Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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.


  1. Pretty scary, Louis, but I find myself agreeing more and more with your posts these days, such as this one. The two women were by far the most interesting and thoughtful speakers. My main frustration is that no one offered suggestions for how internationalistas could support the revolutionary process that is happening right now in Greece, apart from pressuring U.S. and E.U. officials to ease up on Greece. What Greek (and other) corporations are hostile to the Left in Greece and how can we organize mass boycotts and other activities to target them? The U.N. is here in NYC, what activities might be productive in encouraging other countries to not pay their debts to the IMF, and spread the revolt? (Yay for the Left in Spain!) What direct actions can we take here that will expand the line of attack?

    Comment by Mitchel Cohen — February 7, 2015 @ 10:33 pm

  2. “He derided Antarsya as a ‘flea’ since it lacked a mass following.” Well, the Communist Party of Greece got more than 300,000 votes and regularly organizes mass protests of thousands. However, we are not allowed to consider anything said by “Stalinists,” and we ignore such basic economic questions as: is the problem a European austerity policy, or is European capitalist economy at an impasse that neither reactionary nor social-democratic policies can resolve?

    Comment by Joe Dju... — February 8, 2015 @ 7:03 pm

  3. Louis, just as per my letter to the Weekly Worker, your description of the new coalition may be wrong, too.

    You have characterized the Independent Greeks (ANEL) as a “bourgeois party”. This is highly inaccurate: Richard Seymour has suggested that its electoral support is demographically more similar to a leftist party than to typical centre-right parties. It would be more accurate to describe them as a thoroughly petty bourgeois party.

    As for “the latest version of the Popular Front,” while I don’t think this is your position, I again ask those who suggest this about whether the historically notorious Third-Period collaboration between the German Communist Party and the Nazis, traditionally seen as the polar opposite of the later popular front turn, is also a version of the Popular Front. No, I am not comparing the Syriza-ANEL cooperation to that, but some ultra-lefts have.

    These counterpoints and others suggest that the new Communitarian Populist Front governing Greece implies a dual insistence on radical, participatory-democratic overhaul and on predistributionist economic policy (how ‘socialist’ depends on the mass consciousness of class-based public policy-making), and concession on identity and related ‘social’ issues to a ‘radical center’ standstill – but not pushing through bans on games of chance (Paris Commune) or violent video games (Hugo Chávez), or other socially conservative policy.

    Comment by Jacob Richter — February 8, 2015 @ 7:44 pm

  4. Excellent start, Louis. I, too, had already read Budgen’s interview and was equally struck by the comment you quote. I always appreciate your “heavy lifting” on analyses. This one is going to be important in context of any Syriza style development here.

    Comment by mtomas3 — February 8, 2015 @ 11:14 pm

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