An Era is Coming to a Close in European Workers’ Movement

The bourgeoisie in Europe, where the global capitalist crisis displays itself in harshest ways, is trying to get out of the pit of the crisis by carrying further its attacks on the historical gains of the working class. But programs that aim to put the burden of the crisis over the back of the working class sharpened the class struggle as well. A simultaneous struggle has sprung up in many countries against these destructive programs especially starting with the spring of 2010. In Greece, Spain and Portugal, whose economies are on the verge of collapse, the working class is staging successive general strikes. In the autumn of last year French working class organized general strikes, stopped production and took to the streets in millions against the attempt of raising the retirement age. The masses were shouting that they would not pay the bill of capitalist crisis and striving to stop the “belt-tightening” measures. It has to be noted that the struggle in Greece outpaced others, took a harsher form and forced bourgeois political scene into a crisis.

It could be said that mass mobilization is the main characteristic of this process. The Greek working class intimidated the bourgeoisie by staging nearly 15 general strikes so far. With the general strike of June 15 the government of so-called socialist PASOK was about to collapse. 200 thousand protestors surrounding parliament in order to block the bill of attacks tried to prevent the MPs from attending the session in parliament. And the Papandreou government vacillated in the face of this powerful resistance. But upon pressure from the European bourgeoisie Papandreou decided not to resign and set up a new cabinet. And the working class once again surrounded the parliament as part of the general strike on 28-29 June, where there were violent clashes as well. Undoubtedly the rising class struggle in Greece has also created a political crisis. If the working class had a revolutionary organization the situation would be completely different. That would deepen the crisis now the bourgeoisie is facing and open the gates of a more favourable revolutionary situation. Because there is no such organization in Greece now, there is great difficulty in advancing furthermore the favourable atmosphere created by the struggle.

However, although it is possible that this rising struggle may come to an end at a certain stage, it would be erroneous to think that such a retreat would last long. Because the bourgeoisie keep on adding fuel to the fire by its “belt-tightening” attacks, thus laying the objective ground for harsher struggles. Greek bourgeoisie have signed an enormous credit deal of €110 billion with the European Union and IMF in order to overcome its crisis. To get the money and pay it back with interest the bourgeoisie have started a big offensive targeting the economic-social gains of the working class. Thus Papandreou government, acting in this framework, has already passed another part of the “belt-tightening” programme that amounts to €28 billion from parliament. Within this “belt-tightening” programme carried through in collaboration with the EU and IMF, there will be privatizations of public enterprises, mass redundancies, lengthened working days, freezing of wages, blows to social security system such as raising the age for retirement, cutting or liquidation of workers’ gains, health and education budgets are to be reduced, and taxes increased. The bourgeoisie want to get all economic and social gains of the working class back with shock blows and make it accept a bare wage. The fact that during last year working masses’ standard of living has been decreased considerably shows the extent of these offensives.

So called neoliberal attacks of capitalism are ongoing in all European countries and all over the world. During the last 30 years the European bourgeoisie seek to take back the concessions it had made to the working class due to its fear of revolution. The neoliberal attacks on practices called “welfare state” are now in the last stage. Because the bourgeoisie have already managed to take back the best part of the gains of the working class since the beginning of 1980s through “belt-tightening” programmes implemented on every opportunity. For instance, as one of the key elements of the offensives against the working class, the retirement age has been raised gradually. In the autumn of 2010 it was raised from 60 to 62 in France while the final aim is to take it to 65. And in the same days in Germany it was raised to 67. And the British bourgeoisie is also seeking to raise it to 67. Thus the bourgeoisie gives the message “work till you drop” to the working class.

The bourgeoisie seeks to lower labour costs as much as possible and improve competitiveness. Their goal is to lower labour costs to a level certain bourgeois ideologues called “historical norm”. With this “historical norm” they mean a working regime under which labour costs are reduced, labour force is destined to a bare wage that would only be enough to sustain physical existence, access to free health care is largely ruled out, retirement is made a dream, and thus social security system is largely taken away, working day is lengthened and wages are reduced. This is imposing the working and living conditions of the nineteenth century on the working class and the bourgeois ideologues do not refrain from expressing it. In a word, the bourgeoisie wants no responsibility that can be a burden to themselves.

