Besancenot: go beyond outdated national borders
Last weekend's Europe Against Austerity event adopted the aim of a 'day of industrial action' across the continent in 2012. Peter Manson reports on the conference's strengths and weaknesses
The October 1 Europe Against Austerity conference in central London was a good initiative, bringing a sorely needed international angle to the necessary fightback against the bourgeois cuts assault.
The organisers - the Coalition of Resistance headed by John Rees’s Counterfire group - say that 600 people were present, with a range of speakers from across the continent. Impressively there were two-way interpretation facilities for French, German, Spanish and Italian - although in truth I would say there were very few attending who would have required translation from English: it was activists living in Britain who made up the overwhelming majority of those present.
Although I counted platform or top-table speakers from 12 different countries, including the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (France), Die Linke (Germany), the Left Bloc (Portugal) and Sinn Féin (Ireland), none of them are in a position to actually deliver the necessary coordination of the resistance across Europe that everyone agreed was necessary.
Nevertheless, the conference was useful in bringing together representatives from across the continent who share the aim of defeating the austerity drive. Perhaps inevitably, however, the dominant politics that was proposed was hopelessly inadequate. I say ‘inevitably’ because of the basis upon which the Coalition of Resistance believes the fightback must be conducted. COR secretary Andrew Burgin hoped that the initiative would “go further than the European Social Forum process” - this time we must “include all those who say they oppose austerity” (my emphasis). That obviously means non-working class bodies, such as Sinn Féin and the Green Party - Darren Johnson, the Green London assembly member, was amongst those addressing the final rally.
It is correct not to exclude such people, but it would definitely be incorrect to allow them to determine the extent and nature of a common fightback, not to mention the type of programme that guides it. Those who say they are Marxist must put the case as strongly as they can for an independent working class alternative across Europe - and I do not mean by that some kind of left Keynesianism.
It has to be said, however, that it is not only the likes of Sinn Féin and the Green Party who are proposing the latter non-alternative. There were several speakers from the Attac international network, Transform (the “European network for alternative thinking and political dialogue”) and the ‘official communist’-dominated European Left Party, all of which uphold such politics. And it is also shared by the trade union lefts. The chair of the opening plenary, Jeremy Corbyn, called vaguely for “unity for a totally different economic strategy”, but it was pretty clear what such a “strategy” will entail: in the words of Billy Hayes, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, we must organise across Europe to achieve “action by governments for growth”. For him, “Governments have to lead”.
As well as the opening and concluding plenaries in the Camden Centre, there were three batches of five or six “parallel sessions” held mostly in the school opposite (at least they were not called ‘workshops’). This allowed not only for more guest speakers, but for numerous interventions from the floor. The drawback to this, however, is that many comrades feel they must get everything in they want to say, irrespective of its relevance to the session’s topic. Not that this interferes with anything much, of course: it is not as though any decisions can be taken.
Judging from the sessions I attended, I would say that many of those present were on the soft left. The biggest single organisation represented was undoubtedly Counterfire and the only other members of far-left organisations I recognised were comrades from Socialist Resistance and a handful - including central committee members Alex Callinicos and Joseph Choonara - from the Socialist Workers Party. Counterfire comrades we talked to were complaining about the SWP’s demands for more top-table speakers (in addition to Weyman Bennett in the session on the far right, and Mark Bergfeld on youth and students), while refusing to even advertise the event.
More left than SWP
As I have said, there was a substantial consensus around an alternative politics of a certain type. So Pierre Laurent, president of the European Left Party, called for an end to “policies that rely on the banks and the market” and urged the setting up instead of a “European development fund”. Steffen Sierle of Attac Germany wanted a “common European policy on taxing business” - there should be debt audits to determine which part of sovereign debt was “legitimate”, he said.
In one particular way, however, these reformists are more progressive than, for example, Alex Callinicos of the SWP. Speaking from the floor in one early session - to the dismay of many present - he rather apologetically declared that campaigners in countries such as Greece must demand a break with the euro. Yes, he said, “we need another Europe” and there are “nationalist dangers”, but “the logic of national struggles means breaking with the euro”.
This was answered effectively by the European reformists on the platform in their replies. Elisabeth Gauthier of Transform pointed out that “You don’t have the euro in the UK”, so how does that make us better off? Instead of “leaving a currency or territory”, we ought to be advocating “class confrontation across Europe”. She concluded by saying: “Don’t leave Europe: change Europe.”
Michel Husson of Attac France implored: “Don’t make a fetish of the euro - that’s the way it’s pushed by the nationalist right.” The fight has to be pursued on the basis of an alternative Europe, not “going back to old forms”. Michael Burke of Ken Livingstone’s Socialist Economic Bulletin - another platform speaker in the session - pointed out that doing what comrade Callinicos suggested would “leave nothing changed. You haven’t dealt with the primary problem: your own capitalist class.”
