Europe: The Working Class Fights Back: Conclusion

The general theme of the discussion was the ruling class offensive in Europe and the resistance of the working class. While the discussion concentrated on three major themes, it was perhaps in that sense unfortunately a bit unbalanced.

We have to select what is the most important at each particular stage and those themes which have come out at this School are some of the most pressing at the present time. But it is a pity that other questions such as, for example, the national question, the growth of regionalism and the potential for reaction, were not really dealt with. Furthermore, the discussion really concentrated on Western Europe, leaving out the Central European countries of Poland and the Czech Republic.

The Ruling Class Offensive

The background to the whole discussion was of course was the ruling class offensive over the recent period. Many speakers gave examples of the different public sector cuts which have been carried out or which are being proposed at the present time. As has been said, there is a relentless pressure from capitalist governments to cut public spending. But, as a number of comrades pointed out, despite these efforts to cut public spending the level of state expenditure has in fact actually increased in a number of countries. Partly this reflects the fact that the current economic slowdown has meant that on the one hand taxation revenues have gone down, and on the other, more has been spent on unemployment pay, etc.

But this also reflects the difficulties which the bourgeoisie have in carrying out cuts because of the underlying strength of the working class at the present time. Even in Britain, the savage cuts which have been implemented were only successful on the basis of a number of defeats of the working class in the 1980s. And the defeats which took place then were not because of any basic organizational weakness of the working class, but because of the role played by the Labour and especially trade union leaderships.

But the crisis in Europe is not simply a crisis of public spending. Comrades have already pointed to the existence in all European countries of mass, structural, unemployment. But there is also the fact that in quite a number of European countries, the capitalists last year enjoyed very high profit levels. In fact, one report at the end of April this year said that, in Western Europe as a whole, profits were at a 30-year high. So why is it that, when many sectors of the capitalists have increased their rate of return and are getting higher profits, they are still launching offensives? This is because they understand that these high profits are only temporary: they do not think they are at the beginning of a long, profitable period. Also, they have learnt that in a number of sectors, the high profits are in fact the immediate result of the offensive which they have already started against the working class.

A number of European industries are facing severe crisis. In the Western European, it is estimated that there is presently between 25-30 percent overcapacity. Therefore, for instance, when recently the EU stopped VW from getting subsidies for building plants in East Germany, VW privately said that they were not unhappy about this because they did not want to build any new capacity. The existence of overcapacity means that there is going to be pressure for further offensives against the working class, first of all on the question of jobs and conditions.

The bourgeoisie are worried about the implications of this situation. In June, one of the major international capitalist institutions, the Bank for International Settlements, issued its annual report. It warned that unless the mass unemployment in Europe went down there was a danger of social unrest. But at the same time, it did not have a solution to this dilemma. The bourgeoisie are trapped: on the one hand there are immense economic pressures forcing them to attack the working class; on the other they are scared of the consequences of such attacks. This is one of the factors leading to the splits and divisions in all the political parties in Europe.

Part of the discussion concentrated on those parties which originated from the workers’ movement. But there are also divisions and splits which exist inside the capitalist parties. This is reflected in the fact that, as comrades have said, there is a generalized questioning of bourgeois society; bourgeois institutions are questioned and challenged. Amongst increasing sections, especially the youth, there is alienation. In general, in all societies, there is an increasing polarization, not just between the classes, but also within the working class, and between different layers.

This is especially true of the plight of the long-term unemployed, and is also a very important issue in relation to immigrant workers and youth in Western Europe. A French comrade spoke of the growing movement of immigrant youth in France. This is a very important question for the CWI. On the one hand, the increase in state racism and nationalism further alienates these youth from the societies in which they are living; on the other the economic crisis condemns them to either the worst jobs or large-scale unemployment. This combination of alienation, repression and poverty is providing the basis for explosions among this layer, which has very important implications for our future work among some of the most oppressed strata in Europe.

