Greece, politics and Marxist strategyIssue: 138
Posted: 10 April 13
In International Socialism 136, Richard Seymour and Panos Garganas gave two different assessments of the political strategy the left should adopt in Greece.1 It is an important debate for revolutionaries in Greece and elsewhere. Panos puts forward an argument that the anti-capitalist left should intervene in the ongoing social and political struggle through Antarsya (the Front of the Anticapitalist Left), outside the political formation Syriza (the Coalition of the Radical Left). Richard, on the other hand, proposes a strategy of a “critical support” to Syriza, and “wholehearted” support for the slogan a “government of the left”. Furthermore, Richard criticises the conception of “left reformism” that Alex Callinicos has argued in his discussions of Syriza,2 saying that this term might “gloss over some important details”. I think the stress on concrete details is correct. The purpose of this note is to provide some of the details that need to be taken into consideration if international comrades are to make informed assessments on the Greek situation.
Some correction should be made to some information provided by Richard in particular. Richard refers to the “student rebellions in 2009” in error. There were student rebellions against education reforms in 2006 and 2007—and most famously the large youth rebellion of December 2008—but nothing of the kind in 2009. He also refers to Synaspismos (which is the party that constitutes the biggest component of Syriza) joining the Greek Social Forum in 2006, which is again incorrect. The Greek Social Forum was an umbrella organisation created by Synaspismos in 2004 to hegemonise the anti-capitalist movement, so clearly Synaspismos didn’t join something it had initiated. The Greek Social Forum participated in the organising of the European Social Forum in Athens in 2006, which many comrades from the UK and Europe will recall. But these are minor errors, and it is more important to consider the larger and more important ones.
In order to successfully argue for what he calls elsewhere the “atypical” reformism of Syriza,3 Richard points to the existence of revolutionary left organisations inside the formation. He implies that these organisations, working alongside the Synaspismos left, can significantly determine Syriza’s politics. Richard complains that Alex’s treatment of this question “does the subject injustice”. However, we need to be more concrete here. The existence of these organisations and a left current in Synaspismos are not enough for us to determine that they will impact on the party’s policy-making. For example, in the 1980s the British Labour Party included a strong left wing, as well as organised revolutionary groups, inside it—and yet the left was subordinate in policy making. In addition, the relation of forces between the left and the right was different at different points during the course of the decade. So where are we now?
The left of Syriza
The far left of Syriza participated in the 2012 elections after the most important political challenge it had ever mounted against the leadership of Synaspismos (and consequently Syriza) had suffered a major defeat. The challenge was the formation, back in 2010, of the Front of Solidarity and Rupture (MAA), led by the ex-president of Synaspismos, Alekos Alavanos, and supported by the two organisations that Richard refers to, the Maoist KOE (Communist Organisation of Greece) and the Trotskyist DEA (Workers Internationalist Left). MAA made some interesting interventions, highlighting the moderate trajectory of the Syriza leadership and its pro-European Union (EU) and pro-euro line. But mostly it looked for allies inside Synaspismos, especially the Left Current and its leader Panayiotis Lafazanis. Not unexpectedly, Lafazanis never left the party to join MAA in a new formation (although disappointingly for people who made the centre of their political strategy the assumption that Lafazanis would do so).
After it became evident that MAA had failed to create a mass base for a break with Syriza, the organisations that supported MAA decided to dump it and roll back to supporting Syriza, although from a much weaker and more conservative political position. KOE suffered a split during this sharp turn (half its leadership left the organisation, once famous for its old Communist jargon against the EU and the euro but now arguing that “the EU and the euro are not the main issue”). The current political line of KOE can hardly be characterised as being to the left of Synaspismos: its emphasis is on creating a “national” anti-memorandum front, in cooperation with even the right wing anti-memorandum parties (like the party of the Independent Greeks, led by a nationalist anti-Turkish ex-Tory MP, Panos Kammenos, the equivalent of Nigel Farage). Synaspismos (and Syriza) has thankfully until now rejected this proposal (it has said, though, that it might agree to a government with the “critical support” of this right wing party).
