Readers of this paper will likely already be aware that on January 25th, snap elections in crisis-ridden Greece unseated the conservative-lead government in favor of the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza by its Greek initials), which went on the next day to take on the governmental reins as the majority party in coalition with the right-wing nationalist Independent Greeks (Anel.) Ripples of Syriza’s electoral victory have been felt across Europe and beyond, with a number of socialists in the United States now wondering whether we can build a “coalition of the radical left” at home. For many American radicals, all too aware of the left’s dire state brought on by its disunity and sect methods of organization, Syriza represents – along with its Spanish sister party Podemos – something of a model to be emulated.
Of course, now that Syriza as a party of government in a peripheral capitalist economy – and an isolated one at that – has begun to govern in the interests of capital (note the humiliating interim deal agreed by Athens and the absurdity of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis touting it as a “victory”), the fanfare for Syriza abroad has become much more muted. But it is still present, and to a certain extent it’s a positive thing. Surely no one could fault any working-class militant for trying to find a way out of the sectarian blind alley that the socialist left finds itself in.
But there are serious limits to the idea that Syriza can be turned into a model and exported abroad – even if we accept that this is a good idea to begin with, which as we will discuss below, is far from clear. For one thing, Syriza’s origins lie in a split from the “official communist” movement, namely the Communist Party of Greece (KKE.) The KKE was (and still is) a mass party, with its own trade unions and noticeable influence in strategic sections of the working class. When the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia heralded the end of the “Prague Spring”, international official communism split along pro- and anti-Soviet lines, the latter gaining the label “Eurocommunist.” In Greece the Eurocommunist split called itself the KKE-Interior. Though much smaller than its rival, it was able to hit the ground running because it originated in a formation with real social weight.
In the late ‘80s the KKE-Interior split again, with the right-wing faction Greek Left forming a coalition with the Communist Party and others called Synaspismos (Coalition of the Left and Progress.) The coalition crashed and burned after forming a government with the conservative party, but the Eurocommunists kept the name.1 It gradually picked up social movement activists, small far-left groups and social democrats unsatisfied with Pasok until, in 2004, it became the largest component of a political project regrouping Trotskyist, Maoist, Green, feminist, left-nationalist, left-social democratic and eurocommunisxt organizations and individuals – Syriza.
This process couldn’t be replicated in the United States, which hasn’t had a mass communist party for more than half a century. Neither is there a social democratic / labor party that could provide the institutional muscle for a left split which scattered left-wingers could cohere around. That Syriza was able to catapult from being a small minority (4.6% of the vote and 14 MPs in 2009)2 to governing party in such a short time is a testament to Greece’s deep-rooted traditions of working class militancy, spanning nearly a hundred years – the memory of the Communist-lead anti-Nazi resistance and the Greek Civil War not least among them. The same goes for Spain, where after their civil war the underground workers’ organizations where the vanguard of resistance to the fascist dictatorship that finally fell in 1975. Class-consciousness in the U.S. is nowhere near as widespread.
In any case, the kind of unity espoused by Syriza is a unity based on fudging principles – a lowest-common-denominator form of politics that’s alien to Marxism. Syriza’s policy drifted to the right even before it took office, with the Thessaloniki Program3 to the right of their overall platform. In power they have watered their politics down further.4 All this is a natural consequence of an approach built on illusions: either the nationalist illusion that an island of socialism can be built in Greece alone or the reformist illusion that maneuvering within the existing European Union framework can deliver any kind of positive anti-capitalist transformation, even incrementally.
In terms of policy, the Syriza government could be described as a form of Right-Eurocommunism in power. It sees alliances with bourgeois parties (the coalition with Anel) and managing capitalism in one country as a path to socialism – a very long path. A common defense of this line of thinking states that managing capitalism is all that’s possible at the current time, given that the majority of the population is not in favor of socialist revolution. But that is precisely the problem. A workers party should not take power on the basis of reformism. Or, put another way, a workers party should not accept bourgeois constitutionalism and adapt itself to it. The constitutions of capitalist states, with their “checks and balances” against democracy, are designed to prevent changes that threaten ruling class interests. Better to remain in opposition, with the revolutionary program intact (and the ability to build up further support on that basis), than sign on to the impossible task of reconciling the working class’s interests with the property-owners.
Direct democracy illusion
The “broad left” parties are often not any more democratic in their internal affairs than a standard “Leninist” sect. Prime Minister Tsipras and his cabinet have flouted Syriza’s party democracy. The state of affairs is the reverse of what a workers’ party should be; elected representatives must be controlled by the party, not the other way around.
