Syriza’s victory in the Greek election was an historic victory for the Greek left. And it could be a turning point in the class struggle throughout Europe.
But it’s also an event of strategic and theoretical significance. The great strategic debates that Marxists once had are returning. It raises questions not just about reform and revolution, but how to combine different struggles and what kind of parties to build.
Stathis Kouvelakis has played an important role in setting Syriza’s development in that context, particularly in his articles for Jacobin magazine.
The crucial reference point for his strategy is Nikos Poulantzas, who articulated a left wing version of what was called Eurocommunism in the late 1970s. He aimed to achieve democratic socialism—a rupture with capitalism.
This may be the aim of Stathis and the left of Syriza, but it is not the objective of the Syriza leadership.
Yanis Varoufakis, the current Greek finance minister, said two years ago “we, the suitably erratic Marxists” must “try to save European capitalism from itself”. This describes the strategy Syriza has pursued since the election. It sees austerity as the wrong policy to pursue from a capitalist point of view.
But European capitalism shows absolutely no sign of wanting to be saved from itself. Instead, the leading forces in the eurozone are using all the power at their command to brutally reimpose austerity.
Stathis and I agree on the bankruptcy of trying to negotiate with these institutions. So what about his alternative strategy?
Poulantzas wanted to combine struggle inside parliament with struggle outside, particularly by workers, and the development of direct forms of democracy. This presupposes that the state is a relatively incoherent set of institutions, one that reflects the pressure of class struggles.
A strong enough series of struggles could increase that incoherence, and bring sections of the state onto the side of the workers and the left.
Henri Weber, a leading figure on the far left in France, challenged Poulantzas on this. He agreed that there are contradictions in the state, and that we need to organise workers it employs—such as teachers and civil servants.
But “the core of the state apparatus will polarise to the right” in any great moment of crisis, and there will have to be a “test of strength” against it. That’s the basis of the revolutionary option of dual power. This means developing powerful mass struggles and organisations that can become the basis for an alternative form of state.
Weber later became an awful reformist bastard, but what he said then was right. He warned that if we don’t understand this, we risk being defeated without a real fight.
And that’s exactly what it felt like with the Brussels agreement. In Greece, as in Turkey and Latin America, the core of repressive state apparatus—such as the army, the police and the intelligence services—is called the “deep state”.
It is a very ugly entity. Its history goes back to those who collaborated with the Nazi occupation, those who did the dirty work for the monarchy during the Civil War and then for the dictatorship. They continue to have a hold on the state today.
Part of the significance of the fascist party Golden Dawn is its links with the Deep State. And unfortunately Golden Dawn wasn’t smashed electorally.
It was a mistake when Syriza formed a coalition with the right wing Independent Greeks, as Stathis pointed out at the time. There’s a temptation to think you can “box clever” and perform cunning manoeuvres to divide your enemies. Varoufakis embodies this.
But it wasn’t cunning to bring into the government a fifth column linked to the historic right and the “deep state”.
Against all the forces deployed against Syriza, the only force it can count on is the mobilisation of the masses. But historically governments of the left often tend to discourage independent mass mobilisation because it can limit their room for manoeuvre.
In Greece there was a significant falling off in mass struggles from early 2012. It reflected people saying we need a political solution. Just going on strike isn’t enough, so we should get Syriza into office then see what happens. There was an element of waiting for Syriza.
It’s true there was a need to shift from the social to the political. But it’s not just that 32 general strikes didn’t work. In a crisis of that severity one-day general strikes aren’t enough.
It was necessary to move to a higher level of struggle, with open-ended general strikes. This would have produced a very different dynamic. But the leadership of the workers’ movement wasn’t willing to contemplate that. And revolutionary forces weren’t strong enough to impose it.
In any case, the electoral road was followed. And sometimes elections can bring new layers of the masses into left politics in a new way.
Syriza’s victory represents very large sections of the working class and other oppressed sections of society in Greece becoming much more articulately politically self-conscious. That’s partly what makes it so significant. This is a lesson about not dismissing electoral politics—and it counters all the nonsense about “anti-politics”.
Now the radical left’s responsibility is to promote the ability of workers and other oppressed and exploited groups to organise and act for themselves. It’s great that people from the left of Syriza are now ministers. But we’ve seen this in Britain.
Tony Benn had senior ministerial posts in the Labour government of 1974-79. He became a prisoner of that government.
There is an alternative to the retreat. Stathis and others spelt out it very clearly. It is to break with the euro, nationalise the banks and impose capital controls. And these measures must be backed up by very strong appeals for solidarity to the anti-austerity movement and the working class throughout Europe.
This requires an open and clear political fight for that alternative and against any retreat.
For the last few years there’s been an argument over whether the anti-capitalist left should join Syriza or organise independently through the Antarsya coalition. Antarsya got a lot of flack. But the test of those anti-capitalists inside Syriza is, will they resist the retreat that has taken place?
At the general level that Stathis stated the Gramscian strategy, I agree with it. But I absolutely disagree about leaving the initiative to the other side. The other side will organise to destroy a real government of the left.
We’re already seeing that externally, from the Eurogroup. We’ll see it develop internally if the right and the ruling class begin to smell a weakening and a retreat by Syriza.
This was the tragedy of Chile in 1973—that left wing president Salvador Allende left the initiative to the other side.
The Cuban embassy tried to warn him, these bastards are coming to get you. You have to organise, develop your side in the armed forces, arm the workers.
He refused, hoping to preserve the constitutional illusion. Allende thought he could divide the other side and win over “progressive” elements—such as general Augusto Pinochet who eventually led the coup that killed him.
Frederick Engels did talk about the slave-owners’ rebellion. But the point wasn’t that letting this happen was US president Abraham Lincoln’s most glorious moment. They nearly captured the capital, Washington. There’s no reason for history to repeat itself.
We’d be mistaken to talk as if Syriza has failed. This is just the opening phase of the struggle. All the forces of the radical left will have to get together to move the situation forward now the other side has won the first round.
Resuming the offensive means breaking the illusion in Europe. On that we agree. But it also means beginning to absorb the crucial lessons of revolutionary struggles over the last 150 years.
Any successful Gramscian strategy must give us the strength to take on the repressive core of the state.
One of Stathis’s articles in Jacobin was given the headline “Syriza’s magical equation”. But there are no magical equations. There’s just the logic of capital and the logic of the class struggle.
At a very important moment like this, part of the duty of the left is to state that clearly. We must point to the realities—then concentrate all our efforts and organisation on changing them.
This article is an edited extract of a debate hosted by the International Socialism (IS) journal.
Alex Callinicos is on the central committee of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and editor of the ISJ. This is his response to Stathis Kouvelakis, who is a leading left wing member of Syriza’s central committee
You can read Stathis’s piece in part one online at socialistworker.co.uk/art/40099/S