Kind of a different state?

February 26, 2015

Among socialists and the radical left around the world, all eyes have been on Greece and SYRIZA--during the election campaign leading up to the January 25 vote that put the left to power in Greece for the first time in the post-Second World War era; during the opening days and weeks of the new government, when veteran radicals took over ministries and began carrying out long-awaited changes, with the promise of more to come; and now after the disappointing headlong retreat of the leaders of the new government in their first confrontation with the rulers of Europe over the austerity agenda.

Here, Todd Chretien, editor of a new annotated edition of Lenin's State and Revolution, comments on an interview with socialist author Leo Panitch, published at Jacobin under the title "A different kind of state," about the hopes for change under the new government--and the subsequent debate among socialists who have drawn different conclusions.

IN THE wake of the agreement between the SYRIZA government and the Eurogroup finance ministers that extends the austerity agenda that SYRIZA pledged to reverse, Stathis Kouvelakis of the party's Left Platform sounded the alarm, calling for a thoroughgoing debate.

If, therefore, we wish to avert a second, and this time decisive, defeat--which would put an end to the Greek leftist experiment, with incalculable consequences for society and for the left inside and outside this country--we must look reality in the face and speak the language of honesty. The debate on strategy must finally recommence, without taboos and on the basis of the congress resolutions of SYRIZA, which for some time now have been turned into innocuous icons.

One aspect of this debate, though by no means the only one, is how to understand the state. If it takes a leap of imagination for people in the U.S. to escape the suffocating atmosphere of U.S. politics--Clinton or Bush in 2016--Lenin's remark that "the question of the state is now acquiring particular importance, both in theory and in practical politics" rings almost as true today in Greece as it did in Russian in 1917. This is not to say that Greece is on the edge of workers' power. Socialist blogger Dave Renton rightly situates us in an article republished at Jacobin:

SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras speaks in Athens right before the election
SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras speaks in Athens right before the election

There is not yet a "Greek revolution." What we have, rather, is a left government trying to do what it can when the level of strikes has been falling for two years, when the strikes have been largely limited to the public sector, and when millions of ordinary Greeks--not merely the rich--have been removing their savings from the banks.

In this vein, the Jacobin website--which has been doing yeoman's work in its coverage of Greece and SYRIZA--recently ran an interview with socialist activist and writer Leo Panitch called "A different kind of state." For those not familiar with Panitch's truly encyclopedic knowledge of global labor and social movements, there is no better introduction than this brief 2012 interview with Aijiz Ahmad.

In the Jacobin interview, Panitch rightly argues, "You can't change the world without taking power"--and he specifically means state power. This is an absolute ABC of revolutionary politics, and we can only hope – along with Panitch – that this lesson makes some headway against the ideas of "horizontalism" that are so fashionable today. However, just as Panitch links the horizontalists' obsession with process back to the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, I want to argue that Panitch's conception of "taking power" owes something to the German socialist leader Karl Kautsky--when Kautsky was at his best, not his worst.

Panitch explains his attitude towards structural reforms that the new SYRIZA government may seek to enact:

I would hope that it [reforms proposed by SYRIZA] would be far more open and democratic. I would hope there would be people appointed in the Greek state who would see it as their role to organize the unorganized, to promote a much fuller democratization of the state and society than we know. That won't make the powers that be in Europe all that happy, but one hopes that it would be those types of creative interventions that they would be engaging while trying to create a law-based, honest, and efficient state.

The problem with this formulation is not that reforms within the state are impossible--SYRIZA has already shown they are possible--but rather that it implies the capitalist state can be somehow transformed to meet the needs of the working class and society in an ongoing way, in an indeterminate time frame.

WHAT DOES this owe to Kautsky? In State and Revolution, Lenin reviews a controversy between Kautsky and the Dutch revolutionary Anton Pannekoek, starting with these words from Pannekoek:

The struggle of the proletariat is not merely a struggle against the bourgeoisie for state power, but a struggle against state power...The content of this [the proletarian] revolution is the destruction and dissolution of the instruments of power of the state with the aid of the instruments of power of the proletariat.

Kautksy replied that the goal of mass actions and class struggle:

cannot be to destroy the state; its only object can be to make the government compliant on some specific question, or to replace a government hostile to the proletariat by one willing to meet it can lead only to a certain shifting of the balance of forces within the state power.

