The following document on European perspectives was presented to and agreed by the International Executive Committee of the Committee for a Workers International (CWI), which met 23-27 January 2023. The Socialist Party of England and Wales is a section of the CWI, which fights for socialism across the world.
Rapidly changing world events, and sometimes shockwaves, have given a further twist to developments in Europe. Against a background of sharpening world relations, the covid pandemic, the war in Ukraine (and the resulting refugee wave) and a developing economic crisis, Europe has been shaken, and its global position further complicated.
The popular mood in Europe is shaped by uncertainty and fears, accompanied in at least some countries by a growing mood that “we aren’t going to accept this”, leading to a significant rise in trade union protests and struggles. This is rooted in the sharpening economic and social situation, especially in central and eastern Europe, with fears that the Ukrainian war could, in one way or another, spread. Recent climatic conditions, extreme temperatures, droughts and floods have added to this by highlighting environmental issues which are linked to food production and the future liveability of some European areas.
All this has deepened the existing trends towards political instability, political and social polarisation and dissatisfaction with governments and institutions. An opinion at the start of this year showed that 58 per cent of Germans felt that things are “rather unfair” in the country, the highest number since 2010. For some time now a widespread feature is the weakening, or even disappearance, of traditional ruling parties, the growth of ‘new’ parties of different characters, and growing distrust of the official structures.
There are signs of nationality questions opening up again, sometimes over national minorities or borders as in the Balkans, central and eastern Europe. The collapse of the power-sharing Assembly in Northern Ireland over the Brexit ‘Protocol’, and growing tension over a “Border Poll” are important factors undermining the 1998 ‘Good Friday Agreement’, and confirming the CWI’s position that capitalist rule cannot solve the fundamental issues of sectarian division and the unresolved national question. Likewise, the refusal of the UK government to allow the Scottish government to hold a second independence referendum has inflamed the national question and driven up support for independence.
There is hardly any European country that is truly stable. A notable example is Britain where the decline of British imperialism, the former number one world power whose navy once “ruled the waves” was graphically shown in last year’s turmoil which resulted in three heads of government in less than six months. But this was not simply a question of personalities but reflected deep divisions in society and the ruling class’s loss of control over the Conservative party in a similar fashion to what is happening to the US Republican party. British imperialism’s decline is being increasingly felt, producing a growing feeling that the country is heading in the ‘wrong direction’ which, against the background of living standards falling, is an important factor in fuelling the conclusion amongst workers and sections of the middle class that action against falling living standards was necessary.
The strikes in Britain, which have wide popular support, are currently the most noticeable workers’ actions in Europe. But they are not the only ones. There is pressure for wages to keep up with inflation resulting in higher wage demands in many countries, sometimes over 10%. Sizeable, although not mass, protests have been held by workers in many countries including Italy and Netherlands. In Greece, there was the largest 24-hour general strike for some time, while in Austria and Belgium, trade union leaders have been pushed to make radical-sounding speeches and to call protests. Just before Christmas, half a million people protested in Madrid over conditions in the health system. All these are symptoms of the changing mood. In France, there is an explosive situation as Macron’s new pension reform has triggered a movement against a background of strikes taking place since the autumn. Some of these strikes were able to win 200€ or so a month increases, while most secured smaller increases and/or a bonus. Such is the anger at the situation that on January 19, the first day of national strike action against the pension changes, saw two million people demonstrating and going on strike, the biggest movement since 2010. This has huge potential although it is currently unclear how the struggle will develop.
This unstable, and increasingly angry, situation has been the backdrop to the attempts within the European Union to secure a united response to the succession of crises that have been challenged as various EU member states attempted to defend their own national interests. Thus there have been, in terms of individual initiatives, Macron’s attempt to diplomatically intervene in the Ukraine war, Hungary’s independent foreign policy and the Scholz government’s announcement of its own 200 billion euro economic aid programme. These actions have provoked reactions ranging from irritation, and distrust to anger from other EU members.
This reflects the fact that Europe itself is a continent of nation-states within which there is a bloc, the European Union, that itself is not a federal state and, simultaneously, is composed of a collection of individual nation states each with their own ruling class’s interests, alliances and internal issues.
