Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 23, 2015

Sometimes the boss is much stronger

Filed under: Greece — louisproyect @ 6:50 pm

In the initial few days after Syriza took office, there was a sense that this would be a different kind of government since both its words and deeds appeared to be a break from the past. Alexis Tsipras announced that privatization of the Piraeus port would be halted and that the minimum wage would be restored, while Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis spoke of challenging austerity up and down the line.

But when Syriza sat down with the EU kapos, reality came as a slap in the face as it would appear from its willingness to accede to a continuation of business as usual. Was there going to be any difference between Syriza and PASOK? Its left critics, from the KKE to Antarsya, now seemed vindicated.

Apparently, Yanis Varoufakis has furnished Greece’s overlords with a 5-page “reform” proposal that includes the minimum wage hike, something that will undoubtedly irk the Germans. Varoufakis claims that if the proposal is refused, the deal will be “dead and buried”. We will obviously find out more later on.

In their readiness to characterize Syriza as PASOK redux, the left seems to have suffered a short-term memory loss. When PASOK’s Costas Simitis took office in 1996 with about the same percentage of the vote that Syriza just received, he moved rapidly to implement a “modernization” program that would be crowned by entry into the Eurozone. Marxist economist Stavros Mavroudeas outlined PASOK’s program as follows in “Greece and the EU: capitalist crisis and imperialist rivalries” :

The economic policies of the Simitis governments of PASOK hold a special place in this canvas of neo-liberal restructuring. With its religious adherence to the EMU requirements and rules it expanded and deepened furthermore the neoliberal policies. In order to achieve entrance to the EMU it instituted austerity at the expense of labour as wage costs had lag behind productivity increases. It repeatedly and systematically reformed labour law in the direction of deregulation and flexibility (introduction of part-time, extended part-time ‘arrangements’ of working time, private firms hiring and lending workers, weakening of collective bargaining etc.). It expanded privatisation programmes and also provided even more space within the Greek economy to foreign capitals. It reformed the welfare system curtailing benefits even though it failed – due to strong strike action – to proceed even further. Finally, it facilitated actively two major one-off acts of income redistribution from the working and middle classes to capital. The first was the so-called ‘stock-exchange theft’ in which savings from the popular and middle classes were systematically driven by 12 government’s economic policy to a stock market bubble.

In other words, with no pressure at all applied on PASOK from German bankers, it plunged ahead with an economic program that would eventually turn into the disaster of the past five years at least. PASOK was ideologically disposed to neoliberalism. It, like Tony Blair’s Labour Party, believed that Greece could move forward through an application of free market economics that had been embraced by liberals and conservatives alike. In the mid-90s, both Jeffrey Sachs and Milton Friedman preached the benefits of deregulation, privatization, reduction in government spending, trade agreements such as the WTO, and all the rest.

After these policies led to widespread suffering, the Eurocommunists of Syriza began running election campaigns denouncing these policies but also helped to organize mass protests against the New Democracy/PASOK government that was determined to “stay the course”.

Finally, after the Greeks could no longer put up with the same old shit, they voted Syriza into office with the hope that austerity might be reversed. There was little doubt that if Syriza could have had access to H.G. Wells’s time-machine, it would have gone back to 1996 and put the kibosh on Simitis’s plans, knowing what they would lead to. But instead, given the reality that time-machines do not exist, they have to play with the cards they were dealt. If they had anticipated the ferocity of the German response, as well as the willingness of France’s “Socialist” Party to back the Germans, maybe they would have decided not to run for office. Would the Greeks have been no better off with a party in office like PASOK that saw the world in exactly the same terms as German bankers? I doubt it. At least they now have a party with a readiness to fight even if it is a bantamweight in the ring with a super-heavyweight. We should never forget that Greece’s GDP in 2014 was only a bit more than Volkswagen’s revenues. Maybe the left is looking for a lucky punch. Who knows?

Some on the left have accused me of endorsing TINA because I have cast doubt on the merits of withdrawing from the EU and adopting the drachma, the solution urged by the KKE and Antarsya. Supposedly, this would be the best response to austerity being imposed from the outside even if there would be some initial pain. I suppose the analogy is to having a tooth removed but without Novocain, sort of like Tom Hanks’s self-administered oral surgery with an ice-skate blade in “Cast Away”. Just in case you haven’t thought through such a strategy, this is worth considering:

Argentina scenario: Populism continuously erodes economic foundations

The devaluation of Greece’s new currency, for all its potential positive impacts on cost competitiveness, would have a devastating effect on the living standards of Greece’s poor and middle classes, who would be faced with massive inflation.

Wealthier households have probably already parked and protected their money abroad and could benefit from the devaluation by repatriating part of their funds to buy up assets on the cheap.

However, the less well-off have little to park and repatriate. Instead, their drachma incomes would be insufficient to pay for imported food and energy.

For example, Greek food imports account for 12% of total imports, compared to only 7% in Germany. Much of that could probably be substituted with domestic produce, but that might not alleviate price pressures much as Greek farmers would prefer to sell their produce abroad at higher prices, too.

To alleviate the pain, the government might be tempted to try to restore political capital by using its newfound monetary independence to print the money it needs for a lavish social assistance program and public sector job creation. The central bank would lend directly to the government, thus creating permanent inflation.

Price controls for food and other goods may artificially contain official inflation rates, but may outsource the problem to the black market. Greece’s inflation would likely remain in double-digit territory, while the government would try to ensure its survival by blaming the rich for the failures and for keeping their money abroad.

Many in Syriza have such leanings, not least the party’s chief economist, John Milios, who advocates the monetization of government debt in the Eurozone as a whole.

This is the Argentina or Venezuela scenario. However, those countries can rely on their natural resources to bring in hard currency.

While I find this presentation of the consequences of an exit from the Eurozone useful, it fails to consider the shortcomings of the “Argentina or Venezuela scenario”. I know a bit more about Argentina than most on the left after having edited my wife’s article on Kirchner’s economic policies, maybe even some of Syriza’s leaders who were at one time considering it as an example.

It so happens, first of all, that Argentina’s economic growth was probably not related to a commodities export boom as Mark Weisbrot explained. Although, it certainly helped that it had soybeans and cattle for sale, while Greece’s agricultural has collapsed, largely as a result of New Democracy and PASOK’s willingness to sacrifice the nation’s agriculture at the altar of neoliberalism.

What is clear is that Argentina’s economy has been shrinking. The Economist reported on June 27, 2014:

Many of Argentina’s problems are familiar. Inflation has plagued Argentina for much of the past decade; it still grew by an average of 5.6% from 2005-2013. Exchange and trade controls have long made it hard to get hold of primary materials, stifling production. But whereas in the past Argentina could maintain growth by propping up the peso and consumers’ purchasing power, falling foreign-exchange reserves mean it can no longer afford to do so.

