Report from the CWI Summer School in Belgium
The recent events in Greece provided the backdrop to the discussion on Europe at the 2015 Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) School. Over 300 people from 22 countries attended the CWI School, which was held in Belgium from 18-25 July.
Peter Taaffe, General Secretary of the Socialist Party and member of the CWI’s International Secretariat introduced the discussion on Europe. The following is an edited version of Peter’s speech and the discussion that followed.
By Kevin Parslow, Socialist Party (England & Wales)
Peter used a phrase from the past ‘Sharp turns, sudden and abrupt changes in the situation’ to characterise the period which Greece has entered today, and the rest of Europe will experience it tomorrow.
The historic and magnificent landslide in the referendum was the result of the marvellous response of the heroic Greek masses – particularly the working class and the youth summoning up its reserves of revolutionary energy, even after more than 30 general strikes!
The result clearly shocked not just the capitalist class in Greece and throughout Europe but also Prime Minister Tsipras and the Syriza government. The huge ‘No’ vote gave him no excuse to apply the brake, yet he did not know what to do with this colossal victory. He was afraid of power, the power that was now vested in him and his party by the masses.
A week later came the gigantic sell-out by Tsipras and the Syriza leadership. Syriza began to split. Tsipras has embraced the capitalist pro-austerity parties, which could lead to a ‘national government’. This was like a football team winning the World Cup one week only to be relegated to the 54th division of its national league the next!
Athina from Cyprus elaborated on this to say that nobody had expected Tsipras’s betrayal to come so fast. Many local branches of Syriza rejected Tsipras’s position and discussions were taking place for a new left initiative. Cyprus itself is now moving to the rhythm of Greece. One third of southern Cyprus is living below poverty line and the so-called ‘Communist’ AKEL party brought the Troika to Cyprus, while Turkey plays the same role in northern Cyprus as the Troika does in Greece.
Peter explained that the fate of the working class is at stake, not just in Greece but throughout Europe and worldwide. Greece has become a laboratory in which capitalism, reformism and revolution are being tested.
Lucy from Germany said the Merkel government wanted to turn Greece into a new Kosovo-style protectorate or like the former GDR, a brutal testing ground for neo-liberal policies. Socialists in Germany, Lucy said, had an obligation to oppose their ‘own’ ruling class’s responsibility, first and foremost, for the Greek catastrophe. At the same time, it was necessary to oppose the position of Die Linke, which said it was against the Memorandum when it came to the German parliament but that it would have voted for it in the Greek parliament! The CWI in Germany condemns the policies of the German ruling class, whose blackmailing led to Syriza’s capitulation. But this happened because Tsipras and the Syriza leaders had no ‘Plan B’ – i.e. bold socialist policies to deal with a rupture from the Troika.
The Greek working-class has gone through agonies; the Greek unemployment rate would mean 8 million unemployed in Britain! Yet this will now be added to by this rotten capitulation. The economy will plunge a further 4.2% on top of the 25% drop in GDP already.
This could lead to a rise in support for the openly Nazi Golden Dawn but there will be more opportunities for the workers’ movement to go forward before a threat of fascism is posed.
In the negotiations with the Troika, Tsipras was ‘water boarded’. Yet it is not true that Tsipras had no alternative or that Greece is too small to resist. This capitulation will now be used by the bourgeois and their social democratic echoes as well as some faint hearts on the left, but there are big possibilities lodged in the Greek situation.
The fighting record of the Greek working-class is immense. This is borne out by the vicious reaction of the European and world bourgeoisie to their defiance in the referendum. In contrast, the reaction of the international working-class was one of solidarity.
A big ideological shift against the ‘market’ is threatened, which is why the IMF declared the programme for Greece “unsustainable”. The capitalists fear ‘contagion’ in southern Europe and Ireland but also in Britain and northern Europe if the Greek workers won.
What is this if not an expression of Trotsky’s permanent revolution? Anti-austerity and socialist forces would have been boosted. Obama urged a settlement, as did the French and Italians, signifying a deep split with serious consequences for the future of EU and the likely breakup of the euro.
