Europe in crisis: Italy and Belgium next

The Euro zone is in a mess. After a year of huge financial bail outs intended to calm the markets, the latter are very unstable, with a marked downward tendency. Signs of slowing global growth, and the continuing euro zone debt crisis, have caused the markets to slump. The nervousness of the markets is an accurate reflection of the growing anxiety of the bourgeois about the economic prospects for Europe.

Events in Greece have brought the euro area to a crossroads: the future character of European monetary union will be determined by the way in which this situation is handled.” (Jens Weidmann, Bundesbank president and European Central Bank governing council member, Hamburg, May 20)

The politicians are panicking once again. Their latest recipe to raise cash is to privatise on a massive scale. In a desperate attempt to raise cash, the Spanish government is selling off the family jewels. They are privatising the state lottery, as well as the state airports authority. The sale of the state lottery is expected to raise between €6.5bn and €7.5bn. If completed it would create Europe’s most valuable listed gaming group. That will make a lot of money for big business, but it will lose money for the Spanish state. The state lottery earned a net profit of just under €3bn in 2009, with €2.92bn going to the Spanish treasury. This is an excellent example of the plundering of the state: nationalizing the losses and privatizing the profits.

Already the big banks are queuing up to get their hands on this highly profitable business. Lazard is viewed by company insiders as a favourite to manage the process, with Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and Morgan Stanley among several others that are in the running for other roles, which count among the most prestigious investment banking outfits. Given their record in gambling (and losing) billions of their clients’ money, thus provoking a collapse of the world’s banking system three years ago, they seem well qualified for the running of the world's largest gambling company.

But the main concern is still Greece, which they are pressurizing to privatise more than the previously agreed €50bn. The only snag is that the EU doesn't trust the Greeks to do it themselves. Instead, they want an “independent commission” to do the dirty work.

“Make the Greeks pay!”

“Sell your islands, you bankrupt Greeks - and the Acropolis too!” The hysterical headline of Bild, Germany’s leading tabloid when the dire state of Greece’s finances was first made public sounded like the usual exaggerations of the yellow press. But one year later, the same far from elegant message is being delivered by Europe’s finance ministers. As we predicted, the rescue package to Portugal was not enough to stop the crisis spreading to Spain, Belgium and Italy. Now everybody is talking about contagion.

At a time when the attentions of the world’s press were fully occupied with the exciting adventures of the (former) President of the IMF and a certain chambermaid in a New York hotel, the heads of European finance were busy deciding the destinies of millions of people in Greece. Serious commentators expressed concern lest the absence of DSK (unavoidably detailed as a guest of the New York Police Department) might affect the efficacy of the proceedings. They need not have worried.

The trials and tribulations of Monsieur Strauss Khan did not prevent the recent meeting in Luxembourg, where ministers from the countries that use the euro delivered a harsh message to the people and government of Greece: push through more reforms and privatize everything, or you will not receive a single euro more from your European “partners”.

This indicates that Europe’s financial crisis is not over. On the contrary, it is entering a new and even more dangerous phase. All the rescue packages have failed to save the Greek economy, which continues to fall. The mood in Germany is hardening. This is not just a reflection of public unease, or the fears of Angela Merkel that she will not be reelected. It is a realization that the financial resources of the Bundesbank are finite after all, and cannot serve to prop up the whole of Europe.

The Germans are taking an increasingly harsh line. The Bundesbank, which controls the EU’s purse strings, has warned that if politicians take even a modest step towards a restructuring of the Greek debt, the ECB will cut Greek banks off from its liquidity supply, triggering a financial collapse that would push the country’s economy into the abyss. Today’s Financial Times described the Bundesbank’s threat as the “nuclear option”:

“How the ECB responds to the conflicting pressures created by the Greek crisis matters enormously. Shunned by financial markets, the country’s banks survive only because the Frankfurt-based central bank meets in full their demands for liquidity against collateral of rapidly declining quality. Early next month, the ECB has to decide whether to continue that euro zone-wide “unlimited liquidity” policy; so far it has said it will last only until early July. The bank also owns about €45bn of Greek government bonds, acquired during the past year as part of efforts to calm financial market tensions.”

