Tag Archives: international

The Future of Sandinismo

Nicaragua FSLN Revolución y Victoria

Sam Gordon writes from Nicaragua on the history and prospects for the Sandinistas

The decade of the 1980s was hard time for the political Left. Britain had the Thatcher government; the USA had Ronald Reagan as president. After him George Bush continued the Republican Party rampage. In South Africa the Apartheid regime was slaughtering black people on its own streets. In South America the dictator Pinochet was consolidating his rule in Chile and the generals of Argentina had been “disappearing” people they didn’t like for some time.

At the end of 1981 Ronald Reagan fired 11000 USA striking air traffic control workers. British print workers fought a rearguard action against Rupert Murdoch’s News International and the London Metropolitan Police. Elsewhere in the country police forces fought members of the National Unions of Mineworkers on picket lines during a year long strike. It all ended up rather badly for the trade unions.

In defiance of many British Labour Party members the parliamentary leadership opened the door leading away from social democracy and towards neo-liberalism. Party leader Neil Kinnock, often with eloquent oratory, boasted about his council house upbringing and working class roots. But he was no match for Margaret Thatcher, daughter of a grocer and unheard of Conservative councillor who lived above the shop. History records that the handbag truly trumped the windbag.

A more radical political Right advanced. Its campaign not solely confined to domestic policy. The post Second World War consensus, with a voice for the poor, was declared no longer fit for purpose. In this new world order the Non Aligned Movement (NAM), a gathering of poorer nation known as the G77 and the United Nations funded United Nations Council for Trade and Developed (UNCTAD) became part of a lost legion. The once influential voice of Liberation Theology – putting forward “God’s option for the poor” in the Catholic Church of Latin America was swept aside.

Nicaragua

In all this doom and gloom a lot of people, not only the committed Left, found a silver lining. That was the example of Nicaragua. The appealing sparkle of this small Central American republic didn’t only attract other Latin Americans. It caught the attention of people from Asia, the Arab world, Australia, North America and Europe. Scotland had its own Scottish Medical Aid for Nicaragua, a Non Governmental Organisation (NGO) specializing in health and education.

Much has been written about Nicaragua. The struggle of its people against the 30- plus- year Somoza family dictatorship, followed by a war on its democratic survival waged by dissatisfied Nicaraguans with training, support and funds from the USA, known as the Contra War. (Contra is Spanish for against). All this is a matter of public record. But the euphoria that accompanied the struggle of the 1980s has died away. Many First World Nicaragua activists of that era have moved on to other fronts of interest. And, truth be told, among many on the Left there is also a sense of letdown, even betrayal by those who led the Sandinista Popular Revolution of 1979.

My objective here is not to refresh the memory of readers concerning recent Nicaraguan history. Nor is it to point out the various, perceived or otherwise, failings, short comings, and sell outs that have so disillusioned and perplexed the Left. What I do hope to achieve is to place contemporary perceptions of Nicaragua today in a relevant context. From there, perhaps we might be better informed about the future options history will present to us.

A Starting Point

Nicaragua is a country with a distinct political life and tradition. Since 1979 there have been three main political camps. The oldest gathers around the green flag of conservatism. Stronger in the southern, Pacific side of the republic, its appeal is found among those favoring the big latifundista or land owners,  with an inward emphasis on the economy and the acceptance of an old and establishes social order. A place for everyone, where everyone knows their place.

Growing out of that have been various liberal parties. Historically their strongest support has been based around the northern regions of León and Chinandega. They gather around the red and white flag and are much more inclined towards an export led economy. It wouldn´t be too far off the mark to say they represent “new money” while the conservatives come from “old money.” The truth is that a lot of the new money families that dominate much of party political and economic life come from long established families that were once conservative.

Many of Nicaragua’s problems today stem from the fractious period of the mid 19th century. Then, both tendencies locked horns in debilitating squabbles and civil war. Opportunities to advance the nation state, even in a nationalist sense, were squandered by warring factions of the ruling classes. Interference from the USA further aggravated this.

The third political force in Nicaragua today is Sandinismo. The name comes from Augusto César Sandino, who had worked as a mechanic in the Mexican oil fields. Under a red and black banner and rejecting Marxism, he led an army, during an insurgency war in the 1930s. Some of this tradition continues in the form of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN), created in the 1960s. It is the largest single political party and is capable of mobilizing support from large sections the rural and urban poor.

Apart from these principal players there are other supporting roles to consider in the political drama. A good many people who were Sandinista activists during the 1980s no longer regularly engage in political activities. Liberalism has a number of different parties that seem unable to settle their differences. A splinter group from the FSLN also exists (1) as does a small party with roots going back to the Contra movement (2). Political parties with bases solely in the autonomous regions of the Atlantic coast make up another component.

At one time Nicaragua claimed over twenty political parties all vying for a voice in the National Assembly. Today, essentially, there are two competing groups; the ruling FSLN and the Liberals. Off stage, other acts come and go lending their own contribution to the political drama. A number of NGOs exist, often promoting a political agenda. Special interests, rights and pressure groups operating under a banner – their banner and one much used by commentator s- of Civil Society are both visible and vocal.

The Triumph Lost?

An armed struggle, which eventually drew active support from the wider Nicaraguan population, took much of its inspiration from the Cuban example of 1959.(3) On 19th July 1979 the Sandinista forces entered the capital city of Managua. Nicaraguans still refer to this as La Diecenueve, The 19th. But the political significance of time is best summed up as El Triumfo, The Triumph.

The Triumph of 1979 set out a bold thesis. Disbandment of the dictator’s armed forces, redistributive land reform, health services and education made accessible on a scale never seen before in Nicaragua, a new constitution, women in key government and administrative positions and other progressive reforms.

Agricultural cooperatives were set up, in line with Sandino’s original aspirations. Work brigades bolstered by young volunteers from the city helped harvest Nicaragua’s principle export, coffee. A wide range of skilled workers in health services, technical and higher education as well as areas of industrial and administrative expertise arrived from all over the world, often with their government’s direct or indirect support.

This was enough to evoke the wrath of the USA which trained and equipped the right wing, counter revolutionary Contra. The ensuing armed struggle took on the characteristics of low intensity warfare. It was successful in distorting the national economy and contributing to community tensions. Yet despite what the government in Washington said about the threat of communism down south in its back yard, large, medium sized and small privately owned businesses continued to struggle and survive in revolutionary Nicaragua. This war and many of the social programs officially ended when the FSLN, in the grip of war induced stress, lost the elections of 1990.

The loss of the Sandinistas has been explained away by some as a general tendency that was marked by the fall of the Berlin wall, the reunification of Germany and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The latter’s collapse came a year after the Sandinistas lost the elections.

This European attempt at socialism has been largely consigned to history books, with the odd derogatory comment by journalists of left and right persuasions, when hard pressed to give an explanation of unfolding history. But in this part of Central America Sandinismo clings on in the form of expanded health and education services, cooperative and women’s movements and a body of social aspiration not satisfied by neoliberalism.

Many commentators have said that Violeta Chamorro, the UNO candidate who won the elections, ended the war.(4) An alternative take on this would be to say that the Contra war ended in 1990, not because Violeta won, but at the same time, because the US deemed it unnecessary to support, supply and train the Contra. In the peace that came after the war a train of ideas and practices set in motion, rolling back the thesis of the Sandinista Popular Revolution.

Moving On – Going Back 

To the mid 20th century populist British Conservative Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, is accredited the saying; “don’t fall out with the Brigade of Guards (elite British military regiments), the Catholic Church or the National Union of Mine workers.” As a paradigm of British governance this lasted into the early 1980’s. That was when Thatcher and Reagan went on a union busting spree. It coincided with a related shift in US foreign policy.

As far as the US military establishment of the 1980’s was concerned communists were everywhere, particularly in southern Africa. Cuban solders with old Soviet tanks and other military equipment arrived in Angola to fight alongside the MPLA who were up against the Apartheid army of South Africa.(5) There were other threats in the region. Besides the African National Congress in South Africa, there was SWAPO (6) in South West Africa (now Namibia) and FRELIMO (7) in Mozambique. In Washington, policy makers turned from “containment” of communism to a “rollback” mode.(8)

This was the world of the 1990’s into which Nicaragua was thrust after years of dictatorship, guerrilla war, foreign military and economic intervention in their domestic affairs. The Sandinistas had presented their brave new thesis to the world. But the piper was playing the tune of structural adjustments paid for by the International Monetary Fund. The First World began celebrating the antitheses of the 1980’s.

In the Background

In his book, Eurocentrism, the Egyptian economist Samir Amin devotes considerable attention to metaphysics; its role in what he calls a tributary culture and its decline in the advance of capitalism. The tributary system Amin refers to takes in Europe but stretches well into Asia as far as India and China, the Arab world and much of Africa.  In the Atlantic countries of Europe this is usually called feudalism. Amin, a Marxist, does not deny nor diminish the rise of capitalism in Europe but consistently argues the case for the understated economic, social and cultural development of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

At the end of the 15th century Columbus opened the doors of Central America to European migration.  With it came the political perspectives and social attitudes particular to that time period. And the main vehicle, navies and armies apart, for transmitting these influences and structures was European religion, nothing less that the Catholic Church. At the core of the church, along with its doctrines and liturgies, snuggled close to spirituality was metaphysics; dimensions of reality that exist beyond the physical world which yet form part of human experience. Following Amin’s lead, a brief journey along the metaphysical route taken by Nicaragua may be worthwhile.

No visitor here will escape the importance of Christian beliefs in Nicaragua. Humble gathering places and modern temples of Protestant evangelism proclaim a variety of Christian interpretations. Baroque churches testify to the continuous, if somewhat challenged continuity, of Roman Catholicism. Street processions commemorating the Virgin Mary and a host of other honoured catholic dignitaries and saints are part of everyday life.

For many in Nicaragua saints are seen as a dependable entity. An actual example I know of will serve to illustrate this point. During a difficult labour a pregnant woman prayed to Saint Martin for help with her delivery. When the baby was born, presumably with the beneficial intervention of Saint Martin, the saint was duly honoured. The child was named Martin.

Unlike North America, in Nicaragua, there was not the same continuous flow of migrants during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The northern migrants brought diversity in language and cultural experience and a wider set of skills and knowledge in manufacture, commerce and intellectual traditions. In Nicaragua during the same period there was less industrialisation. It did not have the same volume of external and commercial influences as Panama, Costa Rica and El Salvador.

With the arrival of Europeans in Central America the seeds of capitalism were scattered and husbanded. In Nicaragua’s fertile land it grew and flourished, but unevenly. The few who controlled coffee, sugar, fruit, basic grains and to a lesser extent beef production, doubled in the role of political elites. In these brutal conditions the social order was established and maintained by the rule of the caudillo or strong man. Like other parts of Latin America, capitalism developed in what an advisor to Chile’s Salvador Allende, writing about modern industrial management, has referred to as conditions of low variety; that is, options were few.(9)

For those on or beyond the margins life was precarious. Paid work, was seasonal, casual, not well rewarded and at the whim of the patrón, or master.  In the material and social world of ill-developed capitalism, dependency was pervasive. Metaphysics reflected this reality. If good fortune came it was a case of ojala.   This is a Spanish word derived from Arabic, which literally means, “If Allah wants it.” In Catholic Nicaragua, for Allah read; The Virgin, Heavenly Father, or any number of saints.

After what was regarded as progress during the 1960s and 1970, the NAM, G77, and UNCTAD began to wane. Much of the First World Left did not recognise this for what it was; a systematic attack on opposition to the “reproduction of capital.”  In other words, it was the advance of imperialism.  Amin sums it up like this, “The collapse of the Soviet Union system also entailed the collapse of the social democratic model . . .” (10) There are still Social Democrats but the parties which laid claim to that tradition have broken faith and adopted neoliberalism. Who could the wretched of the earth now turn to if not to themselves?(11)

A Revolutionary Return?

First Lady Rosario Murillo, Coordinator of the Communication and Community Commission has described the present electoral period as the second stage of the Sandinista revolutionary government. This view has been reinforced by her frequent use of such phrases as; “the Nicaraguan family” and “Nicaragua – Christian, socialist and in solidarity.” This is a linear view of history.

A more dialectical portrayal of the present FSLN government might be expressed differently. In this case the present, the here and now, is a product of past activities and beliefs. The present is a working out of a future that has not yet achieved definition. It is a synthesis, not an end game. It is the preparation of a new thesis.  This begs a number of questions. Does the future of Sandinismo reach for the right or the left in political terms or will it wither on the vine. Will it follow the way of the caudillo or be inclusive and participatory? Above all, does it have the desire and capacity to be a transforming political force? That is, facilitating a radical and popular shift in power.

Some say the FSLN, with President Ortega as general secretary and his wife as the public voice of government, is already taking on some of the characteristics of the Institutional Revolutionary Party of Mexico. A view expressed by Monica Baltodana (12). The term “Ortegaismo” has been coined to describe what some see as the Ortega family’s high profile in state and commercial affairs. Another view claims that party, and therefore Ortega loyalists, have been placed in too many positions of national, municipal and civil society administration. No party occupies elective space to the left of the Sandinistas.

There are distant similarities to the populist presidency of General Juan Perón of Argentina during the 1940s. This saw social and welfare benefits for trade unionists and the urban poor, while “Peronista” officials were awarded key administrative positions. Sometimes images of Nicaragua’s presidential couple, sat at table with high ranking military and police officers, Sandinista trade union leaders, a cardinal and bishop of Managua are reminiscent of General Franco in Spain.

 A Change of Colours

It was a matter of some public knowledge that Manuel Calderón, mayor of the university city of León, did not have a good working relationship with Rosario Murillo. But it did come as a surprise when the FSLN political secretary of León delivered a demanding message from the First Lady to the mayor; that his anticipated resignation was not a matter for negotiation butone of immediate effect.

Manuel’s brother, a local catholic priest, organized a mass for the dismissed mayor, in the Church of the Hermitage. His sister, an official of León’s municipal theatre took a more dramatic and colourful approach. She announced on air, “me hermano es rojo y negro, no chichi /  my brother is red and black, not pink.” Chicha is a cheap soft drink made from ground maize, sweetened with sugar and made an insipid pink with artificial colouring.