But what about the other organisation that Richard refers to: DEA? Well, the 2008 article by Antonis Davanellos that Richard cites (for some reason he gives two references for the same article) is quite telling.4 Davanellos ends the piece by saying:
The main topic of the discussion was the proposal made by Alekos Alavanos, the president of Synaspismos, for a “left wing government with a programme based on opposition to neoliberalism and capitalism”. DEA, along with many other groups, disagreed with such a proposal, proposing that Syriza position itself as an electoral opposition aiming to reverse neoliberal policy. The topic has not been decided and was left open to discussion for the future.
But why did DEA disagree with the proposal of then Syriza leader Alekos Alavanos back in 2008 while supporting it under current leader Alexis Tsipras in 2012? Certainly, the reason was not a turn to the left by the new leadership of Synaspismos: even its most partisan member will admit that Alavanos is to the left of Tsipras. In reality, the left of Syriza (and the organisations of the revolutionary left within it) was pulled by the Syriza leadership’s strategy, of calling for a “government of the left”.
In the months after the 2012 elections, this description of the relation of forces was vindicated by events, contrary to the abstract references to a “powerful” left wing. At the last Syriza conference the leadership of the formation pulled the whole party in a more moderate direction: the emphasis was now placed on a renegotiation of the loan treaties with the EU and IMF by a “national salvation” government that will not “unilaterally” make any radical decisions. The left in the conference presented a “Left Platform” (KOE, which Richard refers to, sided with the leadership) and polled 25 percent, less than the usual figure that the Left Current polls inside Synaspismos. It is now widely accepted that the left of the party has little influence on its political trajectory, while it would be accurate to say that in Syriza’s economic think-tank the left’s influence is nil.
The main task of the party is now to prove its “ability to govern”, a strategy that has been pursued through trips by Tsipras to Latin America to meet with Lula (Brazil) and Kirchner (Argentina), a meeting with German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble and most recently a trip to the US to court the IMF and liberal think-tanks (including the Brookings Institution). Tsipras startled even his most dedicated supporters, delivering a speech to praise Greece’s most important conservative politician Konstantinos Karamanlis (the uncle of the ex-PM Kostas Karamanlis) for his “moderation”, a “hegemonic” strategy that will supposedly draw votes to the left from the right. If the left inside Syriza is not capable of determining its trajectory now that the party is in opposition, it is not unsafe to predict what will be the case when the party will be in office, ie under the huge pressures of the state, bourgeois legality and the ruling class.
The euro: the key link
For left activists observing these developments, the immediate question is: Does this always need to happen? Is it historically determined that when a party of the left approaches power it will automatically water down its radicalism? The answer to this is thankfully not found in Robert Michels’ “iron law of oligarchy”, but is rather a political question of strategy. When I say strategy, I don’t simply mean the more eternal question the workers’ movement needs to address—reform or revolution—but the way that question is made concrete at a particular conjuncture. Here the issue of the euro is key.
There is an analogy between the question of the euro and the left’s approach to the First World War. The decision to break with the war effort—and, even more, to break with it unilaterally—became central to the realignment of the left. This does not mean that everyone who was in favour of peace was a Marxist. The same goes today: not everyone in favour of breaking with the euro is a revolutionary socialist. For example, Costas Lapavitsas’s proposed “Grexit” programme, which Richard refers to, is a radical anti-neoliberal programme for restoring Greek capitalism’s competitiveness outside the straitjacket of the euro through depreciation of a national currency. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that breaking with the euro is the necessary step for any anti-capitalist politics that wants to end austerity and start imposing a pro working class agenda.
The pro-euro line of the Syriza leadership has been a lever used by the ruling class to tame the radicalism of the movements in Greece and direct them onto a more moderate path. Contrary to what Richard asserts, the debate around the euro has not been an ideological diversion put forward by the revolutionary left in order to justify rejecting an electoral proposal from Syriza. Nor has Syriza’s pro-euro line been a mere tactical decision by its leadership, based on an estimate of the current level of consciousness of the working class.
