At its recent meeting in January the International Executive Committee of the IMT discussed the situation in Europe, highlighting the growing level of class struggle on the continent as the effects of the austerity measures being applied everywhere begin to be felt by the workers and youth. We are publishing the second part of a slightly edited version of the points raised in the discussion.
[...Continued from Part one]
Elements of Bonapartism
The workers over a long period became used to such things as pensions, free education, healthcare, a reasonable standard of living and so on and they now have higher expectations that did not exist in the past. Now, after sixty years of concessions and reforms, the bourgeois need to take all these concessions back.
The problem is that the working class in Europe has never been stronger. In the 1930s the balance of forces was different. They were able to move towards reaction and fascism very quickly. They cannot do that in the present conditions. The Golden Dawn in Greece is a serious warning for the future, but there is no short term prospect of such forces coming to power. Reaction can get into power only on the basis of a series of defeats of the working class. Now, the main movement of the working class is toward the left.
What is true is that there are elements of parliamentary Bonapartism in the situation. Monti in Italy was imposed, not elected; Papademos in Greece also. We see the adoption of more and more Bonapartist measures, with the main decisions taken not in Parliament, but by small cliques. Thus we see a tendency toward Bonapartism, but it would be wrong to see a serious threat at this stage of Bonapartist dictatorship.
The bourgeois are leaning on the reformist leaders of the mass workers’ organisations. The call everywhere is for "National unity" governments. "National unity" is a hollow slogan, precisely because it is impossible to unite the interests of bankers and unemployed, of bosses and workers. Nonetheless, given the depth of the crisis and the lack of a class alternative, there can be big illusions in this idea at first. This is helped along and whipped up by media with the idea that "We're all in this together," etc. The truth is that there is a deep class divide everywhere, and in spite of the efforts of the reformist leaders the class struggle is erupting everywhere to one degree or another.
In Greece, for example, every day there is news of some scandal or other. The most recent is the big scandal over tax evasion, involving family members of former PASOK finance minister Papaconstantinou. His wife was on the list of tax-evaders that was recently made public. The list included many of the super-rich who have millions stashed away in Swiss banks, while people are literally starving. This provoked enormous outrage, a boiling anger against all politicians.
Greece is in fact the sickest of the sick men of Europe. Enormous resistance and opposition are being put up by the workers and youth of Greece to further draconian austerity measures. So far there have been 21 general strikes in Greece, and a whole series of partial and local strikes. The problem is that the trade union leaders to not call general strikes to step up the level of struggle, but precisely for the opposite reason. They see these strikes as a means of letting off steam and then demobilising and getting everyone back to work. The bourgeois are aware of this, and march on relentlessly with more and more austerity.
However, the people have begun to get tired of this and are drawing political conclusions. This explains the rise of SYRIZA from a marginal left party to one which could be catapulted into government in the next period. Once in government, however, it will come under immense pressure from the bourgeois to apply what they see as the necessary austerity measures to reduce Greece’s debt. This will put the party to the test, as it come under the combined and contradictory pressures of the workers and youth of Greece on the one hand and the capitalists on the other hand.
In such a situation Marxists must maintain an objective view of the whole process. They do not fall into the error of impressionism; they do not get carried away by temporary moods of euphoria. Our attitude is critical support, which means we give all our backing to the development and building of SYRIZA, but we combine this with a thorough criticism of the reformist policies and programme of the party, and as the party comes under more and more pressure, our approach must become increasingly critical, pointing out each mistake and offering an alternative.
We must not forget that to disappoint the aspirations of the masses is inherent in reformism. It is a law of history. We can make a prediction here: the closer Tsipras gets to power, the more "moderate" his stance will become. The task of the Greek Marxists is to connect with the workers and youth in and around SYRIZA and offer a revolutionary Marxist programme as the only way in which SYRIZA can actually satisfy the aspirations and hopes of the masses. Otherwise, once in government, the party leadership will disappoint the masses. It is a race against time. The present Samaras led government will not last forever.
At the same time, Marxists cannot be impatient or anxious. Before a storm, there is a peculiar atmosphere – the famous calm before the storm – then it breaks. This calm can be uncomfortable, ill-defined, etc. But then the storm can come very violently, seemingly "from out of nowhere." We are near the breaking point – but the storm has not yet broken. But the storm will not ask for our kind permission. It all depends on the movement from below. The workers will move when they are ready, when they have reached the limit and have begun to draw the conclusion that they must take their destiny into their own hands.
