In the last post I noted that one view on the Left in Scotland was that it was not possible to call for a vote or support for a reformist SNP because, through being reformist, it could not face down the intransigence of international capitalism when it tried to introduce reforms.
This would seem to be confirmed by the experience in Greece in which a reformist formation Syriza has just performed a humiliating U-turn and supported a third bailout that will impose greater austerity than that which it had previously opposed.
One of the many evaluations of this experience is here, which is also written by someone from the SWP tradition and which is based on the same political assumptions. Unlike Davidson, who claims that the distinctions between reformists, revolutionaries and centrists are only understood by a relatively few revolutionaries, Kieran Allan argues that understanding such distinctions is vital:
“Ever since the crash of 2008, there has been an increasing call among activists to forget ‘old’ debates about reform or revolution. Yet the betrayal of Syriza re-opens this very question.”
One line of argument in response might be that Kieran Allen doesn’t actually advance a revolutionary programme himself – the SWP in Ireland doesn’t stand candidates in elections under a revolutionary banner but consistently stands as part of alliances that exclude it. His definition of reformism applies equally to the various electoral projects of the left in Ireland over the past number of years:
“Despite opposing neoliberalism, Syriza embraced a reformist strategy. The term ‘reformism’ is not meant as one of abuse but it describes a strategy of using the mechanisms of the state to effect substantial changes on behalf of working people. It operates within the framework of capitalism and uses Keynesian economics to increase demand – rather than proposing the outright expropriation of capital.”
His criticism of Syriza can be made just as cogently against the United Left Alliance, People before Profit or Anti-Austerity Alliance:
“Some object to describing Syriza as a reformist because a) it leaders used a rhetoric about moving beyond capitalism and b) because there were avowed anti-capitalists elements within its coalition. However, this objection is somewhat facile as it was only in Bad Gotesberg programme in 1959 that the German SDP dropped their formal adherence to Marxism. In the early twentieth century many reformist parties combined a rhetoric about moving beyond capitalism as their maximum programme with a practice of seeking social reforms as their minimum programme.”
While he criticises the view “of democratising the apparatus of the capitalist state, transforming it into a valid tool for constructing a socialist society, without needing to destroy it radically by force’,” this is the alternative put forward by all these left alliances in Ireland.
This is certainly a problem but not the one I want to address here. The latter is the problem of the strategy Allen puts forward as the alternative to Syriza’s reformism, not the similarity of this reformism to the SWP’s actual political practice.
Allen criticises “Syriza’s strategy of working exclusively through the state and through negotiations with the EU [which] could not match the courage of the Greek electorate. This historic defeat, therefore, arose from a belief that control of the Greek state apparatus and appeals to EU solidarity was the method for bringing change. It never entered their heads to think about how the NO vote could be mobilised within Greece to physically face down EU efforts at blackmail. The sole agency was the Greek cabinet and its ability to negotiate with the EU bullies.”
Allen says that “they [Syriza] placed little emphasis on the role of Greek workers themselves taking action to break from capitalist control. . . The mobilisation of workers in every area of society can stop the power of money and market forces. Against the economic terrorism of the EU, people power and workers action is the only way to achieve change.”
When discussing lessons for Ireland he says that “In recent months there have been discussions about the need for a ‘progressive government’ in Ireland and interesting debates have occurred about policies. But there has been little talk about the methods by which such aspirations might be achieved.”
Unfortunately in reality neither does Allen, although this is the centre of his critique. There are plenty of evocations of the need to mobilise workers to “face down the EU” but what does this mean? What methods does he propose by which the aspirations of progressive change could be turned into reality?
What we have are calls to take action but total lack of clarity as to what action should be taken.
The first question is to identify the problem. And it’s not Syriza’s reformism. Why is there a crisis in Greece in the first place? Why not in Italy or Belgium – both have large debts?
The answer is well known. Greece is relatively poor with a weak and not very productive capitalism. This makes not only Greek capitalism weak but its working class also weak, in a manner for which an increase in class struggle cannot compensate, or at least not very quickly. This doesn’t enter Allen’s analysis.
The second question concerns the EU: “After the Greek crisis, the Irish left needs to drop any idea about the progressive nature of a social EU. It should note that Syriza was wrong to believe that it could combine an anti-austerity programme with support for the EU. The reality is that the EU combines a soft rhetoric about ‘inclusion’, ‘solidarity’ and ‘respect for human right’ with a hard core neoliberalism that is embedded into its institutions.”