If you think that Argentina has problems with inflation and falling foreign-exchange reserves, then wait until what you see if Greece is forced to leave the EU.

I don’t think there’s much to be said about Venezuela except that its welfare state guarantees are being undermined by the falling price of oil. This has led to a political crisis that even some of its most committed supporters worry about. For example, there’s an article on Venezuela Analysis that decries the rise in gasoline prices (http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/11220). Perhaps the government has no alternative to this. Oh, my gosh. Did I say there is no alternative? There I go again echoing Margaret Thatcher.

I am probably more sensitive to the question of how difficult it is for radical governments to move forward presiding over capitalist or mixed economies after spending a good five years or so on the board of Tecnica, a solidarity organization that had close relations to Paul Oquist, Daniel Ortega’s Yanis Varoufakis, and Alejandro Bendaña, the FSLN’s Secretary General of the Foreign Ministry and our organization’s responsable.

In 1990, the FSLN was voted out of office because the Reagan administration had finally succeeded in making the Nicaraguans “cry uncle”, just as the filthy German bankers and finance ministers are trying to do to the Greeks. Some on the left denounced the Sandinistas for not “going all the way” like the Cubans. Why didn’t the FSLN seize all the farms and ranches and divided up the land and given it to the peasants? Of course, it didn’t matter if supporters of the FSLN owned half of these farms and ranches and that this would turn them against the revolution.

In reality, the FSLN was confronted by intractable problems, mostly the result of outside imperial forces having much more economic power and little respect for another nation’s sovereignty, especially when the smaller and weaker nation was serving the same role as fresh bodies to a vampire.

At the time, I gave a lot of thought to the quandary that the FSLN faced. With all proportions guarded, I recommend thinking about this the next time leftists propose eazy peazy solutions to the Greeks. Here is what I wrote a while back reflecting on the conundrums the Sandinistas faced:

In the article “Historic Opportunity being lost” that appears in the book “The Rise and Fall of the Nicaraguan Revolution”, SWP leader Larry Seigle renders his verdict on the Sandinista revolution: “The opportunity to extend the socialist revolution, the opportunity to join with Cuba in constructing socialism, is being lost. Unless there is a fundamental reversal of the course–unless the anticapitalist direction and actions of the early years of the revolution are reasserted–the government will be restructured and consolidated on the basis of the capitalist property relations that exist.”

If the Sandinistas abandoned their original revolutionary project, the question then becomes one of what caused their retreat? Was this shift to the right attributable primarily to factors within Nicaragua or was it caused by external pressure? If it is a combination of the two factors, how much weight should we attribute to each? The FLN in Algeria caved in to pressures from the Algerian bourgeoisie. Should we group the FSLN with the FLN? Did the Sandinistas succumb to pressures from COSEP, the coalition that represented the wealthy Nicaraguan industrialists and farmers?

(In examining the question of whether counterrevolution took place in Nicaragua, perhaps it would be more correct to say that only a partial counterrevolution took place. There are, after all, some conquests of the revolution that remain intact. Many peasants still farm land that they won in 1980. Students do not have to worry about being dragged from their bed in the middle of the night by the cops, taken to the outskirts of town, and shot. All this is true. However, Nicaragua today is a place where social and economic misery reign. The global capitalist marketplace limits what Nicaragua can do. It will not be able to achieve genuine progress whether Ortega or his opponent wins the next election. This certainly is not what Carlos Fonseca founded the FSLN to accomplish.)

In a very real sense, the gains of the Nicaraguan revolution were partially responsible for their undoing. The Agrarian Reform, in particular, caused traditional class relations in the countryside to fracture. Agricultural workers and poor campesinos no longer had to sell their labor at the cheapest price to the wealthy landowner. This, in turn, led to lower production of agricultural commodities.

George Vickers pointed these contradictions out in an article in the June 1990 “NACLA Report on the Americas” entitled “A Spider’s Web.” He noted that the Agrarian Reform provided a reduction in rents, greater access to credit and improved prices for basic grains. This meant that small peasants had no economic pressure on them to do the backbreaking work of harvesting export crops on large farms. Even when wages increased on these large farms, the campesino avoided picking cotton on the large farms. Who could blame them?

This meant that the 1980-1981 cotton harvest, which usually lasts from December through March, remained uncompleted until May. Each of the three subsequent coffee and cotton harvests suffered as well. The labor shortage became even more acute as the Contra war stepped up and rural workers were drafted into the Sandinista army.

In addition, Nicaragua faced the same type of contradictions between town and countryside that existed in the Soviet Union in the 1920s. It was difficult to keep both urban proletariat and peasant satisfied due to conflicting class interests of each sector. While both classes fought to overthrow Czarism or Somoza, their interests tended to diverge after the revolution stabilized.

In 1985, the Agrarian Reform distributed 235,000 acres of land to the peasantry. This represented about 75% of all the land distributed to peasants since 1980. The purpose of this land distribution was twofold. It served to undercut the appeal of the Contras to some campesinos, since land hunger would no longer act as an irritant against the government in Managua. Daniel Ortega would simultaneously give a peasant title to the land and a rifle to defend it in ceremonies in the countryside all through 1985.

The second purpose of this land grant was to guarantee ample food delivery into the cities. This would allow the government to end food subsidies. The urban population had enjoyed a minimum of basic foodstuffs at highly subsidized prices. These price subsidies fueled budget deficits and, consequently, caused inflation.

The hope of the Sandinistas was that increases from new farm production from the countryside would compensate for the ending of food subsidies. However, what did occur was a sharp convergence between the price of subsidized food and food for sale in the retail markets. A pound of beans at the subsidized price was 300 cordobas, while retail market prices reached 8,000 cordobas. The subsidized breadbasket became a fiction while marketplace food became the harsh reality. Managua housewives became outraged as hunger and malnutrition among the poorest city-dwellers grew rapidly. The underlying cause of the high price of food was the shortage of supply. Contra attacks on food- producers, large and small exacerbated the shortage.

What was the solution to Nicaraguan hunger? Was the solution to shift to the left and attack the rural bourgeoisie? Should the Sandinistas have expropriated the cattle ranchers, cotton farmers and coffee plantations and turned the land into small farms for bean and corn production? This would have meant that foreign exchange would no longer be available for purchase of imported manufactured goods, including medicine, machinery and guns. Nicaraguan coffee is marketable overseas, while beans are not.

The simple reality was that the Sandinistas could not find a solution to Nicaragua’s economic problems within Nicaragua itself. Facing a US trade embargo, it grew to depend heavily on outside assistance. The story of outside assistance was not one to bolster revolutionary morale. From July 1979 through December 1987, the nation received almost $6 billion in credits and outright donations. The US pressured other Western nations to cut back aid, but Soviet aid increased steadily from 1979 to 1987 until it amounted to $3.3 billion. Soviet aid was at a high point in 1985 when it gave Nicaragua $1 billion in assistance, but it dropped by 60% from 1985 to 1986, and declined further in 1987.

