Revolutionary struggles in other countries often serve as useful lessons in strategy and tactics for us. While Greece is by no means at the point of a proletarian revolution, the success of SYRIZA naturally raises questions about its validity as a model for the American left.
In my view, there are two very important lessons we can draw as we work towards creating our own party that fights both in the streets and at the ballot box.
The first of these is the need to reconsider whether the “program” of a left party has to be defined on the basis of some kind of revolutionary “continuity” or “tradition” that establishes its pedigree going back to Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Karl Marx before him. The basic confusion is over whether a group should be constituted on a program geared to the exigencies of the current class struggle or on a doctrine that defines the party on a series of historical controversies going back for over a century. When you form a party on the basis of doctrine, you are following the model of a religion that, for example, defines itself on a body of written work that upholds the correct stance on questions such as the status of the Virgin Mary or who was correct in the split between Rome and the Eastern Orthodoxy.
SYRIZA demonstrates that this is not a useful approach for creating parties with influence on a mass or meaningful scale.
The program of the Russian social democracy was totally unlike the doctrinal model small propaganda groups today use as some kind of litmus test, requiring agreement around a host of divisive international and historical questions such as when the U.S.S.R. stopped being “socialist.” Instead, Lenin and his comrades only asked workers to support demands directly related to the class struggle under Tsarism as demonstrated by the draft program under evaluation in 1899:
- An eight-hour working day.
- Prohibition of night-work and prohibition of the employment of children under 14 years of age.
- Uninterrupted rest periods, for every worker, of no less than 36 hours a week.
Recently, SYRIZA released a 40-point program that will strike the impartial observer as unlike any of the aspiring “vanguard” organizations that are so insistent upon the need for soviets, workers militias, and the like. To cite a few planks:
- Use buildings of the government, banks and the Church for the homeless.
- Open dining rooms in public schools to offer free breakfast and lunch to children.
- Free health benefits to the unemployed, homeless and those with low salaries.
- Subvention up to 30% of mortgage payments for poor families who cannot meet payments.
As someone who lived through the stormy 1960s, I was intrigued to see what amounted to a reprise of one of the central activities of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP): a free breakfast program. As “reformist” as this might sound, it was enough to convince the FBI to launch a terror campaign against the BPP. No doubt, the army and the big bourgeoisie whose interests it serves would have about the same reaction to such a program in Greece.
Sometimes we forget that the revolutionary parties of past eras adopted programs that were not that far removed from the one that SYRIZA upholds today. As should be obvious, SYRIZA is trying to reach workers in the same way that Russian socialists did in 1899, through clear demands that speak to their most immediate class interests. In doing so, they are hearkening back to traditions that even predate the Russian social democracy and go back to the workers’ movement’s inception.
Just consult your Communist Manifesto and you will see demands very much in the same spirit:
- Free education for all children in public schools.
- Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form.
- Combination of education with industrial production, &c, &c.
A few decades later, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) — the model for the Russian party Lenin was trying to build — adopted the Erfurt Program that once again appealed to the broadest layers of the population. In addition to the demands enumerated above, it also touted a free breakfast program:
- Free medical care, including midwifery and medicines. Free burial.
- Legal equality of agricultural laborers and domestic servants with industrial workers; abolition of the laws governing domestics.
- Free education, free educational materials, and free meals in the public Volksschulen, as well as at higher educational institutions for those boys and girls considered qualified for further education by virtue of their abilities.
Now, there is no guarantee that a party like the German SPD of Karl Kautsky will not lose its bearings and become an obstacle to revolution at some point in its development. Social pressures associated with the lifestyle of a trade union official or a parliamentarian tend to accommodate politicians to the status quo, no matter their youthful ardor.
However, to automatically assume that SYRIZA will turn out this way and therefore maintain a hostile attitude towards it is a serious mistake. In revolutionary politics, we must always keep our focus on the next stage of the class struggle and judge parties and individuals based on their behavior at a given conjuncture. Given that criterion, SYRIZA has done nothing unprincipled in the past few months, as well arguably as serving as a beacon of hope for the left internationally.
