Introduction: From Ballot Box to Circus
I will begin this text by saying that the question of Syriza, as a whole, is not at all a story of a “good party being forced to bend the knee”, or of “the good, mass movement being co-opted by a small clique at the top”. This might be a shocking thing to say when, overall, the left seems to have embraced that story; how could I possibly dare to discredit the idea of Syriza, of a popular, united left movement?
Before we even start trying to analyze this question, we need a very brief recounting of the facts, just to make sure that readers unaware of the Syriza situation will not be too confused:
- Syriza was founded as a broad coalition of left-wing groups in Greece, ranging from old eurocommunist groups, to Maoists, to social-democrats, to patriotic liberals. It would be wrong, however, to pretend that most of these groups ever had any power; the main force in Syriza was a quasi-populist, “anti-system” stance, linked to the broader “social movement” politics of the early 2000’s. “Syriza” (literally meaning: Coalition of the Radical Left) was in fact the most orthodox manifestation of these “social movements”, rising to international popularity amongst the left and winning the praise of philosophers such as Slavoj Zizek.
- Syriza rose in popularity as the main, ossified (and hyper-corrupt) Social Democracy of Greece: PASOK (the Panhellenic Socialist Movement), collapsed in the early 2010’s. Due to an economic crisis linked to everything from the euro to the Great Recession, Greece was to be forced to pay for the gambling of Franco-German banks; I will not go into the financial details too much here, but long story short, PASOK adopted economic measures that violated Greek national sovereignty and massively harmed the economic situation of the Greek people. Taxes were hiked, pension funds slashed, and so on. This led to an odd series of coalition governments, which gave us a conservative-led coalition in 2012.
- Syriza had already risen to become the second largest party in terms of votes. The idea of Syriza: a social movement not connected with all the government corruption rising up to face the oligarchs bringing us into this mess, appealed to increasing amounts of people. It was the program of Syriza: opposition to the economic memoranda, broader democracy, and general populism that allowed its rise.
- Syriza won the parliamentary elections of 2015. Suddenly, it was in government; but the problem arose: who was in government? Had Syriza seized power for the Greek people, or had it become “another governing party”? Functionally and legally, it was just “a party in government”, and, increasingly, it had to operate as such. Of course, this was not truly a problem for most of its followers at first, as they had voted Syriza in order for Syriza’s program to be carried out, not necessarily to seize political power for themselves.
- Syriza decides that the question of the economic memoranda has to be answered by a plebiscite. A referendum is announced, and the media machine of the right starts to churn. The victory of the pro-memorandum side is expected; after all, the whole of the media, the conservative “New Democracy” party, and “proper society” in general is supporting it. However, shocking everyone – including Syriza – the Greek people voted “No”. The Syriza government now had the full legitimacy to oppose the memoranda, despite the threats and demands of the European banking institutions.
- The memorandum goes to parliament for a vote. Syriza MP’s have been instructed by the leadership of Syriza to vote “Yes”.
- Some of the Syriza MP’s break off to form an even broader and more disorganized group called “Popular Unity”. Utilizing the excuse of “seriousness” and “maturity”, the Syriza government manages to win another round of elections in 2015, securing a majority by allying itself with a small, right-wing populist party. The defeat leaves Greek leftists with no hope in parliamentary politics; the Greek population accepts scraping by. The original economic plan of the European banks is enforced by the “Radical Left” Syriza party.
How on Earth could this happen? How on Earth could a left-wing party, so tightly interlinked to all sorts of social movements, supported by its own country’s population, transform into such a loyal enforcer of the financial oligarchs and their policy? And, more importantly, how could the opposition within this party fail to prevent this?
This text is an analysis that aims to explain not just the full reasoning behind “Syriza” and its failure, but also the theoretical errors and false assumptions that doom Syriza-like movements, combined with their antidotes. This text will also probably be of interest to others in countries with similar movements, e.g.: Podemos, the Labour Left, the American Left-Democrats, though to be perfectly honest… all of these movements were much more promising a few years before. Nevertheless, I find it important to analyze and understand this sort of political party, because in the absence of a Communist Party, it is Syrizas who will rise to fill the vacuum every 10 years or so (and it is over Syrizas that we’ll be crying and splitting).
