Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Euro struggle

(April 1997)

From Socialist Review, No.207, April 1997.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

‘Something is happening and you don’t know what it is, do you Mr Jones?’

The young black activists Huey Newton and Bobby Seale played this Bob Dylan track over and over again as they put together the first copy of their Black Panther paper in the late spring of 1967.

It gave expression to their feeling that a new mood of revolt was arising among the most oppressed people in society. No one really knew what was going to happen next or how. This was before the great events of 1968 – the tearing apart of the US war effort in Vietnam by the Tet offensive, the near insurrection in Detroit, the wave of ghetto risings following the murder of Martin Luther King, the Prague Spring and the French May.

But there was a sense that molecular change at the base of society was going to crystallise into something new.

The lyrics should have a resonance right across western Europe today, 30 years on. For changes in people’s moods are occurring just as they were in the US in 1967, and again the outcome is still undecided.

The media has barely noticed it, but the mass strike and the mass demonstration have been reborn in the core countries of the European Union over the last couple of years. Germany was the country least affected by the workers’ upturn of the late 1960s and early 1970s. But in the mid-1990s it has seen growing working class resistance to the attempts by the government and the employers to undermine welfare benefits and cut back on jobs against a background of 4 million unemployed.

In Italy the general strike against pension cuts in October 1994 led to the fall of the right wing Berlusconi government the next year, and although the tempo of strikes and demonstrations has declined under the subsequent centre-left governments, it is much greater than through the 1980s. In Belgium the series of public sector stoppages and protests last year have been followed by huge support for the Renault occupation this March.

France has seen strike after strike since the great public sector stoppages of December 1995 forced a retreat by Juppé and Chirac. The highly effective and highly publicised blockade of the country’s roads at the end of last year was the high point of a much wider ferment.

But what is occurring is not just a revival of economic struggle. The struggle itself is beginning to throw up slogans with much wider social, if not yet revolutionary socialist, connotations. Increasingly workers are counterposing a ‘social Europe’ to a ‘neo-liberal’ – Thatcherite – Europe.

At the same time, especially in France, the revival of workers’ struggle has gone parallel with a growing movement against racism and the fascist right. February and March saw two huge demonstrations and vast numbers of signatures to petitions against the Debré anti-immigrant law, as well as a rash of increasingly militant demonstrations against Le Pen, with young demonstrators no longer ready to abide by advice from the leaders of the Socialist Party, the Communist Party and SOS-Racisme to march away from his meetings and rallies.

All this represents a radical change from the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s. In the 1980s there were strikes in Europe, but they were defensive – usually against the running down of old industries – and mostly ended in defeat. Today there are signs within both the workers’ movements and the demonstrations of a spontaneous generalisation of ideas, such as we have not seen on any great scale since the mid-1970s.

However, there is an immense confusion of ideas. Nor can we rule out major defeats for one or other struggle breaking the forward momentum. In France the anti-racist, anti Le Pen agitation and the strikes still constitute two separate movements, with different slogans and ideas, even though both owe much of their inspiration to the strikes and demonstrations of December 1995 and many activists are involved in both.

So many of the leading figures in the anti-racist agitation talk in terms of ‘citizenship’, not class, and pose issues in terms of a moralism which does not expect to win over those outside an intellectual-student milieu. At the same time, many of the trade union activists involved in the strikes believe they can only relate to their fellow workers in economic terms and fail to raise with them the broader issues of anti-racism and anti-fascism.

These attitudes are encouraged by the two main organising focuses for the movements. The daily paper Libération, which printed special supplements with the anti-racist petition signatures, is run by people who accepted all the ‘new philosopher’, ‘postmodernist’ anti-Marxist crap of the 1980s. They can’t conceive of winning workers to their anti-racist struggle and half accept the line of the Socialist Party leadership that it has to fudge on anti-racism for fear of losing next year’s parliamentary elections.

The most important focus for workers’ struggles remains the Communist Party, through the CGT union over which it exercises considerable influence, and the party’s daily, L’Humanité. But it too is downplaying notions of class, preferring to talk in terms of ‘citizenship’ and trying to form an alliance with the nationalist, anti European Union movement of former Socialist Party defence minister Chevènement.

So there is no guarantee that the new mood of struggle will break through old ideological barriers. But there never can be such a guarantee. In the late 1960s genuinely Marxist ideas faced bitter competition from liberal preachers of ‘participatory democracy’, Stalinist worshippers of China and Albania, middle class ‘student vanguardists’ and anarchist ‘anti-authoritarians’. It took much argument and effort to turn a receptiveness to Marxist ideas into a victory for them – and it was a victory which was often too little and too late.

Things are not going to be any easier today, and with the rise of the Nazi right, the price of failure will be much costlier. Nevertheless, a spontaneous growth of struggle is occurring and, with it, a new level of generalisation. There is a massive opening for Marxist ideas – if Marxists know how to take it.

Last updated on 21 December 2009