Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/545/6342
CWI Summer School 2008: Capitalism at a crucial turning point in its history
Tony Saunois, secretary of the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI), opened the CWI international summer school by firmly underlining the changes being brought in by the new economic crisis of capitalism and the importance of workers' struggles which will emerge.
The largest summer school for over 20 years had major sessions on the world economy and its effects worldwide; the class struggle in Europe and new left parties; and on building the CWI.
This feature concentrates on these three discussions. Additional information on them and reports of other sessions are on socialistworld.net.
Credit crunch or world recession?
Robert Bechert of the CWI secretariat opened the discussion on the world economy and world relations by pointing out that it was at the CWI school a year ago when the first public reports were heard of banks threatened with collapse. Before then the CWI had warned that the subprime loans crisis was a symptom of a deeper crisis.
Since then, different crises have developed in many countries. It is clearly an interconnected process and is not simply a financial crisis - it is inevitably spreading to the 'real' economy as well.
In many countries large sections of the working class have not benefited from the boom years. The 'neo-liberal' offensive of privatisation and opening up everything to the market was a massive attack on the working class for the benefit of the bosses.
Now workers are increasingly angry at being made to pay for the current crisis. They have not been running the world economy - why should they be blamed for the collapse of the big banks? The bosses argued that the market was the best way of running the economy, yet as soon as they are in trouble, they beg governments to step in.
This will have profound political repercussions - workers and much of the middle class will be demanding government intervention to save jobs and protect living standards. Many fear for the future - 10,000 homes are being repossessed every day in the USA. In the neo-colonial world, the poorest are threatened with starvation. Those whose incomes are falling, are being faced at the same time with higher prices.
Capitalism managed to prolong the recent boom by encouraging debt to extend the market. Now many people are very wary of extending their debt any more, whilst the bankers are more cautious about lending money. There has been a sharpening of tensions already, with protests and strikes in many countries against price rises, food shortages and for higher wages.
In the USA, people are increasingly looking for answers. Opinion polls are showing that a large majority believe the country is on the wrong track. This is the background to the forthcoming presidential elections. The likelihood is a victory for Barak Obama - who would probably enjoy a 'honeymoon' period especially because the election of a black president would be seen as a significant change, something which also would be a boost for US imperialism worldwide.
One of the effects of the crisis is the increase in rivalry between capitalist countries. The fact that the USA and the EU could not get their way at the Doha trade round summit illustrates this. All economic agreements and alliances will be under strain, including the euro.
In many countries, trade union leaders have become closely linked to governments and the bosses. This can be changed. For example, in Pakistan, the recent winning of a 35% wage increase by telecom workers was partly due to CWI members' role in maintaining a militant union leadership in the United Workers Alliance.
The economic crisis will result in political change in many countries and new governments will be put to the test. In some countries, especially where workers' organisations are weak, social tensions may be reflected in religious or ethnic conflicts. But large opportunities to build support for workers' organisations and socialist ideas will be presented.
There was a wide-ranging discussion, with speakers from many countries including Russia, Brazil, Malaysia, USA and Pakistan. All explained how the crisis was affecting workers. In China, the 'golden age' of boom for the elite is passing. As in many other countries, the property market is plunging and China's dependence on exports to the USA is having a profound effect. It is already a tough life for most workers and poor in China and the rise in food and fuel prices is making it worse.
Lynn Walsh of the CWI secretariat summed up the discussion, emphasising the limits on capitalism's ability to inflate a new bubble of credit to get itself out of this crisis. It is not just one more cyclical crisis. It is a crisis in the core banking system, beginning in the core country of capitalism.
Estimates of the total likely losses are running at $1-3 trillion and this won't be overcome by stimulating the economy. Japan, for example, suffered ten years of stagnation in the 1990s because of a mountain of debt, despite there being a boom in the world economy and Japan having the ability to export.
There is unlikely to be a collapse on the scale of 1929/31, when the US federal government stood aside and watched banks collapse. Now they are intervening, as they have in the cases of Bear Stearns, Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac. But that is not the same thing as promoting an economic revival.
Capitalism will always find a way to continue - unless there is a socialist transformation. But after this immediate crisis there is likely to be a long period of only low growth in the world economy.
