Europe’s place in the international class struggle

Photo by odysseasgr
Student demonstration in Athens

By Jane West

After the elections in Western Europe in the first half of this year it is a good moment to take stock of the overall state of the class struggle in the region.

However it is in turn impossible to make a correct assessment of the political situation in Western Europe and its potential outside an assessment of developments at a global level. The reason for this is that the relationship of class forces is not determined by the circumstances of any particular single country, state or region, but by the total inter-relationship of forces between the imperialist states and their allies on the one hand, and those opposing imperialism and capitalism on the other.

As Lenin put it: ‘The socialist revolution will not be solely or chiefly, a struggle of the revolutionary proletarians in each country against their own bourgeoisie – no, it will be a struggle of all the imperialist-oppressed colonies and countries, of all dependent countries, against international imperialism’ (Lenin V. I., 22 November 1919).

To understand the dynamics in Western Europe it is necessary to situate this within the overall context of the international class struggle.

The current development of the international class struggle

As analysed elsewhere, since around 2000 two main forces have been pushing imperialism back – the rise of Latin America’s left, which includes explicitly and strongly socialist currents, especially in Venezuela, and the economic rise of China, a state outside the control of imperialism and whose economic success offers an alternative trade and political partner for the semi-colonial world.

Looking at the overall trends within this framework:

The Middle East: The initial development of the Arab spring – with the fall of the Tunisian and Egyptian dictatorships – initially appeared to strongly reinforce this anti-imperialist trend. However a determined counter-offensive of imperialism is seeking to throw this into reverse and has gained some successes with the overthrow of Gaddafi by forces backed by the Western imperialist powers in Libya, the defeats for the mass movement in Bahrain, and a stymied process in Yemen with the movement apparently halted by a change in names rather than regime.

The class struggle in Egypt is still unfolding. Recent steps in foreign policy by President Morsi have been progressive – including the decision to visit Iran for the non-aligned summit and to pay a state visit to China before making one to the US. But so far domestically there has been only a limited response from the Muslim Brotherhood to demands of the Egyptian masses for improvements in their living standards and in standing up to the army, behind which stands the US.

Most immediately at the heart of the relationship of forces in the region now lies the struggle in Syria, where the imperialist-sponsored, financed and armed Free Syrian Army is seeking to overthrow Assad in order to break the Iran/Syria/Hezbollah axis which has successfully resisted the Israeli state and is one of the chief obstacle to untrammelled imperialist control in the region.

Latin America: In Latin America there has been no fundamental reversal in the relation of forces – despite the first significant attempts at an imperialist counter-offensive seen in the Honduras coup of last year and the more recent judicial coup in Paraguay.

In Venezuela the Chavista current is engaged in an explicit struggle for socialism. This is advancing politically – with Chávez polling well ahead so far in the Presidential elections due on 7th October, and also economically – with increasing state intervention in the economy, particularly in infrastructure and housing, which is adding to existing social programmes. This is stimulating economic growth, and therefore creating jobs, while simultaneously improving the conditions of life for the mass of the population.

While in most other countries in Latin America the dominant left forces are not engaged in an immediate struggle to introduce socialism, it is nonetheless the left which maintains the strongest position across the continent. The room for manoeuvre of imperialism is limited even in a country that remains within its immediate political ambit such as Colombia.

Sub-Saharan Africa: In sub-Saharan Africa there is a shift to the left in a number of states – although as yet no clear struggle for socialism. This shift was signalled by the decision of South Africa’s president Zuma to break from prioritising relations with the US, and to turn to China to gain leverage against imperialism economically.

South African Trade Minister Rob Davies explained China’s role in providing leverage against the US and the other imperialist powers in a comment to The Financial Times, ‘We don’t have to sign on the dotted line whatever is shoved under our noses any longer. We now have alternatives and that’s to our benefit.’ South Africa’s realignment to the left in foreign policy is now being followed by an increase in mass struggles inside the country itself.

Overall in Africa, contrary to imperialist attempts to portray Chinese investment in the continent as being negative, sub-Saharan Africa is the region of the world where China is viewed most positively. The 2012 BBC Globe Scan survey on attitudes to various countries and regions showed that the most positive attitudes to China in the world were in sub-Saharan Africa, where in Nigeria 89%, Kenya 75% and Ghana 64% held positive views of China – the most favourable for a region or country with the exception of Pakistan.

