The class struggles in Europe

Issue: 138

Joseph Choonara

The crisis of global capitalism, now past its half-decade point, remains the key to the political situation across Europe and beyond. It is on this terrain that resistance has begun to develop, one of the most visible expressions of which has been a succession of general strikes in several European countries since 2008.

Greece has witnessed by far the highest number of general strikes—29 since the crisis began. Yet, while exceptional in many ways, Greece is part of a wider pattern. In the Spanish state, unions held a general strike in September 2010, with a second following in March 2012. In Portugal the two main union federations called their first coordinated general strike in 22 years in November 2010, and marked the anniversary in November 2011 with a second on an even larger scale; a third came in March 2012, a week before the action in Spain.

Then, on 14 November 2012, coordinated general strikes across both states took place for the first time since the end of their dictatorships. Some 80 percent of Spanish intercity trains and two thirds of commuter services were cancelled, along with 600 flights; power consumption fell by 20 percent as factories ceased production, with multinational firms such as Danone and Heineken closing; unions reported almost universal support for the strikes in automobile production, shipbuilding and construction; demonstrations and riots took place in Madrid and Barcelona. In Portugal the strike was most solid across the public sector. Postal services and buses were halted; 90 percent of the Lisbon metro was shut down; half of all flights were cancelled; 40 demonstrations took place that evening.

The action across the Iberian Peninsula formed the centrepiece of a European day of action, which also featured a three-hour strike in Greece; a four-hour action by the CGIL union federation in Italy, closing schools, factories, ports and transport networks, accompanied by about 100 protests; protests in 130 cities in France; and demonstrations and strikes by rail workers in Belgium who in some cases physically blocked railway lines. Prior to 14 November 2012 mass one-day strikes also took place in France in spring and autumn 2010, Italy in September 2011, Britain in November 2011 and Belgium in January 2012.

Taken in isolation, these struggles could perhaps be regarded as bureaucratic mass strikes designed to allow rank and file workers to “let off steam”—ineffective and ultimately leading nowhere.1 Taken together, and viewed with sensitivity to the tensions running through them, we can begin to see them for what they are: part of a developing cycle of struggle with the potential to challenge those presiding over European capitalism.

A new cycle of struggle

Globally, the year 2011 was a turning point. An article by John Molyneux in June that year sought to place the emerging struggles within a Marxist perspective:

There is now a rising tide of struggle internationally. This kind of generalisation is not easy to make because the struggle is always at different levels and taking different forms in different countries… In 2010 the leading role was played by Greece where there were eight general strikes, plus many major demonstrations and street battles. But there were also general strikes in Spain and in Portugal…and a huge struggle over pensions in France involving mass strikes and huge street mobilisations of up to 3.5 million people. In Iceland the government was forced into a referendum over their IMF bailout and lost it…

Then…came the “Arab Spring” which lifted the struggle to a whole new level. The Tunisian Revolution, which succeeded in bringing down a dictator, Zine Ben Ali, of 23 years standing, in less than a month led directly to the 25 January [2011] Revolution in Egypt which on 11 February ended the rule of Hosni Mubarak… It led immediately to uprisings in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria… Then came…15 May in Spain, and the occupation of Puerta del Sol in Madrid. This spread with enormous speed to other cities, Barcelona, Seville, etc… As I write there is news of 50,000-100,000 on the streets of Milan greeting the defeat of Berlusconi in that city and the revolution continues in Egypt with hundreds of thousands out on 27 May.2

For Molyneux the comparisons were with three previous great cycles of workers’ struggle. The first, in 1848, saw a series of uprisings in France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Switzerland and Austria, as well as the mass mobilisations by the Chartist movement in Britain. The second was the revolutionary wave that culminated in the period following the First World War with the 1917 Russian Revolution, the German Revolution of 1918-1923, and revolutionary situations that developed in Italy, Hungary, Austria and Finland. The third was formed by the rebellions of the late 1960s and early 1970s, including the French general strike of 1968, the Italian hot autumn of 1969, the Chilean struggle of 1973 and the Portuguese Revolution of 1974, along with the US civil rights movement and a wave of strike action that brought down a Tory government in Britain.3

Whether the current global cycle reaches the heights of its predecessors remains to be seen. Certainly we are not yet witnessing sustained workers’ struggles; the action in Europe has often been episodic and even in Egypt, where a strike movement helped dislodge Mubarak in 2011, the most consistent factor has been a series of street mobilisations.4 Nonetheless, there has been a significant shift in the situation. Whether this process continues depends on whether our rulers find a way to stabilise the societies they preside over and decisively defeat enough of those engaged in battle to cow the rest into submission. While there have been setbacks for the movements, in general they have not been crushed, and, in addition, the crisis is currently a factor destabilising societies and restricting our rulers’ room for manoeuvre.

The aim of this article is to explore the tensions and complexities in the resistance that has developed in Western Europe. But first it is necessary to consider the lessons of earlier cycles of resistance.

From crisis to resistance

Karl Marx’s and Frederick Engels’s best known comments on the relationship between crisis and resistance were the product of their reflection on the 1848 revolutions. While these struggles ultimately showed that further growth and development of the working class would be needed before it could provide an alternative to capitalism across the continent, they nonetheless gave Marx and Engels their only direct experience of revolution.5 In his analysis, The Class Struggles in France, Marx set out the wider political contradictions that formed the conditions for the explosion, but he added that they were accelerated and ripened by “two world economic events”:

The potato blight and the crop failures of 1845 and 1846 increased the general ferment among the people. The dearth of 1847 called forth bloody conflicts in France as well as on the rest of the continent. As against the shameless orgies of the finance aristocracy, the struggle of the people for the prime necessities of life… The second great economic event which hastened the outbreak of the revolution was a general commercial and industrial crisis in England [which] finally burst in the autumn of 1847… The after-effect of this crisis on the continent had not yet spent itself when the February Revolution broke out.6

By 1850, with the revolutions defeated, Marx had concluded: “A new revolution is possible only in consequence of a new crisis. It is, however, just as certain as this crisis”.7 Similarly, looking back in 1895, Engels wrote in his introduction to Class Struggles: “The world trade crisis of 1847 had been the true mother of the February and March revolutions, and…the industrial prosperity which had been returning gradually since the middle of 1848 and attained full bloom in 1849 and 1850 was the revitalising force of the newly strengthened European reaction”.8

The very notion that class struggle could be traced back, in the final analysis, to underlying economic causes was one of the intellectual fruits of the analysis of the first of our three great cycles.9 It was left to a later generation of Marxists—especially those associated with the early years of the Third International—to develop a more general account of the interaction between crisis and resistance.10 The second revolutionary cycle would furnish ample raw material. In early 1921 the Third Congress of the Comintern had to deal with the partial restabilisation of Europe under capitalist rule, following the revolutionary wave that accompanied the end of the First World War. While there had been an economic “upswing” in 1919-20, this was followed rapidly by a crisis in late 1920 through to autumn 1921. At the Congress Leon Trotsky sought to assess the prospects for renewed struggle. He cited Marx’s and Engels’s comments on 1848, but warned against the temptation to derive from these a mechanical relationship between crisis and resistance:

It would…be very one-sided and utterly false to interpret these judgements in the sense that a crisis invariably engenders revolutionary action while a boom, on the contrary, pacifies the working class. The revolution of 1848 was not born out of the crisis. The latter merely provided the last impetus. Essentially the revolution grew out of the contradiction between the needs of capitalist development and the fetters of the semi-feudal state system. The irresolute and half-way revolution of 1848 did, however, sweep away the remnants of the regime of guilds and serfdom and thereby extended the framework of capitalist development. Under these conditions and these conditions alone, the boom of 1851 marked the beginning of an entire epoch of capitalist prosperity which lasted till 1873.11

The first point that Trotsky makes is that the general character of the period is important. “At issue here is not whether an improvement in the conjuncture is possible, but whether the fluctuations are proceeding along an ascending or descending curve”.12 The cycle of boom and bust is an inherent feature of capitalism, but the system also possesses long-term tendencies that, over time, can lead the busts to become more devastating and the booms more ephemeral. Conversely there can be periods of general prosperity in which the bust takes the form of a slight slowdown or contraction in production. The long boom following the Second World War was one such period.

A period of depression would mean “the bourgeoisie will be compelled to exert stronger and stronger pressure upon the working class”.13 The defensive struggles this entailed would allow the revolutionaries to extend themselves into new sections of the class, utilising the policy of the united front that would shortly be adopted by the Comintern.14 But there would be, within this period, further sharp changes in the economic situation and revolutionaries must grasp the importance of these: “Neither impoverishment nor prosperity as such can lead to revolution. But the alternation of prosperity and impoverishment, the crises, the uncertainty, the absence of stability—these are the motor factors of revolution”.15

Trotsky’s concern throughout the discussion was to defend the proposition: “In general, there is no automatic dependence of the proletarian revolutionary movement upon a crisis. There is only a dialectical interaction”.16 As a counter to the simplistic interpretation of Marx’s and Engels’s comments on 1848, he provided a Russian example:

The 1905 Revolution was defeated. The workers bore great sacrifices. In 1906 and 1907 the last revolutionary flare-ups occurred and by the autumn of 1907 a great world crisis broke out. The signal for it was given by Wall Street’s Black Friday. Throughout 1907 and 1908 and 1909 the most terrible crisis reigned in Russia too. It killed the movement completely, because the workers had suffered so greatly during the struggle that this depression could act only to dishearten them… In 1910, 1911 and 1912 there was an improvement in our economic situation and a favourable conjuncture which acted to reassemble the demoralised and devitalised workers who had lost their courage. They realised again how important they were in production; and they passed over to an offensive, first in the economic field and later in the political field as well.17

The shape of the crisis

If, in the kind of analysis Trotsky was proposing, the overall shape of the crisis is important, what does this tell us about the current situation? The crisis that began in 2007-8 is not simply part of the boom-bust cycle or simply the result of a financial or banking disorder. Like the slump of the 1930s, it is the result of a long-term decline in the rate of profit—in this case, one that took place primarily in the decades following the Second World War up to the early 1980s, and one that the years since have failed to reverse. The decline is rooted in the tendency for accumulations of “dead labour” (investment in machinery, raw material, etc) to run ahead of the amount of “living labour” (wage-workers) employed by the system. If, as Marx argued, living labour is the source of surplus value, out of which profit originates, the progressive build-up of dead labour relative to living will put pressure on profitability in the long run.18 This tendency does not imply a “final crisis” of capitalism or a theory of its “collapse”; merely that it can reach the point where a new period of sustained growth is premised on the destruction or devaluation of capital on a tremendous scale. This entails a crisis “in which momentary suspension of all labour and annihilation of a great part of the capital violently lead [capitalism] back to the point where it is enabled [to go on] fully employing its productive powers without committing suicide”.19

However, the sheer scale of the units of capital making up the system, and the way they are bound together with each other, with the financial system and with the state, makes such a clearing out of capitalism today extremely traumatic and risky. The temptation for those presiding over the system is to bail out failing firms and to seek to put a floor under the crisis through forms of state intervention. But this very action can prolong the crisis.20

In Europe the crisis is especially acute because it is mediated through the single currency shared by the eurozone countries. The launch of the euro allowed weaker economies, such as Portugal, Spain and Greece, access to flows of cheap credit, often provided by banks of more powerful economies such as Germany and France. An offensive against German workers’ wages during these years led to a relative rise in the competitiveness of German exports, and the resulting current account deficits in the weaker economies were financed by their growing indebtedness, much of it taking the form of sovereign debt. When the crisis broke these imbalances grew. The combination of austerity, imposed on these countries in return for bailouts from the IMF, ECB and European Union, which has further undermined growth, along with the action of bond markets, which has pushed interest rates to unsustainable levels, has deepened the debt crisis.21

This analysis implies a crisis that is both deep and prolonged, accompanied in the eurozone by profound instability. The duration of the crisis means that many different phases are possible, each accompanied by shifts in the political situation, along with shifts in workers’ consciousness—the “absence of stability” discussed by Trotsky.

Conditions for revolt

It is not simply the material conditions of those at the bottom of society that determines whether crisis translates into resistance. Lenin mentions that the conditions for revolution are that the ruled class is no longer willing to be ruled in the old way and the ruling class is no longer capable of ruling in the old way.22 What goes for revolution here applies to struggle more generally. The Marxist who best explored the conditions under which the ruling class can obtain the limited consent required in order to rule without relying solely on repression was Antonio Gramsci:

The active man-in-the-mass has a practical activity, but no theoretical consciousness of his practical activity, which nonetheless involves understanding the world in so far as it transforms it. His theoretical consciousness can indeed be historically in opposition to his activity. One might almost say that he has two theoretical consciousnesses (or one contradictory consciousness): one which is implicit in his activity and which in reality unites him with all his fellow-workers in the practical transformation of the real world; and one, superficially explicit or verbal, which he has inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed.23

The combination of these two contradictory conceptions of the world can lead to a degree of paralysis and passivity on the part of workers, but this is not a static state of affairs. Earlier in the same section of his Prison Notebooks Gramsci makes a distinction between “normal times” and abnormal ones.24 Prolonged periods of crisis can disrupt the coherence of ruling class ideas, and the “common sense” ideas that workers can, for a period, uncritically accept, allowing “good sense”, founded on experiences of solidarity and collective activity, to crystallise out.