Europe’s relative decline
For most of the twentieth century, the European powers faced relative, and sometimes an actual, international decline. While living standards especially rose in the post-Second World War period and still stand as generally amongst the highest in the world, Europe’s international economic and political position is not what it once was. Long gone are the days when big and small European powers carved up the world and had global empires.
Now European capitalism not only faces an unstable world economy but also is being squeezed by both its US and Chinese rivals. There are some governments taking steps to force a rebalancing away from a too-close relationship with China, but this creates its own difficulties. Four major German companies – Mercedes, BMW, Volkswagen and BASF – are deeply involved in China and could face major issues in both production and sales, they accounted for a third of all European direct investment there between 2018 and 2021 and it has become their most profitable market. There are hopes in central and eastern European that this rebalancing will see production being switched to their countries both because of the shift away from China and attempts to shorten supply lines. But this will not be plain sailing for the bosses and can meet resistance from the workforce losing their jobs, both in China and western Europe.
Reflecting rival interests with the EU, the Orban regime in Hungary tries to balance between the bigger powers, looking for outside support in clashes with the EU majority. To help shore up support Orban maintains a right populist nationalist position, with references to the pre-1919 ‘Greater Hungary’, and now uses historic and current grievances, including the treatment of the small Hungarian minority within Ukraine, to justify a more independent policy regarding the war. Further south the continuing tensions in the Balkans, like those over Kosovo, pose a continuing threat that they could spill over into EU member states.
Europe between the US and China
Increasingly European capitalists fear being caught, both indirectly and directly, in the trade wars that the US is beginning to wage. There has also been a widespread reaction amongst European governments to Biden’s $369bn “Inflation Reduction Act”, which is seen as a barely disguised move to subsidise and protect key industrial, technological and ‘future’ industries in the US. The EU is preparing its own response and, as a start, the European Commission is going to soon loosen state aid rules. But, as often is the case in crises, capitalist states intervene to help particular sectors or even individual companies like the privatised railways in Britain. In addition, there have been nationalisations or re-nationalisations as with Uniper in Germany and EDF in France in order to safeguard the wider capitalist economy.
However, what the European Union can do is limited. This is partly because of its size relative to the US and China, but more particularly by the fact that it is not a unified state. This is why increasingly outside powers attempt to build favourable bilateral relationships with individual EU states while these states themselves seek to use such arrangements both to gain strength and have bargaining chips within the EU. Brexit and other factors have changed the EU’s internal balance, particularly strengthening German imperialism’s position, but is also encouraging the increased formation of different ad hoc blocs and alliances over various issues within the EU.
These divisions were seen in regard to the Ukrainian war, both in terms of general policy and what should be the western powers’ war aims. However, the outbreak of this war also saw the rush of the Finnish and Swedish governments to join Nato, a sign of how the western powers have profited from the negative effect of Putin’s invasion on consciousness in some European countries, especially those bordering Russia.
So far, the disagreements within the EU have not spun out of control, but the divisions over asylum policies, migration and the Schengen passport-free travel zone are significant for future developments. Croatia’s joining both the eurozone and the Schengen area give the appearance of the EU steadily developing. However, the simultaneous last-minute refusal to let Bulgaria and Romania join the Schengen zone after Austrian-led objections indicated the underlying tensions within both the EU and its member states.
The open discussion over the possibility of a financial crisis hitting the world economy has again raised questions about stability within the EU. While the eurozone itself currently appears stable there are continuing fears about the strength of European banks, risks in “non-bank financial institutions” and the possibility of a crisis in euro-zone member countries, like Italy, something which could put into question the euro’s continued existence in its present form.
Despite the obvious crisis facing Britain, which for now seems to have lessened popular support within some countries for the idea of leaving the EU, Brexit provides an example which may prove popular later in some countries during a severe EU crisis, particularly if they felt they could get support from non-EU powers.
Impact of the Ukraine war
After Brexit new balance arose within the EU. It saw a drive by Germany to establish itself as the dominant force, including a decision to challenge France’s position as the EU’s main military power after Britain’s departure. In response other EU countries may try to gang up, possibly in league with non-EU powers like the US and even Britain, to defend their interests.
