Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 9, 2015

Monthly Review’s split personality

Filed under: Greece,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 11:57 am

Monthly Review is one of the most important institutions of the left in the USA dating back to 1949 when two veterans of the Henry Wallace campaign decided that a new magazine was needed. One was Paul Sweezy, who I had the good fortune to meet over “brown bag luncheons” at MR’s offices about 20 years ago; the other was F.O. Matthiessen, the Harvard literary critic.

For a number of years I considered myself quite close to the magazine and its book-publishing wing, writing numerous articles hailing the ecosocialist analysis of John Bellamy Foster who assumed the directorship of MR after Harry Magdoff’s death.

All that came to an end when MR launched a online publication called MRZine and gave the job of editor to Yoshie Furuhashi, a one-time subscriber to Marxmail, PEN-L, and LBO-Talk, arguably the three most well-known mailing lists of the left. At one point or another she unsubbed from the three lists after deciding that the hostility toward her idol Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was unbearable. Furuhashi, who was a relative newcomer to the left with a scanty publication record either in scholarly or popular journals, had come to the bizarre conclusion that Iran was “more socialist” than Venezuela. Her reviews were so at odds with both Marxism and common sense that a group of Iranian Marxists wrote an open letter blasting MRZine for publishing apologetics for Ahmadinejad’s dictatorship in 2006. Three years later Barbara Epstein resigned in protest from MR’s editorial board over the same issues.

I blame John Mage for imposing Furuhashi on the left. Mage, whose publication record is as meager as hers, is on the MR editorial board mostly tied to his custodianship of the MR foundation. Before his retirement he was an attorney representing the USSR in the USA and a member of the Lawyer’s Guild. As far as I know he fully supports Furuhashi’s mad ideological agenda. One imagines that Foster probably does not, although he obviously defers to Mage on personnel questions. Considering the fact that MR fired Ellen Meiksins Wood after a brief tenure running the book department and has allowed Furuhashi’s grotesque politics to be disseminated for over a decade, there is obviously poor judgment over these matters.

As opposed to Foster, Mage and Furuhashi, Michael Yates, who runs the book-publishing department, is a paragon of Marxist principle. It is reassuring that many people on the left who have grown disgusted with MRZine are smart enough to figure out that his sure hand keeps the publishing wing moored to the planet earth.

Lately MRZine has gone full-tilt-boogie on behalf of the KKE, the sectarian Stalinist party in Greece that refused to support Syriza after the fashion of the German CP’s disastrous “third period” policy in the 1920s, when it failed to make a distinction between social democracy and Nazism.

On almost a daily basis you can find tweets on MRZine linked to toxic attacks on Syriza, concentrated most frequently on finance minister Yanis Varoufakis. Apparently Varoufakis passed muster with Furuhashi before he became part of the Greek government since she had published three of his articles, the latest appearing in 2012. But since Syriza took office, there has been nothing but vitriol.

The book department apparently has a different take on the finance minister based on this press release:

On January 25, 2015, the left-wing party, SYRIZA, won a stunning victory in Greece’s national elections. The new government, which says it intends to end the debilitating austerity measures forced upon Greece by the European Union, announced that the new Finance Minister is Yanis Varoufakis, a noted economist and good friend of Monthly Review (and MR author). We wish him well and trust that, unlike most economists, he will put his superb skills to work on behalf of the long-suffering Greek people and, indeed, all those oppressed by the policies imposed by the ruling classes of the European Union and United States.

MRZine’s ongoing campaign against Syriza mostly takes the form of tweets that reflect the POV of the KKE. Today you can find one linked to the blog In Defense of Greek Workers that makes an amalgam between Syriza and Golden Dawn. The blog is a bit of an oddity since it is written in English even though it is almost exclusively about Greek issues and obviously written by a Greek. The best way to describe it is as a scandal sheet aimed at Syriza. One can conclude that the bloggers behind it are very close to the MRZine’s addled sensibility since they were furious over Syriza’s support for the Syrian uprising against the Baathist goons. Frankly I was pleasantly surprised that despite Syriza’s tendency to support the Kremlin on Ukraine, it had the good sense to refer to the “barbaric regime” in Damascus. Good for Syriza, I’d say.

Let’s take a look at the case against Syriza on the Golden Dawn question. To start with, the In Defense of Greek Workers article includes a formulation that reeks of the German CP’s “third period”:

There is also the directly related question of whether SYRIZA and Golden Dawn really represent a clear, mutually exclusive choice. Is political reality in Greece interpretable in terms of the dilemma “SYRIZA or Golden Dawn” or is it rather that there is no dilemma, that the real formula for how capitalist power exercises itself at present in the country is in fact “SYRIZA and Golden Dawn”?

This is really quite something, not being able to distinguish between Syriza and Golden Dawn.