The other lesson, closely related to the first, is the need for the left to rise to the occasion when presented by a crisis. At the risk of spreading an urban legend, I would remind readers of what many have falsely imputed to the Chinese ideogram for the word, supposedly a combination of the words “danger” and “opportunity.” While this is based on a misunderstanding of the Chinese language, it still is very relevant to the choices facing the left in such situations.
Referring once again to the frequently misunderstood Lenin, the greatest imperative for revolutionary leaders is to unify the people, the narod (or 99%) in struggle. Despite his reputation among small self-described “Leninist” groups today as a figure willing to split on a moment’s notice, Lenin’s greatest talent was uniting disparate groups with frequently clashing interests. Keep in mind that What Is to be Done? is primarily about forming a nationwide party around the kinds of clear and class-based demands identified above. If all you get out of the book is the need to split with the “economists,” you have only (mis)understood one part of it.
As someone who was grappling with these questions in the early 1980s, I found the Nicaraguan revolution to be exactly like the kind of lesson that Syriza is providing today. Instead of maintaining rigid divisions that weakened the struggle against the Somoza dictatorship, the fighters of the FSLN took the opportunity in the face of grave danger to come together and constitute a genuine vanguard.
In George Black’s Triumph of the People, a magisterial account of the Sandinista revolution, there is a discussion of the three bitterly divided factions of the FSLN that relates to the problems facing the left today. The first faction, led by Jaime Wheelock, called itself Tendencia Proletaria, or Proletarian Tendency. You can guess by its name that it prioritized the working class. The second was the Guerra Popular Prolongada, or Prolonged Popular War, led by Tomas Borge who died last month. In many respects, it followed the rural warfare foquismo approach of Che Guevara. The third tendency was the “third force” or Terceristas, also called the “Insurrectional Tendency.” As indicated by the term “insurrectional,” they tended to adopt bold, almost adventurist, tactics to spur the masses. They recruited from the middle class, including lawyers, academics, Church and lay workers, and even from lumpenproletarian elements. Daniel and Humberto Ortega were the leaders of this faction.
The three factions simply represented contradictory class aspects of the Nicaraguan revolution. All were correct in responding to local features of the revolutionary struggle, but were also incorrect in assuming that their own faction had the inside path to victory.
Che Guevara once made the observation that “every revolution always incorporates elements of very different tendencies which, nevertheless, coincide in action and in the revolution’s most immediate objectives.”
Eventually, the three factions united and were able to topple Somoza. Although the great promise of that revolution was never realized, the ability of the three factions to unite was key to the initial victory. They came together not because they woke up one morning and figured out that maybe the opposing groups were not so bad after all. Instead, it was the enormous pressure of the unfolding events that made ordinary Nicaraguans demand that they transcend their differences and come together as a united fighting force.
While Greece is by no means comparable in most respects to Nicaragua in the late 1970s, it is about as close to a pre-revolutionary crisis as any European country has experienced since the final days of fascism in Spain and Portugal in the mid 1970s. A devastating economic crisis has led to SYRIZA’s surprising second place finish in the recent elections and possible victory in new elections prompted by the inability of the neoliberal parties to form a government.
In Greece and internationally, the unfolding events there have led the left to begin an evaluation of SYRIZA’s long-term viability as an instrument of change. For some, there is a tendency to emphasize the weakness of the Eurocommunist leadership. While the Greek Communist Party (KKE) has led militant strikes and adopted very good position papers on the economy, it has condemned SYRIZA out of hand in a sectarian manner. ANTARSYA, much smaller left coalition, has criticisms of SYRIZA that echo the KKE’s but is generally much more willing to unite with the rest of the left, even if it is running its own candidate in the upcoming elections instead of joining or backing SYRIZA.
The likelihood of the KKE ever breaking with its past is exceedingly dim, but the far left constituent parties of ANTARSYA at least make the effort to present their case to the rest of the left. If your approach to the left is to align yourself with groups with the best position on paper, there is little doubt that ANTARSYA comes out ahead of SYRIZA. The difficulty, however, lies in the fact that politics is based only partially on positions. Unless you have the material force to lead people in action, those positions remain unfulfilled. As is so often the case with “revolutionary” organizations trying to present an alternative to “reformists,” the masses tend to follow the lead of those groups that make a difference in their lives.
