A footnote on the pathology of imperialism part 4 – Wahabbi Islam

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by Belfast Plebian

The ruling authority of the Saudi Princes can be traced back to a pact made in 1774 between one dominant Arab tribe and a Shia hating religious sociopath called Muhammad ibn Abdal Wahhab (1702-1792). The encyclopaedia Britannica tells us that :

‘ Abd al Wahhab’s teachings have been characterised as being puritanical and traditional representing the very early era of the Islamic religion. He made a clear stand against all innovations because he believed them to be reprehensible, insisting that the original grandeur of Islam could be regained if the Islamic community returned to the principles as first enunciated by the prophet.’

The pact intended that the clergy would be responsible for all religious-educational matters and the Al Saud warriors would be responsible for all political and military matters, including spreading an interpretation of Islam devised by Add al Wahhab. Unfortunately he describes both Christian and Jewish believers as sorcerers and devil worshippers, although he saved his real hatred for the other Muslim sects ie the apostates.

I am going to defer here to a historian who has written on these matters. I have on my book shelf a best selling book that I bought about five years ago by a historian called Reza Aalan called No god But God : the origins, evolution and future of Islam. He tells us that if it had not been for extraordinary political circumstances, Wahhabism would have passed away as a marginal and superficial sectarian idiocy.

‘Not only was this a spiritually and intellectually insignificant movement in a religion founded principally upon spiritualism and intellectualism, it was not even considered true orthodoxy by the majority of Sunni Muslims. Yet it had two distinct advantages, first it had the good fortune to emerge in the sacred lands of the ARABIAN PENINSULA, where it could lay claim to a powerful legacy of religious revivalism. Second, it benefited from a willing and eager patron, who saw in its simple ideals the means of gaining unprecedented control over the region. That patron was  Muhammad ibn Saud.’

The historian of Islam then tells us some important facts concerning the alliance between the two men, some of it is legend and untrustworthy but what we do know is:

The two men first met as Abd al-Wahhab and his disciples were tearing through the ARABIAN PENINSULA, demolishing tombs, cutting down sacred trees, and massacring any Muslim who did not accept their uncompromisingly puritanical vision of Islam….Abd al Wahhab’s holy warriors burst into the Hijaz, conquering Mecca and Medina and expelling the Sharif. Once established in the holy cities, they set about destroying the tombs of the Prophet and his first companions, including those pilgrimage sites that marked the birth place of Muhammad and his family…they set fire to every book they could find save the Quran. They banned music and flowers from the sacred cities and outlawed the smoking of tobacco and the drinking of coffee. Under penalty of death they forced the men to wear beards and the women to be veiled and be secluded.’

Then when much of the peninsula had been terrorised ‘they marched north to take their message to the Sufi and Shi’ite infidels. In 1802 on the holy day of Ashura, they scaled the walls of Karbala and massacred two thousand Shi’ite worshipper.in an uncontrolled rage they smashed up the tombs of Ali, Husayn and the Imams, giving particular vent to their anger at the tomb of the Prophet’s daughter Fatima.

What happened next was that the Ottoman Caliph sent a massive army to annihilate the Wahhabis. After some fierce battles, the Ottoman army restored the old order, ‘the Saudis had learned a valuable lesson; they could not take on the Ottoman Empire on their own. They needed a stronger alliance. …The opportunity to form such an alliance presented itself with the Anglo-Saudi Treaty of 1915. The British who were eager to control the Persian Gulf, encouraged the Saudis to recapture the ARABIAN PENINSULA from Ottoman control. To assist them in their rebellion the British provided them with shipments of weapons and gold. Under the command of Ibn Saud’s heir, Abd al-Aziz (1880-1953) the plan worked…After publicly executing 40,000 men and imposing Wahhabism over the entire population, Abd al-Aziz renamed the Arabian peninsular the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia….Here there was no debate between Modernists and Islamists, there was no debate whatsoever. Nationalism, Pan- Arabism, Islamic Socialism- none of these vibrant movements had a significant voice in the Saudi Kingdom. The only official doctrine that was tolerated was Wahhabi doctrine, any deviation was violently suppressed.’  

