The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

The Impact of the War in Ukraine

Jun 16, 2023

This text is taken from the forum presented at the Lutte Ouvrière fête by militants of the German Trotskyist organization, the Bund Revolutionärer Arbeiter (UCI), on May 28, 2023. It first appeared in Lutte de Classe, # 233, July-August 2023, published by Lutte Ouvrière.

Shortly after the outbreak of war in the Ukraine in early 2022, the Social Democratic Chancellor of Germany, Olaf Scholz, with his reputation for taciturnity, announced with some emphasis nothing less than an “epochal change.” And, to be sure, this war has considerably altered the economic, political and social situation in Germany, and at an impressive pace.

War as a Major Step Towards Accepting Rearmament and Arms Deliveries

At the start of the war in Ukraine, the question of whether Germany should impose sanctions on Russia, and even more so the question of supplying arms to a country at war, was the subject of widespread public debate. Until then, the latter had been taboo, and the German government began by supplying only helmets. A year later, when the government authorizes a new delivery of battle tanks or drones, it is often worth only a bare mention in the press.

Until the war in Ukraine, expressions such as “fighting for the fatherland” or “heroes on the battlefield” were used only by the far right, as they remained linked to Nazi ideology, as the dominant political mood since 1945 had been marked by the slogan “never again war.” Today, all this is part of the everyday vocabulary of journalists and politicians, as part of an openly partisan coverage of the war, with the population supposedly vibrating on Ukraine’s side.

At the start of the war, a section of the population was outraged by the fact that a hundred billion euros suddenly had to be spent on rearming the German army. Until then, the majority of the population had little or nothing positive to say about the Bundeswehr (the army), which was notorious for its waste, setbacks and scandals, such as times when an extreme right cell was discovered in its midst (which caused a stir in 2017, 2020 and late 2022). One year later, the Bundeswehr is seen as protection against the dictator Putin, who, after the Ukraine, is said to be threatening Germany too.

In fact, many people are worried about the delivery of increasingly lethal weapons and feel uneasy about the fact that all states are equipping themselves to the extreme, that the sounds of boots are multiplying in Eastern Europe and Asia, and that everything is heading toward major wars that nobody wants. But since, conversely, nobody feels they can stop this development, it rather reinforces the feeling that, if everything is heading toward war, “we” must also arm ourselves.

This war is in many respects very close to Germany (geographically, strategically, economically, and also humanly, given the number of inhabitants from the former Soviet Union, particularly from Russia and the Ukraine). The government and the bourgeoisie have taken advantage of this new situation to finally break with many of the prohibitions handed down since the end of the Second World War, making the increase in the army’s budget and the dispatch of arms to the Ukraine acceptable to a population that is mostly opposed to military intervention and arms sales.

The Economic Consequences of War

On the economic level, the German government initially made attempts to avoid having to participate in more serious sanctions against Russia. But the U.S. government left it no choice. The choice in front of German leaders was either to break with Russia economically or to let their economy be put under sanctions by the United States.

Under these conditions, the decision was not in doubt. But it meant that industry (and secondarily the population) would be cut off in a matter of months from the main energy supply, cheap gas from Russia. The government then frantically bought gas at high prices from various countries (Norway, USA, Qatar among others), to the point where the press spoke of “shopping sprees.” And it is now spending tens of billions more to subsidize gas and electricity prices for industry, so that it can continue to sell its goods abroad at competitive prices.

This is all the more important for German industrial groups because their exports were already declining worldwide due to inflation and the crisis. But how long will the German federal state be able to grant such massive subsidies, having already incurred more than 500 billion euros in new debt over the past three years?

The government also seems to have realized that, given the massive increase in tensions between the USA and China, it could be forced in the near future to participate in sanctions against China too, with even greater consequences than in the case of Russia.

Over the past few decades, the German economy has become more closely interwoven with the Chinese economy than any other in Europe. China has been Germany’s biggest trading partner for many years. Germany exports goods worth over 100 billion euros to China, and now imports goods worth around 200 billion euros from China. Even the slightest reduction in this trade would have adverse consequences for both the Chinese and German economies.

And yet, the international situation means that political leaders today are trying to prepare the population, through propaganda, for conflicts with China and the sacrifices that would entail. The Green Party was particularly active in this field. Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock engaged in verbal jousting with the Chinese government, aimed at the German population, under every possible pretext. The Federal Minister of Economics and Climate, Robert Habeck, also a Green, demagogically banned the sale of totally insignificant shares in German companies to Chinese firms. And he regularly calls on German companies to become more independent of China.