The bulk of this discussion centered on three issues. Firstly the question of perspectives for the EU and the possibility of monetary union; secondly the characterization of the old parties and thirdly, flowing from that, the question of our tactics in regard to our slogans, new parties, and in elections.

EU Perspectives and EMU

The CWI has commented for a long time how the collapse of Stalinism and German unification changed the balance of forces in Europe. The other West European powers were not particularly happy with German unification. The French government, at that time under Mitterrand, sought to strengthen the EU as a way to try to limit the freedom of action of the newly enlarged German imperialism. The British government used to have a saying regarding their relations with German imperialism that NATO was formed to “keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down”. They saw both the “Russian threat” and NATO as means of trying to limit German imperialism’s freedom of action. German unification and the USSR’s collapse made German imperialism the dominant power in Europe. After 1989, elements within the EU saw the possibility, through monetary union, of trying to have some way of limiting German imperialism’s freedom of action economically. Originally they also hoped that a move to create a single currency in Europe would create a stable basis for economic growth. But in fact, now, it is turning into its opposite. Currency unions, or links between currencies, are not theoretically ruled out. The currencies of Belgium and Luxembourg are completely linked together: there is in fact one currency for the two countries. Once the Canadian and United States dollars were of equal value and, in a limited way, were accepted in both countries. This also occurred in the past between the Irish Republic and Britain. So such currency unions, or fixed links, are possible.

But when examining the prospects for the plan of [the] European monetary union, [the] economic, as well as the political factors, not just for the working class, but also for the individual ruling classes, have to be taken into account.

It has already been said that it is a big step for individual ruling classes to give up the power of controlling their own currency. But also, as we know from the discussion on EMU, there is the problem [of] countries which are thinking of going into the EMU are worried about countries outside using devaluation as a weapon to expand their trade. This happened in Italy between 1992 and 1995. In two and a half years, the Italian Lira was devalued by 38 percent, which, for Italian industry, meant a temporary tremendous cost advantage against their European rivals. This has led to the German government saying that if there is going to be an EMU, they want some kind of controls over other EU countries outside to prevent them from devaluing to gain an advantage in the world competition.

But there is also rising popular opposition both to the EMU and to Maastricht. The Maastricht Treaty and the EMU plan are popularly seen as being one of the main reasons behind the current assault on living standards. At the same time, there is a growing feeling against the EU. The EU is being seen more and more as an undemocratic institution, out of the control of the people of Western Europe. In a number of countries in Western Europe there is popular resistance to the idea of joining the EMU which is seen as being run by the German Bundesbank. Inside Germany itself, given the illusions which exist in the Deutschmark, there is resistance to any project which would be seen to weaken the currency.

It is true that the financial markets are acting as if they expect EMU to take place. Interest rates are rising for the longer-term loans which the governments are taking out because they fear instability over EMU at the turn of the century. What they are really saying is that the EMU threatens to create financial storms. And when the risk increases, the interest rates increase as well. So really, this is a safety measure by the financial market: it is not that the financial markets are confident that EMU is going to actually succeed.

Speakers have rightly stressed that many of the European politicians have invested quite heavily, personally, in the EMU project. But the bourgeoisie can sacrifice individual politicians. Thatcher built herself around the Poll Tax, and in the end she was sacrificed when the Poll Tax was sacrificed. In Germany, Kohl has presented himself as supporting EMU, but EMU could in fact be the issue, or one of the issues, which leads to his replacement. Chirac could always say: “Well, it was Mitterrand’s idea: it was a nice idea, but it didn’t work and I’m clearing up the mess which Mitterrand left behind.”

So therefore, there is the possibility that there could be, at the very least, a modification of the plans for EMU. It is highly unlikely that there will be a true single currency circulating in a number of West European countries. As has been said, there could be the development of a new parallel currency which would exist alongside the existing national currencies. According to the present timetable Euro notes and coins are only planned to start circulating in 2002.