Now here is another BBC  iplayer film for the reader to take a look, it is called Bitter Lake. It tells us something of the still developing story of the connection between western imperialism and the ideological politics of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. At about 25 minutes in to the film we are presented with colour film footage of a meeting that occurred at the end of the Second World War, in February 1945 on a warship on the Great Bitter Lake, a part of the Suez Canal, between President F.D.Roosevelt and Saudi King Abd al Aziz. The voiceover says and I am paraphrasing a bit:

‘No one could possibly imagine the consequences of this meeting…The King knew that America needed oil ,Roosevelt wanted to forge an alliance between American industry and the Saudi King…The king was aware that there could be dangers posed to the customs and religion involved…we will take your technology and your money and political protection, on one condition, that you leave our religion alone’

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The pact in a nutshell was that America accepted the centrality of an unreformed Wahhabi religion in Saudi Arabia in return for unhindered market access to the oil and gas reserves it required for its industries. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia represents an extreme form of what Leon Trotsky once referred to as the combined and uneven development of capitalism. A peculiar characteristic is the standing side-by-side in the same place of the very modern – advanced technology – and the pre-modern, ancient religion and barbarous customs

There is an aspect of this that is of some importance for our understanding of contemporary culture, the great divide between theoretical science and distribution of useful things. It is still the case with world culture that many societies appropriate all of the practical successes of science e.g. air travel, computer technology, phone technology, medicines, while blocking out all the theoretical innovations of the sciences that makes the many useful things available to everyone

This occurs even in America itself, most Americans are well clued into the various uses of technology, but a substantial number of them manage to completely neglect the theoretical claims of the sciences. The best example is the theory of evolution; in some surveys up to seventy per cent of Americans have dismissed it as real science. It is a happy accident that for such anti-intellectual people making use of the successes of science does not require them to know or care for the underlying theory. One result is that Wahabbis get to use modern technologies while screening their mind off from scientific theory, like evolution or the big bang. In our time we can experience the successes of science and technology without us making any intellectual effort.

The Saudi King and theocracy then decided that the Arab ‘socialism’ of Egypt’s Colonel Nasser was the new enemy to be contained. He had attempted to defy Britain and France by nationalising the largely British owned Suez Canal Company in 1956. The British and the French sent an army to take back the canal after conspiring with the government of Israel to instigate a phoney invasion of Egypt.

Hoping to take advantage of the instability in Egypt the Saudi’s began assisting the Muslim Brothers – who had been expelled from Egypt and from the other main Arab ‘Socialist State’ Syria. Our historian tells us that ‘the Muslim Brotherhood discovered more than just shelter in Saudi Arabia they discovered Wahhabism, and they were not alone. Hundreds of thousands or poor workers from all over the Muslim world began pouring into the Kingdom to work in the oil fields. By the time they returned to their homelands they had been indoctrinated into Saudi religiosity.’

‘Religious adherence to the Saudi model became the prerequisite for receiving government subsidies and contracts. The vast sums the Saudis paid to various Muslim charities, the foundations they established, the mosques, universities and primary schools they built – everything the Saudis did was inextricably linked to Wahhabism. In 1962, their missionary efforts gained momentum with the creation of the Muslim World League, whose goal was the spread of the Wahhabi ideology to the rest of the Muslim world…since the creation of the Muslim World League, the simplicity, certainty and unconditional morality of Wahhabism has infiltrated every corner of the Muslim world. Thanks to Saudi evangelism, Wahhabi doctrine has dramatically affected the religion of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mawdudi’s Islamic Association, the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to name only a few groups.’

The next episode brings us right up to date. During the American led 1991 Gulf war to turn back the ‘Arab Socialists’ conquest of Kuwait, then commanded by the dictator Saddam Hussein, a small group of alienated Saudi aristocrats calling themselves al Qaeda began to agitate for to return to the original founding doctrines of Wahhabism and turned against the Saudi Royal family itself, for permitting the corrupt treasure seeking American Crusaders open entry onto the holy land of Islam. They then defied the historical authority of the House of Saud by sending mostly Saudi born suicide fighters to crash civilian airplanes into the Twin Towers building in New York, starting a trans-national holy war against ‘Crusader Imperialism’ that has spread right across the Muslim world.

