Paris 1871: Marx advised caution

Avoid the temptation of power

Eddie Ford looks at the situation in Greece in light of the classic Marxist position - it is often necessary to hold back the spontaneous movement

With the January 25 Greek general election only days away, the polls indicate that Syriza is still ahead by between 3% and 7% over its nearest rival, New Democracy, led by Antonis Samaras and currently in coalition with Pasok. Of course, given the peculiarities of the so-called ‘reinforced proportionality’ electoral system, no matter how slender the size of your victory - even if only by 0.1% or a few hundred votes nationally - you still get the 50-seat top-up or ‘premium’. A clear anti-democratic travesty, as Syriza is projected to get between 33% and 35% of the total vote, making it a minority party in terms of a genuinely popular democratic mandate.

Therefore it seems almost certain that the party led by Alexis Tsipras will win on January 25 and it appears even more certain that he will then have to start negotiating with various parties to his right - seeing how the ‘official communist’ KKE, on about 5% in the polls, has stated it will not do any deals with Syriza (or anybody else). Having said that, it is not entirely clear who there will be to haggle with. Certainly Pasok faces a potential wipe-out. Since the 1970s it has been a dominant force in Greek politics. Opinion polls now show it will be lucky to get over the 3% threshold required to enter parliament.

Pasok’s situation has been made even more perilous by the sudden and unexpected formation of the Movement of Democratic Socialists (Kinima) by George Papandreou, the former Pasok leader and prime minister - as indeed were his father and grandfather before him, making it seem at times like an inherited position. Kinima will obviously take far more votes from Pasok than Syriza and presently stands at nearly 3% of the vote. Meanwhile, the Democratic Left faces annihilation and has next to no chance of passing the threshold.

That only leaves as potential partners the extremely centre-centre Potami (The River)1, currently averaging at about 7% in the polls, or the Independent Greeks - a rightwing split from ND. Yet it is hard to imagine Tsipras doing a deal with a xenophobic organisation that is virulently anti-migrant, wants the development of a “Christian Orthodox-oriented” education system and calls for the setting up of a committee “standing above” party politics that is endowed with “emergency powers” to resolve the economic crisis.

Syriza has received, however, an endorsement from an unlikely source - the Front National in France. Explaining the FN’s decision to Le Monde, Marine Le Pen said backing Tsipras’s party does not make her a “far-left activist”, as the FN does not agree with Syriza’s “entire programme”, especially their policies on immigration.2 But in countries like Spain and Greece, where there is no “equivalent” of the FN, she remarked, “it is the far left that gets our support”.


Regardless of the exact post-January 25 political configuration, Syriza will be the main party to emerge from the elections - it wants to ‘take the power’, as laid out in its programme or manifesto. No longer calling for the repudiation of the debt, Tsipras wants to convene an international conference modelled on the 1953 summit in which West Germany’s debts were cut by half. In this way he hopes to renegotiate the terms of Greece’s debt, which stands at a relatively staggering €252 billion - product of the largest financial bailout in modern history.

However, the bailout was a classic case of the medicine that kills the patient. Most of the money handed out by the hated European Commission-European Central Bank-International Monetary Fund troika just poured straight out of the country in various debt/interest repayments to its creditors, many of them banks and hedge funds in the core euro zone countries - including, of course, Germany and France. Greece has just swapped one paymaster for another: the troika instead of the banks and the hedge funds. The country’s overall debt burden has actually increased in the almost five years since it was first ‘rescued’, now standing at €320 billion and taking the level of indebtedness from 113% to 175% of the overall economy. Gross domestic product has been slashed by over a third, yet the troika demands more austerity - more pain and suffering.

Syriza has promised to repeal the labour market ‘reforms’; raise the minimum wage; create 300,000 new jobs; restore electricity to families who have had the supply cut off after being unable to pay their bills; provide food stamps to children; give healthcare to the uninsured; provide a roof for the homeless; and introduce a moratorium on private debt repayments to banks above 30% of disposable income. The party also seeks to abolish the economic privileges enjoyed by the Greek Orthodox church and shipping industry, reduce military spending, raise taxes on big companies and set a 75% tax on incomes over €500,000.