In the election campaigns of 2006 and 2011 pink banners replaced some, but by no means all, of the old red and black. The colour has become synonymous with Rosario Morillo who is credited with managing both victorious campaigns. Rosario has become increasingly identified as the voice of government and people have quietly speculated that she could be the FSLN presidential candidate in the 2016 elections. She does not hold any elected position at present.

Civic Concerns

The Sandinista government has introduced a number of programs aimed at combating poverty, which few believe the Liberal opposition would have undertaken. Zero Hunger, Zero Usury, and Dignified Housing are just some of the social programs set in motion by the FSLN government. The purchases of Venezuelan diesel and petrol through ALBA have ensured that transport runs, services are delivered and the wheels of private industry keep turning. Yet, as with any democracy concerns have been voiced about those who hold public office. Sometimes the concerns are ephemeral or easily abated; others are more persistent. Below are listed some of the more notable concerns that have surfaced since the FSLN lost the 1990 elections.

Govern from below 1990

In a speech following the 1990 election loss Daniel vowed to keep “ruling from below” a reference to the power that the FSLN still wielded in various sectors. He also stressed his belief that the Sandinistas had the goal of bringing “dignity” to Latin America, and not necessarily to hold on to government.

“We will govern from below, we will govern from below, and we will govern from below. We will defend from below, we will defend from below”, he said at some length to the cheers of enthusiastic supporters.(13) The voters had decided that they did not want him to govern; that was clear. Although, he certainly retained the democratic entitlement to defend from below.

La Piñata 1990

A piñata often appears as a birthday treat. A cardboard mock up, usually in the form of an animal, the piñata is suspended from the branch of a tree or a beam in the roof of a house. An adult controls the height and swing of this with an attached rope. Young children then take turns to swipe at the piñata using a stick or base ball bat. To add to the fun the child is blind folded and the other children scream instructions; up, down, behind, etc. When the piñata has been battered to destruction sweets fall out and the screaming kids get into an unsightly scramble for the goodies which have fallen to the floor.

After the shock of losing the 1990 elections the word piñata entered into the political vocabulary of Nicaragua. The state had confiscated lands from Somoza collaborators and sympathizers, many of whom had fled to Miami. Cuba had donated a complete sugar refinery to the government. What to do with these resources? It was widely believed, and with good reason, that the new government would either pocket or privatize these resources. So, much was dispersed to FSLN members for safe keeping, until the return of Sandinismo. That’s when the word piñata became political.

Zoilamérica  1998 – . . .  

In the early days of March 1998 an event took place that in its own way was as shuddering as an eruption of one of Nicaragua’s many volcanoes. Zoilamérica, daughter of Rosario Murillo and adopted step daughter of Daniel Ortega, proclaimed to the world that she had been sexually abused as a child by Daniel over a period of many years. Commentators went into overdrive. Some claimed that this revelation followed a typical pattern of someone who had suffered prolonged sexual abuse. Zoilamérica, then 30 years of age, was denounced as a CIA plant, and worst of all, a sociologist. For others, presumption of innocence until proven guilty was a non starter.

Since then Zoilamérica petitioned the National Assembly to have Daniel’s parliamentary immunity to prosecution set aside so he could be prosecuted in the courts. The National Assembly which had a male majority refused to include the petition on its agenda. Through a Nicaraguan NGO, the Nicaraguan Human Rights Centre, she then filed a suit with the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) claiming denial of justice. In 2001 the case was declared admissible. Soon after, Daniel agreed to stand trial. But the judge said the case was closed as the statute of limitations – time limit in legal terms – had been exceeded. The following year the IACHR’s suggested both parties find a “friendly solution.” This was accepted. In 2003 Zoilamérica abandoned this legal avenue.

The family tragedy continues to rumble into farce.

El Pacto, Therapeutic Abortion, and More

In 1999 Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Aleman, Constitutional Liberal Party leader, found common ground. This became known as “El Pacto”, The Pact. Agreement was reached on what percentage of votes, given certain margins, would permit a particular presidential candidate the right to take office. There was also agreement on quotas of officials, with known political positions, holding key posts in the Supreme Court and the Supreme Electoral Council. This scandalized many Nicaraguans at the time and continues to exercise commentators. It has entered into the everyday currency of how political business is done in Nicaragua – from below. Today it looks like the FSLN has done rather well from El Pacto, with apparent control of important state institutions. Daniel Ortega won the presidential election of 2006 with less percentage vote than he lost the pre-Pact elections of 1990.

The right to what in Nicaragua is referred to as therapeutic abortion – termination of pregnancy when certain conditions were determined – existed on the statute books for over a hundred years. Before the 2006 election both Catholic and Protestant evangelical churches campaigned to change this law and deny women, under any circumstances, the long standing right. In the National Assembly the churches had their way. No Sandinista and few others, voted against the new law.

There are a number of other agreements and convergences affecting public life at national, municipal and community level.

The Future Begins Today

It’s been clear for some time that many national liberation movements of yesterday have succumbed to the interests of global capitalism. South Africa, Mozambique and Angola have all embraced neoliberalism and this has come to pass under governments of national liberation parties, claiming left credentials. The compliant position of Western governments and electorates has already been mentioned.

Given that, it’s reasonable to ask if Left political movements and those of us who support them really have any idea of where we want to go. What is “the world we want to see”, of which Amin writes? It should come as no surprise that there is a certain fogginess at this stage of history. One of the most successful strategies employed by today’s capitalism – aided by its cheerleader politicians and journalists – has been to convince us that neoliberalism is without ideology. It’s a question of, “that’s just the way things are.” Lost in the fog also is the influence of sections of the European Left which took such pride in its refined analytical capacity. The old Soviet Union was variously declared; real socialism, a degenerate worker’s state, a deformed worker’s state, state capitalism, a workers’ state with bureaucratic deformations . . . . Political parties, not to mention pubs, were so defined. The search for ideological exactitude in human behaviour can be exasperating at times, not to mention beneficial to the Right.

In Nicaragua Sandino is proudly remembered for his words, “Only the workers and the peasants will go all the way to the end.” Yet when he rejected Marxism in the 1930’s he also stepped back from any ideological identity. Some say he was of the anarcho-syndicalist tradition. The general was influenced by mysticism and had some contact with mystical and spiritual organisations.(14) An accomplished organiser, insurgency soldier, and inspirational leader, he left behind a political tradition favouring the poor. But he left little by way of a body of political ideas with economic and social structures on which to build a system of governance. Almost 80 years after his death his latter day followers seem to have little in the way of an ideological compass. Indeed, it appears to be the case that the die has already been cast to present Daniel Ortega as the party’s candidate for president at the 2016 elections. Not for the first time, questions of internal democracy and personality cult are raised.

The expression of ideology might be written up in libraries or drafted during conference discussions. But the ground work is done by men and women struggling with the powers that be and interacting with each other. Just now all seems quiet in Nicaragua. It’s almost like Yeats said, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”(15) Another internal challenge is to increase the variety of political options available to a long suffering people. The MRS has emerged from a section of a previously existing political class. Outside of those who have at one time or another come through the university education process, this party has at best patchy support among the popular, urban based classes. Daniel and the FSLN are seen as representing stability. That is pleasing to some, particularly those in government backed employment. For those not so fortunate the situation described as stable is seen more as stagnation; no work, little prospect of work unless they are identified as FSLN supporters, work that is often poorly paid.

Further away, the Arab Spring is still a work in progress. But it does show that mounting discontent will eventually have its day. Contrary to what the opposition to the FSLN often claim Nicaragua is not under a dictatorship. Neither is it a country which lives and breathes contesting political ideologies. Marxism is seldom spoken of; since the 1980s socialism seemed to have been forgotten until Hugo Chavez put it back on the agenda. But Nicaraguans, even at the level of formally uneducated and relatively uninformed poor, will speak of what is fair and just. Students, pensioners, transport workers and retired solders have all taken to the streets in popular protest during recent years. How the Sandinista government handles this discontent will affect the balance of support it can expect at the polls.

In a wider world, at least in Latin America, Fanon’s “wretched”, are awakening with new options. This is principally through the creation of structures such as ALBA – which is the Spanish word for dawn. Are Nicaragua’s old leaders able to rise with a new dawn, capable of stretching beyond stability and moving state and society along the road of transformation? Right now it looks like the present leaders, safe with apparent stability, have travelled as far as their hearts and minds permit them to go.

Notes and References

  1.  In 1995 a new party split off from the FSLN calling itself Movimiento de Renovación       Sandinista /Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS).
  2.  Former members of the Contra, their families and sympathizers stopped using the name Contra and formed a political party called the Partido Resistencia Nicaragüense / Nicaraguan Resistance Party in 1993.
  3.  Zimmermann, M. 2000 “Sandinista Carlos Fonseca and the Nicaragua Revolution” Duke University Press  Chapter 3 The Cuban Revolution 1958-1961
  4. Unión Nacional Opositora/ National Opposition Union (UNO) A group of opposition parties from the right, centre and left of Nicaraguan politics formed to oppose the FSLN at the 1990 elections.
  5.  MPLA   Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola / People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola
  6. SWAPO  South West African People’s Organisation
  7. FRELIMO      Frente de Libertação de Moçambique/ Mozambique Liberation Front
  8. Pashard. Vijay, 2012 “The Poorer Nations- A Possible History of the Global South” Verso Page 112
  9. Espejo, R. Harnden.R 1989 “The Viable System Model – Interpretations and Applications of Stafford Beer’s VSM” John Wiley and Sons  Page 56. Stafford Beer worked with the Popular Unity government on modernizing Chile’s economy prior to the 1973 military coup.
  10. Amin, S. 2008 “The World We Wish to See – Revolutionary Objectives in the Twenty-First Century” Monthly Review Press  Page 15
  11. The Wretched of the Earth is the title of book written about the Algerian war for Independence against France. Its author, psychiatrist Frantz Fanon from the Caribbean island of Martinique, was one of the movement’s leaders.
  12.  Friedman, Mike.  020308 Nicaragua: The First Year of the Ortega Government – A Balance Sheet mrzine.monthlyreview.org
  13.  Envio March 1990 Issue Number 104
  14. Mysticism was having something of resurgence during the 1920s and 30s. Sandino had ties with the Magnetical-Spiritual School of Universal Commune, which was founded around 1911 in Argentina and had followers in Mexico.
  15. Yates, W. B. 1919 “The Second Coming”

Socialism finding new strength in East and Central Europe

Fraktion DIE LINKE zeigt Sparpaket die Rote Karte

Bill Bonnar looks at the slow rebirth of the left in Eastern and Central Europe

Between 1989 and 1992 the peoples of central and eastern Europe abandoned ‘already existing socialism’ to enthusiastically embrace capitalism. Whatever the Left’s collective critique of this model of socialism it represented a catastrophic defeat for the Left internationally and a general discrediting of the entire idea of socialism. Two quotes probably summed up the feeling. ‘The socialist experiment which began in 1917 ended in 1989 and ended in failure’. (Martin Jacques, Marxism Today, 1993). ‘The collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century’. (George Galloway, 2010). The purpose of this article is not to delve into the reasons why after 40 years of socialism people flocked in their millions to welcome the free market system but rather to analyse where we are now. For the sake of this article it will not cover the Soviet Union, Yugloslavia and Albania but instead cover the former GDR, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. It will look at why socialism in these countries collapsed, what the experience of capitalism has been and where the Left is in these countries today.

WW2

The starting point must be to look at how socialism arrived in these countries. Germany, alongside Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria were part of the axis powers defeated primarily by the Soviet Union and then occupied. Poland had been divided between Germany and the Soviet Union. In none of these countries would the people have seen the Soviet Union as liberators. Only in Czechoslovakia were the Red Army treated as such. It is also interesting to note that again, only in Czechoslovakia was there a mass basis of support for socialism in the shape of the Communist Party which was probably the largest and most influential party in the country in 1945. Therefore in most of these countries socialism was imposed rather than welcomed.

From the start socialism was interconnected to Soviet security considerations. Given the experience of invasion during two world wars the Soviet Union wanted to create a security zone; later named the Warsaw Pact. This, rather than any ideological commitment to socialism was the Soviet Union’s prime concern. Evidence of this can be seen in Greece. After the war Greece was certainly ripe for socialism. The Communist Party was the largest party in the country. Ellas, a left wing partisan movement linked to the Communist Party was in effective control of large areas. Socialism had mass support while the monarchy and capitalist parties were divided and in crisis. Yet the Soviet Union put enormous pressure on the Communist Party not to take power a delay which allowed the Right to recover and emerge triumphant with the active support of Britain and America. It was later revealed that this was part of a secret deal between the Soviet Union, America and Britain in which the West ‘could have Greece’ while the Soviet Union ‘could have Romania’. Romania, rather than Greece was more useful to the Soviet Union as a buffer state. It is also worth pointing out that the primary reason for the Soviet interventions in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 was the belief in Moscow that these countries were about to pull out of the Warsaw Pact.

Stalinism

The second reason was in the nature of the socialist system which emerged in these countries. This can best be described as an authoritarian model of socialism; socialism without democracy. I am aware of the conflict inherent in this but bear with me. In the immediate post war years these regimes were overtly Stalinist in nature modelled closely on the Soviet Union. When Stalin died the Soviet Union developed a post Stalinist regime which removed the worst excesses of Stalinism while retaining the same authoritarian system. The countries outlined above followed a similar path with the exception of Romania. The lack of democracy created a specific problem. Authoritarian political systems are essentially rigid in nature fixed in a moment in time. However this doesn’t mean that the societies they preside over are unchanging. The irony is that these regimes oversaw the social and economic transformations of their societies for the better. War shattered, often pre-industrial economies were transformed into modern industrial system. Housing, health care, education and social care were greatly improved. Material living standards rose beyond all measure. While society was transformed the political system remained unchanged. What’s more the regimes saw all challenges to their system as a threat to be repressed, ruling out the possibility of reform. The exception to this was Czechoslovakia in 1968 when a movement to transform the system into ‘socialism with a human face’ was led from within the Communist Party only to be crushed by a Soviet intervention.