The Saudi rulers have a political/religious interest in common with the west in seeking to destroy the last bastion of ‘Arab Socialism’ in Syria. Western hostility is based on the fact that the regime is allied to both Iran and Russia. However the fighting boots on the ground that the West requires are all too frequently boots supplied with the stamp of the Wahhabi ideology imprinted on them

Today when the Gulf States are asked to explain their strategy to inquisitive western journalists about the removal of Assad and his regime they maintain that they are only financing and equipping foreign legion fighters who are deemed to be moderate in their religious belief. They say they are not helping Sunni extremists and mention various Sunni armies and militias they are not assisting. The distinctions are of little importance for it is the Wahhabi version of the Islam that unites all the fighters directly or indirectly connected to the Saudi political-religious theocracy. The division of moderates and extremists is a disingenuous western spin on the Wahhabi ideology. Behind the endless strife between many factions, micro distinctions and personal rivalries, there stands an intolerant and sectarian ultra conservative ideology.

Those western governments most engaged in the frequent desert military interventions maintain economic and personal ties to the same Saudi political regime that is primarily responsible for spreading the ultra-conservative Wahhabi ideology across the world Muslim community. The Saudi Princes deposit billions of dollars into western banks and investment funds; they maintain investments in corporations like News International and therefore in Fox News; and they buy up prime real estate like hotel chains, gulf courses and other prestigious sporting assets. At the same time they finance Wahhabi schools, build hundreds of Wahhabi Mosques, insist that only Wahhabi trained clerics staff them, and publish millions of books incubating their own very conservative version of Islam. They are estimated to be spending about six billion dollars per year on spreading educational materials. In September it was reported that the Saudi King had offered to build 200 Mosques in Germany to take care of the religious needs of the new wave of Syrian refugees entering the country.  It may be a good idea for the German government to decline the offer.

This brings me back to war torn Syria. If the Western governments are unable to put fighters on the will resort to all the nefarious techniques of cheating and lying to all participants, manipulating political friends, making political promises they don’t intend to keep, blackmailing strategic allies, rearranging the order of imperial priorities, and even arranging minor carnival stunts like the revenge killing of Jihadi John to save face. Killings ground that they can control, then they will fail to realise their primary ends.  Licensing the Gulf Monarchies to supply a foreign legion of sectarian Sunni fighters is no viable alternative. However the sociopath political leaders of the West are unlikely to quit what they started even though the initial plan has been thwarted. They like this attempt to say to a confused public that we are still on top of all this.

Nationalist answers 2 – Greece

Greece imagesIn 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.

Greece Crucified

ws jimagesAlexis Tsipras justified his humiliating U-turn, and commitment to imposition of austerity worse than he had just rejected, by saying that he had no mandate for Greece to exit the Euro.  Very true.  But he had just claimed that the referendum a week before had not been about the Euro.  By 61 to 39 per cent he has no mandate for austerity, which is what he said the referendum was really about.

He came into office promising an end to failed bail outs and has ended with a third one bigger than the first.  He called for debt reduction and now seeks support for debt inflation.

Such is the scale of the crushing terms of the latest ‘bailout’ that no one is attempting to say that it is nothing other than complete humiliation for Greece.  Even the Eurozone bureaucrats stated the truth behind the unpalatable words spewed out by their leaders – Tsipras had been subjected to “mental waterboarding” and had been “crucified”.

What has been mental torture for Tsipras will be brutal and catastrophic austerity for the Greek people.

I could write a whole blog on the capitulation of Tsipras and what looks like the majority of Syriza, and there would be good political reasons for doing so.  The policy and strategy of Syriza has been endorsed by Irish opponents of austerity such as Sinn Fein and these now lie in tatters.

In fact in my own view Sinn Fein is not even as radical as Syriza and this is an easy claim to substantiate.  It has already implemented austerity in the North of Ireland while hiding behind opposition to some welfare cuts.   In the South it supported the fateful decision to make the debts of corrupt banks and property speculators the burden of Irish workers and in doing so made the struggle against paying this odious debt much more difficult.

But there will be plenty of voices pointing out that what radical politics Sinn Fein has to offer have been trialled in a real life laboratory and been found wanting.  The capitulation of Syriza is in principle no greater than the Republican’s own acceptance of British rule in Ireland, acceptance of partition, surrender of weapons and dissolution of the IRA.  But that is all now a history that no one wants to talk about.

What is more important therefore is to try to understand what has happened and whether it could have been any different.  Not that it must be accepted that the ‘coup’ against Greece cannot or will not be resisted.  It can and will but it would be blindness to reality not to acknowledge that under Syriza the fight against austerity has suffered a demoralising defeat.