The programme of the CWI’s Greek comrades and our organisation, Xekinima, is the best guarantee of a victory for our class. At each stage, Xekinima has put forward a clear analysis and the comrades have intervened magnificently with demands for the nationalisation of the banks and workers’ control and management, the taking over of the decisive commanding heights of the economy, and the spreading of the movement internationally.
Every activist should read Lenin’s ‘The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It’ to understand the programme for socialists in the face of a crisis.
Greece has had a new government on average every 14 months since 2010. A new general election is likely in the near future.
The political reflection of the crisis has been expressed in a frenzied form in southern Europe and particularly in Greece itself. This has resulted in political fracturing; in many countries the old two-party domination has gone with the rise of nationalist, far right and left parties.
“Inherent in reformism is betrayal,” Trotsky wrote. The ex-social democratic parties have been utterly incapable of offering progressive reforms in this organic crisis of capitalism. They have openly gone over to the side of the capitalists and propose counter-reforms. Unfortunately, Syriza has gone through ‘Pasokification’ ending in its betrayal, the same outcome as the Greek social democratic party Pasok.
The ground is being prepared everywhere for new formations, including in Britain where the general election and the Labour leadership election have produced interesting developments. The working-class, checked on the political plane, is turning to the industrial front. There is a bitter, determined mood developing in reply to the offensive of the employers and Tory government.
The overall situation in Europe is extremely unstable, which can worsen because a new crisis – maybe deeper even than 2008 – is on the horizon. The slowdown of the Chinese economy, which has sustained world capitalism, has had an immediate impact on commodity producers in the neo-colonial world and aggravates their crisis. On top of this are the recent gyrations in the peculiar Chinese stock exchange. The capitalists have huge ‘savings’ but nowhere to invest. If the US increases interest rates in the autumn, it could drag the world economy into another crisis.
The eurozone is predicted to experience sluggish growth this year and next. European Central Bank president Mario Draghi commented: “At such a pace, the European continent may never shake off persistently high unemployment and will be mired in debt into the distant future.” This is what lies behind the calls for ‘debt relief’.
In reality, there is an element of Greece everywhere in Europe. Thomas Piketty highlighted the dilemma facing Greece: it is supposed to pay 4% of its GDP for 30 years to the ‘lenders’. It would be much easier to just cancel the debt.
The willingness to fight has been shown in the German train drivers strikes (the shameful German Social Democrats support anti-strike legislation against them), the general strike movement at the end of 2014 against the spectre of Thatcherism in the new Belgian government and struggles in France to preserve what is left of the 35-hour week.
Stefan reported how the election of a right-wing government in 2014 opened up a new period in Belgium. There were big trade union demos and strikes and mass mobilisations in the workplaces where meetings and mass pickets were held for the first time in years. The movement was close to bringing down the government in December but the trade union leaders drew back, went into negotiations and the momentum was lost. The government used this and the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris to reinforce its position. The union leaders feared losing control of the movement but it is an illusion to think that this government will give serious concessions without a struggle. The biggest strength of the Belgian government is the weakness of the opposition. The ‘Socialist’ Parties in Belgium are losing credibility and votes while the ex-Maoist PTB gets 9% in opinion polls, but it is not a mass workers’ party. If there was a new movement around a call for a 48-hour general strike to bring down government, this could be the basis for a new workers’ party.
Peter warned that in most countries in Europe there has also been a growth in the far right, a side result of the crisis of capitalism and the failure of the left. Part of the rise in their support is due to their exploitation of the migration crisis. Collapsing societies in the Middle East and Africa mean between half a million and a million people in Libya alone are threatening to cross the Mediterranean while thousands have already died in the attempt.
This is a big challenge to the workers’ movement, and socialists have to propose a programme against the right’s vicious anti-immigrant campaign, including fighting for the right to asylum.
Conflicts over the ‘boat people’ show the unbridgeable national divisions in the EU, as does the Greece crisis. They demonstrate that monetary union is clearly impossible without political union, but that is also impossible on a capitalist basis.
