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How SYRIZA is caught between reform and revolution

SYRIZA is no revolutionary party, but neither is it a normal reformist one.

Since 6 May, Syriza has become wildly popular across Europe and around the world. In Europe, at least, it is decades since a party that could seriously challenge for power has had such radical proposals in its programme or its leaders’ speeches. The rage of the millionaire media against Alexis Tsipras seems to confirm this at every turn.

Yet, Syriza’s programme is still reformist. It does not envisage any revolutionary break with capitalism and its state. It does not see the working class, and democratic workers’ organisations, as the prime agency for an overthrow of the system. Of course, it does talk about a radical democracy and workers’ control, but it is far from committed to a radical break from bourgeois democracy and parliamentarism.

Despite seeking to renounce not only the Memorandum but also the Maastricht and Lisbon Treaties, which it sees as enshrining neoliberalism and the demolition of a social Europe, it is also reformist in its strategy. It holds out a perspective of negotiation to replace this neoliberal model of privatisation and austerity with one based on prioritising social spending and the welfare state. Tsipras has held talks with all the other parties, apart from the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, about possible coalition terms, and discussed what his future government policy would be with the leaders of the G20. Even on the key question of debts, the demand is for an audit, not a cancellation.

Revolutionaries must criticise the utopian character of Syriza’s programme, but also the failure to warn the working class that even these demands will clash with the needs of capitalism in crisis. Any determined attempt to implement them will be met by savage attacks, not only from the rulers of the EU but also from the Greek capitalist class and its state. While there is more than a grain of truth in Tsipras’ observation that a Greek default, or expulsion from the Euro, would have literally incalculable consequences for the whole financial and commercial structure of Europe, to rely on this as the main defence of a government committed to “tearing up” the Troika’s Memorandum would be a miscalculation on a historic scale.

It is not enough, however, for revolutionaries simply to contrast Syriza’s reformism with an anticapitalist “maximum programme”. What is needed is an action programme of transitional demands that address many of the same objectives sought by Syriza activists and voters, but which do not rely on negotiations with the capitalists, or the capitalist state machine, to implement them. Rather, they need to develop the steps towards workers’ control and democracy from below that already occur episodically into a class-wide movement to establish delegate-based factory committees, workers’ councils and workers’ militia, and to coordinate them at local, regional and national levels.

A number of developments in Syriza’s history in the last decade and, indeed, the last years and months, indicate that it is not a typical left reformist party in relatively stable conditions. On the contrary, today’s conditions are those in which reformist parties can take on many of the features of centrism, for example, adopting certain revolutionary demands and attracting a growing rank and file membership that becomes subjectively revolutionary in its hopes and aspirations. The formation of Syriza by the addition of several far left groups like KOE, the split with the old Eurocommunist leadership of Synaspismos in 2010, the revolutionary situation of 2011-2012, the influx of new working class and youthful members, the mass assemblies at the base of the party, all these account for its radical stance.

Trotsky noted a similar situation in the 1930s with regard to the French Socialist Party (SFIO). He criticised “those comrades who, in appraising the Socialist Party, themselves operate with the ready-made formulas of yesterday: ‘reformism’, ‘Second International’, ‘political support of the bourgeoisie’. Are these definitions correct? Yes and no. More no than yes.” He went on to assert, “what we have here is a centrist party, which, by virtue of a long protracted evolution of the country, still unites extreme polar contradictions.”

And, of course, he advocated an appropriate tactic for the small groups of French Trotskyists; their entry into the SFIO as a faction with their own programme, ‘The Action Programme for France’. This approach would be by far the best for the Greek far left to take today. Marxists have often quoted Archimedes, “give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world”. Today, we can say not only that a party is the lever needed to move Greece but also that the place to stand for the small subjective revolutionary vanguard is inside Syriza, a party that could, with intransigence and the right policy, move Greece and Europe.

Of course, it will not do so or, rather, it will not go all the way to doing so, with its present leadership and programme. They present the very real danger for the working class of bungling or betraying at the critical moment. Central to preventing this, and to forewarning the rank and file of the party, is placing demands on the reformist leaders, demanding that they take the power and that they carry out the most radical and decisive demands of their own programme, as well as agitating for workers to adopt more consistent anti-capitalist, that is, transitional demands.

At the same time, although it is necessary for revolutionaries to be in Syriza and to use these tactics here and now, they also need to preserve their total programmatic independence, embodied in an action programme for power, and their independent organisation, as a faction, not holding back from recruiting to own their ranks from fear of expulsion. SYRIZA IS NO revolutionary party, but neither is it a normal reformist one.