Lynn concluded by underlining that this is the end of an era. In 1973, at the end of the post-war boom, there were six years of panic by world leaders. They didn't know what to do. This is an analogous period, with the capitalist class stumbling from one expedient to another.
Now that the market has been found incapable of dealing with the crisis, we have to put the socialist alternative.
Europe - a changed situation
Introducing an excellent discussion on the dramatic economic, political and social developments in Europe, Peter Taaffe of the CWI Secretariat presented a changed situation across the continent from Iceland to Cyprus.
Sinead Daly (CWI Scotland) and Sarah Sachs-Eldridge
Despite the hopes of European governments, Europe cannot escape the financial crisis that has already swept the US. Faced with contracting profits, the bosses are demanding that governments go further in slashing public services and imposing below-inflation pay rises. Following the extended period of growth in the 1990s, these changes will have a profound effect on the European working class.
Economic growth has fallen dramatically in most European countries. In the south of Ireland, the 'celtic tiger' economy has collapsed to just 0.3% growth over the last year. Unemployment has doubled in Portugal. The cost of living across Europe is forcing many working-class people to choose between food and fuel.
More and more people are drawing the conclusion that we face a battle between the bosses and their representatives in government on the one side, and the working class on the other side. In preparation for this, the need to rebuild workers' organisations: the trade unions and workers' parties, is becoming clearer.
Struggles of the working class
In Greece, three general strikes involved three million workers in the last year. A two-month strike of Greek teachers and school students won some concessions.
Poland has seen a series of strikes against attacks on pensions and on the question of pay. The first ever strike there of Tesco workers was one example of many showing that sections of workers, with little previous tradition of struggle, are moving into action.
The discussion revealed a small but significant growth in workers' victories, including the inspiring German train drivers' strike, which resulted in a pay rise of 11%.
However another feature of the discussion was the role that many of the trade union leaders play, acting as a block on strikes and, in some cases, colluding with employers. But increasingly they are pushed into taking action by their members' anger. The tremendous strike wave in Belgium earlier this year was initially sparked by spontaneous action, which the unions then had to organise.
Alongside workers' struggles there have been significant struggles of young people such as the school students' protests in Germany. A growing radicalisation there was symbolised by the raising of a red flag from the roof of one of the participating schools.
No government across the continent can be described as stable and certainly not as popular. In Britain, Gordon Brown has quickly become a hated prime minister. Sarkozy in France has had plummeting popularity.
One year ago the Irish government was re-elected with a strong majority. Since then the ruling party has dumped its leader, Bertie Ahern, concerned that the corruption charges against him would tar the entire party and lose them the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. But the Irish working class rejected the entreaties of the entire political establishment and voted 'no'.
There have been developments on the question of workers' political formations in Germany, Greece, France and Italy.
One year old, the German Left Party is a pole of attraction for many working-class people, receiving 10-15% support in opinion polls. The leadership has a tendency to focus on elections. But it is under pressure from events to put forward a left position and this pressure is in turn felt by some of the other parties.
Based on the level of working-class struggle in Germany there is massive potential for the growth of the Left Party, but insufficient focus on orientating towards these movements will be an obstacle to its development as a fighting workers' party.
Syriza, a network of eleven left parties and organisations in Greece, has rapidly emerged as a significant left opposition to the pro-capitalist parties. In less than a year Syriza has tripled its support and now has 12-19% support in opinion polls.
The CWI in Greece has joined Syriza and is working to build it, arguing for a socialist programme. Both within and outside Syriza this position gets a very warm response from Greek workers and youth, who are looking for a viable vehicle for struggle.
In France, the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) is launching a new anti-capitalist party. If it is launched in a bold way with a clear socialist programme and based on an orientation to the working class, it has great potential.
It is not yet clear how this party will be structured and built but the French CWI participates in the pre-formation discussions, arguing for an independent working-class party that fights Sarkozy's cuts and clearly puts forward a socialist alternative.
The Party of Communist Refoundation in Italy (Prc) was recently brought to the verge of extinction, after taking part in the previous 'rainbow coalition' government led by Romano Prodi.
Return of Berlusconi
The anti-working class character of this government paved the way for the return of the hated Berlusconi a year ago. However, against the background of Berlusconi's offensive against the working class and migrants, a recent congress of the Prc voted to return to an independent working-class position.
This move has the potential to inject new life into the Prc and give the working class in Italy a political voice in the impending battles.
In summing up the discussion, CWI secretary Tony Saunois pointed to the decisively changed situation in Europe and warned that we would not see the growing anger and frustration of workers channelled in just one direction.
Many areas have seen the growth of racist and far-right parties. But he reiterated that prospects can certainly open up for a new stage in working-class struggles, as well as for the building of new left and socialist formations to challenge capitalism.
These discussions will play an important part in preparing us to have a key role in events, as they speed up.
Building the CWI sections
The discussion on 'party building' showed that there is tremendous potential for the CWI to grow. In introducing the session, Hannah Sell from the England and Wales section pointed out that in the past few years the CWI has already made significant additions to its membership in some countries, including in Brazil, Greece and Pakistan.
Hannah said that every other CWI section could follow, if our socialist ideas are raised and tested on every paper sale, picket line, demonstration and in every political discussion.
The role of individuals with public profiles was commented upon. In Sri Lanka, after Siritunga Jayasuriya finished third in the presidential election as the only candidate who stood to unite Sinhala and Tamil workers, there are now 360 people in East Sri Lanka who have joined or are discussing joining the United Socialist Party (CWI Sri Lanka).
In Ireland, the EU Lisbon treaty may not have been defeated without the role played by former TD Joe Higgins. The media coverage given to Joe and the Socialist Party's (CWI - Ireland) class-based arguments and campaigning against the bosses' EU, meant that the 'no' vote in the referendum was strongest in working-class areas.
From Joe's public profile, which includes TV appearances and a weekly national newspaper column, the Socialist Party could get more councillors elected in 2009, followed by regaining Joe's position in the Dáil (parliament).
Hannah said that attracting young people to the CWI is a priority. Anti-racist work is an important area for mobilising young people, including stepping up our campaigning with Youth against Racism in Europe (YRE). In some countries racist right-wing organisations could grow further. The CWI, however, has been shown as having the best methods in cutting across this.
For example, CWI groups in Cyprus and Italy worked together to prevent a fascist camp taking place in Cyprus. In this campaign 1,000 signatures were collected in Cyprus and an internet group of over 1,000 members built. A new CWI group is being built in the second largest Cypriot city, Limassol.
In the USA, the work of Socialist Alternative (CWI - US) with Youth Against War and Racism (YAWR) has resulted in schools in Minneapolis and Seattle having the harshest restrictions on military recruiters.
In Greece, work with the left alliance Syriza, continuing YRE work (including getting immigrant workers to join trade unions), building the environmental group Green Attack, and campaigning among low paid health workers, have all helped to build CWI section Xekinima.
Young SAV (Socialist Alternative, CWI Germany) members helped lead school student strikes on 22 May, which forced the German prime minister to state that education is a "key issue".
There will be a school student conference in October, which could be followed by a second strike day in November involving over 100,000 participants. SAV are helping to build Solid, the youth organisation of the Left Party (Die Linke), to attract youth to it and to make it a fighting organisation with socialist policies.
The Brazilian section of the CWI, Socialismo Revolucionário (SR), is growing partly from its input into the broad left party PSOL (Party for Socialism and Liberty) along with work in the trade union alliance Conlutas and school/college campaigning. SR expects to soon double in size.
The first Latin America CWI school was held in February. There is a growing CWI group in Bolivia after a US CWI member went there in 2006, and the possibility of a new group in Peru after two Swedish CWI members held a meeting there attended by 100 people, with 90 joining a CWI email list.
New CWI groups are present in Lebanon and Malaysia, while the small group in Portugal has started growing following the CWI's participation during strikes and mass protests during the first half of 2008.
In summing up the discussion, CWI secretary Tony Saunois said that Socialist Movement Pakistan leading two big strikes of textile and telecom workers was a sign of what could soon develop around other CWI sections. CWI members should be prepared for mass struggles and be armed with socialist demands. It is important that the CWI draws together experiences in different countries, in the fight for worldwide socialism.
In The Socialist 13 August 2008:
The Socialist Diary
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party workplace news