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Commentary :: International
The dead-end of European capitalism and the tasks of the working class
15 Mar 2006
On January 1, the national Russian energy company GASPROM cut off gas supplies to the Ukraine in order to enforce a five-fold price increase. As a former Soviet republic, the Ukraine had previously received Russian gas for the special price of $50 for 1,000 cubic metres—just one-fifth of the world price.
A compromise defused the conflict after a few days, but the fundamental problems remain.
Alexander Rahr, a German expert on Russian affairs, pointed out that throughout the Cold War, Moscow had never used its “most effective instrument of power”—the “energy weapon”. He concluded that the fact that the Kremlin was now using this “weapon” represented a new stage in the development of the international situation.
He connected the “gas war” to the growing encirclement of Russia by the US and the increasingly embittered relations between Moscow and Washington.
According to Rahr: “After the loss of its influence on the Ukraine, Russia, during the first half of the year, also had to accept the loss of its sphere of interest in the South Caucasus and vacate its military bases in Georgia. With the opening up of the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline, Moscow had lost to the West its monopoly over energy supplies from the Caspian region.
“It did not take long for Russia to respond: in the summer, the Shanghai Organization for Co-operation was reorganized into a political-military alliance under Russian-Chinese leadership and American military bases were driven out of central Asia. India, Pakistan, Iran and Belarus joined as observers to the new centre of power—as a counter to the uni-polar world order that the US would like to see. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were obliged to ensure that their gas supplies to the West circumvented Russia. Russia set aside existing agreements and began to build up anti-missile defence systems with Iran and Syria.
“The US reacted by announcing the expansion of its military presence on the west coast of the Black Sea, and the stationing of an American anti-missile defence system in Poland, and by integrating the Ukraine more closely into the structures of NATO and driving Russia out of its naval bases in the Crimea.”
The conflict over gas supplies that took place at the start of the year thus anticipated future confrontations between the great powers over the control of energy supplies—a conflict that will far exceed those surrounding the Iraq war, a point to which I will return later.
The second important development is the exposure of the German secret service’s participation in the Iraq war. There could be no more damning indictment of the cynical and deceitful character of Germany’s former Social Democratic Party (SPD)-Green Party government. In its official statements, the government rejected the Iraq war and criticized it as mistaken. But in practice, the German government not only made its air space available and guaranteed the security of US bases in Germany. Its secret service was also directly involved in the war.
This shows that not a single government in Europe was, or is, prepared to oppose American militarist aggression. The disastrous polices of US imperialism in Iraq have also accelerated the decline and crisis in Europe. In order to understand this process, it is necessary to review the analysis that we made one and a half decades ago, at the beginning of capitalist restoration in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
Fifteen years ago, when the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union collapsed, we explained this was an expression of the deep crisis of world imperialism.
In a 1990 statement on the disintegration of East Germany, we wrote: “The collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe marks the collapse of the economic and political equilibrium on which the relative stability of imperialism was based since the Second World War. The chain of imperialism has broken at its weakest link in Eastern Europe... The bankruptcy of Stalinism does not augur the opening up of new period of capitalist growth, but a new revolutionary epoch, a new period of embittered class warfare and wars in which the bourgeoisie will attempt to establish a new equilibrium on the bones of workers, while the possibility arises for the working class of overthrowing imperialism world-wide.” [1]
If one considers that at that time, the fall of the Berlin Wall was generally celebrated (or regretted by some—depending on their point of view) as the triumph of capitalism, our statement was a very far-sighted declaration. Fifteen years later, it has been entirely confirmed. American and European imperialism are in deep crisis. All the domestic and external contradictions that beset Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, leading to violent class warfare and two world wars, are erupting again today.
American imperialism regarded the end of the Soviet Union as an opportunity to attain unchallenged world domination and expand its supremacy across those regions of the globe that had formerly been under Soviet influence.
European and, in particular, German imperialism, regarded the fall of the Berlin Wall as an opportunity to shake off American supremacy, expand the European Union into Eastern Europe and develop into a power that—economically and militarily—was on a par with, or superior to, the US.
In January 1991, a military alliance led by the US attacked Iraq. It was the beginning of a prolonged series of attempts to expand American hegemony by military means. Then followed the war against Yugoslavia, the eastward expansion of NATO, the war against Afghanistan, the stationing of troops in central Asia and the second Iraq war.