In other words, the proletariat, and the poor and oppressed people in general, must fight--and Kautsky in no way rules out the importance of extra-parliamentary struggle--but the goal is to compel the capitalist state to act in the interest of the working classes, and thereby gradually transform or "shift" it.

Panitch seems to echo this strategy when he says that the left must learn:

[t]o speak in a way that is not just anti-capitalist, but gives people a validation of a socialist conception of running the state in a different way-- not just more state or less state, but a different kind of state.

At a minimum, this statement is ambiguous. Can this "different kind of state" be crafted out of the existing neoliberal, capitalist state? Or are we merely aiming to organize kind of a different state, based on electing socialist leaders who will "appoint" ministers to "organize the unorganized"?

Elizabeth Humphrys asserts that this ambiguity is a longstanding feature of Panitch's conception of the state. In her critique of Panitch and Sam Gindin's latest book, The Making of Global Capitalism, she argues:

Panitch and Gindin are correct to locate the focus of political class struggle as the capitalist state, but they are mistaken in presuming that the resolution of that class struggle will occur within that state. That is, they see the state as the most important field within which the class struggle is waged, rather than starting from an acknowledgement that the capitalist state, the most concentrated form of social relations of capitalist domination, cannot be transformed to deliver the very different world we all agree is urgently required.

None of this is meant to dismiss Panitch's position--far from it. Panitch puts forward a powerful critique and warns against the catastrophe of SYRIZA simply accepting the self-imposed limits of social democracy. His position is far more popular in Greece today than is Lenin's, and it has the merit of opening a path toward confrontation with neoliberalism, a path we can all take together.

And, as Humphrys notes, the class struggle can penetrate the state itself and lead to internal reforms. The problem comes only when Panitch identifies this form of struggle "as the most important" and then fails to recognize that the "capitalist state...cannot be transformed" into a workers state.

HOWEVER, SIMPLY "starting" with the conclusion--and here, I agree with Humphrys--doesn't necessarily get you very far either. British Socialist Workers Party leader Alex Callinicos, in my opinion, is also right against Panitch in terms of the capitalist state, but in attempting to put this general proposition into concrete terms, he badly misses the mark:

SYRIZA faces powerful antagonists, both internally and externally. It will not overcome them thanks to its ministers' charm or negotiating skills. The strength of the left in Greece depends on the revival and further expansion of the mass movement that developed so explosively 2009-12.

Certainly no one sympathetic to SYRIZA's left wing would disagree with that. In fact, I doubt Kautsky would disagree with that. But Callinicos' piece is written as a running polemic against Stathis Kouvelakis, the SYRIZA member and supporter of the Left Platform. Callinicos takes Kouvelakis to task for arguing:

[W]e see a confirmation of the attitude of [the] Gramscian-Poulantzian option, of seizing power by elections, but combining that with social mobilization...[And that the] state has to be seized from the inside and from the outside, from above and from below.

Now a fair reading of Kouvelakis' statements would make it impossible to believe that he has any intention of relying on "charm" to challenge Greek and European capital. But if it's right to criticize Panitch's statement about the "state as the most important field" of class struggle, then Callinicos denigrates parliamentary struggle and seeks to downplay its relation to other arenas:

Revolutionary socialists should celebrate the new government's victory and support the progressive measures it takes. But the entire Greek radical left will be judged by how successfully they promote working people's self-organization, confidence, and combativity. That is where the power to end austerity lies.

This is a true enough truism, but it fails as a critique of Kouvelakis, and of SYRIZA's left--which is, after all, the point of Callinicos' brief in defense of his unnamed defendant ANTARSYA, the much smaller alliance of anti-capitalist organizations that has remained aloof from SYRIZA.

Especially in the concrete circumstances Renton described above, isn't there an intimate connection between "the progressive measures" that SYRIZA takes (or doesn't take) and the forms of struggle outside parliament? After all, SYRIZA's members in parliament may well be personally involved in those struggles, and students, unionists, anti-fascists and immigrant rights organizers will all have unprecedented access to apply direct pressure on "their" MPs--most of whom have never been MPs before.