Seizing on the opportunity presented by Putin’s attack on Ukraine German Chancellor Scholz’s Zeitenwende, or ‘turning point’, speech in February 2022 with its 100 billion euro ‘special fund’ to modernise and expand the German military marked a new chapter. What this meant for Europe was spelt out by Scholz in September 2022 when he stated “We are making it convincingly clear: Germany is ready to take on leading responsibility for the security of our continent … As the most populous country with the greatest economic power and as a country in the middle of the continent, our army must become the cornerstone of conventional defence in Europe: the best-equipped force in Europe.” Already before that Germany’s now resigned defence minister Lambrecht said Germany’s “size, our geographical location, our economic power, in short with our heft … makes us a leading power whether we like it or not — in the military sense, too.”.
The Ukrainian war has provided many Western ruling classes with an opportunity to try to place all the blame for the economic crisis onto Putin and to attempt to revamp the Western powers and Nato’s image after US imperialism’s utter failure in Afghanistan. There is a new attempt to whitewash Nato’s history and present it as a foremost fighter for democracy. Right from Nato’s start social democratic leaders, especially the British Labour Party, were instrumental in pushing this ‘democratic’ line, for example not minding that amongst Nato’s founding members was the Portuguese dictatorship which lasted until 1974. Continuing that tradition Nato does not mention Nato member Turkey’s de facto control of northern Cyprus that has lasted since its 1974 invasion of the island.
However, there was no universal support amongst populations for the western powers’ position on Ukraine. While in the Baltic states and Poland, there was widespread support for Nato’s intervention amongst some other former Stalinist states were signs of distrust of the western powers’ motives and criticism of Nato’s eastward expansion. In eastern Germany, the continuation of what is still seen after over 30 years as the negative sides of unification – lower wages and pensions, higher unemployment, depopulation and the domination of west Germans in responsible positions – contributed to the questioning of what was happening. This also extended to other issues in some other former Stalinist countries. Last year saw, for the first time, only a minority of Slovaks regarding the 1989 ‘Velvet revolution’ that overthrew Stalinism in then Czechoslovakia as positive.
Falling Living Standards
In common with much of the rest of the world, the European working and middle classes are facing falling living standards as inflation bites and the ruling classes oppose the maintenance of real wages and incomes. In many European countries, the question of the cost of housing is becoming a key issue alongside health care, particularly the situation in hospitals in countries like Spain, Britain and Germany.
While it seems that this winter Europe has been able to overcome the impact of the break in gas supplies from Russia there are fears that the situation next winter is not secure.
Initially, 2022’s jump in inflation was blamed on the Ukraine war which certainly had a wide economic impact, but wasn’t the only factor. Inflation was already accelerating partly due to governments’ post-2008 policies, the cost of the Covid lockdowns plus the disruption caused by the lockdowns. Rising fuel prices resulted in 31 British electricity and gas distribution companies collapsing in the 13 months before Putin’s February 2022 attack on Ukraine.
As in the rest of the world, the sudden accelerated rise in inflation had a dramatic effect on living standards. A French survey last November reported that one in four Europeans described their situation as “precarious”. The actual groups seen as being most at risk of falling into poverty varied across Europe – in Germany, it was 61% of pensioners, in Italy 57% of young people while in Britain it was 55% of UK, single-parent families.
Simultaneously large profits were made by some sectors during the pandemic, the super-rich became richer and different types of scandals emerged. As Oxfam recently pointed out the world’s “richest 1 per cent grabbed nearly two-thirds of all new wealth worth $42 trillion created since 2020”.
The increase in class struggles
It is against this background the impact of inflation cutting living standards, sometimes against a background of a period of stagnant real wages, is provoking a reaction as fears and anger mount. Such is the situation that spontaneous protests and even large movements cannot be ruled out. Opinion polls in many countries show volatility, often with ruling parties’ support falling and newer or protest formations gathering some support.
There is mounting pressure on trade union leaders to act, make radical-sounding speeches and call protests. However, in many countries, there is a weakness in trade union organisation, with the exception of those countries where trade unions play a role in distributing certain types of welfare payments.
In Germany 2022 saw the workforce reach each highest ever figure, 45.6 million, yet the 2021 membership of the DGB federation was 5.7 million while other union and union-type bodies had a membership of under two million. This meant that in 2021 around 16% of the German workforce was organised in unions. However, 40% of German private sector workers and most public sector workers’ wages and conditions are covered by regional or national agreements, while a further 8% of private sector workers are paid according to company-level negotiated agreements. While there has been a longstanding recruitment drive in Amazon and also in some hospitals these are few generalised campaigns. Even where there is a drive for recruitment or for the union candidates to be successful in works council elections many union leaders often don’t want a truly active base, hence the sweeping away of local workplace organisations. While leaders have a responsibility for the condition of the trade unions a true revitalisation of these organisations is based upon rebuilding from the base up which is also the foundation of combative leadership.