Democracy

The lack of democracy also created something else. Democracy is a very efficient political system because it is not fixed. As the economic and social base of society changes a democratic political system will adapt to these changes and change accordingly thus moving at one with society.

At the same time if individuals or groups have grievances they have the opportunity to resolve these grievances in a democratic system. With an authoritarian system there is often nowhere to resolve problems so they fester and link up with other grievances and soon the grievance becomes generalised against the system. This was very much the experience in Eastern Europe.

By 1989 it could be said that socialism collapsed because it had no mass basis of support; the exception being in Bulgaria where the collapse of socialism was greeted by a general air of disbelief.

Capitalism

As could have been predicted the introduction of capitalism proved well short of being the ‘promised land’. The initial impact was a generalised economic collapse as industry after industry closed down. Hitherto extensive social provision was decimated while living standards plunged. Some countries such as Bulgaria and Romania have remained in this phase. The other countries have recovered a point although this development has been very uneven. Twenty five years on all these societies suffer extreme economic and social problems many largely unheard of under socialism. At the same time the world economic crisis caused by the banking disaster battered these economies exacerbating many of these problems.

What has been the political response to this? The political spectrum basically divides into three; the Radical Left, the Centre and the Radical Right. The Centre Parties emerged strongly in the initial post socialist period embracing the new age of capitalism. Some described themselves as Centre Right emerging into prominence in the dying days of socialism. Some called themselves Centre Left often emerging from the wreckage of the Communist Parties to reinvent themselves. In reality these parties were essentially the same, sharing the same policies, agendas and objectives. As the capitalist dream has foundered, so have the fortunes of these parties. All are currently in crisis. In response there has been a marked rise in parties of the Radical Right most notably in Hungary with Jorbick. These parties have proved popular with their heady mixture of right wing nationalism, racism and xenophobia and their authoritarian solutions to their country’s problems. Their message is simple and effective. With the failure of socialism and western style capitalism a radical alternative is necessary.

Rebuilding Socialism

For the parties of the Left the past 25 years have been extremely difficult. The collapse of socialism wasn’t just about the ending of a specific socio-economic system in these countries it destroyed the very idea of socialism. For the Left to progress is had to develop a coherent critique of the previous system, remain true to the basic principles of socialism and relaunch the socialist project with a vision of socialism very different from the past.

In Poland, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania the socialist left remains very weak with little or no parliamentary representation. Various Democratic Left/Social Democratic Left /Green Left type parties have emerged with one overwhelming thing in common; their rejection of anything which can be described as socialist. The exception has been in the former GDR and the Czech Republic.

When Czechoslovakia split between the Czech Republic and Slovakia the Czech Communist Party (called the Communist Party of Moravia and Bohemia – KSCM) emerged. What was initially striking was its refusal to drop the name Communist. This has led to various attempts to ban the party, in fact its youth wing was banned between 2006 and 2010. The party remains firmly committed to the ideas of socialism although has developed a strong critique of the previous socialist system. Instead their programme envisages a democratic model of socialism with a variety of forms of social ownership replacing the idea of universal state ownership. They are part of the European Left and the Nordic Green Left Bloc in the European Parliament. With around 100,000 members they have consistently polled well in elections making a breakthrough this year in the recent parliamentary election with almost 15% of the votes (741,000 votes – 33 seats) and finishing the third largest party. Their strongest base appears to be in former industrial areas and the party retains a strong ‘workerist’ identity.

Germany

The success in the Czech Republic is matched by the situation with Die Linke (The Left) in Germany whose strongest base is in the former GDR. In the recent parliamentary election they emerged as the third largest party with almost 9% of the vote and 64 seats. In Berlin this rose to around 12% and in other parts of the former GDR its vote often ranges from 18% to 24%. Formed in 2007 from an alliance of what was left of the old East German Socialist Unity and a left breakaway from the Social Democratic Party they have around 65,000 members. Interestingly the rise of Die Linke has also been accompanied by increased state supervision similar to the Czech Republic with around a third of their parliamentarians under investigation.

What has become obvious is that the crisis of socialism in 1989 was quickly followed by a ‘crisis of capitalism’ which is still very much on-going. This has led to rise to radical forces which now challenge the existing status quo. In the Czech Republic and in the former East Germany that challenge has come from the Left but elsewhere it has come from the forces of the Radical Right; some of whom are openly fascist. The best example of this is the Jobbik Movement in Hungary which recently polled almost 20% of the vote. Jobbik are openly fascist even to the extent of some of their members wearing paramilitary uniforms and insignia modelled on the Hungarian fascist movement of the 1930’s. They glorify Hungary’s inter war fascist leader, Admiral Horthy and are openly racist and anti-Semitic. The rise of Jobbick and similar movements are not difficult to explain. For millions of East Europeans the failure of socialism was followed by the failure of capitalism. The rise of authoritarian, right wing movements who blame internal forces (national minorities) and external forces (the EU) for their country’s problems is perhaps inevitable.

The situation in these countries remain s volatile with countries like Bulgaria and Romania resembling ‘third world failed states’ to quote the Guardian from some time ago. What is clear is that capitalism is simply unable to resolve some fairly major problems and is directly to blame for many others. Socialism remains discredited although probably less so with the passage of time. There is certainly evidence that some of the older generation look back fondly to a time of economic security, good social provision, full employment and greater equality. However, it requires a younger generation, not encumbered by anti-socialist baggage, to rebuild the socialist movements in these countries.

France: One year after Sarkozy’s defeat: an anticapitalist view

"Le Front de Gauche, c'est le front du peuple"

John Mullen is an activist in the Gauche Anticapitaliste, part of the Front de Gauche (Left Front). In this article he looks at the first year of Socialist Party President, François Hollande.

One year ago, in May 2012, we were celebrating the defeat of an arrogant right-wing president, Nicolas Sarkozy. François Hollande, newly elected, immediately took a thirty per cent wage cut for himself, promised to tax the rich, give the vote to non-French residents at local elections and take French troops out of Afghanistan.

How is it then that one year later, Hollande’s popularity has plunged faster than anyone thought it would? According to recent polls, only 24% of French people trust him to change things for the better, a lower score than Sarkozy ever had. The liberal weekly Le Nouvel Observateur carried the headline this month: “Is Hollande done for?” Such is the atmosphere of political crisis that Nicolas Sarkozy, who has kept out of politics for a year, is thinking of a comeback.

The main reason for all this is Hollande’s seeming incapacity to do anything effective while unemployment figures are standing at least eleven per cent (the highest for 14 years), tens of thousands are being made redundant and living standards are dropping. Also, the recent discovery that Hollande’s budget minister was himself hiding millions in a Swiss bank account and lying about it in parliament caused a huge uproar in a country where distrust of politicians  was already at a very high level.

Hollande in the European Union has supported the institution of stricter rules on budget deficits which are the excuse for ever-harsher austerity measures in several countries. In France, he is clearly opposed to any real resistance to ruling class priorities. His government refused a bill which would have given an amnesty to a number of trade union activists charged with offences linked to strikes, and last week he declared to 300 businessmen he invited to his home that the “first duty” of the government was “to stimulate the entrepreneurial spirit”. While rafts of redundancy plans destroy many thousands of jobs (in oil, tyres, steel, cars and elsewhere), Hollande insists there is nothing a government can do about this, since the market is King. He has ruled out nationalization of industries to save jobs, and the new law he passed, making it easier for bosses to sack people and harder for workers to oppose their sackings at an industrial tribunal, was actually initially drafted by the MEDEF, the bosses’ federation!

Social budget cuts and deregulation continue apace. Reducing the cost of social services to the ruling class is at the centre of attacks on workers worldwide : One of Sarkozy’s major victories was to push through a law which meant people had to work longer for their pension, despite millions going on strike over the issue. Now, Hollande is already saying more sacrifices “are necessary” and 76% of French people do not trust the present government “to guarantee the future of retirement pensions” (which for the moment are considerably higher than in countries like the UK after Thatcher and Blair). We are expecting a major government attack on pensions soon.

 Reforms

This doesn’t mean that Hollande’s government has not made any reforms in favour of our class, just that his general policy is in support of the dictatorship of market priorities. One very important reform was the recent legalization of gay marriage. This change came mostly, initially, from the Socialist party itself. Once the Right began organizing enormous demonstrations against marriage equality, gay organizations mobilized in favour of the law, and almost all the radical Left moved into action to build the demonstrations.

In other areas, modest reforms have been carried through. A little more taxing of  the rich and better health insurance for the poorest, for example. The government has hired thousands more teachers, is opening far more nursery school places and has moved to stop richer parents choosing more privileged public high schools outside their local area. They have had more social housing built, limited some rent rises and improved retirement pensions for those who started work very young. A ministry for women’s rights has been set up, and women no longer have to pay part of the cost of an abortion. To please another constituency, they have reduced taxes for small businesses and given consumer organizations more power.

On questions of racism, the record is extremely poor. While a law was passed to make it much easier for foreign students in French universities to work in France, other even more important promises have been abandoned. Hollande had said he would make police officers give a receipt whenever they checked someone’s ID papers in the streets, so as to improve the present situation where Black and Arab people are often checked several times a week in Paris and you never see White people being checked. The interior minister, Manuel Valls, abandoned the idea because he says he trusts the police. As for the right to vote for immigrants, this promise, first made by the Socialist Party in 1981, has been abandoned. Meanwhile Valls is carrying out a policy of demolishing Roma encampments, and the numbers of unauthorized immigrants being given papers are no higher than under Sarkozy.

Worse still, the government seems keen to use Islamophobia to gain support. A recent court case where a tribunal found in favour of a woman sacked from a private crèche because she wore a Muslim headscarf was the excuse for the president to insist that he would examine the “need” for a law to stop women wearing headscarves from working with young children ! Interior Minister, Manuel Valls has declared that “The veil, which stops women from being what they are, will always be for me, and should be for the French Republic, something to combat.” In this atmosphere, criminal damage to mosques and to Muslim cemeteries is becoming commonplace.

Resistance on the industrial front

Faced with the social-liberal government, the Trade Union leadership is divided. Several unions have signed away workers’ rights in order to support a ‘left’ government, while others have been organizing resistance, if sometimes rather lukewarmly. There have been several radical strikes over the last year: airline staff, railway workers and television company workers, for example. An important car factory North of Paris has seen a strike lasting several months against its closure, and other fights against redundancies have been highly visible. Local teachers’ strikes against understaffing and arrogant management are not uncommon. And a national mass one-day strike and demonstration against austerity was well-followed, if not at the level of five years back. What is sorely needed are some clear victories for workers in order to inspire further resistance.

Naturally enough the fascist National Front is hoping to gain from the crisis and the disaffection with established parties. It has managed to modernize its image with its new leader, Marine Le Pen, got over six million votes in the presidentials and intends to use the local elections in 2014 to rebuild its weak activist organization, which has not yet completely recovered from the battering it took fifteen years ago from anti-fascist movements, a defeat which led to a damaging split in the FN. The traditional Right is now deeply divided over whether to begin alliances with the fascists.

Left Front

Anti-fascist campaigning is therefore crucial in this period, but only the rise of a Left alternative can brake the rise in fascist influence. And indeed, the situation has led to a sharp rise in political activity by those who don’t think that capitalism can be overthrown any time soon, but who think radical changes can and should be made through a combination of trade union and street struggles and electoral politics (that is to say, there has been a revival of what Marxists usually call Left reformism).

This is what is behind the rise of the Left Front (Front de Gauche), a political bloc including two big parties – the Communist party and the Left Party (Parti de Gauche), and six or seven smaller organizations of a few hundred each, mostly anticapitalist groups and including three organizations which split one by one from the New Anticapitalist Party over recent years.

Its main spokesperson, Left Party leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has thrilled millions of workers who want to fight with his impressive capacity to sum up the anger they feel.  “Immigrants aren’t the enemy, bankers are!” he declared, and has several times wiped the smug smiles off the faces of conservative journalist interviewers with devastating critiques of the political establishment. “We need to sweep away those in power” he said. Socialist Party reps accused him of dangerous rhetoric which could only help the far right, but were left red-faced when Mélenchon brought out a 1930s Socialist Party poster which carried… exactly the same slogan!

The Front de Gauche is popularizing, with impressive creativity, proposals for left reforms in the interests of workers, for example a ban on redundancies in firms which are making profits. Mélenchon says that social-democracy across Europe has abandoned the workers’ interests and calls for the establishment of a maximum salary, retirement at sixty and a big rise in the minimum wage. Around the country a series of dynamic public meetings and teach-ins keep the political alternative in the public eye. A major conservative daily newspaper, Le Figaro, is asking in its readers’ poll this week ” Is Jean-Luc Mélenchon a political danger for François Hollande ?”.

Naturally, Mélenchon’s ideas include all the contradictions of wanting radical change through the state and without social revolution. In particular, he defends the supposed ‘positive rôle’ of the French army abroad and France’s position as a nuclear power, and believes in the possibility of a revolution “through the ballot box”. In the long-term, in the struggle to overthrow capitalism, no doubt he will not go all the way. But for the moment, the role he plays is very positive, galvanizing and encouraging both workers’ struggles and the struggle for a Left alternative on many questions of great importance for workers.

The Front de Gauche is an umbrella alliance in which each organization keeps to its own principles. The Communist Party is by far the biggest component. A contradictory organization, sections of it concentrate on running town councils and on electoralism, while others are very much involved in trade union and other resistance actions. The Parti de Gauche (which split from the Socialist Party in 2009) has become more of a dynamic activist organization over the last year. It now has 12 000 members and can be seen recruiting students on university campuses, something the activist Left has not been strong on of late. The smaller organizations which are part of the Front de Gauche, each with two to five hundred activists, have been working closely together to form an ‘anticapitalist pole’, an ‘eco-socialist current’ within the Front de Gauche. A joint bulletin produced by six of the organizations, including mine, is making this joint work visible.