THERE IS no better refutation of Callinicos' verdict than Kouvelakis' call to arms to fight against any illusions in the Varoufakis deal. He even invokes the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which achieved an end to Russia's participation in the First World War in early 1918, but at a huge cost of territory given up to Germany. This was a preeminent moment of truth-telling by Russia's revolutionaries about the need for an organized retreat--to recognize and admit the concessions that were made in order to end the war and preserve the new workers' state.

This isn't to say that there shouldn't be a discussion about the efficacy of Poulantzas formulations, or exactly how Kouvelakis understands Gramsci's conceptions of how revolutionaries position themselves in relation to the necessity of breaking up the state machine.

But Callinicos seems to have forgotten his Lenin on the importance of parliamentary struggle. He writes: "The only way to counter this coercive core of the state is through building up the alternative forms of power created by workers in the course of their struggles."

Lenin's voluminous writings on the importance of parliamentary struggle and how it is connected to the broader class struggle are far richer than Callinicos suggests here. Instead of a dynamic analysis, all we get from him is a warning about "the typical pattern of left governments is that they tend to block this process, both to preserve their own authority and to increase their bargaining room with the ruling class."

Callinicos is right to invoke the 1973 military coup against Chile's elected socialist government as a lesson. But he gives a one-sided view of the history. He writes only that "the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende in Chile discouraged the formation of "cordones" [independent workers councils] created by working class activists--in the lead-up to the military coup of September 1973."

He forgets to add that the cordones themselves only came about as the result of a dialectical process whereby workers' expectations and hopes were raised by the election of Allende's government in the first place. Beating the bosses at the ballot box gave workers the confidence to begin to transgress the limits of the capitalist state by initiating the cordones as potential sites of an alternative class power. Their lived experience grew into class consciousness, as they learned in practice that there were limits to what Comrade Allende could accomplish within the capitalist state.

The question for Greek revolutionaries is not how "typical" SYRIZA may or may not be, but how they can learn to use the inevitable battles, both inside and outside of parliament, to develop working-class organizations capable of resolving a Chilean-type confrontation in favor of the left, rather than a Greek Pinochet.

SO WHAT does this all mean for today? The coming months--even potentially the next few years--will be a bumpy ride. Thus far, SYRIZA's main antagonist has been the Troika, but Greek capital still owns the economy, the Greek generals are the beneficiary of the highest per capita military spending in the European Union, and the 55,000-strong police force is highly penetrated by the fascists of Golden Dawn.

Add to these obstacles the tens of thousands of state bureaucrats--whose numbers rival the whole party membership of SYRIZA itself--and the "thousands of threads" which bind them to the ruling class, to use Lenin's expressive phrase, and this should all add up to skepticism with respect to Panitch and the others' hopes (Varoufakis himself seems to be the most important example of this thinking) for an "open and democratic" process, leading to the creation of a "law-based, honest, and efficient state" that puts the interests of Greece's working class above the interests of its capitalist masters.

At the same time, recognizing that the state ultimately can't be transformed is necessary, but not sufficient, for understanding what socialists can do in the situation.

In place of these two problematic positions, Greek socialist Antonis Davanellos and the Internationalist Workers Left (DEA) have offered a strong starting point, based on new studies of debates in the Communist International in the early 1920s, for connecting the actual state of the class struggle in Greece with the strategic vision of a break with capitalism, based on working-class struggle and, eventually, power.

As Davanellos explained in a conversation about the tasks of socialists in the struggles ahead:

It is very important that our political current has a transitional strategy and tactics. We are starting from the real conditions of the working-class movement and trying to put forward concrete steps to make gains and increase the confidence of workers. I want to take this opportunity to again thank Haymarket Books for its help in publishing a book in Greek on the Fourth Congress of the Communist International [Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922]. We thought that with our relationship to SYRIZA, we were opening up a new path for socialists, but with these documents, we realized that the path was begun some years ago. To introduce these ideas in a book for the Greek left was a big help for us.

Clearly, there are forces within SYRIZA, including those dominant in its current leadership, who don't share the same assessment at all. But as Kouvelakis shows, there are many others who are willing to fight, tactical disagreements notwithstanding, for movement in this direction. As this process develops, it holds open the prospects of genuine revolutionaries, who have begun with different presuppositions, altering those assumptions in order to contribute to, as Humphrys puts it, the common aim of the "very different world we all agree is urgently required."

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