The main charge specifically is that Syriza has stood up for the right of Golden Dawn to function as a political party, including the right of its elected officials to serve in parliament. Before Syriza took power, the New Democracy had been cracking down on Golden Dawn—something Syriza objected to. The KKE-oriented blog complained:

On May 8 2014, SYRIZA MP Nikos Voutsis, speaking in an interview with the Real-fm radio station, returned to the issue of the imprisonment of Golden Dawn MPs and stated that the evidence the Greek state had collected against them was laughably inadequate and “had no chance” in court.

For a more sensible analysis of Syriza’s stand on such matters, I refer you to David Renton’s “lives; running” blog, where his latest article delves mostly into the bloc Syriza made with ANEL but includes some commentary on the Golden Dawn stance that is markedly more balanced than the one cited by MRZine:

Critics of Syriza to its left have taken umbrage at Syriza’s suggestion that elected Golden Dawn MPs should be released from custody to attend votes in Parliament suggesting that Syriza is extending too much deference to the right, and warning that Syriza may be cooling as to the prosecution itself. At this distance, it is impossible to know whether they are right about the prosecution itself (which is necessarily in the hands of the judiciary rather than the politicians) or these are the exaggerated fears of people who have committed themselves in advance to the narrative that Syriza will betray its supporters. But Syriza’s friends should be watching closely and urging the government to take no steps which help the fascists.

Needless to say, this is an attempt to understand Syriza rather than to sling mud at it. Syriza is in a very difficult position in Greece and trying to navigate a path forward against much more powerful forces–no easy matter as Renton reminds us:

Some of the Bolsheviks’ compromises went deep. As Isaac Babel pointed out, long ago in Red Cavalry (and as Brendan McGeever has shown again in research which, when it makes it into print, should be compulsory reading for anyone nostalgic for a time which never existed), these compromises included in 1918-1919 leaving local Soviet power in many areas in the hands of people who were murderously anti-Semitic. This approach proved temporary because the Civil War finished and there was then a struggle within the fragile Soviet regime to purge itself of these elements.

So, a compromise with conservatives or racists is always unwanted and undesirable (means and ends always interconnect), but may be necessary as a temporary device provided as a minimum that it is the right making the principal compromises and the direction of travel is towards liberation.

I can’t recommend Renton’s blog highly enough. This socialist scholar first came to my attention more than a decade ago when I learned that he shared my admiration for Harry Braverman, the co-leader of the Socialist Union with Bert Cochran. Braverman eventually ended up at Monthly Review after the “Cochranites” dissolved their organization in 1959. In an article titled “Against Management: Harry Braverman’s Marxism”, Renton writes:

If the American Socialist Workers’ Party was unable to understand the tensions within the Communist Party, then this was the sign of its sectarianism, which prevented the Trotskyists from becoming a real force on the US left. After the 1953 split, Braverman left the SWP and joined Cochran’s group, the Socialist Union. He worked on their paper, first titled the Educator and later the American Socialist for five years, until the paper was closed down. Later, he allied himself with the magazine, Monthly Review, whose contributors were drawn from a milieu of Maoists and former fellow-travellers of the American CP. It was also at this time that Braverman dropped the pseudonym, Frankel. Braverman remained a supporter of the Monthly Review until his death in 1976, holding to the gut class feeling, but also the political black spots of the orthodox Trotskyist legacy which had helped to shaped him.

When MRZine was first launched, the best hope was that it would have been an outlet for people like David Renton, a serious thinker who was capable of seeing political questions in their full dialectical complexity. It is really most unfortunate that it has become the playpen of Yoshie Furuhashi who like so many sectarians is not only uncomfortable with complexity but is susceptible to the kind of cartoonish reductionism that has tainted Stalinism since its birth in the 1920s.


March 5, 2015

Comments on the Alex Callinicos-Stathis Kouvelakis debate

Filed under: Greece,third parties — louisproyect @ 6:53 pm

Probably the most notable aspect of this debate was the fact that it happened at all. This is obviously a sign that the left has accepted the SWP back into proper society even though its leaders have never retreated, not even one inch, on the question of their handling of an accusation of rape by one of its young female members against a central and older male leader. One supposes that stonewalling is a much more effective tactic in tightly knit Leninist groups than it is in large-scale bourgeois parties.

It should be added that Alex Callinicos viewed the wide scale opposition to the SWP leadership over this matter as not really being about the rape but opposition to Leninism from dissidents who favored a Syriza type party. So in a real sense, things have come full circle. With the Syriza leadership forming an electoral pact with ANEL, someone like Callinicos must feel vindicated. What is the rape of one woman compared to the rape of a nation? Of course he would not be so crass as to actually say something like this but you can bet that he thinks it.