Foreign assistance could simply not overcome the ravages of inflation within the country. In 1988, the crisis reached its deepest intensity. The Sandinistas introduced an IMF-styled austerity program in February 1988 and repeated with more cruelty in June. It hit the working- class and peasantry hardest. The bourgeoisie did not feel the impact of these anti-inflationary measures. The government gave them preferential treatment in the hope that Nicaraguan agribusiness would step up production. The austerity program, as harsh as it was, did not work. In December of that year, inflation was up to 33,000%, exacerbated by the effects of a powerful Hurricane. The end result was a bankrupt “informal” sector of the economy and widespread resentment toward the government. Meanwhile, the pampered bourgeoisie continued its attack on the “Communist” Sandinistas, no matter how inappropriate this epithet had become.

What could have led the Sandinistas to embrace an IMF-inspired austerity program? For those of us who had visited Nicaragua and spoken to and become friends with Sandinistas, this came as something of a shock, but not one that should have been totally unexpected.

In September of 1988, Carlos Chamorro, the editor of the Sandinista newspaper “Barricada” tried to justify the new economic orientation. He wrote, “the new economic policy has invalidated a series of concepts that for years represented…a road map towards…the Revolution’s economic agenda…’Social control,’ ‘secure channels,’ ‘price controls,’ ‘government subsidy,’ ‘preferential prices for the peasantry,’ etc., are banners of a bygone era that has been left behind by reality.” While he worried that the sectors of the society most hurt by the changes, namely those who don’t own or run businesses, would turn against the revolution, they agreed that the “change was unassailable and necessary.”

Sandinista embrace of the marketplace does not take place in a political vacuum. It takes place within the context of Perestroika. In October 1988 Andrei Kozyrev, a Soviet Foreign Ministry official, wrote that the USSR no longer had any reason to be in “a state of class confrontation with the United States or any other country,” and, with respect to the Third World, “the myth that the class interests of socialist and developing countries coincide in resisting imperialism does not hold up to criticism at all, first of all because the majority of developing countries already adhere or tend toward the Western model of development, and second, because they suffer not so much from capitalism as from lack of it.” It is safe to assume that high-level Soviet officials must have been talking up these reactionary ideas to the Sandinista leadership long before Kozyrev’s article appeared. Roger Chamorro of Barricada undoubtedly was privy to these discussions..

These new ideas benefited US foreign policy needs in a dramatic way. In early 1989, a high- level meeting took place between Undersecretary of State Elliot Abrams and his Soviet counterpart, Yuri Pavlov. Abrams made the case that relations between the US and the USSR would improve if the Nicaragua problem somehow disappeared. Pavlov was noncommital but gave Abrams a copy of Kozyrev’s article. This telling gesture convinced the Reagan administration that the USSR would now be willing to sell out Nicaragua. (This meeting is described in Robert Kagan’s recently published “A Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua 1977-1990.” Kagan was a member of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in the Reagan years and helped to draft key foreign policy statements, including the document that contained what has become know as the “Reagan Doctrine”.)

When the Contra war ended, the USSR began to cut aid to Nicaragua dramatically. It thought that Nicaragua could go it alone and urged it to rely more on Latin American countries like Venezuela and Mexico. It also made these suggestions at the same time a new foreign policy statement came out of the Kremlin that considered all governments in Latin America as legitimate, regardless of regime type. Nicaragua and Peru, in this light, had equal legitimacy.

These intense political and economic pressures had their desired effect. The Sandinista leadership adopted a political outlook that was in line with “new thinking” in the USSR. After years of revolution and civil war, they had become exhausted and isolated. They had seen their nation brutalized by endless “low intensity warfare,” which to this tiny nation was of very high intensity. The vast changes that took place in the entire Soviet bloc had to have an impact on Nicaragua. It is utopian to think that it could not. It was just another victim in the powerful imperialist campaign to eradicate any non-capitalist economy. Only Cuba, Vietnam and China have remained socialist, but each country exhibits the same kind of deformations that Nicaragua began to exhibit in 1989. Initiatives in private enterprise in each country have begun to create an elite that lives extremely well, while workers and peasants suffer.

The accusation that the Nicaragua revolutionaries betrayed the possibility to move toward socialism is absurd. We can certainly say that the Sandinistas abandoned a revolutionary perspective, but the pressures on them to do so were extremely powerful. They did not forsake revolution because of common class interests with the Nicaraguan bourgeoisie, but because world capitalism and a rightward moving Soviet bureaucracy beat it into submission. The Nicaraguan revolution failed for the same reason that strikes sometimes fail: The boss is much stronger.

February 9, 2015

Stand with the people of Greece

Filed under: Greece — louisproyect @ 5:14 am

Screen shot 2015-02-09 at 12.13.04 AM

Wednesday, February 11 at 6 p.m.
666 Third Avenue (between 42nd and 43rd St.)

Popular Mobilization in Cities Across Greece and Europe as European Union Ministers Meet in Brussels on Greek Debt Question

On February 11th, hundreds of thousands will gather in cities across Greece and Europe to demand an end to the EU austerity policy that for years has subjected millions of people to a humanitarian crisis. Following the election of the radical left in January, the new Greek government is set to challenge EU policy at the finance ministers’ meeting in Brussels. A strong popular mobilization can make a difference!

Demand an End to Austerity Policies!

We call on our friends in New York to show solidarity with the people of Greece and Europe. We invite all allies and all media in all languages.

Greece Solidarity ad hoc committee (list of endorsers in formation includes: AKNY-Greece Solidarity Movement, SYRIZA NY, ANTARSYA NY, Campaign for Peace and Democracy, Socialist Alternative NY)

February 7, 2015

A panel discussion on the new Syriza government

Filed under: Greece — louisproyect @ 9:30 pm

Last night I attended a forum on Greece after the elections organized by the Campaign for Peace and Democracy that was introduced and then chaired by two of its leaders, Thomas Harrison and Joanne Landy. I will not offer much detail on the talks since the whole thing can be seen on Youtube.

I will say this, however. The two most useful speakers were those who were not connected to vanguard formations. Natassa Romanaou, a Syriza-NY member and Columbia University professor, basically presented her party’s perspectives. Nantina Vgontzas, a sociology PhD student at NYU, was the most analytical of all the presenters who sized up the class forces in play in both Greece and Europe. If you don’t have the patience to watch the Youtube video above, I recommend a look at her FB analysis of the elections.

What I want to turn to now are the three spokesmen for the Leninist left on the panel whose presentations helped clarify my thinking on the theoretical challenges of the current stage of the struggle in Greece. I will review them in order of sanity.