Taking the Bastille

The Front de Gauche called a mass demonstration for the 5th of May, one year after Hollande’s election, to demand real left policies, and constitutional change. The demonstration was led by contingents of trade unionists from recent and ongoing strikes and found a tremendous echo. Hundreds of coaches came from around the country. A carnival atmosphere reigned in the Place de la Bastille, with thousands of placards and posters carrying such slogans as “It’s time for the people to take power”, “We will not give up”, “Finance markets are the problem, not the solution” and “Wages are the solution, not the problem”. Many people carried brooms to represent the need for a clean sweep of politics and policies. (Photos at http://www.mediapart.fr/portfolios/bastille-nation-un-dimanche-5-mai ). This collective expression of anger was a great success, and must be only the beginning. Recent dynamic protests against nuclear power and against the building of a new airport confirm that the desire to fight back is widespread.

If the Front de Gauche represents right now the centre of gravity of resistance politics in France, the revolutionary New Anticapitalist Party maintains significant activist forces. It is considerably smaller than it was a few years ago, principally because much of its leadership insisted that Left reformism could not exist or revive and therefore the NPA had nothing to say to activists close to the Front de Gauche except that the Front de Gauche would never fight against Socialist Party policies, an opinion which has proved to be hopelessly out of touch with reality. In a positive move, the NPA participated in the demonstration on the 5th of May, despite some sectarian articles in its paper. The other main revolutionary organization in France, Lutte Ouvrière, denounced the demonstration as “fomenting illusions” in the possibility of reform from above.

Islamophobia

As readers are probably aware, Islamophobia, rooted in a very old French Left tradition of hostility to religious believers, remains rife across all the Left in France, including the Front de Gauche and the New Anticapitalist party. In the Parti de Gauche there are several leaders who would like to see Muslim headscarves banned in workplaces where children are present, for example. The minority of Left activists who want to fight Islamophobia is however bigger than it was ten years ago when headscarves were banned from high schools. At Sunday’s demonstration a ‘collective of Front de Gauche activists against Islamophobia’ gave out leaflets calling for a rally against further islamophobic legislation.

The coming months will see if the widespread anger Hollande faces can be transformed into effective action against government policies and against redundancies.

Will the real European Left stand up?

Manifestation du Front de Gauche [ 18 Mars , Bastille ]

This article by Murray Smith was written as a contribution to the debate around the Left Unity initiative which followed Ken Loach’s call for a new left party, and in response to a contributor who instead argued for building the left within the Labour Party. Murray is a member of the anti-capitalist party déi Lenk in Luxembourg, and of the Executive Board of the Party of the European Left.

Having followed with sympathy the emergence of Left Unity and the possibility of a new party of the Left being launched, I read with interest the two-part article by an anonymous figure, who may or may not be called Michael Ford, which may or may not be a pseudonym. I’m sure we’ll find out. For the purposes of this article, I will refer to him as Ford. In any case, whoever wrote it, the aim of the article is clearly to try and discredit the perspective of building a new party to the left of Labour and validate that of working with/within the Labour Party to drive it to the left. There will undoubtedly be many replies to Ford from people who are directly involved in politics in Britain, which I am not at present. However, an important part of Ford’s argument is to try and demonstrate that the political forces to the left of social democracy in Europe don’t amount to much, either politically or in terms of their support. In doing so, frankly, he paints a picture which has little relation to reality. This is what I want to take up (1).

At the end of the first part of his article Ford writes: “The traditions of the British labour movement are in many respects worse than those in the countries listed.  That can be debated, but they are unarguably enormously different.” That is certainly true. The British labour movement  has features which are unique in Europe. In particular, this is true of the Labour Party, in the sense of trade union affiliation and the role of the unions in the party. But is the difference absolute or only relative? If you compare Britain with France it looks pretty absolute. If the comparison is made with Northern Europe (Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands…), it is much less so. In those countries you have mass social-democratic parties which have historically had the loyalty of most of the working class and mass, unitary trade unions which have supported these parties. Quite a different picture to that of Southern Europe with mass communist parties and divided trade unions and where the (electoral) dominance of social democracy dates only from the 1970s. Nevertheless there are significant parties which are not only to the left of social democracy but are clearly anti-capitalist in both Northern and Southern Europe. They are stronger in the South than in the North, but that is to be expected.

Filling the space on the left

Let us look at what is common to the whole of Europe. The first thing is that social democracy is now, and has been for some time, part of the neo-liberal consensus. Not without internal tensions, in some cases. The second thing is that as a result, globally and with ups and downs, but overall, it is losing support from its traditional supporters and a space is opening up to the left. Now a space is not the same as a vacuum, which as we know Nature abhors, and which will be filled automatically by something or other. The space to the left of social democracy consists of people, real living people who have had enough of parties which betray their hopes, which no longer defend them but attack them. As a result they may be open to a party or parties which offer another perspective, one that breaks with the neo-liberal consensus. Whether this possibility becomes reality, and to what extent, depends on politics – on political action, on the ability of anti-capitalist forces to come together and to offer political perspectives.

Of course the space to the left of social democracy has never been empty, nor is it now. There are the Communist parties or their successor parties; there are the various far-left groups, mostly Trotskyist; there are the Greens, which in some countries at least are to the left of social democracy.

Communist Parties

First of all, let us look at the Communist parties, because the way in which Ford approaches them is the most at variance with reality. He writes: “Communist parties have disappeared or been reduced to the margins (with a few exceptions) and, in the case of many of the former ruling parties, openly converted to social-democracy and, hence, variants of neo-liberalism”.

The second part of his statement is certainly true as regards most (but not all) of the former ruling parties in Eastern Europe. The first part is a strange thing to write in 2013, though Ford is not alone in holding this opinion. Ten, twelve or fifteen years ago I thought that the West European Communist Parties would either disappear, become social-democratized (or become satellites of social democracy) or subsist as diminishing and marginal “orthodox” sects. That is not the course events have taken. The only West European party to have simply gone over to social democracy (and indeed beyond it) was the Italian Communist Party, at the price of an important split. The only party to have simply dissolved is the British one. There is a series of parties which consider themselves orthodox but which in most countries are quite weak and marginal, with the notable exceptions of the Greek (KKE)and Portuguese (PCP)parties. Then there are those communist parties which are part of the Party of the European Left (EL).

This is the Euro-Left which is the main target of Ford’s criticism, so let us deal with that. In the first place, he writes at one point: “on the basis of this short summary [in which he covers Greece, France, Italy and Germany, M.S.] we can say that the euro-left is hardly decisive outside Greece, that it polls less than when it was explicitly Communist in times gone by…”. In times gone by…well, the times when it was enough to be explicitly Communist and to defend “Soviet socialism” have indeed gone by, and they’re not coming back.  At another point, in relation to France, he writes: “the Left Front polls less than half of the vote secured a generation or so ago by the PCF”. You have to go back to 1978 to find the PCF polling more than 20 per cent in a national election. Since then, in that “generation or so” rather a lot has happened: the neo-liberal offensive, a change in the relationship of class forces within countries and on a global scale, the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the ideological offensive, “the end of history”…That does not only affect the European Left.  The Portuguese Communist Party, which is explicitly Communist (as, by the way, are the French, Spanish, Austrian, etc.) and not part of the EL, was getting 15-20 per cent in the 1970s and 80s and less than 10 per cent from the early 90s until 2011. Of course, not everything can be explained by the broad objective factors mentioned above. Political choices can make things better or worse. The PCF paid a certain price for its participation in the Jospin government from 1997-2002 and also from an ill-conceived presidential campaign in 2007. Conversely, it has benefited from its role in the 2005 referendum campaign, from its increasingly clear differentiation from the Socialist Party and from the strategy of the Left Front.

Europe’s Anti-Capitalist Left

Now let us take up “hardly decisive outside Greece”.  In fact, Greece is the most advanced point of a tendency towards the strengthening of parties to the left of social democracy which is also evident in other countries. In Denmark the Red-Green Alliance was formed in 1989 (not the best year to launch an anti-capitalist party, one might think) by the Danish Communist Party, the Danish section of the Fourth International, Left Socialists and Maoists. It has been in Parliament  since 1994 and has patiently established itself as apolitical force over the years. It is now stronger than it has ever been ever been with over 10,000 members . At the last election in 2011 it won 6.7 per cent of the vote and 12 MPs. In the latest opinion poll it has 14.9 per cent, as against 16.1 per cent for the social-democrats who head the centre-left government. In Portugal the Left Bloc was formed in 1999 by forces from Trotskyist and Maoist backgrounds along with a current from the PCP. From there it grew rapidly and progressed at each election until 2011, when it suffered a serious setback in elections conducted under the shadow of the Troika, falling to just over 5 per cent. In the latest opinion poll the Bloc has 8.8 per cent and the PCP 12.1 per cent, a total of 21 per cent. Fortunately the PCP is not as sectarian as the KKE and there is some collaboration between it and the Left Bloc.

In Spain the Communist Party is the core of the United Left, which was established in 1986 in the continuity of the campaign against Spain joining NATO. Its record has been somewhat chequered over the years. However in the last period IU has progressed in the national elections in 2011 and in regional elections and currently stands at around 16 per cent in the opinion polls. This is not an automatic result of the crisis; it is the result of a clear positioning to the left of social democracy on the one hand, presence in all the movements of resistance to austerity and other a willingness to work with the new social movements, not always without problems.

Concerning France, it might have seemed, in the 1990s, under the stewardship of Robert Hue and with the PCF’s participation in the Jospin government from 1997-2002, that the PCF was destined to become a satellite of the Socialist Party (PS) and/or to disintegrate. However that is not what happened – although Hue and a few followers subsequently left the PCF and now constitute a small group which is precisely a satellite of the PS. Through a process of political clarification that was not always easy,  under Marie-George Buffet as national secretary from 2001-2010, succeeded by Pierre Laurent, the party began to be rebuilt, with a clear differentiation from the Socialist Party and readiness to work with other forces on the left. This was first clearly seen in the campaign against the proposed European constitution in 2005. It was crystallized with the formation of the Left Front in 2009.  With this orientation the PCF halted its decline and began to recruit from 2005 onwards. In the 2012 elections not only did Left Front candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon get 11 per cent in the presidential election (the best vote for a candidate to the left of the PS since 1981), but the results of the legislative elections, where most of the candidates were PCF, were in 90 per cent of constituencies superior to 2007. The Left Front has progressed in each election where it has stood (European 2009, regional 2010, local 2011, presidential and legislative 2012). It now involves nine organizations, including not only the PCF and the Left Party, formed by Mélenchon when he left the PS in 2008, but three organizations from an LCR-NPA background.

And of course it is not just about elections; on May 5 a demonstration called by the Left Front mobilized well over a hundred thousand people – a massive expression of protest against the austerity policies of Hollande.

The PCF

A final word on the PCF: I attended its 36th congress in February as an observer. To put it very succinctly, what I did not see was a party that was in crisis, aging, shrunken, without a strategy and thinking of nothing else but how to get into government. In other words, not what has been the staple fare of commentaries in the bourgeois press and by some on the left for quite a few years now. What I did see was a party full of confidence, with many young people, whose discussions centred on how to organize the fightback against Hollande’ s policies and build a political alternative. Of the delegates, 20 per cent were under 30 and 30 per cent had joined in the last five years. And of course three-quarters of them were wage-earners.

The examples above show the reality and the potential of forces to the left of social democracy in Europe. But there also some problems. Since its breakthroughs in the 2005 and 2009 federal elections and in regional elections in the West, Die Linke has experienced difficulties and setbacks. In the first place there are objective reasons.  At the present time a large part of the German working class is enjoying prosperity and is not so open to the discourse of the Left. There are also problems of integrating the components of Die Linke in the East and the West. In the East the PDS was one of only two former ruling parties in the Soviet bloc not to embrace the process of capitalist restoration (the other was what is now the CPBM in the CzechRepublic).  As a result it has a solid base of support over 20 per cent in several Lander and a network of local councilors. In the West the forces coming from the SPD and the radical Left had to start pretty much from scratch, with the exception of Oskar Lafontaine’s base in the Saar. As things stand now, however, the situation is difficult but certainly not catastrophic and unless there is a very big upset Die Linke will keep its parliamentary group. In Italy the situation is much worse. The participation of the PRC in the Prodi government from 2006-08 cost it much of its electoral support, including, but not only, because of its backing for sending Italian troops to Afghanistan. In 2008 it lost all its parliamentary representation, split almost 50-50 and has since then been in difficulties, waging an unsuccessful campaign in what was admittedly a very difficult election in February. It must also be said that none of the three left groups which split from Rifondazione in 2006-08 has since made any impact. It will not be easy to rebuild the Left in Italy, but Rifondazione remains the starting-point.

Syriza and Greece

The case of Greece and Syriza merits a few remarks. Since Syriza made its electoral breakthrough in 2012, everyone on the left in Europe has had to sit up and take notice. But Syriza did not fall from the sky. Its central component, Synaspismos, is a product of a complex process of splits and realignments in the Greek communist movement that began in 1968. And the Syriza coalition (now in the process of becoming a party), which was created in 2004, and drew in currents from Eurocommunism, Trotskyism and Maoism, was the result of a political choice by Syriza; Nor was the success of Syriza a mechanical effect of the crisis. It was the result of a political orientation that combined an absolute refusal of austerity and the diktats of the Troika and the proposal to other forces on the left to form a government of the Left – a proposal refused by both the Democratic Left and the KKE.