Callinicos was the first to speak. He identified three different lines in the current political arena of the Greek left. The first was supposedly the bastard offspring of Gramsci and Poulantzas, a strategy that combined parliamentary intervention with social struggles—obviously one that was embraced by Syriza’s leftwing.

For those of you unfamiliar with Nicos Poulantzas, suffice it to say that he was very much identified with left Eurocommunism. Syriza emerged from a split in the Communist Party of Greece that was taking place everywhere under the impact of Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika. In the USA, such a split resulted in the formation of the Committees of Correspondence, a group led by one-time SDS notable Carl Davidson that orients to the Democratic Party. In contrast to the CofC, Syriza opposed PASOK, the Greek version of the Democratic Party.

The next would be that of Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis who confessed to wanting to save capitalism from itself in a Guardian article titled “How I became an erratic Marxist”. (http://www.theguardian.com/news/2015/feb/18/yanis-varoufakis-how-i-became-an-erratic-marxist). The Finance Minister would not even pass muster as a Poulantzan. For Callinicos, the policies of the Syriza government amount to rank Keynesianism and as such have to be rejected by the revolutionary left as giving false hopes—even worse than the Left Platform in Syriza that at least rejects half-measures that leave Greece in the clutches of the German bankers, the ECB and the IMF.

Against the left reformism of Stathis Kouvelakis and the more mainstream reformism of Tsipras and his finance minister, there is reason to keep hope alive in Greece since there is a group that keeps the escutcheon of revolutionary socialism unsullied. I speak of course of Antarsya, a group that coalesces Callinicos’s co-thinkers in Greece with other far-left groups and individuals.

Unlike the more rabid elements of the far left like the WSWS.org or the Spartacist League that urged Greeks to vote for the KKE, Callinicos deems Syriza’s election as “inspiring”. The problem, of course, is that it is doomed to fail as a socialist electoral project because the “deep state” defies dismantling from within the state itself. In other words, the cops, the army and the intelligence agencies have to be “smashed” by the armed detachments of workers councils that arise in the course of struggle, just as occurred in Russia in 1917. The most urgent task in Greece is to create “dual power” that will eventually reach the critical mass necessary to transform Greece.

The curious thing about such formulations is that they generally fall short of positing socialism as the final goal since there is something pretty counter-intuitive about a weak and peripheral economy like Greece’s serving as a platform for the age-old communist dream. Instead Callinicos proposed measures that would defeat the austerity regime, including the nationalization of the banks, capital controls and abandoning the Euro. Since these are measures advocated by the Left Platform to one degree or another, there is some question as to why Antarsya felt it necessary to stay outside of Syriza. One must assume that its members must have decided long ago that they would prefer to work outside of an organization that the SWP regarded as hopelessly compromised whether in a Poulantzan or Keynesian version.

If nationalizing the banks, dual power, workers militias, etc. correspond to the objective class interests of the long-suffering Greek people, one wonders why they have such difficulty understanding that. In the recently held elections, Antarsya received 39,411 votes, which is 0.64 percent of the total vote. Three years ago they got 75,248, which was 1.19 percent. So as the crisis deepens in Greece and the need for revolutionary action grows, their vote fell by half.

It probably does not matter to Antarsya that they are so marginal to Greek politics. They are “making the record”, something that the far left has honed to a razor’s edge. About fifteen years ago, when I was good friends with Scott McLemee, I spent a weekend at his place in Washington, DC where we visited the Smithsonian where his wife worked. We went into the research shelves where he picked up a copy of Robert Alexander’s book on Latin American Trotskyism. He clucked his tongue and mused how tragic it was that so many groups had such short lives, implying that repression did them in. I had a somewhat different take although there was no point in taking it up with him. I viewed the evanescence of such groups as rooted in their very character. When you define yourself as critics of reformism or opportunism, there is not much possibility for growth since the masses have little use for small groups that do not produce results. As Peter Camejo once told me, the Trotskyist movement has never been charged with betrayal since no party with this brand name ever found itself in a position of actually governing, as does Syriza.

Turning from the ridiculous to the nearly sublime, Stathis Kouvelakis made points that Alex Callinicos was hardly capable of understanding since they address the key question of our age, namely how the left should organize itself. For Callinicos that question has already been answered: like the SWP.

He acknowledged that Syriza might fail but even if it did the fact that was voted into office sets a precedent for Europe, namely that the people will consciously choose radical solutions. It provides an incentive for similar parties taking shape in Europe, especially Podemos in Spain.

