I’m putting some notes together for a talk at the forthcoming Historical Materialism conference London. I’ll be speaking about Andre Gorz, Nicos Poulantzas and the question of structural reform. I plan to use this blog to post work in progress notes and drafts as I prepare the talk. I came across the following paras which were cut from a recent article about Corbyn which pretty much sum up the argument I intend to make.
It’s important to pick up on some of the wider political and strategic lessons of the current conjuncture. As we have seen, the Corbyn phenomenon is part of a broader political shift across Europe. Despite their many differences one of the key perspectives shared in common among the leftist formations that have made political headway recently – Syriza, Podemos, the Corbyn movement – is an explicit orientation on winning government power in order to implement a series of left social democratic reforms. Political formations cleaving to classical revolutionary Marxist perspectives have nowhere made any comparable advances. The clear organic dynamic of contemporary radicalization across Europe then is toward the formation of ‘left governments’ of radical reform. Like it or not we have to work with the grain of this dynamic. We’ve seen some of the inherent pitfalls and problems of this approach of course in the case of the Syriza government and the brick wall it ran into from day one. Of course we need to learn lessons from this but these can’t be to fall back on facile invocations of revolutionary slogans such as to call for the ‘smashing of the state’ (whatever that means concretely) – concepts which offer resolutions to real problems at the level of phraseology only and which, in any case, are plainly unsuccessful in winning very many people over.
Working with the grain of this contemporary political dynamic means thinking seriously about the possibilities and limits of radical ‘transitional programs’ and ‘structural reforms’ and about how a government of the left in dialectical interaction with an extra-parliamentary mass movement might be able to enact such measures in such a way that the movement from below is progressively empowered. Erik Olin Wright’s recent attempt to think through a way of combining what he calls the ‘three strategic logics of transformation’ – ‘symbiotic’, ‘interstitial’ and ‘ruptural’ – provides useful ideas in this regard. But we also need to re-examine André Gorz’s thought on ‘non reformist reforms’ and to return to some of the resources of (left) Eurocommunism which seem, to me, to have acquired a renewed relevance.
I converted the notes below into an article for Jacobin.
I’ve been attempting to write a follow up article on Corbyn for Jacobin over the past few days. It’s not been going very well for various reasons. Here are some of the key observations I want to make in bullet point form. (Obviously this need some boiling down!)
- As has been endlessly pointed out, just a few short weeks ago nobody could have predicted the groundswell of mass support that Corbyn’s leadership campaign picked up, much less the thumping majority that he achieved.
- But this goes for the radical left as much as much as for anybody else. Indeed on the day that Corbyn scraped together the nominations that he needed to meet the deadline to enter the contest I remember telling some of my students very emphatically that he didn’t stand a hope in hell of winning. How wrong I was. But it’s not just me – ‘Corbynmania’ runs counter to much (by no means all, but much) of the radical left’s analysis of labourism for the past few decades. Corbyn and the movement around him have exploded what we had taken to be settled truisms about the absolute hopelessness of any attempt to harness the Labour party as a vehicle for socialist advance.
- This calls for a significant rethink on the part of the extra Labour Party left (much of which has been reduced to the part of more or less passive onlookers as the mobilisation around Corbyn catalysed and surged ahead). At the very least it calls for a certain degree of humility on the part of the radical left. It doesn’t have all the answers. It doesn’t have very many of them. There is little more embarrassing at the moment than the sight of certain left groups chasing after the Corbyn bandwagon – racing though the dust they’ve been left behind in – while attempting to dispense cock-sure advice to the Corbynistas about what they ought to be doing.
- There’s a certain mode of political ‘intervention’ characteristic of Leninist groups – a kind of political brass neck – that involves setting out confident diagnoses in relation to the strategic and organisational weaknesses of rival formations and tendencies while remaining absurdly silent and uncritical in relation to their own evident weaknesses, silences and indeed in relation to their own evident histories of failure. There’s a lot of this about at the moment in relation to Corbnmania. But maybe they should unlearn some of that absurd overconfidence. Maybe, just maybe, there’s something to learn from the Corbynistas.
- This doesn’t mean that we were wrong about there being structural limits, or deeply embedded obstacles and pitfalls, inherent in labourism or in parliamentary reformism more broadly. Corbyn is already beginning to run up against some of these and he and the movement around him will certainly encounter more and more of these more and more forcefully as they/if they advance further. It does mean, however, that we were substantially wrong about the apparent death of social democracy, the complete marginalisation of the Labour left and so on. While Labour has not been ‘reclaimed’, some of the commanding heights of the party have been seized – for now. This is more than any of us expected. Maybe there are more surprises in store. None of us can claim in good faith to be absolutely sure about how things will develop from here.
- It was, paradoxically, the total defeat of the Labour left in the 1980s that created the conditions for Corbyn’s victory some 30 years later. The smashing of Bennism in the 1980s and process of party recomposition under the developing hegemony of the ‘modernising’ right that reached its apogee under Blair was as much about the snuffing out of democracy and the disempowerment of the membership as it was about the shift to the neoliberal centre in policy terms (indeed the former was largely the precondition for the latter). This centralisation of power led, over time, to the hollowing out of the party. The right presided over a more or less lifeless party machine – a transmission belt for neoliberal policies. But this was a shallow and brittle hegemony. When the Corbyn challenge breathed life into sections of the membership again the right found that it simply didn’t have a rooted mass base of support out in the CLPs – it didn’t have the foot soldiers to resist the Corbyn advance and was swept away with ease.
- Ed Miliband’s accession to the leadership in 2010 reflected a weakening of the right’s grip over the party in some ways, but, almost as if he was ashamed about the effrontery he’d shown in beating the right’s preferred candidate – his own brother, David – Ed Miliband thought it necessary to placate the right by giving them something that would (they and he thought) shore up their domination in future. The reform of the party electoral system (stemming from the 2014 Collins review) – in particular the introduction of OMOV and votes for supporters as well as members – was designed to dilute the power of the unions in leadership elections and thus, it was thought, guarantee that the ‘right’ candidates would be victorious in future contests. It didn’t work out that way. It was a big miscalculation. What was meant to strengthen the hold of the right over the party in fact provided a way for a candidate of the party’s ‘hard left’ to take control. Corbyn, or candidate like him, could never have won under the previous electoral college system. In more than one way then the ground for Corbyn’s shock victory was prepared by the party right over-reaching itself. In fairness, though (as pointed out above) nobody could have foreseen the great surge of political mobilisation of members and supporters that drove forward the Corbyn challenge.
- As I have pointed out elsewhere, this surge is the specific expression in England/Britain of a wider trend of political radicalisation across Europe. Whereas in other countries a radical anti-austerity mood crystallised in the form of electoral challenges from without to the established parties of social democracy, in England/Britain – no doubt because of the peculiarities of the first past the post system – it took root within the traditional party of social democracy. Indeed several commentators have pointed out that what we are seeing in the UK now isn’t any longer the slow ‘Pasokification’ of Labour but a simultaneous and rapid process of ‘Pasokification’ and ‘Syriza-ification’ – the emergence of a sort of dual power within Labour. This of course is a very unstable situation but one pregnant with opportunities. It’s also largely unprecedented.
- Nevertheless Corbyn’s position is extremely precarious. Though the hollowing out of the party over the 1980s, 90s and beyond under the hegemony of the right prepared the ground, in a nice irony of history, for the Corbyn victory this same hollowing out is also now a source of weakness for Corbyn. The Labour left as an organised body, well rooted among the structures of the party, has never been weaker than it is now. The right occupy most of the strategic positions within the institutions of the party and are well dug in. The recent influx of new members – the shock force behind Corbyn’s victory – is unlikely to change the balance of forces within established party structures in the short term.