As that new aphorism says: it’s not the despair, I can take the despair.  It’s the hope.  Syriza gave hope.

Working out what has happened is not easy. For the man or woman on the street they see television reports of quantitative easing by the Eurozone involving the figurative printing of  millions of Euros by the European Central Bank, yet this same institution is involved in the vindictive pursuit of Greece for sums it could easily accommodate.

The proposals of the conservative leaders of the EU seem equally hard to understand or justify.  In fact for many they seem stupid, if not crazy. So draconian are they that they seem designed to achieve the very opposite of what they claim to be for.

The imposition of yet greater austerity when this austerity has demonstrably failed might be explained by ideological blindness.  And the humiliation involved might seem to invite rejection while being another attempt to remove Syriza from office.  But many commentators have explained that Syriza may possibly remain the only force that can push austerity through without complete chaos and collapse.

This humiliation is perhaps not just a message to a small and weak Greece but an unmistakeable one to a larger Italy and France: that the development of the EU will be under a model defined by Germany and its allies.  Yet even here the degree of malevolence can only invite small countries with parties equally blinded by reactionary ideology as Germany to wonder just what fate would befall them in an EU with such a definition of ‘solidarity.’

So while ‘good’ reasons might be found for what would appear to be ideological blindness the proposal for a “timeout” exit by Greece from the Euro appears as simply stupid; unless of course it is also a means of pushing Greece out permanently. But then it is such a stupid idea as justification that its purpose might only seem to be how open the imperial bullying can become, ‘pour encourager les autres’.

For the Greek people the surrender of even nominal control of their affairs is way beyond what has gone before.  The original proposal to ring fence €50 billion of Greek assets under German control,  to be sold at the discretion of its creditors, was such an open declaration of debt bondage as to render the humiliation utter and complete. What is yours is no longer even yours to sell.  Now it is reported it will simply be wasted on insolvent Greek banks with the needs of financial capital once again talking precedence not only over people but over real productive activities.

Thus in many ways, its failure to actually work being the first, its effects on undermining the legitimacy of the EU second and materially weakening the incentives to solidarity among its members third, all make the bailout deal a defeat for the idea of a European Union.  This is not even a European imperialism to rival the US, Russia or China but an imperial core and vassal periphery.

The price being paid seems so unnecessary because the main demand of Syriza – in order to give hope and reduce the impact of austerity, i.e. debt forgiveness, will be given and is already hinted.  Not in the shape of outright reduction but in the form of postponing or extending repayments and similar measures on the interest due.  After all, what cannot be repaid will not be repaid.

What matters however to the right wing conservative leadership of Germany, the Netherlands etc. is that their strength, and by extension that of the European imperialist project, is not diluted by the weak European nations and that the Euro remain in position as a world currency and not a vehicle for default and certainly not by what is considered an advanced nation.  Greece must be bled dry in order that the Euro remains strong and the pretensions of the EU remain in place.

The vision of a united Europe is not being abandoned by Germany etc, but it is one in which austerity is the bond that unites. It can be claimed that austerity will be inflicted on German workers if crisis hits the German banks; except of course that Germany has broken the rules before and would do so again.  It is easier to be ideologically blind when the price is paid by someone else.

Could it have worked out differently?    Syriza had hoped that enlightened self-interest would have combined with pressure from the US and the legitimacy gained by the referendum to mitigate the demands for austerity by Germany, The Netherlands and all the other little right-wing led states that curry favour with the powerful.  They have been rudely disabused of their illusions.

The more fundamental reason for this outcome is the weakness of the alternative at an international level.  Where were the left wing Governments calling for debt forgiveness, an alternative to austerity or even its reduction?  Where were the mass movements pressurising their Governments to accede to Greek requests?  Greece could not push back the demands of much stronger states on its own but on its own it was.

The demand for a revolutionary socialist alternative seeking the destruction of the Greek capitalist state and take-over of the Greek economy by its workers fails to provide any sort of immediate alternative, which is what we are discussing, for two rather obvious reasons.

Such a strategy relies on the aspiration and activity of the working class and the Greek working class neither desires nor is organised to destroy the existing state, create its own and take over the running of Greek production.  The anti-capitalist ANTARSYA for example got less than 1 per cent of the vote and Syriza, it should not need to be said, is not a revolutionary party.  How does a revolution arise out of this except through a long and painful process of learning lessons and making advances on this basis?