Part I: The “Left-Wing Party”
The basic critique of small, idealist groups is that they are sects. Seeing themselves as the sole carriers of the “right ideas”, these groups split over the tiniest disagreement in theory, desiring a uniform internal theoretical life. By defining membership on the basis of theoretical agreement and not agreement of practice, these groups see their goal as simply “evangelizing”: spreading the “right ideas” until their organization grows enough to become “the revolutionary party”. We can point to a billion little variations of this situation, but it is such a concrete problem that even in the time of Marx, it was used to critique many Blanquist and other groups. Quite famously (and controversially) within Trotskyism, Hal Draper codified the critique of the sect-form, and posited that the party cannot operate as an ideological club, and must instead operate as a truly Leninist organ of “united action”, but free discussion.
This is a very basic point about in-party democracy and the necessity to prevent party tyrants from expelling people just because they have different opinions on “dialectical materialism”. But the question naturally arises: if the party should not be defined on the basis of ideology, then what should it be defined by? Should we just have a “broad, left-wing” group that can catch all “tendencies” within it?
The largest organization influenced by Hal Draper, the ISO, collapsed into scandal and shame. A “broad, left-wing” organization such as the DSA has also not broken from bourgeois politicians; Syriza itself, a “broad, left-wing” coalition, ended up as a bourgeois party. The Latin American “broad left” groups ended with corruption and normalization as bourgeois parties; the Podemos, Jeremy Corbyn, and Bernie Sanders campaigns were all weakened by several different policies adopted at the top. In Australia, the “broad left” has also not seen much success; in fact, all over the world the sole outcomes of a “broad left” party seem to be:
- Internal bickering and a lack of really “united action”.
- The victory of a bourgeois faction within the party before or after it gains parliamentary power.
- Degeneration into a small, dogmatic “sect” like before.
How could this be?
A “broad left” party can draw up a political program and have a political ideology that is “broad” as the horizon; it can appeal to all sorts of social groupings, struggles, and even ideologies. It can in fact even integrate small sects into itself, broadening their ideas. But the main problem with sects remains: it is the ideas which determine everything in the first place. No matter how broad Syriza, or Podemos, or Brazilian Workers’ Party is, membership in said party is defined by ideas about one or two specific policies: the memoranda, taxation – whatever. And even if these are very good policies with a broad, popular appeal, you are accumulating a membership which only cares for these policies and wants the implementation of these policies – not a membership which has concrete knowledge of how policies are really implemented in society. This claim seems like an unsupported one right now, but bear with me momentarily.
By being a member in a political party solely to support the abolition of a certain economic law, you assume that the way that this will happen is through your party being empowered. The party is not representing any specific social sector; it is not representing any broader struggle; it only exists to carry out a specific program, i.e.: abolishing the unpopular economic law. Your duties and education as a member are defined by increasing the popularity of your party, voting for it, evangelizing for it – i.e.: acting in the same way that you would if you were in a small, sectarian group. And while yes, unlike the small and sectarian group, this party might actually win in an election and carry out a part of its program, the attachment of its members and followers will be an attachment solely to the party and the policies, not to anything else, such as the struggle that takes place between social classes.
I am not arguing that simply attaching “class” to the program of a small or large sect turns it into a revolutionary party. But in order for a party to actually carry out the struggle against the bourgeoisie to its conclusion, to not back away when the struggle suddenly becomes more complex, or requires different methods than just “winning elections”, it needs to define not just its ideology, but its whole existence as an organ of class struggle. By limiting itself to a policy list, no matter how broad or in-depth, the party will always be either too vague and weak when facing changing conditions, or too inflexible in times of calm – that is the crux of my argument against sectarianism (broad or narrow).
Syriza defined itself on the basis of some vague and incoherent populism, combined with one specific promise: the end of the memoranda. When in government, it had no actual basis on which it govern: what does “power to the people” mean in the abstract? Syriza, not having a specific class line, could simply define “power to the people” as “power to Syriza, who will increase the amount of democracy in Greek society”. Any decisions Syriza made were to be informed by a vague and inexistent “popular interest”, which could be redefined to mean any bloody thing from exiting the memoranda to entering the memoranda. And even when trying to reinforce this baseless populism with a plebiscite on the memoranda, they simply betrayed it.
