Giorgia Meloni at a convention, 2022. Giorgia Meloni at a convention, 2022. Source: Vox Espana - Wikicommon / background colour added / shared under license CC0 1.0 / license linked below

As angry protests erupt across Europe, Kevin Ovenden argues that the left has to present a clear direction to the struggle or face the growth of a scapegoating right

Protests, strikes and demonstrations are spreading across Europe this autumn as rising inflation and the energy crisis further squeeze working-class people in every state.

Many thousands joined a demonstration in the Romanian capital Bucharest called by the national trade union federation Cartel Alfa last week. The federation’s leader Bogdon Hossu said, ‘The impoverishment of the people due to inflation and the lowering of living standards come from the lack of decisions and reforms in the energy sector.

The union added, ‘Fair wages and pensions, affordable bills, enough food and a decent home … are not luxuries — they are our rights.’

Romania’s grand coalition government of centre-left and centre-right liberalised the energy market last year. It also became the first EU state to subsidise an energy price cap, before the Ukraine war when prices were already rising.

But it did so by guaranteeing to pay the utility providers the gap between the wholesale price and the capped consumer price. Then came soaring wholesale prices and huge liabilities for the state. It tried to levy a windfall tax on domestic energy producers – Romania has a significant gas industry.

They responded, however, by simply raising their wholesale prices and therefore the government’s liabilities. That they can do this is a product of energy privatisation.

That’s why demonstrators and the unions are demanding the government introduces price controls and makes the companies pay, not ordinary people out of general taxation. The logic of that is nationalisation.

Political questions

It is the kind of demand that is arising organically out of the battles over the cost of living crisis in answer to the political response of the bosses and of governments. So it is more than merely a good idea on a piece of paper. It is part of the direct struggles themselves solving the political questions it throws up.

Romania also shows why it is vital that socialists are deeply immersed in those battles, take united initiatives and help to ensure that collective, good demands are put not mistaken or reactionary ones.

For another demonstration in Romania was organised by the far-right AUR party trying to capitalise on the unpopularity of the grand-coalition government earlier this month. It attracted only 3,000 people but that is an illustration of how everywhere the direction of the popular anger and despair is being contested by different political forces.

So a huge demonstration last month in the Czech Republic’s capital of Prague saw at least 70,000 people take to the streets. Their central demand was to cut energy bills, to lift the sanctions on Russia and to move to a ceasefire. But there were other far less welcome sentiments raised by some: hostility to the 400,000 Ukrainian refugees now in the country and calls to end immigration, for example.

The right-wing government of Petr Fiala has contributed to creating this backlash by saying that Czechs have to be prepared to pay a price to defeat Russia and dismissing protests as being pro-Putin. There is no excuse for scapegoating Ukrainian refugees. But the government has put them in the position of a scapegoat by talking not the language of peace and solidarity, but of war and national sacrifice. Needless to say, the Czech billionaire class is sacrificing nothing.

The accusation that protesting over the cost of living crisis and demanding peace is to be Putin’s puppet is being used by one government after another to try to delegitimise a growing sense of revolt. The German government has told workers they must be prepared to sacrifice while it ramps up arms spending and tries to drive opposition to Nato expansionism out of public life.

At the bizarre end of the spectrum Jacob Rees-Mogg when still a cabinet minister claimed that anti-fracking protesters in the English shires were being financed by the Kremlin. It is true there were some pro-Putin elements on the Prague demonstration, which was called under the banner “Czech Republic First” by a range of forces from the nationalist right to the radical left. But there were not over 70,000 of them. And there were many more who are opposed to the Russian government while also for their country withdrawing from Nato.

Contradictory

The reality is that a call by a collection of small political forces suddenly focused the feelings of tens of thousands against the government. In doing so, it brought to the surface a range of violently contradictory ideas. We must hope that the radical left, which does not have parliamentary representation, is able to shape events in a progressive direction, including aiming to win the unions to collective action that can beat the government.