The role of China has indirectly helped boost the confidence of currents in parts of Africa that are attempting to gain some greater independence from imperialism – although the latter remain so far bourgeois nationalist and not socialist in character. Imperialism’s response to these trends in Africa is increasingly to attempt to crack down on them by the use or threats of military force.

In 2008 the US set up Africom – the ‘Africa Command’ of the US military – to prepare for more direct intervention in the continent. In a conference that year, Vice Admiral Robert Moeller announced its mission was preserving ‘the free flow of natural resources from Africa to the global market’. Now that the West’s economic monopoly is being progressively eliminated it is therefore forced to turn toward more direct use of military power to preserve its interests in Africa.

The French-led intervention in Cote d’Ivoire was an indicator of this, as is the US’s on-going proxy war in Somalia. Fourteen major joint military exercises involving Africom are due to take place this year.

India: The situation in India is complex and the country is facing increased elements of crisis. The stalling of India’s previous strong economic expansion – with the rate of GDP growth stuttering down to around 5.3% in the 2nd quarter of this year from its average 7% a year from 2000-2010 – coupled with high inflation have exacerbated a range of political, social and economic problems.

One dramatic consequence of the shortcomings of India’s economic growth was seen this summer with a series of devastating power cuts across the sub-continent culminating in a two-day black out that left 700 million people without power.

The economic slowdown has also brought the issue of India’s international orientation more to the fore, creating divisions in the Indian ruling class over relations with China and the US. While the military wing of the Indian ruling class is oriented to a strategic alliance with the US, such an alliance offers no significant economic way forward for India. So some sections of the Indian bourgeoisie, more directly based on Indian industry and less tied into the concerns of the military leadership of the country, are increasingly oriented to closer relations with China – which has already become India’s biggest trading partner. Proposals from the government to impose trade tariffs on Chinese imports have been met with concern rather than support in India’s business community, which fears both an increase in the price of imports of investment goods from China and retaliation from a potentially crucial export market.

While it cannot be said that the situation in India yet constitutes any challenge for imperialism, the US project to build India up as an economic alternative and regional counterweight hostile to China has met significant difficulties due to India’s low growth rates and the inability of an orientation to the US to solve these. Internal contradictions are therefore beginning to increase in India.

East and South East Asia: In East and South East Asia a sharp polarisation is unfolding – particularly following the US’s stepped up intervention and military presence in the region announced in its ‘pivot to Asia’. Countries like the Philippines are falling in with the US project of seeking to hold China’s growth back by bogging it down in a series of costly regional conflicts and are jumping at the carrot of US support for claims to areas of the South China Sea.

However, in Thailand the electoral break-through for the Red Shirts – not as left as their name implies, but a clearly a socially progressive nationalist current – has not been reversed despite threats by the Thai elites to use the constitutional court to overthrow the government. Cambodia blocked the US’s proposed anti-China statement at the recent ASEAN conference – meaning for the first time in the history of ASEAN the conference concluded with no final statement at all.

The foreign policy ‘pivot’ of the US to the Pacific on the one hand, and the increasing attractive power of China on the other, is therefore deepening polarisation in the region, with the US attempting to use its military strength to weaken the rising influence of China.

China: Within China itself the on-going issues within the Chinese Communist Party on strategy for the economy reflect the class struggle. The World Bank’s report on China – delivered in February this year – called for a radically reduced state sector, through privatisations and limiting state-led investment programmes to ‘leave space’ for private sector led investment. Attempts to implement this economic agenda however have led to a slow-down in the Chinese economy.

A debate therefore continues in China for or against a new state-led boost to the economy – which would reboot growth but also further strengthen the state sector compared to private capital.

Russia: At the same time, the joint interests between Russia and China have led to closer cooperation. Shared Russo-Chinese interests in central Asia and in the Northern Pacific, where Japan continues to lay claim to Russia’s Kuril Islands, have been strengthened. Economic ties have increased further with the opening of the China-Russia rail freight route through central Asia in 2010.

Russo-Chinese positions have become a de facto alliance on specific issues such as their common position on Syria at the UN – and a shared view that they were tricked into abstaining on the earlier UN Libya motion on the basis of false guarantees that it did not legitimise unlimited Western imperialist military intervention.