I was recently reading an article entitled ‘Marxism and Actually Existing Socialism’ written, what seems like a long time ago, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and which defended Marx’s theory and politics.  In it the author wrote that:

“Marx envisaged that socialism would come first in the most advanced industrial societies of Europe, and it has not done so. Arguably, however, Marxism is capable of comprehending this fact. In any case, this is a matter of detail, even if an important one; and it seems difficult to resist the conclusion that, in its broad and general outlines, Marx’s account of the historical tendencies of capitalism has been remarkably confirmed by historical events.”

But of course the coming of socialist revolution not to the most advanced countries is not a detail, not even an important one.  It has been fundamental to the development and future possibility of socialism and has led to the very definition of socialism being distorted and disfigured.

Socialism is not possible in Greece alone any more, and certainly less, than it was in Russia not least because it is too weak and poor.   It is obvious that no other working class within any other country in Europe is at a stage of development where it could either join or support working class rule in Greece.

This does not mean Syriza should not have taken office or that it should not have engaged in negotiations with the Troika. Its strength however derives fundamentally from the class consciousness and organisation of the working class and not from any superior moral position.  The building of an international European party of the working class, of a militant current within the working class movement including trade unions, and of international workers’ cooperatives is the only road to creating the foundations for a successful conquest of political power.

On the other hand capitalist economic and political crises and socialist propaganda are, respectively, simply the occasion for such a conquest and the means of spreading word of the need for it.

As I have said before: the worst result would be Syriza implementing austerity.  It should now reject the bailout, call fresh elections on such a platform and if elected pursue an alternative.  If in opposition it should develop a movement as set out above.

The alternative it should pursue is that which the Irish should have carried out in 2008.  Let the banks go bust and let its owners and lenders take part in a ‘bail-in’ in which they pay the price for their investment in insolvent companies.  This is sometimes known as capitalism.

A radical Greek Government would encourage Greek workers to turn the banks into cooperatives that would shed their bad debts into a ‘bad bank’ (like NAMA in Ireland, in theory if not in its practice) and guarantee deposits that would fund development of worker owned enterprise.

The Greek debt would thereby suffer default and the reactionary gamblers Merkel, Juncker, Schäuble, Draghi and Dijsselbloem would see where the chips fall.

The blogger Boffy has suggested that a solution to the currency problem would involve electronic Euros that would allow circulation of money without the requirements for additional notes etc. from Brussels.  While this could work for the domestic economy I cannot see how it could function as a means of payment for international trade and, while Greece is a relatively closed economy, it cannot function without it.

In any case the leadership of the EU would, on current form, expel Greece from the Euro and introduce its own capital controls on the country.

Greece would be forced into issuing a new currency, a new Drachma, which the people do not want.  This could not be done quickly or without significant disruption.  It has been asserted that the argument that this would result in devaluation and a massive reduction in Greek living standards is false because the catastrophe predicted has already happened.  ‘Internal devaluation’ has already achieved what external devaluation of the new currency would otherwise have done.

I am not convinced by this argument but this too might be academic if the EU decided that Greece would no longer be part of the Euro.

The strategy suggested therefore provides no guarantee of success.  There is no ‘technical’ solution or answer in this sense.   And why should one be expected?

I have said that socialist revolution depends on the prior creation of a working class power consisting of an international party, international trade union action and development of workers’ cooperatives on an extensive scale.  What on earth could substitute itself for these?

What is suggested is a strategy for struggle and not a ‘solution’ but we have reached the stage where not even the leaders of the EU can present false promises on this with any credibility.  Austerity will continue not to work.  Struggle is what we have.

 

Some comments on the Greek referendum

Greece3543The decision of the Syriza Government to call a referendum on the proposed austerity proposals of the Troika (European Commission, European Central Bank and IMF) in return for another ‘bailout’ programme reminds me of the Irish austerity referendum three years ago.  It gave rise to one of the first posts on this blog.

The Irish people voted by a large majority to support austerity.  Will the Greeks do the same?

The Irish voted reluctantly to accept austerity (how else could you do so?) because there was no alternative at hand.   The arguments of the Left that the Irish State could lead a growth agenda of Keynesian stimulus hardly convinced when that State had just bankrupted itself bailing out the banks.