The role of the mass organizations – both the workers' parties and the Trade Unions – is decisive in the whole process. They were founded and set up to lead and defend the interests of the workers. But over decades they have undergone a process whereby the leaders have adapted and accommodated themselves to the system. As a result, they see themselves not as militant leaders of the working class, but as conciliators who try to maintain social peace. They see themselves as “pragmatic” realists who try to achieve for the workers what the system can give. The problem they are facing is that in the conditions of the present world crisis of capitalism, not only can the no longer win any concessions, any genuine "reforms”, but they are being forced to accept cuts and counter-reforms. Thus they play a very different role now.
In these conditions it is very easy for people on the left to say that, "the labour leaders have lost all their authority". Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. These organizations have been around for a very long time and they have become established as a tradition and have deep roots in the class. Workers do not easily abandon the organisations that they have built up through years and decades of past struggles. It will take a series of massive events and shocks to shake this confidence of the masses in the current leaders.
It cannot be and will not be a mere replay of the 1930s. We must read Trotsky's works – but we must learn the method, the lessons, and not apply his ideas mechanically. History, in fact, never repeats itself mechanically – there are many variants which we must understand.
Spain is probably the second sickest man in Europe, after Greece. For a brief period it seems that with the help of the EU they had managed to stabilise somewhat the situation, but bond yields are still at over 5%, which is dangerously high. Economic growth is stagnant and the latest figures show a worsening of the situation. In the last quarter of 2012, production was down 0.7% on the previous quarter, and overall growth year on year fell by 1.8% from a year earlier, the worst performance in Spain since the global crisis began.
As they apply more and more austerity measures, they cut into people’s ability to buy. It is a downward spiral, as more cuts further weaken the market. And yet the only solution they can come up with is more cuts to come, which is no solution.
It was the previous period, in which there was a massive expansion of credit that led to a huge housing bubble that prepared the present situation. The Spanish workers and youth are seeing the destruction of everything they fought for in the past. The pressure is now building up from below. The Economist recently posed the question: "Will Spaniards put up with extended pain? Or will they rebel against a political establishment which has failed them." This more or less sums it up. And what they say about Spain is also valid for other countries in Europe.
Spain is like a pressure cooker and an almighty explosion is being prepared. El Pais asked in a poll whether people thought the country was being prepared for a massive explosion due to rising poverty, unemployment, etc. 73% answered yes! They asked: "do you agree that the current crisis is leading to an increasing level if mistrust in our political institutions?" 97% answered that this was the case. "Do you think the impact of the crisis is not being shared equally by all layers of society and have affected the 'middle class' and those with fewer resources than the rest?" 96% agreed. "Do you agree with the following sentence: if it wasn't for charity organizations the social crisis would already be unsustainable." 86% agreed.
People do not trust the institutions of bourgeois democracy. They feel they are being made to pay for a crisis they did not cause, while the rich are getting richer. The majority believe this will lead to a social explosion. This is the reality in Spain.
The ruling PP party is polling at 29% (down from 46% a year ago). The Socialist Party is on 23% (5.4% less than they got in the elections a year ago). IU (United Left) has jumped from 6.9% in the November 2011 elections to 15.6% - more than doubling its support. The number of people who do not trust president Rajoy is 84% (which includes therefore many PP supporters!). The Socialist Party leader – in "opposition" – is mistrusted by 91%. This poll was carried out at the beginning of January. Now a massive corruption scandal has erupted, involving the ruling party, which could be the straw that breaks the camel's back, not just for this government, but for bourgeois democracy as a whole. Eventually they will lose control.
The problem is that there is no channel to focus all of this. A big movement has already erupted outside of the Trade Unions and outside of the mass parties. The indignados movement was an anticipation of what is to come. The struggle against the privatizations in Madrid was organized largely outside of the “official” channels in mass assemblies, coordinating committees, etc. At one point there were 47 hospitals and clinics occupied by the workers, demonstrations of tens of thousands, and an all-out strike by the doctors.
Spain is in fact the country of anarchism (not in an organized manner; the anarchist organizations have been reduced to small sects), but in the sense of spontaneous insurrectionary movements from below. This is also true of Italy. At a certain point, the Spanish youth and workers will draw the conclusion that "enough is enough." The reformist leaders wish to apply the brakes and hold back the workers. Once the situation reaches intolerable levels and the leaders can no longer hold back the masses, once the movement escapes from their control, then it becomes like a vehicle rolling downhill without brakes.