Since 6 May, Syriza has become wildly popular across Europe and around the world. In Europe, at least, it is decades since a party that could seriously challenge for power has had such radical proposals in its programme or its leaders’ speeches. The rage of the millionaire media against Alexis Tsipras seems to confirm this at every turn.

Yet, Syriza’s programme is still reformist. It does not envisage any revolutionary break with capitalism and its state. It does not see the working class, and democratic workers’ organisations, as the prime agency for an overthrow of the system. Of course, it does talk about a radical democracy and workers’ control, but it is far from committed to a radical break from bourgeois democracy and parliamentarism.

Despite seeking to renounce not only the Memorandum but also the Maastricht and Lisbon Treaties, which it sees as enshrining neoliberalism and the demolition of a social Europe, it is also reformist in its strategy. It holds out a perspective of negotiation to replace this neoliberal model of privatisation and austerity with one based on prioritising social spending and the welfare state. Tsipras has held talks with all the other parties, apart from the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, about possible coalition terms, and discussed what his future government policy would be with the leaders of the G20. Even on the key question of debts, the demand is for an audit, not a cancellation.

Revolutionaries must criticise the utopian character of Syriza’s programme, but also the failure to warn the working class that even these demands will clash with the needs of capitalism in crisis. Any determined attempt to implement them will be met by savage attacks, not only from the rulers of the EU but also from the Greek capitalist class and its state. While there is more than a grain of truth in Tsipras’ observation that a Greek default, or expulsion from the Euro, would have literally incalculable consequences for the whole financial and commercial structure of Europe, to rely on this as the main defence of a government committed to “tearing up” the Troika’s Memorandum would be a miscalculation on a historic scale.

It is not enough, however, for revolutionaries simply to contrast Syriza’s reformism with an anticapitalist “maximum programme”. What is needed is an action programme of transitional demands that address many of the same objectives sought by Syriza activists and voters, but which do not rely on negotiations with the capitalists, or the capitalist state machine, to implement them. Rather, they need to develop the steps towards workers’ control and democracy from below that already occur episodically into a class-wide movement to establish delegate-based factory committees, workers’ councils and workers’ militia, and to coordinate them at local, regional and national levels.

A number of developments in Syriza’s history in the last decade and, indeed, the last years and months, indicate that it is not a typical left reformist party in relatively stable conditions. On the contrary, today’s conditions are those in which reformist parties can take on many of the features of centrism, for example, adopting certain revolutionary demands and attracting a growing rank and file membership that becomes subjectively revolutionary in its hopes and aspirations. The formation of Syriza by the addition of several far left groups like KOE, the split with the old Eurocommunist leadership of Synaspismos in 2010, the revolutionary situation of 2011-2012, the influx of new working class and youthful members, the mass assemblies at the base of the party, all these account for its radical stance.

Trotsky noted a similar situation in the 1930s with regard to the French Socialist Party (SFIO). He criticised “those comrades who, in appraising the Socialist Party, themselves operate with the ready-made formulas of yesterday: ‘reformism’, ‘Second International’, ‘political support of the bourgeoisie’. Are these definitions correct? Yes and no. More no than yes.” He went on to assert, “what we have here is a centrist party, which, by virtue of a long protracted evolution of the country, still unites extreme polar contradictions.”

And, of course, he advocated an appropriate tactic for the small groups of French Trotskyists; their entry into the SFIO as a faction with their own programme, ‘The Action Programme for France’. This approach would be by far the best for the Greek far left to take today. Marxists have often quoted Archimedes, “give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world”. Today, we can say not only that a party is the lever needed to move Greece but also that the place to stand for the small subjective revolutionary vanguard is inside Syriza, a party that could, with intransigence and the right policy, move Greece and Europe.

Of course, it will not do so or, rather, it will not go all the way to doing so, with its present leadership and programme. They present the very real danger for the working class of bungling or betraying at the critical moment. Central to preventing this, and to forewarning the rank and file of the party, is placing demands on the reformist leaders, demanding that they take the power and that they carry out the most radical and decisive demands of their own programme, as well as agitating for workers to adopt more consistent anti-capitalist, that is, transitional demands.

At the same time, although it is necessary for revolutionaries to be in Syriza and to use these tactics here and now, they also need to preserve their total programmatic independence, embodied in an action programme for power, and their independent organisation, as a faction, not holding back from recruiting to own their ranks from fear of expulsion.

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