In Britain impact of the inflationary crisis after nearly 15 years of falling or stagnant living standards produced a feeling that something needed to be done, that action for change is needed. The insistence of the government that public sector workers suffer a sharp real cut in living standards has provoked a wave of strikes by these workers, strikes that have widespread public support. So far these strikes have been limited to one, two or three-day strikes, and there is a growing feeling that more decisive action is needed, especially coordinated action by the different sectors. This has been strengthened by the government’s rush to pass new laws enabling the government to set “minimum levels of service” being maintained during strikes, i.e. setting laws to threaten workers with dismissal as a way to force workers to break strikes.
The problem the British government has is that, at present, the strikes have overwhelming public support while the government has only a 25% standing in opinion polls. The idea of a general strike is in the air, but most union leaders are not prepared to generalise the strikes despite growing support for united action. The call for a 24-hour general strike as the next step and for serious mobilisation nationally and locally to build support for united action are key issues to be raised in this situation.
In this time of generalised crises, the general strike is already on the agenda in a number of countries and that will spread. This means that the international experiences and lessons of the general strike, both the types of general strikes and the issues posed, particularly by indefinite general strikes, need to be studied within the workers’ movement. A difference has to be drawn between general strikes that are part of a strategy to give battle and those which are called by leaders as token gestures or ‘safety valves’.
A general strike in Britain, the birthplace of modern trade unionism, would be tremendously significant. Organised properly just a 24-hour general strike would be a tremendous show of strength, demonstrating both the strength and importance of the working class. But a 24-hour stoppage should not be the end of action, it needs to be a step in an ongoing serious campaign. However longer general strikes, particularly indefinite ones, pose the question of power, if the working class can stop society why can it not run society? For that reason, Marxists only put the slogan forward having carefully weighed up the stage of the struggle although, as France 1968 showed, an indefinite general strike can develop spontaneously and pose these questions sharply. But, apart from revolutionary trade union leaders, this is not a question that most trade union leaders want to face.
Trade union leaders can come from militant backgrounds or be pushed towards the left by their members, but this does not mean that they are automatically willing to challenge capitalism. The experience in Britain in the 1920s when a section of left trade union leaders was sympathetic to the Russian Revolution and the TUC formally established relations with the Soviet trade unions in 1925 is important to remember. Despite their willingness to fight these left leaders were not willing or able to draw revolutionary conclusions from the class struggles then taking place in Britain. This allowed the right-wing union leaders to call off the 1926 general strike when its support was increasing and no concessions had been offered by either the employers or the government. The pressure from the USSR not to damage the Soviet trade unions’ link with the TUC led the Communist Party to mute their criticism of the left trade union leaders’ refusal to challenge the right-wing union leaders, something which meant that the Communist Party missed an opportunity to grow substantially.
In Britain now, given the current government’s weakness and the prospect of an election by the start of 2025, it cannot be ruled out that the government will offer some limited concessions which some, at least, of the trade union leaders will use to try to call off the actions. Given the counter-revolution in the Labour Party key sections of the British ruling class no longer fear a ‘left’ Labour government and see that a Labour government could, for a time, control the situation. Organisations like ‘Enough is Enough’ were launched in an attempt to tap both the anger building up and the demands for action and guide that mood towards supporting Labour. While Starmer’s leadership’s dropping of much of the Corbyn era’s popular policies and open embrace of capitalism has alienated a layer the likelihood is that Labour will be part of the next government. The inevitable disappointment with that government will open the way to further polarisation, both on the left and right.
Ruling classes prepare an offensive
But on the other side, there is pressure for governments to try to cut the debt produced by the amount of support given during the lockdowns during the first waves of the covid pandemic as fears grow over the size of government debt, particularly as a result of the QE policies over the last 15 years.
Some governments risked an angry reaction by attempting to use the Ukrainian war as a political cover to try to push through already planned attacks. Macron had been weakened by his poor vote, under 28% (on a 74% turnout), in the first round of last year’s presidential election followed by his party losing its absolute parliamentary majority. Nevertheless, Macron cut unemployment benefits and passed other attacks by using ten times last year the Gaullist constitution’s Bonapartist powers to override parliament.