Syriza’s structure was only accountable to their own idea of what counts as “broad left”; just like the PT in Brazil, or other left-populist organizations. Even though much of the class struggle in Greece involved opposition to the memoranda, and so many Greek workers followed Syriza, this does not change the fact that Syriza was not and is not a class party, but instead operates as the classic political sect – defined by nothing but its own, hypocritically-changeable ideas. Whereas the whole existence of the Bolsheviks, or even the original Social Democratic parties, was just “the organ of the class in the class struggle”, Syriza was “officially the organ of all Greeks – but let’s be honest here… everybody claims that”.
In the absence of a proper root behind the party, we start fetishizing the party itself, which lets us forget about the class nature of politics – and this is the exact origin of bourgeois politics.
Of course, let us not get ahead of ourselves here. The Greek movement against austerity and the memoranda was correct; “social movements” in general are not to be discarded. And let us also remember the following: this is not some complaint by someone who expected socialism to arise out of Syriza or any of its substitutes. Socialism cannot possibly exist when class consciousness is worse internationally than it was in 1848; even from a purely reformist perspective that doesn’t care about socialism, a party like Syriza is still infinitely-inferior to a class party that works with democracy on the inside, without forgetting about the class struggle. And remembering the “class parties” can still attract people outside of the class with their program is also crucial here.
Nevertheless, with the most elementary critique of Syriza complete, we can move on to specific issues posited by the structure of a broad sect, as well as the question of state power in general.
Part II: Referenda and State Power
A question which might naturally arise from this is whether we should just abandon electoral politics altogether. I have made it clear that I do not think abandoning elections, or abandoning the existence of parties in general is the solution here; and I do not want the position opposed to Syriza-like groups to be misinterpreted as “ultra-leftism”. It would be ultra-leftism to denounce Syriza because it does not yet demand the overthrow of state power; it would be ultra-leftism to denounce Syriza because it does not call itself a communist party. It would not be ultra-leftism, however, to denounce a group when it no longer operates as an organ of class struggle; this is a simple but very important distinction.
The class struggle does not always take an illegal form, it does not always take the form of “just overthrow the government immediately”. It might also be that the workers in a country seize power, and the conditions for socialism are not there: the country is too unstable for planning, or a huge peasant economy exists, etc.; does this make these workers “counter-revolutionary”? No, it just means that their class struggle has not yet advanced to a certain point. If, however, a party in charge suddenly betrays the class struggle below, accepts total imperialist domination, and remains in power – what can that situation even be classified as? Many leftists find it impossible to draw the line here.
But, in the latter case, the party does take the “realistic and mature path”… to preserve itself. It does not, as in the former case, take the path needed to preserve the class; it takes the path that is needed to preserve its own legal authority, while sacrificing the class for the gods of “realism”. Just like how the SPD in Germany sacrificed the class struggle for revolutionary defeatism, just to keep its singing clubs and MP’s legal, Syriza sacrificed the population for its own authority. And this is intimately tied in with the second big problem of Syriza, a problem which goes back to Kautskyism and is in many ways a manifestation of the problem of sectarianism: in Syriza, “having state power” is identified with the party being in charge of the bourgeois state.
It does not matter if the working class is not participating in the running of the state, if the state apparatus is just as bloated and alienated as before. As long as Syriza has the “democratic mandate”, granted to it by the formal bourgeois constitution, then the “people are in charge”; after all, we live in a democracy. It is THIS which separates the Marxist from the reformist idea of the state: the reformist idea of the state sees the state as something abstract from class, where whichever idea gets voted in is automatically the most representative of the people; the Marxist sees the state itself as an organ to be used or opposed, something which does not supercede the class in holiness.
Referenda/plebiscites are the precise product of this reformist idea that whatever opinion wins in bourgeois, constitutional elections is the opinion representing “the people”. If the population as a whole has shown its support to your party and its program, why expose yourself to attack from the bourgeois media and other counter-offensives by proposing a referendum? Why not instead do what you were asked to do when you were voted in, and actually fight for your program? If a party is a class party, it needs to fight for its class with the best means granted to it; surrendering your own political base to the mercy of a referendum is the most undemocratic, pseudo-neutral, liberal nonsense there is: why propose a referendum instead of the legislation you support?
