It leaps across frontiers, defying all barriers, it laughs at the threats and curses of the ruling class and it sweeps aside the forces of the state. It cannot be halted. The mass protests that are spreading from one country to another have caught all the forces of the old society by surprise. They do not know how to react. If they do nothing, the movement grows, but if they attempt to crush it, it will grow much more rapidly.
In Spain tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets over the last week. In demonstrations that seemed to come from nowhere, demonstrators filled city plazas all over Spain in a wave of outrage over government austerity policies and high unemployment rates. The “experts” were taken completely off guard. Where had this movement come from? The youth is apolitical, they said; the youth is apathetic.
For years people have been patient, suffering in silence the impositions of different governments. This created the optical illusion that people, especially young people, were “apathetic” and indifferent to politics. But this supposed indifference was only in relation to the existing parties, not to politics per se.
It took a severe economic slump to bring this mood of anger to the surface. But the anger was already there beneath the surface. Superficial bourgeois commentators did not see this because they confine themselves to superficial observation. They see only the surface but are blind to the contradictions and processes that are unfolding beneath the surface.
Overnight, this supposed indifference has changed into its opposite. A new kind of politics is born: the politics of the street. This is regarded with horror by the ladies and gentlemen sitting in the Cortes, who regard themselves as the supreme – indeed the only – representatives of the Nation. But the real Nation is not in the Cortes. It is the working class and the youth of Spain.
A conflict of generations?
Protests have sprung up in over 150 towns and cities. It is a cry for change, an outpouring of indignation of people who feel that nobody represents them and nobody listens to them. The crowds camped out in Madrid and across Spain are not demonstrating against this government but against the system and the whole political class that upholds it.
The young revolutionaries want to maintain order in the Puerta del Sol, to avoid the accusations of “anarchy” and “hooliganism”. There is a crèche, a kitchen area and even, it seems, a vegetable patch. The protest organisers have urged those taking part not to confront the police, and have tried to discourage the distribution of alcohol. “It's a revolution, not a drinking party,” read one sign. Brooms donated by supporters are being used to keep the square clean. But a far bigger broom will be needed to clean out the Augean stables of the bourgeois political regime.
The movement in Spain began with the youth. Naturally! It is the youth that carries on its shoulders the main burden of the crisis of capitalism. It is the youth whose future is being taken away by a decrepit and palsied system. It is the youth that has nothing to lose and a world to gain by fighting. And it is the youth that is prepared to fight.
But this is much more than a movement of the youth. This is not, as some cynics have tried to depict it, a “conflict of generations”. It is not a struggle of the young against the old. It is a reflection of a general mood of discontent in society, felt by young and old alike. They are frustrated by mass unemployment, angry at the financial markets controlling government policy and indignant at with wide-scale corruption:
“I'm happy that they're finally protesting. It was about time,” Maria, an elderly woman visiting her grandson in the Puerta del Sol told the BBC ''They want to leave us without public health and public education,” says another. “Half of our youth is unemployed and they have raised the age of retirement,” someone else adds. And everyone says: “We are having to pay for an economic crisis that we didn't cause but which was provoked by the banks.”
“Spain is not a business. We are not slaves,” read one of the hundreds of protest posters glued to the Puerta del Sol's metro station walls. That is the real voice of the Spanish people. This is a movement that contains within itself all that is alive, all that is healthy, all that represents hope for the future. It is a struggle of the living forces of society against the dead and decaying forces of the old order. It is the emergence of a New World that is struggling to be born.
The revolt is spreading
The movement is not confined to Spain. The Guardian warns that “a youth-led rebellion is spreading across southern Europe as a new generation of protesters takes possession of squares and parks in cities around Spain, united by a rejection of mainstream politicians and fury over spending cuts.”
A lot of young people have been forced to leave Spain precisely because of the situation. And they want to protest too. Demonstrations have been arranged for outside the Spanish embassy in London and in other European cities. The Spanish example is being followed in Italy where protests are also planned in Florence and other Italian cities, including Rome and Milan.
Italy so far has not been forced into the sort of austerity measures imposed on Spain, Portugal, Greece and Ireland. But its economy has barely grown in the past 10 years and there is increasing evidence of exasperation with its billionaire prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. The tag #italianrevolution has already appeared on Twitter.
Nor is the ferment confined to the countries of southern Europe. In the last few days the signs of popular discontent and anger are surfacing in one country after another. In Georgia thousands of opposition supporters have poured onto the streets of Tblisi to demand the resignation of President Mikhail Saakashvili. The demonstrators gathered outside the parliament, before marching on to the presidential palace, where they plan to hold an ongoing protest.