Now Macron is proceeding to raise the pension age from 62 to 64, counting on being able to exploit his level of authoritarian powers and on the refusal, and lack of strategy, of the trade union confederations to massively mobilize the workers into a unified struggle. Before the steps were formally announced all the major trade unions opposed Macron’s pension changes, a position shared by 70% of the population in opinion polls. A day of strikes was immediately called for January 19, and the response was huge, with one in four workers on strike in the public sector, and a more timid mobilization in the private sector but protests were of a scale not seen since 2010, or even 1995, in several cities. However, the question is whether this will be the starting point for a concerted struggle, rather than simply protests. Another day of the strike was called for January 31. But there is neither unity on the demand for a maximum retirement age of 60, nor any plan from the trade union confederations to extend the demands to wages, conditions, public services and so on. This is vital for the struggle, as many – including young workers – won’t go on strike solely on the pension issue. Nevertheless, it is possible that strong strikes develop in industrial sectors e.g. oil, energy or others which will electrify the mood and increase militancy. Macron is taking a gamble. Significantly he has taken on the conservative Les Républicains, the Gaullists’ party, proposals to gradually increase the retirement age and that both new and existing pensioners receive a new minimum of 1,200 euros a month, up from 950 euros. But very very few pensioners will be concerned by this as an unbroken contribution record would be needed to get this. Macron is really trying to please his and the right wing’s electorate as he has no base among workers and youth something which, as we have already underlined, makes for a very unstable and explosive situation.
In some countries after the end of the covid lockdowns governments, fearful of anger at falling living standards, new limited concessions were made like the 9 euro monthly travel pass that was available in Germany for three months last year. Other countries like Spain and Austria saw cheap or even free public transport introduced for limited periods. Currently, in Spain, there is a temporary six-month cut of VAT on some foodstuffs in Spain in the run-up to the general election at the end of this year. In many European countries, some controls or subsidies have been introduced on heating and electricity costs for both households and industries.
In Germany, the Social Democrat-led coalition under pressure increased the Hartz IV, now renamed ‘Citizens Money’, the monthly social benefit for single adults from the poverty level of 449 euro to 502 euro, an 11.8% rise but food prices alone rose by 20% in the previous year. But this new level is still pitiful given that Germany is one of the richest countries in Europe. The social associations in Germany say that, if the government’s own criteria for benefits were fully applied, the monthly payment would be 725 euros, plus electricity costs.
While the EU itself and most ruling classes felt forced to grant concessions during the pandemic and are cautious at this moment in face of widespread demands for wage and benefit increases to compensate for inflation, this will not last. The significance of Macron’s assault on unemployment benefits and his attempt to raise the retirement age is that it is the first major post-pandemic attempt to directly attack the gains of the working class. The class struggle will decide the outcome and, it is in this regard that it is noticeable that some governments are strengthening repressive powers in different ways, including using environmental protests as justification for new police powers.
All these developments have produced a volatile mix. Amongst young people, who in some ways were most affected by the lockdowns, there is an increased questioning about the way current society functions; anger at the growing polarisation of wealth; doubts and fears about both their own, their family’s and the wider future, resulting many questioning the system of capitalism itself.
However, while there is a great potential for movements that challenge capitalism there is, generally, as yet no sizable growth in clearly socialist movements and organisations. Partly this is the still lingering result of the political collapse of much of the ‘left’ and ideological right turn produced by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the other states which formally claimed to be ‘socialist’.
Record of new left forces
Generally in recent years, while in different countries there have been developments which could have been the starting points for substantial new left formations, these have either not developed or been not consolidated resulting in sometimes rapid collapses. Most recently this has been seen in the collapse of the Corbyn ‘project’ and the brutal sharp right turn in the Labour Party in Britain, something which could have been avoided if Corbyn had mobilised his support to truly transform the Labour Party.
But it was not simply a question of Corbyn and his supporters not being prepared to remove Blairites and pro-capitalists from their positions. Politically Corbyn,, while saying, if asked, that he was a socialist, did not argue for a socialist programme, instead making increasing political compromises with the openly pro-capitalist elements in the Labour Party.