There is one point to be underlined: the European bourgeoisie has considerably lost its power which means that it cannot satisfactorily compete with its more dynamic rivals in the capitalist world market. The imperialist European bourgeoisie is no more as powerful as it was in the past when it once formed colonial empires, or, at the time of the two-pole world, the second main force after the USA! As a consequence of uneven and combined development of capitalism those countries which were once underdeveloped countries such as China, India, Brazil or Turkey are climbing up in the world economy. The old Europe is comparably much more engulfed in the historical crisis of capitalism now we are passing through. European economy, which has already been struggling, turned breathless and began to shrink with the last global crisis. Thus the bourgeoisie attacking the historical gains of the working class in order to overcome the general stagnancy it has been in since the midst of 1970s stepped up its attacks with the global crisis.

These attacks that targeted the working class bring about a heightened class struggle as well. As distinct from past years struggle is mounting in the whole continent because the crisis engulfed the whole continent and the “belt-tightening” programs are introduced simultaneously. There is no doubt that today the weakest link in Europe is Greece. But under today’s conditions everywhere in Europe is potentially a Greece as the crisis and offensives against the working class are still going on with full speed. Moreover the bourgeoisie is in a more difficult position to afford concessions and thus pacify the struggle. The “welfare state”, which has been turned into an ideological argument to keep the working class away from the idea of revolution and create the illusion that welfare can be shared without capitalism being overthrown, is long gone. The bourgeoisie is putting a lot of effort to liquidate those last remnants that have been left from the “welfare state”. That is, while the European bourgeoisie is losing its historical position an historical epoch is closing for the European working class as well.

Obviously the fact that the material basis of “welfare state” has been undermined does not mean that it would not serve as an ideological argument. Social democracy, union bureaucracy and reformists always keep this argument alive to block a rising workers’ movement and contain within the existing order. As there is not yet a revolutionary leadership in Europe, great dangers await the working class. But before that we need to remember the conditions that characterized the historical period which is now closing in the European workers’ movement.


Since the birth of capitalism European continent is the hotbed of revolutions and revolutionary situations. Time and again the working class revolted against capitalist exploitation, was defeated, retreated, but, after gathering strength, leaped forward again. From Lyon rebellion to Chartist movement, from 1848 uprisings to the Paris Commune in all revolutionary revolts throughout the nineteenth century the working class succeeded in placing fear of revolution into the heart of the bourgeoisie. Therefore to cope with the revolutionary threat and tie the working class to capitalist order the bourgeoisie had to make concessions and the working and living conditions of the working class began to ameliorate by the last quarter of the nineteenth century. One of these concessions was the social security system: in 1889 the first state social insurance was implemented in Bismarck Germany. In the following years social security system spread across Europe, became institutionalized and developed into a wider context of “welfare state”.  

The bourgeoisie had to shorten the working day from 12-14 hours down and raise the wages even before the beginning of the twentieth century. We must keep in mind that this period is the period when capitalism rose to its imperialist stage. The fact that the capitalist economy registered a feverish growth from 1890s to 1914, that is, until the beginning of the imperialist war, enabled the bourgeoisie to make some little concessions. Of course, it should be stressed here that the imperialist European bourgeoisie which once established colonial empires plundered colonies as source of raw material, thus reducing the cost of production and raising profit rates and that they extracted a higher surplus value from workers in those countries where they exported capital. With these high profit rates and favourable room for maneuver the imperialist bourgeoisie bought off union bureaucracy and began to channel workers’ movement within the confines of the order.