It was interesting to me to hear Kouvelakis make the case for Syriza’s organizational norms that he described as an advance over those that prevailed through most of the 20th century in the name of Leninism. It is the fact that Syriza has members with many different backgrounds that gives it its strength since the communication between clashing views often leads to resolution on a higher level. When you have homogenous organizations like the SWP, there is a natural tendency to follow the leaders. In my own Leninist experience in the American SWP, it was the very homogeneity that allowed the party to implode. In our case it was an insane “turn” to the working class. In the case of the British SWP, it was a refusal to confront sexual violence in its ranks that has led to its downfall.

In addition to watching the debate on Youtube above, I recommend a look at Todd Chretien’s article (http://socialistworker.org/2015/02/26/kind-of-a-different-state) in the ISO newspaper. As many of you know, the ISO was formerly a satellite of the British SWP but broke with them over Callinicos’s accusation that they had lost the revolutionary thread over the “lessons of Seattle” (shades of Robert Alexander.)

The ISO has ties to a group in Greece that works inside Syriza and that has developed very sound analyses as part of the Left Platform. Like the ISO, they are obviously thinking through the whole question of “Leninism” but are probably still committed to the idea that “democratic centralism” and all that is the way to go.

Unfortunately Chretien’s article is a collection of orthodoxies that like all orthodoxies is true for all times and all places, and as such is useless. He remonstrates with Leo Panitch over his statement that Syriza demonstrates the need for “taking power” in a “new kind of state”. Referring to everybody’s (at least in the Marxist genus and species) anti-Christ Karl Kautsky, Chretien lectures us on the need for “smashing the state”:

WHAT DOES this owe to Kautsky? In State and Revolution, Lenin reviews a controversy between Kautsky and the Dutch revolutionary Anton Pannekoek, starting with these words from Pannekoek:

The struggle of the proletariat is not merely a struggle against the bourgeoisie for state power, but a struggle against state power…The content of this [the proletarian] revolution is the destruction and dissolution of the instruments of power of the state with the aid of the instruments of power of the proletariat.

While Lenin’s article is certainly engaged with the realities faced by the Russian people in 1917, it cannot be applied to Greece in a schematic fashion especially in light of these realities:

  1. 70 percent of the Greek people favor remaining in the Eurozone. What’s more, Syriza’s popularity has increased in the past month at the very time it was supposedly “betraying” the people who voted for them. They obviously were not paying attention to articles in the ISO newspaper calling attention to Syriza’s “retreat”.
  2. The party with the largest industrial working class base is the KKE but it is incapable of serving as a incubator for the “dual power” that would lead to what Pannekoek called the “destruction” of the state.
  3. The rejection of the “classical” Leninist strategy of smashing the state rests to some extent on the peculiarities of Greek society that has a preponderance of petty-bourgeois layers that likely seek something less than socialist revolution. Stathis Kouvelakis referred to these class realities in his Nov.-Dec. 2011 NLR article titled “The Greek Cauldron” (http://newleftreview.org/II/72/stathis-kouvelakis-the-greek-cauldron):

The social compact on which Greek governments had rested in the immediate post-war decades excluded the working class and peasantry, instead relying on the support of the petty bourgeoisie—family-run businesses, independent professionals and, as of the 1960s, small proprietors in the nascent tourist sector. This layer was the privileged client base of the conservative parties that ruled the country in the 1950s and 60s, and was offered advantages unavailable to the mass of the population; these included exemption from taxes, access to public-sector jobs—doled out by the main right-wing parties—and a certain level of social mobility through education.

This is not to say that the petty bourgeoisie cannot be won to a revolutionary program but given its natural tendency to seek individualistic solutions and the KKE’s roots in the industrial working class, such a program has to be articulated on the basis of social reality and not through ritual incantations of “State and Revolution”.

I should say that not all is lost with Todd Chretien. He refers favorably to ex-SWP’er David Renton who has been a beacon of Marxist insight and common sense when it comes to Syriza.

Even more importantly, the ISO is helping to build a conference on Future of Left/ Independent Politics Electoral Action Conference to be held May 2-3, 2015 in Chicago (http://www.independentpoliticalreport.com/2015/02/future-of-left-independent-politics-electoral-action-conference-to-be-held-may-2-3-2015-in-chicago/). It describes its aims and objectives as follows:

  1. To promote independent political action
  2. To build cooperation among disparate movements, candidates, left/progressive parties
  3. To develop and adopt a means for continued networking, conversation and cooperation after the conference

In other words, the conference is moving in the direction mapped out by Syriza. However the Greek comrades fare when it comes to the sharp struggle facing them, they have at least bequeathed a strategy for building the left that no doubt is in the back of the minds of the people behind this conference.