Rather the defence of the euro has been a political and ideological blackmail deployed by the ruling class against a movement that was delegitimising the debt narrative being pushed by business and politicians. Hence it is a question that needs a bold answer. Syriza’s own pro-euro position is a result of its long held pro-EU strategy, ie the old Eurocommunist belief that the EU institutions are a somehow internationalist and progressive transcendence of the nation-state. Accepting the limitations that the euro places on dealing with the Greek economic crisis means parroting the arguments of the US Republican right for “slashing deficits” and “budget surpluses”—and this is what the leading Syriza economists are increasingly doing. The anticapitalist left in Antarsya, on the other hand, is putting forward a programme that will cancel the debt and the memoranda, nationalise the banks and take control of investments. All of these demands mean a break with the euro.
The central question is: Who will implement the anti-capitalist programme necessary to resolve the crisis? Richard praises the strategy of a “government of the left” as a “valuable step” since, as he repeatedly says, there are no soviets in place. One of the most striking developments in the argument has been a return to the Comintern’s discussions in its Fourth Congress in 1922, particularly by people on the left who usually suggest Leninist politics are obsolete. My dedication to the revolutionary lessons of the early Comintern remains staunch, but in considering the strategy put forward by Syriza it seems that a return to the experience of the 1970s rather than that of the 1920s is much more relevant. What we are dealing with is a rebadging of the old Eurocommunist position of the French Communist Party (PCF), for a “government of the left” (let’s note though that the PCF was much more rooted in the working class than Syriza is today). My view is that a “government of the left” can be part of a “pedagogical process” for the movement and can render gains to the working class—with one major precondition: that the vanguard of the workers’ movement is politically independent from the government, whose rise is the result of the activity of the movement itself.5 This is not a negation of politics; it is a different kind of politics to the “realism” of a governmental perspective. Moreover, this is not about revolutionary romanticism: the emphasis the revolutionary left places on workers’ struggles today builds the subjectivity that will be crucial for the implementation of any radical programme tomorrow. It is crucial not only for the fight against any reactionary backlash by the ruling class, but a subjectivity that will, in the end, be able to acquire power through its own organs.
Unfortunately, the debate around the “government of the left” within the revolutionary left has revealed a misconception of what politics actually is on the part of some. Stathis Kouvelakis, in a speech on Greece, exemplifies this line of argument:
What is really striking about the Greek situation is that 24 general strikes, occupations by hundreds of thousands of people of the main squares of the country for weeks in spring 2011, all that has been unable to obtain a single significant success. None of the memorandums—or not a single measure, actually, of those absolutely barbarian and draconian austerity packages—was retreated. It became thus absolutely clear that, for all those who wanted to stop and reverse these types of policies, what was needed was a political alternative.6
This is a distorted notion of the political, that does not flow from the movement’s activity, but is actually a substitute for dealing with the movement’s limitations. The same misconception can be found in views that misuse the Gramscian notion of the “integral state” and understand politics solely as a struggle inside and for the state. The state is a crucial condensation of the political, but they should not be equated.
The experience of fighting the rise of Golden Dawn is a good example of how the movement—and the revolutionary left inside it—does politics, even if it doesn’t embrace the agenda of entering a “left government”. The successful demonstration of 19 January this year, and the rise of the anti-fascist movement more generally, is a significant political move orchestrated by the Greek anti-capitalist left and with the Socialist Workers Party (SEK) playing a leading role inside it. These factors can have a decisive impact on the political landscape, much more than Syriza’s abstention while waiting for the next electoral battle. Smashing Golden Dawn is now a necessary step in the fight against the government of Samaras, and the stakes are even higher since a new wave of youth radicalisation is mobilising against the fascists and state repression. For those interested in the political unity of the left, we should remind ourselves of the need to forge social unity between the working class and radicalised youth. The abstention of Syriza from the anti-fascist front risks a strategic split, but one the forces of the anti-capitalist left are thankfully fighting to avoid.
