The lessons of SYRIZA for U.S. socialists

July 29, 2015

Dan R. opens a discussion about what lessons U.S. socialists can draw from Greece.

A DEBATE organized at Marxism 2015 in Britain between Alex Callinicos of the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Stathis Kouvelakis of SYRIZA's Left Platform represented two divergent approaches to rebuilding the left today.

One is so far the most successful attempt to rebuild mass workers' parties in the struggle against austerity. The other is a failed project that continues to sterilely and comfortably counterpose reformism to revolution as an excuse to avoid the enormous but inevitable challenges to organizing and overcoming reformist consciousness.

On the heels of what he called SYRIZA's betrayal, Callinicos--a partisan of ANTARSYA, the more explicitly anti-capitalist coalition in Greece, which campaigned on a break with the euro and received less than 1 percent of the vote in the January elections won by SYRIZA--confidently pronounced the defeat and failure of not just SYRIZA but also the Left Platform. Kouvelakis calmly replied that being vindicated politically doesn't simply require the defeat of your opponent if you don't have a better record, and that ANTARSYA hasn't grown since the elections.

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Days after this debate, the Left Platform broke much more seriously with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and voted against the third austerity Memorandum. Because the Left Platform has gone through the experience of building SYRIZA--fighting for years against reformist, electoralist and opportunist tendencies--it is in a better place than ANTARSYA to win SYRIZA's tens of thousands of members and the millions of Greeks who voted for them to an alternate strategy in the face of Tsipras' capitulation and retreat. This is a real possibility given that a majority of the SYRIZA Central Committee and other party structures have openly opposed the third memorandum.

Callinicos considers the "concrete shape of reformism in Europe today" a commitment to reforms within the eurozone and therefore compared SYRIZA negatively to the "traditional reformism" of the British Labour and German Social Democratic parties. This is an argument that the SWP has been making since before SYRIZA came to power, ostensibly on the basis that there was no room for revolutionaries to maintain their independence within SYRIZA.

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Rather than focusing on the left and explicitly revolutionary formations in SYRIZA such as the Left Platform, Red Network, or Internationalist Workers Left (DEA, by its initials in Greek)--all of which we can only have a very limited understanding of from such a distance--I would instead like to briefly illustrate why I think the counterposition of reformism and revolution isn't a helpful way to understand the tasks of revolutionaries today.

THE SPLIT between social democracy and Communist parties following the First World War was neither inevitable nor ahistoric: It was a strategic one over the question of revolution and the potential to build new mass parties on that basis, rather than winning over the existing ones. It did not discount the experience of building such parties, which necessarily laid the basis and created the potential for revolution. In the aftermath of the Russian and German Revolutions that ended the war, reforms and reformism were counterposed--violently--to revolution and workers' power.

Even after the retreat of that revolutionary tide, the Stalinization of the Communist Parties and the prolonged absence of a revolutionary situation, that political divide remained: Social democratic and Communist parties dominated the European workers' movement and led the struggle for reforms that improved the lives of millions. Revolutionaries who chose or were forced to remain outside of these parties were unable to earn a mass hearing for decades.

The wave of militant struggle in the late '60s and early '70s conclusively demonstrated the hollowness of whatever revolutionary phraseology the Communist parties might continue to deploy. Revolutionaries--for a few years--had an audience and not insignificant "revolutionary" parties were built (most enduringly, the British SWP and French Revolutionary Communist League), though never on a truly mass scale. By the 1980s, it was clear that the question of revolution was once again off the table, and with it, the potential for mass revolutionary parties.

As social democracy (and elements of the remaining Communist Parties) abandoned any fight for reforms in favor of managing neoliberalism, a new space was opened around the question of how to effectively fight for reforms. This was the space filled by the "new" European left: parties like Bloco de Esquerda, Die Linke and SYRIZA were able to occupy the political space abandoned by "reformist" social democracy and "revolutionary" Communist parties by building new structures that worked with social movements and created space for debates about strategies for confronting austerity and neoliberalism.

Many revolutionaries have wisely participated in these struggles from the beginning, recognizing that even if these formations would recreate the contradictions of pre-war social democracy (as Charlie Post has argued they have, and I would agree), this does not necessarily mean a repeat of the dominance of reformism.

Of course, if revolutionaries cede the task of creating and shaping political formations that can appeal to, develop, but also be a vehicle for overcoming the reformist consciousness of the working-class majority, then they doom not just those, but any "separate" revolutionary projects as well.

I hope I am not naïve in believing that SYRIZA's Left Platform is--in a way--better placed to fight for a strategy that advances the class struggle in Greece (a break with the eurozone organized to benefit the working class) than German revolutionaries were following the betrayal of 1914 and Karl Liebknecht's lone vote against war credits. Even if they fail and are defeated, let us not see this as invalidating what is not just a brave but a necessary struggle. Let us, as Kouvelakis closed the debate by saying, strive to quite simply "do better."

THOUGH THERE are many lessons to learn from SYRIZA, in my view, the most important is that neither its "Greekness" nor its meteoric rise to political power mean that we cannot begin the creation of similar formations in the United States and elsewhere.

That project cannot begin by counterposing reformism to revolution or simply raising the most radical demands, but by developing a program and building a party that can appeal to a working-class majority and create a common political space for revolutionaries to engage in debates about how to win reforms in a revolutionary way: one that builds working class consciousness and self-organization, not only through the parliament, but in the streets, communities, universities and workplaces.

What forces such a project will involve, what the key reforms are and how exactly to begin this process will differ in each country and perhaps even each city. The answers to these questions are secondary to a commitment to taking them every bit as seriously as we take historic and theoretical ones.

Marxist principles and theory--the ultimate need for revolution to achieve socialism, an independent workers' party, democratic centralism, struggle against all forms of oppression, etc.--are impotent if they do not help us develop a concrete strategy to lead the American working class out of its prolonged political impasse.

As Howie Hawkins recently argued at, we cannot simply resign ourselves to building the movements and waiting for a certain portion of them to be won to the need for an independent party that could begin on a mass basis.

Kshama Sawant's election to the Seattle City Council and role in passing the first $15 an hour minimum wage ordinance shows the huge opportunity that exists today to build an independent and even explicitly socialist alternative (pun very much intended) to the Democrats that uses elections as a way to strengthen rather than demobilize class struggle.

We can't afford to content ourselves with organizing a tiny minority who--even if they want to see a revolution in the United States--have no more idea than we do what that will actually mean. The potential to answer that question depends on us building a party that can be seen as the representative of the majority who want and desperately need reforms and who can only be won to revolutionary politics through not just social movements but common political struggle.

This is the only way we will offer a concrete and convincing alternative to the "realism" of Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party.

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