- The Labour right is still reeling from the blow of Corbyn’s thumping majority. It’s unlikely to attempt any serious move to topple Corbyn in the short term. Corbyn’s sizeable majority over the other three leadership candidates combined provides him with a legitimacy that it’s going to be very hard for anyone to dispute openly for the time being. For all the talk in the run up to the election of a quick ‘coup’ against Corbyn in the event of his victory it’s clear, now, that this plan cannot be put into action – you can’t argue with a 59.5% share of the vote. There has also been some discussion of a spilt or defections from the right. I think this is unlikely (for now, anyway, things might change) – it would be a very high risk strategy for anyone to take and could well be career suicide for those involved. It wouldn’t look good either for the same reason that an attempted putsch wouldn’t. The much more sensible strategy would be to play a longer game – in part waiting more or less passively for Corbyn to run up against the hard limits of ‘political realities’ and for his currently mobilised support to tire and drift away, and in part a more direct low key war of attrition to grind Corbyn down and demoralise his supporters. This would play to their current key strength – almost compete domination of the party apparatuses. All they need to do is sit tight and do what they can to gradually ratchet-up the pressure on Corbyn while waiting for his supporters to get bored and fall back into political inactivity. This indeed seems to be the sort of strategy they are settling on – it’s more or less what Luke Akehurst (a key commentator from the party’s right) describes here in relation to the emerging balance of forces in the party.
- They’ll be assisted in this strategy of course by most of the media which is almost uniformly hostile to Corbyn. The tone of this hostility varies – from hysterical terror and outrage on the part of the Daily Mail to condescension toward the silly little children on the part of the inner circle of columnists at the Guardian – but it all functions in the same way. The effect of it is a constant grinding away at Corbyn and his closest allies (McDonnell in particular); force him to ‘condemn’ this or that, explain this or that, apologise for this or that, clarify this or that, keep trying to trip him up, make him look stupid incompetent, shifty. Keep him on the back foot, unbalance him, make him look like he’s permanently buffeted by ‘scandal’ (i.e. any old trivial bullshit) and not in control. Everything and anything, no matter how trivial, is worked up into a mini-scandal – not wearing a tie, not singing the national anthem, having a beard. This is going to go on and on, week in week out until Corbyn is removed, collapses… or wins the next election (at which point the real shitstorm begins). They want to grind him down to the point of exhaustion. I’ve a sneaking suspicion the intention is to give him a mental breakdown. They’ve got 5 years to do it.
- Nevertheless there’s a certain pedagogical effect to all of this. It must be an eye-opener for many of Corbyn’s newly politicised supporters to see the range of forces now lining up to oppose him in a tacit alliance – from the Tories, to most of the media, to some of the state, to most of the established Labour Party. Simplifying only slightly we can all observe an unspoken, loose, but nevertheless distinct, cross-party closing of ranks that reveals a truth about the locus of a fundamental political dividing line. It’s not Labour versus the Tories. It’s the movement around Corbyn versus everyone else including the large bulk of the Labour party. And this ‘everyone else’ commands huge power and resources. Even the most inexperienced Corbynista must now be developing a firm grasp of the sort of forces that he (and they as part of the wider movement) are up against and how difficult the fight will be. This is a good and necessary thing. Better this is grasped sooner rather than later.
- As almost all leftwing commentators are pointing out, it is imperative to maintain and to build the movement around Corbyn – this is the only real counterweight that can be deployed against the forces and pressures bearing down on Corbyn and his (very small group) of comrades within the PLP. Maintaining the momentum of the Corbyn movement is key. Much easier said than done of course.
- Much of the problem in this respect is that in order to do this – lead the Labour party within the structures of Westminster and provide a focal point around which a wider mobilised movement coheres – Corbyn is going to be pulled in two directions. In fact he’s got to make the Labour party a vehicle for something it was designed to snuff out. He’s got to run the machine (inasmuch as he can run something he doesn’t fully control) against itself. As a range of classic studies of the Labour party have shown – notably those of Ralph Miliband and David Coates – one of the major functions of the Labour party, embedded in its structural DNA, is ‘management of discontent‘ and it does this, in particular, by systematically channelling extra-parliamentary struggle into more containable and much more harmless forms. So leading Labour while simultaneously providing leadership to a wider mass movement is going to be a difficult trick to pull off to say the least.