This is not a new set of circumstances. Confused and contradictory eruptions of furious protest were also part of the revolts against austerity in 2010-11. In Greece, for example, the Movement of the Squares in May 2011 included a lot of people initially hostile to the left and who blamed the unions for “just looking after their own” not “the ordinary citizen” facing bankruptcy and eviction.

There was anti-immigration agitation by activists of the racist right – though the outright fascists did not take part. As it was a centre-left government that was overseeing savage austerity, populist-right forces thought they could lead occupations and turn them against the left. But the radical left did participate and contested the political space. It was able to shift the balance. So when the unions staged one of many general strikes the occupiers of the square outside parliament in their majority joined the union demonstration, leaving the nationalist, anti-left, anti-union elements more isolated.

Even then, there were huge political debates. They often involved confronting xenophobic scapegoating and replacing confused/conspiracist false explanations with accurate socialist ones based on collective class struggle.

It was not only at big city centre rallies. At least as important were hundreds of local meetings in neighbourhoods and villages across Greece. These and other initiatives by the left underpinned the anti-austerity revolt, encouraged the strikes and occupations and meant that they generally steered left.

Radical left

It has been left initiative in France that has meant over a week of protests and strikes have provided an alternative answer to the far-right of Marine Le Pen, who must be hoping that if Italy can elect her counterpart Giorgia Meloni, her own turn cannot be far away.

The radical left Nupes parliamentary coalition called a demonstration on 16 October attracting some 140,000 people in Paris. It has also taken a stand against the escalation of the Ukraine war and for peace. The demonstration came as members of the CGT union in oil refineries were continuing their strikes and faced conscription by the government under the laws guaranteeing minimum service levels. Other groups struck on 18 October, including transport workers.

Probably 300,000 people joined demonstrations across France that Tuesday. School students protested outside their schools in many places on the morning raising support for the strikers, increasing police repression and, in some cases, opposition to anti-Muslim racism that bans girls from wearing the headscarf at school.

There is a very long way to go before the protests and, in some places, strikes we are seeing now grow to a size that can decisively turn the situation of attacks on workers livelihoods. Employers are both digging in and in some cases making concessions. Governments too – though everywhere the squeeze is increasing.

The initial partial relief of energy price subsidies is giving way to ruling-class nervousness about the Romanian experience, that is whether governments can afford them without radical redistribution, which they are opposed to. To that we can add the British experience of the Bank of England working with the financial markets to smash a government and make it change policy.

There is rising antagonism also between European states. Germany, the biggest EU economy enjoying up to now the ‘confidence of the financial markets’ has organised its own energy subsidy worth 200 billion euro while again blocking calls for an EU-wide one backed by the issuing of Eurobonds as opposed to national debts. That leaves the Greek government, for example, warning that its scheme ‘cannot go on indefinitely’ and will come to an end soon. It has only just started.

There will be a general strike in Greece on 9 November. Central demands are to raise the minimum wage and reinstate collective bargaining. Following a huge national demonstration in Dublin, there is rising agitation in Ireland over price controls, a ban on evictions and cutting rents.

That there are going to be protests and militant demonstrations across Europe is certain. The same is true of at least some strikes. But whether they build and are successful, and what direction they take, is very much down to the radical left and what it does. That means popularising the key arguments refuting government lies about the need for austerity or why it is not possible to redistribute wealth. It means in practice creating the unity on the ground that is a barrier to efforts by the radical right to divide and rule. That is not only in set-piece events, but in every town, neighbourhood, union branch, civil society organisation, religious congregation, sports club, school, and university seminar.

What is unfolding already in crisis-Europe is the need for a bigger anti-capitalist left that takes initiatives and aims outwards to the mass of working-class people. Millions of desperate people are going to find answers of one variety or another. It is the responsibility of the left to make sure its answers and course of united action are available to them.

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Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.

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