The indignation of the assembled dignitaries against Athens knew no bounds. “Urgent measures are needed in Greece in order to reach its fiscal targets,” said Jean-Claude Juncker, the prime minister of Luxembourg who presided the aforementioned meeting. Greece had to “increase the volume of privatisation” as well as adopt further belt-tightening measures to meet its deficit-reduction target this year he said.

Christine Lagarde, the French finance minister, complained that the ungrateful Greeks had so far failed to act on their promise to raise €17 billion (raised earlier this year to €50 billion) from the sale of state assets. Why did Greece not behave like Portugal (whose bail-out was approved)? There both government and opposition parties have pledged to support the “reform” programme negotiated with the European Commission, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund.

European leaders are pushing to work out measures that would ensure the Greek government lives up to its promise to deliver €50bn ($70bn) in privatisation proceeds. Privately EU officials believe that far bigger sums can be squeezed out of Greece from the sell-off of public assets – with estimates ranging from €250bn to €300bn. This massive sum would account for almost all of Greece’s outstanding debt.

The privatisation plan amounts to a systematic plunder of the country. These people are like bandits planning to skin their victim and sell his hide when he is still alive. They are planning to plunder Greece of its most treasured national assets to fill the bank accounts of the international money lenders. But there is a small difficulty. The leaders of Europe do not trust the Greeks to carry this out. They point to repeated failures by Athens to start such sell-offs and are questioning the way Papandreou is proceeding with the privatisations.

The practical Dutch advocated a more radical measure: the creation of an external agency run by the EU to take charge of selling the plundered assets. That is a blatant violation of national sovereignty that will provoke fierce resistance in Greece. The drive for an outside agency to run Greek privatisations is being spearheaded by Jan Kees de Jager the Dutch finance minister, whose comments sum up the mood of the European bourgeois:

"Right now we are beyond sensitivities. Our common predicament is too serious." One wonders what would the French say if a committee in Brussels ordered them to sell off the Eifel Tower and the Louvre to pay off the National Debt. But Greece is a small and weak country and nobody is concerned about hurting its feelings.

But Greece cannot pay…

When the crisis in Greece first became news, I wrote the following:

“There has been talk of a German-led rescue scheme. But this has its own problems. If it materializes, other European countries may be queuing up, cap in hand, for assistance. The problem is by no means confined to Greece, as the bond markets are well aware! The international moneylenders are increasingly worried about the credit-worthiness of Spain, Ireland and Portugal, and there is dark muttering about the state of Britain’s finances. It is one thing to bail out the Greek economy, which is relatively small. But what will happen if they have to rescue Spain, Portugal, Ireland and even Britain?

“In order to reassure the markets that these countries are able and willing to repay their debts, the international Shylocks are insisting that they must increase taxes and cut spending. But such a policy spells disaster for economies that still remain trapped in a recession with rising unemployment. “This is madness. If we cut state spending now, it will destroy the recovery!” But the plaintive laments of the Keynesians have no effect on the icy hearts of the international bankers, who are only interested in getting their money back – with a handsome return.” (Euro crisis confirms Marxist perspectives, 16 Feb. 2010)

This was written in February 2011. Over a year later, I have no reason to change a single word. Later I wrote:

“Papandreou’s chances of actually implementing his austerity policy are therefore close to zero. In the end, no matter how much pressure is applied on the people of Greece, they will never be able to pay their debts. The so-called “aid” can only postpone the Day of Judgment. And the merciless pressure from Brussels to slash living standards, and therefore reduce demand, will only succeed in pushing Greece further along the road to national bankruptcy and default.” (A new stage in the crisis of capitalism, June 2010)

This is exactly what has happened. The bourgeois strategists usually come to the same conclusions as the Marxists with a slight delay. Now a growing number of economists believe Greece’s debt, already at about 150% of GDP, cannot be repaid. But they cannot agree on what is to be done about it. Some advocate “hard” restructuring, which would mean imposing losses on creditors.

