Making a beginning

The left should campaign for a Europe-wide constituent assembly, argues Chris Gray

If Sir Walter Raleigh, Richard Hakluyt and their associates could devise and implement a project for England’s aggrandisement at the expense, primarily, of Spain, can we in the 21st century envisage a project whereby English people and the other three nations traditionally grouped with them can join with continental neighbours to arrest the bureaucratisation, Balkanisation and immiseration of Europe? Can we open the way to a society within which all can enjoy freely the benefits of democracy and, at the very least, an international civil minimum of wellbeing?

Yes, it is a very tall order, but an important contribution to the debate on the kind of immediate demands we ought to be raising in relation to the European Union can be located in the Communist Platform of Left Unity. This makes clear that the aim should be “not a quasi-democratic, confederal EU, but a united Europe under the rule of the working class”. The demands it proposes are:

This goes to the heart of the matter and in my view the focus should definitely be the parliament. At the very minimum it needs to acquire the full powers of a legislature, which at present it lacks, since “it cannot directly introduce proposals for new laws; it cannot enact laws on its own   and it cannot raise revenue”.2

Another power which the parliament does not have is the ability to reject individual nominees for the post of commissioner - it has to accept all the commissioners or reject them en bloc:

Under the circumstances, it is unlikely to reject the college [ie, all the proposed commissioners] unless it has serious reservations about one or more of the nominees. This happened in 2004 when the nominee from Italy - Rocco Buttiglione, who was to have been the new justice commissioner - commented … that homosexuality was a “sin” and that “the family exists in order to allow women to have children and to have the protection of a male who takes care of them”. The resulting outcry led to Buttiglione being replaced as the Italian ...3

There is also a strong objection to the Council of Ministers. First, it is in practice subordinate to the CPR, the Council of Permanent Representatives (from individual states), which gets to discuss the Commission’s legislative proposals before the Council of Ministers gets a look-in, in effect dealing with some 90% of its business before the latter meets. Secondly, it gives national government ministers an input which is beyond what they are specifically elected for.

In our UK system, MPs are elected ostensibly to look after the interests of a certain geographical constituency, and, in the vast majority of cases, they do this in practice, uniting with like-minded individuals in a particular political party. If that party wins a parliamentary majority (either on its own or combined with some other party or parties) certain MPs from it are selected by the prime minister to act as ministers, but their responsibility is to the UK parliament and electorate only.

Natural justice demands that they should have an opportunity to express a view on any particular EU legislative proposal through the UK government, but why should they be given the right to interpose their views (along with their opposite numbers in other EU states) in a topsy-turvy legislative process, whereby potential laws originate in the Commission and are then considered by the Council (if the CPR has not already pronounced on them) and only then by the European parliament? The proper, democratic way would be to have the proposals originate in the parliament and then be implemented under executive supervision.

Last, but possibly not least, it might be a good idea to replace the Council of Ministers with a directly elected second chamber, giving equal representation to all member-states, in view of the disparities in size - the population of Germany is around 200 times bigger than that of Malta, for example - as suggested by Moshé Machover.4

Constituent assembly

To change the EU set-up will take a colossal effort by the whole European left and any allies it can rope in. Agitation and propaganda cannot be confined to EU countries, but needs to include such states as Norway and Switzerland, where the working class has interests in line with working people in EU countries. Hence it is worth trying to organise a Europe-wide constituent assembly. Ideally this should be a labour and trade union movement assembly, at least in the first instance, but if the established organisations of the European labour movement, such as the European Trade Union Confederation and the Second International, are unwilling or unable to countenance such an initiative, then ‘unofficial’ enterprise must step in. (There is a parallel with the oppositional meetings against World War I held at Zimmerwald in Switzerland in 1915 and Kienthal in 1916). Such an assembly could discuss (in addition to constitutional reform of the EU) such policy areas as:

  1. A common European economic plan, focusing on a solution of the sovereign debt crisis and sustainable development, and including democratic control of banks
  2. Energy policy
  3. Agriculture and fishing
  4. Climate change
  5. Unemployment
  6. Workers’ rights
  7. Women’s rights
  8. Taxation
  9. Health
  10. Education
  11. Defence
  12. Languages and international problems

What might the left recommend in these areas? Most of the necessary EU reforms have already been mentioned, but we would surely insist on our political representatives receiving a level of remuneration in line with the earnings of a skilled worker, plus legitimate expenses. We would also almost certainly wish to end the shuttling of the parliament back and forth between Brussels and Strasburg.

