Although I have been very critical of Slavoj Zizek in the past, I can only say Bravo to his London Review of Books article “Save us from the saviours”, especially this:
Only a new ‘heresy’ – represented at this moment by Syriza – can save what is worth saving of the European legacy: democracy, trust in people, egalitarian solidarity etc. The Europe we will end up with if Syriza is outmanoeuvred is a ‘Europe with Asian values’ – which, of course, has nothing to do with Asia, but everything to do with the tendency of contemporary capitalism to suspend democracy.
This was a most welcome shift from the proselytizing for “communism” that has marked his contributions in the recent past. Backing SYRIZA is not necessarily the same thing as a communist revolution, but it certainly is a break with the IMF and Wall Street backed austerity that is literally costing the lives of hundreds if not thousands of Greeks:
Dimitris Christoulas, a divorced and retired pharmacist, took his life on Wednesday in Syntagma Square, a focal point for frequent public demonstrations and protests, as hundreds of commuters passed nearby at a metro station and as lawmakers in Parliament debated last-minute budget amendments before elections, expected on May 6.
In a handwritten note found near the scene, the pensioner said he could not face the prospect “of scavenging through garbage bins for food and becoming a burden to my child,” blaming the government’s austerity policies for his decision.
–NY Times, April 6 2012
While nobody—well, at least me and my readers—can argue against the need for abolishing capitalism in Greece, there is still a basis for voting for SYRIZA that rests on a number of points in its program, including these:
- Free health benefits to the unemployed, homeless and those with low salaries.
- Subvention up to 30% of mortgage payments for poor families who cannot meet payments.
- Increase of subsidies for the unemployed. Increase social protection for one-parent families, the aged, disabled, and families with no income.
- Fiscal reductions for goods of primary necessity.
- Nationalization of banks.
Some are not happy with Zizek’s support for SYRIZA. Despite my admiration for the contributors to Roar Magazine, an online publication that identifies strongly with the Occupy movement, editor Jerome Roos’s “Alexis Tsipras, Greece’s rising star, is a radical in name only”, leaves something to be desired:
In truth, a SYRIZA victory will do little to revolutionize Greek society and much less to free Greece from the neoliberal shackles of the eurozone. While Tspiras’ heart undoubtedly beats on the left side of his chest, SYRIZA’s policies will do more to stabilize than to overthrow the discredited and dysfunctional system he despises so much. Indeed, for all his eloquence and good intentions, Tsipras promises little more than radical social democracy. The only reason SYRIZA is considered far-Left is because the center has moved light years to the right.
Maybe there is something I am not getting, but calling for the nationalization of banks doesn’t sound like a promise to “stabilize the system”. And at the risk of lowering the bar to toe level, the prospects of having a party committed to “radical social democracy” sounds pretty good to me.
In many ways, Zizek’s understanding of the importance of SYRIZA resonates with the recent Hardt-Negri declaration that sometimes it is good to have progressive governments in power:
From the 1990s to the first decade of this century, governments in some of the largest countries in Latin America won elections and came to power on the backs of powerful social movements against neoliberalism and for the democratic self-management of the common. These elected, progressive governments have in many cases made great social advances, helping significant numbers of people to rise out of poverty, transforming entrenched racial hierarchies regarding indigenous and Afro-descendant populations, opening avenues for democratic participation, and breaking long-standing external relations of dependency, in both economic and political terms, in relation to global economic powers, the world market, and US imperialism.
Of course, despite their acknowledgement that countries like Venezuela are “helping significant numbers of people to rise out of poverty”, their main interest is in seeing the “struggle continue” against Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales et al. This argument actually has merit, as long as it is understood that the social movements have a vested interest in seeing a Hugo Chavez running the state rather than a Felipe Calderón as it was in the past for an Alexander Kerensky rather than a General Kornilov.
Hardt and Negri’s flight from lofty “communist” abstractions, like Zizek’s, has sparked criticism. John Holloway, the author of the nonsensical “How to Change the World Without Taking Power”, does not like his comrades’ new direction at all. He reproves Michael Hardt for allowing the “abolition of capitalism” to take a back seat in “Commonwealth”, their latest book. (One can assume that the ideas expressed in the declaration were introduced there.) But even more tellingly, Holloway worries that they have almost come up with a “programme of transitional demands”. In such circles, you can be assured that this amounts to apostasy.
Hardt recognizes exactly what it is troubling Holloway:
Our differences are probably most pronounced with regard to the so-called progressive governments in power today, especially those in Latin America. As you know, Toni and I, like you, are critical of all of these Leftist parties and governments, from Argentina and Brazil to Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. And like for you too our hopes and inspirations are linked primarily not to the governments but the powerful social movements that created the possibility of their electoral victories. But we do not regard these governments solely as antagonists.
It is not far-fetched to make the linkage between Latin America and Greece, as a May 13 NY Times article pointed out:
According to Gikas Hardouvelis, a senior economic adviser to Prime Minister Lucas Papademos and a participant in the talks over the most recent bailout, the I.M.F. supports a more relaxed view about the cuts in light of Greece’s economic hardship.
“For whatever reason, the hard-liners in Europe are saying that we deserve it,” Mr. Hardouvelis said. “They have destroyed the political center here, and the possibility of creating another Hugo Chavez is not zero.”
Notwithstanding the invocation of the Venezuelan leader as bogeyman, the more imminent likelihood is that SYRIZA’s leaders will embrace a form of Kirchnerism, to coin a term that describes Argentina’s recovery from a Greek-type abyss not too long ago. While the policies pursued by left-Peronists in Argentina seem all too easy to dismiss by the dreamers of the absolute, they would certainly be embraced by a working class in Greece that is being nailed to the IMF’s cross.