Since most of the creditors are German, Germany is naturally unenthusiastic about this remedy, preferring instead a “softer” rescheduling of the debt to delay repayments. That means “softer” for the German creditors, of course, not for the people of Greece. Like the merciless money lender in Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, the Shylocks in Brussels will demand their pound of flesh. The only discussion is about when and where to stick in the knife.

George Papaconstantinou, the Greek finance minister present at the meeting cut a pathetic figure, insisting that ministers had not been as harsh as may seem. After all, they acknowledged the unprecedented reduction of Greece's budget deficit, worth 7% of GDP. “At the same time they acknowledged that we need to do more. We concur.” This is like a lamb brought to a slaughterhouse praising the butcher for his welcoming smile as he approaches the chopping block.

Yes, these apparently hard men of money have a human heart after all. Asked whether the absence of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the IMF’s boss sitting in jail in New York on charges of sexual assault, Mr Juncker said he had been “close to tears” at the sight of his friend in handcuffs. It is not recorded whether he shed any tears for the plight of millions of Greeks faced with bankruptcy, unemployment and poverty.

Whatever scenario one chooses, the consequences for Greece will be the same: a period of falling living standards, austerity and cuts, accompanied by extreme political instability and heightened class struggle.

Spotlight on Italy

After Greece, Ireland and Portugal and Spain, the markets are turning their unwelcome attentions to Italy, like hungry wolves seeking out the sickest and weakest members of a herd of reindeers. The EU is increasingly concerned. In March a meeting of the European Commission started talking about Greece and ended talking about Italy. Spain is far more important. But Italy is a key piece in the euro zone. A crisis in Italy would have the most serious effects on the euro. It would drag the rest of the euro zone down with it, including Germany and its pampered satellites, Austria, Belgium and Holland.

On the face of it, it seems strange that they should pick on Italy. From the capitalist point of view, its public finances have been improved – that is, slashed. This was particularly the case under Prodi, when the Centre-Left government imposed deep cuts, and was thrown out of office as a result. What was the result? In 2009 Italy’s debt stood at 128% GDP. It now amounts to 120% of GDP - the same as it was 20 years ago. This means that all the cuts carried out by the Centre-Left government have resolved nothing. Only the fact that Italy is not so dependent on foreign financing has so far saved it from a Greek-style crisis.

Investors with exposure to euro-denominated sovereign debt cannot ignore Italy, which has the third-largest bond market in the world (after American and Japanese government debt). Greece, Ireland and Portugal are peripheral economies. Italy's stock market fell sharply after the Standard and Poor credit agency changed its credit-rating outlook on Italy from stable to negative. The decision of Standard and Poor was a call on Italy's rulers to change course. And when the markets call on a country, it is not merely a friendly visit but a direct order.

Italian capitalism has a problem. To pay off its huge debt, Italy needs to grow. But for the last decade its economic growth was close to zero in per capita terms. The economy has lost more than half a million jobs in the recession. Data show more than 22 per cent of young people are not in a job, education or training. It is impossible to get out of this problem while it has to spend so much on debt servicing. The markets therefore conclude that Italy is in urgent need of what they call “reform”. That is to say, it requires a dose of the same bitter medicine that have already prescribed for Greece, Ireland and Portugal: cuts, cuts and still more cuts. The EU is demanding cuts in public spending to the value of 46bn Euros. 