- Obviously, much here will turn on the ability of the movement to maintain a certain critical distance and autonomy in relation to Corbyn. This, in turn, demands that the movement goes beyond Labour party members to encompass other forces and groups on the left too. It was enormously encouraging in this regard to see that Caroline Lucas of the Greens is keen to discuss electoral pacts with Corbyn in order to build what she calls a ‘progressive majority‘ alliance in Britain – although it appears that the Greens are rowing back from this now. Most groups on the radical left are keen to work with Corbyn (rather than denounce him for his reformism – for now at least). It remains to be seen whether Corbyn will reach out to these other forces. If he does so, of course, this move is likely encounter severe hostility and obstruction from the Labour right and Labour tribalists more broadly. But it’s this or slow suffocation.
- Nevertheless the radical left needs to keep things in perspective here. We are pitifully weak and we’ve been behind the curve during this whole process – as we’ve seen the Corbyn surge and victory confounded a lot of what we’ve been saying for ever about Labour and the death of social democracy and left us as more or less passive bystanders. The last thin we should do is start issuing orders to any movement around Corbyn. We aren’t the commanders.
- Much of the left will approach the business of working with a movement around Corbyn by, essentially, trying to shoehorn the whole unpredictable and largely unprecedented process into its preconceived schematic formulations. No doubt Corbyn and Corbynistas will be pigeonholed into categories of comfortingly familiar jargon (‘left reformists’) and talked down to in a more than mildly condescending and know it all manner. This will be a way of not really having to think about the concrete specifics of the current political situation and its dynamic. The Corbyn movement will be seen as a bunch of political naifs who must be won to ‘the correct revolutionary perspective’ by ‘patiently explaining’ etc and recruited also to the vanguard party of the working class (which will just happen to be the party the issuer of this proclamation belongs to, natch). But the vast bulk of the Corbynista movement is not going to join any of the existing parties. It isn’t going to happen. If there is a split in Labour or some other form of significant recomposition on the left it’s not going take the form of a mass decampment to any existing organisation. It’s going to be something new and something emerging from within the Corbynista movement itself. It will be something we will join, not something of ours they will join.
- We also need to pick up on wider political and strategic lessons. The Corbyn phenomenon is part of a broader phenomenon across Europe. What unites the formations that have made political headway recently – Syriza, Podemos, the Corbyn movement – is the conviction that the question of political power has to be confronted. That is, anti-austerity movements have to set their sights on winning government office as a necessary and central component of a wider, ambitious strategy of change.
- The organic dynamic, at work here is toward the formation of left governments of radical reform. We just have to accept this. We’ve seen the pitfalls and problems of this approach of course in the case of Syriza – the brick wall it ran into from day one. Of course we need to learn lessons from this. But these can’t be to fall back on too easy invocations of revolutionary certainty such as to call for ‘smashing the state’ (whatever that means concretely) and for the ‘seizure of power’ on the part of workers’ soviets (what workers’ soviets? Where are they? Are they down the back of the sofa?) which is a resolution of real problems at the level of phraseology only.
- Like it or not we need to think seriously about ‘transitional programmes’ and ‘transitional demands’, about the possibilities of radical reform and we need to return to re-examine the concept of ‘structural reforms’ (Gorz), Ralph Miliband’s ‘strong reformism’ and, yes, to the resources of (left) Eurocommunism.
A zombie is a functioning mass of meat, bone and digestive tract with no purpose other than its own physical being and with no need for any purpose other than this. It is perfectly autotelic. It has no need for meaning, or interpretation or narrative or decision. It just is. It is raw physical existence from which ego, sentience, thought have been expelled and radically obliterated. The zombie is in a sense the human Real – the brute material reality of our being before it is carved up by language. The zombie achieves a complete wholeness and unity that the living cannot attain. It is a human body fully reconciled with the world around it and at one with it, knowing no separation or distance from it. This is why we’re so fascinated by the undead – it’s because, secretly, we envy them.
