies bosses; Tony raised the end of Allende but also the Queen’s representative’s sacking of Gough Whitlam’s right-wing Labour government in Australia in 1975 as ways the capitalists could move against a left government. This shows the need to raise the general question of how to inflict a lasting defeat on the capitalists, so we have to prepare our forces to reach the advanced layers of workers and youth in Europe.