Unions became increasingly bureaucratized with the imperialist period and their upper echelons merged to a greater extent with the bourgeois state. With the fact that a tiny section of skilled and high-wage workers, that is, the section called labour aristocracy, was influential in unions and that they constitute the natural basis for the union bureaucracy, the workers’ movement came under the ideological tyranny of the bourgeoisie. The union bureaucracy and labour aristocracy, who find their interests and privileges in capitalism and seek to maintain it, came to find their reformist programme with the social democracy, supported colonialist policies of the bourgeoisie and finally took side with it in the imperialist war.

Reminding Lenin, Elif Çağlı points out: “Lenin pointed out that a layer of workers that has become bourgeois in terms of their life styles, wages and world views became also the main pillar of the social-chauvinism of the Second International. High level seats obtained in union and party bureaucracy, parliamentary privileges, fame obtained from legalist work etc. are main sources of bourgeois influence over the workers’ movement.” (On Bourgeois Workers’ Parties, Marksist Tutum, December 2005) Çağlı says that the people fed on these sources are part of bourgeois realm with their life styles, value judgements and as long as they are influential they make the workers movement bourgeois. Thus the bourgeoisie which created its props within the working class strengthened reformism within the workers movement through social-democracy and union bureaucracy.

It is important to understand that the European working class was acting on this unfavourable ground before the implementation of “welfare state”. Because this fact reveals why and how the “welfare state” has become favourite and what kind of an ideological background the “welfare state” which has been erected in front of workers’ revolution is based. And it is not only the union bureaucracy and social-democracy to blame. The Stalinist communist parties which squandered revolutionary situations throughout the twentieth century, having, in fact, no aim of proletarian revolution, are equally responsible for this guilt.

Although the revolutionary situations in Europe that emerged in the aftermath of the 1917 October Revolution failed to develop into successful revolutions, revolutionary turbulence did not stop until 1945 when the Second World War ended and the bourgeoisie felt the threatening breath of revolution in the back of its neck throughout this period. Indeed the bourgeoisie was frightened by developments such as that the USSR survived the war, Eastern Europe broke away from capitalism, revolutionary winds blowing in France, Italy and Greece. But on the other hand while Stalinism was hindering the progress of revolutionary surges in these countries as part of the policy of “peaceful co-existence”, on the other hand the bourgeoisie began to bring the workers’ movement under its control through the social democracy, union bureaucracy and Stalinist parties by making serious concessions. For fear of revolution they were forced to stomach many concessions. The Keynesian policies implemented by the bourgeoisie in this period were in accord with their goal of reconstruction of Europe by means of the state and that the state would be the lever to provide the concessions given to the working class.

And state intervention to market increased: public investments rose considerably, unemployment fell, and wages rose as the working week shortened. In all Western European countries a social security system was implemented, and the working class gained the right to retirement pension and free health care. Unemployment insurance, free and universal education, rent aid or low rents and other additional social gains changed the living conditions of the working class considerably in comparison to the past. For the first time in the history of capitalism the working class was taking such an amount of the value it created, achieving an increased purchasing power and obtaining relatively comfortable living conditions.

And the bourgeoisie presented these concessions made to the working class as “social state” or “welfare state” as part of its propaganda that the value created can be made common and shared without a workers’ revolution, that is, within capitalism, and the state can organise this. Thus the reformist social democracy and union bureaucracy who had long been defending reforms that shape a “welfare state” could find a strong objective ground for their theses.

Bernstein, one of the theoreticians of Second International, was arguing and dreaming that transition from capitalism to socialism was possible through social reforms without revolution. Thus it was not necessary to smash and destroy bourgeois state. In Bernstein’s view the working class organised in unions could change laws and limit exploitation! The reformed state then would be the instrument of limiting exploitation and social reform. In fact this state-loving outlook had been prevalent in social democracy since Lassalle. This outlook coupled with Stalinism which identified socialism with statism caused a deep illusion in the working class on the question of “social state” practises.

Also encouraged by the bourgeoisie, reformism took strength from this and thrived. Having found a relatively sound ground in Europe, reformism was to influence the workers’ movements in other countries as well. As if a “welfare state” is really possible under capitalism, this illusion was instilled and spread within the workers’ movement. It was preached that capitalism was now reformed and up to its social responsibility through state intervention. The emphasis on state rather than capitalism should be noticed here. The state here is elevated to a supra-class and neutral position is supposed to reform capitalism, undertake its social responsibilities, distribute wealth and thus we have the “welfare state”!