They may be less open about it, but all the other parties, from the AfD (extreme right) and CDU (right) to the SPD (social democrats) and Die Linke (the so-called radical left), as well as the trade unions, repeat that we must once again “produce in Europe” and become “less dependent”: on China ... and the USA. As if there could be any independence in an economy where all capital is intertwined, and which is necessarily dependent on raw materials, intermediate products and imports from all over the world!

Is “Economic Independence” the First Phase in Preparing for a War Economy?

For Germany, this type of propaganda is indeed new. Up until now, protectionist ideas have not been on the agenda, not even within the AfD, and not even in the trade unions. This is hardly surprising, given that the German economy relies heavily on exports. The massive deterioration in the economy that such protectionist measures would entail was all too obvious. But since the end of summer 2022, the need for economic independence has been repeated so often and from all sides that it has become like a leitmotif that almost nobody questions anymore.

All this noise in no way means that German capitalists will be investing less in China. On the contrary, German companies in 2022 invested more in China than ever before.

Government measures ostensibly designed to ensure greater economic autonomy are, in the final analysis, mainly massive new subsidies for multinationals, overlaid with bellicose propaganda. Pharmaceutical groups that produce active substances “not only in Asia,” but also in Europe, are privileged, for example, and can demand higher prices. The American semiconductor producer Intel is receiving 7 to 10 billion euros just to build a microprocessor factory in Magdeburg (Saxony-Anhalt), in preparation for a possible military conflict over Taiwan.

With their unanimous demand for economic independence, all the parties in the Bundestag (parliament) and the trade unions are ultimately helping to prepare the working population ideologically for future wars. And thus also to accept the idea of a future necessarily made up of sacrifice and even greater hardship.

Inflation Puts a Strain on Working-Class Budgets

For the moment, apart from this new prospect of large-scale wars, the major social aggravation of the year for the working class is the massive rise in prices. True, the government has temporarily capped energy prices. But it still costs up to double the pre-crisis price. This government cap undoubtedly meant that the middle classes and many skilled worker families no longer have to fear directly for their existence. But almost everyone is losing hundreds of euros a month through higher energy prices. And this means disaster for the poorest section of the working class.

Anger and bitterness on this subject are directed primarily against the so-called Red-Yellow-Green federal government (SPD, FDP, Greens) and, within this coalition, particularly against the Greens. The Greens, a former protest party which emerged from the student movement of 1968, first took part in the federal government some twenty years ago. The Bundeswehr’s involvement in the wars in Kosovo (1999) and Afghanistan (2001), the first since 1945, took place precisely when the Greens were in government, causing a major stir in this traditionally pacifist party. At the time, the abandonment of its pacifist stance deeply disappointed many members and supporters, forcing the party to leave the government coalition before the end of the legislature. Today, after twenty years in opposition, it took them just a few months in government to earn the hatred of a large section of the working classes.

There’s the particularly bellicose rhetoric of the Greens toward Russia and China, and above all the profound social contempt on the part of a party aiming to be the typical representative of the rather privileged petty bourgeoisie. For example, the Greens present the fact that many working people are having to cut back on their purchases and go without because of inflation as a necessary contribution to the preservation of democracy and “the fight against global warming.” As if all that weren’t enough, they decided to impose additional financial burdens on workers under the pretext of climate protection.

The Far Right Capitalizes on Anger over Inflation

The Greens thus provide an ideal breeding ground for the right. The CDU and AfD attack the government’s most insignificant and purely symbolic climate protection measures. They rail, for example, against the closure of the last three nuclear power plants, which would drive up prices and thus ruin the German economy. How convenient for the multinationals! Instead of attacking the winners of the crisis—the big energy, food and other corporations—the CDU and AfD are directing their anger at the government’s climate and energy policy. They present things as if capitalists and workers were both victims of rising prices, and therefore both victims of the allegedly destructive policies of the Left and the Greens. After losing some ground, not least because of its proximity to the Covid-skeptics, the AfD has seen its popularity ratings rise to 18% in recent months, on a par with the Greens and the SPD.

Industrial unions have also helped them in this. In recent months, for example, IG Metall and IG BCE (the industry unions for the metal and the mining and chemical industries, respectively) have campaigned for advantageous, state-subsidized electricity prices. Not for employees, but for industrial groups! On the grounds that high electricity prices would ruin the economy.

In so doing, they not only assert that production in Germany is too expensive for the big corporations, but also justify the employers’ forthcoming attacks on jobs and wages. Ultimately, they help the right wing, whose entire propaganda is based on the alleged common interests of entrepreneurs and workers against the government.

The AfD’s second most successful line is: “We should look after our own country first, rather than Ukraine.” It lumps together the budget spent on the export of arms with that spent on supporting more than one million Ukrainians who have fled to Germany.