In the same year, 1991, the European heads of government met in Maastricht in December and made plans for the transformation of the European Community into a political union; the introduction of a common currency able to compete with the dollar; a common foreign and security policy, which would enable Europe to act politically and militarily independently from the US; close co-operation regarding policing and jurisprudence; and the eastward expansion of the European Union up to—and partially beyond—the borders of the former Soviet Union.
Nine years later, these plans were supplemented in the Lisbon statement, with its aim of transforming the European Union into the “most competitive and dynamic, science-based economic region in the world”.
The attempt to establish the US as the “solitary world power” has resulted in a military disaster, for which US imperialism has only one answer: additional and even more aggressive military adventures.
The European bourgeoisie has learnt the painful lesson that it is one thing to integrate the continent economically with the support of the US, but quite another to unite it politically against the US.
European Union in disarray
The European Union (EU) is in severe crisis. Apart from the expansion of police powers, the process of unification has experienced one setback after another. The European constitution failed because of differences between the various European governments, and in the face of widespread opposition from French and Dutch voters. There is no trace of a common foreign policy today. Militarily, the US-dominated NATO calls the tune in Europe. Britain will not join the euro-zone in the foreseeable future. And in the absence of any common financial and tax policy, the euro is increasingly less credible.
The US has used its powerful position in Europe to encourage intra-European conflicts. This became clear during the Iraq war when US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld provocatively referred to the divide between “old” and “new” Europe.
After the Second World War, the US assumed the role of arbitrator in European affairs. This is now no longer the case, and means that the old unresolved questions are emerging once again: Which nation will dominate Europe? How can a reunited Germany be kept under control? How can Britain prevent the dominance of a Franco-German axis? How can the smaller member states protect their interests against the bigger states? How can Poland prevent itself from being squeezed between Germany and Russia?
European governments are watching their neighbours warily, and none of them trust one another.
Trotsky was right when he wrote in 1915: “... a relatively complete economic union of Europe from above, by agreement between capitalist governments [is] a utopia. The issue cannot proceed beyond partial compromises and half measures. Therefore an economic unification of Europe, which is of great advantage both for producers and consumers and for cultural development as a whole, becomes a revolutionary task of the European proletariat in its fight against imperialist protectionism and its weapon—militarism.” [2]
The European bourgeoisie does not dare confront American imperialism—and this includes the German and French ruling classes who spoke out publicly against the Iraq war.
In Germany, the SPD and the Greens won the Bundestag (parliamentary) election in 2002 as a result of their official opposition to the Iraq war. But they did nothing to impede Washington’s unrestricted use of its bases on German soil for carrying out the war—although this was contrary to international law, as was later confirmed by the German high court.
The German and French governments did not oppose the war because of any scruples about international law, or doubts about the bombardment and military conquest of a largely defenceless country. They were exclusively motivated by their own economic and strategic interests in the Gulf region, which they saw threatened by American aggression. After the war had begun, they lined up unreservedly in favour of military victory for the invaders.
While millions took to the streets in Germany to oppose the war, the Greens leader and foreign minister at the time, Joschka Fischer, and Chancellor Schröder’s chief-of-staff Frank-Walter Steinmeier (now Germany’s new foreign minister) agreed to far-ranging co-operation with the US government behind the backs of the public. The German secret service supported the US in its hunt for Saddam Hussein and assisted the US military in identifying targets in Iraq to be attacked—as has recently come to light.
Later, the German government kept silent as German citizens were kidnapped and tortured by the CIA, while suppressing any criticism of Guantánamo Bay and other illegal US practices.
American imperialism’s aggressive assertion of strength confronted European governments with a dilemma. As we wrote at the beginning of the Iraq war, if they follow the US, they can only end up as American lackeys. If they oppose the US, they risk splitting Europe and a likely catastrophic military confrontation in the long-term.
This dilemma is posed in an acute form for Germany. In the conflict over the Iraq war, the government of Gerhard Schröder relied heavily on France and Russia, provoking fears that German foreign policy could become dependent on Paris or Moscow, who both pursued their own interests.
Then, as Russia turned off gas supplies to the Ukraine at the start of this year, the demand for new orientation in German foreign policy became louder. As a consequence of its dependence on Russia, Germany could be blackmailed—this was the fear frequently expressed in ruling circles.