But Christine Lagarde, the head of the IMF, is less than impressed by Syriza’s platform. On January 19 she warned in The Irish Times that “defaulting”, “restructuring” or “changing the terms” of the conditions attached to the bailout would have “consequences” for Greece’s international credibility. “A debt is a debt and it is a contract,” she declared. Similarly, Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s finance minister, has insisted that “there is no alternative” to the current programme. As for Evangelos Venizelos, the deputy prime minister and current Pasok leader, he has compared Tsipras to Harry Potter - conjuring up promises in a “magical way” that he will never be able to keep.3 Then again, Venizelos has said that the debt is “technically” sustainable - suggesting that his own grasp on reality is less than solid.

However, the more intelligent sections of the bourgeoisie argue that a ‘radical’ Syriza government led by Alexis Tsipras need not necessarily be a disaster - in fact, it might even be a good thing. Thus Tony Barber in the Financial Times presents the coming general election as a “duel between reason and unreason” within Syriza and by extension the left as a whole in Greece (January 20). If Syriza wins the election, but gains fewer than 150 seats, he writes, that would enable Tsipras to keep the “radicals at arm’s length and toe a moderate line” - Barber reminds us that Syriza is “not a harmonious party that sings from one song sheet, but a dissonant collection of dogmatic Marxists, diehard Che Guevara fans, defectors from Greece’s Pasok socialist party and such like” (January 20). Without an overall majority, continues Barber, Tsipras would have to rely on one of several ‘moderate’ centre-left parties (ie, Potami) to join him in a coalition or to provide parliamentary support for a minority government.

Under such circumstances, Barber calculates, Tsipras “would not be free to implement certain core policies on which he had just won the election” and hence, in a more “reasoning” frame of mind, he would “quickly” reopen talks with Greece’s creditors - securing a precautionary credit line and ECB help, including the purchase of Greek government bonds in return for an “unbreakable commitment” to the “fiscal discipline” and “structural economic reform” pursued by Greek governments since 2010. In conclusion, Barber takes comfort from the latest opinion polls that give Syriza a “healthy” lead over ND - just enough to win power, but not enough to be certain of an outright majority. The almost ideal result.

Unsurprisingly, Potami has already laid out its pitch. The three conditions it places on joining a coalition with Syriza are: firstly that it is allocated control of whole ministries (ie, is not reduced to some junior ministerial position); secondly, that no-one from the left of Syriza is allowed to have any ministerial position at all; and lastly that the incoming government declares it will never leave the euro.

Permanent revolution

Quite naturally, a lot of the left are getting excited. Hence the January 17 edition of Morning Star contains an article by comrade Kevin Ovenden strangely entitled: “Athens stands on the verge of its liberation” (why just Athens?). Thankfully, the actual article is not as stupid as the headline. We discover that the comrade, who split from the Socialist Workers Party and went native inside George Galloway’s Respect mini-party, is being funded to cover the Greek general election by Philosophy Football - an outfit set up by the Eurocommunist, Mark Perryman.4

Anyway, comrade Ovenden informs us that Greece is about to elect a “government of the left” - noting that the labour and social movements in that country offer an “internationalist rejection of all the elites” that have previously governed the country. True, the comrade poses a few tricky rhetorical questions - “Will Syriza buckle under pressure or open a new chapter of hope?” “Can life for the mass of people become tolerable under the intolerable structures of the euro and EU?” And so on. But in the “spirit of radical, plebeian democracy”, the comrade urges that the British and international left “throws itself into those debates” - the European working class should set “all eyes to Athens”, demanding: “Don’t let them fight alone”.

Similar sentiments are expressed by comrade Sandy McBurney in a letter to the Weekly Worker (‘Austerity’, January 15). He scoffs at the CPGB view that Syriza should not take power or enter into coalition, a stance that is “hard to credit”. Indeed, it is “unbelievably defeatist stuff” from an organisation that claims to be Marxist - he finds it “hard to fathom” how you can “successfully” build solidarity with the Greek working class, whilst “stating that their struggle is doomed to defeat if they try to take power”. On the contrary, believes the comrade, if the Greek workers - or Syriza - do not try to take power, then they really are doomed.

