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Reform or revolution?
I am writing this letter in response to a recent article by Alan Thornett in the magazine of you sister organisation in Britain, Socialist Resistance.
Why embark on the revolutionary road to socialism when it is easier to take the reformist road? The failure of the Syriza government in Greece was a FAILURE OF REFORMISM. But Alan Thornett remains adamant that reformism can work. Contrary to Alan’s prescriptions, what Syriza should have done was renounce all of Greek’s debts, re-introduce the drachma as its currency, and nationalize all Greek banks.
In future it will also be necessary to arm the workers – not simply to counteract the Fascists of Golden Dawn, but to prepare for a SEIZURE OF STATE POWER by the workers, accompanied by the building of organs of popular power (soviets) to replace the powers of the police force and judiciary following the revolutionary overthrow of the existing state power and these, its most crucial, institutions.
But Alan wants to REFORM the existing state rather than overthrow it. He deems it necessary to “ . . . take control of the institutions of state power”. Let us recall what Lenin wrote in “The State and Revolution” on this matter: “Marx's idea is that the working class must break up, smash the ‘ready-made state machinery’, and not confine itself merely to laying hold of it.”
Greece, SYRIZA in Power, and the Concept of a “Workers’ Government”
by Steve Bloom
[Note: In this piece I use a term I
have, generally, banished from my personal vocabulary for the 21st century:
“dictatorship of the proletariat.” I do so because we are confronted with
the challenge of understanding a text from 1922, in which that term appears.
The document in question is cited by Alan Thornett (and others, I might
add) in defense of a specific theoretical approach toward recent events
in Greece. Though Thornett does not quote that part of the Comintern’s
document where it refers to the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” I will,
because it is a key portion if we want to comprehend the question that
was actually being addressed. I ask readers to keep in mind that in 1922
the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” meant, simply, a revolutionary
state based on democratic working-class power. It was conceived as a “dictatorship”
of the working class as a whole, over the capitalist class as a whole,
not a dictatorship of some individual, or “vanguard party” over society.
This latter conception is a meaning of “communist dictatorship” which was
inconceivable before Stalin consolidated his personal totalitarian rule
in the USSR beginning in the mid 1920s.]
Let’s start our investigation, however, with a quote from a different article that IV includes in the same collection, the one by Catarina Príncipe and Dan Russell titled “Asking the Right Questions” (http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article4220). Príncipe and Russell directly express the same disorientation as Thornett regarding the tasks of revolutionaries in Greece in 2015: “Those of us who don’t have to confront the question of state power just yet nonetheless must learn the right lessons both from SYRIZA and the history from which it was born.”
I would say, however, that we cannot even begin to “ask the right questions,” let alone “learn the right lessons,” until we realize that starting in January 2015, immediately after winning the election, the key confrontation that SYRIZA had to engage was, precisely, with “the question of state power”—specifically with the nature and limitations of the governmental power that had come into its hands, and therefore with the need to construct an alternative power based on a mobilized mass movement in order to fulfill the campaign promises that Tsipras had made to the people of Greece.
In a sense, of course, “the question of state power” is one that revolutionaries confront at all times in one way or another, even in activities like a strike, or a campaign to free political prisoners. But I will insist that SYRIZA faced this question immediately and acutely, as soon as the election results became known in Greece last January.
A collective error
All of the contributions compiled by the IV editors follow a consistent pattern of thought, reflecting this same general disorientation: What went wrong in Greece, we are told, is that Alexis Tsipras failed to pursue the right governmental policies after the January 2015 election. I disagree, though it is true that Tsipras failed to pursue the right policies.
What went wrong in Greece was, instead, that both Tsipras and the left opposition within SYRIZA approached their tasks as if the governmental power that came into Tsipras’s hands in January was the key and decisive tool to wage an anti-austerity struggle against the EU, disagreeing merely about what specific administrative steps the government itself should or should not take. Both Tsipras and his critics within SYRIZA failed to engage the reality just identified: that as soon as a governmental coalition was created in January, SYRIZA then had to “confront the question of state power” in a very real and immediate sense.
The governmental power that came into Tsipras’s hands was at best only a blunt instrument. The real hope was to develop a struggle which could transcend and overwhelm the limitations imposed on any government by the realities of the Greek bourgeois state and its relationship to the European Union. The importance of mass mobilization gets honorable mention in the contributions compiled by IV. But it is, clearly, conceived in these articles as a supplement to the actions that Tsipras might have taken as head of state. A proper conception of tasks, however, would be the reverse.
Although I disagree with the rejection
by OKDE-Spartakos (Greek section of the Fourth International) of an electoral
bloc between ANTARSYA and Popular Unity in September, their statement explaining
this rejection (http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article4209)
does in fact nail the political essence of the problem by pointing out
“what led to the total devotion of SYRIZA to the memoranda and the euro:
governmentalism, management and reform of the state.”
The Tsipras government consciously chose a different path, however, a path of negotiations at the top that turned the masses into passive bystanders. Although there is a feedback loop of cause and effect at work here, I would tend to say that the chain starts at a point which is the opposite of the one Thornett identifies. Tsipras did not fail to create a workers’ government because he abandoned his commitment to the struggle against austerity. He abandoned the struggle against austerity because there was no other choice if he conceived of his task as “governmentalism, management and reform of the state”—that is, if he could not conceive of creating a genuine workers’ government.