Both the reason for the defeat and its effects have not been appreciated.  Of the latter it is enough to ponder the proposals of the trade unions behind the largest sustained opposition to the austerity agenda – the Right2Water proposals for ‘A New Fiscal Framework for a Progressive Government’, which proposes additional State expenditure of €9.4 billion over 4 years.  This would amount to less than 4.5% of the 2014 level of Government expenditure.

The Right2Water’s ‘Policy Principles for a Progressive Irish Government’ contains a section which proclaims the need for additional investment in the water and sanitation system of “between €6 and €7 billion”, which leaves just around €2.5 to €3.5 billion for education, health, investment and everything else.  This is not so much an alternative to the current Government’s strategy as a variant of it.  So much have horizons been lowered.

According to the authors of this document the rules of the EU will be adhered to while seeking flexibility within them and negotiating additional scope for spending.  But the case of Greece exposes that the rules of the EU, ECB and IMF can be bent to suit.

So the claim that joining the Euro was irrevocable has been discarded by the leading powers in the EU to be replaced as the biggest threat to the Greek Government and people – vote against our austerity plan and you are voting to leave the Euro.

The propaganda campaign by the EU leaders includes European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker, who says he feels ‘betrayed’, and complains about a lack of “good faith” and “sincerity” from the Greeks.  This from a man who presided over the building of Luxembourg into a tax haven.  Yet he sees fit to question the Greek Government and people over their right and capacity to raise taxes.  Has the tax evasion facilitated by Luxembourg not contributed to the Greek predicament?

Christine Lagarde of the IMF proclaims she wants “adults in the room” with whom to negotiate, attempting to infantilise the Greek Government representatives and by extension the Greek people.  This is the Lagarde who has been placed ‘under investigation’ in a fraud case.  One can’t help but recall the behaviour of the previous head of the IMF, Dominic Strauss-Kahn.  Getting fucked by the IMF is a pleasure for no one.

In the current case this involves Troika demands for drastic reductions in the pensions of some of the poorest Greek pensioners and increases in VAT that will hit both those who will pay increased prices and the small businesses compelled to charge them.

On the Left these demands of the Troika are likewise treated as in effect an ultimatum which should lead to exiting the Euro – as the only effective response to the unceasing demands for austerity.  What for the leaders of the EU is a threat which the Greek people should retreat from is for some on the Left a major part of the solution.  What for the former is a recipe for chaos is for the latter the way out of it.

In my view the former are correct.  Exiting the Euro would lead to a new Drachma that would involve massive devaluation and a large reduction in Greek workers’ living standards.  Cutting one’s own throat is not preferable to having someone else do it.  If Greece is thrown out of the Euro it naturally has no choice but that is not a choice it should itself make.

It is clear however that the choice at the end of the day is not Greece’s to make.  It is not in a position to compel a significant reduction in austerity or debt relief even while many commentators who support the austerity demanded admit that debt relief is inevitable.  The reason that they demand austerity nevertheless, even while recognising that it has failed, is that they seek the removal of the Syriza Government.

The EU leaders tried it last week and now seek it this week through refusing to accept Syriza’s huge concessions, refusing to extend the ‘bailout’ and through freezing ECB liquidity provision to the Greek banks.

The Greek workers should reject the austerity plan from the EU and reject the non-solution of leaving the Euro.  Only on the basis of fighting austerity and refusing a go-it-alone nationalist solution can it minimally seek to build a movement that would stem the demands for austerity.  What the Greek crisis shows is that such austerity can only be fought at an international level.

What does this mean?

Well, let’s look at what the Channel 4 journalist Paul Mason, who is covering the crisis, had to say.   Exit from the Euro may be inevitable he says because of democracy – the population of Northern Europe would not support the transfers required to reverse austerity inflicted on Greece while the Greek people may no longer accept it.

In this he is at least partly right.  Only an international campaign of solidarity with the Greek people, which explained that the bailout was not for them, but for the German and French banks and hedge funds who invested in lending to Greece, could explain the real function of austerity and lay out the grounds for convincing those outside Greece to reject it.  On this basis it might force a retreat from the austerity demanded by other EU Governments, including the repulsive Irish one.

Within Greece it would require not just an ‘OXI’ vote but a mass movement that would compel implementation of a Syriza programme to tax the oligarchs through occupations to open the books of these businesses and in doing so help put in place a rigorous system of tax collection.