Time has shown that “welfare state” practises were not due to reforming capitalism but concessions made by the bourgeoisie in a special era of history. As Rosa Luxemburg remarks in her Social Reform or Revolution: “Work for reform does not contain its own force, independent from revolution. During every historic period, work for reform is carried on only in the direction given to it by the impetus of the last revolution, and continues as long as the impulsion of the last revolution continues to make itself felt.” Thus, having succeeded in getting control of the working class through reformist parties and union bureaucracy and averting the threat of revolution, the bourgeoisie would go on the offensive.


The concessions of the bourgeoisie in the form of “welfare state” were a product of specific historical conditions and they were made possible by a 20-years long continuous capitalist growth. But this 20-years long “golden age” came to an end by the 1970s when bells of capitalist crisis began to toll again. With the crisis the bourgeoisie were to forget about their “social state” responsibility. Obviously it was not the “social responsibility” that was driving the bourgeoisie but the accumulation of capital and profitability. Thus, in order to prevent the fall of profit rates the bourgeoisie set out to diminish the share of the working class it gets from the social value created.

It is the level of class struggle that decides what share the working class gets from the total social value created. As Marx explained: “…the capitalist constantly tending to reduce wages to their physical minimum, and to extend the working day to its physical maximum, while the working man constantly presses in the opposite direction. The question resolves itself into a question of the respective powers of the combatants.” Thus the only guarantee of preserving the gains of the working class is not the “welfare state” but the power of the working class and its fight against the bourgeoisie. Yet the European working class, which has been numbed and tamed to regard the “welfare state” as the guarantee of their rights, could not fight back on time and on a deserved level. With the collapse of the USSR a further shift in international power balance occurred in favour of the bourgeoisie and there was a leap forward in the neoliberal capitalist offensives.

And all those ideological attacks carried out by the bourgeoisie under the rhetoric of “end of history”, “demise of the working class” etc. were part of the neoliberal bourgeois campaign aimed at seizing the gains of the working class. Keynesian policies, which have already been made out of fashion, were castigated, everything about statism was insulted and identified with the “collapsed” socialism, liberal capitalist market was praised. Against all these assaults reformism and union bureaucracy have taken a pacifist line that never went beyond defence of “welfare state” as if it is an independent fact in its own right.

Yet the question at stake was not simply preference of neoliberal policies to statist policies or even right-wing parties’ choices. It was capitalism itself underlying these offensives, that is, capitalism by its very nature necessitated them. The neoliberal attacks have not stopped as governments changed, for instance when left-wing parties came to power. What has to be done, thus, was to explain to the working masses that these attacks sprang from capitalism and try to lead the working class into a struggle along these lines. As this was not the case the working masses that fell under the influence of the ideological offensive of the bourgeoisie could not fight back efficiently to defend their social gains.

Many social gains of the working class have been lost or cut as a result of this offensive. Unemployment has risen, wages have been reduced, the level of living standards of the working class declined, retirement age has been raised, free health care has come under serious blows. Unemployment wage has been reduced, the period of entitlement to this wage has been shortened, sub-contracting has been introduced, flexibility, irregularity and insecure work have been made widespread.

Unemployment is a very serious problem in Europe today. For instance, it is above 20% in Spain where mass strikes are taking place. In Greece it is over 12% and in France nearly 10%. While the EU average is above 10%, it is 9% in Italy, 8% in Britain, and 7% in Germany. Moreover, the rate for youth under 25 is much higher. It is around 40% in Spain to take an example.

