Journal of Socialist Theory

Critique Notes 72


The events in Greece have dominated the news while writing this issue of Critique Notes, begun just after the referendum. We have taken the view in the last two Critique Notes that Syriza was a classic social democratic/Keynesian party, with the addition of some elements to its left. As such, it was unlikely to succeed in changing the political economic condition of Greek society, at the present time. In a period of clear capitalist decline, with its accompanying confusion, it could, however, be forced to move to the left. In other words, the global situation today is the reverse of earlier times when the capitalist class preferred to concede and accept so-called reforms. Today, the capitalist class believes that it has no alternative but to end the welfare state and maintain a permanent era of austerity. This line is no accident. The bourgeoisie has concluded that the period of reforms, with full employment and a welfare state, necessarily leads to the overthrow of capitalism or such malfunctioning of capitalism that its supersession becomes inevitable.

Syriza has mounted the first national revolt against austerity. It is taking more of a national form than a class form but it is nonetheless a class revolt against bourgeois role, whatever was intended. Savvas Matsas has rightly argued that inside the reformist form there has emerged a more radical content, in spite of some of its leaders. He has also pointed out that the actual vote in working class areas in the referendum was over 80 per cent for no in the referendum, i.e. against accepting the ‘institutions’ conditions.

The former Greek finance minister, Varoufakis, talked of a game to be played between the Greek ministers and those of other countries, who were politically on the right. The argument on what so-called reforms could be accepted by Greece has lasted for five months. The concessions made by the IMF, the European Bank and the European Union bureaucrats were trivial. Their hard line orientation in objecting to measures raising taxes on the rich, while demanding lower pensions and higher VAT, were an open provocation to the leaders of the Greek working class. The bourgeoisie, led by the Germans, were clear from the first day that they would not retreat one step. This is not a negotiating tactic on their part. Given the present state of capitalism, they have no choice. It is particularly true of German capital, given its internal social relationships. One can argue this point on political grounds or on economic grounds or both.

If the political-economic situation is one in which capitalism has reached an impasse, shown by the long-lasting crisis/downturn/depression, then it cannot afford

©2015 Critiqueto give way to the left. Any retreat will encourage more sections of the left to demand their own concessions and lead to an overall defeat for the right. In other words, if Greece gets concessions then Podemos will also demand concessions and new movements may be encouraged to form to push forward in their own spheres of influence.

Looked at from the point of view of the economy, the same principle can be argued. The German economy, for instance, has a particular political-economic equilibrium at the present time and pressure to raise wages or state benefits can reduce profits if conceded to, or lead to increased discontent with effects, inter alia, on the quality of production. In both cases, there will be a decline in competitiveness. Given the particularly large role of trade in the German GDP, this makes the German bourgeoisie wary of relaxation in its controls.

The Continuing Battle with the Bourgeoisie

The victory of the Greek proletariat, and population as a whole, in the referendum poses an impossible dilemma for the bourgeoisie. Looked at from a long run capitalist point of view, the clobbering of Syriza is stupid. They are not revolutionaries and they have won a democratic election and now a democratic referendum. Indeed opinion polls showed that their demands received overwhelming support among the Greek population. The possible defeat of the left can come through undemocratic measures of different kinds, like the intervention of the army, cutting off the supply of money by the European Central Bank, expulsion from the Eurozone, or through the imposition of a technocratic government. Their setback could also come through a campaign of fear in which ordinary Greeks are consistently threatened with the supposed dire consequences of opposing the IMF, Eurozone, and the EU, with instances of the kind they are suffering at the moment (July 2015). I wrote earlier that if the right undertake one or more of these measures it would reverberate throughout the world. That has indeed happened.

The left, everywhere, will reach the conclusion that no peaceful dealing with bourgeois forces is possible. Many countries, particularly in the Third World, are indebted to the IMF and other institutions. The remnants of social democracy will either vanish or become revolutionaries. The middle way, which is so often lauded as the necessary path desired by all, will vanish without trace. It is not clear to what this will lead, but it will certainly exacerbate existing tensions and promote civil strife. Democracy is patently already at an impasse, with parties redrawing boundaries to favour one or other side in elections, newspapers all expressing a fundamentally similar viewpoint, avoiding, concealing or distorting the reality facing every citizen. When half the youth are unemployed, without hope, they can only draw radical conclusions. That is clearly true in Greece, but a high percentage of youth are unemployed elsewhere in Europe as well as in other countries.