How does Ford characterize the European Left politically? “The euro-Left parties stand to the left of contemporary social democracy in advocating more radical measures, in varying degrees, to tackle the economic crisis. They are, on the other hand, constitutional and electoral parties – they do not aim at revolution.  Their measure is electoral support which they seek to secure through advocating pro-welfare and egalitarian policies which broadly mitigate the effects of the slump on the working-class. Their ultimate aim may be a socialist society (although this is not always clear), but it is to be attained primarily by parliamentary means.  Broadly they disown the record of socialism and revolutionary politics in the twentieth century”.  And elsewhere “they are explicitly reformist”. And, pride of place for this one, “the summit of the ambitions of the Left parties Europe-wide at present is to secure enough parliamentary seats to be considered a coalition partner in a government which would be dominated by the “old” social democratic parties”. Firstly, of all, broadly, in my experience, these parties do not disown the record of socialism and revolutionary politics in the twentieth century. They may interpret it more or less critically, and not all in the same way, and often not exactly as I would, but they certainly do not disown it. Perhaps Ford means that they do not agree with his version of that record, which on the basis of various references in his document, seems to be rather neo-Stalinist. Secondly, concerning the “summit of their ambitions”. Perhaps Ford would like to explain why Syriza refused to consider a governmental alliance with any pro-memorandum party, including PASOK; why the RGA only gives critical support to the Danish centre-left government from the outside but did not join it; why, above all, the PCF voted last year, on its National Council, in a special conference and by an internal referendum, not to take part in the present SP-led government (the referendum of the membership produced a vote of nearly 95 per cent against participation). Of course, in the recent past the PCF (in 1997-2002) and the PRC in Italy have participated in such governments.  Those were not in my opinion positive experiences.  More importantly, it seems clear that they are now considered by most members of the parties concerned as not to be repeated, though it would be foolish to rule out any governmental alliance with social-democrats under any circumstances. It would, however, be more true today to say that the ambition of the parties of the EL is to change the balance of forces on the left, to replace social democracy as the dominant force. Thirdly, the objective of going beyond capitalism and of a socialist society is not in doubt. Let us see what the French Communist Party says about it:

“To those who speak of moralizing capitalism in order better to keep it, we say that the enterprise is vain and that the manoeuvre will not work.

Money has no conscience. Capitalism is incapable of offering any other perspective than the enslavement of the vast majority of human beings.

To those who call on us to be reasonable and who propose to regulate capitalism, we say that it is an illusory goal. Without the will to take power from the financial markets and the big capitalists, experience has shown that there is no significant result. There is a contradiction that is increasingly unbearable between capitalism and social progress, between capitalism and democracy, between capitalism and cultural development, between capitalism and ecology, between capitalism and peace.

That is why we talk about revolution. A social, citizens’,peaceful, democratic revolution, and not the taking of power by a minority. A process of credible and ambitious change, aiming to break with the logic of the system. That is why we speak of communism, a communism for a new generation”. (Extract from the political resolution of the 36th congress of the PCF, February 2013, my translation).

(I have quoted this because it is particularly clear, coming from one of the main parties of the European Left. But the aim of replacing capitalism rather than reforming it is shared by other parties, formulated more or less clearly).

Now you can, if you wish, say that the PCF is reformist. But on the basis of the above, you can hardly accuse it of being simply in favour of a modified form of capitalism. And as for reformism…Perhaps Ford has a very clear idea about the demarcation between reform and revolution in Europe today. Quite a few other people think they have. I think things are rather more complicated than that. There is the small detail that there has never been a socialist revolution in an advanced capitalist country with a more or less long tradition of bourgeois democracy. Never, nowhere. The strategy and tactics for making one will have to be developed in the course of the struggle and they will be very different from Russia in 1917, not to mention China, Vietnam, Cuba, Yugoslavia. They will certainly involve a combination of mass mobilizations and battles on the electoral terrain and in parliamentary institutions. That will involve in particular winning a majority in elections based on universal suffrage, and not only once. In fact it is difficult to see a revolutionary process that does not involve a left alliance winning an election. All of that will be the subject of debates based on experience, and no one has a blueprint. Rather than establishing an a priori cleavage between reformists and revolutionaries it is better to look at what anti-capitalist measures a left government should take and how, how to mobilize support for them, how to counter economic sabotage and political pressures from the Right, etc. Not to mention what kind of a post-capitalist society we envisage.

Of course there are other forces on the left in Europe apart from the EL. But it is there that there is a dynamic and an opposition to neoliberal capitalism that presents an alternative on a European level and seeks to build a European social and political front.

Apart from the “orthodox” Communist parties I have mentioned, there are far-left organizations which remain outside broad fronts and coalitions like Syriza, the United Left and the Left Front. They tend to be somewhat marginalized as a result but continue to play a role. The NPA, after a promising start, paid a heavy price for not having understood the dynamic of the Left Front. But it still has some forces and is not, under its present leadership, opposed to common actions with the Left Front, as on the May 5 demonstration.

Britain

To conclude, just a few words on Britain. The failure of attempts to create a new force to the left of Labour are well-known. But the potential is there, as was clearly shown by the success of the SSP before the train wreck  of the Sheridan affair. Not only electoral success, but trade union support and even affiliation. And there are reasons for past failures. Arthur Scargill will go down in history as a courageous and principled working-class leader. But the failure of the SLP, which had real potential, was essentially due to his sectarian and Stalinist conception of how to organize the party. As for the Socialist Alliance-Respect sequence, both the SWP and the Socialist Party played extremely negative roles, as they also did, in alliance for once, in the crisis of the SSP. As for TUSC, it’s not a party, it’s not meant to be one, it’s meant to not be one, and it fulfils that role perfectly.

Ford says that “if the new Left Party succeeds, it will certainly represent a sociological first”. Maybe it will. It wouldn’t be the first win against the odds. Who would have bet on the success of a disparate collection of leftists in Denmark or Portugal? Or that Syriza would go from 4 per cent to 27 per cent in a few months? And you have to start with what you have. No new Arthur Scargill is on the horizon. Nor is any split from Labour. Leaving aside the Greens, there are three left organizations with memberships in four figures, say between 1,000 and 2,000 – the CPB, the SWP and the SP. None of them is likely to play a positive role in building a new party, to put it mildly. So if you have a few thousand signatures and eighty or a hundred local groups, that’s what you start with. Or you could give up and join the Labour Party. But I’ll leave the argument against that to others.

(1)   For an overview of the new parties of the Left in Europe and a detailed look at several of them, see Kate Hudson, The New European Left, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

 

Argentina: political outlook at the start of 2013

La Juventud del MST marchando en Buenos Aires

The year 2001 saw an uprising in Argentina as citizens rejected all of the old parties and took to the streets. Hyperinflation, unemployment and the near collapse of the Argentinian banking system led to mass demonstrations and ‘piqueteros’ blockading roads around the country. New social movements sprang up with neighbourhood assemblies and many workplaces were occupied and turned into workers co-operatives.

As this movement ebbed, the old parties re-established themselves. The current government of Christina Fernandez de Kirchner comes from the Peronist tradition and represents a particular strand of this tradition. This tendency is nationalist but left of centre. This government has nationalised important energy resources but has run into problems around their attempts to control currency exchanges and in the last few months demonstrators have returned to the streets both from the right and from the workers movement as the economic situation has deteriorated.

In this article Alejandro Bodart and Mariano Rosa, two leading members of the Movimiento Socialista de Trabajadores – MST (Socialist Workers Movement) outline the current position in Argentina, the battles that are coming and the prospects for building a political alternative. The MST currently works within a broader coalition called Proyecto Sur (Project South) and has a number of members elected to state assemblies in Argentina.

Setting, conflict and elections

A first definition of the situation in Argentina serves to put things in place: the international crisis did not stop, nor the effects it has on our economy.

Industrial activity fell, led by carmakers and metalworking. The building sector had already reached a low in 2009, but that trend is now more pronounced. Inflation remains high and price controls are a fiction that cannot cover a nonexistent policy of industrialization accompanied by the complete lack of controls over large price makers. The parallel dollar soars, and the fall in the stock of that currency at the Central Bank, shows that large companies doubt the force of government to take care of business.

As for state finances, the situation is similar. Desperate for their emergency-election – this year there are parliamentary elections – and for economic reasons, the national government continues to cut funds to the regions, causing further strain on already beset provincial finances. There are several districts with financial difficulties, including the Province of Buenos Aires. Governors seek carbon taxes, while refusing to eliminate tax breaks on big banks, corporations and landowners. State and teachers’ salaries, pensions and social assistance programs are already feeling the effect of these decisions.

With things as they are, what comes next is the fight over who gets to pay for the crisis in our country. At the top, governments are scrambling to see who is responsible for most of the adjustment to be applied. Underneath, workers and the people gather fury over wages that are never enough, struggle against cuts in salaries, or loss of family allowances. There exists social conflict, and a teachers’ nationwide strike is on the cards. The truck drivers’ union marches – this is quite an important union. And trade unions opposing the government are calling for a CTA-CGT mobilisation, for March 14.

Government Setback

Last year ended with the confirmation of two key political points. The national government suffered severe setbacks, receding in popularity with many of their voters. This is important enough by itself and will have multiple consequences. But there are other factors that go along with this. That is that the governments declining popularity was seconded by the people’s rejection of the main policies of the bourgeois opposition. None is seen as an alternative to solve a situation that is worsening for most. That’s because, in addition to not offering solutions to the structural problems that we live with every day, they also govern against the people.

The combination of these factors provides an overview of great political debate, where millions are seeking a change, not convinced by the options provided by the current system. This can be seen in any conversation on the street, at work, in the schools and colleges.

 Electoral battle, and the alternative

Whilst we cannot discount sudden changes in the situation (given that since 2001 we live with a permanent social tension), the more likely outcome is that of an electoral battle which expresses the changes which erupted last year. This does not minimize the social conflict and the importance of mobilizing that the workers and the people are developing and will surely continue throughout the year. But it provides a tremendous opportunity to those who want to bring about change in the country. The worn out state of the old, presents a huge opportunity for an alternative political force to become strong and move forward as an alternative to the government and the right-wing opposition.

This may be the case with the candidacy of Senator Pino Solanas at the Capital, for the Movement South Project (Movimiento Proyecto Sur) which we, as the MST, are part of as its anti-capitalist wing. An achievement in the city could lead to a positive phenomenon with social influence. So, with our main leaders all around the country, we are committed to develop Proyecto Sur thoroughly, and fight any attempt to transform it into a new centre-left force. It would be really positive if – in this course of events – other anti-imperialist forces would also come together, that is, social movements and those left currents who – abandoning sectarianism – join us to fight for a fundamental change, in unity.

Three tasks for the coming months

A very important one is to support and participate actively in the struggles of workers and the people, contributing to the emergence of new leaders who replace the old ones within trade and students’ unions, or social organizations. It is a vital and present task, to guarantee that the thousands who come to fight come to recognize the usual traitors.

At the same time you have to accompany it with anti-systemic transformation proposals to end the sufferings of the underdogs, defeating the double discourse of ruling capitalists and old recipes that have already sunk us before.

Finally, we must be able to build an alternative to fight for these causes. And the election battle is a major challenge in this field. Here, as in the struggles, currents and their leaders are tested. And the results influence the daily fight.

The political landscape makes us very optimistic about the potential for progress in each of these areas. The international context does as well, with the peoples of Europe in the streets facing their capitalist governments.

To carry out all these tasks, across the country, it is essential to strengthen MST within Proyecto Sur. That is why we invite workers, young people, neighbours, social activists, artists, intellectuals, retired citizens, to join us and together build a party that is seriously determined about these objectives. It is our future that is at stake. No time to lose.

Alejandro Bodart, General Secretary – Currently Deputy – MST.

Mariano Rosa, National Secretary of the Socialist Youth – MST

Catalonia Looks to Independence

Nosaltres decidim / We decide

Bill Bonnar on the emergence of a powerful independence movement in Catalonia

In January 2010 a Conference was held in Barcelona under the title; The Struggle for Socialism in Nations without a State. Sponsored in part by the Left Republican Party of Catalonia it included representatives from left parties from the Basque Country, Galicia and elsewhere. I spoke at the Conference on behalf of the Scottish Socialist Party; one of several meetings and events I attended in the course of a week of activities. Not surprisingly the conference was dominated by representatives from Catalonia. Perhaps the most interesting thing to emerge was the commonality of discussion. In particular, that independence should not be seen as an end in itself but as a means to an end. What was important was not just independence but what kind of independence. The Left, while being part of the general campaign for independence, had to forge a distinctive Left vision of what that independence would look like. Not surprisingly several key themes emerged. That the new independent state should be a republic, that it should have an economic system based on sustainable growth with a strong public sector, that environmental concerns should be a high priority, that the government should pursue policies aimed at the eradication of poverty and inequality and that it should pursue what was referred as a progressive foreign policy. While it was recognised that taken together this did not add up to socialism it was seen as a good starting point.

That was then. Nearly three years later it is clear that real advances have been made particularly in the Basque Country andCatalonia. In September nearly 2 million people brought Barcelona to a standstill in a demonstration in support of independence. This followed various opinion polls which show between 40% and 50% support for independence and a general trend for this to be increasing. What makes these polls interesting is that an increasing number of non-Catalans seem to be supporting independence. More than half the population of Catalonia is made up of Spaniards and nationals from other EEC countries. This was always seen as the guarantee that in any future referendum pro – independence voters would always be in a minority. This appears to be changing. The economic crisis which is engulfing Spain is fuelling movements for change and in Catalonia it is fuelling the desire for independence.

Like independence movements elsewhere there are different streams to this movement. A large part of this is cultural in nature around the language and culture of Catalonia. It would be like the independence struggle in Scotland being based in and around the Gaelic movement. The movement is very broad based with even some reactionary element directed against non-Catalans. The alternative is provided by the Left. Typically there are a number of Left organisations of which the most prominent is Esqerra Republicana de Catalunya (Republican Left of Catalonia). The party, under a different name, rose to prominence during the Spanish Civil war as part of the coalition which formed the Republican Government. During the Franco dictatorship it suffered violent repression before re-emerging and reforming in its current format.

It currently has ten seats in the Catalan Parliament and expects to make gains in elections later this year.

The party’s political positions were laid down at its 1993 Conference and contained in its Statement of Ideology.

  •  Esquerra – commitment to a Left agenda on social and economic issues.
  • Republican – commitment to the establishment of a modern republic forCataloniaand the rest ofSpain.
  • Catalunya – the creation of a united Catalan state based on the historic Principality of Catalonia . This includes  the current region of Catalonia and a neighbouring region in France.