In defence of the revolutionary left
This brings me to a final point. The capitalist crisis has a profound effect in destabilising social and political alliances of the past. The tempo of the crisis is not the same everywhere; nevertheless this is a worldwide process. For older generations of activists, essentially for the working class, this has meant breaking with right wing social democracy and has been expressed by a rise of left reformist formations. In most cases these formations have been led by “old men of the left” relaunching themselves as tribunes of the people: this is what happened with Die Linke and Oskar Lafontaine, Rifondazione and Fausto Bertinotti, Respect and George Galloway, the Front de Gauche and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and Syriza and Alexis Tsipras (while he is the youngest leader he has the oldest party behind him)—and we can expand this list with emerging “people’s” politicians rising on the back of the Arab Spring. For newer generations of activists, essentially the youth, this is expressed in an attraction to street politics, student movement eruptions, autonomist ideas, new radical anti-oppression movements and so on.7 The revolutionary left has precious ideological capital to offer within these evolving processes, but it has a difficult and patient task in order to deliver on that potential.
The revolutionary left needs to embrace the radicalising youth and shape its politics beyond an apolitical movementism, which is still the dominant politics in youth circles. In order to do that, we need to have a theory and a practice far more radical than that of the conventional parties of the reformist left—even of its most left wing versions. At the same time, revolutionaries will need to bring these new radical layers into contact with the disaffected working class in order to break its old allegiances and offer a real option to the left. This will definitely mean persistently relating to the left reformist formations (whatever form this might take), but it must be done without tailing their strategy. Our experience in Greece is that in engaging in these struggles the revolutionary left needs to maintain ideological and organisational independence. This is not a fetishisation of these questions, but the hard-learned lessons from witnessing and participating in struggle over the last few turbulent years.
The destabilisation of the old politics will mean that new political formations arise. But it will also mean that old strategies and ideological currents will reappear and be put to the test. Apart from the Second International and Third International in the 1920s, there was also the “Two and a Half International”—a current that sought to manoeuvre “between reformist minimum programmes and revolutionary maximalism”, to use Richard’s words . The debate regarding the strategy of the Greek left suggests that a similar current will be present internationally in the months and years ahead. For those who unashamedly situate ourselves in the revolutionary Marxist tradition, the building of revolutionary left organisations, such as SEK in Greece or the SWP in Britain, is the key strategic task if we want a world without the catastrophes of capitalism.
2: Callinicos, 2012a and 2012b.
3: Seymour, 2012b.
4: Davanellos, 2008 and 2012.
5: For an elaboration of this line of thought, see Harman and Potter, 1977.
6: Kouvelakis, 2012.
7: Panos Garganas had spotted this “richer mix” back in his debate with Alex Callinicos and Francois Sabado in this journal-Garganas, 2009.
Callinicos, Alex, 2012a, “The Politics of Europe’s Rising Left”, Socialist Worker (19 May), www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=28461
Callinicos, Alex, 2012b, “The Second Coming of the Radical Left”, International Socialism 135 (summer), www.isj.org.uk/?id=819
Davanellos, Antonis, 2008, “Greek Workers Move Left”, International Socialist Review, 59 (May-June), www.isreview.org/issues/59/rep-greece.shtml
Davanellos, Antonis, 2012, “Where Did Syriza Come From?”, Socialist Worker (US) (17 May), http://socialistworker.org/2012/05/17/where-did-Syriza-come-from
Garganas, Panos, 2009, “The Radical Left: A Richer Mix”, International Socialism 121 (winter), www.isj.org.uk/?id=513
Garganas, Panos, 2012, “Greece After the Election”, International Socialism 136 (autumn), www.isj.org.uk/?id=855
Harman, Chris and Tim Potter, 1977, “The Workers’ Government”, SWP International Discussion Bulletin, number 4, www.isj.org.uk/?id=295
Kouvelakis, Stathis, 2012, “Greece: Stathis Kouvelakis on tasks facing Syriza following its electoral breakthrough”, Links-International Journal of Socialist Renewal, speech delivered on 07/12/2012, http://links.org.au/node/3145
Seymour, Richard, 2012a, “A Comment on Greece and Syriza”, International Socialism 136 (autumn), www.isj.org.uk/?id=854
Seymour, Richard, 2012b, “The Challenge of Syriza”, www.leninology.com/2012/06/challenge-of-Syriza.html