The potential threat discussed in the last paragraph is patent, and it is the reason why the bourgeoisie will not undertake the measures outlined very lightly.

Nonetheless, we have seen what they have done in Greece and we must regard that experience as a relatively mild instance of what might occur, given the bloody history of reaction.

Reaction at Work, Against Democracy

One might have asked after the referendum when the left has won the first round of the battle in Greece, what else can the bourgeoisie do if it does not take the reactionary road? Why can it not simply concede and write down the debt and allow a moratorium on repayments? As the IMF, among many others, have indicated the debt cannot be repaid under any circumstances. The same is patently true of the Italian debt. Why then not do the decent thing? After all, the debt was, in part, incurred through the purchase of military equipment for an army that is part of Nato.1Part of the debt is due to the irrational limits on growth imposed, by the creditors, through reductions on government expenditure so leading to rising unemployment and a reduction in demand. The German and French banks who were thereby spared the losses are continuing to assist in the prosperity of France and Germany. As it stands, the debt expenses came to some 56% of the budget in 20132, a proportion unheard of in the history of in most countries. It is a crime, for which the IMF and the Eurozone ought to pay, that it should have to such a pass.

Indeed, the German establishment are guilty of propagating the nonsensical and yet vicious propaganda that the Greeks are lazy and brought the problem on themselves. The German media talk of the population of Germany having to pay large sums to help the Greeks even though the actual amount in taxation on the ordinary person would be trivial, particularly if spread over a number of years. There is nothing to stop them reversing this line and telling the truth. In any case, it is not at all clear how many people actually take the line of the Government. However, there is no way that it will happen.

The official propaganda pursued by the media in much of the EU is that all governments are democratically elected and hence they all express the views of their electorate3. Concerning the question of the Greek debt, this is patently untrue, since the electorate have not been specifically consulted. It is true, however, that many of the governments do take this righteous line in opposition to the view that the referendum wish of the Greek electorate ought to be respected. They also demand strict observance of the ‘rule of law’ and the rights of private property4.

Wolfgang Munchau has put the point succinctly: ‘Contempt for democracy and economic illiteracy are not merely tactical errors. Those two “qualities” are now the remaining ideological planks of what is left of the European project.’5He points out that the Eurozone proposals to Greece were opposed by a series of economists from different schools from Jeffrey Sachs to Paul Krugman, while a series of representatives gave the impression they wanted to rig the referendum, and the EU was arrogant to boot.

There can be no doubt of their arrogance in calling the Greek government ideologists, adolescents etc. but this is to be expected from the right who refuse to believe that capitalism is anything other than eternal, and the rule of law is god given to protect the market and private property. The bourgeoisie are not natural democrats after all. It was only after the Russian Revolution that they gave the vote to women in many countries including the UK, and indeed the full inclusion of all men from 60 per cent to 100 per cent in the UK. Indeed the full franchise is less than a century old. The United States had no problem intervening in democratic countries when they disliked the government, most notably, albeit often secretly, in South America, as in Chile. Nor were the interventions elsewhere in non-democratic countries in aid of democracy rather than US interests.

Division among the Great Powers

In Europe, today, however, the USA is playing a moderating role, as compared with the European hawks, like Germany, Holland and Finland. It has consulted with President Hollande of France and urged the publication of the IMF report (referred to above) that pointed out that the Greek debt could not be repaid and had to be restructured, so undermining the German case.