Since then, the new German Chancellor, Christian Democrat Angela Merkel, has been attempting to shift the axis of German foreign policy increasingly toward Washington. “Closer to America, more realistic with Russia, more competitive with China” was the new foreign policy line, according to one newspaper.
But so far, this re-orientation has been limited to diplomatic gestures. The tensions between Washington and Berlin have deeper causes that cannot be overcome simply through diplomacy.
Energy conflicts
In the struggle for the re-division of the world, America and Germany, as well as the other European powers, confront each other as rivals. It would require an extensive investigation to fully analyze the current complex network of international trade relations. I want to limit my remarks to one question that is increasingly becoming the focus of dispute in international relations: the securing of long-term energy supplies.
Most worldwide energy consumption is provided by fossil fuels—oil, natural gas and coal. Such resources are finite. Scientific estimations of the extent of these resources vary. It is widely acknowledged, however, that supplies will dry up in a matter of decades. Within 20 to 60 years, world demand will clearly exceed existing resources.
While the growing energy needs of China and the consequences of the Iraq war have already led to rising prices, future conflicts will inevitably lead to supply shortages, and threaten entire national economies. Access to energy sources, therefore, has become a question of survival for the ruling elites all over the world—and an issue for which they are prepared to resort to military measures. It plays just as important a role as access to coal and steel reserves did in the period before the First and Second World Wars.
Germany is particularly vulnerable. Apart from relatively inefficient brown coal, extremely expensive deep-mined coal and limited gas deposits, it has no energy reserves of its own. It obtains three quarters of its power requirements from foreign sources and imports 97 percent of its oil, 83 percent of its natural gas and 60 percent of its deep-mined coal requirements.
These three sources of energy, together with German brown coal, constitute 84 percent of Germany’s primary energy consumption. Only 13 percent is derived from nuclear energy (the fuel for these reactors also has to be imported) and 3 percent from renewable energy sources.
A substantial portion of German energy imports comes from Russia. Last year, Germany obtained 43 percent of its natural gas, 34 percent of its oil and 16 percent of its deep-mined coal from Russian sources.
Although this is a matter of rising concern in German ruling circles, such dependence will continue to grow following the construction of the Baltic Sea pipeline, which is due to be finished in 2010 and will connect Russia directly with Germany. A major incentive for the new pipeline was the Iraq war, which has destabilized the Gulf region and placed it under American domination. The Gulf not only contains the world’s largest oil deposits. Iran has the world’s second largest natural gas reserves after Russia.
The dispute over gas between Russia and the Ukraine led to loud demands in Germany for a greater diversification of its power supplies. But that is more easily said than done. Wherever one looks—to central Asia, the Middle East, north and central Africa or Latin America—energy reserves are located in regions in crisis, where other great powers are already striving to strengthen their influence. Securing energy supplies is increasingly being reduced to an issue of political and military power.
The ruling class in Germany is fully conscious of these developments. Policy guidelines drawn up for the German Army in the 1990s aimed at its transformation from a defensive to an international strike force. Its future task was identified as the “promotion and securing of world-wide political, economic, military and economic stability”, as well as the “maintenance of free world trade and access to strategic raw materials”.
Thus, in the Russian-Ukrainian gas dispute, we are undoubtedly witnessing the advent of international conflicts involving all the major great powers.
The growing international conflicts have been accompanied by comprehensive attacks on the working class. Particularly over the past five to six years, we have seen a tremendous acceleration of social decline in Europe.
An important factor has been the eastward expansion of the European Union—the effects of which were already noticeable during the official entry of new members in 2004. European companies suddenly had access to a huge supply of cheap, well-trained workers within a relatively limited geographic space. These workers are now being systematically used to lower living standards throughout Europe.
The wage differential within the European Union is enormous. One working hour in Scandinavia, Germany, Britain and France costs between 25 and 30 euros. In Poland it is 5 euros, in the Baltic states and Slovakia 4 euros, and in Bulgaria, the next candidate for EU admission, just 1.40 euros.
Average gross wages in companies employing more than ten people vary in the major Western European countries from 2,500 to 3,300 euros per month. In Poland they are 540 euros a month, in Lithuania 345 euros and Latvia about 208 euros.
This downward spiral takes place within a small area. From the German capital Berlin to the Polish border is just 100 kilometres, to the Latvian capital of Riga just over 1,000 km. Across a distance of 1,000 km, there is a wage differential of over 90 percent.