The return of Putin to the Russian presidency – fiercely opposed by the West – has also somewhat weakened Western imperialism’s influence in the country. Former president Medvedev was tactically backed by the wing of the Russian bourgeoisie that is entirely oriented to Europe, and which has been courted by the US and European powers. The West – including Britain through the British Council – intervened directly into Russia to support the anti-Putin protests in the run-up to the election. While these protests had some support among the pro-Western in Moscow the vast majority of the population currently supports Putin and is inclined to be hostile to the West which they rightly see as anti-Russian.

Even with the likelihood of some electoral fraud by Putin supporters, the margin of his victory (64%) in the March 2012 election puts the result beyond dispute. With Zuganov’s Communist Party coming second on 17%, the pro-Western parties and candidates were reduced to single digit shares. Following the disputes over Libya and Syria, and the naked intervention against him by the West, Putin has decided to reinforce ties with the ‘East’ – strengthening Russia’s links with China.

The situation in Europe

Turning directly to Europe, the political situation is dominated by the ruling class’s attempts to deal with the world economic crisis by launching a reactionary offensive aimed at making the working class and its allies pay for it.

The capitalists’ solution in Europe is to attempt to grind down wages and living conditions to a point where there is a sufficient increase in profits to relaunch capitalist growth. Therefore across Europe, whether led by conservative, liberal or social democratic parties, governments have all introduced swingeing austerity budgets aimed at driving down wages in real terms, and reducing the social wage through devastating cuts to the welfare state. Where elected governments have proved too weak to push through these policies, as in Italy, undemocratic ‘technocratic’ governments have been installed with all-party support to carry them through against popular resistance.

In response there have been significant waves of struggle in a number of countries – mass strikes, demonstrations, sit-ins and popular movements – but none have been powerful enough to force a change of course.

While governments carrying out these policies have become deeply unpopular, the political alternatives that the masses have so far turned to will continue the same essential policies.

For example, Hollande’s government in France will continue Sarkozy’s austerity with a few minor modifications. The same approach would be taken if an SPD led government were to replace Merkel in Germany, or if a Labour or Lab-Lib coalition government were to replace the Tory-led government in Britain.

In a few cases – chiefly in countries suffering the worst effects of the crisis – currents that genuinely oppose, and would overturn, these austerity policies have developed with support in sections of the masses. But in all cases so far these have either been defeated or not been able to gather sufficient support to form governments.

Such currents include Syriza, which narrowly failed to become the largest party in the latest election in Greece, Mélenchon and the Front de Gauche in France which did well but were in the end not near challenging for power, Ken Livingstone who was defeated in London, and Sinn Féin, which is rising in support but has not yet approached the position where it is challenging to be the party of government in the South of Ireland.

This overall situation reflects the fact that although the European bourgeoisie is definitely experiencing problems – and its global power is declining – it nonetheless has considerable resources. Its economic, political, military and ideological hegemony is a bit dented but still intact.

This relationship of forces dictates that the choice posed in the struggle in Europe in the next period is not directly between capitalism and socialism – that is, between capitalism and the introduction of a socialist order – but between capitalist reaction on the one hand and the possibility of useful left reforms on the other. In no country in Europe is the overturn of the capitalist order posed in the immediate or short term, unlike in some countries in Latin America, most notably Venezuela.

This does not mean that there are not extremely important goals which can be fought for and potentially achieved in Europe. The first is to fight to get the European imperialist ruling classes off the back of those fighting imperialism in the semi-colonial countries – to fight to prevent new imperialist intervention of the type seen in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Cote d’Ivoire, Libya and Syria. Second is to fight to defend the living standards of Europe’s population against the most serious attacks since the 1930s. Third is to wage a fight against racism, particularly today Islamophobia, which is both utterly reactionary in itself and is being used as the main weapon to attempt to divert the population from resisting the austerity offensive. Fourth is to continue the fight against climate change – which is already beginning to create serious damage in developing counties.

Many other issues could be added to this, but together they objectively amount to a series of important progressive left reforms but they do not constitute a transition to socialism. Nor is a transition to socialism possible today in Europe.

It is vital to understand this distinction between the situation in Venezuela, where the struggle is an immediate one between a socialist and capitalist society, and the choice in Europe where the struggle is between capitalist reaction and left reforms. The classical Marxist position – that it is necessary to fight for reforms but see them as part of a longer-term struggle for socialism – therefore applies to the situation in Europe. This means supporting reforms, but not reformism.