Though he might not like us saying this, comrade McBurney’s argument is distinctly reminiscent of the rightwing Labourites - winning elections is everything: bugger principle or programme. Say or do anything to get elected. Unless we form a government or control a council, take power in some way, then what can we do? We leave ourselves powerless. Shouting from the sidelines.

But comrade McBurney’s stance is in flat contradiction to the classical, orthodox, Marxist viewpoint. Adapting a phrase already in use, what Marx termed ‘permanent revolution’ is a drawn-out process, where the proletarian partywill refuse to take power, while fighting to push the revolution forward: constituting itself as a party of extreme opposition. Marx consistently said working class parties should not be prematurely tempted by power in an individual state, even when circumstances clearly make that a viable possibility. Instead, build up your strength, develop your international contacts, deepen your roots in society, etc. That has always been the programme of Marxism.

Or, to put it another way, the classical Marxist approach has historically been more about holding back the spontaneous working class movement. There are reams of letters from Marx and Engels approving and promoting this position. The Second International was opposed to coalitions with bourgeois and petty bourgeois parties as a matter of principle.

That is precisely why for some people the Bolsheviks raised programmatic eyebrows, because they actually advocated ‘taking the power’. But they did so on the basis of their minimum programme in alliance with the revolutionary peasantry. This was not the standard Marxist approach at the time, which essentially was to wait for working class numbers to grow (ie, the Mensheviks). But, as Lenin and just about everybody else knew, Russia was obviously ripe for revolution - ie, the overthrow of the tsarist regime. Even more to the point, Karl Kautsky had been writing for some years that the coming Russian Revolution would act as a trigger to inspire the socialist revolution in Europe - a key factor.

Then take a look at Marx’s view in 1871 of the Paris Commune, which was quite simple - do not take power. Trying to take power in Paris alone was a hopeless position: you would inevitably be crushed by the forces of counterrevolution. Even taking power in the country as a whole would have been a hopelessly reckless move. But, of course, once the working class did take power in Paris, then the entire movement was obliged to defend the Communards - anything else would have been treachery deserving contempt, if not a bullet. Yet the straightforward reality was that, as a result of ‘taking the power’ in Paris, the First International collapsed. Tens of thousands of the most dedicated and self-sacrificing working class revolutionaries and radicals were killed or sent into exile - setting the working class movement back at least a generation, just as Marx had warned.

Furthermore, see how the Bolsheviks behaved during 1917 in Petrograd and Moscow - they had a majority in the soviets and everyone knew the working class could take power whenever it wanted. But what did the Bolsheviks say? Hold back, wait for the peasantry to catch up - encourage it to move, to become revolutionary. Do not take power prematurely, that would invite disaster. And, when the Bolsheviks - and their allies - did finally take power, it was, as Lenin repeatedly emphasised, a gamble on the outbreak of European revolution in particular in Germany, where there was a strong and militant anti-war movement led by the Independent Social Democratic Party - a party that united Bernstein, Kautsky, Zetkin, Liebknecht and Luxemburg. Economically advanced Germany would come to the rescue of economically backward Russia.

Can anyone seriously tell us today that Italy, let alone France or Germany - or Britain - is going to come to the rescue of Greece? Demonstrations, yes, but taking power? A complete fantasy. In other words, the CPGB is right to stand full-square on the classic Marxist tradition. But, of course, if Syriza forms a government we, along with others on the left, will defend it against the IMF, ECB, Nato, etc.

Finally, it is a complete fallacy to say that you cannot do anything if you do not take power. For example, the left in Greece could campaign against the 50-seat top-up - making the point that our class needs to win majority support for its programme, as part of an internationalist movement for superseding capitalism. The left should also fight to disband the standing army, withdraw from Nato, defend and extend democratic rights, organise the unemployed, build more effective trade unions, etc. Most importantly, the left in Greece needs to be a leading force for principled unity of the working class across Europe.



1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_River_%28Greece%29.

2. www.france24.com/en/20150120-france-far-right-syriza-greece-poll.

3. The Daily Telegraph January 19.

4. See www.philosophyfootball.com.