As it turns out, the conference was first proposed by Solidarity in the summer of 2014. Now 29 years old, the organization was far ahead of its time in understanding the need for something in the USA that anticipated Syriza as their founding statement (http://www.solidarity-us.org/site/foundingstatement) makes clear:

The belief that our particular group constituted in some sense the “vanguard party,” or its core, in a situation where in reality the group had only limited influence at the base and even less actual leadership position among any group of workers, created distortions of various kinds in our politics. Such a situation inevitably generated certain tendencies, which were often justified in terms of “Leninist” or “democratic centralist” norms but which more often were a serious misapplication and incorrect reading of the actual historic practice of the Bolshevik party in Lenin’s lifetime.

Now after 29 years, it looks like the rest of the left is catching up with Solidarity. Let’s try to make it out to Chicago for this conference and help create the momentum that will lead to an American counterpart of Syriza and Podemos.

March 2, 2015

Why Greeks might fear a return to a devalued drachma

Filed under: Greece — louisproyect @ 11:34 am

Screen shot 2015-03-02 at 6.33.54 AM

The most radical option, but the economically most sustainable one of all, would be for Greece to exit the Eurozone on her own, return to her old, devalued currency, the Drachma, and begin renegotiating her debt with her creditors, the ‘troika’ – akin to what Argentina did in 2001, when they abandoned the US dollar-peso parity and renegotiated their foreign debt with a heftily devalued peso (never mind the recent vulture funds’ pressure on Argentina; it will not succeed).

–Peter Koenig, “The Eurozone in Crisis: The Greek Elections, An Opportunity of the Century, A Gateway for Europe”, Global Research

* * * *

The New York Times
October 13, 1985, Sunday, Late City Final Edition

Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou today canceled a visit to the United States to supervise tough new economic measures that include a 15 percent devaluation of the Greek currency, the drachma, against the dollar. The devaluation, which went into effect Friday night, means that a dollar now will now buy 155.9 drachmas, instead of 132.5.

* * * *

The Toronto Star
October 20, 1985, Sunday
Workers balk at government’s economic battle plan
By Robert McDonald Special to The Star

ATHENS – The taxi driver’s wife waved the chocolate bar wrapper and shouted: “This costs 60 drachmas (68 cents). The minimum cab fare is 80 drachmas (91 cents).

“The price of bread has gone up. The price of gasoline has gone up. I can’t afford to buy milk for the kids.”

Hundreds of taxi drivers sitting or lying on the pavement in Constitution Square, the heart of the capital, egged her on as she vented her frustration.

The cabbies, who have been looking for a 25 per cent basic fare increase for months, had brought the centre of this city of 3.5 million people to a grinding halt with a sitdown protest in support of their demands.

Riot police

Two of the more vociferous drivers rejected the suggestion that demands like theirs would only fuel inflation.

“Our wives say the money we give them is not enough because everything is going up,” one said. “It should stop from somewhere but not from the taxis.”

More than 12 hours later, the government sent in riot police to break up the protest.

The demonstration was typical of the problems the ruling Socialists face in their second term of office as they try to grapple with the most serious economic crisis the country has faced in more than two decades.

Inflation which was projected to come down to 16 per cent this year is likely to stay at 20 per cent or more. Unemployment is averaging 8 per cent overall and almost 12 per cent in the cities.

But Greece’s biggest problem is a foreign debt crisis. Depending on whose figures you believe the cumulative national debt stands at somewhere between $13 and $18 billion.

The interest payments based on the lower figure rose from $327 million in 1979 to $1.1 billion last year. The grace period on a number of loans contracted in the early 1980s will end in the next couple of years.

And the problem is mounting. The Socialists have actually managed to decrease the deficit on the balance of trade by more than 20 per cent but it still stood at $5.3 billion last year.

In the past that amount was offset by remittances from Greeks living and working abroad, from earnings from the huge Greek merchant fleet and by receipts from tourism. But with the worldwide recession, more and more Greeks overseas have nothing left over to send home and many are returning to swell the ranks of the unemployed.

The world shipping slump means Greek owners have shed 40 per cent of their capacity since the Socialists came to power. Shipping receipts for the first six months of this year were down by 19 per cent over the same period last year. Tourist traffic is up by l7 per cent but revenues increased by only 8 per cent.

The government had projected a current account deficit of $2 billion for the year. It had already hit $2.1 billion by July and was heading for almost $3 billion by the end of the year.

Prime Minister Dr. Andreas Papandreou and his National Economy Minister Kostas Simitis decided to stop the rot before the country was forced to go cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund to seek debt rescheduling with all the attendant economic rigors that would entail.

Instead they have turned to the European Economic Community for help – one community official says a loan worth between $1.14 billion and $2.8 billion is being considered. He said the Greeks may try to negotiate a credit for the higher amount with an indication that they would hope to draw down only the lesser sum.

Aprroval of the loan would mean the introduction of some tough tough austerity measures in Athens – perhaps as tough as any the IMF might lay down.