The amounts spent on social and welfare payments—pensions, health, social welfare assistance etc.—also vary greatly. Sweden spends €10,000 annually per inhabitant. In Poland, 250 km to the east, it is €1,100 and on the other side of the Baltic Sea in Latvia €590.
Following accession to the European Union, wages in the largest of the new East European member states actually dropped. According to official EU statistics, the average wage in Poland sank from €625 per month in 2001 to €536 in 2003. One reason is that many Polish companies have shifted to the neighbouring Ukraine, where the average wage amounts to €50. That is less than 10 percent of average Polish wages and just 1.7 percent of the Western European average.
The general standard of living in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was already lower than in Western Europe before the reintroduction of capitalism, but above all today’s catastrophic conditions are the result of the restoration of the free market. It brought about a level of destruction of productive capacities and social infrastructure, unparalleled in peacetime.
This was poignantly and effectively demonstrated in a documentary film, which we reviewed recently on the WSWS. It deals with the lives of two women, a doctor from Russia and a music teacher from Belarus, whose fates are typical for hundreds of thousands. Both women spend their entire lives travelling to the Polish capital Warsaw, to sell their wares at the local bric-a-brac market.
The doctor, a cardiologist who formerly headed a health centre, now regularly makes a dangerous 14-day journey of 4,000 km, enduring hours of ice-cold weather, to smuggle goods over the border. Through the sale of her wares, she earns a maximum of $100 per journey. This typifies senseless waste of mental and physical resources now commonplace in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
On the other side of the social divide is the phenomena of the “new Russians” who possess millions—in some cases billions—of US dollars, live in expensive mansions, drive luxury Western cars, and have displaced even the Americans from the top holiday resorts in the French Riviera and Swiss Alps. They became rich by plundering the state property of the former Soviet Union—the most comprehensive act of robbery in modern history.
In Western Europe, the bourgeoisie is currently wiping out all the remaining social and political achievements that the working class had fought for during the post-war period.
There is only limited data available on the extent of this social decline. There are—partly outdated—statistics on unemployment, income and social inequality. There are barely any figures dealing with the consequences of the unceasing cuts to health provisions, pensions, education and local services. These cutbacks have had devastating effects in societies where free access to education up to university level, comprehensive publicly-financed health systems and well-developed public infrastructure were major factors in living standards.
The official unemployment rate in the 25 EU member countries was about 8.5 percent in October 2005. This statistic says little, because the methods of measuring unemployment are constantly changing and the numbers do not accurately reflect real unemployment. In addition, rates vary widely according to region, from under 5 percent in Ireland, Britain, Denmark and the Netherlands, and just over 10 percent in Germany and France, to almost 20 percent in Poland and Slovakia.
Official unemployment rates are even higher in local regions and among young people. Nearly every European country has areas where unemployment lies between 25 and 40 percent. Almost one fifth of all Europeans under 25 years of age have no work; in Poland the figure is 38 percent.
These figures are only a pale reflection of the real level of social reversal. New forms of unpaid or very low-paid work, such as internships and volunteering, which do not appear in the statistics, are developing at a cancerous rate. In the Netherlands—the European front runner—21 percent of male and 74 percent of female workers now have part-time jobs, with corresponding low incomes.
Even a university degree no longer guarantees a job, let alone well-paid employment. A broad layer of well-trained university graduates are being proletarianized—a fact that is of some significance for the development of our movement.
In 2001, prior to the EU’s eastward expansion, approximately 15 percent of the EU population, or 68 million persons, lived in poverty. Children and women were particularly hard hit. In first place was Italy, with a poverty rate of 20 percent.
The situation is much worse in the new member states, where large areas are plagued by intolerable living conditions. In the Baltic states, more than one-third of households live in unsatisfactory conditions. Between 20 and 25 percent lack a flushing toilet. This figure soars to 30 and 39 percent respectively for the EU candidate countries Bulgaria and Romania.
Worsening poverty and unemployment have produced a growth in suicide and the numbers of prisoners. Suicide is now the second most common form of death among young males aged between 15 and 30. Some 400,000 people are rotting in European prisons. This is less than the two million prisoners in the US, but significantly more than just a few years ago. In France, the number of prisoners has risen from 40,000 in 1981, to 56,000 in 2000 and is estimated to reach 70,000 by 2010. In the Netherlands, the prison population has doubled since 1990.