Correspondents say turnout is falling and the opposition seems increasingly unsure of how to continue its campaign. After a brief pause on Sunday, more than 20,000 opposition supporters returned to the Georgian parliament building for a fifth day, chanting “Misha, Go!” They again blocked the capital's main street, cheered on the main opposition leaders and began to march on the presidential palace.
The movement has spread to the Czech Republic, where the trade unions have held a major demonstration on Prague’s Wenceslas square. According to organisers and the police more than 40,000 people came out to protest government reform plans. The demonstrators were protesting against the government’s wide-ranging reforms in the health care, tax, social security and pension systems that will hit Czech workers, pensioners and the disabled.
In occupied Iraq Friday May 20, 2011 saw another round of protests in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. The people are demanding jobs and services, but now they are focusing their anger on the government of Nouri al-Maliki. A banner was seen entitled “Title Of The Play: Corrupt Government.” Another called for the end of arbitrary arrests by the security forces. Still larger protests are expected in June.
Last but by no means least, two weeks ago thousands of teachers, social workers, union members and others took to the streets of New York in a march against Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plans for wide-ranging budget cuts, and against the Wall Street bankers they blame for the city's budget deficit.
Activists reported that the NYPD had arrested several marchers, but the demonstration remained cheerful, with colourful signs and raucous chants. The demonstration, called by the May 12 Coalition, gathered together at least 10,000 marchers. Thousands came from the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), which faces more than 4,000 teacher cuts if Bloomberg's budget is enacted.
Michael Mulgrew, UFT President laid the blame for the budget cuts squarely at Bloomberg and Wall Street's feet: “Wall Street recovered, hedge funds got stimulated, and now they want to lay off teachers and close day care centres,” Mulgrew said. “We're going where they sent the money,” he said of the march.
Organizers claimed the city could prevent budget cuts by reinstating the state's “Millionaire Tax,” ending subsidies for large companies that failed to meet job-creation. This event was a demonstration not just against the Bloomberg budget plan but also as an effort to “make the banks pay.”
This demonstration follows the militant movement of the workers of Wisconsin, which was directly inspired by the Egyptian Revolution. Randi Weingarten, president of the UFT's parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers, noted she has travelled the country in the past few months fighting against teacher cuts in states across the nation. “I never expected to come home to see New York act like Wisconsin,” she told the crowd.
At least 30,000 people packed the Puerta del Sol plaza in the heart of Madrid on Friday night. This was their answer to the attempt of the government to ban the demonstrations, citing a law against “political events” on the eve of elections. The law went into effect at midnight on Friday, but the demonstrators remained defiant and the authorities could do nothing. Spanish law forbids political rallies on the day before elections to allow for a “day of reflection”. But the people of Spain are reflecting as never before on the state of society. They are not only reflecting – they are acting to change an intolerable situation.
But as the ban came into effect, the crowds stayed put and police did not try to disperse them. The electoral commission had ordered them to leave ahead of local elections on Sunday. But although the legislation was upheld by the supreme and constitutional courts, the police were not able to clamp down on the demonstrations. They remained on the sidelines, mere observers of the events unfolding before their eyes. By their actions they have shown that no law written on paper can withstand the power of the masses, once they are mobilized for action.
Earlier in the week, electoral authorities in the Madrid region denied an official request by the organisers to hold a rally in the Puerta del Sol from 8:00 pm last Wednesday. The election authority refused the request, hiding behind the excuse that it was not submitted with 24 hours' notice as required by law and the argument that the demonstration “could affect the electoral campaign and the freedom of citizens with the right to vote”. The fact that this decision negates the right of citizens to demonstrate was conveniently ignored.
It looked as if the government would order the police to break up the crowds in city squares across the country after setting a deadline for people to disperse by midnight on Friday. But as the deadline approached, Vice President Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba displayed growing indecision about how the government should deal with the protesters. Initially he said the government would ''enforce the law,'' but he then toned down this stance, saying, ''The police are not going to resolve one problem by creating another.''
What was the “other problem” that caused Rubalcaba to hesitate? It was the fear that any attempt to break up the protest by force could provoke a social explosion. At the stroke of midnight officers kept a discreet presence on the edges of protests in Madrid. About 15 police vehicles took up positions in and around the square on Wednesday evening but police took no action and the police presence diminished later. Demonstrators kept quiet as city clocks chimed the beginning of a new day, many with sticky tape over their mouths in a gesture to tell the world they had things to say but were being gagged by the state.
A turn to the right?
