Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 9, 2012

Debating SYRIZA

Filed under: Greece — louisproyect @ 10:15 pm

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.

20 Comments »

  1. Feel free to plug the upcoming roundtable with yourself, Chris Maisano, anarchists, and an autonomist (hopefully) at The North Star. :)

    Comment by Pham Binh — June 9, 2012 @ 11:45 pm

  2. I find Proyect’s case attractive, if not yet altogether convincing. But United-Statesian radicals on the whole do not have the opportunity to affect outcomes in Greece much more than they did–or do now–in Libya or Syria. So it really doesn’t matter much what they think about Syriza–and perhaps not even what they write–unless some new direction emerges for the sandbagged post-Occupy Left here.

    What is actually possible in the United States now, given the certainty that the next election will force this country at least as far to the right as–or even farther than–the elections that have gone before it?

    The greatest gift the United States of American left could give the world is any sort of decisively leftward turn in our own politics. Are we in for another twenty to forty years of sniffing the breeze for sparks from abroad as we did when all eyes were on China, Cuba, and North Vietnam? Or alternatively, are we to have another rights movement enchained by the fraudulent “spirituality” of the liberal pacifist left, followed by the inevitable cooptation in the name of “morality”?

    Let us grant for the sake of argument that Wisconsin is not only a dead horse but a horse’s head in the beds of the unions, their members, and the entire movement that formed to defend them. Should we take the Helter-Skelter approach and welcome the demise of the official “left” on the grounds that The Dialectic, like the Invisible Hand that it so greatly resembles at times, must inevitably produce something better?

    What are the alternatives, apart from scholarly debates on obscure ex-Trotskyite blogs?

    NB: I think Louis P. should by all means continue to think and write about Syriza. This is a good thing, not a bad thing (as Chairman Mao might say). But the questions remain, not as an alternative to that effort but as its backdrop.

    Comment by Joe Vaughan — June 10, 2012 @ 4:25 pm

  3. [...] for now is a background commentary from Louis’ blog Unrepentant Marxist. While there is much to engage (and dispute) in Louis’ commentary, it is worth noting that [...]

    Pingback by Louis Proyect: Debating Greece’s SYRIZA « Kasama — June 10, 2012 @ 4:51 pm

  4. I agree with a lot of this piece. But that line from Zizek is incredibly problematic. Defending Europe from “Asian values?!” I can’t figure out if this is offhand racism, pseudo-Hegelian racism, or an allusion to racism, but any way you cut it, that line should be criticized.

    Comment by Baines-Cannon — June 10, 2012 @ 6:02 pm

  5. Louis, you seem to be incapable of criticizing opposing positions without also misrepresenting them, even immediately after correctly quoting them. You quote one Jerome Roos as saying,

    SYRIZA’s policies will do more to stabilize than to overthrow the discredited and dysfunctional system [Tsipras] despises so much. Indeed, for all his eloquence and good intentions, Tsipras promises little more than radical social democracy.

    You respond to that with:

    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”.

    But Roos didn’t accuse Tsipras of promising to stabilize the system. Rather, Roos was saying that the program Tsipras is promising, which Roos characterizes as little more than radical social democracy, would in effect “do more to stabilize than to overthrow the [...] system”.
    There is, in my universe, a difference between charging someone with planning to do something in order to achieve a bad end and charging them with planning to do something that will, despite their intentions, have a bad end. Roos is clearly doing the latter, and certainly not doing the former, in regard to Tsipras and SYRIZA.
    Although my point here is not to evaluate, with very little essential information, the merits of the left criticisms of SYRIZA, I’ll stick my neck out by saying that “calling for the nationalization of banks”, or even carrying out such nationalization, may in fact, in circumstances where the banks have a lot more liabilities than assets, help to “stabilize the system”. The devil is in the details.

    Comment by Red Snapper — June 11, 2012 @ 12:28 am

  6. Comrade Snapper, why am I not surprised that you find the call for nationalizing Greek banks a system-stabilizng measure.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 11, 2012 @ 12:37 am

  7. Zizek’s assertion that the European legacy is primarily responsible for “democracy, trust in people, egalitarian solidarity etc. ” is as bizarre as the “etc.” is vague.

    Comment by purple — June 11, 2012 @ 5:42 am

  8. SYRIZA is drawing working class support in greater and greater numbers. In this respect, it is one of the few, and possibly only, successful left efforts in this regard in Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Instead of maligning SYRIZA as being reformist, it might be worthwhile to understand why this is happening, and seek to build upon it.

    Comment by Richard Estes — June 11, 2012 @ 5:59 am

  9. Comrade “Unrepentant Marxist”, why am I not surprised that (1) you ignored my main point entirely and (2) again did what I charged you with doing in the point that you ignored.

    Fortunately, I don’t think many of the readers of this page will take your assertion, in @6, that I “find the call for nationalizing Greek banks a system-stabilizng [sic!] measure” to be an accurate interpretation of my remarks at the end of @5. To put it another way, most thinking people realize the difference between (1) asserting that B is a possible consequence of A in some situations and (2) asserting that A will lead to B in the specific situation under discussion.

    While simple formal logic and attention to the meaning of words, phrases and sentences aren’t all there is to political reasoning, they are, or should be, a constituent part thereof.

    Comment by Red Snapper — June 11, 2012 @ 6:33 am

  10. Snapper, Proyect did not misrepresent Roos, he said Roos’ argument “leaves something to be desired.” There is some misrepresentation going on in this thread but not by Proyect.