This objective situation in Europe determines tactics. Marxists will simply damage themselves and politically weaken the impact of the currents they influence if they do not accurately understand and fight for what is actually objectively possible today.

Even in Greece – the most extreme case in Europe – the course required to get the economy out of its short term crisis would not require the overthrow of the capitalist order. Steps to cancel Greece’s debt are needed to get the economy back into growth. As this would mean a section of capital taking a direct hit, such steps would undoubtedly meet huge opposition and resistance from capital (unless the European bourgeoisies had already decided that economic collapse in Greece had reached a point that it was necessary to cancel the debt to prevent the situation spiralling out of its control!). But even this does not pose the overthrow of capitalism.

The fundamental situation is the same in other countries of Europe – all of which face less extreme crisis than Greece.

The implications in Britain

The overall situation in Europe works itself out in a specific form in Britain. The strategic framework is that in less than three years there is every chance that a Labour, or Labour-Liberal, government will come to power.

The austerity policies pursued by the Tory led coalition will continue to fail. Due to the shipwreck of the Tory-Lib deal on Lords reform even the gerrymander of the boundary changes to aid the Tories are unlikely to go through, making Labour coming to office in 2015 still more likely. Labour is currently 12% ahead in the polls and has been gaining double digit leads for some time.

However, it is already clear that such a Labour or Lab-Lib government will carry out the same essential economic policies as the Tory-led coalition, simply, at best, slowing down the austerity policies but not reversing them. This will inevitably lead to justified opposition to such a government outside Labour and, possibly, after some initial hesitations, within Labour as well.

This structural situation is the one for which the left has to prepare, and which Respect is currently best placed to take advantage of.

Specifically – as clearly spelled out by George Galloway in articles during and since the Bradford by-election – Respect can express the aspiration of the working class for the type of Labour government it would like to see that breaks with austerity and cuts, as opposed to the one it will actually get.

Pursuing this approach will mean Respect can remain well-placed for the situation that will confront the working class at and after the next election – and accumulate some advances on the road to that. That is, Respect, by advancing clear left alternative policies can not only gather forces that break to the left of Labour but also to prepare to link up with those inside the Labour Party who would oppose the policies of a right wing government.

To be in the best position to present an alternative to sections of the population breaking with austerity policies from either the Tories or Labour, the left has to clearly position itself in the forefront of the attack on the Tories and the policies of the Tory-led coalition, and by setting out a radical reforming agenda for the government that replaces it.

In Britain, as in Europe as a whole, the struggle that is currently posed is for significant left reforms that can defend and improve the position of the working class and oppressed, but not yet directly the struggle for socialism. Given that this is the key current line of divide in the class struggle, the forces that must be united are not just all those that seek a socialist society, but all those that want these left reforms. Currents that falsely believe what is posed is an immediate struggle for socialism and seek to unite only forces committed to a fully fledged socialist society will condemn themselves to be narrow and practically irrelevant currents rather than contributing to a broad movement fighting for left wing and progressive reforms.

Alongside developments to its left, a right-wing social democratic government in power, as shown by historical experience, will mean there is likely to be a rise of the fascist and racist right. The left therefore also has to link up with all sections of society that oppose the fascists and the far right today, even when the latter are in temporary electoral retreat while the Tories are in power. Not just historical experience but the present situation in Europe indicates such extreme-right forces will re-emerge with strengthened force once a Labour or Lab-Lib coalition government is created.

Of course, as the class struggle unfolds internationally, new events may develop that more immediately become the fundamental line of cleavage in the class struggle in Britain itself. For example, it is very possible there will be a military intervention by imperialism that goes beyond its semi-covert action in Syria – which much of the left has been painfully slow to understand – and a new offensive in the region involving a direct assault upon Iran or Hezbollah is clearly possible.

But the overall perspective for the left in Britain today is to build a current that is opposed to imperialist war and interventions, resists and promotes alternatives to austerity and cuts, stands up against all forms of racism without equivocation, and supports the measures necessary to protect the planet from climate change.

Respect is the current that stands best placed to take the left forward in the current strategic situation in Britain because – as opposed to other projected ‘left alternatives’ to Labour – these positions form its fundamental basis.