Class conflicts
Intense social contradictions have repeatedly found expression in violent class confrontations, which have only failed to develop into revolutionary conflicts because the working class lacks any independent political orientation following decades of domination by the social democratic and Stalinist bureaucracies.
A brief review indicates the intensity of these struggles during the past few years. I have selected the period from spring 2001 to spring 2004 in just one country, Italy, during the first three years in office of the Berlusconi government.
In July 2001, only two months after Berlusconi assumed office, 100,000 demonstrated in Genoa against the G8 summit. One demonstrator was shot, following brutal police actions.
The following year, 2002, saw a wave of political and social protests:
* In March, half a million demonstrated in Rome against “the creeping undermining of the constitutional state” by the government. This demonstration was not organized by the official opposition or trade unions, but rather by artists and intellectuals.
* Two weeks later, two million demonstrated throughout Italy against the dismantling of the welfare state.
* In April, 13 million workers took part in a general strike to defend laws providing protection against dismissal.
* In October, 13 million took part in another general strike, and one million took to the streets in Rome, Turin and other cities. Factories, stations and motorways were occupied.
* Protest, strikes, demonstrations and occupations against the dismantling of 300,000 jobs took place throughout the autumn.
In the following year, on February 15, 2003, the largest single demonstration in Europe took place in Rome against the Iraq war. Three million protested against the Berlusconi government’s support for the war. In April, further anti-war demonstrations took place, involving hundreds of thousand of participants.
October 2003 witnessed yet another general strike, with approximately ten million participants—this time for the defence of pensions.
In March 2004, one million again took to the streets of Rome on the anniversary of the Iraq war.
I will stop here; the list could easily be expanded. This brief review makes clear the intensity and extent of the social and political protests that have taken place.
The situation is similar in France, where the list of strikes and protest demonstrations is even longer than in Italy. I will not go into detail but can give you one interesting statistic—the number of working days lost through strikes.
1995 was a record year, with a total of 5.8 million working days lost—2.1 million in the private sector and 3.7 million in the public sector. It was a year of mass protests and strikes against the conservative government headed by Alain Juppé, who was forced to resign the next year, only to be replaced by a leftist coalition under the Socialist Party leader Lionel Jospin.
Initially, the level of strikes under the Jospin government decreased considerably—in 1997 just half a million working days were lost. But when Jospin failed to fulfil his election promises, the number of strikes and protests once again rose rapidly. In 2000, the number of working days lost through strikes rose to 3.1 million. In 2002, Jospin suffered defeat in the presidential elections and the conservatives returned to power.
Since then, although there have been fewer strikes, France has instead witnessed a powerful political mobilization. During the presidential elections in 2002 the whole country was rocked for weeks by demonstrations against the National Front of Jean Marie Le Pen, who was able to make it to the second round of voting. Last year saw French voters reject the European constitution in a referendum. Last autumn, the accumulated rage, frustration and indignation of unemployed youth exploded in disturbances, which, within the space of a few days, had spread to 250 cities. The protests were only put down after three weeks by a huge police deployment.
There has also been a significant social mobilization in Germany during the past few years. In terms of numbers, the protests were smaller than in Italy and France. This is bound up with the political traditions of the country and the corporatist structures built into its legal system, making it easier for the trade unions to keep such movements under their control. But Germany also saw a number of remarkable developments.
In the spring of 2004, 500,000 took part in demonstrations against welfare cuts implemented by the SPD-Green government. This was twice as many as organizers expected. In the summer of the same year, a series of demonstrations against the government’s “Hartz” labour reforms took place, completely independently of the trade unions and political parties. Over a period of weeks, tens of thousands took to the streets each Monday. We assessed these demonstrations at the time as “an unmistakable sign that something is moving in the depths of society”.
Political experiences
Without exaggeration, all these social struggles were, in one way or another, betrayed or beheaded by the trade unions or reformist parties, without ever achieving their aims. Nevertheless, they are significant: millions of workers and young people have gone through important political experiences.
They have seen that they cannot stop the social assault under the leadership of their old organizations—the reformist and Stalinist parties and the trade unions. All attempts to force the established political parties to change course have proved fruitless.
