New movements, old dilemma- Reform or Revolution today

The election of the Syriza government in February 2015 was greeted with enthusiastic support by working class people in Greece and across Europe, only to turn into bitter disappointment after its capitulation to the Troika in July. As inequality and austerity continue to radicalise millions, leading to the rise of new movements of the Left, Paul Murphy argues that there are important lessons from the experience of Greece that must be learnt if the rule of the 1% is to be ended.

“For me, the atmosphere is a little similar to the time after 1968 in Europe. I can feel, maybe not a revolutionary mood, but something like widespread impatience. When impatience becomes not an individual but a social aspect of feeling, this is the introduction of revolution.” [i]

The words of Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, are revealing. They capture the rising fear of the capitalist classes in Europe. The seemingly unchallenged domination of neo-liberalism since the collapse of Stalinism is now being vigorously contested in a number of advanced capitalist countries. The current deep crisis of capitalism which commenced at the end of 2007 is finding a political result in shifts to the left in outlook and consciousness and the development of new left forces.

Revolt at the ballot box

The crisis has created significant political problems for the capitalist class, particularly in the periphery of Europe where it was sharpest. It has been so deep and prolonged that in most countries both sides of the capitalist political coin have been in power. There they have carried out essentially the same policies of deep austerity resulting, in particular, in a collapse in support for the formerly social democratic parties, who still maintained a more working class voting base.

One striking illustration is the collapse in the vote of the traditional parties to below 50% in three countries – Greece, where New Democracy and PASOK got a combined 34% in the last election, Spain, where the PP and PSOE got 49% combined in last year’s European elections and Ireland, where in the last European elections Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour also received less than half. In the recent Portuguese general election, while the Social Democratic Party and the Socialist Party still received 70.9% of the vote, that represented a fall of 7.6% and the election saw a significant rise of the combined radical left vote by 5.4% to 18.5%. The capitalist classes in Europe increasingly experience their own crisis of political representation, finding it difficult to find stable instruments of their rule.

The crisis and the movements against austerity which have developed in the periphery of Europe in particular have also speeded up the process towards creating new left formations with significant bases of support. Of course, this is not a new phenomenon. It has been emerging since the dramatic shift to the right of the so-called social democrats around the time of the collapse of Stalinism. It is a process which moves in waves and that has seen the rise (and often the fall) of, amongst others, Rifondazione Communista in Italy, the Scottish Socialist Party, Die Linke in Germany, Bloco Ezquerda in Portugal, the Red Green Alliance in Denmark to the rise of Syriza in Greece.

The protracted nature of the crisis has given an impetus to these developments. This was most strikingly demonstrated with the propelling of Syriza into power in Greece at the start of this year. Parallel to that was the meteoric rise of Podemos in 2014. Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the leadership election in the Labour Party in Britain and the performance of Bernie Sanders in the US Democratic primary elections are also expressions of this process.

A striking feature of this wave of new political movements is the extremely diverse manner in which the same phenomenon is expressed in different countries. At this stage, like water flowing through pre-existing streams, the movements towards working class political representation flow through the channels that are partly already created by differing national political landscapes and working class traditions.

Thus in Greece, momentum developed behind Syriza, which was an alliance with a eurocommunist trend at its core. It was propelled from 4.7% in the European elections in 2009 to 36.3% in January 2015 and into government. In Spain, where Izquierda Unida (United Left – with a Communist Party at its core) was, in certain regions in particular, identified with the political establishment, it was not the recipient of the same process. Instead, with the indignados social movement exploding from below, it found its expression in a new force, Podemos, largely constructed around the personality of Pablo Iglesias.

Corbyn & Sanders tap into growing radicalisation

The Corbyn effect in England and Wales is the most interesting of all. Here was a Labour Party that had been thoroughly Blairised and emptied out of real mass working class involvement. It was a party that had crossed the rubicon to becoming an outright capitalist party, although maintaining certain features from its past such as a formal link to the trade unions and a small number of socialist MPs like Jeremy Corbyn.