In this at least, all of them were far to the left of the SWP. Apart from this comment, however, I found comrade Burke’s contribution less than convincing. He was speaking at two sessions I attended and basically gave the same speech in both. I will summarise it by quoting from an article he wrote recently: “The banks contain the resources to correct the slump, yet refuse to do so. They are in public ownership. All that is required is a government instruction to fund the large-scale investment that is required to produce a recovery” (Socialist Economic Bulletin September 24).
At the Europe Against Austerity event he accused the capitalists of having initiated an “investment strike”. If we “get hold of the assets of the private sector” and, say, “instruct RBS to invest in construction”, it would “alter the relationship between the public and private sector” - which can only be good, obviously.
Speaking alongside him in the second session was James Meadway of Counterfire. According to a Coalition of Resistance publication being distributed on the day, comrade Meadway is “a senior economist with the New Economics Foundation. He works principally on the modelling of a just and sustainable macroeconomy as part of the Great Transition initiative. He previously worked as a policy advisor to HM Treasury and as a senior policy advisor to the Royal Society” (Coalition of Resistance Broadsheet No3, October 2011).
Perhaps it was unsurprising then that he agreed wholeheartedly with comrade Burke’s state-capitalist Keynesianism, while also advocating that the government should employ weapons such as the freezing of bank accounts and the implementation of capital controls.
Someone from the floor commented, in response to the speeches of the two comrades, that “Keynesianism by itself” is insufficient. I responded by saying that it is not a question of being insufficient - it is actually a way of attempting to run capitalism more rationally. Why don’t we put forward the Marxist alternative?
I went on to regret the absence of any hint of a Marxist programme for Europe at the event. Instead of leaving the euro or the EU, we should be looking to make the “alternative Europe” slogan real. It is excellent that there is now talk of a European day of action next year, but how about looking further and adopting a programme to take some practical organisational steps - all-Europe trade unions and, most of all, a Communist Party of the European Union?
Comrade Meadway was not pleased at my suggestion that he was putting forward a programme to manage capitalism - and especially coming from someone who wants to “prop up the euro”, he mocked. True, there is “no Keynesian solution to the crisis,” he said - but then went on to contradict himself: obviously if you’re against austerity “you have to be for reflation”, but we would “soon get beyond a Keynesian solution”.
Comrade Burke, for his part, pointed out that we are “not at the stage of overthrowing capitalism”. We are “at the stage of making demands” - like “Peace, land and bread”, he added rather contradictorily. Comrade Burke then went back to his earlier theme: the demand has been to nationalise the banks, but now we have nationalised banks and the question is, what do we do with them?
Europe of workers
There was further controversy in the session on the November 30 strike. Here former Socialist Labour Party apparatchik Brian Heron was speaking on behalf of the Communist Party of Britain-sponsored People’s Charter in a debate with COR and the SWP’s Right to Work.
Comrade Heron’s contribution was rather too downbeat for the SWP and Paul Brandon of RTW. In order to bring down the government, said comrade Heron, we need, in addition to union militancy, a “mass movement similar to Stop the War”. But this second factor is “not there”. In fact not even the structures and organisation we enjoyed in the 60s and 70s are present. Last week’s Labour conference was “a joke”. His implied conclusion was that, instead of wild talk about an indefinite general strike, we have to grasp the need to “rebuild the working class”.
Comrade Brandon, not unexpectedly, disagreed about the lack of a mass movement. Yes, we need to “put pressure on the labour movement”, but we should not rule out a repeat of 1926 with its councils of action. For their part, SWP comrades were keen to raise their (apparently) now unanimously accepted slogan of “All out, stay out”. Sean Vernell said that he had successfully put a motion advocating it at a University and College Union meeting. In explaining his interpretation of “stay out”, he thought it meant for something like “a week”. I also heard Joseph Choonara raise the slogan in a session that was supposed to be on ‘The roots of the crisis’.
In my view, easily the best speaker of the whole day was Olivier Besancenot of the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) and former leader and presidential candidate of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire in France. He combined communist militancy with genuine internationalism. Yes, we need solidarity, he said, but we also need common action, including “a Europe-wide strike”. The big capitalist powers are “in decline” and it is futile to look to solutions within the system. We must look beyond national borders and national states to a “Europe of workers and the people”.
In the closing session Andrew Burgin put forward a statement which he said had been drawn up by the “joint preparatory committee”. This conference must have “an afterlife”, he said: we should aim for “permanent European coordination”. The statement put to the conference ended in this way: “We also pledge to work towards a common day of action against austerity in 2012 and call on the trade union movement across Europe to prepare a day of industrial action against austerity.”
Despite the dismal programmatic alternatives raised throughout the day, the event concluded with this welcome practical call. Let us hope that the day of action does indeed take place and that it will be the beginning of a united fightback across the continent. Let us also hope that, as the militancy of the working class develops, so too will its internationalist class-consciousness, backed up with a vision of a genuine Marxist alternative.