The perspective of the Comintern
Thornett quotes the Communist International
theses as they describe the reality in question. But he fails to make a
distinction that is crucial if our goal is to understand what the words
he cites were actually trying to say:
The SYRIZA government arose “from a parliamentary combination,” but it did not “provide the occasion for a revival of the revolutionary workers’ movement.” Quite the opposite occurred, in fact. The masses in Greece, after the January election, chose for the most part to simply await results that the government promised to bring about without a struggle, through a process of negotiation.
If Thornett had said, simply, that the conditions in Greece were consistent with raising the slogan, or idea, of a “workers’ government” that would have been true enough, and in keeping with the thinking of the Comintern. But when he asserts that the same two words can be used as a descriptive characterization for the actual government that was formed by Tsipras and SYRIZA—even as a potential for what the SYRIZA government might have been—he and the Third International have parted ways. The institutions of mass struggle that a “workers’ government” of this type requires simply were not present. Neither Tsipras nor any wing of SYRIZA had the perspective of working for their development as their primary task.
It now becomes possible to directly identify
Thornett’s key error of assessment: “We have argued, throughout the crisis
and confrontation in Greece, that the situation posed by it raised the
possibility of a workers’ government.” That’s wrong, since “possibility”
here clearly does not mean “extremely remote possibility” but something
closer to “tendency to push in the direction of.” There was, in fact, no
such tendency at work. There was only an extremely remote possibility.
Yet it is clear that Thornett pins all of his hopes on precisely that most-unlikely
turn of events:
Perhaps. Such a development is certainly not excluded theoretically. But it was, as just noted, extremely remote. And I cannot imagine the Comintern ever proposing a policy that depended for its success on which way a particular head of state might jump. No, I will be so bold as to assert that the Communist International would have advocated an active policy to help push the working-class movement itself to jump the right way, regardless of what any particular leader chose to do. This, by itself, suggests that Lapavistas and Thornett share a perspective that has little in common with that of the Communist International in 1922.
A government with a reformist strategy doesn’t spontaneously transform itself into a workers’ government of the type we are discussing—at least not very often. Such a possibility is, therefore, not one we ought to expect or plan for. It should have been clear from the outset that the Tsipras government was a reformist government with a reformist strategy, and this realization should have guided the orientation of revolutionaries—rather than a hope and a prayer that events would somehow push Tsipras to suddenly become the class-struggle leader he has never been.
Revolutionary goals: 1922 and today
As we have already noted, the Comintern’s theses were intended to prepare a cadre for the necessary struggle within and with any government of this type that might arise—in order to guarantee an actual transition to a genuine proletarian state. The Third International was not attempting to develop a strategy for the class struggle in the context of capitalist society. We can now take our examination of this one step further, because the Communist International in 1922 also understood that this transitional form could, in fact, not be relied on to solve the immediate crisis of working-class self-defense. In and by itself it was completely inadequate.
Here is what the Comintern theses have
. . .
Communists are prepared to march with workers . . . who have not yet recognized the need for the dictatorship of the proletariat. Under certain circumstances and with certain guarantees, the Communists are equally prepared to support a non-Communist workers’ government. But the communists must at all costs explain to the working class that its liberation can only be assured by the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The other two types of workers’ government (number 3 and 4 in the above list—SB) are types that the Communists can participate in, although they still do not represent the dictatorship of the proletariat; they do not represent a necessary form of transition toward the dictatorship, but they can serve as a point of departure for attaining this dictatorship. The full dictatorship of the proletariat can only be accomplished by a workers’ government composed of communists.”
The reader should note two points in particular
in this passage:
The Greek people should never have been
dependent on which way Alexis Tsipras, left to his own devices, decided
to jump. The primary task was to encourage the struggle itself to jump
the right way—leaving Alexis Tsipras behind if he refused to jump along
with the mass movement. Like the Comintern in 1922, we, today, need to
be focused on “the struggle for power” as something that we are directly
and immediately concerned with, even if the transition to an actual proletarian
state is not immediately on the agenda. That’s true both because the question
of creating a proletarian state is the primary concern of the revolutionary
movement, and because only a strategy that is focused on this concern can,
in fact, lead to the kind of fight-back we need today in order to win concessions
from the austerity-mongers, even within the context of bourgeois society.
Thornett actually describes the kind of
struggle that would have been needed in Greece to bring revolution closer:
I am not among those who believe that if the Communist International suggested a certain course of action in 1922, we today must slavishly adhere to that same course of action. I repeat: much has changed since 1922, both in the world and in our understanding of it. But if we are going to cite the perspectives of the Comintern to defend a particular policy we have an obligation to be accurate in our assertions, and thorough in our understanding.
I could not agree more with Thornett’s
If a working-class party succeeds in gaining governmental power before the capitalist state is overthrown, the only truly meaningful action it can take is (in the words of Michael Lebowitz at http://www.socialistproject.ca/bullet/1149.php, discussing precisely this same set of events) “to use its power as government . . . to support the development of a new state from below.”
In the absence of that, all the rest is only wishful thinking.
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