A successful left wing movement has to break completely with the organs of capitalist class power and forge an emancipatory politics from the bottom up, argues Stathis Kouvelakis
I was only half-surprised when I was told by the organizers about the title of this session: ‘the Perils of Pasokification”. As a Greek, I thought it was not a minor achievement to have a new term in the political jargon with a Greek root, like nearly so many of the terms in medicine and in sciences. The term was indeed coined to refer to the process of collapse of once powerful social-democratic parties started in Greece. Of course, the crisis of social-democracy and the loss of its social base is a process that had started a while ago, but it accelerated considerably with the last financial crisis and became particularly dramatic in the countries where these parties were in power and implemented austerity politics.
In Greece, Pasok had won the 2009 elections with 44% of the vote. Just three years later it got 12%, in 2015 it barely scored at 5% and hasn’t recovered since. The most important thing however is that, as it turned out, there was nothing exceptional in Pasok’s trajectory: French and Dutch social-democracies experienced similar levels of decline, and the rest of social-democratic parties score at record-low postwar levels, even in their North-European strongholds. The Labour party with Corbyn and the Portuguese PSP are probably the two exceptions.
This is clearly a major development in European politics, and a very dramatic one. It has now become rather obvious that neoliberalism destroyed the very foundations of the compromise between capital and labour once championed by social-democracy. But that has never been a project in which I’ve been personally involved. I have therefore little to say about it, although I’m more than happy to acknowledge that such a compromise, with all its shortcomings and obvious limitations, was immensely preferable to the neoliberal counter-revolution that followed.
Pasokification isn’t however the only neologism to come out of the Greek experience of the recent years. What followed Pasokification was Syrizification, and this process proved at least equally devastating in terms of its consequences. It is also a process about which I have more to say since I was part of it.
Syrizification has been devastating because it killed hope not only in Greece but far beyond its borders. It killed hope in the possibility of an effective alternative to the neoliberal shock therapy imposed on that country. Tsipras’s capitulation in the summer of 2015 and the relentless implementation of a further package of austerity, deregulation and privatization measures killed the hope in the possibility of an alternative to Pasokification. It demoralized Greek society and severely damaged the perspectives of the left in the whole of Europe and possibly even beyond.
It is therefore crucial to understand the reasons that lead to that outcome, or, to put it differently, to understand the reasons not only of Pasokification but also to the failure of what appeared as an alternative to Pasokification, which is what Syrizification is about.
How are we then to analyze the process of Syrizification?
Three factors have to taken into account here.
Confronting the class adversary and the EU
The first has to do with strategy. We need to understand that to implement what in other circumstances would have been considered as a modest social-democratic agenda, like for instance Syriza’s 2015 Thessaloniki programme or the one put forward by Labour’s Manifesto in the last election, a high level of confrontation with the class adversary is necessary. If one isn’t prepared for that level of confrontation, then the result isn’t some kind of allegedly decent compromise, like Tsipras and the people around him thought, but utter capitulation and dishonour.
In the case of Greece, that level of confrontation required a plan to counter the entirely predictable counter-attack that the EU institutions would launch against any anti-austerity government. And that meant being prepared to leave the Eurozone, since the currency was the weapon that would be used to asphyxiate the country and lead its government to capitulate, as it happened indeed. Tsipras' stubborn refusal to prepare such an option, against the warnings of a substantial part of his own party, indeed left him with no option than signing up to a Third Memorandum only a week after a momentous referendum in which 62% of the Greek people had rejected a much lighter Juncker plan.
Now you might think that this strategic requirement is valid only for a Eurozone country and perhaps even only for small countries, that can hardly resist hostile external pressure. I think that would be an illusion.
There is an essential aspect of the Greek experience that is of a broader significance.
The first is that a left case against the EU is both badly needed and perfectly consistent. We need to understand that the EU treaties and institutions are concentrated expressions of class power. They represent formidable obstacles to any attempt at breaking with neoliberalism. This rejection of the EU from the left is even more necessary in Britain, where the Brexit agenda has been entirely dominated by the racist, xenophobic and neoliberal right. To put it differently, if the left wants to build a counter-hegemony it needs to integrate the perspective of a break with the EU within a broader progressive agenda. It needs to explain that, as Greece has shown, the implementation of such an agenda is impossible within the neoliberal straightjacket of the EU.
It’s true that since it has its own currency and is effectively preparing to leave the EU, Britain under a socialist government cannot be directly affected by attacks coming from Brussels or Frankfurt – which is rather good news and needs to be said. It has however to confront a domestic dominant class that is immensely more powerful than the Greek one, and it also has an economy that even with a lower level of sovereign debt is directly exposed to the pressure of international finance capital. Therefore, the preparation for a high level of confrontation is necessary if a future Corbyn government wants to avoid the fate of its predecessor in 1976, who had to go to the IMF to get a loan and in return accept the conditions that ultimately lead to Thatcher’s victory a few years later.