Iannis Delatolas is described by the organizers as an art photographer, a founding member of AKNY (AK stands for “Aristeri Kinisi,” which in Greek means Left Movement), and a supporter of Antarsya-MARS and of the International Socialist Tendency (IST). MARS is an acronym for the United Radical Left Front, which Antarsya is aligned with, not a reference to the group’s planet of origin. MARS is itself an alliance that includes the Plan B group founded by a former Syriza leader who is for a Grexit. Apparently two groups in Antarsya are opposed to working with the MARSIANS because they are not radical enough. Since one is linked to Callinicos’s International Socialist Tendency, I am not exactly sure how Delatolas did not get called on the red carpet. The other group is linked to the NPA in France. For the two groups, the litmus test is support for what they call a revolutionary rupture. No hernia belt is required.

Aaron Amaral spoke as an International Socialist Organization (ISO) representative and a founding member of AKNY. The ISO supports the Internationalist Workers Left (DEA) in Greece that belongs to the Left Platform in Syriza. From what I could glean from the presentations of Delatolas and Amaral, there is not much difference in what they think of people like Alex Tsipras and finance minister Yanis Varoufakis. They are the modern day equivalents of Alexander Kerensky while Delatolas and Amaral are that of Vladimir Lenin. Delatolas’s comrades hope to build a vanguard party out of the Antarsya coalition while the DEA sees itself as nurturing a vanguard formation out of Syriza’s ranks with about as much commitment to Syriza as James P. Cannon had to Norman Thomas’s Socialist Party. Delatolas is more forthright about his opposition to Syriza while Amaral has to conduct a delicate balancing act. Since the IST trained the ISO ideologically, I can understand how torn poor Amaral must be.

Alan Akrivos is a founding member of SYRIZA-NY and a member of Socialist Alternative/(CWI). I am sure that my readers know that Kshama Sawant is a member of Socialist Alternative. Her election to City Council in Seattle was a small-scale version of Tsipras’s election in Greece so it is easy to understand why Akrivos’s talk was focused more on the opportunities a Syriza victory afforded rather than its potential for disappointment, or even disaster. He derided Antarsya as a “flea” since it lacked a mass following, to which Delatolas responded that more college students belong to it than Syriza. That’s probably true.

What was missing from all their presentations was a satisfactory theoretical appraisal of Syriza, something I am in the early stages of coming to grips with.

For Callinicos and his co-thinkers, it is a simple question. Syriza is administering a capitalist state. As such, it is the latest version of the Kerensky government, the Popular Front in Spain and countless other examples of leftists refusing to smash the state and begin the task of constructing socialism. Callinicos, of course, is smart enough not to be too obvious about all this and makes sure to give lip-service to the idea that Tsipras’s election was a step forward for the left even though when you strip away the euphemisms you are left with analysis similar to one given by a Spartacist League member during the comments period that the audience found funnier than a Chris Rock performance.

For the ISO and Socialist Alternative, there are varying degrees of support for Syriza but little in the way of a rigorous class analysis. Alan Akrivos alluded to the Spanish Popular Front, a surprising analogy from a Trotskyist even though his organization—thankfully—seems less steeped in dogma than others with that pedigree. I am not sure if that analogy holds up, however, since important sectors of the Spanish bourgeoisie were for the Popular Front even though most cast their lot with Franco. Furthermore, given the advanced stage of the class struggle in Spain with well-organized and powerful socialist, anarchist and communist parties, it might be argued that the Popular Front could only serve as a brake on the movement. This hardly applies to the situation in Greece today with a mass movement that—at least for the time being—is spent.

Since Syriza is in a coalition with ANEL, a bourgeois party, isn’t that the latest version of the Popular Front? Only if you believe that it was always Syriza’s goal to form an alliance with a rightwing party in conformity with a worked out ideology of the sort espoused by Giorgi Dmitrov. I remain convinced that the coalition owed more to old-fashioned horse-trading pragmatism than ideology—for better or for worse.

It is appropriate to consider the demand for a worker’s governments, a concept that was raised at the 4th Comintern Congress in 1922 and that has been covered in great depth on John Riddell’s  blog as well as in his book containing the proceedings of that Congress available from Haymarket. Apparently, the worker’s government demand—in essence one based on united electoral front of Communists, Socialists and other working class parties—is something that relevant enough to Greek leftists that they published a Greek language version of Riddell’s book. I should add that it was the DEA, ISO’s allies in Greece, that came out with it, bless their hearts.

While I have seen no evidence of the DEA, or any other Marxists for that matter, attempting to work through the theoretical implications of a Syriza government, I would suggest that it might fall in line with what we have seen in Latin America in the recent past with the so-called Bolivarian revolution. In my view, Hugo Chavez presided over what might be categorized as a worker’s government—sometimes called a worker’s and farmer’s government–just as the FLN did in Algeria in the early 60s. Perhaps the most developed discussion around this question took place in the Trotskyist movement over how to view the FLN, which was far enough to the left that Pablo, the FI’s leader, abandoned his post to become an adviser to the Algerian government.

It is our good fortune to be able to read an Education for Socialists pamphlet on “The Workers and Farmers Government” edited by Joseph Hansen at The Encyclopedia of Trotskyism Online (ETOL) a project of Marxists.org. This 1974 collection is broad ranging, with articles on Cuba, Egypt, Algeria, and Eastern Europe, with some interesting contributions from Leon Trotsky.

For Hansen, the worker’s government can be in the hands of a worker’s party like Syriza or what he calls a “petty-bourgeois” party like the FLN in Algeria or the July 26th Movement in Cuba. They generally come to power through insurrectionary attacks on the old state power and preside over capitalist property relations until the class contradictions are resolved favorably as they were in Cuba or unfavorably as was the case in Algeria.

Such states by their very nature are unstable; at least that was the view of Joseph Hansen and most Trotskyists in the 1960s and 70s. What nobody anticipated, however, was that Hugo Chavez’s party would come to power through a combination of electoral and insurrectionary measures that would allow it to rule now for 16 years. It certainly is unstable and riven with class contradictions but all the same it has continuously promoted the interests of the working class, often spurred in that direction by a people as determined as the Greeks to be treated with respect and given their fair due.

In a must-read interview Sebastian Budgen conducted with Stathis Kouvelakis, a member of Syriza’s Central Committee, there is a open recognition of what Greece and Venezuela have in common—and what distinguishes them:

Budgen: Let’s imagine that we are in July 2015. Syriza has won the general election, the Left Platform’s position has been confirmed, there is a Grexit from the eurozone, cancellation of the memorandums and at least partial nationalization of the banking system, end to privatizations, and so on. What kind of society would Greece look like in July 2015?

We all know that socialism in one country doesn’t work. To what extent would a left social democracy in a poor, backward European country with no access to international lending, excluded from the eurozone be able to change things? What kind of society would that be like?