At least that’s part of it. The other part of the fascination of course is anxiety. But this is the other side of the same coin. The zombie myth reveals the repressed truth of our existence – which is that the sentient, conscious part of us (the ‘I’) is at most the mere tip of the iceberg of our full being (in fact the ego is probably more ephemeral than that and possibly a fiction). The figure of the zombie represents our terror of ourselves. Our fear of that part of us that sleepwalks, that drives on autopilot, that breathes, digests, repairs, grows, degenerates without any conscious decision or supervision. It symbolises our estrangement from our unknowable shadow self over which we have little or no control and which is also most of what we are. Who can look into a mirror for more than a minute without a nagging sense of the uncanny? Who and what is this that stares back, familiar and strange? This form onto which we project a name and a history and an ‘I’. This mass of skin and flesh and skull. You and I are zombies who dream that we are not.
I converted a version of the notes I posted below into an article for Jacobin. It is available here.
Unfinished notes on the Corbyn phenomenon. Not sure if I can finish this (or what it’s for), but thought I’d publish now on my blog.
All the evidence indicates that left-winger Jeremy Corbyn is on course to win the Labour leadership contest. The conventional wisdom on the political centre-left – both within the party itself and among the majority of Labour-leaning media pundits – is that a victory for Corbyn would represent an utter disaster for the party. The general thrust of their argument is that Corbyn supporters are unserious, unwilling to think responsibly about the necessary compromises of power and are engaging in a form of narcissistic, self-indulgent ‘purity leftism’ that, if Corbyn is successful in his leadership bid, is likely to condemn Labour to years of opposition in a tragic re-run of the party’s post-1983 wilderness years.
None of this feels particularly convincing, however. For one thing, for all the warnings and finger-wagging in relation to the unrealistic, irresponsible, utopian dreaming of Corbynism what Corbyn actually proposes in terms of policy seem eminently sensible and in fact rather modest. His proposals amount, effectively, to a return to something like the form of Keynesian social democracy that was absolutely mainstream – widely shared political and economic common sense – before the onslaught of neoliberalism. It’s hardly a utopian or ‘hard left’ set of proposals and, in fact, all of this simply demonstrates how far to the right received opinion among the liberal-left has shifted over the past 30 to 40 years that they are (mis)represented as such. For another thing, their protestations that their opposition to Corbyn pivots on a hard-nosed, pragmatic assessment of what it takes to be ‘electable’ – that their priority is to defeat the Tories and get Labour back in power (in fact this ‘pragmatic’ sort of argument is underpinned by a sort of moralizing or emotional blackmail – Corbynites are scolded for their ‘beautiful soul’ idealism when in fact they should be focused on Labour winning power for the sake of the poor and those bearing the brunt of austerity which depends on electing a ‘moderate’ leader for the party etc. etc.) – just don’t ring true. If their position really did rest purely on electoral concerns you would think that they might be slightly less hostile and dismissive in relation to the candidate who is currently drawing thousands to political meetings around the country and slightly less confident in relation to the electoral prospects of the other three candidates who, let’s say, haven’t yet demonstrated any talent for electrifying the political landscape in quite the same way.
It’s notable that much of the political right seems to have grasped what’s happening in relation to Corbyn’s leadership campaign with much greater clarity and far-sightedness than most of the centre-left punditocracy. Few serious figures on the right see Corbyn as a gift to the Conservatives in the next election. Indeed Tory big-hitter, Ken Clarke recently warned his party that Corbyn’s ‘brand of left populism would be hard to campaign against’ and was clear, moreover, that Corbyn could win the next general election. One of the key lines of argument that you see cropping up with regularity among centre-right commentators is that Corbyn’s momentum could herald a fundamental transformation of the political terrain. Writing in the Guardian for example, Tory-supporting journalist Matthew D’Ancona, suggests that ‘the sort of Conservatives who think intelligently and strategically’ (‘and there are more of them than you think’ he points out) worry that the way Corbyn seems to have ‘stormed through the crash barriers of contemporary politics’ suggests that the conventional rules of politics are shifting. The ‘centre-ground’ of British politics, in other words, appears to be moving to the left and, further, a Corbyn leadership election victory threatens to drag it even further in that direction. This, indeed, is the fear articulated by the ultra-neoliberal Telegraph journalist Allister Heath for whom, a Corbyn victory ‘would be a disaster for the pro-capitalist cause’ because it would transform the basic coordinates of mainstream political debate, ‘shifting the centre-ground of British politics back towards a more interventionist position’ in which (to Heath’s horror) it would become ‘acceptable again to call for nationalising vast swathes of industry’ for example.