When, under the pressure of protests, the ruling class felt forced to make tactical retreats, it was only the prelude to new, even sharper attacks. Where popular pressure resulted in the election of a so-called “left” government, the attacks of their right-wing predecessors were continued in an intensified form. The old organizations, which once claimed to represent the interests of the working class, have integrated themselves entirely into the apparatus of bourgeois rule. The terms “left” and “right” have become politically insignificant.
The established political parties reacted to the growth of social struggles by closing ranks and moving further to the right. The grand coalition government in Germany—comprising the SPD and the conservative Christian Democratic parties—is symptomatic of this process.
Everywhere in Europe the ruling class has reacted to popular protest by boosting the powers of the state apparatus. The “fight against terror” has become a fig leaf for the most comprehensive attacks on democratic rights since the collapse of the Hitler regime.
In France, the government of Jacques Chirac reacted to the recent rebellions in the Paris suburbs by re-activating a law going back to the Algerian war, and proclaiming a state of emergency for three months. In Germany, the political elite swept aside its own constitution in order to stage early elections and a change of government in a manner that can only be described as a “cold coup d’état”. In Italy, Berlusconi arbitrarily altered the country’s electoral laws and created the constitutional conditions for a presidential dictatorship.
The complete bankruptcy of social reformism in all its forms—the trade unions, social democracy, and the various Stalinist and petty bourgeois radical parties—is the key to understanding the political situation in Europe today. From this standpoint, the working class has gone through decisive experiences over past years. But socialist consciousness does not develop automatically from these experiences.
It is our task to generalize these experiences, to elevate political consciousness and draw out the necessary political conclusions. The attacks on social and democratic rights can only be repelled by an independent political movement of the working class on the basis of an international, socialist programme. An organizational, political and ideological break with social reformism in all its forms is the precondition for such a movement.
In the introduction to his History of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky described the social and psychological conditions necessary for a revolutionary development of the masses.
“The swift changes of mass views and moods in an epoch of revolution thus derive not from the flexibility and mobility of man’s mind, but just the opposite from its deep conservatism. The chronic lag of ideas and relations behind new objective conditions, right up to the moment, when the latter crash over people in the form of a catastrophe, is what creates, in a period of revolution, the leaping movement of ideas and passions ...”
And further: “The masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social re-construction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old regime. Only the guiding layers of a class have a political program, and even this requires the test of events and the approval of the masses. The fundamental political process of the revolution thus consists of gradual comprehension by a class of the problems arising from the social crisis—the active orientation of the masses by a method of successive approximations.” [3]
If one analyzes the social and political situation in Europe from the standpoint of the experiences made by the working class in recent years, then it is clear that we are moving into such an epoch. A “sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old regime” is omnipresent. The 15,000 votes that the Socialist Equality Party received in the Bundestag elections last autumn is also a clear sign of an emerging radicalization.
We can reckon with a powerful expansion in our forces and influence in the coming period, and we will develop into an important factor in political events. A precondition for such a development is that we do not adapt to prevailing political pressures, or capitulate to reformist and centrist conceptions.
With the decline in influence of the Social Democrats and Stalinism, the European bourgeoisie is dependent on new left props. In France, the Pabloite Ligue Communiste Revolutionaire (LCR) is preparing to enter a “left” government. A political settling of accounts with Pabloism is therefore of great importance.
A half-century ago, Michael Pablo and Ernest Mandel developed the theory that the socialist revolution would not proceed through an independent movement of the working class under the banner of the Fourth International but rather through the Stalinist bureaucracy, which would shift to the left under pressure from the masses. They also extended this concept to include other political tendencies such as petty bourgeois nationalists like Fidel Castro and the Sandinistas, as well as applying it to social democracy and the trade unions.
Capitalist restoration in the Soviet Union and the utter bankruptcy of bourgeois nationalism, social reformism and the trade unions have put the final nails into the coffin of this theory. The reaction of the Pabloites and petty bourgeois radicals has been to integrate themselves even more completely into the bourgeois state. Rather than representing any expression of popular revolt, these organizations are nothing more than the left flank of the bourgeois superstructure.
This is especially clear in France, where class conflicts take an extreme form and where, for historical reasons, Pabloite opportunism plays a particularly influential role.