Because of the first past the post electoral system no significant left of Labour party emerged in England and Wales to become the focal point for those looking for an alternative to austerity. Thus when Jeremy Corbyn stood with the widespread perception of being a no-hoper and began to speak for a principled left anti-austerity politics his campaign received an enormous response from young people and the working class. His campaign became a beacon and developed an incredible momentum with more than 100,000 becoming registered supporters of Labour and 60,000 formally joining since the start of his campaign.

Meanwhile, in the US, an unprecedented momentum has developed around Bernie Sanders. This is in the primary race of an organisation that has never been a workers’ party. The Democratic Party acts consciously to corral movements and trade unionists around itself and to thereby divert from the pressing need for struggle from below and for constructing a class party of workers. However, Sanders, standing as a self-proclaimed democratic socialist (citing Scandinavian countries as a model) has resonated, like Corbyn, with millions of workers and young people outside the Democratic establishment. His rallies have attracted the biggest crowds of the presidential elections, regularly amounting to over 10,000 people and hitting close to 30,000 in Los Angeles. In opinion polls, he is closing the gap with Hillary Clinton and online surveys found that he won the recent democratic primary debate.

It is extremely difficult for Sanders to win the nomination and unfortunately if he loses, he has indicated that he will support Clinton, thereby precisely playing the role of herding progressives behind the Democrats again. However, his presence in the debate, the discussion around his ideas and the numbers who come around his campaign can mark an important staging post on the development of class consciousness in the US and the construction of a mass left party.

Reformism today

These developments are enormously positive. They are a qualitative step forward in the direction of creating mass parties of the working class which can be a very important instrument for workers to resist the austerity attacks, giving an impetus to mass struggle from below. They can also be the breeding ground, through the experience of struggle and discussion, for mass revolutionary socialist forces.

Nevertheless the ideas expressed by the leaders of these movements are also worth critiquing. Fundamentally all of these figures represent and reflect different variations of reformism. Reformism is the notion that capitalism can be gradually dismantled and that ultimately a socialist society could be created without a moment of decisive rupture or revolution from the existing capitalist organisation of society.

Reformism fails to recognise that the capitalist class constitutes the ruling class within our society. This is primarily through its ownership and control of the key resources of society on an economic level and by being tied by a thousand strings to the apparatus of the state, namely the judiciary, the “armed bodies of men” in the the army and police, and the permanent government that exists in the form of the top echelons of the civil service.

The history of the workers’ movement has shown that if the ruling class feels that its power, wealth, and privileges are threatened then it will not hesitate to engage in economic sabotage or even military coups, as took place in Chile in September 1973 when the elected left government of Salvador Allende was overthrown. Today, in Europe, potential left governments will not only face this threat from their indigenous capitalist class but also from the pro-capitalist institutions of the European Union.

While stable mass reformist parties across Europe were a feature of the political landscape in the post-World War II era of significant economic growth, today it is a different story. Given the nature of the crisis, and, indeed, the nature of the EU and Eurozone, the limitations of reformism are much more quickly reached. Capitalism no longer has the stores of social fat it possessed in the post-war period which allowed social democratic governments in many European countries to implement significant reforms for the benefit of working class people. There is also no commodity boom such as the one Hugo Chavez had the benefit of in Venezuela which enabled his administration to raise the living standards of the masses without ending the control of the economy by oligarchs.

Instead, if any of the new left movements come to power then the question of confrontation or capitulation will be posed very quickly. This is not simply a theoretical point – we have the evidence of recent events in Greece to examine. The experience of Syriza in power is worth studying because it was a laboratory for the implementation of a particular reformist strategy in Europe at this stage. It will continue to be a reference point for workers and left activists across Europe as they attempt to develop a strategy that can successfully end austerity and the rule of the 1%.

Syriza in power

On 25 January, the first left-led government since the collapse of Stalinism was elected in Europe. Shockwaves of panic rippled throughout the European political establishments and capitalist classes. 239 days later, the same government was re-elected, on a record low turnout, but this time it was welcomed by leading European politicians and newspapers. In between these two elections there had been a political rollercoaster of events which featured the heroic 61% Oxi (No) of the Greek masses to the blackmail of austerity or euro-exit, and a capitulation of the Syriza leadership to the Troika terror.