Perhaps a better approach would be to set aside conventional understandings of “revolution versus reform” and consider SYRIZA as a party that begins to address the questions posed by Che Guevara’s observation that “every revolution always incorporates elements of very different tendencies which, nevertheless, coincide in action and in the revolution’s most immediate objectives.” If SYRIZA functions more as a coalition of groups and individuals on the left with widely divergent analyses and preferred strategies than a homogeneous cadre formation, then perhaps what you are seeing is both a return to the norms of the pre-Communist International socialist movement as well as the broad-based movements that led to revolutions in Cuba and Nicaragua, whatever their final outcome.
What SYRIZA, the Nicaraguan FSLN, and the Cuban July 26th Movement have in common is a pluralistic framework in which it is possible for divergent points of view to coexist within a orientation that is generally inclined to favor demands and policies in the interest of the working class.
In stressing the need for a program that can unite the vast majority in struggle against the ruling class, there are some who would warn about the tendency of such a loose formation to go astray because it lacks “clear politics.” Would it not be better to define a program that is unmistakably and explicitly “revolutionary” and recruit small numbers of cadre so as to take advantage of a revolutionary situation when it arises? I first heard such a schema back in the early 1970s when a leader of the Trotskyist movement tried to explain the word “cadre” to convention attendees. It came from the military, he said. We were trying to create what amounted to an officer caste that can command the ordinary foot soldiers when war breaks out. It was symptomatic of the troubles of our movement that nobody could recognize how elitist this conception was.
It also reminded me of a comment I heard from an old man, who was probably my age now, attending a David Harvey talk at the Brecht Forum in New York about the relevance of Marxism today. He said that there was an unfortunate tendency for those on the left to operate like the guy in a joke who said that as soon as he put together a million dollars, he would become a capitalist. The joke, of course, is that there is no way to become a millionaire capitalist except through the process of accumulating capital.
By the same token, a revolutionary movement can only be built through the accumulation of victories in the class struggle. That is one of the reasons that the Occupy movement presents such a challenge to the socialist left. Instead of waiting for conditions to ripen, or for a cadre to be assembled, they put their bodies on the line on the barricades of the struggle and led by example. This, I would argue, is the kind of movement that will eventually evolve into a true vanguard in the long run, whether it is made up of the young people in this movement today or a whole other contingent following the same methods of struggle. It is only through such struggles that a true vanguard is steeled.
The people who occupied Wall Street or Tahrir Square, the students in Quebec fighting against tuition hikes, the protestors in Moscow demanding an end to Putinism, and countless others are responding to attacks on their rights and their standard of living. In order to defend themselves and to secure a better future, they try to find ways to maximize their strength through unity and through intelligent strategies and tactics designed to produce results.
What better ally would such fighters have than something like SYRIZA that could serve as a vehicle for their protests as well as fighting on behalf of their interests through the exercise of capitalist state power?
We are reaching a point in history when the magnitude of the crisis that faces us will begin to exercise the kind of pressure on the left to unite both within given countries and globally. Through the Internet, the Gutenberg printing press of the 21st century, we may begin to find a way to build bonds of solidarity that were broken when the Soviet experiment went sour. Every effort should be bent to seeing each other as comrades no matter how sharp our differences on historical and theoretical questions. The ruling class, especially its doyens on Wall Street and Washington, D.C., has declared war on us, so we have no other choice but to build an army that can meet their challenge on the battlefield now emerging.
Our enemies have learned to coalesce despite their national and cultural differences, as President Obama’s frequent trips abroad illustrate. It is incumbent upon us to join together in building our own class-based institutions to counter theirs. They may have superior wealth and arms at their disposal but we have the planet’s billions of working people and poor as potential allies, for in the final analysis it is capitalism that is driving them in our direction much more than any words we can utter at this point in history.
The North Star’s roundtable: