From Resistance to Counteroffensive
to the Struggle for Workers Power
French high school students, rail and postal workers mobilize in the port of Marseille,
October 21, against government attack on pension rights. (Photo: Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters)
Over the past year, a wave of class struggle has swept across Europe. In country after country, working people are facing devastating attacks on their livelihoods, their past gains, and their futures. And they are fighting back. On December 15, Greece had yet another one-day nationwide strike – its eighth this year. On November 25, more than 3 million workers walked out in the biggest strike in Portugal’s history. All fall, France was in turmoil as millions of workers and students repeatedly mobilized against the government’s pension “reform,” with numbers and militancy not seen in years. In Ireland, Italy and Spain as well there have been huge marches of hundreds of thousands trade unionists, students and youth. Now in Britain, angry student protests against drastic fee hikes could spark working-class resistance to the government’s program of vicious cuts. But demonstrations in the streets, no matter how massive, have not stopped European governments – whether of the right or “left” – from proceeding with their onslaught. Nor will they in the future, for this is not a matter of pressuring over budget priorities, it is a concerted capitalist assault on the working class. To defeat it, we must go from resistance to a struggle for power.
The burning question is how to get there.
The particular issues involved vary from country to country. In Greece, the battle was set off in December 2009 when so-called “bond vigilantes” drove up interest rates on loans after a ratings agency downgraded the country’s credit rating over the size of the budget deficit. As part of a €110 billion (US$140 billion) bailout by the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, the “socialist” Greek government ordered a draconian austerity program, slashing public sector wages by 30 percent and threatening tens of thousands of public workers’ jobs. In France, the fuse that lit the explosive worker-student revolt was a plan by the right-wing government to raise the retirement age. This was understood as the opening wedge for a drive against social security and other hard-won labor gains. In Britain, the detonator was the Conservative-Liberal coalition’s plan for tripling university tuition and eliminating student maintenance grants, the first of a series of planned cuts supposedly aimed at reducing the deficit (mostly the result of bailing out the banks and war in Afghanistan). And in Ireland, Portugal and Spain, workers are up in arms over austerity programs aimed at pleasing bond holders.
On November 24 more than 3 million Portuguese workers struck against the Socialist Party government in the largest one-day general strike in the country's history and the first in 28 years (since 1982). (Photo: Vilarigues)
The attacks are rooted in the global capitalist economic crisis that came to a head in 2008 with the financial panic set off by the fall of the Wall Street banking house of Lehman Brothers. As major banks faced bankruptcy, housing prices collapsed, industrial production plummeted, unemployment shot up. Now often referred to as the Great Recession, it is in fact a depression which like those of the 1930s or after 1876 will take years to overcome. At present, numerous governments are insolvent and the capitalist financial system could come crashing down. Yet after an initial period in which high-flying bankers sought trillions in government aid to survive, they are now back to business as usual, paying themselves billions in bonuses. Of course, someone has to foot the bill to pay off the mountain of debt. For the capitalist masters and their politicians, it is the working class that must pay. Using the crisis as an excuse, they are attacking workers’ rights and jacking up the rate of exploitation to fatten profits. So even though the “free market” policies of “neo-liberalism” set off the crisis, the neo-liberals are back on the offensive.
While bourgeois economists spoke of an “upturn” earlier this year, it didn’t feel like one to hard-hit workers. Long-term unemployment continued to rise in the “jobless recovery,” which soon fizzled out. Anger spread over the obscene bonuses financiers paid themselves with billions from the public treasury. In the politically backward United States, where there is no mass political representation of workers and the labor movement is beholden to the Democrats, who currently hold the reins of power, the rage has been siphoned off by right-wing “Tea Party” populists bankrolled by leading billionaires. In Europe, with its left-wing, socialist and Labourite political traditions, protests against the ravages of the economic crisis and government attacks have been led in many cases by the unions. As millions poured into the streets to protest, capitalist governments, bourgeois media and reformist labor leaders have all been caught by surprise at the size, militancy and determination of the mobilizations.
Using time-honored ruses, right-wing regimes in Italy and France tried to divert the disgust by launching chauvinist attacks on immigrants, Muslims and Roma (gypsies). But the “security” offensive fell flat. In France the unions came out in defense of the Roma. So bourgeois opinion-makers tried another tack, railing against “violence” by “hooded anarchists.” They sought to capitalize on the deaths of three workers trapped in a bank in Athens that had been firebombed during the May 5 Greek national (“general”) strike. To no avail: the strikes kept on coming. Likewise with the sacking of Conservative Party headquarters in London on November 10 accompanied by thousands of protesting students. Despite howls of horror from the government and mainstream media – as well as “official” student leaders – campus occupations and mass student marches intensified. A month later, the British heir apparent and his consort drove into a crowd of demonstrators, some of whom decorated their vintage Rolls-Royce while the shaken royals were treated to a chorus of “off with their heads.” But all the government/media fear-mongering over “feral mobs” of anarcho-“yobs” had zero effect.
The scare tactics aren’t working because the assault on the livelihoods of working people is so severe. Millions of workers, students, youth and even many in the middle classes see that their lives are being ripped up in order to pay off the banks and giant corporations – in short, the capitalists – who set off the economic crisis. Yet after months of demonstrations and one-day nationwide strikes, it’s clear that the usual means of pressure from “the street” have no effect. It’s common to hear protesters remark that the mobilizations must be “radicalized,” that the struggle must be taken to a higher level. But how, and led by whom? The labor tops have no intention of waging a serious struggle against capital, and instead hold one march after another, hoping to run them into the ground. While the unions are workers organizations, the bureaucracy that sits atop them is a privileged petty bourgeois layer that serves as a transmission belt for the bosses, to make sure the ranks don’t get out of hand. The bureaucrats are, in Daniel De Leon’s phrase, the “labor lieutenants of capital” and the name of their game is class collaboration.
