Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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.


  1. “However the Greek comrades [Syriza] fare when it comes to the sharp struggle facing them, they have at least bequeathed a strategy for building the left.”

    Their bequest: a left that negotiates with big capital over the degree of impoverishment that can be imposed on the Greek working people. A left that has agreed nothing the old social democratic PASOK would not have agreed, but which for the moment can sell the sellout to the Greek people.

    A core determination to find the path to revolution might be Scylla to the unrelenting revisionist, but you have to avoid Charybdis, too. Sorry, we can’t sail the seas with the Manhattan blogger at the helm.

    Comment by Robert Graves — March 5, 2015 @ 8:18 pm

  2. Stupid KKE troll.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 5, 2015 @ 8:46 pm

  3. [….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….]

    Nor have they ceded an inch to the possibility that their sectarian political model of a party tends to alienate revolutionary youth and thereby dooms them to a fate similar to the American SWP in the long run.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — March 5, 2015 @ 11:52 pm

  4. Here’s an incidental observation I don’t see anybody making.

    The predominant alternative solution forwarded by those who consider themselves to the left of Syriza has been the Grexit. A total exist from Euro, go back to drakhma, deflate the currency, which encourages exports and and in time, the suffering will be over and it will back to a normal healthy capitalist system, but of course free of European Union domination. Except, maybe, that Greece doesn’t have much to export. And this solution is just another capitalist solution. There is really nothing radical about it.

    So, considering the fact that a more than significant majority of the Greeks don’t even support exiting the EU or dropping the Euro, what exactly is the advantage of taking one very painful path of struggle which has a huge social support base (Syriza’s path) as opposed to another very painful path of struggle which has a very tiny support base (KKE path)?

    Would people stuck in the so-called ‘old school’ please get the point and translate that political reality into sense?

    Look, no matter what you do, particularly in a society with severely insufficient capabilities to survive in isolation (the fantasy of going ‘socialist’ *right now*, with about zero social support for such a path), you are going to face gigantic forces organized against you trying to force you back into a condition of being absolutely dominated.

    So, the real political question is actually very simple. The choices come down to which challenges CAN you take on, given the social forces that you can actually mobilize. An anti-austerity struggle CAN take on a piece of the problem, and then push back against the limits imposed on the society by finance capital’s totalitarian social exploitation through debt bondage of a whole nation. This struggle, when and if successful, CAN then spread as well as *deepen*. Syriza type governments open up the political space for the workers to organize in their workplaces, for the communities to self-organize, to provide safety and networks of support, gives people to organize on larger scale, organize better coordinated and more prolonged general strikes, etc. etc.

    All of this CAN then start to put more pressure internally in Greece on their capitalist classes, and CAN show the larger public the limits of the capitalist social relations that encase them within a European system ultimately controlled by the banks. This, alongside the other struggles that are going on around Europe, in Spain most immediately, for example, and in time can create even organizational unities and networks of struggle that, connected, can actually challenge and rock the entire European boat.

    That’s how you create revolutionary conditions. Social crises created by contradictions of capitalism do not of themselves create revolutionary conditions. What a unified left is actually able to do may and can create conditions for more revolutionary leaps.

    Comment by Reza F. — March 6, 2015 @ 1:26 am

  5. I’m curious what Louis thinks of the proposal outlined here:


    Comment by Jason Schulman (@PartyOfANewType) — March 7, 2015 @ 12:33 am

  6. […] che il punto è purtroppo rilevante. Stathis Kouvelakis per esempio l’altra sera durante un dibattito con Alex Callinicos ha messo in risalto che il governo Greco ha smesso di dire la verità. È […]

    Pingback by Il vero e il crudele. Riflessioni sulla Grecia – di Francesca Coin | Quaderni di San Precario — March 7, 2015 @ 9:35 am

  7. –Except, maybe, that Greece doesn’t have much to export. And this solution is just another capitalist solution.–

    It would help with tourism, but probably lead to the kind of predatory tourism one finds in poor countries.

    Comment by jeff — March 8, 2015 @ 6:16 pm

  8. Jeff,

    Agreed. Grexist and going back to their own currency may help Greeks with tourism, but, as you point out, it would probably lead to predatory tourism of the kind we find in other poor countries. Also, I don’t know how ‘elastic’ tourism is; meaning, how much would such a move *increase* tourism, thereby helping them get more income, etc.

    But, even if it helps a lot (which I doubt), we are still talking about a situation in which (a) Greece stays solidly within a capitalist world system, and will therefore be facing the same structural problems for a long time to come, and (b) the public support for such a solution, at this moment, is extremely low.

    Given both these conditions, I wonder why this solution is being proposed as something more radical than the path Syriza is taking. How would Grexit help resolve the structural problems? It is not like such a path will all of the sudden vanquish all the structural constrains placed on any single economy (especially one as limited as Greece’s) by world capitalist system.

    Political solutions available at any given moment, as we know, are to a great extent a function of the strength of organized social forces, so for me the choices are between two paths, both of which are extremely difficult and require huge sacrifices and social struggles. One of those choices has very thin social support, and the other has a huge social support. So, one would be wise to take the path for which there is a solid and well organized capacity to push it through.

    There is no guarantee of success for either path; but (it seems to me) the path with solid social support is more likely to succeed.

    Comment by Reza F. — March 8, 2015 @ 7:12 pm

  9. Their is a total disconnection, between the reality in Greece and the discussion of this issue in the western left.
    Syriza is NOT negotiating for the working class of Greece, is negociating for the Greek ruling class, which supports, as evidenced by the announcement of the Greek Organization for Trade and Industry (S.E.B.), the choice of a certain amount of pressure on the German government.
    KKE is not for a capitalist Greece, out of the eurozone or even the EU.
    It is for a socialist Greece, out of EU AND NATO, with the people at the helm of power.
    For the time being, the corelation of forces is negative, we fight to change it, to regroup the labor movement.
    We don’t use the negative corelation of forces, as an excuse, to flee to the enemy camp.


    Comment by Ger-asimos — March 9, 2015 @ 4:51 pm

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