One of the features of the current period has been the ideological radicalisation of sections of the population, not simply the core of the working class but also other groups facing oppression such as students and the unemployed, which often flares up into explosions of protest. The emergence of the Occupy movement in 2011 is an important symptom of this, and such movements can feed into and inspire workers’ struggles.25

Not only does crisis disrupt the ideological coherence of the ruling idea in society, but, because capitalism is organised as a system of competitive accumulation, it can also lead to fissures within the ruling class itself. As Marx put it:

So long as things go well, competition effects an operating fraternity of the capitalist class… But as soon as it no longer is a question of sharing profits, but of sharing losses, everyone tries to reduce his own share to a minimum and to shove it off upon another… How much the individual capitalist must bear of the loss, ie to what extent he must share in it at all, is decided by strength and cunning, and competition then becomes a fight among hostile brothers.26

A crisis can involve schisms between capitalists, or sections of the capitalist class, or the national states that particular capitalists are based in, as rival groupings argue over who will bear the burden of the crisis and over what strategy to follow to escape it. These are not simply economic tensions. As Lenin put it, “Politics are concentrated economics”.27 Political fragmentation is another product of the crisis. The eurozone, where the problems are especially intractable, is a case in point, with clashes between the German and French administrations, the governments of weaker eurozone countries, the ECB and the Bundesbank, and so on, a regular occurrence. But we are likely to see growing tensions too within particular national ruling classes. The emergence of struggles from below can, in turn, widen the splits at the top. In this sense, crisis can form the terrain for the emergence of more or less coherent political and ideological alternatives.28

Political polarisation

The political polarisation witnessed in much of Europe is one symptom. As the prescriptions offered by parties of the centre ground no longer fit and the possibilities for reform they offer are progressively closed down, more radical alternatives to the left or right begin to seem more realistic.

The far right has grown in many European countries. In Greece Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn), an openly Nazi organisation, took 7 percent in the June 2012 elections. In France, Marine Le Pen of the Front National (FN) took 6.4 million votes in the presidential elections last year. This electoral expression of the rise of the far right is matched on the ground in some cases by violent street mobilisations and racist attacks.

On the left, the main beneficiaries have in many cases been traditional reformist parties, especially where they have been out of office for a period. The victory of François Hollande in the French presidential election is one example. In Britain too the Labour Party has seen a revival of support during its time in opposition, despite offering a watered down version of the ruling coalition’s austerity programme. Although they have generally shifted to the right over recent decades and weakened their ties to workers’ organisations, traditional reformist parties have not severed their connection to the working class. They can still win support where they seem to offer a less vicious version of austerity. Nonetheless, in some cases the space to the left of these parties is being filled by more radical forces. In France Jean-Luc Mélenchon, standing on an anti-austerity and anti-racist platform, took 11 percent of the poll in the first round of the presidential elections. In Spain the Communist-led Izquierda Unida was polling at around 13 percent in summer 2012, while in November a coalition between this force and another left wing “eco-socialist” party saw its representation in the Catalan parliament rise from ten to 13 after taking 9.9 percent in regional elections. Greece again shows this pattern at its most spectacular, with the radical left Syriza coalition winning nearly 27 percent in the June 2012 elections; no radical left party has polled higher in Europe since the 1970s.

The left reformist formations have differing roots. Mélenchon’s Front de Gauche combines the French Communist Party along with a left breakaway from the Socialist Party and some who have departed from the far-left Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA); Syriza draws together most of the Euro-communist elements that emerged from Greece’s Communist Party with smaller far-left groups; the Dutch Socialist Party, which retained 15 seats in parliament in September 2012 elections, began life as a Maoist organisation before breaking through in the mid-1990s and drawing in wider layers of supporters opposed to neoliberalism. What they share in common is their capacity to challenge the established left parties by rejecting the
pro-austerity consensus. They remain, however, left reformist.29 They reflect struggle from below, or at least an aspiration to it, but seek to transform the capitalist system by reforming it through the existing state institutions and, in some cases, the institutions of the eurozone. As Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Syriza, recently told the Brooking Institution: “Syriza’s radical policies have nothing to do with taking Greece out of the eurozone. And if I’m not telling you that it’s about reneging on all our agreements with the eurozone, what then does the title ‘radical left’ refer to? It means that we are ready for radical reforms in the government to create a steady environment of justice, redistribution of wealth and investments”.30

Nonetheless, the revolutionary left cannot afford to be agnostic about the rise of such currents; their success can raise the confidence and expectations of the working class and mark a shift to the left in the political situation. Any notion that the working class once roused to struggle will automatically turn away from its traditional organisations and gravitate towards revolutionary parties, which remain tiny across Europe, is misguided. What Trotsky wrote of the Russian Revolution is true more generally of periods of heightened struggle:

The fundamental political process of the revolution…consists in the gradual comprehension by a class of the problems arising from the social crisis—the active orientation of the masses by a method of successive approximations. The different stages of a revolutionary process, certified by a change of parties in which the more extreme always supersedes the less, express the growing pressure to the left of the masses—so long as the swing of the movement does not run into objective obstacles.31

Often it is political factors, evolving in the course of a crisis, that help to precipitate struggle. This was certainly true of struggles that developed during the slump of the 1930s. The great rise in strike action in the US took place in 1933-34, some years after the Wall Street Crash. From a picture of demoralisation and passivity, there suddenly erupted a series of unofficial battles by workers, culminating in the three great strikes of 1934, at Toledo (in the auto industry), Minneapolis (teamsters) and San Francisco (dock workers), that shifted the balance of class struggle in favour of workers. The context was one in which there was a widespread belief that the Great Depression had bottomed out. But workers also gained confidence when the New Deal inaugurated by the Roosevelt administration helped to trigger a wave of unionisation.32 Similarly in France, mired in deep economic crisis from 1931, the great explosion of struggle took place five years on, following a period of sharp political polarisation in which workers, enthusiastic for unity against the threat of fascism, greeted the 1936 election of a Popular Front government supported by Socialists and Communists with a wave of strikes and factory occupations.33 In both cases the radicalisation of sections of the working class ran far beyond the politics that helped to spark the mobilisation.

The condition of the class

A shift in the consciousness of the mass of workers does not simply involve ruling class ideas breaking down or a political crisis for the establishment; it also involves new forms of consciousness and organisation crystallising out of the real activity of workers. The conditions of the class when it enters a crisis, which might make it more or less confident to fight, are therefore important. As Trotsky put it, “the effects of a crisis…are determined by the entire existing political situation and by those events which precede and accompany the crisis, especially the battles, successes or failures of the working class itself prior to the crisis”.34

However, it is not simply the case of a fixed working class becoming more or less confident or organised. The periodic restructuring of capitalism eradicates some of the old bases of class strength, while drawing workers into new areas. It often takes time and an experience of struggle for such groups of workers to develop the self-confidence and organisation required to fight collectively and for the older groups that remain to regain their confidence.

So the third of our cycles of struggle, which began in the late 1960s, followed a long period of growth which, in many advanced capitalist states, allowed new class forces to form and develop, often through localised and sectional struggles for better wages or conditions—which capitalists and governments were sometimes prepared to concede. In Britain in the period running up to 1972 as many as 95 percent of strikes were unofficial, powerful examples of what Tony Cliff referred to as “do it yourself reformism”. In France the run-up to the general strike of 1968 was marked by two years in which there were “outbreaks of violent industrial disputes” and “demonstrative strikes including one-day general strikes” organised by the CGT union federation. The number of strike days rose from just under 1 million in 1965 to over 4 million by 1967.35

Despite these signs, commentators of the period often mistook the absence of the kind of revolutionary upsurges that had characterised the inter-war years for an absence of workers as a force capable of transforming society. For instance, the new “affluent workers” of the car plants and other similar industries were supposedly more interested in obtaining consumer goods than they were in striking. Famously, the left wing French theorist André Gorz declared in early 1968 that “in the foreseeable future there will be no crisis of European capitalism so dramatic as to drive the mass of workers to revolutionary general strikes”.36 But as the developing class forces clashed with a system no longer capable of meeting their rising expectations from the late 1960s, the potential for revolutionary explosions nurtured within capitalism’s long boom came to the fore. It was only in the late 1970s that the partial restabilisation of bourgeois institutions, combined with the reorientation of social democratic and Stalinist organisations to absorb and channel the militancy in safer directions, contained this upsurge.37

The run-up to the current crisis was quite different, certainly not characterised by a boom or a “golden age” for reformism. But, again, new class forces developed over the preceding period—forces which will confound the pessimists who have sought to confine workers’ struggle to the dustbin of history. One noteworthy example is the exceptional prominence of public sector workers in the current wave of strikes in Europe. Modern capitalist societies rely not simply on the direct exploitation of productive workers to generate profits, but also on wider sections of the working class to ensure that the right kind of labour power is available. The healthcare and education systems are vital to capitalists who want to compete within the global division of labour by exploiting skilled, relatively healthy and reliable workers. The infrastructure and security that governments help to provide are necessary for capitalists, just as the civil servants who collect taxes allow the whole system to function.

The expansion of the public sector, and of work in services more generally, does not mean that we have to accept myths of sweeping “deindustrialisation”. The bulk of manufacturing output remains concentrated in the rich OECD countries, even if it now takes place with fewer workers. In fact, the rise in productivity over recent decades means that relatively small groups of workers, perhaps tied into multinational networks of production, can impact disproportionately on capitalist profits. There has also been an expansion of service sector jobs that involve the same kinds of drudgery and exploitation as in the manufacturing
sector—and with it the potential to organise.

But in many countries the continued growth and relative stability of the public sector has allowed it to develop and retain levels of unionisation not currently seen in the private sector. These are areas in which many increasingly feel subject to the same pressures and attacks as the wider working class and look to unions to defend themselves. To be a newly qualified teacher or lecturer today is no longer seen as entering a privileged or venerated profession.

The objection that such groups do not have power in society because they do not directly generate profits is misplaced for two reasons. First, they are indirectly indispensable for capitalists, both in the long term but also in the day to day functioning of the system. For instance, strikes by teachers leading to school closures, in particular, entail considerable disruption to the economy. The British government was certainly keen to claim that the 30 November 2011 one-day strike by 2.5 million public sector workers would cost the economy £500 million—£200 per worker per day!38 Second, given that they are the largest organised groups of workers in many countries, a victory by public sector workers can encourage other groups to follow their lead, to organise and to fight.

The movements’ tensions

There are real tensions within the strike movements. In a general sense, working class consciousness is always uneven. Gramsci’s description of contradictory consciousness, cited above, implies that the quite different experiences of different sections of the class will lead to different degrees of confidence and combativity even within particular countries.

The predominantly reformist consciousness of most workers most of the time is also reflected in and reinforced by reformist organisations. For instance, the tradition of Labourism in the British working class has been the rock on which waves of struggle in 20th century frequently crashed. Labour, ably assisted by union leaders, and often appealing to the British “national interest”, sought while in power in 1964-1970 and 1974-79 to blunt workers’ militancy by driving through productivity deals to undermine union stewards’ power to negotiate bonuses, and by creating a layer of full-time union convenors and senior stewards who were more distant from the shopfloor.39

There is a division of labour between reformist organisations. If social democratic parties offer the promise of piecemeal political reform within the capitalist state, on the economic terrain the key role in negotiating the terms of exploitation of workers is played by the trade union bureaucracy. In countries with established unions and the space to develop stable reformist organisation, unions tend to produce a layer of full-time officials detached from the workplace.40 The social role of this bureaucracy—negotiating within capitalist economic relations—is reinforced by its privileged position. If the workers they represent lose their jobs, the officials do not. If the wages of union members fall, it does not automatically lead to changes in the pay or conditions of the officials. Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein argue:

The bureaucracy balances between the two main classes in capitalist society—the employers and the workers. The trade union officials are neither employers nor workers. Union offices may employ large numbers of people, but, unlike a capitalist employer, it is not this that gives the union official his or her economic and social status… The union official does not suffer like the mass of workers from low wages, being pushed around by the employers, job insecurity and so on. The trade union bureaucracy is a distinct, basically conservative, social formation… It holds back and controls workers’ struggle, but it has a vital interest not to push the collaboration with employers and state to the point where it makes the unions completely impotent… If the union fails entirely to articulate members’ grievances, this will lead eventually either to effective internal challenges to the leadership, or to membership apathy and organisational disintegration… If the union bureaucracy strays too far into the bourgeois camp it will lose its base.41

This analysis does not mean revolutionaries are indifferent to the question of who leads unions. There can be significant divisions between left wing and right wing officials. Splits in the bureaucracy can weaken its conservative influence, and the election of a left union leader can, under the right conditions, raise the confidence of workers. But in the final analysis, the role of the union bureaucracy as a conservative social layer takes precedence over the division of this layer into left and right, especially at times of deep crisis.42

How can these conservative tendencies be overcome? In periods of heightened struggle workers themselves can develop rank and file movements consisting of workers mobilised at the base of unions. Rank and file organisation of this kind can perform two functions: it can act as a pressure on the union bureaucracy, making action more likely and seeking to prevent sell-outs, and it can, if necessary, allow workers to fight independently of the bureaucracy by taking unofficial action.

The best brief statement of this role was provided by the Clyde Workers’ Committee, one of the unofficial bodies that developed during the upsurge in workers’ struggle in Britain from 1910 onwards: “We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them. Being composed of delegates from every shop and untrammelled by obsolete rule or law, we claim to represent the true feeling of the workers. We can act immediately according to the merits of the case and the desire of the rank and file”.43

Such a movement can only be built through struggle. If the bureaucracy simply exerted itself to shut down strikes, building a rank and file movement would rely on the gradual accumulation of forces through limited unofficial action. Fortunately the bureaucracy is also subject to pressure to initiate action. This can come from below, from the anger of ordinary union members and their politicisation through wider changes in society, but it can also be driven from above. For instance, if the scale of attacks is such that the union leaders fear they will lose their ability to negotiate on behalf of workers—through significant reductions in the number of union members in employment or a dismantling of union rights—they can feel it necessary to act.