But the question of the perspectives for the EU and for monetary union depends also on the general perspectives for the economy and for the class struggle. If, of course, the capitalist world was facing a period of long economic growth, like that of the 1950s and 1960s, then perhaps, for a temporary period, there could be steps towards that type of integration. But clearly this is not the likely economic perspective. Already there are growing tensions between the major imperialist blocs [of the] world, and at the same time within each bloc.

The Transformation of the Old Workers’ Parties

The second theme of this discussion has been the question of the bourgeoisification of the old parties. Perhaps a new way of referring to these parties has to be found, for example: “parties formerly known as ‘traditional'”. This is not a new discussion. Last year the School saw a debate on the character of PSOE in Spain. The discussion has not only been based on the experience, especially over the last year or so, of the British Labour Party. But the very speed of the developments inside the British Labour Party does illustrate some of the general processes and also gives us a way of judging how the CWI came to the conclusion that there has been a qualitative change.

The comrade from Scotland said that in running candidates in the coming British election, the comrades do not expect at this stage to get very big votes. This is because the mass of workers are so desperate to get the Conservative government out that they will vote Labour, and there will even possibly be hostility to us in some areas for splitting the vote. The attitude of many workers will be that there is no electoral alternative to Labour as the way to get the Tories out.

This in itself is quite a significant psychological change. Years ago, many workers would say that the Labour Party is “our party”, it represents “us” against the bosses, against the rich. Only very few, older workers, would even dream of saying that now. This is not just a shift in wording – it represents a shift in attitude, in the relationship between the Labour Party and the bulk of the class. The Social Democratic and Stalinist parties have been degenerating for a very long time. The British Labour Party never was a clearly socialist party in the way that the majority of socialist and social-democratic parties in the rest of Europe were when they were founded. In the postwar upswing the character of these parties continued to change. What was the character of the membership of these parties 20-30 years ago? It was largely composed of older workers, maybe those who had been active in the 1930s and 1940s and still remained in the party. But there was also a layer of middle class elements who joined in the 1950s and 1960s. Even when sections of radical youth joined in the late 1960s and 1970s, they often came mainly from a middle class background.

Our general perspective at that time was that at a certain stage, the development of the class struggle would lead to an influx of workers into these parties which would create opportunities for the CWI’s work as well as the general development of a left wing. What has happened in the recent period is simply that the development of events has led the CWI to alter its perspective for these organizations. Their bourgeois wings became stronger and their roots in the working class became weaker. In the foreseeable future, mass influxes of workers into these parties are not going to happen. The only party whose membership has grown recently is the British Labour Party and this has been a mainly middle class influx.

It is also unlikely that there will be significant mass splits from the existing structures. A comrade mentioned the death of the Italian Socialist Party a few years ago and the fact that it died as a bourgeois party. If you look at that party, a very significant date in its development was the split of a mass left wing in 1964. This mass split went on to create a centrist party, the PSIUP, which in 1968 won 1,414,697 votes (4.5%). But this is not the perspective for most of the existing old traditional parties (or whatever we call them) at the present time, because their memberships are mostly aging and declining. The RC in Italy seems to be the exception rather than the rule, although small splits which could help create larger new movements cannot be ruled out.

This does not mean that the CWI is altering its general perspective that large sections of the working class will have to pass through the political stages of left reformism and centrism on the way to achieving revolutionary clarity. The change in our perspectives is in regard to the organizational form this can take. We are not automatically linking this process to developments within or around the existing old organizations. Left reformism and centrism could develop in completely new formations, as was the case with PASOK in Greece after it was formed in 1974.

Now the general direction of development is clear. There are different layers within the class: these different layers will draw different conclusions. It is possible in the British Labour Party to find old members who still regard themselves as socialists, who think that it is still a socialist party, but these are really, to be honest, the relics of a past historical period. The fact that these parties are in the process of becoming, or have become, totally bourgeois parties does not mean that their influence over the working class automatically disappears. There have been many examples of bourgeois political organizations which had an influence over the working class. For instance, the Peronists in Argentina, in a peculiar way the ANC in South Africa, and also in another way, as has been mentioned, there is the question of the Christian workers’ organizations in Belgium.