In itself this would only form the starting point of a workers’ alternative – one that is based on development of worker owned production.  Such workers’ cooperatives are the alternative to the weak and crony capitalism from which Greece suffers.  It offers practical proof of the socialist alternative and is a basis for its growth this side of political revolution.  The latter in turn will gain credibility from practical demonstration of a socialist programme.

The lack of such international and domestic conditions caused defeat for Irish workers in their referendum.  A very different vote in Greece would be a step forward for Irish workers now.

On the other hand the very worst result would be defeat in the referendum and a Syriza Government implementing austerity.

While the Dutch hatchet-man Jeroen Dijsselbloem again reveals the Euro leaders agenda of getting rid of the elected Greek Government – “ who are we trusting” he says if Syriza promised to implement the austerity it had just rejected, Varoufakis is quoted as saying that Syriza would do just this.  “If the people give us a clear instruction to sign up on the institutions’ proposals, we shall do whatever it takes to do so – even if it means a reconfigured government.”

Such an approach would discredit any sort of Left alternative and pave the way for a hard right Government to eventually push through austerity on a demoralised workers’ movement.

The long resistance of Greek workers to austerity has given hope that we are not yet at such a result and that the struggle against austerity will continue.

Syriza and Ireland

syrizaimagesThis Sunday the Greek people will go to the polls in an election that could see the beginning of the end of austerity in Europe.  That anyway is the view of some on the left across Europe.

The potential election of a Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) Government, promising a radical reduction in the debt burden, has the potential to galvanise and set an example to the rest of the PIIGS.  It could incite a combined movement in Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain that would reduce the debt of these countries which has been a prime driver of austerity.  Through radically reducing the requirement to service and pay down enormous debts such a step could launch a definitive movement away from neoliberalism towards a radically different Keynesian social democratic alternative.

The elections in Greece will be followed this year by elections in Spain, in which a like-minded Podemos movement has grown, and in Portugal, and may also be joined by an election in Ireland despite the claims of the current Government that it will run in office until 2016.  Of the five PIIGS therefore at least three and possibly four may see elections this year.  Even elections in Britain could see the ousting of the Tory devotees of austerity and neoliberalism.  In fact the policy that might inspire the PIIGS is not confined to them but might apply right across Europe.  And Syriza is in the vanguard of this movement.

Is such a scenario a real possibility?

Let us notice what makes such a claim plausible.

Firstly the proposals of Syriza are not solely on behalf of the Greek people although as a Government it will be able to negotiate only on their behalf.  Syriza proposes a European Debt Conference modelled, with delicious irony, on effective debt forgiveness of (West) Germany in 1952.  This was carried out explicitly in order, or so it was claimed, to normalise relations between Germany and its creditors and to promote economic development.   That deal wrote off half of the debt, stretched repayment of the rest and for the first few years provided only for payment of interest, which was also limited.

Syriza proposals are more limited. Their policy could be based on an academic paper which proposes that half of the debt would be bought up by the European Central Bank (ECB) with either an interest holiday or interest charged on the remaining debt at a low rate.  The debt taken on by the ECB would not be written off but would be paid back only when the remaining debt left to the country had been reduced to 20 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  In effect economic growth and inflation will have eroded the real value and real impact of debt repayment.

However in one very important sense the proposals are much more radical than the German precedent, because the Syriza proposal is that this plan applies to every country in the Eurozone with debt over 50 per cent of GDP (all but three countries).  The Irish state for example would see its debt reduced from 108 per cent of GDP to 50 per cent, saving €3.7 billion each year in interest payments, so reducing the need for cuts or tax rises and facilitating greater state spending and investment.[i]

It has been estimated that this would reduce sovereign debt in the Eurozone area by about €4.5 trillion.  It is asserted that this would not risk inflation because the ECB debt purchases would be funded by massive borrowing from private banks.  There would be no money printing since the money is borrowed.  And sure why worry about inflation when deflation is so clearly the enemy?  And who pays the interest on these loans?

Well, it is recognised that there will be losses in paying back the private banks, between €50bn – €60bn in each of the first 5 years, and €1trilion over 40 years, but it is argued that the borrowing costs of the ECB would be low and that renewed economic growth would compensate.  It would be cheaper than the current policy of austerity and expansion of the ECB balance sheet required to bail out the banks.