Indeed, this has been the pattern in recent years. The level of economic strikes in the private sector has fallen across much of Western Europe since the 1970s, from an average of 419 working days per 1,000 employees each year in that decade, down to 51 days in 2000-2004. But the number of general strikes called by unions has risen; there were 19 from 1980 to 1989, but 39 in the 1990s and 40 in the period from 2000 to 2008.44 General strikes were disproportionately directed at governments that sought to introduce sweeping changes to employment rights, welfare or pensions, without meaningful consultations with the unions.45 Under these conditions, even a conservative union bureaucracy can feel forced to act to maintain its position. There is a key question facing the far left in many countries today. Can they take advantage of brief, large-scale, official strikes taking place to lay the basis for independent workers’ organisation to develop? Or will these actions simply remain tightly controlled bureaucratic mass strikes?46

The experience so far

Rather than attempting the near impossible task of a comprehensive survey of European struggles, it is more helpful to point to some of the key experiences in four countries that illustrate general points.47


Greece experienced only a partial downturn in militancy after the struggles of the 1970s. For a time, from the early 1980s to the late 1990s, the union bureaucracy maintained a tighter grip on workers. But even this period saw action against attempts by successive governments, whether led by the right or the social democratic Pasok, to impose neoliberal
measures—for instance the wave of strikes and protests that greeted the election of the conservative New Democracy party in April 1990,48 including the extremely militant and weeks long action that came as the government sought to privatise the Athens Bus Company in 1992. These struggles were strengthened by the presence of significant forces to the left of Pasok—including the anti-capitalist left generally, the Eurocommunist Synaspismos (which later formed the core of Syriza) and the Communist Party. By 1998 a new phase of escalating struggle was beginning, marked by an all-out strike against privatisation by Ioniki bank workers and a teachers’ strike over changes to the education system, and followed in 2001 by a powerful general strike that defeated attacks on pensions.

At the time the crisis hit, about a third of workers were unionised, concentrated in the substantial state-run sector. Unionisation is lower in the private sector, though union density figures are often misleading; some workplaces with extremely low levels of membership can organise effective strikes that include non-unionised workers. Greek unions take a range of different forms, organising on a general, industrial or geographical basis, with two national confederations—GSEE for private industry and large companies owned or formerly owned by the state, ADEDY for the public sector. Although not formally affiliated to political parties, union representatives are elected through party lists, with Pasok generally commanding the highest level of support; the Communists also control a number of unions that are grouped together within the broader confederations.

Initially union leaders were extremely reluctant to call action, especially under the Pasok government in power from 2009 to 2011. A push from groups of rank and file workers where the far left had significant influence was essential in forcing the bureaucracy to act, and each time strikes were sanctioned ordinary workers rushed to participate, raising the pressure for further action. For instance, action by teachers, a sector where the left is particularly strong, provided an example of militancy and self-confidence early in the crisis. Subsequently the presence of a strong left in this sector proved double-edged—the sectarian traditions of sections of the left and the years in which teachers often fought alone allowed ideas such as the notion that “nothing will change until the political balance of forces changes” to flourish. Recently teachers have had a presence in general strikes, but a lower level of struggle outside these mobilisations. Nonetheless, their early action helped give others the confidence to fight.

The most dramatic sign of the new militancy in Greece has been the succession of general strikes against austerity measures. These began under the Pasok government and continued after it collapsed in 2011 and was eventually replaced by a coalition led by the right wing New Democracy. The strikes helped crystallise a network of workplace militants, encouraging their political generalisation and allowing them to mingle with workers from different sectors. While early strikes were characterised by workers obeying the strike call and staying at home, increasingly they have involved high levels of rank and file activity, with mass meetings, large mobilisations for demonstrations and picketing of workplaces. The power of these networks was revealed in February 2012 when a 48-hour general strike was called at a day’s notice, in the same week as another one-day general strike, and workplace militants were able to ensure its success.

Each recent general strike has been the culmination of sectional action, and the general strikes, usually after a short lull, help to generate new waves of sectional action. A central debate in the movement today is over sustained action—workers want to know how they can go beyond one-day or two-day strikes. This explains why the government has cracked down hard on groups of workers who took such action, including sailors and Metro workers in Athens, who were subjected to “civilian conscription” in an attempt to break their strikes.

The degree of contention between workers and the union bureaucracy is now such that leaders of the union confederations have avoided rallies called during general strikes over the past year. Mass workplace meetings now also show a willingness to challenge union officials. For instance, during a recent bus strike workers overturned their leadership’s opposition to more action, forcing them to resign. In hospitals too, left militants have collected signatures to demand mass meetings to challenge bureaucratic inertia, and organised occupations and blockades to force unions to call coordinated action between hospitals across an area. In local government occupations of town halls and offices have laid the basis for the formation of groups of workers who organise picketing and mobilise for the general strikes. The revolt of rank and file workers extends into areas where there is little recent tradition. In August 2012 Agrotiki bank workers were called into a mass meeting to accept the calling off of a strike—the workers refused and began organising picket lines and further mass meetings. There have also been occupations of small workplaces with no union.

The meltdown of Pasok (currently below 10 percent in polls) has further undermined union leaders allied to it. So far the rise of the left reformist Syriza has not led to major organisational shifts; the Communists have a far larger presence in the unions, and even the far-left Antarsya coalition is more visible in many sectors. But the ideological impact of the rise of left alternatives to Pasok has helped to further fuel the revolt.

In this context the far left, which includes the Greek Socialist Workers Party (SEK), has sought to develop the pressure from below within the unions—for example, by publishing rank and file papers for media workers, teachers and hospital workers. It seeks to raise the confidence of workers to act independently, as well as taking advantage of official calls, such as a recent one from a leader of the electricity workers’ union for escalating action. In addition, SEK is involved in beginning to coordinate action by initiating and participating in forums that draw together workers from different sectors. The far left has also been able to intervene effectively over political and ideological questions—seeking to construct a united front against the fascist Golden Dawn, for example.

The struggle has reached heights that many on the left across Europe would be envious of, but this does not for a moment reduce the challenges and complexities faced by the forces of the revolutionary left.

The Spanish state

When the crisis began union density was about 17 percent across the Spanish state. Workplaces are organised on a “one-union” basis, rather than on sectional or industrial lines, with workers mostly belonging to the UGT, linked to the Socialist Party, or the CCOO, which was historically closer to the Communist Party but is now close to the Socialists in practice.49 Traditional industrial sectors such as mining and metal working are well unionised, along with much of the public sector. Many large workplaces are 15 or 20 percent unionised, but all workers in the workplace benefit from collective bargaining, can go on strike and participate in the election of workplace delegates.50

From 1996 to 2006 the number of strikes recorded, excluding general strikes, lay between 618 and 807 a year. Strikes in this period were often relatively long in duration and typically involved large numbers of workers. The most important single action was in 2002—a successful one-day general strike against the right wing Aznar government. This was highly infused with the wider anti-capitalist mood of the time and, like many of the large strikes of the period, challenged a government policy affecting society at large, in this case reductions in unemployment benefit.