The elections resulted in a complete debacle for the PSOE. The Socialist vote experienced a sharp drop in its two most powerful bases: Andalusia, where it lost in all the capital cities and Catalonia, where the PSC (Socialists' Party of Catalonia) lost Barcelona, where it has ruled since 1979. The PSOE also lost Castilla-La Mancha, which it has ruled since 1983. They may even lose Asturias if the Foro Asturias party (FAC ) reaches a pact with the PP.
Pessimists will say that the Spanish election results indicate a “turn to the right”. They will moan about the “low level of consciousness of the masses”. These people are always ready to blame the working class for their own impotence. They understand less than nothing of the real processes at work in society.
The truth is that the election results were entirely predictable. The policies of reformism can never survive the crisis of capitalism. The bourgeoisie crack the whip, and the Social Democrats immediately jump to attention. In their haste to save the system, they forget all about reforms and pass onto counter-reforms.
Reformism with reforms makes sense to the workers. But reformism without reforms – reformism with counter-reforms, cuts and austerity, makes no sense at all. This causes disappointment and disillusionment among the workers, who punish the government by withholding their votes. This has the additional advantage of discrediting the idea of “socialism” in the eyes of the middle class.
We have pointed out many times that the present situation will be characterised by violent swings of public opinion – to the left and also to the right. When the Social Democrats are in power, the right wing opposition blames the “socialists” for falling living standards, rising prices and taxes and unemployment. The right-wing argues demagogically: “You see what these Reds have brought you? They have brought the country to its knees.”
The workers of Spain have delivered a crushing vote of no confidence on a government that has toed the line of the bankers and capitalists. However, this cannot be depicted as a victory for the right. Although the Conservative PP won a victory in regional and municipal elections yesterday, its votes hardly increased - just two points more than in 2007. These elections were not won by the PP, but lost by the PSOE, whose vote collapsed by 4.5 million.
The right wing can use the discontent of the middle class to whip up reactionary moods on immigration, terrorism and other issues. This explains the increased votes for the PP. The surprise is not that that their vote went up. The only surprise is that it went up by so little. In Madrid capital where the PP has been in power for years, its vote actually went down.
The outcome was decided by the millions who did not vote or voted “blank”: the workers and youth who felt betrayed by the Zapatero government and stayed at home – or in the Puerta del Sol. The “indecisos e indignados” (the undecided and indignant ones) reflected a general mood of disgust with the existing parties and institutions. In Euskadi, Bildu, the electoral front of the radical Basque Left, got a strong result and displaced the PSOE in second place, achieving first place in Guipúzcoa, and also getting a remarkable result in Navarra. The abertzales are seen by many as a more radical and left alternative to the reformist policies of the PSOE.
Which way for the Left?
The same phenomenon is occurring across the EU. Since the beginning of crisis, all the existing governments have been punished at the polls, but the Left has not gained in the same proportion. We must ask why. Why is it that the Communist Parties, which would in the past have been the natural beneficiaries of a collapse of the Social Democrat vote, have not done so.
It is to the credit of United Left leader Cayo Lara that he has joined the demonstrations and supported them. It is also a fact that the United Left increased its vote by 200,000 in these elections. This shows that there is a potential for the recovery of the Left vote. But the question that must be answered is: why did the Left not win more seats?
In these elections the PSOE has seen its votes sink to the level of 1979. At that time the Spanish Communist Party (the PCE) still disputed hegemony on the Left with the PSOE and accounted for a big share of the vote. But after decades of opportunist politics, the PCE has lost its mass following. The electoral coalition to which it belongs, the United Left (IU) was only able to register a slight increase - just one point – despite the socialist debacle, and lost its bastion in Cordoba.
In a situation where the combined “blank vote” and spoiled vote amounted to almost a million, why did the IU candidates not succeed in attracting these votes? The leaders of the Communist Parties have tried to be “respectable”. They have discarded all mention of socialism, class struggle and revolution. In many cases they have abandoned the very name Communism. They have done their best to imitate the Social Democrats and be as similar to them as possible.
They have become so enmeshed in “institutional politics” that in the minds of many workers and youth they are almost indistinguishable from the others. We see this very clearly in those areas where the United Left was minority partners in coalitions with the PSOE. In these areas the IU was severely castigated by the voters.
This is the punishment for decades of opportunism and reformism. The workers and youth would understand a small Communist Party that stood in elections, fighting on clear Communist policies. But workers are practical people. If there are two “left” parties, one bigger, the other smaller, and there is no fundamental difference in their programme and policies, they will vote for the larger of the two (the “useful vote”), and the smaller will tend to disappear.