Again and again, new movements or forces have arisen, like SYRIZA in Greece or Podemos in Spain, that gathered wide support but which politically did not stand for a break with capitalism and generally were not conscious attempts to build new workers’ parties. All these forces rejected the idea of fighting to re-establish the idea of socialism as the alternative to capitalism, at best they would say that they were anti-capitalist. Sometimes the leaders of new formations exploited the popular hostility to the idea of a ‘party’ resulting from the record of old parties and argued against the formation of a new ‘party’ which meant that the new forces had structures which give the leadership considerable freedom to do as they choose.
This was a symptom of the political bases of these new formations. Some had structures and were ‘parties’ which had limited electoral successes and a large membership. However, generally they were undermined by their political weaknesses, namely their political programme which led them to attempt to work within capitalism often in the name of stopping the right.
This is what happened in the 1990s with the rise and fall of the Prc (Party of Communist Refoundation). In 1997, six years after its foundation, the Prc became the fifth biggest party in Italy, winning over 3.2 million votes but then rapidly began supporting the completely pro-capitalist Prodi government, a step which began its decline and virtual disappearance as a factor; standing in last year’s election as part of the ‘Unione Popolare’ (UP, Peoples’ Union) which won just under 403,000 (1.43%) votes and no MPs. In Spain Podemos, now leading the Unidas Podemos alliance, has started to develop in the same direction and the series of elections due in Spain this year can be an important turning point for it.
There are certain similarities in the developments within the DIE LINKE in Germany, especially its involvement in government coalitions with pro-capitalist forces at local and federal state levels. This alongside the character of much of DIE LINKE’s day-to-day activity has weakened the party and now it faces a combination of falling electoral support, declining membership and especially the enormous political pressure to accept the general position of German capitalism towards the Ukrainian war. In this situation, its future is being openly questioned as is the likelihood of a split led by Sahra Wagenknecht, one of the most popular politicians, that would incorporate left populism, radical-sounding language, a hint of nationalism in a movement that clearly would work within capitalism.
Syriza in Greece may seem to be the exception as it has not collapsed, but, in reality, it has become a PASOK Mark 2. Although currently it is the second largest party in opinion polls with around 28% support it is no longer seen as the fighting force it once appeared to be. Now it is seen as the ‘lesser evil’ in the run-up to Greece’s July 2023 election. When the post-2007 worldwide finance crisis produced a pre-revolutionary situation in Greece a result was Syriza soared in support, its election results went from 4.6% in 2009 to over 16% in May 2012, 27% a month later in June 2012 and reached 36.3% in January 2015. Then Syriza was seen as a force fighting the austerity plan being imposed by the EU and IMF, there was a real hope that living standards would be defended. But the Syriza leadership were not prepared to challenge capitalism and begin to implement socialist policies. Thus they immediately ignored the 61% rejection of the EU/IMF ‘bailout’ in the July 2015 referendum which they themselves organised and rapidly accepted austerity politics. This means that Syriza itself is living on borrowed time and, even if it continues, its leaders will not break with capitalism.
Not every new left party has collapsed as quickly as the Prc did, but other smaller forces had initial successes but then declined. Of course, socialist forces will not simply develop and grow in a straight line, there will be ups and downs, however, the correct political conclusions need to be drawn from international experiences.
Recently there have been electoral successes for left forces in various countries, like Belgium and Norway, which show the potential for new forces but whose future is open to question. This is not simply a question of the objective situation but also because generally, these new forces do not consistently put forward a transitional programme like today’s struggles with the necessity to break with capitalism. For example, the ‘Red Party’s’ vote in Norway rose from 2.4% to 4.7% last year and now they have 8 MPs, but their 12-point programme for the crisis makes no mention of nationalisation, let alone the need for socialism.
The Workers Party (Pvda/PTB) in Belgium has had a much bigger rise, and currently, it is getting 18% in the opinion polls after winning 12% in the 2019 election, but its propaganda is based on very limited demands. In addition, the ex-Maoist Pvda/PTB does not attempt to build an active mass base, although it recruits members it has a tiered structure run in a top-down way where only a small number of ‘cadres’ can fully participate, something which along with its policies will produce an internal crisis sooner or later. This has happened recently with expulsions of left-wingers and splits in the similarly ex-Maoist Socialist Party in the Netherlands against the background of a significant fall in its electoral support from over 1.6 million votes in 2006 to 623,000 in 2021.