Munchau writing his last article of the week following the referendum made a series of points and discussed the emerging rift with France saying, ‘I have always predicted that the moment of truth for the Eurozone will come eventually. It will come this weekend.’6Whatever transpired, he is right to point to the historic rift with Germany. Commentators have frequently referred to the fact that the Eurozone itself is partly a political creation intended to contain a unite Germany. In other words, it was the price Germany had to pay to be allowed to unite. France and the UK in particular had to be reassured. The German bourgeoisie could not be allowed free rein, given the history of two world wars. Today, France and the UK are diminished powers even compared to 1990, and consequently it is no surprise that France has conceded the lead over Greece to Germany, while the UK has remained outside the argument, but not entirely on Germany’s side. The whole issue of Greece moved from being a collectively agreed viewpoint to one being driven by Germany with cheerleaders from the Baltics, the Low Countries and Finland. While before the referendum the Mediterranean countries had some sympathy with Greece but supported the overall line, after that event they showed their support for the revised Greek so-called reform proposal. As France had helped draft it, that was not surprising. The clear split is something that cannot be healed, as it has been latent throughout the history of the Eurozone. Germany has been able to build up a considerable surplus in its exports both to the rest of the Eurozone and to the world as a whole. It has refused to take the consequence of the goal ‘of an ever-closer union’ that it should share its wealth with other regions of the Eurozone.

On the contrary, it is taking an extremist ‘austerity’ line. Since a simple application of austerity whether in the United Kingdom or Greece simply leads to negative growth and greater debt, this seems economically illiterate. The truly ‘economically illiterate’ who rave about the need to compare the indebted state to a family in debt, are subject to the objection provided by Keynes that it is the ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness’. There must be more profound reasons, however, for the conversion of the bourgeoisie to austerity, and the dogmatic version of it espoused by the German bourgeoisie and its government. Put simply, why has the German bourgeoisie taken such a hard line? Ultimately, either it has its back to the wall in a way that other countries do not or it is determined to establish a new order in Europe, in which capital will rule unhindered, German capital in particular. The latter possibility leads back to two world wars and one would think that modern German capital and German politicians are unlikely to move in that direction. Those sentiments have led to a rise of a new nationalism as an alternative form of solidarity, which is effectively a mode of control from above. ‘A rise in self-interested nationalism — a phenomenon of which Syriza is part — is leading to a general paralysis in European decision- making’7

The United States, on the other hand, as global hegemon is responsible for imperial order and can see the overall results of the continuing revolt in Greece.

The Successes and Failures of the Left and Right

It is worth setting forth what has been achieved by the left and lost by the right in the period since Syriza assumed ‘power’ in Greece.

In the first place, for the first time since the Portuguese revolution, the left has raised its standard before the population of a country and received substantial support, first in an election and then in a referendum. In the latter case, they were fighting the global bourgeoisie and won with the explicit support of the working class, as a class.

In the second place, although Syriza stood on an explicitly reformist platform, they were forced to take on the combined might of the European bourgeoisie. The latter insisted that no change was possible in the terms for the repayment of the loans. Since those terms included explicitly reactionary demands such as privatisation, removal of labour protection, and reduction in pensions Syriza as a party could not yield. In fact, the leadership around Tsipras was prepared to give way, but the left of the party could not surrender without committing political suicide. Surprisingly the party held together until after the referendum. The effect was that Syriza continued in government for 6 months with an unintended revolutionary programme.

In the third place, the bourgeoisie has been exposed as rapacious, vicious, and ideologically driven hard people. The ideals that they have espoused as being their goals, like the rule of law, the importance of money above individual or national survival have been tarnished beyond repair. The deliberate use of the European Central Bank as a means to bring down the Syriza government was a cynical ploy that has helped to expose the veil of monetary independence and with it the crucial underpinning of capitalism and its ideology in commodity fetishism.

In the fourth place, German Social Democracy has fallen to a new low point, when most people thought that was not possible. The statements of Martin Schultz, whatever the differences in translation, the German Social Democratic Chairman of the European Parliament, and Sigmar Gabriel the leader of the German Social Democratic party in opposition to the no vote in the referendum were fundamentally undemocratic.

In the fifth place, the bourgeois leaders of the EU countries may have dealt a mortal blow to their own contemporary ideology, as indicated above, by their arrogance, their rejection of democratic forms and insistence on their own wisdom above democratic decisions. They did their best, earlier, to avoid an explicit democratic vote on the real issues, turning down a referendum when proposed by Papandreou. They placed the supposed viewpoint of their own electorate above that of the electorate that was really affected and in so doing showed that their own views were anti-democratic. Few on the left have any illusions that the bourgeoisie would accept a democratic decision to move to socialism but, on this occasion, they showed what may lie ahead.