The Syriza experience carries profound lessons for all movements struggling for socialist change. These lessons have come at a very high cost, to Greek workers and poor people in particular. Across the European and international left there is an attempt to blunt those costly lessons, with a prettifying of the Syriza leadership’s mistakes. This is done by those who broadly share the same strategic approach of the Syriza leadership.

Leo Panitch, a co-editor of the left-wing journal, Socialist Register, has been to the fore in this defence. He wrote, shortly after Syriza agreed to the €13 billion austerity package:

“We hope Syriza can stay united as the most effective new socialist political formation on the European left that has emerged in recent decades. The role of a responsible international left is to support this, while continuing to point out the party’s weaknesses in terms of lacking the capacity to build on the solidarity networks…. Given our own weakness in this respect, considerable patience and modesty of the international left is called for as we watch this drama unfold.”[ii]

The essence of the idea is that you cannot criticise other forces on the left internationally, until you reach their level of influence in society. It is a profoundly non-internationalist approach – in line with the approach of the Stalinised Communist Parties from the 1920s onwards.

If that approach was accepted, the entire world left would simply be doomed to repeat, one after another, the mistakes of others. It is entirely appropriate to attempt to analyse and critique the strategic approach of others on the left in different countries, while maintaining the necessary humility and sense of proportion.

A failure of ‘left Europeanism’

What happened in Greece, with a left-led government betraying its mandate and programme, is a defeat for workers and the left across Europe. Right-wing politicians and media across Europe jumped immediately at the chance to try to reinforce the wall of TINA (There Is No Alternative) which had been breached by the election of Syriza.

But while it is a defeat for the entire left, it is important to recognise that it is not a result of a failure of the ideas of the left as a whole. Instead, it is a dramatic failure of reformism, and particularly the dominant variant of reformism within Europe today known as “left Europeanism”.

The strategy of left Europeanism applies the gradualist approach of reformism to the EU. It takes the view that the EU could, through victories of the left in different countries, be transformed into a more social project. It’s a conception which dramatically underestimates the class hatred and ruthlessness of the Troika and Merkel.

More significantly it misunderstands the real character of the EU, which has been so brutally exposed by the crisis and the reaction of its leading institutions to it. It is a construction, which is structurally neo-liberal. Neoliberalism is in its very DNA, written into the likes of the Maastricht Treaty, the Fiscal Treaty, the Six Pack and Two Pack. It is in the essence of how the euro and the European Central Bank function.

The EU is also fundamentally undemocratic. Power lies in the hands of unelected and unaccountable institutions like the European Commission and the European Central Bank. The rules have been written in such a way that any left government which breaks the rules of austerity will find itself fined and losing its right to vote on important matters. That is just the formal legal position – the real position is even more undemocratic. The ECB has previously led two silent coups, in Greece and in Spain. It effectively carried out another one against the Greek people, but this time with the complicity of Tsipras, by using its ability to create a bank run to push capitulation.

There are also increasingly imperialistic relations developing within the EU between the dominant capitalist classes in the core, in particular the German capitalist class, and the peripheral states. This is seen in the debt servitude that Greece now effectively finds itself in.

Because of this strategic conception of left Europeanism held by the Syriza leaders and their political advisors they significantly underestimated their enemy. Concretely they thought that the fear of economic contagion would mean significant concessions would be forthcoming from the so-called creditors. They tied Syriza to a strategy of remaining within the euro at all costs. Thus when the metaphorical gun was put to their head with the threat to effectively force them out of the euro they felt that they had no option but to retreat.

Xekinima, the Greek section of the Committee for a Workers International, warned that the main danger for the European capitalist class was not economic contagion, but political contagion. This proved to be the case. The European 1% were willing to take a risk of economic contagion in order to either overthrow Syriza or to humiliate them as a deterrent and lesson to others.