In Ireland the absence of a mass workers’ socialist alternative has given space to the radical nationalist Sinn Féin to build support by systematic campaigning on left populist policies, especially campaigning on housing. It is by many today seen as a radical left force. It seems likely that Sinn Féin will be in government in the Republic after the next election. Sinn Féin coming to office in the south will also further complicate the sectarian divisions in the North of Ireland. Sinn Féin will use its position in government in the south to attempt to push the ‘border poll’ agenda, especially if it faces growing working-class disenchantment over its economic and social policies. Given that Sinn Féin works within the capitalist system, sooner or later the experience of such a Dublin government would mean it will face a crisis and in that situation, many would draw socialist conclusions from the experience and this could lay the basis for a mass workers’ party to emerge.
One of the most important new developments is the rise of France insoumise and the NUPES election coalition it formed with the shrunken Socialist Party, Communist party, Greens and others for last year’s parliamentary election. NUPES won 6.5 million votes, nearly double the score of Le Pen’s far-right RN. However, the NUPES electoral alliance has no existence on the ground except around France insoumise’s MPs. France insoumise (FI) itself is going through a crisis of leadership after Mélenchon stepped back. Furthermore, the objective situation is testing France Insoumise. The refusal of the FI leadership to launch a serious party is weakening the movement itself, especially as Mélenchon is less involved publicly. The lack of discussion and the impossibility to vote to take decisions to limit the role of FI’s members. Furthermore, its limited programme focused on two or three demands on wages, pensions and a tax on super profits, does not go further on how we can win these demands or the need to struggle and strike, and not simply support FI’s MPs. This is limiting FI’s capacity to play a major role in opposing Macron’s policy and in the struggles ahead. It is not simply an issue of structures but of the need for La France Insoumise to become a militant, mass, democratic political force if it is to seriously fight Macron and capitalism.
The reluctance to build La France Insoumise as a socialist force is one of the reflections of the ideological retreat of many ‘lefts’ leaders by the former Trotskyist Mélenchon and for example, the ex-communists at the head of Syriza in Greece. These elements have consciously moved away from using even the language of socialism let alone advocating anything which could be regarded as socialist policies. Sahra Wagenknecht in Germany is another example as she was the former leader of the ‘Communist Platform’ within the German PDS and then within DIE LINKE and now accepts the ‘market economy’. She describes herself as a ‘left conservative’ and makes left populist speeches, sometimes with an element of class politics mixed in.
These were the initial steps of new parties developing yet, for the reasons we have explained, they have failed to develop or in some cases eventually collapsed or declined. They were not mass workers’ parties. This process of rebuilding working-class political representation has been extremely protracted. In the short term, it is also likely to continue to be a more complicated or protracted process, although we should be ready for the situation to change in some countries and then draw the necessary tactical conclusions. Along the way, although not certain, it is not excluded that new broad radical movements or parties emerge before new workers’ parties develop. However, the call for mass workers’ parties is an important element in our programme alongside our advocating socialist policies, but we do not put acceptance of a socialist programme as a pre-condition for our activity in such formations. At the same time, even prior to the formation of new mass workers’ parties, revolutionary socialist parties and the CWI can build and grow.
It is not only in France that new opportunities are offered. In Austria, the Communist Party (KPÖ) won the leadership of Graz, the country’s second-largest city, in 2021; while in Vienna the year before that the LINKS left alliance won 23 councillors in 14 of Vienna’s districts. Neither of these forces put forward socialist programmes. The KPÖ in Graz is widely seen as not corrupt, something unusual in Austria, and has a record of struggling in the housing question. The KPÖ in Graz is already facing a debt and budget crisis (something that is affecting more communities and councils) and, whereas they have not raised rents in the public housing sector, they have already started to move towards certain cuts, under pressure from their pro-capitalist coalition partners fully accept the capitalist system. For example, they are leaving jobs that were left by workers retiring vacant. While currently the Graz KPÖ still has support and has not yet been harmed on a larger level, these steps are an indication of which direction they could go down as they are not willing to mobilise the working class and communities to put pressure on the federal government for more finance. LINKS is a left coalition with, up to now, a mainly middle-class base and in which ID politics play a part. While the CWI understands why initial support for ID politics develops it contains the danger within it of acting as a brake on building united struggles necessary to change society. Still, under the impact of the increase of class struggle in Austria, LINKS is beginning to look a bit more towards the unions. Other very small left formations, like Wandel, which stood in national elections several times and got 20.000 votes in 2019, also attended the union protest demo against the price hikes and had placards arguing for strike action.