Let us look at these topics in turn.

Common economic plan

It is impossible to anticipate the content of such a plan. To draw it up would involve discussion in every single country, with the fullest possible participation. What would most definitely be included would be a mechanism whereby funds centrally collected and available, in addition to the resources of banks in each member-state, would be disbursed to those regions and enterprises in need of investment. This would, of course, require social ownership of banks with a degree of workers’ control, plus control by the EU parliament over the European Central Bank.

It would also be necessary to take steps to deal with the existing solvency of banks and governments and remove the crushing debt burden being carried by the peoples of Europe. This is no easy task, but a prerequisite for its solution must be a thorough democratic debt audit, as advocated by the Committee for the Abolition of Third World Debt.5 This process is something which citizens should demand as of right.

Energy policy and sustainable production

Without detailed investigation of each country’s energy requirements no viable policy can be specified, but some basic choices need facing. Obviously we would want to maximise clean and safe energy production. Chris Goodall in his book Ten technologies to fix energy and climate thinks that it might be possible to have a mixed portfolio of renewable power sources, providing most electricity without carbon emissions by 2025. In his version this would consist of: wind power (25%); solar power (mostly concentrated solar power in Africa, 25%); marine (tidal and wave, 15%); fuel cells and biomass combined heat and power, 10%); carbon capture and storage (CCS)/nuclear (25%).6

There are some problems with this list. For one thing, African countries might legitimately wish to use the solar power generated on their territory for their own benefit. Perhaps such power in the form of electricity could in part be exported to Europe, but an amicable arrangement would have to be worked out. Also, CCS is problematic, as Goodall himself acknowledges.

The other components in the mix are hinted at by the Australian environmentalist, Ted Trainer, who has laid down six principles which need applying. I reproduce five of them here:

  1. A simpler, non-affluent way of life.
  2. The development of many small-scale, highly self-sufficient local economies.
  3. More communal, cooperative and participatory policies.
  4. Alternative technologies.
  5. An almost totally new economic system. [You bet! Production for need rather than for profit].7

His sixth principle is simply “New values”, but what does he mean by that phrase in practice? The moral seems to be: experiment, and if it works it works.


As regards agriculture, the left needs to turn its attention to wasteful practices indulged in by farming on a large scale (aka ‘agribusiness’). George Monbiot has shown the need for this and another person who has written on the topic is Guglielmo Carchedi, who states that malign agricultural subsidies lead to “reduced crop diversity, the overproduction of crops that are highly erosive, the cultivation of marginal lands that tend to be more subject to soil erosion and moisture deficiencies, and the conversion of wasteland and forestland to agricultural production.”8

On a European scale the results of untrammelled pursuit of profits have been pretty devastating. According to Carchedi, “For the whole of Europe, including the former USSR, 23% of total agricultural land (that is, 2,188,000 square km) is degraded (ie, unfit for agriculture) because of erosion or pollution.”9 This confirms Marx’s observation that under capitalism (and production methods borrowed from it) the art of robbing the labourer is also the art of robbing the soil.10

Climate change

More and more people are surely waking up to the fact that this is a serious issue threatening to get really serious very shortly. Climate change is one of the several “planetary boundaries” being investigated by a group of scientists led by Johan Rockström at the Stockholm Resilience Centre and Will Steffen at the Australian National University. These boundaries are thresholds or tipping points, which indicate a risk of “irreversible and abrupt environmental change” should they be exceeded.11

Clearly there is much more to be said on this topic, which is bound to grip our attention from here on. For now I would merely draw readers’ attention to a useful article by Seumas Milne. One cannot but agree with his conclusion:

The intervention, regulation, taxation, social ownership, redistribution and global cooperation needed to slash carbon emissions and build a sustainable economy for the future is clearly incompatible with a broken economic model based on self-interest and the corporate free-for-all that created the crisis in the first place. Given the scale of the threat, the choice for the rest of us could not be more obvious.12


The basic principles here are that all those capable of working should do so, and that paid work should only be engaged in if it satisfies some valid existing human need (what is validly needed is, of course, inevitably a question for argument and democratic decision). Consideration should be given to the proposal put forward for a basic income as of right (ie, a security minimum), as advocated by Guy Standing.13

Such an approach is a far cry from that of apologists for capitalism, such as Walter Eltis, who urges us to “recreate the conditions where widespread private-sector job creation used to occur”.14

Eltis sees this happening, under capitalism, via lower levels of taxation and “greater flexibility in Europe’s labour markets”, but there is absolutely no guarantee of it. Keynes was right in this regard: the economy is likely to revolve around a situation of less than full employment - indeed there is a tendency for less labour to be used as part and parcel of a rise in the technical composition of capital.

It is obviously easier to achieve full employment and full maintenance in a situation where the working class is dominant and production is not subject to the pressures of competition between enterprises. Such arrangements will be conducive to

(a) a reduction in obligatory working hours

(b) work-sharing

(c) programmes of public works

This would serve as a continuation of a desired movement arising under capitalism, the essence of whose demands was spelt out in Trotsky’s Transitional programme:

Under the menace of its own disintegration, the proletariat cannot permit the transformation of an increasing section of the workers into chronically unemployed paupers, living off the slops of a crumbling society. The right to employment is the only serious right left to the worker in a society based upon exploitation. This right today is being shorn from him at every step.

Against unemployment … the time is ripe to advance, along with the slogan of public works, the slogan of the sliding scale of working hours. Trade unions and other mass organisations should bind the workers and the unemployed together in the solidarity of mutual responsibility. On this basis all the work on hand would then be divided among all existing workers in accordance with how the extent of the working week is defined. The average wage of every worker remains as it was under the old working week. Wages, under a strictly guaranteed minimum, would follow the movement of prices. It is impossible to accept any other programme for the present catastrophic period.15

Workers’ rights

As Lenin emphasised in 1920, workers will need protection from their own state (since the state is oppressive by nature). Hence they are everywhere entitled to full trade union representation, plus freedom of speech, freedom of association, right to due process of law, etc. Minimum wage entitlement should continue and be kept under review in order to ensure that it is adequate. Enterprises should be run under workers’ control: ie, if management wants to introduce some practice that the majority of the workforce are opposed to, the workers can veto it.

Workers’ control must not be understood in a purely anarchist or anarcho-syndicalist sense, however: if the issue is one affecting more than one enterprise, or the class as a whole, then the will of the majority in the given constituency - that is to say, of those having the right to vote, not in the sense of ‘parliamentary division’ - should prevail, with those opposed having the right to try to alter it at some future date.

Women’s rights

All the various demands on this topic cannot be specified here in detail, since the situation in each country is different. However, my feeling is that the (UK-based) CPGB Draft programme has the right basic thrust:

Women carry the main burden of feeding babies, house management, supermarket buying, family cooking, child ferrying, etc, which is performed gratis. Given the ever increasing pressure on time, such work is often frantic, demoralising and allows no kind of rounded cultural development.

Advanced capitalism has created the material prerequisites for the liberation of women. However, women cannot be fully emancipated until the disappearance of the division of labour and without going beyond bourgeois right, which entails: to each according to work done ….

Communists say:

Turn formal equality into genuine equality. Socially, economically, politically and culturally there must be substantial equality.

