Be careful what you wish for

Alex Tsipras: government?

As the next Greek elections loom, Paul Demarty takes a look at the lines being taken by the left and the current controversy in the SWP

On Sunday June 17, the Greek population will march once again to the polls – this time in even more dramatic circumstances. The polarisation of support between the rightwing New Democracy and the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza), and the background of a €100 billion, no-strings European Union bailout of Spanish banks, has charged this contest with a truly climactic feel – although, given that neither party looks likely to be able to form a government outright, Sunday’s poll is hardly likely to settle things in itself.

The western left in general, meanwhile, is also polarised – but obviously not on the same basis. The question is: critical support for Syriza, or action independent of it? This is posed most immediately because the various Trotskyist ‘internationals’, from the Fourth International itself to the Socialist Workers Party’s International Socialist Tendency, have their own groups and thus small stakes in Greece; but also because it is blindingly clear that, so far as the European masses are concerned, we are ‘all in it together’.

Many of the left organisations are grouped in Antarsya, an explicitly anti-capitalist (inasmuch as ‘anti-capitalism’ can be called explicit) formation that joins the Greek SWP (SEK), the Mandelite Organisation of Communist Internationalists of Greece-Spartacus (OKDE-S) and various other currents, including most importantly a radical youth breakaway from the Communist Party of Greece (KKE). Syriza, meanwhile, includes two breakaways from the SEK.

The only known quantity about the Greek political landscape come Monday morning is its uncertainty; one can speak, however, with much more assurance about the far-left discourse on events there. The left is polarised on a secondary question; it uniformly gets the main questions wrong.

SWP and Syriza

The terms of the left debate on Greece are usefully summed up in a dispute among comrades of our very own SWP – an interesting development, as the SWP is the very last place one looks, under normal circumstances, for signs of overt disagreement (even its splits these days look more and more politically threadbare).

Yet here is Richard Seymour, blogger at Lenin’s Tomb and an increasingly persistent democratic dissident in the SWP, coming out very cryptically for Syriza.[1] Under different circumstances that might not be controversial in the SWP; but its comrades are today slogging it out in Antarsya, whose vote looks to be extremely pinched.

Comrade Seymour provides a thumbnail analysis of Syriza and its vote, concluding that it cannot straightforwardly be called ‘reformist’; that its dual commitment to pro-Europe and anti-austerity stances is “inconsistent” and “an ambiguity whose resolution will depend significantly on the continuation and outcome of struggles in which Syriza is partially embedded”. Rather than this, it is its commitment to forming a left government that has won the support of “millions of workers and, at that, the most radicalised workers” (emphasis in original).

He criticises the KKE in most vigorous terms for its absolute refusal to countenance forming such a government, to the point of ‘third period’-style denunciations of Syriza. It refuses to acknowledge that the “choice is between a New Democracy-led austerity government, which would be immensely demoralising, and a Syriza-led anti-austerity government, which would give the whole continental left a massive shot in the arm and open up a host of new possibilities”. On Antarsya, he has little to say at all.

John Molyneux, the SWP’s premier ‘loyal oppositionist’ (these days rather more loyal than oppositional), responds on his own blog to professions of incredulity that the SWP can call for a vote to the Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential candidate in Egypt, yet refuse support to Syriza.[2] His first response is to reject this “mechanical” counterposition – it is perfectly permissible to advocate radically different electoral tactics in different situations.

In this, he is quite correct. ‘Critical support’ has been reduced by some to an algebraic formula, and there is no hard and fast law against limited electoral cooperation between communists and bourgeois parties – the Bolsheviks came to an electoral agreement with the liberal Cadets, and profited from it far more than the latter. The problem with the SWP’s call for a vote to the MB is not that it crosses a line of principle, but rather that it is utterly wrong in its own terms.[3]

What, then, of tactics in Greece? Comrade Molyneux makes the point that “the entire historical experience of ‘left’ governments in times of serious crisis shows that this is a perilous situation for working people”, citing the obvious cases of Chile under Allende, the Spanish popular front and so on. This is apparently not a reason to “oppose” Syriza or left governments in general, but is a reason to “maintain and build a clear, independent, revolutionary alternative”. This, apparently, is the aim of SEK in this period.