100,000 marched in
Dublin on November 27 to protest Irish government’s budget cuts. (Photo:
Mcerlane/European Pressphoto Agency)
To wage a serious fight, the labor fakers must be ousted by a leadership committed to class struggle with a program and the determination to see it through to victory. To defeat the attacks on the working class will require the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, as the severity of the economic crisis should underline. Yet the vast majority of the European left presents a reformist platform that differs at most quantitatively, if at all, from that of the pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy. With ever-so-slightly different formulas, they call for competing coalitions to “fight the cuts” or “fight the right,” when the task at hand is to defeat the capitalist attack. Seeking to gain credibility, these “popular front” type coalitions tie the workers to sections of the ruling class. If they talk of “fighting politically” or “winning the battle of public opinion,” they mean channeling the struggle into the straitjacket of bourgeois parliamentarism. But playing by the bosses’ rules is a ticket for defeat.
The reformist social-democratic and Communist parties of West Europe have long been cogs in the machinery of capitalist rule, integrated into the state through local administration, national parliaments and the mechanisms of the “welfare state.” With the latter under full-scale attack by “free market” forces, this traditional left has been caught between the pressures of their capitalist masters and the demands of their working-class base. So they do nothing (as in Britain, so far) or call ritual protests to blow off steam (Greece, France, Ireland, Spain, Portugal). The erstwhile “far left,” while maintaining a distinct political profile, are no longer the radicals of 1968, having become comfortably ensconced in the labor bureaucracy, electoral politics and the bourgeois media. But whether seeking to build “anti-capitalist” parties and coalitions (the NPA in France, ANTARSYA in Greece) or calling for “new mass (or socialist) workers parties,” these are reformist political formations operating in the confines of bourgeois electoralism. They talk of resistance, but they cannot lead a revolutionary class struggle to bring down the rule of capital.
The present crisis highlights as seldom before the urgent need for a program of transitional demands such as that put forward in the founding document of the Fourth International, “to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist program of the revolution” (Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program ). Over the decades, Trotsky’s program has been distorted by opportunists in myriad ways: classic demands such as a sliding scale of wages and hours are watered down to turn them into contract demands (an escalator clause and limits on layoffs) or appeals to capitalist governments; workers control is translated into “self-management” under capitalism; calls for workers militias are disappeared. Above all, they leave off “the final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.” In the hands of pseudo-Trotskyists, it becomes a “bridge” to nowhere. Yet what is required today is precisely to mobilize the power of the working class on a program to turn defensive struggles into a proletarian counteroffensive on the road to socialist revolution.
Protesting workers clashed with police in
Athens, Greece on May Day. (Photo: Panagiotis
So far the rulers have been able to muddle through, while keeping a vigilant eye on the “spreads” (between interest rates for German or U.S. bonds and those of country x) as they once watched opinion polls. In the imperialist “democracies” the vote of “the market” can topple governments, wielding far more power than the electorate ever had. The stakes are high. Greece, Ireland and Portugal can be “bailed out,” a run on Spain or Italy could spell the end of the euro. Trotskyists have always opposed the European Union as an imperialist alliance. But while national tensions between the rulers could blow apart the EU, this is the time to counterpose the Europe of the workers to the Europe of the bosses. Until now “internationalism” for the Euroleft consisted of inviting a couple of speakers from other countries to address marches. Today, the attack on workers’ gains throughout the continent should be met with Europe-wide strike action. The action last fall by unionists at Belgian refineries stopping exports in solidarity with striking French refinery workers points the way forward to a socialist united states of Europe.
Collapse of the euro would produce international financial chaos. Soon the “bond vigilantes” may train their sights on the British pound and the American dollar, for the finances of the United Kingdom and United States are just as shaky as those of the second- and third-tier capitalist countries currently under siege. Plus the U.S. imperialist superpower (along with its European NATO allies) is bogged down militarily in a losing war in Afghanistan and endless occupation of Iraq. If the holders of U.S. T-notes and T-bonds ever decided to cash in their paper holdings, it would be all over. But with this “debt bomb,” the only thing stopping them is the doctrine of nuclear deterrence, mutual assured destruction (MAD): in the ensuing global economic meltdown, bondholders would lose big as well.1
A decaying capitalist order in the throes of the deepest economic crisis in three-quarters of a century is seeking to ensure its survival by impoverishing the proletariat and destroying its ability to resist. From Athens to London, the ruling classes have launched an across-the-board offensive against the working class, taking aim at every social gain and even, in some cases, threatening its very existence. But no matter how severe the crisis, capitalism will not fall by itself. To defeat this onslaught, the usual fare of bourgeois pressure politics (“coalition building,” “peaceful protest,” electoral politics and limited defensive struggles) is wholly inadequate. It is necessary not only to resist the particular attack but to turn the tables and direct the fight not merely against the policies of “neo-liberalism,” but the capitalist system itself. To lead that struggle, we must begin to build a party of the proletarian vanguard like the Bolsheviks of Lenin and Trotsky, reforging the Fourth International as the world party of socialist revolution. ■
1 There is, however, a big
gap in the U.S. imperialists’
financial deterrence shield: the largest single holder of U.S. notes
and bonds is the People’s Republic of
China. Contrary to the view of the imperialists (as well as most
leftists), China is not a
capitalist country but a bureaucratically deformed workers state (where
capitalism has made dangerous inroads). In the
by the September 2008 financial panic, while production fell sharply in
imperialist countries, in China,
after an initial dip, planners were able to raise
economic growth by upping investment in state-owned industries and
infrastructure. What’s holding China back from cashing in its
chips is mainly the Stalinist leaders’ illusory policy of “peaceful
coexistence” with imperialism.
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