The Syriza experience is a vindication in the negative form of the key elements of a revolutionary approach. It underlines the need for a left government to break with the rules of the Eurozone, the EU and capitalism; the necessity of a strategy of confrontation, rather than compromise, with the EU; of preparation for rupture from the Eurozone, instead of doing everything possible to stay inside; and all of this as part of a socialist programme based on mobilisation from below to tackle the power of the domestic ruling class, to struggle for debt repudiation, to implement capital controls, and to establish public ownership of the banks and other key sections of the economy under democratic workers’ control. It illustrates the internationalist approach of fighting for a breach within Europe and the development of a confederation of democratic socialist states as a step towards a socialist Europe.

Reacting to Syriza’s defeat

The capitulation and defeat of Syriza has provoked significant debate amongst the European left. The response of Podemos in Spain unfortunately has been to shift its programme further to the right, with Iglesias continuing to defend Syriza’s capitulation as “realistic”.

This shift can be accommodated within the deliberately ambiguous discourse which has informed the Podemos project from the beginning. This is based on the work of post-Marxist Ernesto Laclau and the notion that instead of building a class movement, a social majority can be constructed using “empty signifiers” – such as the notion of “those at the bottom” – against the political caste. In the hands of some within Podemos, this is used to argue that what is being constructed is neither left nor right with a resulting lack of political clarity. The reaction of the Podemos leadership to Syriza’s capitulation has been one of the reasons for the significant fall of Podemos in opinion polls from a height of over 30% to around 15%.

On the other hand, there is also a move to the left, to positions that are more critical of the EU and the Eurozone without breaking fundamentally from the logic of reformism. The shift to the left and more Euro-critical position by the leadership of the Left Bloc in Portugal is one example of this trend and it has contributed to the doubling of its vote in the general election. Another example is the split from Syriza, Popular Unity, led by Panagiotis Lafazanis, which with 2.9% of the vote only narrowly missed having representatives being elected to the Greek parliament.

These developments at a national level are also reflected in debates amongst the European left. An open letter entitled “A Plan B for Europe” has been launched by by Jean-Luc Melenchon, a leader of the Front de Gauche in France. It was co-signed by Oskar Lafontaine, a leading figure in Die Linke, former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, and Zoe Konstantopoulou, the former President of the Greek parliament, and has since been signed by the three Anti-Austerity Alliance TDs. It expresses the conclusion drawn by sections of the European left that to remain in the straitjacket of the euro at all costs is to give up any possibility of challenging the domination of neo-liberalism. It argues:

“Facing this blackmail, we also need a plan B of our own to deter the plan B of Europe’s most reactionary and anti-democratic forces. To reinforce our position in the face of their brutal commitment to policies that sacrifice the majority to the interests of a tiny minority. But also to re-assert the simple principle that Europe is about Europeans and that currencies are tools for promoting shared prosperity, not instruments of torture or weapons by which to murder democracy. If the euro cannot be democratised, if they insist on using it to strangle the people, we will rise up, look at them in the eye, and tell them: Do your worst! Your threats don’t scare us. We shall find a way of ensuring that Europeans have a monetary system that works with them, not at their expense.[iii]

These are important developments. They represent a challenge to the domination of left Europeanism within the European left, with more of a space to criticise that approach and indicate a shift to the left. However, they continue to have significant limitations. Fundamentally, they do not represent a break with reformism.

Mistakes of the Syriza Left

Again, it is worth returning to the experience of Syriza and the left of Syriza in particular to see this more leftwing euro-critical reformism in action. On a formal level the Left Platform, which went on to become Popular Unity had a programme which paralleled many aspects of the programme of Xekinima in Greece. It called for preparation for euro-exit, for debt repudiation, for public ownership of the banks and for a programme of reconstruction of the economy with an emphasis on public investment. The absence of a call for socialist change is the significant omission.