In East Germany, too, more people want to reject the USA. The AfD exploits this feeling to advertise itself, not without success, with the slogan that we must unite with Russia against U.S. domination.

The Die Linke (Left Party) current around its traditional icon, Sahra Wagenknecht, and the small German Communist Party (DKP) also argue that the government’s anti-Russian policy is destroying the economy. That current U.S. policy is damaging the European economy is undoubtedly true. But in the way they criticize the U.S., behind the anti-imperialist vocabulary, they also support the propaganda that business and workers together are the victims of bad government economic policy.

This is not the first time that Wagenknecht has espoused the views of the extreme right. She is currently discussing the idea of founding her own party, in which Die Linke and AfD voters would come together. Such a party could further cloud people’s consciousness, as it would convey the idea that there need be no gulf between left-wing working-class politics, as Wagenknecht claims to represent it, and the nationalist ideas of far-right supporters, the worst enemies of the working class.

Workers’ Strikes This Spring

All this hasn’t stopped a number of workers from fighting back in recent months in the only effective way, and against the real culprits, by striking for higher wages.

Make no mistake: there have been no spontaneous movements for higher wages. The warning strikes that have taken place so far have been within the framework of collective bargaining. These are the strikes that union leaders called for—and ended, when they wished.

But some of the strikers came from sectors where it is unusual and above all difficult to strike: 2,000 temporary workers at Volkswagen, for example, went on strike for the very first time. Saleswomen from the Galeria Kaufhof chain stores (present in most city centers since the late 19th century), whose company is officially bankrupt, nevertheless went on strike to obtain a pay raise of 450 euros a month.

Generally speaking, there has been greater pressure from the union base, and particularly from low-wage workers. This has already resulted in some fairly offensive demands, ranging from at least 300 to 650 euros a month increase.

Grassroots pressure also manifested itself in much more massive, multi-day warning strikes. Or, in the case of Deutsche Bahn, in the form of full-day warning strikes. Apart from the train drivers and their professional union, this was the first time in more than forty years that all other railway categories had gone on strike.

And on March 27, unions from three different branches (municipal public services, Deutsche Bahn and airport air safety) went on strike together, with a very high turnout, bringing the entire transport system to a standstill for a day.

In Germany, such an industry-wide strike day is unheard of. This is because there are separate collective agreements for each branch, which rarely authorize strikes, and then only at different times for different branches. And trade union leaders, who derive most of their influence from these sectoral collective agreements, generally defend this system.

The results achieved so far in these collective negotiations are generally relatively high: bonuses of up to 3,000 euros and, for 2024, pay raises of between 200 and 400 euros a month.

Of course, this is still well below inflation (which was officially 8.7% in February—for food and energy, it was even 21%). And, much to the bitterness of some of the strikers, union leaders almost universally agreed to conclude agreements at the very moment when the strikers were ready to go on indefinite strike. For their part, the bosses made it clear that they were only paying this price because they got two years’ peace in return: legally, strikes in all these sectors are now forbidden for two years. But, at a time when the working class could be facing attacks on an altogether different scale, it is not written that it will always comply with this ban.

That said, the wage movements of recent months have exceeded anything seen in Germany in recent decades. The scale of the agreements reached also reflects this mobilization. And the famous mega-strike at the end of March gave some people the opportunity to think about the idea of a general strike for the first time (the last one took place in 1948). All in all, these movements have reinforced the awareness that, contrary to what each union leadership repeats, if you want to achieve something, it’s better to fight with as many people as possible.

Preparing for the Future

Communist militants can draw on these experiences and discuss the power that strikes can have when workers unite across sectors, in cross-industry strikes. Discuss also the fact that, in the medium term, the working class will not be able to afford to comply with the rules and strike bans imposed by the ruling classes and union leaderships if it is to defend its living conditions not only in the face of inflation, but also in the face of the general uncertainty of the current crisis, and because dangers of an entirely different dimension threaten it.

For six months now, the German economy has been on the brink of recession, and this time (at the end of May) it has officially entered it. Rising interest rates have not only meant that interest payments in the federal budget alone have risen from zero to thirty billion euros. With rising interest rates, the specter of a crisis in the construction and banking sectors is also looming on the horizon. Added to this is the downturn in global demand, particularly from the key markets for German industry—China and the USA—compounded by the latter’s protectionist measures.

All this could lead, in the foreseeable future, to attacks on an altogether different scale, for which the working class must be prepared if it is not to be merely a helpless victim. Not to mention the necessary struggle against the serious threat posed by global rearmament in the context of growing international competition. Militating in such a context means, even for a small number of people, working so that the workers who meet us can become aware of these dangers and realize that only the working class has the strength and the means to pull humanity out of this race to the abyss.