The centrepiece of a program the Socialists are still preparing was the 15 per cent devaluation of the drachma on Oct. 11. Coupled with this are wage and price controls.

One of the Socialists’ main planks had been an incomes redistribution scheme that index-linked the salaries of lowest paid workers to inflation. Now that is to be curtailed so that workers are paid only a government designated sum that has “removed imported inflation.”

A scheme to salvage bankrupt companies and thus save jobs is being watered down and a number of firms will be allowed to go to the wall.

Prices paid to farmers will be brought down through adjustments in the rates at which payments are made through the European Community’s common agricultural policy.

In exchange the government will continue price controls on a wide range of manufactured goods though not on such things as state-owned utilities, which will be allowed to raise prices in search of profitability.

Public sector spending is to be reduced by 4 per cent next year through cutting down on recruitment of staff and strict control of operating costs.

The government has also promised tax reform and a crackdown on business and professional people for whom evasion is something of a national sport.

A special onetime tax on 1984 business profits will be imposed starting at 3 per cent on net earnings as low as $4,500 and climbing to 10 per cent on profits over $18,000. Many farmers are to be brought into the tax net for the first time.

Worker protests

The government is asking the European Community to be allowed to postpone the application of a Community-wide tax on all goods and services for at least a year but to continue certain export aids.

The measures have already brought a heated reaction from the trade unions – both those led by the Communists and those sympathetic to the government.

Workers at rallies in Athens, Piraeus, Patras and Salonika last Tuesday shouted slogans and called on the government to reverse what they said amounted to a wage freeze.

About 20,000 attended the main rally in Athens and the others attracted a total of at least 6,000, police sources told Reuter news agency .

Kostas Kappos, the Communist party spokesman in parliament, said the measures “merely shift the crisis onto the back of the people.”

New Democracy, the conservative opposition, finds it difficult to complain about the sort of measures that it likely would have imposed had it won last June’s election. The party is also wracked by internal battles.

The one source of political opposition facing Papandreou is his own party. Many leading members were not consulted about the austerity package and believed that they would be given a chance to debate the matter at a special central committee meeting next month.

The so-called watermelons of the party – the left-wing who are said to be green (the party color) on the outside and red in the centre – feel the measures betray the party’s socialist principles.

Only two weeks before the measures were announced, Papandreou revamped the party executive bureau, dumping eight top ministers from the 11-man council and replacing them with insignificant party figures.

The idea he said was to separate the party from government. But many feel it was to give him a freer hand in creating and applying policy and to confine criticism within the party without such criticism spilling over into cabinet proceedings.

* Robert McDonald is a Star correspondent based in London. He is currently on assignment in Greece.

* * * *

The Guardian (London)
April 2, 1986
Pasok struggles to bare its socialist soul / The transformation of Greece’s PanHellenic Socialist Movement


Nearly a year after its triumphant re-election, Mr Andreas Papandreou’s PanHellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok) is suffering an identity crisis. Economic realities have forced the Government to shed much of the virulent socialist rhetoric of the past and opt for increasing conservative policies on domestic and foreign issues. These shifts suggest that Pasok has matured into a social democratic party of the West European type. Yet neither Pasok, nor its leader, seem reconciled to this transformation.

The turning point was the introduction of a programme of austerity measures in October, 1985. These measures which included a 15 per cent devaluation of the drachma, an increase in import duties, and a two-year wage freeze, were aimed at halting the precipitous slide of the Greek economy and at reactivating private investment and boosting foreign aid.

With a foreign debt of over dollars 16 billion and an estimated balance of payments deficit this year of dollars 1.7 billion, the Government realised that it badly needed the financial support of the West. Relations with the EEC, which recently extended a dollars 1.5 billion loan to Greece, have improved in the past year. While the future of US bases remains uncertain, the visit last week of Mr George Shultz, the US Secretary of State, was a clear sign that relations with the US are also improving.

But at home, changes in domestic and foreign policy have damaged relations with the left. The KKE, the pro-Moscow Communist party, which controls about 10 per cent of the vote, has dissociated itself from the Government’s economic policy. Together with the Eurocommunists, it has condemned what it sees as a shift to the right and a betrayal of the socialist vision promulgated by Pasok.

The austerity measures have also caused deep rifts within Pasok ranks. At least 300 trade unionists and regional party officials have been expelled for opposing them. And earlier this month, the former economics Minister and party stalwart, Mr Gerasimos Arsenis, was also expelled on charges of conspiring with other dissaffected leftwingers.

The cost of confrontation with the left has been high. Strikes, which were rare during the first four years of Pasok rule, have become widespread. Teachers, taxi and public transport drivers, state and private employees, pharmacists, and hospital doctors have all taken strike action. A strike by 40,000 truck owners which ended last month paralysed the market for three weeks.