For some time, the French bourgeoisie has found an almost inexhaustible reservoir among the milieu of ex-Trotskyists and radicals for a new generation of politicians and intellectuals. Edwy Plenel, the longstanding editor-in-chief of Le Monde, was for ten years a member of the Pabloite LCR. He writes in his memoirs of “several tens of thousands” who were active in the sixties and seventies in radical groups and who have since “rejected their militant teachings”. Today, such people can be found in editorial offices, university philosophical faculties and political parties throughout France.
After the strike movement in the winter of 1995-96 precipitated a severe crisis for the conservative government of Alain Juppé, the ruling class appointed a prime minister who had spent 20 years of his political life—from the mid-sixties to the mid-eighties—in the Organisation Communiste Internationaliste (OCI) of Pierre Lambert.
As a secret OCI member, Lionel Jospin had joined the Socialist Party in 1971 and backed the ascendancy of François Mitterrand. When Mitterrand became French president in 1981, Jospin was national secretary of the Socialist Party and still a member of the OCI.
As prime minister, Jospin struck a pose as a “left”, who, unlike Tony Blair in Britain or Gerhard Schröder in Germany, would not capitulate to neo-liberalism. In fact, in terms of their content, his policies hardly differed from those of Blair and Schröder. Five years later, Jospin was so discredited that he lost in the first round of the presidential elections to office holder Jacques Chirac and Jean Marie Le Pen of the National Front.
At the time, the LCR played an important role in curbing and pacifying the spontaneous mass movement against Le Pen, directing it into support for Chirac. Our movement actively intervened in these events and reported in detail on what took place.
Three radical groups—the LCR, Lutte Ouvrière and the OCI—whose candidates received a combined 10 percent of the vote, either called for support for Chirac or adopted a passive position. For our part, we opposed a vote in favour of Chirac and called for an active election boycott. Such a tactic was necessary in order to provide the working class with an independent political alternative and to politically educate it in preparation for the coming struggles.
Developments since then have completely confirmed our prognosis. The election campaign enabled Chirac, who was an unpopular president entangled in corruption scandals, to make a political comeback. He exploited the opportunity to also win a majority two months later in the National Assembly (parliament). He thereby acquired an authority that bore no relation to his actual social support.
As we forecast at the time, Chirac used this power to pave the way for the most reactionary forces. Since then, Nicolas Sarkozy, a man who shares much the same programme as the National Front, has taken over the leadership of Chirac’s party. The Pabloites of the LCR bear direct political responsibility for this development.
Popular Frontism
These forces are now working feverishly to revive the sort of “left coalition” that failed so dismally under Jospin. Both within the LCR and among its possible coalition partners, a discussion is taking place over whether, and under what conditions, the Pabloites should take part in government.
At a recent meeting organized by the Stalinist daily L’Humanité, the LCR speaker Olivier Besancenot laid out the basis for LCR support for a unified left candidacy at the next elections.
According to Besancenot, a precondition is “majority politics against [economic] liberalism,” which are “clearly anti-capitalist”. In fact, this precondition is so broad that a whale could swim through it. Virtually the entire political spectrum in France is prepared to declare its opposition to some form of “liberalism”—including right-wing bourgeois parties. Even the most right-wing socialists proclaim they are “anti-capitalist”.
The LCR is already co-operating closely with the Stalinists. The leading committees of the French Communist Party (PCF) and the LCR meet at regular intervals to agree on common initiatives and activities. Last October, the LCR put its signature to a joint leaflet in the name of the Socialist Party, the Greens, Left Radicals and the PCF calling for a trade union demonstration.
When the chairman of the Socialist Party, François Hollande, was asked directly by the newspaper Le Figaro whether he was ready to govern with the LCR, he replied evasively: “We are ready to assemble the entire left around a government contract.”
The draft resolution for the LCR’s 16th Congress, which is meeting as we speak, calls for a kind of Popular Front. The resolution proposes a “unified policy” of “social movements, as well as the anti-liberals and anti-capitalist left”, around “developing a counter-attack to the neo-liberal offensive and the nationalist right”. On the basis “of a program of urgent social and democratic measures ... a new balance of power is to be created against liberal politics”.
The meaning of these formulations is unmistakable: on the basis of a program of minimal social and democratic demands, the LCR wants to unite the parties that were involved in the Jospin government, as well as other movements such as Attac and sans papiers (which campaigns for immigrant rights), in order to construct a new government should the conservatives lose control. Like its historical predecessor—the Popular Front government under Leon Blum in the 1930s—such a government would have the task of saving French capitalism in a period of intense social crisis.