The issue is: what is the “clear, independent, revolutionary alternative” offered by Antarsya? The contributors to the SWP debate converge on a single answer: mass mobilisation in the streets, to make sure the government does what it was ostensibly elected to do, and keep the momentum going. This is a dodge – what is Antarsya to mobilise people for?

What distinguishes revolutionary policy from reformism in this case? For all practical purposes, according to the SWP, it is the demand for a full break with the EU, whereas Syriza are ‘reformists’ because they wish to ‘reform’ the EU. This is in fact a shibboleth – a particularly stupid shibboleth – and no guarantee of revolutionary consistency at all.

Wrong question, wrong answer

The far left, then, has become obsessed with electoral tactics – what matters first and foremost is the programme for which it fights.

Central to this in the Greek context is, firstly, the obvious issue on which this election is being contested – Greece’s relationship, present and future, to the EU. Nowhere is this problem as thorny as in Greece at the present time: if it stays in the EU, all things being equal, it faces sadistic economic punishment at the hands of the troika. On the other hand, if it leaves, it faces the flight of capital, a stillborn drachma and austerity of a very different sort. Some estimates see 20% being knocked off the value of the Greek GDP overnight.

All those who pose one alternative as somehow preferable (or more ‘revolutionary’) to the other, in those terms, are propagating cretinous fantasies. The ‘Greek question’ is transparently a European question – it poses the necessity of common working class organisation and action across the continent.

There is a second and perhaps more important issue, obscured by a great fug of conventional wisdom in which the answer is taken for granted. This is the question of government. Should we demand – like Richard Seymour – a ‘left government’, or a ‘workers’ government’, and advise our Greek comrades to form one? In reality, comrade Molyneux gets closer to the answer. If a government of the workers takes power and is unable to impose its programme, the result is invariably repression and demoralisation. Those who raise the spectre of military rule, or even fascism, as arguments for the left taking power have failed to notice that black reaction is quite invariably the main beneficiary wherever the left presides over social devastation.

In Greece alone, the choice is between semi-colonial dependency on Germany and an endogenous social catastrophe. A ‘left’ government, a New Democracy-led coalition, a new regime of the colonels – all will have to pick between them. The idea that a Syriza government in this situation will be a ‘shot in the arm’ for the continental left is only true if the shot in question is of deadly poison. Merkel will tell Spain, Italy and whoever else – fine, play hardball; you’ll only end up like Greece.

The way out is to fight, from a position of extreme opposition, for a government that could implement a revolutionary programme (which, again, means fighting for power on a continental scale). Comrade Pham Binh declares this attitude to be a ‘Marxist’ version of John Holloway’s Change the world without taking power[4] – this is an obvious folly. It is entirely orthodox Marxism and consistent with the strategy pursued by Marx, Engels and, for that matter, Lenin, who could, after all, have taken power during the July days … It has been confirmed by the experience of pretty much every government with far-left participation in history – including the manner in which revolutionary Russia ultimately succumbed to its own isolation.

This, ultimately, is why the narrow issue of the Greek revolutionary left’s electoral tactics for this Sunday is an issue of secondary importance. There are very real arguments for critical support for Syriza on the European question. Tsipras and co have been most energetic in highlighting the European dimension of the Greek struggle, and engaging with solidarity groupings throughout Europe. That he is so keen to form a government is the fundamental basis of a serious criticism of Syriza.

On the other hand, it is perfectly permissible to run candidates independently of Syriza. Never before has the risk of splitting the far-left vote been more negligible – Antarsya and the KKE will be lucky to add up to 5%, the way things are going. In such circumstances, obviously, one can make propaganda for whatever programme one wants.

Without a serious strategic approach to the European Union, and to the question of government, the left’s electoral musings are so much hot air.


1 . While his piece originally appeared on the Lenin’s Tomb website, it has been republished by the American International Socialist Organization, which was expelled from the IST over a decade ago, and whose immediate Greek co-thinkers are a component of Syriza.

2 .

3 . See my article last week: ‘None of the aboveWeekly Worker June 7.

4 .

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