But more to the point, it is unlikely that Greece will be allowed to pursue such a neo-Keynesian program. Powerful imperialist institutions will do everything in their power to derail even a modest reformist agenda. If and when a struggle emerges between SYRIZA and the Wall Street/Washington/Bonn axis, the left will need to mobilize to defend the bolder measures such as nationalizing the banks while protecting the government against fascist attacks and CIA subversion. In an escalating series of confrontations, it cannot be ruled out that popular power will dictate the outcome and usher in a new type of society that hearkens back to the original Marxist vision of a classless society. But to stand on the sidelines now, because SYRIZA is not “revolutionary”, is a big mistake.
The British SWP has had the most remarkable reaction to SYRIZA. As an international organization, they have a member group in Greece that belongs to ANTARSYA, a coalition of small propaganda groups to the left of SYRIZA including Maoists and ortho-Trotskyists. In an interview with Socialist Review, the party’s monthly magazine, their co-thinker Giorgos Pittas laid out ANTASYRA’s perspective:
Syriza is rising further in the polls. So we start by saying we have to fight hard against the pro-austerity parties who are terrified and attacking the left. We say victory to the left, but we also say that we want the anti-capitalist left to be part of it, so we will take part in the elections and we call on people to vote for Antarsya.
Perhaps one of the best known SWP members internationally is Richard Seymour, who blogs at Lenin’s Tomb and has been on tour recently promoting his new book American Insurgents: A Short History of American Anti-Imperialism. He also takes a position at odds with Pittas, but put forward in a most comradely fashion. In the article titled “The Challenge of SYRIZA”, he argues:
Now, judging from online conversations and opinion pieces, a large section of the far left is waiting for the other shoe to drop. The narratives of betrayal are already being readied, the old verities being ‘proved’ repeatedly. There are many variations, but the core of it is that: 1) Syriza are straightforwardly reformists, notwithstanding the substantial revolutionary fringe – the tail does not wag the dog; 2) reformists are apt to compromise with the forces of capitalism, and as such a sell-out of the working class cannot be long following Syriza’s election. In its latest instantiation, this is expressed in the tutting, sighing, and fanning of armpits over Tsipras chatting up the G20. There it is: the betrayal is already afoot, the reformists already making deals with the bosses. Perhaps so, but thus far Syriza have not withdrawn from their fundamental commitments, which are: abrogate the Memorandum, and stop austerity measures. They did not do so when there was pressure to do so after the last election, and are not doing so now.
I would advise caution on this line of critique, therefore: it is very well to criticise what Syriza has actually said and done, but it isn’t necessary to second guess what Syriza will do. The point will be to support the mass movements capable of pressuring a Syriza-led government from the left. No, they are not a revolutionary formation; no, they won’t overthrow capitalism; no, their manifesto is not a communist manifesto. Yet it is just possible that Syriza won’t betray workers in the interests of European capital, and that all the stern augury will have been displacement activity.
In a fascinating exchange of views underneath the article, Richard makes clear that ANTASYRA might want to rethink its approach:
They [ANTASYRA] can do whatever they want, but what is this about ‘silencing’ themselves? The only way they can express a voice is by subjecting themselves to an electoral wipe-out? That’s their main area of strength here? I mean, seriously, what is the argument for standing? Is it to gain as big a voice as possible? If so, then it’s not going to happen – and if it did, it might have an impact on the outcome of the elections that Antarsya would not want to be responsible for. So, what else? To keep their presence on the ballot? Why? In *every* election, this is essential? To get over a message? Their best way of reaching people is through an electoral process in which they will get a fraction of one percent, and at that a fraction of the vote they previously got in the parliamentary elections, which was smaller than the previous high in the regional elections, and no seats anywhere? I see absolutely no argument for their *having* to stand. So, by all means, they will do whatever they think best – they certainly won’t listen to me. But perhaps we should reflect on what this means for us. If we end up rationalising a position that makes no sense, and internalising its presuppositions, there’s a risk we can make worse mistakes.
(It should be added that a lively exchange of views on the Egyptian elections is also taking place in these circles, a topic for another article.)
For those familiar with my critique of “democratic centralism”, it will come as no surprise that I view the discussion taking place on Richard’s blog as essential for the evolution of the British SWP and its international organization. When a deep-going debate such as this begins to take place on the left, it will naturally be reflected in the ranks of every organization. It benefits the left to air out our differences in public since they help to clarify our thinking—especially when the participants are well versed in Marxist politics. Keep in mind that Lenin and Bukharin had public debates during WWI on the national question. This was the Bolshevik norm and if it was good enough for them, it is good enough for us.
Finally, I want to suggest that SYRIZA has much more in common with traditional Marxist concepts of a “revolutionary program” than many on the left realize. (I will be elaborating on this at some length in a pending article.) Our tendency is to mistake doctrine with program. For example, not long after I joined the SWP of the United States in 1967, I asked an old-timer up in party headquarters what our program was. (A Maoist friend had challenged me about our bona fides.) He waved his hand in the direction of our bookstore and replied, “It’s all there.” This meant having positions on everything from WWII to Kronstadt. Becoming a “cadre” meant learning the positions embodied in over a hundred pamphlets and books and defending them in public. Of course, this had much more in common with church doctrine than what Karl Marx had in mind when his Communist program sought, for example:
- Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
- Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c, &c.
When you stop and think about it, this is sort of the thing you can find in SYRIZA’s program. Maybe it is time for the left to rethink the question of how we demarcate parties? Instead of demanding that new members learn the catechism on controversial questions going back to the 1920s, they instead would be required to defend a class orientation in their respective arenas, like the trade union movement or the student movement, etc. That would make us a lot stronger than we are today. We need millions united in struggle, especially since the death rattle coming out of capitalism’s throat grows louder day by day.