“The Irish left should, therefore, fully break with a ‘we will stick to the EU at any cost’ mentality because it was precisely this approach that gave the EU leaders a stick to beat Tsipras. Instead the left should advance its demands for a write down of debt, for nationalisation of natural resources, and a reversal of privatisation regardless of whether or not this is acceptable to the EU. It should indicate that it will not be bound by the rules of the Fiscal compact and that electoral support for the left means a mandate to defy such rules. It should make it clear that it favours the break-up of the EU in its current form and will seek its replacement by a federation of peoples based on democracy and control of capital.”
The EU is unreformable but if Allen has pretentions to Marxism he will also agree that the Greek State is also just as capitalist as the EU and also just as unreformable, yet he sees it as part of the solution through “a write down of debt, for nationalisation of natural resources, and a reversal of privatisation.” Why would a capitalist Greece do this? Is this not precisely the reformist approach that Allen excoriated earlier in his article? Or if an unreformable Greek state could do it why not a similarly unreformable EU?
He says that “Most modern European states are embedded in a network of EU institutions and so a strategy of working through the state also means working within those institutions. Syriza leaders correctly assumed that in an era of globalisation, there could be no purely national solutions to the crisis within capitalism.”
Yet in the proposals he advocates where is the recognition and incorporation of this impossibility of a “purely national solution”?
What we have in fact is the very opposite. He proposes “A break from the euro [which] would have to be accompanied by a major programme to re-distribute wealth so that the costs of the change fall on those who can most afford it.” But this is just the reformist programme he criticises while acknowledging that a new national currency cannot by itself be a solution. Yet a new national currency plus redistribution of wealth wouldn’t do it either.
Allen is right that any left Government “should [not] pretend that a different currency –such as the punt- can in itself solve problems. . . . the key issue is not the currency but control of the economy.” The problem, as we have seen above, is first that this economy is weak and second that the answer provided by Allen is always action by the state or rather by the national state, not internationally by the EU.
The nationalism that infects all inherently reformist projects appears explicitly in Allen’s perspective not just in rejection of the Euro or in rejection of the EU but in his support for “the break-up of the EU in its current form and . . . its replacement by a federation of peoples based on democracy and control of capital.”
This is something he “will seek” but as a policy it has no practical worth or educational propagandist value. It simply states that a return to nation states and an end to capitalism is the answer and while the second is right and the first is wrong neither amounts to even the start of a strategy and adds nothing to any discussion of it.
This national road to socialism is made explicit in his statement that “it is possible to organise an advanced economy without a permanent need for substantial credit transfers. Ireland already has a high level of wealth but, unfortunately, its control lies in a few hands. Re-distribution of that wealth provides an alternative avenue to seeking ‘support’ from foreign creditors. Such a strategy does not preclude individual arrangements to access credit . Rather it suggests that a transitional economy that goes beyond capitalism would have to overwhelmingly rely on its own resources – rather than the type of EU ‘support’ that hung Greece.”
This in effect denies the international character of production from which there can be no going back and repudiates his statement that “in an era of globalisation, there could be no purely national solutions to the crisis within capitalism.” It asserts the opposite of everything that Allen professes to stand for.
He ends up arguing that “a transitional economy that goes beyond capitalism would have to overwhelmingly rely on its own resources” because the Greek crisis has not only tested and found wanting the reformism of Syriza but also exposed and found wanting the reformism within his own political conceptions based on action by the nation state. In fact if anything, in its lack of any international perspective, it is worse than Syriza’s.
Nationalisation, redistribution of wealth and left governments astride capitalist states are not socialist solutions, even if in certain circumstances their effects can be welcomed and supported. The example of Greece shows how one variant of such a solution can fail but the weakness of Greek capitalism placed major constraints on what could be done even if more could and still can be achieved.
Neither is nationalisation and redistribution by the state after a workers’ revolution socialism unless this state is the creation of workers themselves and not some minority party or group within it. Freedom, as they say, is taken not given.
Socialism is the action of the immense majority of society, those who work and those rely on the wages of those who do so. It is the actions of the working class that involve socialism. It is not state ownership of production that is socialist but working class ownership that is socialist. Before the political overthrow of the capitalist system and its state this must take the form of workers’ cooperatives.
The strategy of a purely political revolution, only after which comes social revolution; that is the strategy of seizing state power in advance of major gains in the economic and social power of workers achieved through workers ownership, leaves open the problem illustrated by the isolation faced by workers in the Russian revolution.
The alternative of more or less simultaneous revolutions in a number of economically advanced countries could only be conceived on the basis of a prior development of the economic and social strength and power of the working class on an international level.
This problem of isolation was and is faced by Greece but the socialism in one county approach of Kieran Allen is the wrong answer.
Seeking solutions at the level of the state in advance of the development of working class organisation at an international level provides the rationale for a programme which seeks not to advance beyond capitalist internationalism, which is what the EU is, but to regress from it mouthing fatuous phrases about international federations of peoples based on democracy and control of capital.