If a class conscious party is able to be elected in the first place, it means that the overwhelming majority of the workers are already willing to seize power for themselves. If you win a formal election, but you do not have that sort of support, or you do not have a majority, then accepting a coalition with a bourgeois party, or a compromise with the bourgeois state, transforms you into the policeman of the working class; you take part in something that you have no power to truly change, and it would be infinitely superior to simply refuse power until you do. It gives you no more power to be formally in government when speaking of a bourgeois state, after all; you do not get the power to “end imperialism” or “expropriate the capitalists” with an election. What’s actually important is your power within the class, and it is that power which actually allows an anti-imperialist policy, strikes, alternative political structures, and so on to be organized. It is a total surrender to liberalism to think that: La France Insoumise or Die Linke are justified in not being class parties, because this allows them to get to power more easily. What we should truly say instead is: precisely because they are not class parties, they will never be able to mobilize, unify the class as consistently and clearly as the Communist Parties ever did, and so they will remain far from actual state power – both in terms of winning elections consistently, and other, more concrete and actual seizures of state power.
Part III: Revolution in Greece?
Sometimes, it is very necessary to engage in alternate-historical speculation in order to correct old mistakes. Many readers might be shocked or just tired at the proposal: class party! Return to revolutionary socialism! And I fully understand that response, because this is not the first time that this is being proposed; anyone familiar with small Marxist groups knows that. I will try my best to do the following thing here: provide not “the formula” or “the panacea”, but a concrete example of a path where the Greek situation, or something similar, can be turned into a “seizure of power” in the modern world’s sense.
The existence of a class party would not necessarily mean the electoral victory of the class party. It would be rare, and perhaps a product of political opportunism for the party to win electorally in the conditions of Greece. Anyone from left-populists to coalition governments could precede us in their victory; the point is that the party would be organizing the working class on a political level and putting forth the idea that it can seize political power throughout this whole time. Not ultimatums and impossible demands; demands which can be fulfilled through power to this or that extent. Of course, we would not be a majority from the beginning; we would, however, be a combative minority which fights for the movement and provides alternatives to it whenever the left-populists or whoever screw everything up: there’s another path.
By being extremely concrete in our speech and propaganda, as well as in our proposals, we could get everything ranging from committees of action, based heavily on the people themselves, or even self-defense forces (again, organized on a territorial level with agreements and mass presence) – not to engage in some protracted people’s war, but precisely to defend the “moral majority” normality, the common sense demands of the masses against government tyranny, or a fascist backlash, or whatever. This could even include a peace movement, had the Ukrainian War occurred previously, or a movement of solidarity with refugee/migrant workers (which had more than enough potential in our own destructive timeline).
No one expects Red Terror, or Soviets, or a Red Army, or some DSE-type civil war to occur in Greece. If there was ever a Greek revolution, like any revolution it would be based much more on the masses and their political organization rather than any military events. Barring a risky and perhaps suicidal move by the elite and the armed forces, the proletarian movement in Greece, a movement consciously organized with class struggle and the international situation in mind, an anti-opportunist movement which does not prioritize short-term victory over our targets, would have the ability to come into power; either through a combination of electoral victory and state smashing (popular seizure of power, perhaps in defense against reaction, etc.), or through more orthodox revolutionary events which could occur after the consciousness of the masses has had such development that “the working class seizing power” actually makes any sort of sense.
I have gone in detail on the economic operation of any revolutionary state in Greece (much more detail than here) – the point here is not the detail, the point is providing a vague sense of forces at play. Any revolution has to and will arise from the masses. This point is non-negotiable. It is not something which people can be tricked into; it is not something which arises when the party is so big that it is possible. It is something that occurs when the masses see the point in seizing power, do so consciously, and forge society from then onwards. It is the negation of alienated forces, the smashing of the police and the financial tyranny and the systems of national oppression. It is the replacement of the bourgeois line that the government will innately take by social necessity.
Wanting the resulting situation to fit “our” aesthetics and “our” vocabulary is thus total dogmatic thinking. The forces which seize power might or might not be fully revolutionary; it is our job to support the smashing of any elements of the bourgeois state left, to oppose opportunism while charting the path of the Greek revolution, etc. – if we can do even half of that, it will be worth it. And perhaps more research and theory on the idea that, even for reform, revolutionary politics is necessary, must be done – quickly.