Kouvelakis; First of all, in the picture you gave of the situation, the summer of 2015, given the situation you have described, it will be the start of the Greek default. Because it is this summer that some big payments will have to be made concerning the Greek debt, and in a situation of Greek default and of a following exit or expulsion from the eurozone, a whole series of difficulties will have to be faced.

But every experiment so far in the history of social transformation has happened in a hostile international environment. And here, the notion of time and temporality is absolutely crucial. Politics is essentially about intervening at a particular moment and displacing the dominant temporality and inventing a new one. Of course, strategically, socialism in one country is not viable. And social transformation in Europe will only happen if there is an expanding dynamic around this.

So my answer would be the following: it will certainly be tough for Greece, but still manageable if there is a strong level of social support for the objectives put forth by the government and political level.

Greece, with a left-wing government moving in that direction, will provoke an enormous wave of support by very large sectors of public opinion in Europe, and it will energize to an extent that we cannot imagine the radical left in countries where you have the potential for it to intervene strongly.

Spain is the most obvious candidate for an extension of a Greek type of scenario, but I think that, even if it seems at present unlikely, France is also a potentially weak link in the EU, if the wind from the south blows sufficiently strongly.

Budgen: But we have experience of a society, which like Greece is a capitalist social formation with a private bourgeoisie, with a radical reformist or even revolutionary government running it, which also happens to have a massive advantage to draw on, namely oil reserves, and which has been able to draw on some degree of support in the rest of the continent, with benign or even pro-Chavez governments.

The situation in Greece is much worse than the Bolivarian Revolution — fewer advantages and less international support. And the situation isn’t that great in Venezuela today. So what reserves of confidence can we draw on that the Greek situation will work out better?

Kouvelakis: First of all in Venezuela, we have an experiment of social transformation which has lasted for fifteen years. There was no strong tradition of a radical left in Venezuela, no tradition of social struggles comparable to that of Greece or of the rest of Latin America. Venezuela was seen as like a Dubai or an emirate in Latin America. Just read The Lost Steps, a novel by Alejo Carpentier, and you get the sense of the transformation of a society in an extraordinarily short period of time, when a backward society moves very quickly to something like Saudi Arabia or the Emirates.

Politically, socially, and economically, Greece is a much more advanced capitalist society than Venezuela: its social structure, its political tradition, the constitution, the configuration of social classes and social forces are much closer to those of a average western European country.

Budgen: But with a big petty bourgeoisie . . .

Kouvelakis: Ok, a big petty bourgeoisie, but certainly nothing comparable to Venezuela, where the informal economy represented something like 50 percent of the population, especially after the neoliberal reforms. On top of that, the oil reserves were a powerful weapon, but they also prevented any transformation of the economic structure of Venezuela. So it’s a kind of double-edged sword.

And so my view about Greece is, (a) if we had a fifteen-year period where there is no qualitative successes but a social transformation, that would be great; (b) Greece is of course the periphery, but it is the internal periphery of the center, so that means that the destabilizing potential of the Greek experiment is perhaps greater for the capitalist system than Venezuela; (c) the accumulated political experience of the social and political forces in Greece — and I don’t want to diminish the tremendous importance of what happened in Venezuela — is just incomparable.

Greece has a very rich tradition of social struggle. What differentiates solidarity with Greece from previous forms of solidarity is that now it is not about expressing solidarity with countries that are geographically very far away and have major differences in terms of social structure and level of development.

Greece is a periphery, if you like, but it is the periphery of Europe. Political processes happening in Greece have an expansive capacity, which is far superior and more direct in this part of world than the Latin American ones, because the Greek crisis is part of the bigger crisis of European capitalism. And Europe, despite its current position — which is very different from the position it held in the past — is still one of the major centers of the world capitalist system.

In my view, this should be the starting-point for a theoretical appreciation of a Syriza government, not sterile incantations on the dangers of the Popular Front.

February 1, 2015

Yanis Varoufakis versus reptilian BBC interviewer

Filed under: Greece — louisproyect @ 3:47 pm

January 30, 2015

Against Manichaeism

Filed under: Greece — louisproyect @ 10:03 pm

Manichean art


Now, it would seem that the geopolitical/chess game left is ready to throw Syriza under the bus. The battle against austerity matters less than how Tsipras stands on sanctions. Just look at MRZine that is festooned today with anti-Syriza tweets.

EU wins Greek backing to extend Russia sanctions, delays decision on new steps


For the past few years, and largely as a result of the wars in the Middle East and the Ukraine, there has been a tendency to view everybody fighting as proxies of Washington or Moscow. For most of the left, this means taking a position on those fighting based on where they stand in relationship to the rival powers. Like a chess game in which the black pieces are pure evil and the white pure good, geopolitics matters much more than the individual pieces. If a pawn is forced to align itself with the West, it matters little whether its cause is just.

Ironically, Manichaeism was born in Persia, a country seen by most of the left as certainly pale in hue and pure as the driven snow. After all, how could a country be bad if it is hated so much by the USA? This, of course, is the same logic that drove so many new leftists into Maoist sects in the 60s and 70s. If Mao was such a universally despised figure, didn’t it make sense to follow Bob Avakian or Mike Klonsky? For some, Nixon’s trip to China complicated things to the point that these sects began to disintegrate in the 1980s.

Manicheanism got its name from its founder—Mani. Mani is not a name like Louis but an honorific like “Sri” or “Bey”. Scholars view the religion as an offshoot of Gnosticism, a religion that fascinated me when I was a religion major at Bard. For the Gnostics, the world was divided between good and evil. You tended to dwell in the evil until you learned the truth about the world’s dualism. You can easily understand how Gnosticism was traceable back to Neo-Platonism, a philosophical cult and semi-religion that was inspired by Plato’s notion that philosophical reflections by philosopher-kings was a precondition for understanding the world. If you trace back geopolitical/chess game thinking to its Platonic roots, you can see how little has changed. Instead of reading Plato’s Republic, the key to enlightenment is Robert Parry’s ConsortiumNews or WSWS.org

All this came to mind nearly hours after it was announced that Syriza had formed a government in a bloc with ANEL, a small ultraright party that disagreed on all issues with Syriza except the need to fight against austerity. Facebook lit up with revelations on its head guy who came across as a typical Alex Jones interviewee. Kevin Ovenden, a staunch supporter of Syriza and someone prone to geopolitical ways of thinking, was candid about ANEL’s leader:

Kammenos is a kooky conspiracy theorist (with added anti-semitism to boot). For example, he maintained that the vapour trails left by passenger jets were in fact chemtrails the kind left by low-lying crop-spraying and comprised a soporific drug which had made the Greek people go along with a new German occupation of their country.

The immediate reaction of those upset with such an alliance was to say, “ah-ha, this is what you could have expected all along—Syriza is moving to the right”. Only a day later, things quieted down about the ANEL bloc when Tsipras and his top cabinet appointees showed a flinty determination to tell Germany to take its austerity and shove it up its ass.

