A Brest Litovsk moment?

July 23, 2015

Paul D’Amato comments on a historical analogy being applied to Greece today.

SEVERAL COMMENTATORS have described the surrender of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and the ruling SYRIZA party's majority to the dictates of the European creditors as a "Brest Litovsk moment."

Specifically, they compare the vote of SYRIZA members of parliament for an onerous new Memorandum with the capitulation of the Russian workers' state, led by the Bolsheviks, to German imperialism in 1918, by signing the Treaty of Brest Litovsk to end Russia's involvement in the First World War.

As one Financial Times analyst wrote of Brest Litovsk, "Under this treaty's harsh terms, Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who had seized power in Petrograd in November 1917, capitulated to Germany, signing away almost half imperial Russia's European territory, including Ukraine and the Baltic states, and a quarter of Russia's entire population."

According to the writers' analogy, Tsipras' SYRIZA-led government, elected on a main campaign platform of resisting austerity, was compelled to give the European creditors--who would not budge--what they wanted in order to prevent a collapse of the Greek economy that a "Grexit" from the common euro currency would cause.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (Martin Schulz)

How meaningful is the comparison?

On the surface, the analogy isn't an outlandish one--two left governments forced to retreat under pressure from an outside power. But there are some crucial differences.

For one, the Bolsheviks were in possession of state power, having gained a majority in the workers and soldiers soviets, and organized a successful insurrection that broke the back of the old state power in October 1917. Brest Litovsk meant handing over a great deal to German imperialism, but it didn't mean giving up state power.

SYRIZA came to government within the framework of the existing bourgeois state by electoral means--by winning a majority of seats in parliament. The scope of SYRIZA's power, therefore, is far more limited than the power held by the Bolsheviks in 1918. And with this capitulation to the creditors, its strength is significantly weakened.

Second, whereas a strong case can be made that the Bolshevik government, in order to survive, had no options other than signing the treaty, the same cannot be said about Tsipras' surrender to the creditors. On the contrary, by forcing through the new Memorandum despite a strong majority that rejected it in the referendum vote, Tsipras has severely harmed SYRIZA.

The Bolsheviks signed the Treaty of Brest Litovsk in order to live to fight another day. It was a calculated retreat based on the fact that the old Tsarist army had collapsed, and the Bolsheviks did not yet have the military means to resist a German invasion.

Some Russian revolutionaries, including Leon Trotsky, argued for a different course, but in the debate that raged in Russia for weeks at the end of 1917 and early 1918, Lenin's argument--that the new workers' government must honor a central commitment that brought it to power by ending the war, or risk losing popular support--won out. The choice was between heroic defeat and some kind of breathing space to regroup and build up their forces.

But the capitulation in Greece marks a complete surrender on the most important promise that led to SYRIZA's victory--the kind of retreat from which it is difficult, if not impossible, to regroup and fight again, at least on the part of SYRIZA's moderate wing that Tsipras represents.

WHEN LENIN, writing in 1920, explained the Bolsheviks' decision to sign the Treaty of Brest Litovsk, he said it was a matter of handing over your wallet to bandits in order to escape without being killed. But he made a distinction between this sort of compromise, and a compromise that puts one in a position of being an accomplice to the bandits. He wrote:

Imagine that your car is held up by armed bandits. You hand them over your money, passport, revolver and car. In return you are rid of the pleasant company of the bandits. That is unquestionably a compromise. "Do ut des" (I "give" you money, firearms and a car "so that you give" me the opportunity to get away from you with a whole skin). It would, however, be difficult to find a sane man who would declare such a compromise to be "inadmissible on principle," or who would call the compromiser an accomplice of the bandits (even though the bandits might use the car and the firearms for further robberies). Our compromise with the bandits of German imperialism was just that kind of compromise.

But when, in 1914-18, and then in 1918-20, the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries in Russia, the Scheidemannites (and to a large extent the Kautskyites) in Germany, Otto Bauer and Friedrich Adler (to say nothing of the Renners and Co.) in Austria, the Renaudels and Longuets and Co. in France, the Fabians, the Independents and the Labourites in Britain entered into compromises with the bandits of their own bourgeoisie, and sometimes of the "Allied" bourgeoisie, and against the revolutionary proletariat of their own countries, all these gentlemen were actually acting as accomplices in banditry.

It isn't difficult to see that Tsipras and the right wing of SYRIZA has acted in the latter way, rather than the former.

First of all, its entire reason for being in power at all is based on a position that set it apart from all the other discredited parties of Greek capitalism: A commitment to fighting austerity embodied in the Memorandums. Signing a new, even more draconian Memorandum--without even a guarantee of debt relief--is a complete political about-face, a surrender all along the line.

Second, by signing such a Memorandum, and having to "sell" it to the Greek people, Tsipras and his allies have put themselves in the position of being apologists and abettors of the Greek and European bourgeoisie.

IN REALITY, Tsipras had a utopian conception of what concessions could be wrung from the European creditors through negotiations. He believed that all he needed was an electoral mandate from the Greek people that entrusted him to try to get a better deal, and the Europeans would shift.

But the European ruling class wants to make an example of SYRIZA--to teach workers everywhere that resistance is futile. The left inside SYRIZA argued that the only basis on which austerity could be resisted was through mobilization from below, spreading the anti-austerity struggle to other parts of Europe, and a willingness on the part of the government to begin unilaterally implementing social measures to reverse austerity, in defiance of the Greek and European capitalist class.

The only way that Tsipras can sell what he has done is to argue that there is, in fact, no alternative--the refrain that has been echoing through the world since the dawn of the neoliberal era. But if resistance is futile, as this capitulation implies, then there is no basis for the existence of a party like SYRIZA, in its original configuration.

In essence, the SYRIZA represented by the majority current led by Tsipras has been overthrown. It may lose in the next election, or it may become a coalition partner with pro-austerity parties in a future government. But it can no longer be a party of anti-austerity resistance.

That task will fall to the Left Platform of SYRIZA and to Greece's radical left.

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