  • Open free, 24-hour crèches and kindergartens to facilitate full participation in social life outside the home. Open high-quality canteens with cheap prices. Establish laundry and house-cleaning services undertaken by local authorities and the state. This to be the first step in the socialisation of housework.
  • Fully paid maternity leave of 12 months, which the mother can choose to take from up to three months before giving birth. The partner to be provided with six months’ fully paid paternity leave - three months of which should be compulsory - to encourage equality and bonding with the child.
  • Free abortion and contraception on demand.
  • Provision for either parent to be allowed paid leave to look after sick children.
  • Maximum six-hour working day for all nursing mothers.
  • Full support for women fleeing violence within the home.16

Tax harmonisation

It almost goes without saying that a socialist United States of Europe would institute a uniform taxation system in order to ensure adequate state funding at international, national and regional levels.


The traditional left policy in this area is for a people’s militia. To this we should add the necessity of retaining and investing in all possible means of defence against nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, as well as new nano-technological ones. This would mean, for the UK, retaining the Sea Captor missile system introduced by the Royal Navy in March 2012.

Languages and nations

There are some 40 languages spoken by peoples who are native to Europe historically, plus many more tongues used by more recent immigrants. Obviously, for practical purposes all the inhabitants of a given ‘state area’ should be fluent in the language of that country, but, with that proviso, there should be no special privileges for any one language. This necessarily entails counter-measures to offset the power of the dominant world language, English. (Why should Icelanders be deprived of a computer programme in Icelandic just because that involves an additional expense for the company providing the programme?). In Ireland, where Irish is one of two official state languages, more support for it is no doubt needed.

This is not to denigrate the advantages that flow from an extended use of English - and, to a current lesser extent, French - as a lingua franca within Europe, but there is a potential cultural loss involved in the erosion of other languages resulting from the spread of English and the attendant suppression or marginalisation of non-English cultures. We are not in favour of blanket or exclusive promotion of national culture, or even a plethora of competing national cultures: on the contrary, we favour the enhancement of any democratic elements and influences arising within each and every ‘national culture’, and see Europe as the collective creation of all its nations, including those least known or understood outside their own borders (the Baltic, Balkan and Portuguese peoples, for example).

Nor are we in favour of the continued suppression and marginalisation of peoples currently not possessing a state of their own. That is why, following a successful overthrow of capitalism in Europe, the presumption is that existing nationalities in such a position will have a chance to acquire their own state if they wish - unless there is good reason for the (temporary?) abrogation of this right (see below).

In speaking of nations (and nationalities), we refer to “a distinct community of persons with common historical traditions, a common language, a common cultural and a common economic life, a common historically defined territory and above all what Lenin called the ‘will to separate existence’”.17

We do not, as socialists, wish to box up European nations separately: we are in favour of international cooperation as a matter of course. On the other hand, we are not in the business of suppressing legitimate national demands when put forward by a majority of members of any particular nationality - unless the exercise of such rights threatens the revolution of the international working class. What we favour is the self-determination of nations within a cooperative framework - which means, ideally, that in any given case national independence should be freely conceded by the oppressor nation (the example quoted by Lenin with approval was the separation of Norway from Sweden in 1905).

Agreement on frontiers is obviously needed - this is what is wrong with article 1 of the Rome Treaty, which declares such frontiers as exist to be sacrosanct. To quote Shachtman again,

The very essence of the democratic demand for the right of self-determination for an oppressed people is the democratic determination of its frontiers on an irreproachable basis, for the purpose of establishing the democratic will of the majority of the population within these well-defined frontiers.18

We are left with the question of tax havens and feudal survivals on the European mainland, plus the Channel Islands. Specifically, we have Gibraltar, Andorra, Monaco, Luxemburg, San Marino and Liechtenstein. (Switzerland and Norway are in a different category, even if Swiss banks play a role, which needs looking into). Tax havens require suppressing in the interests of a uniform taxation policy - which consideration leads one to think that these territories should merge with one or more neighbouring states. Here again every case is different: eg, Spain is surely entitled to Gibraltar, but in that case it should surely hand back Ceuta and Melilla to Morocco.