It was obvious to me at this point that some people were anxious to indict Syriza on the same basis as the Maidan activists or the FSA were condemned but from the opposite side of the coin. If Tsipras can unite with such a slug, that’s all you need to know. It was the same kind of logic that allows so many on the left to take Putin’s side because Victoria Nuland’s phone call to the American ambassador to Ukraine revealed Washington’s support for Maidan. What Maidan protesters were for hardly mattered. In fact, the whole mission of the Manichean left became one of dredging up every piece of evidence that would condemn Maidan after the fashion of a district attorney.

In the latest development, the same people ready to throw Maidan under the bus are now all the more ready to back Syriza because it appears to coincide with their own support for the Kremlin. Tsipras has declared that he opposes sanctions against Russia over its intervention in the Ukraine and his foreign minister Nikos Kotzias is apparently a colleague of Alexander Dugin, the ultranationalist philosopher of Novorossia, the Kremlin’s bid to reconstitute Katherine the Great’s Empire.

I have a totally different take on ANEL, Dugin and any other litmus test applied to Syriza outside of its stance on the all-important question of austerity. If Greece moves forward and successfully beats back the austerity regime imposed by Western European elites, it will encourage mass movements everywhere, including Russia. Russia, like Greece, is run by oligarchs who enjoy obscene incomes while ordinary people’s income stagnate. Furthermore, as oil revenues decline Russia’s social divide will become more acute. Putin was able to draw a “silent majority” to his side because incomes were rising. People put up with corruption because it did not necessarily affect them directly.

If you step back and look at all the protests and civil wars taking place around the world, they are driven by the same causes whether they line up on Washington or Moscow’s side of the ledger book. Crony capitalism is the target even if people marching in the streets don’t have an analysis of capitalism. Every successful hammer blow against a Bashar al-Assad or a Greek billionaire hiding his money in a Swiss bank will flow like streams into an ocean of resistance that will make the radical movement of the 1930s or 60s look pale by comparison. Our role as socialists is to encourage rebellion against the malefactors of great wealth, whether they are on the black or white side of the chessboard.

If any confirmation was necessary of the inadvisability of applying a litmus test to Syriza based on such considerations, I refer you to a column by James Bloodworth that appears in today’s Independent. Bloodworth, a long-time opponent of the Bolivarian revolution and Bashar al-Assad, likes to speak in the name of the left but is basically a liberal, not to speak of his shoddy journalism that plays fast and loose with Venezuelan statistics.

Never one for understatement, Bloodworth titles his hatchet job: “Syriza’s victory in Greece might not be the radical revolution you were hoping for. The party has got its head nestled in the lap of the Kremlin, but apparently that’s fine.”

He claims that Syriza and ANEL are “light years” apart based on questions such as immigration as if sheer opportunism rather than agreement on the need to resist austerity made their alliance possible. It would seem that Syriza falls short of Bloodworth’s lofty standards since its opposition to the EU bosses only looks leftist in a context of politics shifting so far to the right.

Put another way, it would be a mistake to assume that the people of Greece shifted decisively to the left in electing Syriza. In reality economic orthodoxy has moved so far to the right that an unwillingness to let a generation of young Greeks wither on the vine is now considered utopian.

This is a distinction without a difference. The election was not a referendum on the wisdom of the labor theory of value. It was not about ideology but about survival. With a suicide epidemic based on despair, people were voting for a party that offered an alternative to austerity. For our young pundit, this is not good enough apparently.

Applying a litmus test of Ukraine on Syriza, Bloodworth has a hissy fit over the fact that people on the left, including me, are not ready to cast it down to hell:

Enough to quicken the pulse of any far-right ideologue, you would think. Only this isn’t the far-right but the radical left, the living embodiment of the “hope” that is supposed to inspire Europe’s genuinely beleaguered poor.

He makes sure to get in a dig about Venezuela and the new pope:

This is why you will see left-wingers board charter flights to Caracas and laud the Venezuelan regime while journalists are locked up and student protesters watercannoned. It’s why the reactionary Vatican is praised as a vessel of progressive thought for mouthing platitudes about “the poor”.

What a cheap smear. The fact that the pope is going around the world blasting economic inequality leaves him cold. What else is the pope supposed to do except give speeches? Throw Molotov cocktails like the lilywhite Venezuelan student protesters?

The article concludes with a Hitchensesque anti-Communist rant that makes you wonder how the people running Jacobin would have ever given him a bully pulpit:

And it’s why the spectre of 20th century Communism still casts a long shadow over Syriza and their admirers in Britain. So long as you nationalise a few things and spout some anti-colonialist rhetoric, you’re a made man on the left. If you’re in the omelette making business there is after all no time to coddle the eggs.

Actually it is the specter of 21st century socialism that casts a shadow over Syriza. What it is doing in Greece is far more important than how it lines up on the Ukraine. Venezuela and Cuba are also on the right side of history despite their mistakes on Syria. They are to be judged on the stand they took on the class struggle within their borders. States often make foreign policy choices based on exigency, going back to the USSR’s decision to make deals with Mustafa Kemal at the very time he had the leaders of the Turkish CP assassinated. Politics is a messy business. For those who prefer Manichean simplicities, I recommend the legions of the simpleminded led by James Bloodworth on one hand and Robert Parry on the other. For the rest of us, it is useful to recall what Lenin said about the Easter Rebellion of 1916:

On May 9, 1916, there appeared, in Berner Tagwacht, the organ of the Zimmerwald group, including some of the Leftists, an article on the Irish rebellion entitled “Their Song is Over” and signed with the initials K.R. [Karl Radek]. It described the Irish rebellion as being nothing more nor less than a “putsch”, for, as the author argued, “the Irish question was an agrarian one”, the peasants had been pacified by reforms, and the nationalist movement remained only a “purely urban, petty-bourgeois movement, which, notwithstanding the sensation it caused, had not much social backing…”

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie without all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc.–to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are for socialism”, and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism”, and that will be a social revolution! Only those who hold such a ridiculously pedantic view would vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a “putsch”.

January 29, 2015

Greece: the end of austerity?

Filed under: Greece — louisproyect @ 10:33 pm

January 25, 2015

Reflections on Syriza

Filed under: Greece — louisproyect @ 5:57 pm

Alex Tsipras and Pablo Iglesias

Over the past several days I have read over twenty articles about Syriza to help me prepare this one. As is often the case when I write something, it is as much to help clarify my own thinking as it is to inform my readers. My main point in writing this is to emphasize the need to understand Syriza in its own terms rather than to see it through categories drawn from the past, particularly those that are part of the Trotskyist lexicon.