Divided against itself and at war with the Communist parties, Pasok’s leftist credibility was sinking fast. To stem the tide. Mr Papandreou has reacted with his customary political guile. On the first day of Pasok’s central committee conference last month, he called on the KKE and the Eurocommunist party to join his Government in ‘an open dialogue’ about the policies to be followed for the socialist transformation of Greek society.

Phrased in characteristically vague terms, this ‘opening’ to the left is unlikely to produce results. Both Communist parties have dismissed it as a tactical ploy designed to divert attention from the country’s economic troubles. They have made it plain they will only co-operate on terms the Government has already indicated are unacceptable. But it is doubtful anyway whether the Prime Minister was genuinely interested in co-operation.

By making these overtures, Mr Papandreou has sought to cut the ground from under the feet of his leftist critics.

Few would question the Prime Minister’s ability to maintain his popularity with timely displays of demagogic fireworks. Yet while recourse to rhetoric may serve the party’s political interests, it also undermines the Government’s economic recovery programme. For as long as Mr Papandreou tries to have it both ways, it is unlikely that he will be able to generate sufficient business confidence to bring about the investment necessary for the rejuvenation of the Greek economy.

* * * *

The Guardian (London)
July 28, 1987
Greeks have a word for austerity


Faced with the apparent failure of its 20-month-old austerity programme to produce the desired results, Andreas Papandreou’s Socialist government finds itself in a tight corner.

With its popularity ebbing and its ideology compromised, PASOK now confronts an unpleasant dilemma; either to opt for further restrictive economic policies or allow the Greek economy to sink further into the mire.

Recent studies carried out by the European Community, the IMF and the OECD, as well as the figures published by the economy ministry all point to the same dispiriting fact: that while the stabilisation programme introduced in October 1985 has been carefully applied,it can neither cure the macro-economic imbalances of the Greek economy nor achieve any of the targets set for 1987.

Inflation, projected at 10 per cent for the whole year, rose by 9.9 per cent in the first six months, and is now running at 17.7 per cent on a yearly basis, giving Greece a rate of inflation more than five times that of the EEC’s average.

The current account deficit, which the government had hoped would be reduced to dollars 1.25 billion by the end of 1987, has climbed over dollars 1.35 billion. The hope to reduce the public-sector borrowing requirement (PSBR) by 4 per cent of the gross national product was shattered with the realisation that public-sector debt is swelling rather than retracting.

These disclosures seem to have come as a shock to the government, which had been encouraged by last year’s successes into believing that by the end of 1987 it could start easing its unpopular austerity programme.

Last week, the economics minister, brought down to earth, was forced to concede that austerity is here to stay until 1990. Introduced in October 1985 the austerity programme had aimed at reducing the large macro-economic imbalances that had built up over the previous decade, manifested in a high rate of inflation, large current account deficits. and huge public-sector borrowing requirement.

Its chief features were a tight incomes policy, 15 per cent devaluation of the drachma, and measures to control imports.

Reduced oil prices, an increase in the EEC’s subsidies and favourable dollar exchange rates made possible the attainment of the 1986 targets. Inflation, which stood at 24 per cent in 1985, was brought down to 16.9 per cent, the current account deficit was slashed by half to dollars 1.7 billion and the PSBR, which represented 18 per cent of the GNP in 1985, was reduced by 4.5 per cent.

This year’s first results indicate how precarious 1986’s achievements were. Without support of external factors, the stabilisation programme has fallen flat on its face.

The minister of national economy, Costas Simitis, blamed some of the deviation on the effect of added-value tax, which was introduced on January 1, and the unusually bad spring weather.

Increasingly, however, the government is coming to recognise the strength of two formidable obstacles to its stabilisation attempts: a rampant and inefficient public sector and a thriving black economy.

The major enemy of stabilisation, as the latest EEC report says, is an overblown and insatiable public sector, which has mushroomed since the early’70s and now employs 27 per cent of the total labour force at the cost of dizzying deficits.

For all its recent pronouncements, PASOK has not yet been able to control the spread and wastefulness of state enterprises and organisations, whose debt will equal 59 per cent of the GNP in 1987 and will climb to 65 per cent in 1988. Any serious attempt to rectify these imbalances would provoke widespread reactions as it would mean, among other things, curbing employment and social benefits that were generously increased when PASOK was first elected.

Understandably, the government has shied away from the task and announced recently that decisions about the insurance funds would be postponed for another six months.

PASOK will have to come to grips with its problems. For while it can ill afford to compound popular dissatisfaction, it cannot afford to see its much-resented austerity fail either.

