Should the left campaign for Greece to quit the euro? Or should it campaign for anti-capitalist demands, accepting that this may lead to a break-up of the euro, but aiming for a united Europe restructured on different lines?
That was the key issue of dispute in a well-attended debate in London on 12 November, organised as part of the annual conference convened by the journal Historical Materialism.
The platform speakers were:
• The French Marxist economist Michel Husson, speaking to the approach he advocated in Solidarity 224 (www.workersliberty.org/node/17731);
• Costas Lapavitsas, a professor of economics at SOAS in London, who has also presented his views in Solidarity (www.workersliberty.org/node/14252);
• Ozlem Onaran, a lecturer in economics at Middlesex University.
Husson summarised the arguments in his Solidarity 224 article. He argued that although the euro has been botched, the crisis may well lead to its breakup, and working-class struggles may speed a break-up, it is wrong to pose quitting the euro as a left-wing objective, or as a starting point.
A campaign for three points — monetisation of the debt by the European Central Bank [i.e. the ECB buying up troubled states’ IOUs], cancellation of part of the debt, and nationalisation of the banks — could point instead towards a united Europe reshaped by working-class struggles.
The logic of quitting the euro is one of states seeking to deal with the crisis by competitive devaluation, and thus a nationalist one.
Lapavitsas started by declaring that “the European working class has no stake in the euro”. The euro serves European banks and big business, facilitates an imperial hierarchy in Europe headed by Germany, and is a trap for the countries of the periphery.
It cannot be reformed in the interests of the working class, and it cannot even be reformed to deal with the current crisis, because it is based on the principle that the core states will not help out the periphery.
Greece should go for a debtor-led default, which would “not be a tea party” but could be followed by a programme of capital controls, nationalisation of banks, redistribution of income, industrial policy, and cleansing of the corrupt state machine.
Onaran argued a view close to Husson’s. The demand for this or that country to leave the euro would not be a productive way of building a united left-wing platform across Europe. An exit from the euro might follow from a battle for left-wing policies, but that is a different matter.
An exit, in and of itself, implies competitive devaluation by the exiting countries, a radical fall in real wages in those countries, and an economic great depression across Europe. The idea that it could bring progress is reminiscent of the illusions of “socialism in one country”.
Debate from the floor was lively. Oddly, most of the activist left groups took no part, and it is hard to deduce what they think from their press. They say that the big capitalist governments do not know what to do, but without indicating they themselves know what the labour movement should do, other than in general terms to favour socialism.
The Socialist Party says: “The present crisis shows ever more clearly that capitalism is incapable of overcoming the limits of the nation state”. Socialist Worker observes a “crisis of capitalist leadership” and says: “Many politicians would like to integrate the eurozone into a fiscal union, with one powerful central government to try and overcome this. Others call for breaking it up. Neither would solve the economic problems that underlie the crisis”.
Ozlem Onaran is affiliated with the “Mandelite” current linked to the NPA in France, but that current did not intervene as such.
Martin Thomas from AWL intervened from the floor. Even if the European working class has no stake in the euro, he said, it does have a stake in reducing barriers between nations in Europe, and in establishing a common programme across Europe for itself.
It is fallacious to present the eurozone as a completely rigid structure from which the working class can force no concessions, and a euro-exited Greece, under a bourgeois government, as an environment where the working class can easily extract favourable policies.
Summing up, Lapavitsas criticised the Greek left for not campaigning sharply for exit from the euro (which it doesn’t, although some segments of the Greek left are generally anti-EU). He said that the euro is breaking-up anyway, and if the left does not lead the exit, then “people in uniforms” will. Default and exit can be key demands towards socialism, as bread, land, and peace were in 1917.
Husson remonstrated that for the left to campaign against the euro would present the problem as not one between classes, but one between one’s own country and Germany. In France, he said, the far-right Front National is the only force which makes “quit the euro” its campaigning demand.
Onaran concurred. Both in Spain and in Ireland, she said, the activist left is clear that it would be diversionary to propose to campaign for exit from the euro.