As for Podemos, its form of democracy is not as deep as it might appear at first look. “Direct democracy” seems ideal on the surface, especially given the way Pablo Iglesias and his supporters abroad emphasize the role of the Internet in empowering the rank and file. But using online structures to play a supporting role in party democracy is a different thing from fetishizing it.
Podemos’s membership is atomized by the party infrastructure, making it malleable in the hands of party officials.5 Since anyone can sign up online in just a few minutes without paying dues or accepting a political program as the basis for action, the party is vulnerable to demagoguery and dishonest maneuvers at the top. The Technical Team that organized the first Citizen Assembly (party congress) was quickly elected without a serious amount of discussion before opting to do away with elected delegates at the assembly itself – thus, political debate took place in an isolated form online rather than face-to-face in branches, where nuance and compromise are part of the process.
At the Citizen Assembly, Iglesias’s faction pushed through its proposals on the basis that members had to vote for them all together at once – all or nothing, a thoroughly undemocratic method that, like most referendums, reduces the masses’ role to that of a rubber stamp. One of the new policies was a ban on “double militancy” (dual membership in Podemos and another party or party-like organization) for office holders. The Trotskyist group that was instrumental in founding Podemos is now therefore ineligible to hold leading positions in it.6
What kind of unity?
Unfortunately, revolutionaries who build parties with the stated aim of balancing between reform and revolution are mistaken to believe that such parties are a stepping stone to a revolutionary party. Instead, these “halfway houses” lead in the opposite direction. That was the case for the Brazilian Workers Party, whose ascendance to power in a “popular front” with the center-right lead to purges or housebreaking for its revolutionary elements. Italy’s Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation) crashed and burned after joining a bourgeois coalition government and implementing austerity.
So if not an American Syriza or Podemos, then what? Certainly the impulse toward left unity felt by many comrades, the recognition that the existing alphabet soup sect landscape is not up to the tasks facing us, is a development that shouldn’t be ignored. We maintain that the best, most durable and most fruitful form of unity is a single party organized around a Marxist program. Granted, if such a party was born today (or, more realistically, concrete steps were taken in that direction), it would not have a short-term prospect of becoming a mass formation. But it would regroup thousands of active, dedicated working-class activists and organizers under one banner – allowing the Marxist left to impact events in a much broader way than the sects can in their isolated, mutually competitive existence today. Sending a serious signal for principled unity would also serve as a pole of attraction for thousands of unaffiliated activists and former sect members rejoining the movement.
It’s worth restating what we mean when we speak of a “Marxist program” or a “revolutionary party.” To us, these concepts are based around three fundamental principles: internationalism in word and deed, working-class political independence and extreme democracy. Committing to proletarian internationalism places the class struggle in the U.S. into its context as part of the world proletariat – in the modern epoch there is no major question that can be solved within the borders of any single country. Political independence is fairly self-explanatory, and includes electoral independence from the Democratic Party.
As for extreme democracy, this goes for both the state and the workers’ movement. A radically democratic state is the only way the working class can rule, as seen in the Paris and St. Louis Communes, the 1919 Seattle General Strike Committee and the early Soviet Republic. A struggle for extreme democracy in our movement includes not only the trade unions but the party itself. Real democratic centralism, based not on bureaucratic fiat but winning confidence and publicly airing opposing views, is the only guarantor of united action and majority rule.
This isn’t to say that, if a movement toward a broad left / reformist party did emerge, revolutionaries should stand aloof from it – although such a movement is unlikely to emerge in the short term. But a bona fide party would be in a far better position to intervene in such a development than small communist groups advocating sub-revolutionary politics and hiding their Marxism for fear of alienating people “out there.” At the present time, we believe that the best organizational form to begin this process is a Socialist Alliance to run in the 2016 Congressional elections.7 An electoral front is not a party, but a democratic convention to hash out a common platform and select candidates provides an opportunity to overcome our movement’s extreme disunity on a principled basis. For our part, the Red Party’s own modest efforts will be directed toward reaching out to organizations and individuals to put this proposal into action.
- “Syriza in the spotlight”, http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/915/syriza-in-the-spotlight/
- “Austerity in the colours of Syriza”, http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1047/austerity-in-the-colours-of-syriza/
- “Exposing the Podemos fraud”, http://www.revleft.com/vb/blog.php?b=19183
- “Izquierda Anticapitalista on the decisions of the Podemos Citizens’ Assembly”, http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article3713
- “For a Socialist Alliance in 2016!”, http://red-party.com/for-a-socialist-alliance-in-2016/
(From The Red Vine.)