The message is not new. Some years ago The Economist pointed out that Italy was not competitive, and in order to retain its position in Europe, it would have to sack one third of its workforce, and the remainder would have to accept a wage cut of thirty percent. That is the real programme of the Italian bourgeoisie. But what the capitalists want and what they can get away with are two entirely different things. One government after another has attempted to carry out these “reforms”, but every time they have foundered on a solid rock, which is the Italian workers’ movement. Mass demonstrations, strikes and general strikes have defeated all efforts to make the workers pay for the bosses’ problems.

Berlusconi tried and failed. Then, for the first time in history, the Centre Left was elected. But Prodi carried out a programme of cuts that went far further than Berlusconi had ever done. This naturally caused deep demoralization in the working class and led to the defeat of the Centre Left, which was replaced with yet another unstable coalition under Berlusconi. Now the right wing coalition is in deep trouble.

Berlusconi took a drubbing in local elections on May 15th and 16th and the fissures in the coalition are deepening. This underlines the main problem of the Italian (and the Belgian) bourgeoisie: they lack a strong party able to form a solid ruling coalition. But this is what is needed in order to carry through the kind of austerity programme they are demanding. Instead of representing the interests of the bourgeoisie, Berlusconi is spending all his time fighting to stay out of prison. Now, the international markets, tired of the endless scandals associated with Berlusconi, are showing their teeth. 

Silvio Berlusconi suffers from the same incurable illness as Dominique Strauss-Kahn – a chronic inability to keep his trousers on. This tells us a lot about the immaculate moral character of our most Christian rulers. However, the reason why the Italian bourgeoisie wants to get rid of il cavaliere has nothing to do with his weakness for Moroccan models of a tender age, but rather his weakness in dealing with the Italian working class. The ruling class requires a strong government to deliver strong and very unpleasant medicine. But Berlusconi is unable even to keep his shaky coalition together. Therefore the ruling class has decided he must go. The only problem is: who will replace him?

Faced with such a situation, the bourgeoisie will have no alternative but to pass the poisoned chalice of government to the Centre Left again, hoping that the reformists will do the dirty work for them, as in Spain. But as recent events in Spain have shown, this will only lead to further social explosions. Giulio Tremonti, finance minister, likes to say his deficit-cutting measures have not resulted in social unrest because of government interventions. But he speaks too soon.

Already there are signs that the patience of the workers is being exhausted. Italian shipyard workers protesting against planned job cuts have clashed with police following the latest announcement of austerity measures by Berlusconi’s government. On Tuesday riot police with teargas fought with protesters outside government offices in Sestri, a suburb of the north-west port of Genoa. Two workers were reported injured as the crowd demanded talks with the prime minister.

In the south, workers trapped local officials in their offices overnight at the historic Castellammare di Stabia shipyard near Naples. The protests were triggered by the announcement on Monday from Fincantieri, the state-owned shipbuilder, that 2,551 jobs – about a third of its workforce – would be affected under its new plan. Union leaders have warned that discontent at the government’s austerity measures is simmering dangerously.

The bourgeois breathed a sigh of relief when the Spanish protests were met with only a limited echo in Italy. But this satisfaction is premature. Movements on the same scale are implicit in the situation in Italy. It is only a question of time.

Belgium

Belgium seemed to be a safe haven for European capitalism. Like Austria and the Netherlands it appeared to be a cosy little corner, basking in the sun of its German Big Brother and immune to the storm and stress of Greece and other poorer relations within the euro zone. Some foolish people actually believed this fairy story. But like all fairy stories in the end it was an illusion.

Belgium has the third highest debt burden in Europe. Belgium's public sector debt totalled 96.6 percent of annual output last year, putting it behind only Greece and Italy in the euro zone and on a par with Ireland. Yet it has not pressed ahead with an austerity package. The international bourgeoisie is now breathing down the necks of the politicians in Brussels. Standard & Poor's, the ratings agency, has said that Belgium's credit rating could be downgraded if it cannot form a government in the coming months. Fitch became the second ratings agency to threaten Belgium with a credit downgrade, saying a lack of government undermined budget efforts in one of the euro zone's most indebted states.