Much of the political right, then, certainly take Corbyn very seriously and indeed seem to operate on the basis of a much more sophisticated understanding of what the remarkable momentum his campaign has generated seems to signify. It is an understanding that is sensitive to the dynamic nature of political ‘common sense’ – it can shift and change – and to the way in which the basic coordinates of this ‘common sense’ are currently, in the context of years of austerity and popular disillusionment with ‘Westminster politics’ as usual, particularly volatile and in flux. In comparison, much of the centre-left seems trapped in a sort of Fukuyama-Blair moment that looks increasingly absurd. Perhaps the superior grasp of the political stakes on the part of the right is rooted in necessity. The fundamental raison d’etre of this political tradition, after all, is to defend existing social inequalities of wealth and power and this requires sensitive political antennae able to detect the emergence of potential serious challenges to these inequalities. The basic rationale of the centre-left, we might say, is to translate the politics of social justice into terms and forms broadly acceptable to the right and established authority – which is to say that the politics of the centre-left boils down to the perpetual postponement of egalitarian social change in a strategy of permanent placation in which the over-riding imperative is to demonstrate one’s ‘moderation’ and ‘responsibility’ to those in whose hands social and economic power is concentrated. Since Blairism represented the apotheosis of this sort of world-view it must be very traumatic to have to admit that the world has moved on and to have to break from its certainties and perhaps this at least partially explains some of the extraordinary vitriol directed at Corbyn.
Although it has taken nearly all observers by surprise, the Corbyn surge has not simply materialised out of thin air of course. It is important to see it in the context of wider developments internationally. One could say that Corbynism is the specific expression in Britain/England of a wider phenomenon across Europe: a shift in the political balance of forces toward the left and the rapid rise of radical anti-austerity parties and movements – most notably Podemos in Spain and of course Syriza in Greece – and it’s from this wider process that the Corbyn campaign has derived its startling momentum.
This shift has been driven in great part by the intersection of two major factors – the impact of austerity on working people and the long-term crisis of social democracy. These two factors have converged in that social democratic parties have almost uniformly failed to present any sort of coherent opposition to austerity and in many cases, of course, have administered it as parties of government, accelerating a longer-term process of ‘hollowing out’ in terms of party membership and voter turnout as social democratic parties have gradually transformed themselves into vehicles for neoliberal politics. It’s worth noting in this regard that despite a slight rally under Miliband, the Labour’s Party’s membership and share of the vote has declined precipitously since 1997 – and indeed it was the failure of Labour’s core vote to turnout at the last general election which explains the gap between what the opinion polls suggested Labour’s support would be and its actual vote. This erosion of the traditional base of support for the established social democratic parties has created a volatile situation in which electoral formations challenging those established parties from the left can very rapidly pick up support.