On 28th November fresh elections will be held for the Catalan Parliament with every possibility of a pro-independence majority emerging. In part this is due to a hardening of attitude among those parties which have hitherto settled for devolved government. Most of these parties have now moved towards a more pro-independence position although are vague about the details. The most likely outcome will be a referendum on independence. The very fact of calling for such a referendum will provoke a political crisis with the central government in Madrid already declaring such a referendum would be illegal and refusing to recognise the result in advance. To say the least this would take the country into uncharted territory. The specific proposal on independence will largely depend on the balance of forces which emerge after the election in November; full independence or a kind of independence lite. This will also be shaped by the outcome of the referendum. The larger the majority for independence the more ambitious the pro-independence forces will be. It will also place the Madrid Government in an impossible situation with its non-recognition stance impossible to maintain.

The outcome could also have a dramatic effect on the rest of Spain; particularly in the Basque Country. With a powerful independence movement, increasingly led by the Left, the momentum provided events in Catalonia could overwhelm the Spanish Government hence their determination to hold the line.

While there are obvious similarities between the independence movement in Scotland and Catalonia there are also major differences.  The movement in Catalonia is very much centred on language and culture which can and does create tensions within the country.Catalonia has a recent history where the country suffered severe repression aimed at destroying Catalonian identity which has created an intense hostility to Madrid. Lastly, the Catalan vision of independence embraces a region in France. Securing that region is, at the moment, simply off the agenda.

The increasing likelihood that that Catalonia will become independent would prove an immense confidence booster to the struggle for independence in Scotland. Given that the No Campaign in Scotland will rely heavily on negative campaigning, having the example of small country successfully breaking away from a larger state can only have a positive effect on the campaign.

Red Square Movement Shakes Quebec

Parlons frais de scolarite /  Let's Talk Tuition Fees
“Let’s Talk Tuition Fees” – image scottmontreal on flickr

Canadian socialist David Camfield on the victorious student movement in Quebec

Quebec has been shaken by the most important social movement in the Canadian state since the 1970s. What began as a strike by students in Quebec’s universities and Collèges d’enseignement général et professionnel (CEGEPs, which most young people attend after high school) against a major increase in university tuition fees become a broader popular movement against the government of the Quebec Liberal Party (PLQ), headed by Jean Charest, and against neoliberalism.

To understand this movement, we need to look at the place of universities in Quebec society. The Canadian constitution makes education a responsibility of provincial governments. Before the 1960s, only a tiny percentage of the French-speaking majority in the province of Quebec attended university; university education was more common for members of the English-speaking minority, whose universities were better-funded. At the time, the capitalist class in Quebec was largely English-speaking – one feature of the national oppression of Quebec within the Canadian state.

 National Oppression

In the 1960s, a section of the French-speaking middle class launched an effort to modernize Quebec society that became known as the “Quiet Revolution.” One of its key features was the creation of a secular education system including new francophone universities that charged low tuition fees. This reform was linked with popular aspirations for national self-determination in an era that also saw a high level of working-class struggle. Accessible university education continues to be widely seen in Quebec as a valuable distinguishing feature of the Quebec nation.

A vibrant student movement emerged in the 1960s. Thanks to student activism, including strikes, tuition fees were frozen from 1968 to 1990. An attempt to raise fees in 1996 was beaten back by a resurgent student movement (though tuition for international students and other fees were increased). In 2005 an attempt to convert over $100 million of student grants into loans was met with a partially-successful student strike.

The Right Attacks

In March 2011, the centre-right and federalist Quebec Liberal (PLQ) government announced a fee increase of 75% over five years, beginning in 2012. The move was part of the government’s effort to advance neoliberalism in Quebec by introducing or increasing user fees for public services. In the words of its finance minister, the Charest government sought to carry out a “cultural revolution” in Quebec, where neoliberal ideology is not accepted as “common sense” – especially in the working class — to the same extent that it is in the rest of the Canadian state. The announcement spurred the student movement into action.

Quebec university and CEGEP students are organized into associations. Traditions and structures of democratic self-organization, such as general assemblies, are much stronger than they are in student unions outside Quebec. Local associations often affiliate to a Quebec-wide federation. One of these, the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSE), promotes militant and democratic left-wing student unionism.

CLASSE Struggle

In December 2011, ASSE formed a coalition, CLASSE, which student associations not affiliated to ASSE could join if they accepted its platform and highly democratic way of functioning. CLASSE was intentionally designed to coordinate a student strike and proved a tremendous success.

The strike began on February 13 and spread quickly. The most common form of action was not attending classes and organizing picket lines to prevent people from entering buildings or classrooms. Students also carried out blockades of government offices, courthouses, banks, bridges and other targets. Students marched in support of locked-out smelter workers and joined with other groups protesting austerity measures. Art interventions and other cultural expressions of the movement gave the strike a growing public presence. The movement’s symbol, a red square, was soon being worn by tens of thousands of people and made visible in other ways on the streets and online.

On March 22, the number of strikers peaked, with around 300 000 of Quebec’s 400 000 university and CEGEP students on strike that day. That same day saw a demonstration of some 200 000 people in Montreal (to put this in perspective, Quebec’s population is about 8 million). This took the movement to a higher level, with more students voting to take ongoing strike action.

Broadening the Movement

The government tried to demobilize the movement by depicting students as spoiled brats and offering insubstantial concessions. This failed. The PLQ then turned to repression and hastily passed an anti-strike “special law.” This was a turning point. Instead of putting down the movement, the draconian law triggered its mutation. What had been a student movement supported by a significant minority of the population became a broad social movement against the unpopular PLQ government.

On May 22, the 100th day of the strike, demonstrations took place across Quebec. Some 250 000 people marched in Montreal. This was followed by night-time pot-banging “casserole” protests in many big-city neighbourhoods and towns. Union activists began to discuss solidarity action.

Although the movement slowed in the summer, demonstrations on June 22 and July 22 were still very large. Activists went on tour across Quebec to discuss the struggle and CLASSE’s radical manifesto.

PLQ Toppled

Unable to quell the movement and fearful of what an inquiry into corruption would reveal about PLQ fundraising when it resumed in the autumn, Charest called an election for September 4. His gamble failed: the Parti Quebecois (PQ, which has links to the SNP) narrowly succeeded in forming a minority government. But the election call did succeed in dispersing the mass movement. The anti-neoliberal and pro-independence Quebec Solidaire increased its share of the vote to 6% (less than expected) and gained a second seat in the legislature.

The new PQ government has repealed the fee increase and the “special law” – testimony to the power of the movement – but will seek to raise fees in a less dramatic way. The movement’s impact will be felt for years, for it has politicized Quebec society around the question of neoliberalism in a way that is unprecedented in the Canadian state. It has radicalized many people, especially youth, many of whom have gained valuable experience in mass mobilization and democratic self-organization. Activists formed in this movement will be critical for the future of the Left.

David Camfield is an editor of the Canadian publication New Socialist Webzine (newsocialist.org).

Paraguay’s Silent Coup

Fernando Lugo en Coronel Oviedo
Former Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo. Image fernandolugoapc on flickr

Alister Black looks at the lingering shadow of the dictators in South America

In 2008 the years of domination by the right wing Colorado Party, the party of the dictatorship, came to an end when a left wing bishop and liberation theologist, Fernando Lugo was elected President of Paraguay. Lugo promised change. He promised social reform to address the great inequalities in Paraguayan society and in particular he promised to tackle the central issue in Paraguay – land reform.

I visited Paraguay this summer a few weeks after the ‘parliamentary coup’ which overthrew Lugo. Driving through the streets of the cities like Ciudad del Este and Asuncion you could see some graffiti and posters denouncing the coup and calling for mobilisation. But the protests had begun to peter out. Speaking to Paraguayans many said they had voted for Lugo and opposed the coup, but all had criticisms of him. Most commonly they felt he had achieved little in the way of the change he had promised to bring about.

Yet Paraguay is also a country whose poverty and inequality is among the worst in the world (1) and this could be seen on every street. I passed a huge home that could only be described as a palace. It belonged to a former President, Cubas, and perfectly symbolised the corruption of the ruling elite. A few streets down a thriving ‘asentamiento’ of wood and tarpaulin homes was being built on occupied land by peasants coming in from the country seeking work. There were also some more permanent brick constructions with rigged up electricity and chickens running around the yard.

Understanding Paraguay

Paraguay is a relatively small South American country in terms of population but with a turbulent and violent history. It has suffered catastrophic wars which killed huge proportions of its people. The War of the Triple Alliance which Paraguay fought against Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina saw a possible 90% of the male population of the nation killed. The twentieth century saw the Chaco War over control of a semi-desert region where it was believed oil could be found. Britain played a bloody role in this conflict, encouraging it and arming both sides. Political instability led to a civil war in 1947 as different factions of the ruling class fought for control.

The instability ended in 1949 with the military dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner and the Colorado Party. The Stroessner dictatorship lasted until 1989 and it was marked by international isolation (the few foreign embassies were from the likes of apartheid South Africa and Taiwan) and domestic oppression. One party rule also exarcerbated the corruption that came to plague the nation. Stroessner was ousted in 1989 by his son-in-law who had responsibilty for the nations borders and hence lucrative smuggling income. Fear of losing that post prompted the coup rather than any concern for democracy. There were some democratic reforms however, but the corrupt and deeply entrenched networks of the Colorado Party machine continued to dominate the country, acting in the interests of business and rich landowners.

Lugo

The election of Lugo promised more substantial change. However the hopes of many Paraguayans and those outside the country, were dashed in June this year when Lugo was impeached by the Chamber of Deputies and the impeachment confirmed by the upper house, the Paraguayan Senate. Colorado had already tried multiple times to impeach Lugo. The votes were overwhelming, 76-1 in the lower house and 39-4 in the upper house. Crucially Lugo’s ‘allies’ in the centre-right Liberal PLRA party turned against him this time.

The vote followed controversial events in Curuguaty in Paraguay’s countryside. The failure of land reform had forced more peasant groups to seize land for themselves. One group were evicted by the courts and resisted their eviction resulting in the deaths of 11 peasants and 6 police officers. Exactly what happened is far from clear and there is no real evidence that the campesinos opened fire first.

This was the pretext for Lugo’s impeachment. Lugo was given just 24 hours to prepare his defence against vague charges of ‘poor performance’. No evidence was presented relating to the main charges around events in Curuguaty. The process was unconstitutional.

Lugo’s supporters in the trade-unions, social and peasant organisations demonstrated and protested but there was no mass movement to defend his presidency, as had been seen when Chavez faced a coup in Venezuela.

Lugo’s Programme

One of the key features of Lugo’s Presidency was that he had no party of his own but build a coalition called the Patriotic Alliance for Change whose largest component was a centre-right party, the PLRA many of whom actively opposed the more radical parts of Lugo’s agenda.

Lugo had promised to enact reform in four key areas, tax, land, the public sector and the judiciary (2). Land reform in particular is key in a country where 85% of the land is owned by 2% of the population. In recent years agribusiness, mostly from Brazil, has been buying up Paraguayan land to grow profitable soya. Soya makes up 40% of Paraguay’s exports and brings in $2 billion. In the process they have kicked thousands of peasants off the land. These same interests of course, vehemently opposed Lugo’s programme of land reform through their representatives in the Colorado party and the other parties.

Opposition

The parliament consistently opposed Lugo. They blocked funding and cut back on existing programmes of health and social care. This made Lugo even more reliant on parliamentary allies to his right with a resultant dilution of his programme.

The media was deployed against Lugo. They raised issues around his character, particularly that he had fathered several children while still a bishop.

Another destabilising factor was the mysterious emergence of supposed leftist guerrillas, in what was a likely attempt to link Lugo to violent outrages, drawing in FARC, Chavez and anyone else they could throw in. Since the coup, the media has referred little to the so-called ‘EPP’ (Ejercito del Peublo Paraguayo).

Movement

Against this background Lugo stood little chance of carrying out his programme. This is particularily true because he failed to bring the movements which supported him together in a strong united front. Peasants, trade unionists, socialists, campaigners for democratic rights. Together they could have built a movement against the coup and in opposition to the right-wing parties of Colorado and PLRA who are two sides of the same coin.

Other leftist movements in the region have built powerful grassroots movements to defend and direct their struggle. Chavez and the PSUV are the best example but the Peronist movement of Argentinian President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner also has strong party and trade-union support and was able to draw on (or co-opt) the strength of the street movements and piqueteros of 2001.

Consequences

Reaction from other South American states has been strong however. Left of centre governments of various shades such as in Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina know that they cannot allow this coup to go unpunished. The US has remained silent and has not condemned the coup.

Paraguay has been suspended from the Mercosur trading block and replaced with Venezuela, leaving Paraguay far more isolated and at an economic disadvantage whilst strengthening the other nations who now benefit from closer links and greater access to Venezuelan oil.

The removal of Lugo has been a set back for Paraguay but the underlying problems of poverty, inequality and corruption are worsening. To solve them Paraguay will need to build powerful social movements for change that can resist the machinations of the corrupt ruling elite.

Notes

(1) “by 2008 Paraguay was one of the most unequal countries in Latin America with a Gini coefficient of 0.58 (the US is 0.47) and with one of the worst landownership concentrations in the world: 1 per cent own 77 per cent of the cultivable land.” Francisco Dominguez http://www.redpepper.org.uk/paraguay-a-well-rehearsed-coup/

(2) http://www.e-ir.info/2012/08/09/the-lightning-impeachment-of-paraguays-president-lugo/ Peter Lambert

Greece, Spain Portugal – the arc of resistance to austerity hardens

Gritos en cartones.

As Merkel, Cameron and the EU bosses tighten the screws on the working class of Europe, many Europeans are stepping up resistance. Murray Smith focuses on Greece, Spain and Portugal.