The Pabloites have already carried out a similar move in Brazil where one of their members is a minister in the government of President Ignazio “Lula” da Silva.
The fact that representatives of the French bourgeoisie are discussing the inclusion of the Pabloites in government is an expression of the depth of the political crisis. The political battle lines have become clear. There is nothing standing between the revolutionary perspective of the International Committee and the defenders of bourgeois rule.
The Pabloites have also played a significant role in defending the bourgeois order in Italy. Rifondazione Communista (RF), which emerged in 1991 out of the collapse of Italy’s Communist Party, has for some time been a role model for petty bourgeois radicals throughout Europe.
Most of the Italian radicals have closed ranks with RF. Up to his death in 2004, the prominent Italian Pabloite, Livio Maitan, was one of the most important advisors to RF head Fausto Bertinotti. Two years ago, a member of Maitan’s tendency described Rifondazione as a tool, “by which we could, through a complex process of collisions, breaks, experiments, openings and regroupings, move towards the reorganization of a new revolutionary political subject”. [4]
Rifondazione is no such thing. Any serious investigation of its role shows that it represents a crucial obstacle to the emergence of an independent, socialist orientation in the working class.
During the political crises of the 1990s, Rifondazione ensured a parliamentary majority for a number of bourgeois governments, although it did not join any government itself and endeavoured to keep one foot in the extra-parliamentary protest movements.
In the summer of 2003, at the height of the social protests when the Berlusconi government was under mounting pressure, party chief Bertinotti declared his readiness to agree on a program for centre-left parties and to participate as a minister in a future government under Romano Prodi.
In Germany, the Left Party led by Gregor Gysi and Oskar Lafontaine is striving to establish a new left prop for bourgeois rule. Their claim to represent an alternative to the established parties is even more threadbare and improbable than in the case of Rifondazione.
The Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), which is the successor organization to the state party in the former East Germany, has long since established its pro-capitalist credentials. It shares political power in the city government of Berlin and in East Germany. The capital is saddled in debt, and under PDS rule has become the frontrunner for cuts in education, hospitals and other public facilities elsewhere in Germany. The SPD-PDS city legislature demanded that Berlin’s public transport employees accept an overall wage cut of 10 percent.
In 1998, Oskar Lafontaine, who now leads the parliamentary faction of the Left Party together with Gregor Gysi, was SPD chairman and architect of Gerhard Schröder’s election victory. For his services, Lafontaine was appointed as finance minister in the SPD-Green coalition. Formerly, he had made his political career as a state premier in the Saarland, where he was instrumental in closing down the region’s coal and steel industries.
The Left Party does not even question the basis of capitalism. Its program is limited to social reforms within the confines of the nation state, which it vehemently defends. Its proclaimed aim is to participate at the national level in a coalition with the SPD.
Widespread disappointment and anger with the SPD meant the Left Party was able to pick up votes in last year’s election, overtake the Greens and enter the Bundestag with its own parliamentary group. However, parliamentary success has not brought about any sizable growth in membership and the party’s opinion poll ratings have been sinking for some time. The party’s active membership comprises old-time trade union bureaucrats in the west and former Stalinist supporters in the east.
Once again, it is the pseudo-Trotskyists and Pabloites who are seeking to depict the Left Party in the rosiest of colours and breathe new life into what is a very conservative organization. Following the capitalist reunification of Germany, a number of prominent German representatives of the Pabloite United Secretariat joined the PDS. Now German followers of the Militant Tendency and International Socialists are campaigning intensively for the Left Party.
In summing up, one can say that the social and political crisis of European capitalism has reached a very advanced stage.
The European Union is stuck in a dead-end; international conflicts and tensions within Europe are intensifying, social inequality has developed on a vast scale, the living standards of broad social layers are sinking, and the working class has gone through many bitter experiences with its old organizations.
It is our task to give conscious expression to these experiences, draw the necessary political lessons and untiringly defend all democratic and social rights. The socialist unification of Europe—as Trotsky said, a “revolutionary task of the European proletariat”—now assumes direct practical significance.
At the centre of these tasks lies the development of the European work of the World Socialist Web Site. We must write more, and more often, we must be more thorough and more polemical. At the same time, we should use the opportunities opening up to us to actively intervene in political developments—such as participation in elections.

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