Learn the lessons
Rather than attempting to run capitalism, argues Peter Manson, in current circumstances we must aim to build Marxist parties of extreme opposition
Hopefully the - totally expected - defeat of Syriza in the July 7 Greek general election will cause sections of the left to engage in some serious strategic rethinking.
Back in January 2015, what was hailed by some as a new type of party, upon which we should base our own organisational forms, won 36.3% of the vote, making it the largest parliamentary group - and therefore entitled, under a highly undemocratic provision in Greece’s constitution, to an extra 50 seats. However, even this left it just short of an overall majority, with 149 out of 300 seats, so it could still only form a coalition government. Incredibly, it chose as its partner the right-populist Independent Greeks (ANEL), whose Panagiotis Kammenos was immediately appointed minister of defence!
This should have helped wake up various leftwing groups in Britain - most notably Left Unity - to reality. At that stage - a few months before the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader - LU remained influential, particularly amongst disillusioned ex-members of various left sects. It referred to Syriza as a “sister party” and hoped that it could eventually do in Britain what it claimed Syriza was about to do in Greece: ie, form a ‘socialist government’ so as to do away with austerity.
Then there was Owen Jones - at that time still regarded as a leftwinger - who in the months before Syriza’s victory predicted that it would be able to “kill off” austerity - not just in Greece, but in “alliance” with forces such as the “surging” Podemos in Spain and others throughout the European Union. They would succeed, according to Jones, by demanding that the EU abandon its austerity policies in favour of “quantitative easing” and a “growth-led recovery”. He hoped that as a result we could even see “Britain’s own Syriza-style party” in the near future.1
In reality, Syriza was not that different from what had existed previously. In fact an influential part of its leadership had once been part of Greece’s ‘official communist’ party, the KKE - Alexis Tsipras had been a former leader of the Greek equivalent of the Young Communist League. Tsipras, of course, was appointed prime minister after the 2015 election, heading a party that restricted its aims to old-style reformism - only, as it turned out, without reforms.
Syriza had no programme to fundamentally change the balance of class forces even within Greece, let alone across the continent. It did not consider measures to abolish the standing army (its appointment of Kammenos to the defence ministry said it all!) and create, instead, a popular militia. And what about the power of the Greek Orthodox Church, the country’s largest landowner? It had previously given its support to the 1967-74 fascistic military junta, but Syriza had no policies to combat its reactionary institutional influence.
Before its election we warned that for Syriza to take office in 2015 could only but lead - irrespective of its programmatic failings - to defeat and disillusionment. First of all, it enjoyed nowhere near majority support even within the Greek working class, let alone the population as a whole; and, secondly, how could a country like Greece mount a serious challenge to the forces of international capital - particularly the EU - without the expectation of a huge wave of solidarity action from an emboldened and prepared international proletariat?
It would be difficult enough for, say, France or Britain, with their highly developed industrial manufacturing base, but Greece, whose main industry is tourism, is completely dependent on more advanced states - not to mention international capital as a whole.
Of course, as we stated in the Weekly Worker, if Syriza formed a government we would, of course, do all we could to defend it from the expected attacks and fight for “solidarity with the working class and people in Greece, who have had their living conditions savaged”.2
However, as Eddie Ford noted in the same article,
The unfolding situation in Greece further reinforces the orthodox, classical Marxist view that the working class should not seek to come to power prematurely - and by that we mean not just in one country. Rather, we mean that the working class must have a reasonable chance of coming to power on something like a continent-wide basis and thus a realistic chance of implementing the minimum programme - that is our bottom-line perspective.
We were clear that revolutionaries everywhere - not least in countries like Greece - needed to organise and win over the vast majority of the working class and attempt to constitute themselves as a party of extreme opposition. There was, unfortunately, no immediate prospect of the working class in other countries - and certainly not throughout the EU - coming to the rescue of Greece by overthrowing their national bourgeoisie. We therefore urged Syriza not to “take the power”.
In reality, of course, Syriza had no intention of attempting to introduce ‘socialism’ in a single country. No, its programme was based entirely on ending austerity and ushering in a Keynesian programme to spark economic growth and in this way improve workers’ living standards. But there was the small matter of the EU standing in Greece’s way. The previous rightwing New Democracy government had run up huge debts and the Troika’s price for bailing out the banks and continuing to make loans was a continuation of the combination of vicious cuts and tax rises, targeting mainly the working class.
What chance did Syriza have of persuading the Troika even to ease off? Imagine what sort of message that would have sent to the working class of other euro-zone countries - rebel and you will be rewarded? For this very reason, to avoid any such nightmare scenario for the EU, there was absolute insistence, particularly in Germany, that no trace of softness should be shown towards Greece - no concessions, no exceptionalism.
It was obvious that this was the reality - Tsipras and co should have known this without needing the likes of the Weekly Worker to continually point it out. Therefore, a Syriza government would have just two options: either comply with the demands of the Troika or go for ‘Grexit’ - in other words, a return to the drachma and isolation outside the EU. Well, Tsipras et al were not quite so stupid as to lead Greece into such a dead end. How would it survive as a ‘rogue state’ in the absence of mass working class solidarity?
So inevitably, and in very short order, Syriza completely capitulated - and as a result its ‘reward’ was a toughening of the Troika’s conditions and an intensification of austerity. As we stated, “What we now have is austerity in the colours of Syriza - which was inevitable, once Tsipras et al agreed to form a government.”3 This provoked a split within its own ranks, but most of the dissidents did not really comprehend the reality, simply insisting that a Syriza government should have stuck to its anti-austerity programme, whatever the cost.
We strongly disagreed: in such circumstances no working class party should aim to take office. Syriza should have let New Democracy take sole responsibility for the misery it had created and aimed to develop huge and effective resistance, nationally and internationally. As we wrote at the time,
It should have concentrated instead on building up its own forces and digging deeper roots in society, to the point where it became genuinely hegemonic within Greece. Most importantly of all, it should have aimed to develop and deepen its European connections and contacts, with the eventual aim of taking power on a continent-wide basis alongside other working class parties.
Instead, like others before it, Syriza fell for the trap of government - leaving itself in a lose-lose situation, with extraordinarily limited room for manoeuvre.4
And now we can see the verdict of Syriza’s supporters. While its share of the vote last weekend fell by less than 5% to 31.5%, the fact that it was now the second-placed party - behind New Democracy on 39.9% - obviously meant that it lost the 50-seat top-up. This had a devastating effect on its parliamentary representation: down from 149 to just 86.
It is now more important than ever for the left to grasp what is needed: the building of a powerful, fighting working class movement in every country, led by united, principled Marxist parties, cooperating across borders. Unfortunately there is no short cut to working class power.
As Jack Conrad wrote in the aftermath of Syriza’s demise, “Instead of believing that the big times are just around the corner, we need a healthy dose of revolutionary patience”5 l
The Guardian December 22 2014.↩︎
‘What if Syriza wins?’ Weekly Worker January 5 2015.↩︎
‘Austerity in the colours of Syriza’, February 26 2015.↩︎
‘Some hard thinking is needed’ Weekly Worker May 21 2015.↩︎