What we have to understand is that at this stage the leaders of the mass organizations do not reflect the real situation in society, the mood of anger in the factories and among working people in general. That is the central contradiction we are facing in this period. However, this situation cannot hold forever. It must and will be resolved. Initially we will see spontaneous movements from below. These movements that will initially come up against the resistance of the reformist leaders of the labour movement will have a big impact inside the mass organizations, starting with the trade unions.
In Spain, we now see the old traditions are coming back. The magnificent movement of the miners last summer confirms this. The areas where this movement started were centres of the Spanish revolution in the 1930s. We are beginning to see the characteristics of a civil war, not a "regular" strike, with gunfire, rockets fired at the police, barricades, with police raids and beatings, etc.
The level of police brutality is going up everywhere. It is the other side of the coin. The reformist leaders attempt to hold back the workers, but when they fail – and very often have to place themselves at the head of the movements – then the state resorts to open police brutality in an attempt to cow the masses. But it has the opposite effect and only serves to educate people in the true nature of the bourgeois state.
When the miners arrived in Madrid at 2am, 200,000 people were waiting for them. They sang the old revolutionary songs from the 1930s. It was a very emotional, a very powerful, moment, people were crying, etc. We should not exaggerate, but these are symptoms that the consciousness of the workers and youth is beginning to change on the basis of events. There are many other examples, of small strikes, protests, all around Spain.
And all the old demons are also coming back. We see the resurgence of the Catalan and Basque independence movements, etc. But behind this is a deeper process: many of the people taking part in “pro-independence” marches are protesting against Spanish austerity and cuts, not necessarily for independence.
The real situation in Spain was revealed during the general strike on November 14, which was originally called as a European-wide general strike or day of action. There was a massive response in Spain (although it turned not to be a truly Europe-wide strike).
The nationalists are making very radical, left-wing sounding speeches, despite playing a reactionary role in practice. For example, if there is a "Spanish" strike, the Basque nationalists call a strike on a different day. But the ranks are not happy with this. They instinctively understand the need for the unity of the class. And once the working class is on the move, it tends to cut across the national question.
The degree of anger and determination to struggle can be seen in the following figures. There were 36,000 demonstrations in the first 10 months of 2012, which was double the amount for the whole of 2011. How can anyone deny that there is a pre-revolutionary ferment in Spain now?
The blame for the impasses rests with the leaders of the Spanish Communist Party and Socialist Party. The workers of Spain could have taken power in the 1970s during the so-called "democratic transition." In reality it was a disgusting sell-out, which kept in place all the reactionary aspects of the old regime: the monarchy, civil guards, the Catholic Church, etc. Ironically, today the amount given in subsidies to the Catholic Church is equal to the cuts being made in healthcare, pensions, etc. The movement against monarchy could become an important element in the class struggle in Spain today. And demands for the abolition of the monarchy could become important transitional demands.
Italy is another country which is in a total mess. The bourgeois require draconian austerity measures, which will destroy everything that makes for a minimally civilised existence for the workers. But Berlusconi is creating problems as he defends his own personal interests over and above those of the class he belongs to. In an attempt to win back electoral support he has been losing in the recent period, he has promised the abolition of the property tax introduced by the outgoing Monti government. The Italian bourgeois must be tearing their hair out at the antics of this clown. From a bourgeois point of view, in order to calm the markets and assure them that Italy can pay its debts, what is required is austerity and more austerity. But this is leading to an explosive situation and at a certain point, the Italian workers, like their Spanish counterparts, will erupt in class struggle and all the old traditions will come back.
There are interesting developments, including what is happening in and around the Democratic Party. This is a bourgeois party, yes, but it is of a peculiar type. It is still seen by a significant layer of workers as carrying within part of the old tradition of the PCI, the Communist Party. It still has important links directly to some of the trade unions. This, of course will be used as a tool to attempt to hold back the workers as austerity is applied.
The trade union leaders in fact think that a new government, which they hope will be one led by the Democratic Party, will solve their problems. They see it as "finally, a government we can negotiate with!" They will soon discover that whoever comes to power, the programme will be the same.
In spite of these trade union leaders, in Italy too, the traditions of the working class are being revived. See the struggle of the miners in Sardinia, who forced a government minister to flee in a helicopter, such was their anger. The youth are also starting to move, with massive mobilisations of the students, such as the 50,000 strong student demonstration in Rome at the end of last year, which revealed a very angry and militant mood.