It sometimes seems as if Europe’s sovereign debt crisis has been going on forever. But in fact it really only manifested itself in 2010, a result of the bailing out of private banks with public money and other public spending due to the crisis. And in May of that year Greece became the first country to ask for help and to receive so-called “aid” – really, it cannot be repeated too often, loans that must be paid back – from the now infamous Troika IMF-ECB-European Commission. This aid was conditional on Greece adopting policies of austerity and structural reforms, all regularly supervised by those who have become known as the “men in black”, the inspectors of the Troika… In an article in the Guardian on October 8, Alexis Tsipras, leader of the radical left coalition Syriza, makes two key points. First of all, the money lent to Greece goes into an escrow account used for repaying past loans and interest on them and for recapitalizing private banks. It cannot be used otherwise, for example for useful social spending. Secondly he writes: “we believe that their aim is not to solve the debt crisis but to create a new regulatory framework throughout Europe that is based on cheap labour, deregulation of the labour market, low public spending and tax exemptions for capital”. That about sums it up. Greece became the guinea-pig for these policies. It would soon be followed by Ireland and Portugal, who also applied for bailouts within a year. But Alexis Tsipras was right to say “throughout Europe”. The Financial Times on October 2 revealed the existence of a draft agenda already circulated to EU governments that “would require all 17 eurozone members to sign on to the kinds of Brussels-approved policy programmes and timelines now negotiated only with bailout countries”.

Those may be the plans that Brussels, Berlin and Frankfurt have for the whole of Europe, and we can see everywhere that that is the direction in which things are going. But for the moment they are only being applied in such  a brutal fashion in Greece, Portugal and Ireland, and also in Spain and to a lesser extent Italy, two countries which may in their turn have to apply for aid from the Troika. It is therefore important to look not just at the effects on those countries but especially at how their peoples have been able to resist. From this point of view the countries that we will look at are Greece, Spain and Portugal. It would take much too long to describe in detail the hundreds of strikes, demonstrations and occupations that have taken place in those countries and indeed in others.  But in the course of this year, and even particularly this autumn, resistance seems to have taken on a new scale and a new dynamic is some countries. We are seeing the development of an ongoing, permanent mass movement, in Greece and Spain certainly and perhaps also in Portugal.

Greece

Greece is unquestionably the country that has suffered most from the policies of the Troika, aided and abetted, it must be said, by successive Greek governments.  It is easy to cite the basic figures: 24 per cent unemployment, 55 per cent youth unemployment, wages and pensions reduced by around a third, deep cuts in education and health. It is also necessary to be aware of the daily human consequences, children going hungry, lack of medicines, homelessness, a dramatic rise in the number of suicides. These policies are accompanied by a massive propaganda offensive, seeking both to convince the population hat it is responsible for the deficits and has to make sacrifices and to instill fear of the international consequences of any policies that would break from the dominant neo-liberal mould. Clearly, for large parts of the population this discourse no longer works, people no longer believe it. And as popular opposition increases the government imposes its policies in an increasingly authoritarian and repressive fashion. And alongside the growth in support for the radical Left, there is the emergence of Golden Dawn, a genuinely neo-Nazi formation that is now, according to polls, supported by 12 per cent of Greeks.

In the three countries we are considering, where does the opposition come from, how is it structured? In fact in each country we have seen three sources of resistance, not in the same proportions: the trade unions, the parties of the radical Left (to the left of social democracy), autonomous movements of young people.

Greek Movement

Opposition in Greece began as soon as the country applied for a bailout, with a general strike called by the two main confederations GSEE (private sector) and ADEDY (public sector) on May 5, 2010. Since then there have been more than a dozen one-day general strikes and innumerable sectoral strikes. It is of course easy to criticize the trade union leaderships which do not go beyond such strikes and who for a long time remained tied to PASOK. Nevertheless these strikes objectively constitute one element of popular resistance. The second is constituted by mobilizations of youth, whose origins go back to at least 2008 and the killing by police of a young school student. Particularly under the impact of events in Spain (see below) this took on a particularly organized form in the summer and autumn of 2011, with occupations of squares. But it never took on the dynamic or the scale of the movement in Spain. One reason was certainly the role played by the radical anticapitalist Left. In the 2009 general election the Greek Communist Party (KKE) and the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) won respectively 7.54 and 4.6 per cent of the vote, compared to nearly 44 per cent for the victorious social-democrats of PASOK. Hardly enough to make the capitalists quake in their boots. A few months later Syriza (or more exactly, its main component, Synaspismos) suffered a split to the right, leading to the formation of the Democratic Left. However as the crisis progressed and austerity made itself felt, from the autumn of 2011  opinion polls began to show a level of support for the three parties of the radical Left of around 30 and sometimes nearly 40 per cent. Given the deep divisions between the three forces, these results repeated in a general election could just have provided one more example of the inability of the Left to unite. But these divisions were not some kind of genetic defect of the Left. They had political roots, in the mind-boggling sectarianism of the KKE and the orientation of DL to be a left pressure group on PASOK. And Syriza dealt with the question politically, developing an orientation that was both radical and unitary. Proposing a government of left forces committed to breaking with austerity and repudiating the agreements (memorandums) concluded with the Troika. Syriza thus emerged as far and away the dominant force to the left of PASOK and the KKE and DL paid the price for their political positions. In the May elections Syriza became the second political force in the country, with over 16 per cent. Now the capitalists were really quaking in their boots. The full battery of European institutions and governments was deployed to campaign against the danger of a Syriza victory in June, a danger narrowly avoided, as Syriza, with nearly 27 per cent, came a close second to the right-wing New Democracy.  It is worth looking at the extent of Syriza’s support as revealed in that election. It was the biggest party among all those aged 18-54 (45.5 per cent in the 18-24 age group) and among workers of both public and private sectors, the unemployed, students and the self-employed. Not surprisingly Syriza was the first party in all the working-class areas, especially in Greater Athens, which has almost half the country’s population. It is also important to note that as PASOK’s support melted away (12.28 per cent in June) and the party began to implode many activists joined Syriza, including MPs and trade unionists. Similarly, the KKE which had taken 8.48 per cent in May and refused even to talk to Syriza dropped to 4.5 per cent. Syriza, which was established in 2004 as a coalition, is now engaged in a process that should lead to it becoming a party next year.

Syriza

The existence of a force as representative as Syriza, a political alternative to the fragile coalition government, is the fundamental fact of Greek politics, and what makes the situation there different from any other country in Europe. Of course, if people were just sitting back and waiting to vote for Syriza in the next election, that would be a problem. But that is hardly case. The growth of Syriza is taking place in a context of ongoing mobilization. September 26 saw the latest (and the first since the elections) one-day general strike, with a demonstration of 100,000 in Athens and 15,000 in Salonika. The big battalions came from the public sector but there was a significant presence of the private sector, where to go on strike is much more likely to lead to workers being sacked. Even the employers’ organization recognized that 20 to 30 per cent of private sector workers joined the strike. And on October 8, in the face of an unprecedented police operation blocking off a large zone of Central Athens, thousands demonstrated against the visit of Angela Merkel.

Given the depth of the recession and the scale of the attacks, it is not inconceivable that the coalition government could fall – for example that its two weakest components, PASOK and DL, could be unable to keep their parties on board. Already cracks are emerging. On October 14 the Left Initiative current in PASOK demanded that the party quit the government. This in a context of negotiations with the Troika, which is now posing more demands, including increasing the working week from five to six days. The possibility of a left government led by Syriza is a real possibility. That would be an enormous step forward, but it would also be fraught with danger and difficulties. A left government would be subject to all sorts of economic and political sabotage and pressure, internally and externally. And Syriza is very conscious of the fact that at the present time there is no other country where the radical Left is in the same position as it.

New Movements

In Spain and Portugal, one of the main ways in which resistance has been expressed is through the appearance of new social-political movements organized by the young people who are among the main victims of austerity. This is an important development, which began in both countries in 2011. It is important, because young people are organizing themselves without waiting for parties or unions. But it should not be looked at in isolation or elevated into a panacea. In fact if we look at the recent mobilizations in Spain and Portugal we will see that unions and parties are involved, as well as the new movements.

Although Spain is not yet in the situation of receiving a bailout, the general opinion is that it will soon find itself in that situation. We could sum it up by saying that the economics (banks, sovereign debt) add up to such an eventuality, but Spanish politics militate against it, the Rajoy government being manifestly reluctant to be saved, that is to have conditions imposed and supervised by the Troika. In this respect Spain is actually no different from the three bail-out countries, all of whom resisted being saved for as long as possible. The reason is simple: when the men in black arrive to dictate austerity measures and structural reforms, it is electoral and social poison and it has already led to governments falling in Ireland, Greece and Portugal. It is not that the governments in question actually object to austerity and reforms, they simply want to do them in their own way in terms of their own national situation. Greece is already in a situation of limited independence, of being an EU protectorate. Portugal is moving towards the same situation. On the other hand international politics, the pressure of the EU the ECB and of course the markets are pushing Spain towards a bail-out, whose first and principal aim is to guarantee the repayment of loans and interest on them.

Spanish Crisis

If this happens to Spain it will exacerbate an already tense social and political crisis. Spain has already gone a long way in applying austerity policies and reforms. They began under the Socialist government of Zapatero in 2010 and have been continued and accentuated since the victory of Rajoy and the right-wing Popular Party in the November 2011 elections. The first striking result was the appearance in May 2011 of the indignados or M 15 movement, a movement of young people clearly related to Greek-style levels of unemployment (over 50 per cent for young people) and no prospects On May 15, operating via social networks, hundreds of thousands of young people occupied squares in towns and cities all over Spain, including Madrid and Barcelona. These occupations lasted for weeks while the indignados worked out their ideas. Finally they evacuated the squares and fanned out to engage in local campaigns. The movement was not linked to any political party. It would however be completely inaccurate to describe it as apolitical. It criticized not only the social and economic policies of the government but the limitations of the two-party system in Spain, demanding “real democracy” and produced positive proposals. These were expressed notably in a remarkable 16-point document adopted by the Madrid assembly in Puerta Del Sol on June 5, 2012.

Indignados

The indignados never went away. They mobilized for the international day of action on October 15, 2011 and again in May 2012 on the first anniversary of the movement. But the focus shifted as the trade unions began to move. It has to be said that the role of the union leaderships in the first period of the crisis, under the Zapatero government, was less than glorious. But after the victory of the Right they began to move, with mass demonstrations in February and a general strike on March 29. As the unions came to the fore, the M 15 was part of the mobilizations, albeit with a definite distrust of the union leaders.

On July 19, the two main union confederations, the CC.OO and UGT, called another strike, involving smaller unions and social movements in its organization. A massive 3.5 million people demonstrated across the country. The July 19 strike had been preceded by the March for Dignity of the Asturian coal miners fighting to defend their mines and jobs, from the Asturias to Madrid. This autumn saw a new wave of mobilization, starting with a demonstration in Madrid of 500,000 people on September 15. Then an initiative came from the M15 movement, or rather from what appear to be radical spin-offs from it, Coordinadora 25S and Plataforma En Pie! (“Stand Up!”) On three successive evenings, on 25-26-27 September, up to 50,000 demonstrators tried to encircle the Parliament, calling for the resignation of the government and declaring “democracy kidnapped”. There were violent clashes with police. A mass demonstration took place the following Saturday, September 29.  On September 26 there was a general strike called by the Basque trade unions (linked to the Basque national movement, not part of the Spanish confederations). Unlike on March 29, the strike was not backed by the CC.OO and the UGT, so it was unevenly supported, depending on the sectors and workplaces. However the demonstrations were massive, with a high participation of young people. Further demonstrations took place all over Spain on October 7. Another one-day general strike is envisaged for November 14, the same day chosen by the Portuguese unions.

Portugal

In Portugal, the first signs of autonomous movement among young people were seen even earlier than in Spain. On March 12, 2011 demonstrations against precarious work organized on Facebook brought 300,000 people into the streets, 200,000 of them in Lisbon. A week before, the organizers had hoped for a demonstration of 10,000…But subsequently there was a downturn in mobilization. In April 2011 Portugal applied for a bailout and a few weeks later elections brought a right-wing government to power committed to carrying out the terms of an agreement with the Troika. The Socialists, now in opposition, also backed the agreement. The two forces to the left of the SP, the Portuguese Communist Party and the Left Bloc fared badly in the elections. The PCP held its vote stable, but the Left Bloc lost half its votes and half its seats. Since then there have certainly been protests – two one-day general strikes, big demonstrations. But not on the scale of Greece or even Spain. Overall, up until recently a large section of the Portuguese people accepted austerity with a certain resignation, helped by an ongoing campaign in the media about how necessary austerity was and how things would soon get better. That all changed dramatically on September 15.  A national demonstration was called by a collective of 29 people. Word went out via social media in the same way as for the demonstrations in March 2011 and the M15 in Spain. The result was a million demonstrators across a series of Portuguese cities on September 15, including 500,000 in Lisbon – the biggest demonstration there since May 1 1974, a few days after the fall of the Salazar dictatorship. The reason for the breakthrough was a measure that had been announced in the government’s latest austerity package on September 7. It provided a particularly clear expression of who the government was helping and who it was hurting. The measure envisaged deducting an extra 7 per cent in social security contributions from workers’ salaries and simultaneously reducing employers’ contributions by 5.75 per cent. This was described by one observer as the last straw that broke the camel’s back. The government was forced to withdraw the measure but has announced new tax increases to replace it. But the genie is out of the bottle and since then there have been fresh protests.

Spain – Regions and Nations

In terms of the social situation, Spain is only comparable to Greece, which explains the scale of the ongoing mobilizations. But the crisis is also laying bare the country’s political fault lines. In particular it is underlining the limits of what is called the “Transition”, the period from the death of Franco in 1975 until the adoption of a new constitution in 1978. In at least three spheres: the national question (limited autonomy, no right to self-determination), the amnesty law (no prosecution for crimes committed by the Franco dictatorship), the question of democracy (no republic, but a “parliamentary monarchy”). Spain came out of the Transition with a considerable degree of decentralization, powers devolved to the regions. But the term “regions” covers the historic Basque, Catalan and Galician nations, regions with a strong identity like Andalusia, and ordinary Spanish provinces which were not even demanding the devolution they got. In fact the whole operation was an attempt to make granting statutes of (limited) autonomy to Catalonia and the Basque Country acceptable to the Spanish Right by wrapping it up in a general process of decentralization. The reality was however that both nations got rights in excess of those given to the Spanish regions. The Basques, but not the Catalans, got a statute of autonomy with the right to control their own tax revenues.