After the crisis broke, Spain witnessed a rise in strikes centred on private industry as employers stopped conceding wage rises through collective bargaining and the CCOO and UGT began to initiate action. According to Ministry of Labour figures, this peaked in 2009 at 1,001 strikes, falling back slightly in 2010 and 2011.51 Many of the strikes were now relatively short-lived and the numbers involved were not especially high, but the offensive produced breakthroughs in some sectors, such as metal working, threatening to generalise into a wider upturn in struggle. However, despite the successes, the union leaders agreed to concede “flexibility” measures and signed a deal with the employers’ organisation that undermined the growing movement.

This concession was followed by a major attack on the public sector by the Socialist Party government, which in May 2010 imposed a series of austerity measures including a 5 percent cut to public sector wages, triggering a strike across the whole public sector that June. This failed to force the government to retreat and a further attack followed—an attempt to reverse many of the workplace rights won over the preceding 35 years—leading to the September 2010 general strike. The government remained intransigent and the unions, facing “their own”, Socialist, government, capitulated. The combination of the attacks on workers’ rights, a sharp rise in unemployment as the crisis deepened and the defeat of the general strike (the first time such action had proved entirely unsuccessful since the transition from dictatorship in the 1970s) led to a significant decline of action in private industry. What strikes did now take place were increasingly of a defensive character, concerning job losses or unpaid wages.52 Now the momentum shifted to the public sector, where, by the end of 2011, there was again a rise in industrial action.

Up until this point the strike movement had been driven by calls for action from above with little organised pressure from below. But from mid-2011 dissatisfaction with the union leaders’ collaboration with employers and the government over austerity came together with the wider radicalisation taking place across the Spanish state. The Indignados movement (also known as 15M, named for the date, 15 May 2011, on which the movement first mobilised) launched a series of occupations of public spaces and protests, mainly attended by students, the unemployed and underemployed youth, and inspired in part by the Egyptian Revolution.53 Initially this movement was quite distant from, even hostile to, traditional workers’ organisations. Its cry of “Nobody represents us” was directed as much at Socialist politicians and the unions as it was against the elite, even if many individual union members, especially younger workers and those from the public sector, participated within it and brought its influence back into the workplace. Despite its distance from the unions, the scale of street mobilisations, which increasingly included demands for a general strike “without unions” in its slogans, did impose a pressure on the official movement.

The movement on the streets has not translated into a generalised upturn in struggle—it has not been able to overcome the hold of the bureaucracy or the impact of unemployment (now running at about a quarter of the workforce), labour law reform, which makes it far easier and cheaper to fire workers, and demoralisation due to the defeat of the Socialist Party government in the December 2011 elections. But there has been an expansion of smaller, more politically radical unions, and Madrid teachers have held organising assemblies modelled in some ways on the Indignados movement. Struggle has also grown in parts of the public sector, such as health and education. In these areas unofficial networks, known as mareas (tides), now help organise regular protests. And there was one especially important exception to the decline of the strike movement in industry: the two-month miners’ strike in Asturia in summer 2012. Here the social movements and the unions did come together—with mass demonstrations, hundreds of thousands strong, greeting the miners’ march on Madrid in summer last year. But the mood on the streets was not matched by the solidarity it needed from the leaderships of UGT and CCOO and the struggle was contained and defeated.

Large-scale set-piece action has also continued, with general strikes called in March and November 2012, the latter involving over 8 million workers, as the main unions were forced to respond to both the pressure from the streets and workplaces, and the sheer scale of the austerity being imposed by the government. Again these actions had wide support from the social movements and in some cases saw more combative picket lines as groups of workers sought to organise from below. If these strikes are included in the figures, they show a significant rise in industrial action. But there were limits to the action in 2012: the seven months between general strikes, in which there was little or no direction given by union leaders, saw a wave of job cuts. The social movements were left to lead mass protests against these attacks.

New opportunities arose in early 2013 as the right wing government’s popularity plummeted, its leading members engulfed in a corruption scandal. At the same time the Indignados movement has shown signs of revival; large, coordinated protests of the mareas movement were set for February; and a series of local strikes are now taking place in the public sector, especially in health. The time is ripe for a challenge to the government. The question is whether there can be a sustained, general rise in struggle and in the confidence of workers to fight in the coming months, despite the concessions made by the major unions and the climate of unemployment and austerity. While there is discontent at the base of the unions, and tensions between activists and the highly bureaucratised leaderships, this discontent is not effectively organised. There are particular areas in which the main unions are considered especially combative, and there are a number of smaller left wing unions with a better record of taking action, even if these often see their role as recruiting from the larger unions, rather than influencing or developing links with their grassroots members. There are also some examples of workers in UGT and CCOO organising in their workplace to strike or occupy, sometimes outside of the official structures. One challenge for the small forces of the revolutionary left will be to try to draw together, organise and coordinate such efforts.


If Spain shows how mass strikes can ebb, but rise again under pressure from social and political factors, France shows how the struggle can be contained, at least temporarily.

As in Spain, unions are concentrated both in traditional bastions of the working class, such as car plants, steel and chemicals, and in the public sector. A range of different union federations vie for support, including the two largest—the CGT traditionally associated with the Communist Party (and today the Front de Gauche of which the Communists are a component part) and the CFDT connected, though less organically, with the Socialists—and a range of smaller ones including the radical SUD union federation.

Entering the crisis, France already had a recent history of militancy that belied its low union density (below 9 percent). November 1995 saw an explosion of union activity over attacks on pensions. While the strike movement was official, it soon spilled over into unofficial action, being driven from below by mass meetings of strikers and near daily protests mobilising millions. By the end of the year the right wing administration was forced to withdraw many of its attacks. Further large strikes concentrated in the public sector followed in 2003, and again in 2006 over changes to the education system. In addition, in 1999-2000 there was a wave of localised strikes over the implementation of a new law setting a 35-hour working week, this time in the private sector.

In the years preceding the crisis France consistently had the highest number of days of strike action per worker in Western Europe.54 Against this backdrop, unions called a series of seven national strikes in autumn 2010 against a new assault on pensions, amid large street protests and student mobilisations. The strikes were the result of pressure from low-level union officials (typically representatives based in workplaces but employed full-time on union duties) along with the scale of the attack mounted by Nicolas Sarkozy’s right wing government and its intransigence in the face of opposition. A number of “Days of Action” were called by the Intersyndicale—a body coordinating
between the various national union confederations—which, while the movement was rising, gave the call a particularly strong resonance. The resulting action was focused on the public sector but included sporadic struggles in the private sector. It involved some of the biggest strikes in French history and consistently won the support of about two thirds of the public.