The Question of Power

In the fifth place, Syriza has raised the whole question of how the left can come to power. Stalinism effectively terminated any possibility of socialism supplanting capitalism for almost a century. Social democracy consistently blocked any move towards socialism, by finding a capitalist alternative. Both have effectively ceased to exist, whatever the contemporary names their successors maintain. The current capitalist crisis makes reformism inapplicable and the socialist alternative is becoming the only real way out, even as it remains for many an outdated utopia. Unfortunately, this is the context in which Syriza has taken over the government of Greece. Its members are aware of the twin dangers of conceding to the right and retreating into a self-enclosed and self-justifying shell. They clearly do not have an alternative, hence the shift from concessions to the right over to the left and back again. Given their promises to the electorate not to make things worse, they have no way forward. Through their control over money, the right has forced Syriza into a humiliating settlement, as an alternative to a Grexit.

Of course, the revolutionary left would never have taken this path. It would have nationalized the banks and other financial institutions and repudiated the debt on taking power. Then the European Central Bank would have cut them off from the Euro, forcing a Grexit. The population would then have faced a very difficult time, which is why Syriza promised not to leave the Euro and thereby managed to be elected. Socialism in one country is, of course, impossible and the present situation in Europe is proving the point. Hence, a reformist group was elected, but failed even to get a reformist platform established, so showing that social democracy in one country is also impossible today.

The question remains open. Historically, Kautsky took the bourgeois-democratic road: he opted to take the electoral path, within the existing structures, without explaining how the ruling class would give up its class position or its privileges. The Leninist road of taking power through an armed uprising cannot work except in time of war, as in Portugal. However, even in the case where there is a war, and the soldiers rise up, the issue is not dealt with. Socialism cannot function through directives from above. A temporary shift into dictatorial forms, for whatever reason, is extremely dangerous, carrying the possibility of degeneration. In that sense the Greek referendum was a masterstroke, which continues to influence events. However, as everyone knows, and as the authorities showed, in capitalism capital has every advantage in the democratic arena, being able to use fear of poverty, destitution and war, control over the economy and money, as well as deception, lies, slander and libel, without any fear of retribution.

In Europe, the level of education is considerably higher than it was a century ago, and while there is some way to go before everyone can analyse policies and political actions in depth, the problem is less one of comprehension than of despair and cynicism. That is why one reason why Syriza has raised hope in the working class the world over. However limited they are, they have showed up the bourgeoisie, accelerated the divisions in the ruling class and given a modicum of hope to the poor and dispossessed.

In the long run, the conversion of the working class from blue collar to white collar has made the question of solidarity more difficult, while at the same time there is a greater a gap between the capitalist class and the rest, with the professionals (doctors, nurses, teachers, academics, lawyers etc.) becoming proletarianized. This effect has partly led to the kind of protests seen in Greece, with mass meetings, street councils, and mass demonstrations in order to create forms of collective action. In a sense these forms, are making a return, as opposed to the strike and the aim of a general strike. Ultimately, in the very long run, we can be confident that the combination of the decline of capitalism and the increasing popular comprehension of the nature of the

capitalist system will lead to its overthrow. However, most people would not want to wait so long.

The Negative Results of Syriza

Unfortunately, the left has no answer to the question of the means for the left to take power. If in the future it wins an election, then Syriza’s fate will remain an awful warning, even though they were and are reformist and their denouement was inevitable. There can be no question that the failure of Syriza in its own terms will help to douse the increasing hope that they engendered. However, whatever their authors intended they had mass support, and they fought the regiments of the bourgeoisie. That the latter sacrificed their own long term interests for a short term victory has meant that Syriza will be forever remembered as firing the first shot in the current round of the Class Struggle. The reformist form yielded to a necessarily revolutionary content, which has been opened throughout the world. The form of Syriza and its leaders will necessarily be cast aside, as the Greek proletariat fights for its existence.

The reality is that we are in a new period in the decline of capitalism defined by the end of Stalinism and social democracy in a context of a depression or global crisis. No social democratic or reformist entity can achieve meaningful reforms. If they come to power, then the Greek example will haunt them. It is more likely that such entities either disappear or transform themselves into revolutionaries.


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