The breakup of the eurozone is inevitable. But as Karl Marx once wrote: “Tradition lies on the brain of the living like an alp.” There is a big stumbling block in Greece: the so-called ‘advantages’ of membership of the eurozone, identified with the emergence from backwardness into a modern society.
The same strong sentiments exist in southern Europe and Ireland, and to some extent in the rest of Europe. Workers don’t want to go back to the drachma but the euro has already dragged Greece, and other countries, to the backwardness of the past and worse.
If Greece eventually leaves the euro, it will be the end, or the beginning of the end, of the common currency. With Italy and France having unsustainable debts, there is a fear of a larger country needing assistance.
The Troika were determined to crush and completely discredit Syriza, and have, in a sense already achieved ‘regime change’. This will undoubtedly have an effect on anti-austerity struggles in smaller countries like Ireland and Portugal, and even big countries like Italy and Spain. Podemos, with no real programme and top-down organisation, is already beginning to move to the right as a result.
Vicki reported significant changes in Spain from last year. Ciudadanos (Citizens) is a new party on the right but there also new formations on the left – workers can see possibility of a left government being having new left mayors in Madrid and Barcelona. The Podemos and United Left (IU) leaders have acted as a brake on developments towards joint movements due to sectarian methods. Podemos is stagnating, having moved to the right, and its leaders said they would have backed the bail-out deal if it was in Greece! The IU has expelled activists involved in local joint activities, including the exploration of electoral blocs. There are tensions inside Podemos with sections of its base supporting united front tactics but these moves are not concentrating around programme, including nationalisation, and this highlights the lack of revolutionary socialist party.
Rob from Barcelona explained the current situation in Catalonia, where there is also a mood for ‘left front’ of candidates for strongest possible bloc in the Spanish elections, including the elections in Catalonia. The governing party, the CiU has now split into two separate parties: the pro-separation bloc has joined with the left ERC for a joint slate. The growth of support for independence reflects the wish for change of some sort. A Left Front, including Podemos, will also stand but does not include the left nationalists. The outcome is hard to predict but it is unlikely there will be enough votes to declare independence. In reality, the issue may be fudged.
Marco said Italy faced the danger of contagion from Greece; if Greece leaves the eurozone, Italy tops the list for a speculative attack. This would be a major blow to an already exhausted economy, Italian GDP having plunged 10% since 2007. Around 25% of industrial output has gone. Although analysts and Prime Minister Renzi expect a small recovery, it could just be a technical rebound. Attacks on employment rights mean that national labour agreements have been dismantled and lay-offs ‘liberalised’. The class struggle has stagnated for the moment and there is no political point of reference for the victims of austerity. Renzi’s honeymoon is over and left leaders in Italy have no idea how they would have voted in Greece! The right-wing Northern League and Beppe Grillo’s ‘Five Star Movement’ (M5S) are gaining in polls and it is likely that M5S will win the Rome elections while the Northern League head, Salvini, will become leader of the right.
In France there is a similar lack of political voice for workers fighting the government’s attacks, at present in the form of the ‘Macron Laws’. Leila pointed to the declaration of the leader of the Left Party, Melanchon, that they would support the ruling Socialist Party in the second round of the regional elections, when the National Front is expected to overcome its ‘family divisions’ to get a good result, as the voice of those who want to say ‘no’ to Hollande and Sarkozy. There have been many separate defensive strikes across France, but, in spite of calls for days of action, the main trade union federation – the CGT – has not followed through to step up the action. People want to struggle and an explosive situation will develop.
In Ireland attacks on conditions, through water charges for instance, have provoked mass discontent and movement with 57% not making the first water bill payment. Cillian explained that the protests against water charges were not just about numbers but the level of activity. There were 350 Facebook pages for water charges groups! The scale of the movement forced the government to make concessions at the end of 2014 but still the movement goes forward. Despite confusing cross-currents, this ultimately reflects a shift to the left in Irish society. In the biggest demo against the charges, 65% of those demonstrating were on their first demo but 70% had voted for government parties at the general election. Now, a third said they would vote for the Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA) or People Before Profit.