We have seen this happen in one country after another: in Italy, France and Spain. It is a supreme irony of history that precisely at a moment in history when capitalism is in a deep crisis, when the Social Democracy is losing support because of its pro-capitalist policies, and when large numbers of young people are coming onto the streets to fight capitalism, the Communist Parties are not seen as a revolutionary alternative, but only as the fifth wheel in the cart of reformism.
We must tell the truth. The Left has shown itself to be completely unprepared for these events. Too many leaders have allowed themselves to be infected by a mood of scepticism. They have lost all faith in the ability of the ordinary working class people to change society. They have abandoned any perspective of socialism and reconciled themselves to the petty politics of “gradual change”, “realism” and “pragmatism”. That is to say, they have reconciled themselves to the maintenance of the existing order.
Too many members of the so-called “vanguard” have convinced themselves that socialist revolution is impossible. They try to convince the youth that communism is an impossible utopia; that we must be cautious, not go too far, and so on and so forth. They imagine that they know more than the youth because they have lost the old fire. How can such people inspire any confidence or enthusiasm in the young people who are looking for a revolutionary way out?
The only way to find a road to the new militant layers who are seeking the revolutionary road is to present them with a real perspective for social revolution. It is necessary to return to the genuine ideas of Communism, the ideas of Marx and Lenin. On that basis, and on that basis alone, the Communists can find common ground and a common language with the new generations that are willing to fight capitalism but need a clear programme, policy and strategy.
The results of the Spanish elections will be a shock to many people, including those in the Puerta del Sol. The movement of rebellion on the streets will almost certainly die down for a while. What the organizers consider to be its strong point – its spontaneous character – is also its weakest point. In order to go further it needs to be organized and armed with a revolutionary programme and a scientific perspective. Above all it needs to be linked firmly to the workers’ movement, which alone can bring about a fundamental change in society.
The elections indicated a massive rejection of the economic policies implemented by the Socialist Government. José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero explained that he has “paid a very high price” for these policies. But a far higher price has been paid by the millions of Spaniards who find themselves without a job. Last night he ruled out early elections and said he will “work to strengthen the recovery”. This means more of the same.
This is a certain recipe for defeat in the general elections of 2012. The headline in today’s Publico is: “The PSOE collapses as a result of its right turn.” And the subhead of El Pais is: “The PSOE paves Rajoy’s path to the Moncloa with an unprecedented defeat”. This appraisal is correct. It seems likely that the PP will form the next government. But they will do so under conditions of deep social and economic crisis.
The outlook for the whole of Europe is uncertain, and after Greece, Ireland and Portugal, Spain stands exposed as the next weak link in the chain. The International Monetary Fund has warned that the euro zone debt crisis could spread across the region unless European countries step up efforts to “fix their banks”. In its latest economic outlook for Europe, the IMF said that the debt crisis in Greece, Portugal and Ireland could affect the wider euro zone by hitting bank lending and delivering a confidence shock, despite the “rescue packages” that are already in place:
“Financial linkages between countries with sovereign debt troubles and the rest of Europe could potentially pose more risk to the outlook,” the IMF said on Thursday. “Restoring fiscal health, squarely addressing weak banks, and implementing structural reforms to restore competitiveness are key.”
This means in plain language: you must pour more billions into the banks and finance this by slashing “wasteful public spending” on such things as hospitals, schools and pensions. The PSOE tried to avoid this, but finally was forced to carry out the dictates of big business. But a PP government will carry out these policies with gusto from the first moment.
The demagogy of the PP will soon be exposed as Spain’s economic crisis goes from bad to worse. The middle class will soon discover that they are even worse off with the PP than with the Socialists. The agitation of the youth will be intensified. And the workers who were reluctant to seek a confrontation with the government of the PSOE will have no qualms of conscience about fighting the PP.
The more far sighted representatives of Capital look to the future with foreboding. In Spain the ruling class is pushing for Zapatero to stay in power. They realize that a PP government will lead to an open clash between the classes that they are anxious to postpone, while squeezing Zapatero like a lemon. However, the PP leaders are greedy for power and pressing for early elections. Cinco Dias, the Spanish business daily has warned the PP not to take advantage of their victory in the local elections to reveal the bad debts of local councils, for fear of causing panic on the money markets.
The perspective is for an intensification of the class struggle. Hans Jörg Sinn, one of the main bourgeois economic analysts in Germany is warning of a civil war in Greece. The same can be true in Spain and other countries of southern Europe. Through bitter experience the workers will rediscover the revolutionary traditions of the past. The movement on the streets in Spain over the last week is only a dress rehearsal for even more dramatic events that will transform the entire situation.
London, 23 May