The obvious challenge is to understand Syriza’s role in the class struggle when its program falls short of the usual expectations of a socialist government. At the risk of making the World Socialist Website sound more important than it really is, it is worth citing them since it is very good at applying litmus tests to “fakes”, “opportunists”, and the like. In a January 6 article written by Robert Stevens, the leading economists of Syriza are portrayed as tools of finance capital:

John Milios, SYRIZA’s chief economist, is a graduate of Athens College, the most prestigious private school in Greece. In an interview with the Guardian, in which he is described as the son of parents “with distinctly non-leftist views,” Milios states, “I never had any affiliation with Soviet Marxism.”

Among those with whom Milios has met are Schäuble. Elaborating on his role, Milios said recently: “[I] will continue to be constantly present in the formulation of Greek and international public opinion… institutionally participating in crucial meetings with international bodies (IMF, government agencies of other countries, financial centres, etc.) as I have done to date…”

In an interview with a Greek newspaper, Milios said of “the international contacts” he meets regularly, “believe me, ‘out there’ a very delicate handling is required.”

For people like Robert Stevens, there is never any need for “delicate handling” since he is not involved with power relationships. When you are playing with toy soldiers, it is always easy to achieve a victory. For people who call cyberspace home, anything is possible including scenarios involving dual power, workers militias and insurrection with scenario being the operative word.

While the British SWP has lost a lot of its credibility in the past couple of years over its handling of a rape case, it is still an important anti-Syriza platform built on orthodox Trotskyist foundations. While not so nearly as strident as WSWS, it draws a contrast between Syriza’s “reformism” and its own “revolutionary” stance as well as that of Antarsya, the small left coalition in Greece that its co-thinkers belong to.

In a July 4 2013 article titled “Left reformism, the state and the problem of socialist politics today”, Paul Blackledge described Syriza’s goal as seeking “progressive reforms through parliamentary channels”, something that left him cold since “there is nothing particularly novel about this.”

The essential problem, no matter the best intentions of Syriza’s leaders who Blackledge at least accepts as being genuinely opposed to austerity, is that once you are put in the position of administering the capitalist state, everything turns to shit:

It is their parliamentary statism, however mediated, that tends to trap left reformist parties like Syriza within capitalist relations in ways that pressure them to come into conflict with and, unless successfully challenged from the left, eventually undermine the radicalism of their own base.

Blackledge takes about 5,000 words to keep making a point that could have been made in less than a dozen, namely that Marxists are only interested in revolution, not winning bourgeois elections. It is permissible to run candidates but only with the understanding that winning an election is out of the question, something analogous to the neighborhood dog that could not be cured of the habit of chasing cars. What would the poor dog do if he actually caught one?

The poor, benighted, left-reformist Syriza members have been thrust into the most unfortunate position of having caught the car. If Greece had simply been muddling along like most of northern Europe, its vote totals would have remained in the comfort zone of Antarsya, around one percent. But a jobless, hungry, and hopeless Greek population did the unthinkable. It voted to elect a radical party to create jobs, reduce hunger and offer some hope. Syriza has not promised to nationalize industry, institute planning and a monopoly on foreign trade but it has declared its intentions through the Thessalonica Program, part of which is specifically geared to the jobless, hungry and hopeless:

  • Free electricity to 300.000 households currently under the poverty line up to 300 kWh per month per family; that is, 3.600 kWh per year. Total cost: €59,4 million.
  • Programme of meal subsidies to 300.000 families without income. The implementation will take place via a public agency of coordination, in cooperation with the local authorities, the Church and solidarity organizations. Total cost: €756 million.
  • Programme of housing guarantee. The target is the provision of initially 30.000 apartments (30, 50, and 70 m²), by subsidizing rent at €3 per m². Total cost: €54 million.
  • Restitution of the Christmas bonus, as 13th pension, to 1.262.920 pensioners with a pension up to €700. Total cost: €543,06 million.
  • Free medical and pharmaceutical care for the uninsured unemployed. Total cost: €350 million.
  • Special public transport card for the long-term unemployed and those who are under the poverty line. Total cost: €120 million.
  • Repeal of the leveling of the special consumption tax on heating and automotive diesel. Bringing the starting price of heating fuel for households back to €0,90 per lt, instead of the current €1,20 per lt. Benefit is expected.

None of this lives up to Blackledge’s revolutionary expectations. Why bother with something as piddling as a housing guarantee when the goal is proletarian dictatorship? Maybe the fact that Blackledge is a professor at Leeds Beckett University with a good future ahead of him and a roof over his head leads him to dismiss such “reforms”.

Of course the real question is whether Syriza can deliver such reforms given the relationship of forces that exist. Germany, its main adversary, has a population of 80 million and a GDP of nearly 4 trillion dollars. Greece, by comparison, has a population of 11 million and a GDP of 242 billion dollars, just a bit more than Volkswagen’s revenues. Given this relationship of forces, it will be a struggle to achieve the aforementioned reforms. To make them possible, it will be necessary for the workers and poor of Greece to demonstrate to Europe that they will go all the way to win them. It will also be necessary for people across Europe to demonstrate their solidarity with Greece so as to put maximum pressure on Germany and its shitty confederates like François Hollande to back off. But if your main goal in politics is to lecture the Greeks about the need for workers councils, armed struggle and all the rest, you obviously have no need to waste your time on such measly reforms.

Part of the problem for much of the left is its inability to properly theorize the conditions of class struggle in a post-Soviet world. In Latin America and southern Europe, states are struggling to improve the lives of their citizens but without abolishing capitalism. In an interview with Stathis Kouvelakis for Jacobin magazine, Sebastian Budgen asked what Greece would look like if Syriza won the election, adding, “We all know that socialism in one country doesn’t work. To what extent would a left social democracy in a poor, backward European country with no access to international lending, excluded from the Eurozone be able to change things? What kind of society would that be like?”

Kouvelakis replied:

First of all, in the picture you gave of the situation, the summer of 2015, given the situation you have described, it will be the start of the Greek default. Because it is this summer that some big payments will have to be made concerning the Greek debt, and in a situation of Greek default and of a following exit or expulsion from the Eurozone, a whole series of difficulties will have to be faced.

But every experiment so far in the history of social transformation has happened in a hostile international environment. And here, the notion of time and temporality is absolutely crucial. Politics is essentially about intervening at a particular moment and displacing the dominant temporality and inventing a new one. Of course, strategically, socialism in one country is not viable. And social transformation in Europe will only happen if there is an expanding dynamic around this.

So my answer would be the following: it will certainly be tough for Greece, but still manageable if there is a strong level of social support for the objectives put forth by the government and political level.

Greece, with a left-wing government moving in that direction, will provoke an enormous wave of support by very large sectors of public opinion in Europe, and it will energize to an extent that we cannot imagine the radical left in countries where you have the potential for it to intervene strongly.

Spain is the most obvious candidate for an extension of a Greek type of scenario, but I think that, even if it seems at present unlikely, France is also a potentially weak link in the EU, if the wind from the south blows sufficiently strongly.