These are steps forward but the question is whether they develop a consistent programme and way of working. In a situation where the traditional parties are being questioned an alternative from the left needs to be posed nationally, but neither the KPÖ nor LINKS do this. A result is that some of the discontents are reflected in the resurgence of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) which has rapidly recovered from the corruption scandal involving its former leader Strache and is now, in some opinion polls, the strongest party with around 27% support.
Renewed growth of the far right
The FPÖ’s renewed support, and the RN’s increased support in France, are both a reflection of the polarisation in society, the decay of many of the old parties and, especially in Austria, the absence of a sizeable socialist alternative. The FPÖ is currently particularly gaining from the weakness of the conservative ÖVP. The alienation from the old structures was shown in the low, under 64%, turnout in the last year’s Italian elections which also saw the far-right Brothers of Italy (FdI) leap from 1.4 million votes in 2018 to 7.1 million. This was fundamentally a rejection of most of the existing parties, especially the Lega, the other far-right party, whose vote more than halved from nearly 5.7 million to under 2.5 million votes after its short time in government. The result was the formation of a government of the far right and right parties which, so far, proceeded cautiously. However, the FdI leading the Italian government, and the involvement of the far-right Swedish Democrats in the new Swedish government, are warnings to the workers’ movement. So-called national unity governments involving most parties apart from the far right and which are lowering or not improving living standards are a recipe for giving space for the far right as last year’s Italian election showed.
A factor in the far right’s growth is the issue of migration and ethnic tension. This has been sharpened by the aftermath of Nato’s defeat in Afghanistan followed by refugees fleeing Ukraine. While in 2015 1.2 million refugees from the Middle East arrived in Europe up to early November 2022 there were 4.4 million Ukrainian refugees and, in addition over 365,000 first-time asylum seekers in Europe. Of these 1.1 million came into Germany, higher than the 2015 figure. The inability of capitalism to provide for refugees, coupled with the already existing pressures and shortages of housing, healthcare, education etc., can provide fertile ground for nationalists and the far right if the workers’ movement does not take up the issues and organise joint struggles on these key issues, something is seen in the far right campaigning against Ukrainian refugees in Ireland.
Already before this, there was a steady increase in obstacles, including the so-called “push-back” tactics on the EU’s borders, to refugees and asylum seekers. In Denmark, the Social Democrat-led government continues introducing anti-migrant measures with the aim of stopping asylum claims being made in the country.
Capitalism is not able to quickly deal with this situation, something which poses the danger of serious repercussions, as the rapid population influx creates enormous housing, work, educational and social pressures. Certainly, there may be “quick-fixes” but they will be unstable and unsatisfactory. The key is a socialist plan put to provide the resources and democratic control over the plans. Without this, there is the danger of further divisions and ethnic tensions developing.
Europe facing a turning point
Europe is facing a turning point in a fast-moving international situation. The key question is the rebuilding of the workers’ movement and winning it to the ideas of Marxism. Just the last few years have seen both important struggles and opportunities. However many of the political opportunities have not been taken because of the relatively socialist consciousness and the role of the leaders of the different new forces, movements and parties that have come into existence.
Experience has shown again that the key to rebuilding the socialist movement lies in the active involvement of the working class. But this is not the only issue. For a short time the Prc had a big influence in the FIOM, the Italian metalworkers’ union, but the policies of the Prc leadership, especially joining Prodi’s government, undermined the party. The programme, policy and methods of new forces are decisive. While organisations do not necessarily develop in a straight line the main reason for the weakness and failures of most of the new left forces formed in the last decades is their politics.
There will be new attempts to form the socialist organisations that are needed especially when large sections of the working class and youth start to draw conclusions from their experience of events and particularly class struggle. However, the timing of this is not clear and in the period before such developments, there will be the opportunity to directly build support for Marxism from those who are already attracted to revolutionary ideas. This is why at this building the forces of Marxism and rebuilding the workers’ movement are linked in preparation for even stormier times ahead.