Italian capitalism is in a very deep and severe crisis. This explains the violent swings to the left and right in politics. The country is moving in the same direction as Spain and Greece. We can expect to see regional general strikes and uprisings.
In France Hollande initially promised all sorts of social reforms, but the reality of the crisis soon forced him to retreat. There was a short “honeymoon” during which the workers and youth were prepared give a "Socialist" government a chance, the idea being that Hollande must be "better than Sarkozy," etc. Very soon they discovered that austerity is all they can expect from this government.
Weakest links in European chain have broken, but was not considered a weak link in the past. But the crisis has slowly but surely been moving towards the very heart of the continent, in both Germany, which is seeing a sharp slowdown in its rate of growth and France, which is looking more and more like Spain and Italy. Gone are the days when France vied with Germany for domination of the European Union.
Since 2005, France has lost 20% of its share of the world market relative to its competitors. It has been in a long period of relative decline, especially relative to Germany. Hollande promises growth for 2014 after what he says will be a "difficult 2013." But where will this growth come from? However, even if there were a "recovery" of 1% or 1.5%, what would this mean for the working class? Not very much!
Hollande is now in trouble and is losing support quickly. He campaigned against austerity in the election campaign. Now he is cutting more than Sarkozy proposed, with billions of euros of cuts – which will resolve nothing. Far from its initial, very tentative Keynesianism, the government is taking money out of the economy by increasing direct and indirect taxation and cutting social services. French industry also is in crisis.
As a result a mood of anger is building up, though this is not yet reflected in strikes. Strikes rarely solve anything in these circumstances. Many workers realize that more than just a few strikes is needed and therefore are turning to the state for a solution. The slogan of nationalization is being revived within the French labour movement. Even the Communist Party leadership has had to flirt with this slogan again. For decades, the leaders of the workers' parties have been trying to eradicate the word "nationalization" from the minds of the workers. They argue, instead, that we need to "regulate" the economy, that nationalization doesn't work, etc. But in the course of just two or three weeks of real struggle, decades of anti-nationalization propaganda have been wiped out, and this slogan is back on the agenda.
What this means is that eventually the left – Melenchon/Communist Party/Left Front – which had already done well in the elections, will pick up. There will be a movement in the factories, the youth will move and there will be a further radicalisation.
How radicalised the situation has become, can be seen from what has been happening inside the French Communist Party. The liquidationist tendencies that existed in the party in 2008 (who wanted to fold up the party altogether), have been beaten back for now, and with the rise of the Left Front and Melenchon, the Communist Party rank and file workers feel more confident that they are reconnecting with the workers, with the masses. In these conditions the Marxist tendency of the Communist Party won 10% of the votes in the recent party congress, which is an excellent result. There are big possibilities for the growth and development of the ideas of Marxism in the Communist Party.
Added to the general crisis of French capitalism, and the effects it is having on the masses, is the adventure in the Mali war. French imperialism will soon discover that is easy to get in, but harder to get out! Initially, with much more powerful military hardware, the French troops can make headway, but it will be a completely different scenario when it comes to holding down the country, as the Islamic militias adopt guerrilla tactics. Unfortunately, both the PCF leaders and Melenchon, the leader of the Left Front, have come out in support of the invasion giving "humanitarian reasons" as an excuse, and saying that the war is to "stop Islamic fundamentalism".
Britain also is not immune from the general process taking place in Europe. In November 2011 there was the big student movement against the hike in university tuition fees. After that we saw the big movements on the trade union front, with the biggest Trade Union demo in the history of the British labour movement. The youth riots in the summer of 2011 are also a symptom of the growing malaise affecting British society. The police proved incapable of controlling it. Parts of London burned down. The way the courts dealt with these youth is also an indication of the new situation. The courts were working through the night, sentencing youth after youth to severe sentences for what were in reality minor offences. Compare this to the way they deal with bankers who are caught siphoning off millions for their own personal benefit. This will not go unnoticed by the working population!
It is very often stated that the debt crisis started in Greece, but the truth is that it actually started with the investment of Austrian banks in Eastern Europe, and their subsequent bailout via the "Vienna initiative". Austria itself is now at the top of the list of European countries that are being told they need to "increase competitiveness", by cutting real wages, in order to improve the "business climate," etc. The Austrian bourgeois are now attacking the old labour laws and collective bargaining. As a result there are the beginnings of ferment in the Trade Unions, starting with the metalworkers. Even the normally quiescent and moderate Austrian trade union leadership is beginning to realise that they will have to lead some kind of fightback, as the pressure from below mounts.