The revolutionary left was able to influence the strike movement in this phase, taking up the widespread call for indefinite stoppages, which briefly seemed like it might become a reality. But where there was such action, it was isolated. One example was the stoppage and blockade of oil refineries, which closed a third of petrol stations across France. This might have been the signal for an all-out general strike, but ultimately the union leaderships, both at a national level and more locally, were able to contain the pressure from below. Police were deployed to attack pickets and clear the oil blockade.

The unions had succeeded in maintaining a succession of one-day actions that expressed the anger among workers but ultimately allowed the momentum to dissipate and Nicolas Sarkozy to pass his law raising the pension age. By the end of October the momentum of the protests and strikes was waning and less radical components of the Intersyndicale began to distance themselves from the action. An aid to the leader of the CFDT told one newspaper: “Secretly, several leaders of the confederation wouldn’t look unfavourably on a petering-out of the movement. They know [Sarkozy’s government] is never going to give in. The longer the movement lasts, the more the frustrations of the protesters are difficult to manage internally”.55 The CFDT opened the door to negotiations and the CGT followed shortly after. The far left was not able to take advantage of the situation to coordinate the militancy from below and overcome the vacillations of the union leaderships.

The bitterness has found a political expression in the wake of the setback, with the election of a Socialist Party government and the strong showing of the Front de Gauche.56 But strike action declined from 2011. Recent action has largely consisted of defensive battles over pay and plant closures. These are, however, often militant struggles, as with recent strikes in the car industry. Hundreds of workers occupied PSA Peugeot-Citroen’s Aulnay-sous-Bois plant in January and February, led by a committee composed primarily of members of the CGT and SUD unions, joined by non-unionised workers and some members of the CFDT.57 Strikers have sought to link up their fight with similar disputes at Renault’s plants.58 It remains to be seen whether such action can overcome the inertia of many of the other unions in the industry and whether the fight can be spread to wider groups of workers. Certainly such sparks show that the movement in France has not been broken—but the fact that one of the most powerful workers’ movements in Europe could be contained, even if temporarily, is a warning for the left.


Britain witnessed appallingly low levels of strike action in the years leading up to the crisis. From an average of 12.9 million days per year of strike action in the 1970s and 7.2 million per year in the 1980s, the figure for the 1990s had fallen to 660,000—and has not recovered since. The peaks in recorded strike activity from the 1990s onwards generally reflect one-day strikes by large numbers of public sector workers, for instance in 2002 and 2007.59 Union membership has fallen since the early 1980s, with union density now standing at about a quarter of the total workforce, though it remains at 56.5 percent in the public sector.60 The decline is a result of the scale of the defeat inflicted upon the British working class under the Thatcher government in the 1980s.

Three big unions account for over half of the membership of the TUC, Britain’s union federation. Unite and the GMB are general unions based primarily in the private sector, but with substantial public sector memberships. Unison organises in the public sector, for example in hospitals and councils, though privatisation means that it now also contains members who are in the private sector. Smaller unions organise particular industries or occupations—for instance, teachers (NUT and NASUWT), communication workers in the postal service and telecoms (CWU), lecturers (UCU), civil servants (PCS), or construction workers (UCATT). The TUC has historically been closely tied to the Labour Party and most unions pay substantial amounts to fund the party.

The immediate impact of the crisis, which began under a Labour government, was to encourage union leaders to end a campaign over public sector pay that had seen 400,000 civil service workers, teachers and lecturers strike in spring 2008, followed by two days of action by 650,000 local government workers in summer. As the impact of the recession began to feed through to the private sector there were by 2009 a scattering of unusually militant strikes, including a small number of occupations of threatened plants, and action at oil refineries and construction sites. But these sparks failed to generalise and the overall level of strike action remained miserable—the 12 months in the run-up to March 2011 saw the lowest number of days of industrial action in Britain since records began in 1931.

Yet by the end of 2011 the annual figure was the highest for two decades. This is almost entirely accounted for by a series of one-day public sector strikes. The political context was the election in May 2010 of a governing coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats that was both weak, with a limited mandate, and determined to drive through austerity, including an attack on pension rights that unified the public sector in opposition.

In this context, action by smaller unions where socialists had a stronger presence helped pressure the larger unions to fight over pensions. The UCU lecturers’ union held a national strike in March 2011. The same month saw a TUC-backed protest of over half a million in London; one slogan with particular resonance on the day was “We’ve marched together, now let’s strike together”. In June the UCU, PCS and NUT organised a coordinated one-day strike by 750,000 workers. Now the big battalions of the union movement began to act—and on 30 November 2011 a one-day strike by 2.5 million in 23 unions took place, drawing in the Unison, Unite and GMB unions across much of the public sector. It was the largest strike in Britain since 1926 and featured vibrant demonstrations across the country.61

But the other side of the union bureaucracy was shown over the coming weeks. By Christmas the larger unions had signed an outline agreement with the government to end the struggle. This time the big unions were able to exert pressure on the smaller ones to contain the action. All the left could do by spring 2012 was to try to stop the rout, organising a strike by the lecturers, joined by some civil service and health workers, in May. Despite this, one by one the leaders of the smaller unions called off and contained strike action, and members of the larger unions, faced with a situation in which there was little prospect of a fight, in most cases grudgingly voted the pension deal through. By autumn 2012 the NUT teaching union that had been widely expected to strike also pulled back from action. Now the call for coordinated action, a factor that had raised the confidence of workers in 2011, became an excuse for passivity, with the NUT leadership citing unwillingness of the other large teaching union, NASUWT, to strike.

A second TUC-backed national demonstration, in October 2012, was 200,000-strong, and reflected a continued desire for action alongside the bitterness felt by many activists. In the aftermath of the sell-out leaders of the major unions have combined talk of a possible general strike with calls to support Labour in forthcoming elections. As Len McCluskey, leader of Unite, the largest union in Britain, put it: “As the working class reasserts itself, Labour is the natural, historic, vehicle for their voice… And that is the alliance [between unions and Labour] I see delivering a victory for Labour in 2015”.62

The left has focused on attempts to reignite official action over the rapidly accelerating attacks being driven through by the coalition government. One improvisation in the recent period has been the launch of Unite the Resistance, an attempt by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) to form an alliance with those left officials prepared to support strike action. The initiative has held a number of successful rallies and conferences, in which the SWP has been able to draw wider forces from the working class into a debate on the way forward for the movement and to initiate solidarity with groups of workers who take action.