Like Italy, Belgium lacks a strong government and is plagued by the eternal friction between Flemish and Walloons. The corrupt and degenerate Belgian bourgeois is split into rival Dutch- and French-speaking parties, arguing about the extent to which powers should be devolved like two dogs fighting over a bone. Each side wants to grab more power and money for itself. But both sides are agreed on making the working class pay for the crisis. The political imbroglio caused by the national question means that Belgium has not a permanent government since April when a fragile coalition between Dutch-speaking and French speaking parties collapsed. As a result the country has also been without a proper government for more than 11 months since a parliamentary election last June.

The debt and political crisis disturbed financial markets at the turn of the year, and there is no sign of an end to the political deadlock. The financial situation has become so worrying that King Albert II has intervened to order caretaker prime minister Yves Leterme to draw up a new budget for 2011 that makes deep cuts in public spending. The bourgeoisie demands that the full weight of the debt crisis be placed on the shoulders of the working class.

Fitch fears that Belgium’s exposure to peripheral euro zone and eastern European entities were "significant. Standard & Poor's put the core groups of Belgian banking group Dexia on CreditWatch negative because of exposure to Greece. "Political risk is higher in Belgium than in other euro area peers given the fractious disputes over the future shape of the country," Fitch said. "The negative outlook reflects Fitch's concerns over the pace of structural reform in the coming years and the ability to accelerate fiscal consolidation without a resolution to the constitutional crisis," Douglas Renwick, a director in Fitch's sovereign group said.

This warning means that, without effective action in Belgium, it is more likely than not to cut Belgium's credit rating within one to two years. The ratings agency said Belgium's high debt left the government with little capacity to deal with future shocks. Already borrowing costs in Belgium are rising as the markets demand a higher return for lending to the country. This is the economic equivalent of taking hold of a man by a delicate part of his anatomy and applying a gentle squeeze.

Following the well-trodden path of Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain, Belgium will be compelled to cut public spending, privatize and attack workers’ living standards. The united action of the working class is absolutely necessary to resist the attacks and cut across the vicious nationalism of both wings of the bourgeoisie that is the main way it seeks to divide and defeat the Belgian labour movement.

The domino effect

By declaring it would act as a safety net in bond markets, the ECB bought the euro zone a little time. A year later, however, the programme has clearly failed. The debt crisis has spread beyond Greece to Ireland and Portugal, both now subject to ECB-backed international bail-out plans and the accompanying brutal austerity policies. Greek bond yields have soared this week to record highs as investors shun the country’s debt, and the nervousness spreading to countries such as Spain, Italy and Belgium. 

Although Greek, Irish and Portuguese banks together account for only about 5 per cent of euro zone gross domestic product, they now take up about €242bn of ECB liquidity – 55 per cent of that provided to the euro zone financial system. The whole financial system of the EU is being pushed to the limit. At some point in the future, unless something id done, it will face collapse.

By all the laws of economics, the ECB should have abandoned Greece long ago. According to the terms of the European Union treaty, national governments were meant to take responsibility for their own finances. Therefore, Greece should have been left to its fate. But the European bourgeois are trapped. If Greece goes down, the knock-on effect throughout the euro zone would be catastrophic. Therefore the EU was forced to break its own rules and launch a rescue plan for Greece. But by so doing they tied the destinies of Europe to its weakest link.

The EU finds itself in a dilemma. If they pull the plug on Athens, it will have calamitous consequences for the entire euro zone. But on the other hand, they cannot continue indefinitely pouring money down a black hole: “All of those options are potentially lethal for the euro zone,” says Thomas Mayer, chief economist at Deutsche Bank. Taxpayers elsewhere, particularly in northern Europe, may revolt at demands for fresh help. “But the ECB becoming a backstop for Greece would amount to ‘monetary financing’ [central bank funding of governments], which is forbidden by European Union treaty.”

