As bad as Alex Callinicos’s analysis of Greece has been, at least you can give him credit for not issuing the kind of calls for socialist revolution that landed in my inbox last Wednesday, courtesy of Alan Woods’s “In Defense of Marxism” (IDOM) website. Woods and company are “old school” Trotskyists who have perfected the art of outflanking “fakers” like Syriza from the left even though—to their credit—they have had remarkable patience with the Chavistas in Venezuela. In an article titled “Greece: Neither ‘honourable compromise’ nor ‘accidental rupture’ – the only way forward is a Socialist policy – part one”, Stamatis Karagiannopoulos, a member of the “Communist Tendency” in Syriza, makes the case for socialist revolution:
Comrades of the SYRIZA leadership are accustomed to deriding the Communist Tendency’s patient defence of an anticapitalist-socialist programme with their metaphysical aphorism that: “this isn’t the time for socialism”. We – the communists – respond in this way: “life itself indicates exactly the opposite to what you claim! Never has capitalism been so incapable of satisfying even the most basic of human needs, and never has socialism been so necessary to satisfy those needs”! The fact that the voice of SYRIZA’s communists is incomparably weaker than those of the leadership’s ‘celebrity’ ministers does not mean that our positions, perspectives, and warnings are incorrect. On the contrary, these are the only positions that are based on a realistic evaluation of reality and of the prospects of a system doomed to go from crisis to crisis.
Well, who can argue against positions that are based on a “realistic evaluation of reality”?
At the risk of defying reality, I think it would be worthwhile to think about what it would mean to “build socialism” in Greece. In fact, there’s very little engagement with that question in the IDOM website. Mostly there are calls for radical action such as the following: “Rather than requesting a European debt conference with bourgeois governments we should hold directly in Greece an international conference of the mass organisations of the working class and of the youth against capitalism!” (The comrades are fond of the exclamation point.)
There’s a bit of a disconnect here. If you wash your hands of the “bourgeois governments”, how exactly are “the mass organisations of the working class and of the youth against capitalism” supposed to come up with the dough to keep Greece functioning? In 1960 it was one thing for Cuba to kick out the Western corporations when the USSR existed. It is another thing, however, when the USSR no longer exists and Putin—despite his anti-imperialist bluster—is in no position to support Greece.
Maybe I am a bit more hesitant to take calls for socialist revolution in Greece seriously since I saw what happened in Nicaragua in the late 80s when the USSR still existed but was getting ready to close shop. Forced to rely on its own devices, the FSLN could not survive. Years later, there would be a new upswing of radicalism in Latin America but the left would be careful not to break with capitalism after the fashion of the Cuban model. Leaving aside Venezuela’s future prospects, I have never heard it described as socialist.
It would be useful to review what classical Marxism had to say about socialist revolution especially in light of the problems encountered in peripheral societies like Vietnam, Cuba, and China et al.
Karl Marx’s emphasis was on advanced capitalist countries like Britain, Germany and France. So was Engels. In an 1847 article, he answered the rhetorical question “Will it be possible for this revolution to take place in one country alone?” His answer:
No. By creating the world market, big industry has already brought all the peoples of the Earth, and especially the civilized peoples, into such close relation with one another that none is independent of what happens to the others.
Further, it has co-ordinated the social development of the civilized countries to such an extent that, in all of them, bourgeoisie and proletariat have become the decisive classes, and the struggle between them the great struggle of the day. It follows that the communist revolution will not merely be a national phenomenon but must take place simultaneously in all civilized countries – that is to say, at least in England, America, France, and Germany.
But towards the end of his life Karl Marx seemed to reverse himself when he began looking closely at Russia since it was home to rural communes that could have served as the foundations for a communist society—at least based on the letters to Zasulich. However, it should never be forgotten that he saw Russia in terms of a peasant revolution that could only succeed in partnership with the West as this preface to the Second Russian Edition of the Communist Manifesto should make clear: “If the Russian revolution becomes the signal for proletarian revolution in the West, then Russia’s peasant communal land-ownership may serve as the point of departure for a communist development.”
You’ll notice the if-then formulation. This was pretty much the outlook of Russian Marxists as well, including Lenin. Many people on the left believe that Lenin was for a socialist revolution from the get-go and not just a bourgeois revolution that aimed for radical land reform and democratic rights—the sort of thing we associate with France in 1789. I was never convinced of this. There were just too many formulations such as this that was contained in the March-April 1905 article “A Revolution of the 1789 or the 1848 Type?” (emphases in the original):
Only history, of course, can weigh these pros and cons in the balances. Our task as Social-Democrats is to drive the bourgeois revolution onward as far as it will go, without ever losing sight of our main task—the independent organisation of the proletariat.
Marxists are absolutely convinced of the bourgeois character of the Russian revolution. What does this mean? It means that the democratic reforms in the political system and the social and economic reforms, which have become a necessity for Russia, do not in themselves imply the undermining of capitalism, the undermining of bourgeois rule; on the contrary, they will, for the first time, really clear the ground for a wide and rapid, European, and not Asiatic, development of capitalism; they will, for the first time, make it possible for the bourgeoisie to rule as a class.
Leaving aside the question of whether Lenin abandoned this outlook in 1917, there is little doubt that following Marx’s if-then, Lenin saw the USSR’s survival as utterly dependent on the success of Communist Parties in Western Europe. In a “Speech on the International Situation” delivered to the 1918 Congress of Soviets, Lenin said, “The complete victory of the socialist revolution in one country alone is inconceivable and demands the most active cooperation of at least several advanced countries, which do not include Russia.”
Despite the differences he had with Lenin on the character of the approaching revolution in Russia, Trotsky was in accord with the reliance on more developed nations. In “Results and Prospects”, written in 1906, he stated: “But how far can the socialist policy of the working class be applied in the economic conditions of Russia? We can say one thing with certainty–that it will come up against obstacles much sooner than it will stumble over the technical backwardness of the country. Without the direct State support of the European proletariat the working class of Russia cannot remain in power and convert its temporary domination into a lasting socialistic dictatorship.”
Keeping in mind that Russia was richly endowed with oil, timber, coal, iron ore, fertile soil, and a powerful army that had defeated the imperialist invaders, Lenin continued to worry about the USSR’s future without that help. In “Better Fewer, But Better”, written in 1923 a year before his death, he wrote that “It is not easy for us, however, to keep going until the socialist revolution is victorious in more developed countries…”
Stalin of course decided that it was possible to build socialism in the USSR even if it took subordinating the CP’s to the foreign policy exigencies of the Kremlin. History teaches us that the results were inimical to socialism in the long run. Despite the lessons of failure in the USSR and repeated retreats in the Third World, the comrades in Alan Woods’s Fourth International invite the Greeks to go full steam ahead.
Before Alexis Tsipras took office, I wrote the following:
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.
In my view, the best thing the left can do is to organize demonstrations of solidarity with Syriza—not write the sort of junk that appears in the British SWP and IDOM press. Yes, we know that they are weak-tea social democrats and that the Greeks deserve fearless leaders like Alex Callinicos and Alan Woods who will never retreat an inch. But for those on the left still moored to the “realistic evaluation of reality” alluded to above, my strongest recommendation is to hound the filthy bankers who are trying to make the Greeks cry uncle just as Reagan did to the Nicaraguans. There were those on the left who were all to anxious to point out the FSLN’s shortcomings in 1989 but I was content to do what I had been doing for three years—raising money and volunteers to keep a revolutionary experiment alive. With all proportions guarded, this is the way we should look at Greece in 2015.