Under cover of the role of the regions in the overall deficit the Rajoy government is trying to recentralize, to repatriate powers to Madrid. But this is not just an economic issue. There is an offensive against Catalan identity and language, with provocative declarations from Spanish politicians, for example the Minister of Education talking about the need to “Hispanicize” Catalonia. The Catalan response was a massive pro-independence march of 1.5 million people in Barcelona on September 11, Catalan National Day. Faced with no concessions from Madrid the Catalan government has called a snap election for November 25 which may give them a mandate for a referendum on independence. The present Catalan government is certainly not on the left and applies its own austerity policies. It is also reluctant in its support of independence. But it is being pushed forward by the mass movement. And other, left independentist currents are developing and will stand in the elections. The national question is likely to become even sharper after regional elections on October 21 where the left independentists of EH Bildu are seeking to repeat their success in last year’s local elections in the Basque country. Even in the more conservative Galicia, an alliance between the local Izquierda Unida (IU, United Left) and a new movement ANOVA, which has been described as the “Galician Syriza” may make a modest breakthrough.

Spain is heading for a political and constitutional crisis and all the chickens of the half-baked Transition are coming home to roost. Not only is the government of the Popular Party, which was of course founded by former Francoists, revealing its deep-seated Spanish chauvinism, but officers of the Spanish armed forces, who under the Amnesty Law of 1977 were never pursued for crimes against humanity committed under the Franco regime, are making threatening declarations. Leading right-wing politicians are demanding that the statute of autonomy be suspended and the Civil Guard sent into Catalonia and the association of retired officers is threatening Catalan politicians with being tried by military tribunals for high treason.

In Portugal the situation is quite different in that respect, due to the way the dictatorship was overthrown by a revolution in 1974, the role the army played in it and the heritage of a revolution that, although it was prevented from becoming the socialist revolution many of its participants wanted, has left serious trace in Portuguese society. Thus, on 14 September, 2012, the Officers Association of the Portuguese Armed Forces (AOFA) adopted a declaration which affirmed that “‘the military can never be an instrument of repression for their fellow citizens, because according to the Constitution we swore to defend them”. It went on to make very sharp criticisms of government policies, difficult to imagine on the part of serving officers in most other countries.

Radical Left

The level of mobilization in Spain is fast approaching Greek levels, and hopefully resistance in Portugal will now grow stronger. The situation of the radical Left is obviously less advanced than in Greece, but far from marginal. In Portugal an opinion poll in September showed the PCP on 13 per cent and the Left Bloc on 11 per cent, a big improvement on 2011. Considering that relations between the two parties seem to be improving, that could be the beginning of a serious alternative. Furthermore relations, between the new social movement and the parties seem not so bad; several of the 29 people who made the call for the September 15 demonstration are Left Bloc members. On this level, things are more problematic in Spain. The United Left doubled its vote in  2011 compared to the previous elections and has now pretty much doubled again in opinion polls, at 12-13 per cent. It has sought to open out and had some success in collaborating with the M15; some figures from the movement stood on the IU lists in the 2011 elections, at least one being elected. However, the evolution of some sectors of the M15 towards what may be the beginning of political organizations may mean that developments on the left will be more complicated in Spain.

This article has dealt with three countries, which are the most advanced at this point. But of course that does not cover the whole scenario. Movements of resistance are weaker in Ireland and Italy, for reasons that can be understood in each case, but they exist and the situation could change quickly, particularly in Italy. Nor have we dealt with the situation in Central and Eastern Europe, where not only are austerity policies being applied in many countries, but there have been important movements of resistance, notably in Romania and the Czech Republic. One country however that deserves to be mentioned is France, where we may be seeing the lull before the storm. President Francois Hollande and his Socialist government are coming under increasing pressure to renege on their election promises and fall into line by applying austerity policies and labour and pension reforms. The odds are that they will gradually give in to these pressures. In this situation it is not unimportant that there is a strong opposition on the left. The Left Front, which had won four million votes in the presidential election, launched in September a campaign against France signing the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance, usually called the Fiscal Pact, designed to set austerity in stone. This was a point on which Hollande had very clearly capitulated, in spite of his election promise not to sign the pact unless it was renegotiated. On September 30, 80,000 people demonstrated in Paris against France signing – a front involving not just the Left Front but other political forces, including the NPA, and dozens of trade unions and associations. The Greens, who are part of the government, decided to vote against and most of their MPs did so, as of course did the Left Front MPs. Very significantly, so did 20 Socialist MPs, 9 more abstaining, in spite of huge pressure from the party leadership.  The significance of the fact that the first national movement of opposition to a decision of the Socialist government came from the left was not lost on the political world or the bourgeois media. It augurs well for the future.

France: Sarkozy’s defeat is our victory, but there are bigger battles to come.

John Mullen reports from Paris on the defeat of Sarkozy in the French Presidential elections.

Defaced Sarkozy poster by http://www.flickr.com/photos/novopress/
Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/novopress/

Hundreds of thousands were on the streets of Paris on the night of Sunday 6th May to celebrate the fall of the monster, and they had every reason to be happy about Sarkozy’s defeat. Champion of tax cuts for the rich and public service cuts for the rest of us, his election campaign moved further right every day in the desperate hope of attracting the votes which went to the fascists in the first round. On the first of May he bussed in supporters from all over France to be filmed in front of the Eiffel tower while he demanded of trade unions “Put down your red flag, and serve France instead.”

So Sarkozy’s sacking is excellent news. If he had been re-elected, his plans for cuts and other attacks would have been accelerated many times over. He has already raised the retirement age and savaged our schools. It would have been open season on Trade union rights and workers’ conditions in general, and privatizations of pared-down public services would have been the order of the day.

In addition, some of the policies proposed by Hollande, first Socialist president for seventeen years, are very welcome – the right to vote for immigrants at local elections, immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan, gay marriage, more nursery school places and a women’s rights ministry, to cite some examples. He is also proposing other modest reforms which are in the interests of workers – higher taxes for the rich (up to 75% for the filthy rich) and more social help for parents of school-age children. His programme pledges him not to continue privatization of electricity or the railways, to create 60 000 jobs in education, to limit rent rises, to defend public sector health services and to renegotiate European-wide agreements which impose ever harsher austerity policies. This week millions of immigrants are feeling that the police will be less encouraged to give free rein to their racism, and millions of workers are feeling that their pensions are less under threat. Hollande’s first decrees will reduce his own salary by thirty per cent and restore the right to retire at sixty to part of the workforce.

Reformist parties are contradictory animals: at the same time, Hollande has been wanting to reassure the more right-wing element of his electorate by insisting that there will be no more residence papers for illegal immigrants asking for them than there were under Sarkozy. And the Socialist Party, just like the right wing, has been involved in islamophobic scaremongering of late.

Low Expectations

Expectations on Left governments are massively lower than thirty years ago. No-one thinks that the lives of the 4.3 million unemployed in France, or the standard of living of the 3.3 million minimum wage workers will radically improve because of the new president. Hollande will keep in place the neoliberal reforms of universities and public utilities and will no doubt add more of his own. This is why the Socialist Party campaign didn’t raise much popular enthusiasm, and the main thrust of Left sentiment was “at least we’ll get rid of Sarkozy”.

Exactly how much the new president will do in the workers’ interest will depend on the mobilizations of the working class and its unions. Hollande insists he can improve social justice at the same time as reducing the national debt, but, if and when the financial markets get even greedier, his priority will always be to satisfy them first. At that point, workers’ struggle is what will count, even to make Hollande keep the promises he has made.

It is quite wrong to consider that reformist governments today cannot deliver reforms. They do tend to deliver ever smaller reforms in the workers’ interests and to donate ever more presents from public funds to the bosses. But they still reflect class mobilization and can be forced to hand over the goods. Ten years ago in France, a Socialist Party government introduced the thirty-five hour week, and brought in healthcare coverage for the poorest in society for the first time. Reforms are possible. This is why The Economist magazine, outspoken voice of neoliberal supporters of market dictatorship, is worried. “Mr. Hollande evinces a deep anti-business attitude”, they write, “nothing [in his past] suggests that Mr. Hollande is brave enough to rip up his manifesto and change France.” The Economist does not trust Hollande to decisively fight for the bosses. But they go on to outline what they think the future of France could be made of: “The response of the markets could be brutal.” “Do not conclude”, they squeal, “that Mr Hollande will impose tough reforms and demanding sacrifices on an unwilling public without having his own arm twisted” by the bond markets. In a vain attempt to “reassure the markets” it has been Left governments in Spain and in Greece who have introduced vicious austerity programmes. If push comes to shove, Hollande will be prepared to do the same. This is why the key element today is the building of working class confidence, organization and consciousness.

Polarization to the Left and to the Right

The deepening social crisis has led to a political polarization which is the essential feature of French politics today and which determines what anticapitalist activists need to be doing. Four million people voted for the Left Front, headed up by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Their dynamic campaign (several meetings of over a hundred thousand) put radical class demands back in the forefront of politics, and made a priority of denouncing the fascist Front National. Mélenchon called for the imposition of a ceiling on boss’s salaries, the return of retirement at sixty for all and a large increase in the minimum wage. “Let’s put finance back in its place” was one of the slogans, and many thousands of trade unionists and former left activists of all sorts joined in a tremendously exciting campaign.

During the two weeks between the first and second round, Mélenchon and his activists pulled out all the stops to make sure that Sarkozy suffered the heaviest defeat possible. Mélenchon in his meetings called for a new June 1936 (when two million strikers won important victories, including paid holidays for all), and laughed at the idea of joining a Socialist Party government as a minister. “If the Socialist party is saying of its programme ‘take it or leave it’, we’ll leave it!” he declared. The Front de Gauche, set up as an electoral coalition between the Communist Party, the Left Party and some smaller revolutionary or Red/Green groups seems to be becoming a new activist force in its own right. This is an excellent thing, in particular if antifascist campaigning is brought to the fore in a way it hasn’t been for the last ten years.

Not that the Left Front doesn’t have faults. Mélenchon’s calls for “a citizens’ revolution” and “a revolution through the ballot box” suffer of course from the difficulty that the world doesn’t work like that. But it is in the struggle that this can be clarified. It would be wonderful if there were millions of revolutionaries in France today, but there aren’t. What is new now is that there are millions of people who believe radical reform is possible to advance workers’ living conditions and standard of living, and who are prepared to fight for it.

The Left Front is also not good on islamophobia. Mélenchon loudly denounced the NPA a few years back, when one of the NPA electoral candidates was a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf. Things may be getting better – he denounced the victimisation of Muslims several times during the campaign, and another leader of the Left Front condemned the instrumentalisation of feminist ideas by islamophobes. Still, a major re-think on anti-Muslim racism is required.

There is everything to fight for in the Left Front. One of its biggest member parties, the Communist Party, has frequently been much more interested in running local and regional councils, often passing on government austerity measures, than in class struggle. And Mélenchon’s left nationalist nonsense is a problem. There is no guarantee that the class struggle current will maintain the upper hand, and there may even be pressures for the Left Front to join a Socialist Party government after the legislatives. But the rise of this dynamic movement is the best opportunity for decades to offer the radical fighting Left alternative which is so sorely needed.

Revamped fascists

The other side of the polarization is the far right. The revamped fascist National Front, led by Marine Le Pen, got 6.4 million votes in the first round, the highest score in their history. On the ground, it has not yet been able to rebuild an activist organization as strong as the one it had in the late 1990s before antifascist activity put it under so much pressure that it split in two. But it is now recruiting again and there is no time to waste: a national, very broadly based, active antifascist organization is urgently needed. In the last thirty years the biggest antiracist and antifascist organizations in France have tended to fall into one or other mistake – either very broad but purely moralistic antiracist organizations which don’t try to stop the fascists organizing, or smallish networks based on purely physical opposition to the fascists or on “red antifascism,” which you can only join in if you have read half of Trotsky’s writings.

Anticapitalists gotta relate!

The main task for revolutionaries in France today is how to relate to the activists of the Left Front. One option is to ignore them because some of their ideas are confused or involve illusions in the possibilities of constitutional action. This is a disastrous mistake. What is needed is to get stuck in alongside them, not just in individual campaigns and strikes but also in a political and electoral bloc which, independent from the Socialist Party, fights to build class combativity and consciousness. Mélenchon has said he would welcome a broadening of the Left Front to include revolutionary organizations who want to join the alliance while maintaining their autonomy.

The strongest openly revolutionary organization in France, the NPA (Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste), which is always in there doing the legwork on rank and file campaigns and strikes, had a dreadful presidential campaign, concentrating on the fact that the candidate was “not a professional politician” but a manual worker, and having nothing specific to say to the millions attracted by the Left Front. When Mélenchon had over a hundred thousand at a meeting, there were no NPA leafletters or paper-sellers to be seen! But in a crisis as deep as today’s, workers under attack don’t care whether the candidate is straight from the factory or not! The NPA came over as sectarian, and out-of-touch, and its score dropped from 4% in the previous presidentials to 1.15% this time round. Once the first round results came through, the party made a call to vote against Sarkozy in the second round, and then seemed to close down for holidays. Meanwhile the Left Front was holding mass meetings calling for the heaviest possible defeat of Sarkozy, and for the building of the resistance, reminding Hollande of some of his positive promises, and of the Left Front’s demands which have to be fought for, against Hollande if necessary. The NPA paper simply commented that the success of the Left Front “can be seen as something positive, but we must bear in mind the limits of Mélenchon’s programme.

As a result of all this, the NPA’s crisis has deepened and a sizeable minority current within it, the Gauche Anticapitaliste, will no doubt leave the NPA and join the Left Front, while maintaining political independence. This newish grouping will be heterogeneous, but promising, I think.

There will be legislative elections in June which the Socialist Party is most likely to win. The new Socialist government will come under attack at once from the financial markets, and will be immediately put to the test. The Left Front will be put to the test too: we will see if it can take a major role in organizing resistance to Socialist party austerity policies. These are exciting times: revolutionaries must be in the thick of the reconstruction, fighting, organizing and explaining, and not heckling from the sidelines.

John Mullen is a member of the NPA in the Paris area.
His blog is here: http://johnmullenagen.blogspot.fr/

Share