These suggestions for a programme are meant as a basis for discussion and not as some form of ultimatum. There is an old Irish saying which runs: “Every beginning is weak” and the above is only a beginning. I am also reminded of a story about David Lloyd George, who, as a young trainee solicitor, developed the habit of reading sections of Hallam’s Constitutional law during his lunch break. When asked why he did this, he replied: “Achos mae arnaf eisiau dyscu” - “Because I want to learn”. Truly we all have a lot to learn in relation to the state of Europe.

Of late there have been some encouraging signs that the need for a Europe-wide initiative on the left is being recognised. A resolution passed at the November 2011 AGM of the UK Labour Representation Committee roundly declared that “The Europe-wide capitalist crisis requires a Europe-wide working class response” and outlined in summarised form a programme much the same as that put forward here.19 Then, in response to a ‘Common appeal for the rescue of the peoples of Europe’ issued by veteran Greek socialists Mikis Theodorakis and Manolis Glezos, Balázs Nagy urged that

Working people of every country should organise columns which can converge on Brussels to express their determined opposition to the predators and their desire to reduce their first victim, Greece, to the status of a colony. In Brussels, they should organise a huge demonstration.

In preparing to defend the people of Greece and in order to get rid of the permanent threat hanging over all working people and all peoples, we should build support for the main central demand: for a working people’s Europe!”20

Then there is Syriza, whose leader, Alexis Tsipras, explained:

Europe needs a new plan to deepen European integration. Such a plan must challenge neoliberalism and lead European economies back to recovery. It should prioritise the needs of workers, pensioners and the unemployed, not the interests of multinational companies and bankrupt bankers. Syriza-USF [United Social Front] has committed itself to this road. We know it is a difficult one. But it is the only plan that can restore the European vision of social justice, peace and solidarity.21

He goes on to add, most pertinently: “This plan will succeed only if popular struggles radically change the balance of forces” (my emphasis).

Then we have the Greek socialist, Savvas Michael-Matsas, who issued a resounding call:

The working class, employed, underemployed or unemployed, all the deprived masses, immigrants and ‘locals’, urgently need a programme, a collectively developed plan of action, coordination and anti-bureaucratic organisation on national and international levels to fight back the on-going catastrophe, and open a revolutionary international socialist way out: to abolish the debt to the international usurers, to bring down the dictatorship of the ‘markets’ and nationalise the banks under workers’ control, to end unemployment by nationalising all industries that fire workers or ‘de-localise’ or close down, under workers’ control and workers’ management [Actually the two should be seen as distinct, “control” in this case leaving the management in place, the other replacing it - CG], to expropriate the expropriators. A decisive struggle is needed to bring down the architects, managers and gendarmes of people’s misery, the governments and state power of capital, to establish workers’ power and replace the imperialist European Union by a United Socialist States of Europe.”22

Another manifestation of a possible revival in the fortunes of the European left is the emergence of Podemos in Spain. Both Podemos and Syriza are members of the grouping in the European parliament which goes by the name of European United Left/Nordic Green Left. As the name implies, this is something of an umbrella organisation, formed by a merger of the Confederal Group of the European United Left with the Nordic Green Left group in January 1995. According to Wikipedia, “the group is ambiguous between reformism and revolution”.23

The call for an all-European initiative is by no means new. CLR James wrote that, while the American Shachtmanites in 1943 supported the various European liberation movements from Nazism in the name of democracy and national independence, his own tendency urged that the proper aim was for proletarian power under the slogan of the socialist United States of Europe. Further:

Since 1943 the Fourth International has been ceaselessly warned of the necessity for giving as concrete an expression as possible to the slogan of the United States of Europe. Precisely because of its complete failure to do this, it has suffered and continues to suffer a series of terrible blows.24

Similarly in November 1943 Max Shachtman asserted:

Europe’s only hope for survival, to say nothing of progress; its only way out of the barbarism, into which it is sinking; its only weapon against being exploited, disenfranchised and degraded, either by British, American or Russian imperialism [sic], or by a combination of them, is the economic and political unity of the continent. Such unity is an essential necessity for the life of the old world now. It is realisable only in the form of a United Socialist States of Europe.25

Whatever the outward political form of Europe, what is essential is that the democratic will of the working class, organised on a continent-wide basis, should prevail within it.