The offensive, rising unemployment and worsening of living conditions unfortunately result in negative political effects as well. As if it is not capitalism responsible of all these, a reaction towards immigrant workers on the part of a section of the working masses has been fostered via the guidance of rightwing and fascist parties. The rise of nationalism and that the fascist parties gathered serious vote are due to the despair the working masses have been dragged into. Under conditions of lack of organisation of the working class the bourgeoisie can channel the discontent by leading the masses into a delusion. Overwhelming majority of the working masses sometimes move towards would-be socialist parties with the delusion of giving “another chance”. Yet these parties have nothing to do with socialism. For instance in the present crisis, in Portugal, Spain and Greece the heaviest attacks against the working class have been carried out by the governments of these parties who carry the name socialist but are bourgeois. By their own experiences the masses now see that these reformist parties are of no use for the working class. But it is clear that, unless the working class is led to an independent line of struggle and has the guidance of a revolutionary leadership, the experience of the masses cannot become a lasting lesson.


As we stressed before, class struggle has started to rise again throughout the world by the turn of 2000. This does not mean as yet a change in balance of class forces in favour of the working class has occurred. But the curve of the struggle of the working class is on a constant rise. First expressions of this were the revolutionary situations that appeared in the first half of 2000s in Latin America. Deepening of the historical crisis of capitalism and mounting of imperialist scramble to a new level at this turning point are by no means accidents. The period we entered is characterised by crisis, war and revolutionary explosions.

This situation is a direct expression of how social contradictions are sharpened. Breathlessness of capitalism and that it proves unable to come out of the crisis with a dynamic growth, aggravating rivalry and fight for hegemony among imperialist powers, political crisis in the bourgeois political sphere and that the exploited masses express their anger towards the bourgeois order in an explosive way, all these are direct or indirect manifestations of this process. That the outrage at the killing of an immigrant by the French police in 2005 swiftly became a revolt of immigrant toilers, that a sudden and violent mass revolt erupted in Greece in 2009 on account of the killing of a student by the police, that, in the last days of 2010, a young street seller burned himself to death in an act of protest in Tunisia sparked popular mass risings in the North Africa and Middle East, all reveal the explosive dynamics of the new process we entered.

The harsh character of the reaction and struggle of the Greek masses is also to be noticed, which certainly points to the harsh character of the new period of class struggles in Europe. Since the beginning of 2010 successive general strikes took place in France, Portugal, Italy, Spain and Greece and millions of workers took part in them. That the working-class youth whose dreams for future have been shattered and who deeply feel the pains of joblessness actively took part in the struggle point to the dynamics of the process. On the other hand, that the student youth take part in the struggle in awareness of the fact that they would be future workers and of that the attacks would also affect them indicates a different situation than the past. In France in 2005 when the so-called “First Job Contract” which sought to increase trial period from 1-3 months to 2 years for those under 26 was introduced, high school and university students reacted bitterly. The question at stake was not academic freedom but an attack concerning them as future workers. And as a result of their fight supported by workers the government had to back down and withdraw the bill.

An era has ended in European working class movement. The social democratic parties that had been born out of the working class with organic ties to trade-unions have long been turned from being “bourgeois parties” of the working class to workers’ parties of the bourgeoisie. Although these parties keep their ties to trade-unions and the influence over the working class of the union bureaucracy is not broken, old days are gone. One of the most important pillars of union bureaucracy, which kept the working class within the bounds of capitalism, and reformism, i.e. “welfare state” has also collapsed. Obviously this provides a ground for the struggle to develop along different paths. However in order to advance the struggle to the level of a conscious anti-capitalism the influence of these layers over the working class has to be broken. Unfortunately there is no Bolshevik organisation in Europe to fulfil this task. A long era of reformism influenced even those groups who claim to be revolutionary. This is evident from the fact that the masses that escalated the struggle in Greece have not been introduced the task of overthrowing capitalism, that they have not been pushed forward towards this direction, and an opposition line which is basically reduced to anti-Papandreou-ism. The European working class is entering a new era with its deficiencies as well as advantages. And the need for a Bolshevik party remains to be a burning issue more than ever.

[*] Elif Çağlı, On Bourgeois Workers’ Parties, Marksist Tutum, December 2005