Viewing Syriza through the prism of British Marxism is not a wholly rewarding experience. I do not feel much sympathy for that minority of my former comrades who admire Syriza because they seem to see it as offering an example of a clique capturing the leadership of millions of people, who are attracted to Syriza not in so far as it is often principled but because it is sometimes opportunist, and who want to offer their services as leaders of the movement here by claiming some of the qualities of Syriza (such as its leaders’ sharp-dressing and their relative youth) that are easiest to separate from the intense political crisis that makes these features engaging.
Nor am I altogether persuaded by others who complain of Syriza that it does not say enough about smashing the state. Undoubtedly, Syriza will fight its final battle against social forces (New Democracy, the fascists, the army) in Greece. But its immediate struggle is not against domestic so much as international adversaries. In this respect it is a harbringer of the social movements of the epoch to come.
Just as a century ago, Stefan Zweig described the way that the dramatic change of speed associated with new technologies (cars, telephones, aeroplanes) altered the rhythms of humanity, displacing generations that had walked slowly and spoke to each other in measured tones, who were fat at forty and proud of their corpulence, with younger, impatient people, so something like the same dynamic is working itself out in all our lives: the speed of global communication is altering the way we do politics. It is not just making people more confident to be contemptuous about politicians (“anti-politics”) it is also creating problems whose solution can only be international. And as one of Zweig’s contemporaries pointed out, when social movements cross borders the rules that ordinarily require all revolutions to limit themselves to political rather than social objectives cease to operate.
It could be that Syriza will smash the state to pieces, using workers, unions and co-operatives to forge a new workers’ state – but even such a formation would still face the problem of paying Greece’s debts. You could no more have socialism in one country in 2015 than you could a century ago. Syriza is interesting because it rejects the orthodoxies of neoliberal capitalism, an in so far as its relationship with its supporters may be changing, and the relationship may be radicalising and the party may be taking on (as in Venezuela a decade ago) something more like the character of an insurgent state. I do not say that it has yet done any of these things, only that the possibility remains open. Syriza remains interesting, then, as a serious project of left reformism, and to criticise it for not being revolutionary is to criticise it for lacking strengths which it has never claimed.
The idea that troubles me most is that Syriza is somehow just the product of a rising Greek social movement, which would inevitably be replicated in other settings – in Britain – if only we enjoyed social movements (strikes) of a similar scale. The usual criticism of the British left is that we demand the credit for all our successes and put the blame for all our defeats on other forces. Syriza gets the same treatment in reverse: when it fails to meet our hopes, Syriza gets all the blame but in so far as it does well, its success is put down to luck.
The method I am criticising is a way of thinking about social movements which replicates in the sphere of politics the mistake that “Leninists” used to ascribe to “syndicalism”. In other words, a politics which does away with contradictory consciousness and assumes that the mass of the people are always on the verge of protesting, and that the only direction of future protests is of continuous, further advance.
When this way of thinking is applied to Syriza, it operates by saying that the political sphere may show gains (or defeats) but in the end neither matters provided that political activists spend their time building social movements. For the calibre of any political leadership is determined ultimately by the mass movements which police it. No political victory can take place ahead of the extent of the political education of the masses in socialism, therefore it is there, in the movements, rather than in the political sphere, that all hopes must be aimed.
It is odd to find this argument, which reheats early Menshevism, asserting itself in the publications of people who consider themselves Leninists.
What Syriza is showing, and what they are missing, is the capacity of political actors to make decisions which change the balance of forces. Of course, this process cannot go on indefinitely, but at rare, key moments history is ruptured – time is beaten – objective circumstances are defeated and altered. “The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself … The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.” When a group of socialists are trying to do this, the only legitimate response open to those who consider themselves revolutionaries is to show interest, to give support, and to seek (in whatever limited way we can) to deepen this process.
No recent movement better illustrates the need to go beyond a syndicalism of protest than the revolution in Egypt, where the left was conscious of the need always to build the mass movements, and shy about intervening in the political sphere. Egypt involved hundreds of thousands of people in strikes and in protests. They burned down police stations; they toppled a hated President. When counter-revolution began there, it arrived in the form of demonstrations and further protests, with counter-revolutionaries taking on the garb of social movements for democracy (tamarod). And, in Chile, it was the same process: before Pinochet there were the truckers’ strikes.
The reason why an international generation of anarchists, syndicalists, and revolutionaries of every stripe adopted Communism in the 1920a was because they thought Lenin had discovered a theory of politics which classical Marxism lacked; ie that he and his supporters looked in every moment for the social forces that brought closer the revolution of all the oppressed, and that they did not wait for social movements, but believed that conscious political activity could open new opportunities into which the movements could advance.
It is one disgrace of our Leninists that they cannot learn even this from Lenin.