After the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in eastern Europe, there was a period of confusion, including illusions in capitalism. But now as a result of the crisis, Eastern Europe is again part of the mainstream historical process. There is no way out of the crisis for these countries, no way of stabilising things. Youth and popular movements have begun to reappear in an aggressive manner in many of these countries. We have seen public sector strikes against wage cuts, student protests, and workplace conflicts over wage arrears, etc. Slovenia, for example, used to be among the more developed and wealthier of these countries. It was presented as the most successful example of capitalist restoration. It looked like an extension of Austria! Now it looks more like Italy or Spain. We are seeing mass demonstrations against cuts. We have seen a demonstration of 100,000 people (in a country of 2 million). Significantly, people came out with their old Yugoslav banners.
There is in fact a revival of popularity of Marshall Tito across the whole of the Balkans now, as the masses hark back to what they now perceive as a better period. An example is what happened recently when the president of Slovenia, on the 20th anniversary of Slovenian “nationhood”, had to cut his speech short due to cat calls. Just 20 years – nothing in historical terms – and already things are in a mess. There has been a continual fall in GDP over last few years, a doubling of unemployment, and a doubling of public debt. We also note “radical youth” conferences and festivals across the Balkans. Romania also is in ferment, with its economy stagnating. We have seen spontaneous uprisings in 20 cities; the biggest such movement since the downfall of Ceaucescu. Hungary, which saw one of the most rabid, reactionary governments coming to power, is now witnessing mass movements against it.
As the crisis deepens, and it becomes very clear that capitalism offers no way out, the workers and youth of Eastern Europe will be radicalised and will join the workers in the rest of Europe in a continental-wide wave of struggles.
Ebbs and flows
There is also an anti-EU mood developing across the whole of Europe, as people see it as the source of all the cuts. And there are parties on the right who are trying to exploit this mood, parties such as UKIP in Britain. Such is the mood, that as we have seen, Cameron is playing with the idea of calling a referendum, which in the present conditions could lead to the UK being forced out of the EU.
The point is that nothing has been resolved. In spite of all the austerity measures, all the cuts, the crisis of the eurozone has not been solved. So desperate is the situation, that the European Central Bank has declared that it will do whatever is required to save the euro. This explains why the pressure on Spain and Italy was lifted for a while. But the fundamental, underlying contradictions have not gone away. The crisis will erupt again and very soon. This means that there will be one shock after another – painful shocks – which will upset the status quo.
We must also understand that because of the lack of the subjective factor, i.e. a mass revolutionary party of the working class, there will be many defeats. It will be a prolonged, painful process. There will be periods of intense class struggle, with mass mobilisations, which will be followed by periods of relative lull. In such periods it can seem that the right wing will be making ground. But this will be temporary, and the masses will mobilise again and again.
During such lulls there will be those on the left who will start moaning about black reaction and fascism. All this reveal is the lack of understanding of these lefts. There is not yet the immediate threat of fascism. Instead of seeing the process in its totality they are thrown hither and thither by temporary mood swings. It is true that inevitably there will be some defeats, even big ones. However, as Napoleon understood, defeated armies learn well.
We need to look deep below the surface; we cannot study only the transient froth on the ocean – we must study and understand the underlying currents.
For 50 years, the European working class has been lulled into a false sense of security. To tell the truth, it has become a bit "soft." People have become so used to the conditions that prevailed for a whole historical period after the Second World War that they think this is a temporary crisis, that after a short period of austerity everything will be solved eventually.
Reality, however, is very different. The inertia that has built up over the past will not be overcome by our propaganda: we are too small for that. The Marxists understand now what the masses will learn from bitter experience. They will learn from the hammer blows of events. This will shake the class out of its inertia. “Events, events, events” – as Ted Grant used to say – will serve at a certain stage to shake up of the mass organizations, which are lagging light years behind the reality of the situation at the moment. There will be left currents, splits to the right and the left and crises in all these organizations, as the workers seek a way out of the crisis.
That is the scenario the Marxists are preparing for. We must prepare the forces and build the Marxist tendency such that it becomes the subjective factor that is missing in the situation. We cannot be complacent: we have time, but not unlimited time. We must translate the ideas of Marxism into a viable force within the labour movement. We must draw the necessary conclusions from our political perspectives and act accordingly.