In conclusion I would offer these thoughts. The left internationally must become involved with solidarity on behalf of Syriza for two reasons. First, it will help give the government added leverage to carry out the reforms so necessary for a population so tormented by austerity that an epidemic of suicide has overtaken the country. If this is “reformism”, I am all for it.

Secondly, we are trying to build a worldwide anticapitalist movement on new foundations. The difference between “revolutionaries” like the British SWP and WSWS.org on one side and Syriza and Podemos on the other could not be clearer. We do not think that the term “reformist” does such mass, inclusive and nonsectarian formations justice. When left parties win elections in Venezuela or Greece, it makes a real difference in the lives of the people. For example, Venezuela’s poverty rate dropped from 48.6 percent in 2002 to 29.5 percent in 2011.

This obviously had a lot to do with the government’s use of oil sales revenue to fund social programs. With the decline of oil prices, it will be more difficult to sustain such programs but this is more a function of the dominance of capitalist property relations than government intent.

To some extent, the ortho-Trotskyist politics of the WSWS and the British SWP has some validity. As long as a nation is imbricated within a world system based on commodity exchange, it will not be able to transcend market relations. This is as true of Cuba as it has been of Venezuela as it will be of Greece.

However, to confront the capitalist system on a world scale, we need a new movement that reflects 21st century realities. New parties that combine street-level activism with bold electoral initiatives and that communicate electronically across borders without respect to narrow doctrinal questions on the USSR will become more and more the norm. As an auspicious recognition of the ties that will bind such new movements, we turn to Pablo Iglesias’s speech to Syriza:

We must finally work together – in Europe and for Europe. It’s not necessary to read Karl Marx to know that there are no definitive solutions within the framework of the nation-state. For that reason we must help each other and present ourselves as an alternative for all of Europe.

Winning the elections is far from winning power. That’s why we must bring everyone who is committed to change and decency together around our shared task, which is nothing more than turning the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into a manual for government. Our aim today, unfortunately, is not the withering away of the state, or the disappearance of prisons, or that Earth become a paradise. But we do aspire, as I said, to make it so that all children go to public schools clean and well-fed; that all the elderly receive a pension and be taken care of in the best hospitals; that any young person—independently of who their parents are—be able to go to college; that nobody have their heat turned off in the winter because they can’t pay their bill; that no bank be allowed to leave a family in the street without alternative housing; that everyone be able to work in decent conditions without having to accept shameful wages; that the production of information in newspapers and on television not be a privilege of multi-millionaires; that a country not have to kneel down before foreign speculators. In one word: that a society be able to provide the basic material conditions that make dignity and happiness possible.

These modest objectives that today seem so radical simply represent democracy. Tomorrow is ours, brothers and sisters!

Tariq Ali interviews Stathis Kouvelakis

Filed under: Greece — louisproyect @ 2:50 pm

January 18, 2015

Syriza meeting at 6pm

Filed under: Greece — louisproyect @ 3:59 pm

Screen shot 2015-01-18 at 10.54.41 AM

July 14, 2014

Left Forum 2014 — Syriza panel

Filed under: Greece,Left Forum — louisproyect @ 4:15 pm

This is the sixth and final in a series of videos I made at the recently concluded Left Forum.

The question of Syriza is very fresh in my mind after seeing Alex Callinicos attack it in his prolix article “Thunder on the Left”.

More generally, evidence of a new form of left politics emerging has proved more apparent than real. The profound economic and social crisis in Greece and intense working class resistance to the austerity policies imposed by the troika of the European Commission, ECB, and International Monetary Fund allowed Syriza to skyrocket into the dominant position to the left of centre in Greek politics. After Syriza’s spectacular advances in the parliamentary elections of May and June 2012, there was much tut-tutting about my description of its politics as left reformist which, or so it was claimed, failed to acknowledge the extent to which Syriza represented a break with the old polarities of reform and revolution. In the subsequent two years, under Alexis Tsipras, Syriza has marched firmly onto the centre ground in order to project itself as a responsible party of government, in the process marginalising its left opposition. This shift is epitomised by Tsipras’s coming out after the European elections in favour of the shopworn centre-right architect of austerity Jean-Claude Juncker for president of the European commission: left reformism would look good by comparison.

Callinicos’s distinction between reform and revolution is based on an idealist conception of politics. By idealist, I don’t mean like the Boy Scout pledge of honor but in Plato’s Republic where people living in a cave only have an impression of reality rather than reality itself. As Socrates puts it:

And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: –Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.

The role of a philosopher-king in Plato’s Republic is to educate the unenlightened cave dweller about the realities beyond the cave. Thus, the role of Marxists is to educate the mass movement about the need for revolution. Callinicos (and his fellow Leninists) are a kind of priesthood that has achieved enlightenment. They go out among the cave dwellers to explain why a revolution is necessary. This involves pointing out the “historical lessons” of the 20th century in such a manner that the recitation on the Russian Revolution will cause the scales to fall from the listener’s eyes. In some ways, this is the same approach as the Jehovah’s Witnesses who have literature tables at major subway stations throughout New York.

I have an entirely different take on Syriza, similar to that of Peter Bratsis—the panelist who begins just after 33 minutes into the video. Like Bratsis, I view Syriza as a reformist party that will never be able to lead a revolution but there is no use in lecturing the masses about that. They don’t see the problem in terms of capitalism but in terms of austerity. They vote for Syriza because the party is opposed to austerity. If Syriza is elected and continues to support austerity, that will raise the question of the need to transform the economic system that imposes austerity no matter the party that is in power.

In “Left-Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder”, Lenin proposed that the Communists form an electoral bloc with the Labour Party led by Philip Snowden and Arthur Henderson. After WWI broke out, Ramsey MacDonald resigned in protest for its support for the war. Arthur Henderson, who joined Lloyd George’s War Cabinet, was his replacement. Has Alexis Tsipras been guilty of any crime more serious than this? People like Callinicos make a big deal out of Syriza sticking with the Euro as if the currency a nation is based on makes a real difference when it is dominated by imperialism. Greece’s problems do not revolve around the currency it uses but rather in its relationship to the rest of the world capitalist system.

Finally, the real issue facing the Greek left is how to unite people on a class basis against a ruling class that is tightly coupled to the German bourgeoisie. Syriza offers a framework for revolutionaries that will enable them to connect with millions of Greeks who have not yet achieved a revolutionary consciousness. Unlike the Greek Communist Party, Syriza is relatively open and transparent—a function of the “reformism” that Callinicos disdains. The alternative to the CP and Syriza is the tiny and inconsequential Antarsya that is united around the need for revolution but a “reformist” party that can begin to serve as a pole of attraction for revolutionaries. In the event that Syriza is elected and fails to carry out its mandate, it will be up to its left wing to push the agenda for overcoming austerity in the only way possible: overthrowing Greek capitalism.


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