But of course this process is not unfolding in a uniform or generic way across the continent. The radical mood sweeping much of Europe crystallises within nationally specific social conditions and finds concrete expression in nationally specific political and organisational forms. In Spain the need for an alternative was given political expression by a new party, Podemos, which emerged from the 2011 ‘movement of the squares’ while in Greece anti-austerity forces cohered around a pre-existing coalition of radical left organisations, Syriza, (later to transform itself into a unitary party). In Britain something quite distinct appears to be emerging. Whereas Podemos and Syriza, for all their differences, emerged to challenge established social democratic parties (the PSOE and PASOK respectively) from without, the British challenge is manifesting within the structures of the traditional party of social democracy (or at least in close relation to these structures inasmuch as Corbyn’s leadership bid has galvanized forces of support that go beyond the Labour Party). Further the specific British form of this challenge has emerged rather late in the day after a series of what, in retrospect, now seem to have been false starts – remember the ‘Green surge’ of a few months ago – as if this new radical mood was searching in a sort of trial and error process for an appropriate vehicle before finally settling (for now at least) on the movement currently coalescing around Corbyn.
To some extent it’s rather misleading to talk of the Corbyn surge as the form in which the radical mood across Europe has crystallised in Britain – perhaps it’s more precise to say that the movement around Corbyn is the specific form in which this wider political-ideological shift has become concretised in England and Wales, because, of course, the first serious mass political movement against austerity in the British Isles coalesced around the extraordinary ‘Yes’ campaign for Scottish independence. Indeed in some ways we could regard the Corbyn campaign as a sort of contagion from Scotland – a radical and confident anti-austerity movement first incubated north of the border, travelling south, transmitted by means of inspirational example, to take root in a different form elsewhere in the UK.
First published by New Left Project
It would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, but a party of the radical left is on the cusp of power in an EU country. The latest opinion polls indicate that Syriza will triumph in the Greek national elections to be held on Sunday and although it may not win an absolute majority in parliament it would (assuming it can find coalition partners) certainly be the dominant force in any coalition government that emerged.
Unsurprisingly the imminent prospect of a left government committed to breaking with the brutal reign of austerity has alarmed the powerful within and beyond Greece. In a thinly veiled attack on Syriza, for example, the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, recently warned Greeks about electing ‘extreme forces’ into power and suggested, rather in the manner of a threat, that they ought to consider ‘what a wrong election result would mean for Greece and the eurozone’.
But what’s remarkable about this is that, for all the warnings of ‘extremism’, Syriza’s demands are in fact rather modest and indeed eminently sensible. At the core of its programme are pledges to negotiate the cancellation of 50 percent of Greece’s crippling debt, lift austerity and boost growth and employment through public investment. These proposals are accompanied by a range of measures designed to address what Syriza rightly calls the ‘humanitarian crisis’ in Greece such as promises to provide free electricity and subsidised meals and housing for the poor.
Given the economic and social catastrophe that austerity has visited on Greece—over 25 percent unemployment, an economy that has contracted by a quarter, wages and pensions slashed, soaring rates of homelessness, suicide and infant mortality—these are hardly outlandish or utopian proposals. They pivot on the simple, obvious truths that the national debt is unpayable, that austerity is generating nothing but misery and, further, on the rather basic ethical demand that every citizen should have enough to eat, decent housing and access to the basic resources that will allow them to live with dignity. There is nothing extreme about this—indeed, surely the real extremists are those who insist on further austerity, further hardship and humiliation for ordinary Greeks.
It is precisely the moderation of Syriza’s stance, however, that has attracted fierce criticism from other left wing groups. The Greek Communist Party (KKE) for example denounces Syriza for ‘opportunism’ while the Front of the Greek Anticapitalist Left(Antarsya), though much less sectarian than the KKE, refuses to combine forces with Syriza, arguing that the latter’s programme is insufficiently radical. Internationally too, there’s no shortage of left critics issuing dire warnings in relation to Syriza’s ‘reformism’, convinced that all it aspires to do is to manage, rather than seriously challenge, the system. Even among many of its supporters there is a general consensus that Syriza ‘is not as radical as we would want’ and that backing it in the forthcoming election represents a necessary reining in of the left’s political ambitions under current conditions.
These criticisms are mistaken, however, for three closely related reasons.