The “New Party” Slogan and Today’s Activity

This process of the old parties becoming bourgeoisified creates a political vacuum. This is because, as a result of their experiences, the working class will understand that it needs a new force to represent it. More precisely, both trade union forces and political forces [need] to represent it.

Obviously, the speed at which different layers of these conclusions [are reached] is different, but increasingly the question will be posed: “These parties no longer represent us. They are capitalist parties. We need a new party which represents us.” This process has been behind the discussion in many sections about whether or not we should launch the slogan for a new party, and if so, what form should that slogan take? As has been said in the “name-change” debate in the CWI’s British section, Militant Labour, we have to be slightly ahead of the class; not too far ahead, but we have to be slightly ahead in raising demands which represent the next step forward for the class to take.

Now in Europe, an old question is coming back on to the agenda: that of building a political force which represents the working class. In Europe, for a long time, this question has not been posed. Of course, after the Russian revolution there was the whole debate on the character of the workers’ organizations, the struggle in the 1920s between reformism and Marxism. That was the debate inside the parties in France, Italy, Germany and other countries over which International to join, either the reformist Second or the revolutionary Third International. It was a debate over policy for the workers’ movement. But for a historical period it has been outside Europe, in the neo-colonial countries and in the United States of America, where the primary question of the workers needing their own organization has been on the agenda. In that sense, it is both an old question but also a new question for the CWI in Europe.

The CWI needs to be quite precise in the demands that it puts forward. We have to analyze each development and determine what our role is as Marxists. For instance, in Lenin’s approach to the formation of the British Labour Party, he outlined what he saw was positive and what was negative. There was a debate about whether or not the new British Labour Party should be allowed to join the Second International, then formally a Marxist organization. A section opposed the British Labour Party joining because it was not a socialist party. Lenin argued that it should come into the Second International, not because it was a socialist party (which it wasn’t) but because it represented a step towards a socialist workers’ party. Marxists must be quite precise in their demands and analysis of any new formations which develop. There must be a clear understanding of the relationship between our call for a new workers’ party and the building of our own forces, especially where an “open turn” has been made.

In most countries at the present time, the forces which could create big new parties do not exist. However, in a number of cases, there are now quite important opportunities. On the one hand, there is the beginning of a consciousness that the working class needs a new party, and on the other hand there is no organization, or very few organizations, which are beginning to answer that need. But where the CWI has the opportunity, it can play a combined role in beginning to create new workers’ organizations at the same time as building the revolutionary organization. In that sense, this demonstrates some of the best aspects of the development of the Second International or the building of the old LSSP in what was then called Ceylon.

Originally the Second International both organized the unorganized proletariat and at the same time, in its best days, attempted to give it a revolutionary education. The CWI has to be clear that it is not going to build a new Second International. We must learn from the histories of both the Second and Third Internationals on how to prevent degeneration. This aspect of our work we can see most clearly at the present time in Pakistan. The CWI’s section in Pakistan, JIT, is growing rapidly for a number of reasons. Fundamentally because there is a radicalization taking place now among sections of the Pakistani workers and peasants, and JIT, is the only organization which is able to appeal to them. The Pakistani comrades are very fortunate in that they have very few, if any, competitors on the left. Therefore, they are both organizing the working class and at the same time trying to educate them in the spirit of revolution.

In Europe it is a different and more complicated situation. In some areas there could be the type of development where the CWI’s sections are the organizations which take the initiative in rebuilding the workers’ movement. But this cannot be done on a national scale given the CWI’s forces in Europe and the general situation. Nevertheless, the Scottish Socialist Alliance shows how the CWI can play an important role in taking initiatives to try to bring together new forces of the working class and, possibly, lay the basis for new formations. This united front style of work also gives the CWI the possibility of creating our own powerful positions of support before there are large-scale movements to create new organizations.