Peter explained that this opposition of the Irish working-class has already resulted in the election of Socialist Party members as TDs (MPs), with more SP and Anti-Austerity Alliance TDs possible in the approaching general election. This could become an important reference point for European struggles.
Similarly, the referendum on Scottish independence reflected a national and class revolt against Tories, including the ‘Red Tories’ (Labour) in the battle against austerity, which had big consequences in the general election. The 56 Scottish National Party MPs have offered a bloc with Labour against the Tories, including on anti-union legislation.
Greek workers will reap a bitter harvest of even more suffering, but capitalism is teaching all workers some brutal lessons in the school of the class struggle. It is possible, even likely, that the broad masses will be discouraged and temporarily resign themselves to the suffering before engaging in new offensives.
Irish TD Paul Murphy said the defeat of the Greek workers will be a key reference point for probably years to come. The capitalists’ attacks could delay processes to the left. Even some on the left of Syriza, such as Costas Lapavitsas, thought confrontation would push Tsipras towards a euro exit. These lessons, said Paul, need to be learnt by as many people as possible in order to build mass revolutionary forces.
The more politically developed workers and youth, said Peter, will have learnt, will ponder and draw far-reaching revolutionary conclusions. There is no alternative to creating new mass working class parties in the countries of Europe. Such parties will prepare the way for real mass revolutionary parties.
In the past year, Europe and the world have gone through a stormy, in some ways brutal period. Eastern Europe and the Middle East are in turmoil, impacting on Europe through the Ukraine war, the refugee crisis and terrorism. Only the working-class can unify the masses and go on the offensive against sectarianism and capitalism.
It will take time, but the CWI is confident that the masses will find the road to struggle against capitalism and that young people, in particular, will embrace the liberating ideas of socialism.
Greece an anticipation of crises across Europe
In his reply, Tony Saunois from the IS welcomed the lively and broad discussion. Greece is an anticipation of crises that will rock countries throughout the EU in the next period and it was necessary to draw out lessons on tactics, programme and tasks for the working class. The imposition of policies on Greece has reduced the country to a protectorate with the application of a colonial policy, almost occupation – an occupation of banks not tanks. Thomas Jefferson once said that the banking establishment represented a greater threat to liberties than a standing army!
This represented a policy of revenge against the Greek people who had elected Syriza and voted ‘No’ in the referendum. There were certainly elements of a coup but the objective of the Troika was regime change, indicated by Varoufakis’s dismissal and since the bail-out dismissal of another ten ministers.
The character of new left formations is fluid; one of the problems is the lack of participation of the working class at the base of these organisations. This is a key factor with Syriza, which has ‘metamorphosed’ into PASOK. Tsipras refused to call a Central Committee on the bail out terms and 38 lefts voted against them but question is what to do now? We should not underestimate how weak these left forces are compared, for example, to the centrist forces in the Chilean Socialist Party under Allende in the 1970s or even PASOK in its early phase.
Splits developed within the EU during the negotiations inside the German/Franco-Italian axis. There were even splits in the German government; Finance Minister Schauble raised the possibility of ‘Grexit’ again after the bail out.
If Tsipras had said ‘No’ to the Troika, millions in southern Europe would have poured onto the streets. This would have posed a break with EU imperialism or taken the initial steps towards doing so. The role of the CWI is to draw out the lessons, reach the advanced layers and pose the necessary programme and tasks.
The development of the situation in northern Europe is vital and the strikes in Germany and Belgium are a pointer as to how the struggle can develop. The CWI will combat nationalism and any attacks on German people; we stand for the class unity of the workers and peoples of Europe.
The Greek crisis has not finished and will erupt again, and in other countries too. This has highlighted the urgency for new working class parties to be equipped with a programme to fight to the end. One lesson from the negotiations is that if a fight is to be picked with the ruling classes by defying their austerity policies, a programme is needed to defeat them or face being crushed.
History is unfolding for the whole of Europe; the CWI will draw out the lessons and prepare for the next chapter by building a real alternative for the working classes of Europe and the world.