Firstly, it is not at all clear what serious alternative most of these critics propose. In fact, for many of them the underlying dispute with Syriza is not so much over the details of reform proposals as it is with the party’s very intention to form a government within the political institutions of the capitalist state. Such a strategy, they warn, leads inexorably to betrayal since any party that seeks to utilise capitalist institutions will become trapped within the logic of the system. But years of intense social struggles in Greece—including mass demonstrations, occupations of government buildings and more than 30 general strikes—have failed to stop austerity, much less usher in socialist transformation. It is clear that social mobilisation in itself is not enough and that the question of political power must be confronted. Greek workers require a political instrument to lead in actually implementing their demands.
In this regard many of Syriza’s Marxist critics invoke the need for soviet organs of workers’ power. The obvious problem here, however, is that in circumstances where such organs show little sign of emerging even after years of intense social struggle such invocation remains entirely abstract—it is, for the time being at least, wishful thinking rather than the identification of a serious, concrete alternative in the here and now. Indeed, typically, such critics cannot specify in anything but the most hand-waving and vague terms how such organs of workers’ power might possibly emerge. Syriza, however, grasps that the struggle as it currently is requires a government of the left that utilises existing political institutions and, for all the undoubted risks, problems and dilemmas that this will bring, are prepared to take on this responsibility. As such, only Syriza proposes a serious and concrete plan to confront the urgency of the situation in Greece. In comparison, many of its leftwing critics seem to me to offer little but evasive posturing which of course offers little of practical value to people currently struggling to feed their families and pay their rent—this, indeed, is one reason why the KKE and Antarsya will struggle to win more than derisory shares of the vote in the forthcoming election.
Secondly, Syriza’s proposed reforms correspond to the immediate needs and demands of ordinary Greeks—for jobs, better wages, affordable food and housing and so on. Indeed it’s precisely because of this correspondence that Syriza’s programme has resonated so successfully with Greek voters, bringing the party to the brink of office and thus putting imminent, real change on the agenda in a way that ostensibly ‘radical’ but wholly abstract revolutionary demands with little political traction never could.
Thirdly, it’s clear that, for all its sober pragmatism, Syriza’s manifesto is likely to bring it into direct confrontation with the forces of domestic and international capital. It’s certainly not a programme for the management of capitalism on capital’s terms. A Syriza government is likely to face intense hostility in the form, for example, of serious capital flight, bank runs, an ‘investment strike’ and threats of withdrawal on the part of multinationals together with various methods of blackmail and obstruction on the part of the EU. It will also face a dangerous struggle within the Greek state itself—not least in relation to an unreliable and hostile police force in which more than half of all officers voted for the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn in the 2012 national elections.
It’s likely, then, that on taking office Syriza will, very quickly, be faced with a stark choice: either to renege on its commitments in the face of powerful opposition or to press ahead, which will mean being prepared to take counter-measures to defend its initial reforms: cancellation of the debt, nationalising banks, expropriating closed factories. Of course there’s nothing inevitable about which of these two options Syriza will choose, but given the popular hopes generated by its promises, to retreat on its core commitments would certainly be to consign itself to future electoral oblivion. Much here would depend on mobilised mass support seeking to push the government on and to force it to stick to its promises—indeed a Syriza victory on Sunday will probably unleash a new wave of popular struggles.
The key point here is that determined, consistent implementation and defence of Syriza’s pragmatic election promises is likely to lead to measures that go far beyond the party’s current objectives. We could say that Syriza’s apparently modest programme conceals an inner dynamic of radicalisation.
The very possibility of this dynamic however is rooted in the moderation of the initial demands—in the way in which these articulate the everyday concerns of the mass of the Greek population. What anti-capitalist forces operating within Syriza grasp is that revolutionary social change must emerge from ordinary people’s collective experience of the way in which modest, common sense measures to improve their lives and defend their dignity run up against the limits of what the current order will allow. This experience thus reveals the system’s essential inhumanity—in a sense we might say its extremism—and demonstrates concretely, in a way that abstract declarations of ‘the need for socialism’ simply do not, the imperative to push beyond capitalist limits in order to secure the very basic conditions for a decent and humane society.
Ed Rooksby teaches politics at Ruskin College in Oxford and is a member of Left Unity.