Future Election Slogans

Now, flowing from this discussion, there has been the question of how the CWI works in elections. First of all, elections often provide the opportunity for wider political work. This is especially the case now where in many countries the CWI is actually running in elections. In the future, as has been demonstrated in Scotland, there will be the opportunity of winning positions in elections, which gives the CWI and its sections a basis for future work. But also, in a broad political sense, we approach elections from the point of view of how to defeat the enemies of the working class and what is the best result from the point of view of the working class itself?

Obviously the question of how actually to vote is quite important in the sense that in the CWI’s political activity, as an election approaches, people will ask: “What are you going to do? Are you going to vote and if so for who?” But it would be a mistake to approach elections firstly from the point of view of who we say we will vote for. It is a question of looking at each case in a specific political situation. Given the consciousness of the working class, given its state of organization, what is the best way to begin the dialogue with the working class? In that way we have to see how we can develop our transitional program, our transitional demands. We have to stress that elections are not an answer in and of themselves, but link the question of the elections with the ongoing struggle and the question of building an alternative. Especially important now is the need warn against the role of the old leaders when they are in government or when they get into power.

Each case has to be examined separately to see what the best approach is. This also relates to the last question on Italy which was asked in the discussion. Given the illusions which existed in the formation of the new Italian government, it would have been wrong for the RC to oppose the formation of that government. But from the very beginning, the RC would have had to warn what was the character of the government, that it was a government which the capitalists wanted, that the government was planning from day one to launch attacks, warning that the supporters of the government would be disappointed, and putting forward an absolutely clear alternative and taking no responsibility whatsoever for the government. In that way could it develop a dialogue with those layers which had illusions or hopes in the government.

The Relation Between Perspectives and Tasks

In the discussion on the program that took place at the CWI School last year, comrades explained how perspectives discussions were also developing into discussions on demands and tactics. At the same time it is important to discuss the general processes which are taking place at the present time and how they are likely to develop in the future. But the discussion this year has also shown that not only slogans and tactics have to be examined, but also concretely the role the CWI can play, and how in some situations it can have an impact on events. This was shown in a very big way in regard to the election in Dublin West. There we have not just created opportunities for ourselves, but also had an impact on the entire political situation in the Irish Republic.

Many of the comrades who spoke mentioned the effects of the strike movement last year in France. The fact is that throughout Europe, it has become an example, at the very least for a large number of activists, for the more advanced, the more militant workers and youth. The French comrades have also given important examples of how the very experience of the movement which took place has helped to revive class consciousness, and also regarding the process of change and rebirth from the bottom of the workers’ movement.

The French movement also illustrated another element of the situation in Europe. Trotsky wrote about how the working class in the colonial countries can, in one sense, put itself at the head of the nation’s struggle against imperialism. In a similar way the opinion polls last year in France showed how the strikers put themselves at the head of a national movement, not just of the working class, but also of sections of the middle class against the austerity program and against the government. Opinion polls showing mass opposition to Kohl’s cuts package also show that the same potential exists in Germany, although it has not been realized yet, because there has, so far, been no decisive movement as there was in France.

In the coming period the CWI must strengthen the links, between the different European sections. This also relates to the earlier discussion on globalization, of the increasing links between the different national economies. But the fact that in the EU many of the attacks which have taken place are associated with Maastricht immediately raises the question of an international alternative.

The CWI can be very optimistic about its future in Europe. One of the themes of this discussion has been the rising tide of opposition. Obviously, it will not go in a straight line. But as one of the comrades said, it is precisely through the advances and then the retreats of the struggle that increasing layers draw political and ultimately revolutionary conclusions. At the same time, in every contribution which talked about struggles, the comrades have also said, quite concretely, how the CWI has been involved in those struggles. Not just involved in trying to help those sections who are struggling to win their demands. The CWI has intervened in the struggles to help win victories, and through this strengthened the position of the International. It is through this method of work that we can see how the future period in Europe will give us the opportunities to further extend our success and on this basis lay the foundations for powerful sections of the CWI throughout Western Europe.