To whom, after all, does the European continent rightfully belong? Does it belong to the entrepreneurs, the capitalists, the government ministers, the bureaucrats, the generals, the spin-doctors, the press barons, the police chiefs, the fashion editors, the advertising executives, the merchant bankers, the hedge funds, the vulture funds, to what remains of the landed aristocracy - or even to the ‘Leninist’ leaders of some obscure leftwing sect? No. These lands belong to us, to the common people who possess little or no property, the plebeians, the workers, the anonymous heroes and heroines of modern times.

It was our predecessors, our ancestors, who built Europe. They made the farms, the villages, the cities, the castles and the cathedrals. They shed their blood on the battlefields, they gave their lives in the struggle for freedom. We are the heirs of all those who fought for the liberation of the enslaved - of the earliest Greek democrats; of the slaves who rose with Spartacus; of the Ciompi, the wool-combers of Florence; of the English peasants of 1381; of the Commune of Salonika; of the Dutch in their struggle against Spanish-Habsburg oppression; of the Scots Covenanters; of the Levellers and Diggers in mid-17th century England; of the Sans culottes in Paris, the impoverished artisans of that great city; of the United Irishmen of 1798; of the Luddites, of the Chartists; of the Silesian weavers of 1844; of the Communards in 1871; of the Russian workers and peasants of 1905 and 1917; of the French resistance, the Yugoslav Partisans, the Warsaw Ghetto fighters, of the Slovak national uprising of 1944; of the Hungarian workers in the revolution of 1956, and many more.

We are the heirs: we should step forward and claim our inheritance.


1. Weekly Worker February 13 2014.

2. See J McCormick The European Union: politics and policies Boulder 2008, p155.

3. Ibid p114.

4. Letters Weekly Worker February 27 2014.

5. See E Toussaint and D Millet Debt, the IMF and the World Bank: sixty questions, sixty answers New York 2010; Question 56: “What is debt auditing?”, pp304-07.

6. C Goodall Ten technologies to fix energy and climate London 2008, p261.

7. See S Newman (ed) The final energy crisis London 2008, pp300-08.

8. G Carchedi For another Europe: a class analysis of European economic integration London 2001, p224.

9. Ibid p227.

10. K Marx Capital Vol 1, in part 4, section 10: ‘Modern industry and agriculture’: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch15.htm#S10.

11. See the UN’s Resilient people, resilient planet: a future worth choosing: www.un.org/gsp/sites/default/files/attachments/GSReport_unformatted_30.Jan.pdf.

12. ‘Refusal to accept global warming is driven by corporate interests and the fear of what must be done to try to stop it’ The Guardian February 20 2014.

13. G Standing The precariat London 2011 and A precariat charter London 2014.

14. W Eltis Britain, Europe and EMU London 2000, p103.

15. L Trotsky The transitional programme: www.marxist.net/trotsky/programme/p2frame.htm?wages.htm (emphasis in original).

16. CPGB Draft programme section 3.13, ‘Women’: www.cpgb.org.uk/home/about-the-cpgb/draft-programme/3.-immediate-demands.

17. M Shachtman Communism and the negro published as Race and revolution London 2003, p71.

18. Ibid pp79-80.

19. See ‘Europe: bring arguments out’ Labour Party Marxists November 2013


20. M Theodorakis and M Glezos,‘Common appeal for the rescue of the peoples of Europe’: https://arirusila.wordpress.com/2011/10/11/fw-common-appeal-for-the-rescue-of-the-peoples-of-europe.

21. The Guardian October 9 2012.

22. Critique August 2013, p443.

23. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_United_Left%E2%80%93Nordic_Green_Left.

24. CLR James State capitalism and world revolution: www.marxists.org/archive/james-clr/works/1950/08/state-capitalism.htm.

25. Reprinted in M Shachtman The bureaucratic revolution: the rise of the Stalinist state New York 1962, p136. He reiterated the call in 1944 - see p147.