The contagion is spreading inexorably. The British bourgeois contemplated the crisis of the euro with something between complacency and contempt. In their insular blindness they imagined that because they did not join the euro zone they could escape the storm that is gathering over the continent. But Britain cannot remain aloof from the general European crisis. It has already pledged £7bn towards the £72bn Irish bailout. This was not an act of charity or good neighbourliness but was dictated by the heavy exposure of British banks to Ireland.

The deepening of the debt crisis makes the risk of a spill-over to the UK and the British banking system ever more serious. Andrew Bailey, a senior Bank of England official warned: “I cannot say that the UK is insulated from the risks we observe in other parts of Europe.” The British bourgeoisie would do well to ponder on the celebrated lines of John Donne:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee
.”

The attempts of the LibDem-Conservative coalition to slash public spending have already provoked a rebellion of the youth and the biggest demonstration called by the trade unions in history on 26 March. On Thursday 30 June the unions have called for co-ordinated national strike action involving teachers, lecturers and civil servants, which could involve nearly one million workers. Unite’s leaders have said that its members will take part in the pickets wherever they are established. With universities and schools closed in many areas, hundreds of thousands of students and school students will be out on that day. The action will constitute the biggest strike movement against this government and represent a further move forward following the mass demonstration on 26 March.

Europe in crisis

Lenin said that with the Russian Revolution capitalism had broken at its weakest link. That is entirely logical. It is not likely that the breakdown of capitalism will commence in its strongest link – the United States of America. The cracks first began to appear in Latin America – in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. Now new and even deeper fissures have appeared in North Africa and the Middle East. But the movements in Europe are part of the same revolutionary ferment and stem from the same cause.

The same process that we see on a world scale is replicated in Europe. The crisis began in the weakest link, which was Greece. That was followed in quick succession by Ireland, Portugal and Spain. Some imagined that Germany and its satellites could isolate themselves from the general decline. But that is impossible.

After Spain come Italy and Belgium. And that spells a crisis of the euro so profound that Germany will not be able to come to their rescue and will be dragged down together with them. This is what they mean by “contagion”. Like a group of mountaineers tied together by the same rope, if one falls, they must all fall. 

Lenin also pointed out that politics is concentrated economics. The economic slump, which the capitalists succeeded in delaying only at the cost of aggravating and deepening it, has set in motion social forces that they cannot easily control. Just as they have used up the mechanisms that they would normally use for getting out of a slump, so they are discrediting the reformist leaders that should serve them as a brake to stop the car from swerving out of control.

For a time the reformist political and trade union organizations can hold back the tide. But they do so only at the cost of discrediting the old leaders in the eyes of the masses. The workers will put these organizations to the test time and time again. But the policies of the reformists only prepare the victory of the right wing. We have seen this in Britain, France, Spain and Italy. Tomorrow we will see the same in Greece. The problem is that neither the reformists nor the bourgeois parties have any solution to the present crisis.

This is a highly volatile, unstable and explosive situation. A Greek default would have the most serious consequences for Greece and the whole of Europe. It would signify the collapse of the Greek economy and a crisis similar to that of the Weimar Republic in 1923. It would place revolutionary developments on the order of the day, not only in Greece but throughout Europe.

The serious representatives of Capital understand the seriousness of the situation in Europe. Hans Jörg Sinn, one of the main bourgeois economic analysts in Germany is warning of a civil war in Greece. In the long run such a perspective is possible, not only for Greece, but for other countries, especially in southern Europe. But the bourgeois would not be in a hurry to go down that road because they could not be sure they would win.

In the past a crisis of such dimensions would have led swiftly to a conclusion, either in a revolutionary or counterrevolutionary direction – either the victory of the working class, or the coming to power of a fascist or Bonapartist regime. But under present day conditions such a scenario is ruled out. The central problem of the European bourgeoisie is easily stated. For over half a century the social reserves of reaction have been whittled away.