* * * *

The Financial Post (Toronto, Canada)
April 24, 1989, Monday, WEEKLY EDITION
Greece’s socialist dream dying from neglect and abuse
by Andriana Ierodiaconou (Financial Times of London)

DATELINE: Athens, Greece

The political crisis in which Greece has been embroiled since last summer has a much grimmer content than the passing scandals occupying the headlines.

These scandals – dealings between the government and former banker and press baron George Koskotas, Greece’s sale of arms to Iran, Iraq or South Africa, and Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou’s widely publicized extra-marital affair with a much younger woman – are serious enough.

But the Greeks have been experiencing a crisis more serious still – the death of a dream.

In 1981, 48% of Greeks rallied around the Panhellenic Socialist Movement’s slogan allaghi – change. They voted for what they took to be a commitment on the Socialists’ part to manage Greece’s successful economic, social and political entry into the developed European mainstream.

Long before the scandals started, however, it began to appear that something was going badly wrong. Nepotism, Orwellian control over the state radio and television monopoly, and a lack of planning continued to permeate Greek life.

Administration and public services, including health and education, remained substandard or deteriorated.

Even more ominously, it soon became apparent that the Socialists operated under the absolute rule of one man – Papandreou – who expelled dissenting colleagues from both party and cabinet.

Far from putting Greece’s economic house in order, by the end of their first term in office the government had so depleted all coffers that the country was threatened with a foreign lending freeze.

With disaster looming, the Socialists devalued the drachma, imposed a two-year wage freeze, and turned to the EC for a balance of payments support loan – not before, however, having won, with 46% of the vote, a second election in June, 1985.


During the campaign not a word was spoken about Greece’s economic problems, much less about the imminent austerity program. (That program was eased, prematurely, in 1987, resulting in a public-sector deficit growing at emergency rates and rising inflation.)

In March, 1985, the Socialists withdrew their support for President Constantine Karamanlis’s candidacy at the last minute, electing a Socialist as head of state in a parliamentary vote that unashamedly bent procedural rules.

In the June national elections, the Socialists were rewarded with Communist Party votes for overthrowing the personification of the old Right.

These votes secured the party’s victory. The Communists then backed a Socialist-proposed reform of the 1975 constitution that rendered the role of the president cosmetic.

The exact details of George Koskotas’s rise to fortune during that period are still being painstakingly unraveled by a judicial investigation launched last October when the government finally allowed charges of embezzlement and illegal foreign currency transactions to be filed against him. Koskotas, in custody in the U.S. where he escaped with his family in November, has been broadcasting his own version of the story. He claims he supplied the Socialists with press backing plus millions of dollars for personal and party use in exchange for a free hand in his business dealings.

Koskotas’s allegations are backed by a substantial body of circumstantial evidence, but direct proof is mostly still lacking. Papandreou has denounced these allegations as ”miserable lies,” and brought a libel suit against Time magazine, in which the allegations were first published.

He has offered his own, no less extraordinary, scenario: that the Koskotas scandal is a plot to bring the Socialists down fomented by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in collusion with the Greek Right.


Papandreou’s conspiracy theory has been rejected by opposition parties on both the left and the right.

The opposition argues that even the small part of the Koskotas story that has been established beyond all denial should have long since prompted the government’s resignation.

When a publishers’ lobby in the summer of 1988 stepped up pressure for an investigation into Koskotas’s affairs, the government introduced a special law on banking confidentiality that purported to help, but in reality hampered, Bank of Greece auditors.

In the two months before charges were filed against Koskotas, a range of public-sector enterprises hastened to prop up the Bank of Crete with some 20 billion drachmas in deposits.

Koskotas, while supposedly under the strictest surveillance, got away.

At least six ministers have been sacked or have resigned in protest over the affair and nine Socialist officials, including the directors of three state corporations, have been jailed.

The director of Olympic Airways has avoided custody but has been barred from leaving the country.

Those held also include three former managers of the state-run Hellenic Arms Industry. Bank of Greece investigators have reportedly established a link between the Bank of Crete and illegal arms exports.

The key figure among the deposed ministers is Agamemnon Koutsogiorgas. As Justice minister, Koutsogiorgas masterminded the controversial 1988 banking confidentiality law. Koskotas has alleged that Koutsogiorgas received US$2 million paid into a Swiss bank for his trouble.

These allegations have been corroborated by Yianis Mantzouranis, a former secretary to the Socialist cabinet who is among those in custody. Papandreou says an investigation is in progress.

The biggest casualty by far, however, has been the historic opportunity to reorganize and modernize Greece. Instead of a restructuring effort, the past eight years look more like a vast exercise in mismanagement and corruption.

And the electoral system recently approved by parliament leaves some doubt as to whether the Conservatives, who lead the polls, will secure an absolute majority of seats in next June’s general elections. Alternatively, as some fear and others hope, the result may introduce an era of coalitions as in Italy.



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!

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