    Comment by Binh — June 11, 2012 @ 1:36 pm

  11. Binh, I didn’t contest Proyect’s assertion that Roos’ argument “leaves something to be desired.” In fact, Proyect’s writings contain many sentences that I did not and would not contest, and even those I do disagree with are not necessarily misrepresentations. Rather, I pointed out exactly where and how Proyect misrepresented Roos. I also pointed out (in @9) how he misrepresented me. Neither you nor he has refuted my assertions, and you certainly have not shown any misrepresentation by me.

    Comment by Red Snapper — June 11, 2012 @ 3:52 pm

  12. Syriza’s biggest problem is that they are reformists who are trying to save Greek capitalism and to prop up the German imperialist-dominated European Community.

    Greece needs a revolution – what they are getting from Syriza is left wing counterrevolution.

    Comment by Gregory A. Butler (@GREGORYABUTLER) — June 11, 2012 @ 6:59 pm

  13. Richard Estes @8: “SYRIZA is drawing working class support in greater and greater numbers. [...] Instead of maligning SYRIZA as being reformist, it might be worthwhile to understand why this is happening, and seek to build upon it.”

    Most of those on the ostensibly anti-capitalist left who support SYRIZA accept the characterization that it is reformist, or at best ‘left-reformist’. Are these supporters ‘maligning’ SYRIZA? And of course “it might be worthwhile to understand why” “SYRIZA is drawing working class support in greater and greater numbers.” But can Richard explains what he means when he says that we, or whomever he is addressing his comment to, should “seek to build upon it”? Is the ‘it’ one should build upon the (so far) increasing working-class support for SYRIZA or, rather, one’s understanding of why this is happening?

    BTW, I don’t have enough knowledge of contemporary Greece to have any firm opinions on what revolutionaries should do, but I hope to contribute to the discussion by asking meaningful questions and pointing out muddled thinking when I observe it.

    Comment by Red Snapper — June 12, 2012 @ 6:33 am

  14. Red, you objected to something Proyect never argued when you wrote: “But Roos didn’t accuse Tsipras of promising to stabilize the system.”

    Comment by Binh — June 12, 2012 @ 12:29 pm

  15. I was going to argue the point again, but why bother? The interested reader can look at the following comments, above:

    #5 Red Snapper
    #6 louisproyect
    #9 Red Snapper
    #10 Binh
    #11 Red Snapper

    Interestingly, Louis himself, in responding to what I wrote in @5, which was mainly about misrepresentation, didn’t respond to that point at all, but only to a misinterpreted version of a side point I had made. You are, so far, the only person who has disputed what I said about Proyect misrepresenting Roos’ position.

    I don’t think, BTW, that Proyect is deliberately misrepresenting what people say. Rather, I think he is so caught up in playing ‘gotcha’ with those he disagrees with that he doesn’t bother ‘getting’ what they are saying.

    Comment by Red Snapper — June 14, 2012 @ 1:06 am

  16. The reason some of us marxists continue to be in organized groups with all that yucky democratic centralism (which is practiced much differently than Proyect claims) and still read all those boring books is because being in a group increases our effectiveness as organizers for socialism, unions, etc… and those books help us in real live discussions when we’re organizing. The old questions keep coming up. For example: “Is what existed in Russia what you’re talking about?” Another example, Proyect likes to invoke Kronstadt as an obscure, tired reference yet being familiar with Kronstadt helps in discussions with Anarchists and liberals when they bring up historical references or contemporary points about the State. What Proyect might want to consider is that being an “independent socialist” is a true oxymoron and that re-reading at least some of those moldy old marxist books might reveal some things in a new light and be useful on the ground, right now, in discussing with people, figuring out tactics, analyzing events, etc… . — Jeff B., Socialist Alternative, U.S. .

    Comment by Leon — June 15, 2012 @ 2:03 pm

  17. There is no question that the ISO, Socialist Alternative, Socialist Action et al do good things. I did good things when I was in the SWP, especially when our self-characterization as “the big red machine” was accurate. However, the likelihood that any such propaganda group will emerge as a revolutionary vanguard is nil. They are all subject to the self-imposed glass ceiling in which membership is based on a particular interpretation of the USSR. It is not whether Kronstadt is worth discussing. Rather it is whether it is a *litmus test*. The British group that SA emerged out of had a split some years ago, with one faction led by Peter Taaffe, the other led by Alan Woods. I defy anybody reading their respective websites to identify any real political differences.

    Comment by Louis Proyect — June 15, 2012 @ 2:14 pm

  18. When the old Militant Tendency split around 1990, it was over serious political disagreements, the most important being over whether to continue the group’s decades-long policy of operating as a faction of the British Labour Party, and supporting that party in elections. The majority, led by Taaffe, decided to break from that thoroughly bourgeois party and, at first only in Scotland, run candidates against it. The minority, led originally by the group’s historic leader, the late Ted Grant, and now by Alan Woods, has continued its international strategy of entrism into virtually every reformist formation in the world that has more working-class support than its rivals.

    Seems to me now, and it seemed to me then, like a good reason for a split, given that the Ted Grant faction couldn’t be weaned from the Labour Party teat.

    Comment by Red Snapper — June 17, 2012 @ 10:20 pm

  19. [...] a post I wrote on the debate over SYRIZA on the left, I offered this conclusion. I think it is worth [...]

    Pingback by Leninism is finished: a reply to Alex Callinicos « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — January 28, 2013 @ 9:24 pm

  20. [...] In a post I wrote on the debate over SYRIZA on the left, I offered this conclusion. I think it is worth repeating: [...]

    Pingback by Leninism is Finished — January 29, 2013 @ 1:18 am


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