In the past the peasantry formed a solid base for reaction in France, Germany, Italy and Greece. Now it has been reduced to a shadow of its former self. The students, who in the past provided the shock troops for the fascists, have swung to the left. The white collar workers (teachers, bank employees, civil servants) who were conservative are now unionized and among the most militant sections of the class.

The bourgeoisie cannot resort to fascism or Bonapartism in the immediate future, although it is constantly chipping away at democratic rights. On the other hand, the working class is held back by the absence of a revolutionary leadership. This produces an unstable equilibrium that can last for years, perhaps decades. On a capitalist basis no lasting solution is possible. Political instability is inherent in this situation. There will be violent swings to the left and right, as the masses seek a way out of the crisis. That is inevitable.

Limits of spontaneity

Many people thought that the Arab Revolution was something peculiar to the countries of North Africa and the Middle East. They failed to see that these movements of the masses were a product of the global crisis of capitalism. They arose out of the same social and economic conditions that exist in every capitalist country – including the most advanced ones.

If these movements had occurred in just one or two countries, they might be attributed to chance or accident. But the wide scope of the movement rules out such an explanation. We have no right to speak of chance. Globalization manifests itself as a global crisis of capitalism. The same process will unfold in one country after another, with greater or lesser intensity, and at a faster or slower pace. That is the meaning of the mass protests in Wisconsin and in Spain.

The recent movement in Spain, was a spontaneous movement, mainly of the youth. This had both the positive and negative features of spontaneity. The wide sweep of the mass movement was partly a reflection of its unorganized and spontaneous character. But as time passes the limited character of such movements will be revealed. Without adequate programme, perspectives and leadership, it will tend to decline. If all that is offered is to constantly go to the Puerta del Sol, nothing serious can be achieved. 

One can point to the limited nature of their demands. The protesters are demanding more democracy, more accountability from governments. But how can one speak of these things in Ireland and Portugal, where the bureaucrats of the EU have already dictated draconic austerity plans as a condition for their “support”? Elections will soon be held in Portugal. But what is there left for the next government to decide?

The case of Greece is still more blatant. The EU will impose a special commission to carry through the programme of privatization, removing the matter from the elected government’s hands altogether. Similarly, the agenda in Spain is being decided, not by the Spanish people but by the unelected boards of directors of the big banks and companies and by faceless bureaucrats in Brussels. In order to solve these problems, more radical revolutionary measures will be necessary.

Some will say: “These movements are very confused. They lack a clear revolutionary programme!” Others will say: “We cannot recognize these movements as real revolutions because they are not led by a Marxist workers’ party!” Such objections are childish in the extreme. The socialist revolution does not unfold in a planned and orderly fashion. The masses are facing serious problems right now and cannot wait until we have created an ideal Bolshevik Party. Therefore, all kinds of “spontaneous” movements are bound to arise.

The idea that the masses must wait until we Marxists are ready, and that the revolution will be like a well-drilled orchestra following the conductor’s baton, has nothing to do with reality. This kind of empty formalism has nothing in common with Marxism. Lenin, who was a great Marxist theoretician, said that for the masses an ounce of practice was worth a ton of theory. The workers and youth can only learn through experience.

The masses in Tahrir Square learned more in a few days than in all their lives. The workers and youth of Greece, Spain, Britain – and tomorrow Belgium, Austria and Germany – will learn in the same way. They will learn from their experience, put leaders, parties and programmes to the test and draw conclusions. This can be a slow and painful process. But so far nobody has suggested any viable alternative.

If we are to play a role in these developments, the Marxists must take the living movement of the masses as it is, not as we would like it to be. We must not appear as preachers or teachers giving orders from without, but as comrades in the struggle, participating shoulder to shoulder with the most advanced workers and youth, helping them to draw the conclusions from every battle. Our slogan is that of Lenin: “patiently explain”. Only on that basis can we earn the right to lead in practice, as opposed to talking about leadership in theory.

London 26 May