It is recognised that this may not be enough in the short term for some countries so that, for example, in order to prevent continued austerity in Greece the ECB would have to take over the debt that would be required to be issued in the next five years.  This would also be required because over 50% of outstanding debt has to be paid back within the next 5 years in Italy, Spain, France, Holland and Belgium and to cover this new debts would have to be taken on.

For Marxists the point is not that some monetary scheme has been devised that will solve capitalisms’ problems.  Nor is it the point that Syriza will go into negotiations and cannot expect, as in all negotiations, to get its original plan agreed, even discounting some conscious intention to betray the hopes of its supporters in order to accept the logic of capitalism.

The significance of the proposals is that it provides a concrete platform around which workers across Europe can organise and struggle together, and a series of elections that can be a focus for such struggle.  This is not to invest illusions in either elections or Syriza, who are condemned by some for having shifted from a policy of debt repudiation to one of simply extending repayment under more favourable terms.   If a practice of simply condemning the limitations of reformist politics were the answer we would no longer have the problem.

The Syriza programme is one that workers and socialists can support because it reduces the burdens they face and would deal a big political and ideological blow to austerity and the parties who have peddled it.  It would deal a real blow to reactionary political parties seeking nationalist or fascist solutions.  Through a successful campaign workers could gain strength and confidence to build up their organisations, their own social and political power and their own confidence and class consciousness.  The latter is the role that Marxists can play by advancing a programme that does all these things.

The victory of Syriza would allow an opportunity to directly organise workers on an international programme on an international basis.  It is remarkable that this significance has been somewhat missed.  So, for example, the call promoted by the Fourth International correctly argues that “their victory will be ours, but their defeat too” but appears to fail to appreciate that this can be so because other European workers will not just be in solidarity with Greek workers but can actually be part of the same struggle, demanding the same deal for their country, so that “our victory will be ours and our defeat will be ours too.”

This is made tactically easier by Syriza not proposing either to leave the Euro or leave the EU.  There can be no pretext that the demands of Syriza can be dismissed because they no longer want to belong to the club.

These policies have been condemned as examples of betrayal of earlier more radical promise but they are not just tactically recommended.  As argued before in the various posts on ‘The Left Against Europe’, the growing unity of capitalism provides the material basis for the international unity of the working class.  This is why a united international struggle against austerity is more immediately and concretely possible in the Eurozone than one against similar policies pursued more or less independently by separate capitalist states each with their own currency.

So to return to our question – is such a scenario possible?

It is possible to argue that it is, for the simple reason that the Greek debt is too big to be paid back anyway.  Some means of addressing it is required and the Syriza route is eminently preferable for workers than the slow death march of austerity and repeated minor debt ‘haircut’ so far embarked upon.

The second is that by the very fact that the Syriza plan is reformist there is no necessity for a life and death struggle by the forces of capitalism to defeat it.  The Syriza plans do not call the system into question, which both sets limits to what it can achieve but also provides scope for negotiations between a Syriza Government (and other PIIIGS Governments should they be elected or so inclined) and the IMF/ECB /EU/German State alliance.

The rallying of the Greek workers behind Syriza is one of many proofs that a revolutionary overthrow of Greek capitalism is not currently on the cards and is not therefore a realistic immediate alternative.  The revolutionary alternative today consists of preparing for such an eventuality tomorrow.

Not by either passively or even ‘aggressively’ preparing for socialist revolution but by the cumulative development of the power of the working class suggested above, with the certain knowledge that a revolutionary break with the capitalist state and system will be required.

To condemn Syriza for negotiating with capitalism when it cannot be overthrown is a bit like condemning trade unions for negotiating a pay award when they should be overthrowing the wages system.

The third has been pointed out here – Syriza will be damned if it does not get some sort of result and the executor of that judgement may be the fascists of New Dawn.  It is not only Syriza who has an interest in ensuring this doesn’t happen.

‘Ireland is not Greece’ we have been told repeatedly over the past five years or so.  If Syriza is anyway half successful Ireland will look pretty stupid if it isn’t.

[i] It is interesting that the authors go beyond the argument that this is some sort of socialism saying that “The left ought to be strategically against privatizations, having at the same time as an ultimate target the gradual historical replacement of “state control” by democratic forms of social control (unfortunately this type of discussion has not been adequately developed within the left).”