The second element that needs to be taken into account to explain Syrizification is the question of popular mobilization. Any government committed to an anti-neoliberal agenda will need to overcome the ferocious resistance that will arise from those social forces who hold economic and real political power in society. To do that, electoral majorities are necessary but not sufficient. To be in government is one thing, to have power quite another, and it’s not me or some revolutionary Marxist who formulated it that way but former French president Mitterand. When asked by his wife Danièle, who remained a socialist, why wasn’t he going ahead with his initial programme, Mitterand replied: “he did not have the power to confront the World Bank, capitalism, neoliberalism. He had won a government but not power.” Indeed, real power in our society, that is class power, resides in the heights of economic power and in the depths of the state, not in the representative institutions.
The strategic challenge is to use the means provided by governmental power to seize real power. Popular mobilization is indispensable to confront corporate power and the deep state and shift in a decisive way the balance of forces. But to get popular mobilization once a left government is in place, one needs to mobilize before getting there and in order to get there. In other terms, one needs to articulate an electoral and parliamentary strategy with the practice of building social mobilization and popular organization that will allow this government to go ahead, overcome the obstacles and, if need be, force it to stick to its commitments. This also works the other way round : the perspective of winning an electoral majority can and should be used to give confidence to the working people and energize their capacity to mobilize.
What made the situation in Greece particularly interesting in that respect is that we had elements of an active popular participation in the political process. The sudden rise of Syriza can only be explained by the impact of the mass mobilizations of the 2010-2012 years, the most significant in the country since the 1970s. Even after Syriza’s coming to office, the potential for another wave of mobilization was intact. The proof of that lies in the spontaneous demonstrations that followed the decision of the ECB in February 2015 to cut the main channel providing liquidity to the Greek banks.
A further, and even more significant proof was the extraordinary popular upheaval that lead to the victory of the No to the Juncker plan in the July 2015 referendum. But, as we know, Tsipras betrayed the referendum and chose to obey the Troika instead of relying on the force of the people. The deepest reason for this is, I think, that he was aware that when the energy of a mass movement is unleashed it sparks a process of broader radicalization that leads to more even advanced objectives. And he proved unwilling to take that risk.
The political instrument
This brings me to my third and final point, which is the issue of the political instrument that is necessary to carry such a vision. Because the capitulation of a leader could have been avoided had the party he was leading stood firm to its objectives. But in order to get such an organization, two fundamental conditions need to be met.
The first is that it needs to be genuinely democratic. I say « genuinely » to emphasize that it’s not just about the possibility of debating and expressing criticism and dissent. This is naturally indispensable and we had quite a lot of that in Syriza. What we didn’t have, or at least not sufficiently, was the actual participation of the membership in the decision making. And that became a particularly serious problem before even winning the elections, once Syriza had become a serious contender for power.
From that moment onwards, the top layers of the party became increasingly detached from the elected instances and from the membership. The whole internal culture of the party changed as the party became more and more leader-centred and top-down in its way of functioning. Actually, Syriza went down a path that was very familiar to all the left parties that came to office and adapted to the existing system instead of changing it. Its only specificity is that it underwent that transformation at an accelerated speed. This is why I find it particularly worrying when I see in the current populist mood these trends being presented as advantages or solutions to the real difficulties of organizing efficiently organizations that are able to reach broader layers of society.
The second condition is that such an organization needs to be something different from an electoral machine, without discounting the importance of electoral campaigns and of successes at the polls. If we take seriously the two previous points, that is the necessity to be prepared for major social confrontations and for mobilizing the people, then the political tool needs to be up to this task in its material structure, that is in its organization.
Matters of organization need to be discussed and dealt with in a flexible way since they are related to specific situations and to the broader trends that dominate social life and subjective identities at a given period. It’s pointless to seek to reproduce the recipes of the past, to stick to models which have clearly shown their limitations and their downsides. The new technologies and modes of interaction need to be taken into account and used intelligently, without being either idealized or devalued.
However not everything is new under the sun. If we want to bring radical social change we need to find ways that allow the oppressed and dominated groups to organize in durable ways. We need to invent organizational forms that make it possible to overcome fragmentation and the long-seated habits of subalternity and impotence. These forms need to be rooted in local communities, but also in the workplace and in all the sites when relations of power are formed and reproduced.
Today the existing organizations of the left and of the workers' movement are weakened and seem unable to confront the relentless attacks of capitalist power. As a result, the temptation exists to get rid of the whole issue of the autonomous organization of the dominated classes and groups. That temptation should be resisted at all costs. For the exploited and the dominated to become actors of history means first and foremost to organize.
Politics deprived of an emancipatory objective is only a technique of domination, unworthy of any human endeavour. But emancipatory politics only makes sense as the self-emancipation of all those who have an interest in breaking the chains of exploitation and oppression. And to do that they need to forge themselves the arms that are adequate to their liberation.
 This is the text of a speech given at the ‘Corbyn Moment’ event hosted by Counterfire in London on March 10 2018.
More articles from this author
- Victoria Park is the People’s Park: reopen it now
- Invasion of the Body Starmers
- Counterfire statement on Labour's election result
- Herd from the hub: a frontline dispatch
- Lockdown crisis in India: a people's perspective of Covid-19
- Gaza finds itself embroiled in another kind of seige
- Millions clapped for our NHS in a show of mass solidarity - video roundup