The perspective of a leading figure within that group, Costas Lapavitsas, as expressed in the book he co-wrote with Heiner Flassbeck and published just in advance of Syriza coming to power, was borne out entirely:

“There is, thus, a kind of ‘impossible triad’ that would be faced by a Left government in the periphery. It is impossible to have all three of the following: first, achieving effective restructuring of the debt; second, abandoning austerity; and third, continuing to operate within the institutional and policy framework of the EU and particularly the EMU… It would be foolish for a Left government to imagine that the EU would bluff on the issues of debt and austerity… If a Left government attempted to play a bluffing game, it would fail very rapidly.”[iv]

Despite this perspective, they were entirely unprepared for the speed and scale of the sell-out of the Syriza leadership. The Left Platform approach to the Syriza leadership mirrored the approach of the Syriza leadership to the EU. While Tsipras failed to prepare Syriza for the nature of the clash with the EU institutions and of the need for a rupture with the euro, Lafazanis failed to prepare the Left Platform for the likely capitulation by Tsipras, for a clash with him and for a rupture with Syriza.

One result was that on the first vote on austerity measures most Left Platform MPs voted for them or abstained – which served to confuse people. They continued a rhetoric of party unity with Syriza after it had become clear that Tsipras was determined to drive the left out of the party and to reconstruct Syriza as a safe party of austerity.

Why were these mistakes made? Like with Tsipras, it is not a question of individual’s weaknesses or failings. It is rooted in politics. Partly, it related to the Left Platform’s methods of organisation. It didn’t function the way a revolutionary organisation should with an educated cadre democratically discussing perspectives, programme and strategy. Instead it mirrored a leadership circle culture as existed in Syriza. It was also too trapped within Syriza and within the parliament, not paying enough attention to what was happening outside of the parliament and outside of Syriza.

But this organisational structure is also connected to their politics because many of their key strategists also come from an essentially left-eurocommunist tradition. Eurocommunism was a trend that became dominant within western European Communist Parties in the 1970s and ‘80s, partly in reaction to the horrors of Stalinism but also as an adaptation to the capitalist pressures in their own country. It resulted in parties like the Communist Party in Italy and France becoming effectively openly reformist parties.

Socialist policies needed

There is a widespread view within the Left Platform and on the left generally in Europe that this moment is one for “anti-austerity governments” as opposed to socialist change. However, even an “anti-austerity government” which was prepared for euro exit would continue to be faced with the same dilemma of confrontation or capitulation. As Rosa Luxemburg explained in 1900 in “Reform or Revolution” these two choices are not different roads to the same place – they end up in different places.

The forces of the EU would not stop attacking you just because you were out of the euro. The domestic ruling class would likely step up the attacks, illustrated for example by the rumours in Greece about a potential for a military coup if it exited the eurozone. A government that was consistently anti-austerity would inevitably have to implement socialist measures in order to defend the economy and the 99% against the attacks of the domestic and international 1%.

The absence of an acknowledgement that the struggle to break with austerity requires a movement for socialist change was not just a theoretical omission. It facilitated Popular Unity to be painted into a corner of simply being anti-euro in the election campaign. In its post-election analysis, it recognised that advocating a break with the EU was “difficult to convincingly explain in the midst of an electoral campaign … having all the systemic forces against us”, which was a significant factor in their failure to cross the 3% threshold to enter parliament.

While Greek people were prepared to vote No, despite the dire warnings about the possibility of leaving the euro, the prospect of a return to the drachma did not fill the majority with confidence. Linking breaking from the euro with fundamental socialist change would be necessary to outline to people how such a change could be managed – including placing it in a context of a European-wide struggle for revolutionary change.

Although the European establishments hoped that Syriza’s defeat would set back the left for a long time, such is the depth of the capitalist crisis that it hasn’t had the effect they wanted. Instead, political developments in the direction of new left forces are continuing and are accelerating. After a period of defeats and setbacks, the testing of the dominant ideas within those forces against the experience of events is an inevitable part of clarification and the development of mass revolutionary forces.

[i] Financial Times, July 16, 2015



[iv] Heiner Flassbeck and Costas Lapavistas, Against the Troika: Crisis and Austerity in the Eurozone, Verso (London, 2015)

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