Thoughts on the Class Struggle in Greece (Part 1)

For many in Ireland the situation in Greece is one from which we can learn many lessons.  The United Left Alliance has just advertised a public meeting in Dublin with a speaker from the Greek left organisation Syriza.  A couple of months ago a debate on the Greek class struggle, on Syriza and the attitude of Marxists to this organisation was published here and here.  In this post I want to address some of the questions that have been raised on these issues.  I am not by any means an expert on Greece and the judgements I am making can only be tentative but I believe that the debate has illuminated the situation sufficiently to make some remarks.

Syriza is not a Marxist Party and is not committed to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.  It is not even a working class party with deep roots in the class or its organisations.  In fact the Greek participants in this debate have noted its mediocre rise in membership and its being mainly a reflection of a collective mood of opposition to the two traditional parties, the social democratic PASOK and conservative New Democracy.   The writers also observe its rightward trajectory.  Its economic policy is essentially Keynesian (a capitalist system but reduced austerity at least initially) and its main plank is debt reduction from the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund – the Troika.  It supports fiscal consolidation (cuts and tax increases), as it must if the debt is not to grow larger again after some debt forgiveness, but says this must be “socially just and viable.”

It has grown rapidly in support and increased its vote in the most recent election to 26.9% from 16.8%.  In a situation of extreme hardship it is not unreasonable for workers to look for some respite and this is what Syriza offers.  The Greek Marxists also argue that the capitalist class in Greece and the Troika might at some point see Syriza as a mechanism to impose a new austerity in place of the current one, widely considered illegitimate.  In this situation, the leadership of the opposition to austerity, having no fundamental antagonism to the system, would agree to impose reduced austerity in return for support for the legitimacy of this austerity, putting the brakes on opposition and support for the continuation of Greek membership of the Euro.

The articles by the Greek Marxists are written by participants in Antarsya, which scored only 0.33% in the most recent elections, down 0.9%. They correctly emphasise the need to work with supporters of Syriza in order to win them to their politics and to defend the working class as a whole from the danger of fascism.  The difference between them and the supporter of Socialist Resistance in the debate is the insistence by the latter that their united front approach falls significantly short of what is required.  It is criticised for not being applied to the demand for governmental power, which crown the demands of Marxists and which frame the critical task of political power without which the crisis cannot be decisively solved in favour of workers.

Both sides appear to agree that there exists real revolutionary potential in the existing situation, although the Greek writers provide evidence that this is not in fact the case and we will look at this in a second post. The question of a governmental slogan in such a pre-revolutionary situation, if it exists, is therefore crucial.  If the left does not provide for such a political solution the right will. Socialist Resistance is right in my view if, and it’s a big if, there really is a pre-revolutionary situation but even if there is not the question still needs an answer. Do the Greek Marxists have one?

The argument of Socialist Resistance is that the partial solutions of Syriza, where they elected into government, would profoundly challenge the logic of capitalism and create a pre-revolutionary crisis.  Their electoral victory “would be a massive advance for the Greek working class” upon which Marxists would build with a revolutionary strategy, eventually to a “revolutionary outcome favourable to the working class.” It is acknowledged that Syriza may betray its programme but if this is so it may be that the working class has to go through this experience.

This is a formula with an alibi for when it doesn’t work. The Greek Marxists’ writings demonstrate a more concrete understanding of the problem. The first is that a government of Syriza may include nominally ‘left’ parties which drag the whole arrangement to the right. But worse, while the Greek working class invest their hopes in Syriza the latter and its electoral successes are not seen as a branch of its own struggle. If it is not a branch of the workers struggle, an organic part of it and not just an electoral reflection of it, then the tactic of the united front employed by Marxists in terms of supporting a Syriza Government will be much less productive.

Above all the Greek Marxists point to the real possibility that Syriza will actually keep to its programme and not actually betray it, which would mean continuing with austerity, betraying the Left in the eyes of the population and preparing the way for the fascists of Golden Dawn who may unfortunately not betray their programme.  In fact of course the programme of Syriza, negotiated debt reduction, is not within its gift, but requires the agreement and actions of the Troika.

The Greek Marxists point out that revolutionaries can delude themselves on the influence they can have on larger reformist bodies by supporting them in elections. Of course the point of such support is not so much to sway the organisation as to influence its members. Through supporting its campaign one can win the respect of Syriza’s supporters, showing your agreement that the debt burden should be reduced and austerity resisted, while explaining that Syriza does not go far enough and will not go far enough.  If or when this is proved to be the caes these supporters might acknowledge the correctness of Antarsya and be won to their perspectives.  Of course supporting an organisation in an election means taking a certain responsibility for that organisation and what it is standing for and this definitely should not be done by pretending its programme is more than it actually is.

There may also be the issue that this writer has come across often. Small organisations say they are adopting a united front approach and declare support for a much larger reformist party in an election but don’t actually support it in any way that anyone could recognise. The support is often a purely verbal statement of position but does not involve actual campaigning. It must also be recognised that the latter activity can take a long time to have an effect through establishing the seriousness and credibility of the support that is given. The applicability of these latter remarks to the Greek situation is one for Greek Marxist to determine.

On the other hand the Socialist Resistance article admits ignorance of the most recent developments in Syriza’s political practice and programme including setting to the side the unity of Greek workers with immigrant workers, which is understandable given that Socialist Resistance is British, but the article goes on to blithely assert that “Syriza has withstood the bourgeois onslaught without bending.”

Both are grappling with the simple fact that the balance of forces does not yet admit of a working class solution and that this becomes evident when it comes to framing a governmental slogan. The writer from Socialist Resistance covers this up by prettifying Syriza as in some way representing an (impaired) working class programme when this is not the case. The Greeks on the other hand, perfectly aware of the severe limits of Syriza as an alternative and the real role they play in the workers movement and struggle are forced into downplaying the importance of the governmental slogan and present the question in a way that allows the Socialist Resistance article to describe it as abstract, which it appears to me to be the case.

Being in the midst of the action it is my view that the Greek Marxists more accurately describe the real class struggle in their country and the political character of Syriza. If their proposals for a governmental solution to the crisis, which acts as the proxy for the question of which class will impose a solution, is abstract this simply reflects the fact that the working class is not unfortunately currently in a position to put forward its own solution. This is primarily because the Greek working class does not support a solution in which it rules as a class and capitalism and its state are removed in the process. If a significant section of the Greek working class did believe this organisations like Antarsya would not be getting less than half of one per cent of the vote. It is to this fundamental problem that we will turn to in the next post.

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