Unite the Resistance is partly inspired by the minority movements of the 1920s, initiated by the Communist Party, which then had a few thousand militants in Britain. That movement similarly aimed to draw together workers and left union officials to stop the decline and demoralisation that followed a major defeat for workers in 1921. Beginning in mining and metal working, and ultimately leading to a national minority movement, it gave greater confidence to those workers who wanted to see a fight. It helped restore union membership and militancy in a range of industries and allowed the recently formed Communist Party to expand its working class base. However, by the mid-1920s pressure from Moscow and the confusion and disorientation among the party’s leaders led the movement to accommodate to the left wing bureaucracy. By the time of the General Strike of 1926 it simply called for “the concentration of all power in the general council of the TUC”, supporting the bureaucracy as they led the movement to a catastrophic defeat.63

Avoiding such a trajectory means that Unite the Resistance cannot simply draw the left officials together with ordinary workers; it must also encourage workers to put pressure on and raise criticisms of the officials. And it must have as a clear goal assembling the workers who can be the basis of genuine rank and file movements. But, however well-conceived this approach is, the possibility of building a rank and file movement depends on something that a small revolutionary left can influence but certainly not guarantee—a sufficiently powerful revival of working class struggle.


The complex relationship between crisis and resistance makes it impossible to generalise about the tactics the left should employ. The different tempo and depth of crisis, the different political factors and trade union structures, and the different scales on which the revolutionary left exists in different countries necessitate quite different approaches.

But one observation that can be made is the centrality of politics to the emerging struggle, all the more so as in general there has not been a gradual accumulation of struggle in the preceding period on a sufficient scale to give workers the confidence to act independently from below. This makes it necessary to take advantage of political upheavals to raise the possibility of action in the workplace and to use official strikes to strengthen rank and file organisation. A second observation is that the embryonic cycle of struggle that became apparent in 2011 continues, but it does so with complications and tensions. We should expect setbacks as well as advances. Yet the period remains one characterised by ideological turmoil, political instability and intense pressure on workers. In some cases this has translated into a rise in workers’ struggle since the beginning of the crisis. In others there is little sign of a sustained rise in self-activity, merely the potential for it to happen in the coming months or years.

Gramsci once described himself as a “pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will”.64 Given the combination of the possibilities that may open up in the coming period and the enormous challenges for the small forces on the revolutionary left if we are to take advantage of them, his words seem especially apt.


1: See, for instance, Wall Street Journal, 2012, for a particularly dismissive take on the action.

2: Molyneux, 2011.

3: The best account of the third wave of struggle is Harman, 1998.

4: For an excellent account of the tensions that have developed within the Egyptian Revolution see Marfleet, 2013.

5: See Nimtz, 2000, for a discussion of the two revolutionaries’ role in 1848.

6: Marx, 1950, p132.

7: Marx, 1950, p210.

8: Engels, 1950, p111.

9: See Engels, 1950, pp109-110.

10: The Third International, Comintern or Communist International was the international grouping of revolutionary socialists initiated by the Bolsheviks in 1919. A brief history is provided by Hallas, 1985.

11: Trotsky, 1973a, p259.

12: Trotsky, 1973a, pp259-260.

13: Trotsky, 1973a, p261.

14: This policy involved revolutionaries proposing joint initiatives to reformist leaders and the workers who still remained loyal to them while maintaining their own political independence. See Trotsky, 1989.

15: Trotsky, 1973b, pp285-286.

16: Trotsky, 1973a, p261.

17: Trotsky, 1973a, pp261-262.

18: Those unfamiliar with Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall can consult Harman, 2007.

19: Marx, 1993, p750.

20: This is a summarised version of an account I have advanced in Choonara, 2009, 2011, 2012. For similar accounts, see Callinicos, 2010; Carchedi, 2011; Harman, 2009; Kliman, 2011.

21: Much of the detail is covered well by Lapavitsas and others, 2012, although these authors would disagree with my contextualisation of the problems in a long-term crisis of profitability.

22: Lenin, 1921, p83.

23: Gramsci, 1998, p333.

24: Gramsci, 1998, p327.

25: See Jones, 2012, for a discussion.

26: Marx, 1972, p253.

27: Lenin, 1973, p316.

28: My focus here is on economic crisis, but a deep political crisis, produced, say, by a disastrous military intervention, can have the same effect.

29: See Callinicos, 2012b.

30: Tsipras, 2013, pp13-14.

31: Trotsky, 1985, p18.

32: Newsinger, 2009, pp69-71.

33: Danos and Gibelin, 1986.

34: Trotsky, 1974, p76.

35: See Cliff, 1985.

36: Cited in Harman, 1998, p4.

37: Harman, 1979. As Harman points out, there was also a subjective factor at work: the failure of the revolutionary lefts across Europe to provide a coherent political alternative for workers’ movements.

38: BBC, 2011.

39: Cliff and Gluckstein, 1996, pp328-331.

40: Cliff and Gluckstein, 1986, pp13-20.

41: Cliff and Gluckstein, 1986, pp27-28.

42: Cliff and Gluckstein, 1986, p28.

43: Cited in Callinicos, 1995, p33.

44: Kelly and Hamann, 2009, p1.

45: Kelly and Hamann, 2009, pp10-12.

46: Cliff, 1985, is a brilliant study of the different kinds of mass strike.

47: Writing this section would have been impossible without the assistance of Miguel Sanz Alcántara and Jesús M Castillo of En Lucha in the Spanish state, Denis Godard of Que Faire? and the NPA in France, and Nikos Loudos of the Greek Socialist Workers Party, who allowed me to quiz them on the workers’ struggle in their respective countries. Any errors are, of course, my own.

48: Styllou and Garganas, 1991.

49: Though this pattern varies regionally. For instance, in the Basque Country the main unions are nationalist.

50: Most union financing is from the state, based on the number of delegates elected, adding to the bureaucratic nature of the two main unions, which together control over 85 percent of delegates and which do not directly depend on the dues of their members-see Durgan and Sans, 2011.

51: Again, the figures exclude general strikes to show the pattern more clearly.

52: In 2006 and 2007 about half of strikes had been offensive, demanding improvements to wages and conditions. By 2011 only about a fifth were offensive.

53: See Durgan and Sans, 2011, for a discussion of the roots and development of the movement.

54: Eurofound, 2010, table four. The figure in 2007 was 128 working days lost per 1,000 employees. The next highest were Spain (58.1 days) and Italy (47.6 days). Of course, these crude figures can give a distorted picture, especially when one or two large strikes occur against a low background level of action. In 2008 Denmark registered one of the highest numbers of days lost anywhere in Europe over the past decade-because of a two-month strike by nurses, carers and educators which alone accounted for 98 percent of the strike figure that year!

55: Erlanger, 2010.

56: The NPA, by contrast, has fallen into a crisis, dramatically undermining its capacity to influence events. See Callinicos, 2012a; Godard, 2013.

57: Auto Critique, 2013.

58: CGT PSA Aulnay, 2013.

59: Hale, 2010.

60: Brownlie, 2011.

61: A survey of 60 of the biggest of the hundred or so demonstrations on the day showed 300,000 marching in support of the strikes. See Kimber, 2012.

62: McCluskey, 2013.

63: Cliff and Gluckstein, 1986, p117; see pp103-140 for a more general account of the minority movements.

64: Gramsci, 2011, p299.


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