Greek masses in peril

May 6, 2015

From the May-June 2015 issue of News & Letters

Draft for Marxist-Humanist Perspectives, 2015-2016
Decaying social order shows need for philosophy, revolution



I.    Black Lives Matter

II.  Things fall apart 

A. Arab Spring: Revolution and war
B. Economic weakness and shifts in global politics
C. Whiff of fascism

III. Greek masses in peril

IV.  Marxist-Humanist organization and philosophy

…Continued from Part II

III. Greek masses in peril

Europe’s crisis finds a concentrated expression in Greece. With its economy contracting, poverty, unemployment, inequality and foreclosures have shot up since the onset of the Great Recession. Income has fallen, and many families have had their utilities shut off and lost access to affordable healthcare.

The European Union’s bailout of the Greek government is in reality a means to make the Greek people pay to bail out European banks and international capitalist investors. As always, the austerity involves not just reducing government deficits but “reforms” lifting labor and environmental regulations on businesses and privatizing important economic sectors, mostly by selling them off to multinational corporations based in Europe, North America and China. The point is to intensify exploitation of labor and raise profits.

The cause of the Greek crisis is, of course, not the alleged laziness of Greek workers, who work more hours on average than workers in most European countries or the U.S. It is not caused by some unique corruption of Greek society but rather by the crisis of capitalism globally, which has left Europe in stagnation and hit Greece and other countries like Spain and Ireland particularly hard because of their peripheral relationship to the centers of international capital like Germany.

Capitalism’s disintegration is the context for revolts like the Greek strikes and occupations, which helped inspire Occupy Wall Street. At the same time this outlived but still powerful and vicious social system will not go away quietly. Its desperation has breathed new life into fascist movements like the Golden Dawn party, which achieved a third-place finish in Greece’s January elections.

The first-place finish by the self-proclaimed radical Left party Syriza was clearly propelled by the revolt against austerity. Precisely because Syriza promised to break with austerity, the real lords of the European Union, first of all the German state and its capitalists, are intent on making an example of Greece by keeping it in the stranglehold dictated by them. Using all the financial leverage at their disposal, in February they forced Syriza to sign an interim agreement recognizing their authority and promising to maintain previously established “reforms.” They even pressured Syriza not to pass a humanitarian law geared to decrease foreclosures and electricity shutoffs and to aid people in dire poverty. The law was passed, but under the shadow of the EU’s implicit threat to withhold funding in the June round of negotiations. The economic squeeze on Syriza is at the same time intended to be an ideological prison for the working masses of Europe. Greece is not the only European country that met the crisis with militant occupations, strikes and protests.

The ideological strangulation of revolution driven by the ruling class has its counterpart in the retrogression in thought also in the Left. Syriza is not exempt. It ran on a program of saving capitalism from itself. Its Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, justifies his approach through a revision of Karl Marx’s theory, undermining the basis of the law of value and surplus value. (See “Greece: postmodernism in power,” March-April 2015 N&L.)

The Left Platform, an internal opposition within Syriza, criticizes Varoufakis and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, but is on the same ground. It favors an exit from the Euro monetary union as the only option. Costas Lapavitsas, a Member of Parliament who sides with Syriza’s Left, declared, “For Syriza to avoid collapse or total surrender, we must be truly radical,” warning against the illusion that Syriza could “change the balance of…forces in Greece and Europe…without breaking out of the monetary union and without coming into all-around conflict with the European Union.” Still, Lapavitsas and the Left Platform also want to save capitalism. He praises Keynesianism as “the most powerful tools we’ve got, even as Marxists” and dismisses Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall as “terrible economics and a fetish.[1] As steeped as he is in the monetary theory of administering capitalism, the limits of the “truly radical” shine through his disdain for revolutionary theory:

“You don’t need socialist revolution in Greece, and you don’t need to overthrow capitalism in Greece to get rid of austerity….Politics…isn’t about theorizing, and it isn’t about lecturing in small rooms and so on. Politics is about society as it is….And the sooner that Marxists realize that, the more relevant and realistic their own positions will become.”

In contrast to the Left Platform’s illusions about breaking austerity within capitalism by breaking with the Euro, Antonio Negri and Raúl Sánchez Cedillo display an opposite illusion that remains on totally non-revolutionary, statist ground.[2] Saying nothing about the law of value, their basic economic category is debt, which somehow translates into “a European currency” being the bulwark against “the powers of global finance.” This currency will be democratized “by the majority of the European democracies,” so that instead of a banner of revolution we have “the central themes of the welfare state” and “democratic control of the European currency. This is the storming of the Bastille today.”

One of Spain’s new Left parties, Podemos—which, like Syriza, is steeped in postmodernist theory—has also made a splash among the international Left. Its founder, Pablo Iglesias, sees the path to change through winning elections, since “the duty of a revolutionary is to win….That’s why we must bring together everyone who is committed to change and decency, which is nothing more than turning the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into a manual for government….[Our program is] what any social democrat in Western Europe would have talked about thirty or forty years ago.”

Tellingly, he invokes Lenin, without naming him, as a genius able to formulate a simple message. In the 1917 Russian Revolution, “He didn’t talk to the Russians about ‘dialectical materialism,’ he talked to them about ‘bread and peace.’ And that is one of the main lessons of the twentieth century.”

It is no accident that Iglesias separates Lenin’s concrete political message from both philosophy and revolution, in keeping with his own party’s pragmatic, reformist approach.

Lenin prepared for the 1917 revolution with a return to Hegel and a philosophic break with existing Marxism, including his own past. And while he is rightly critiqued for not making that philosophic break public so that it could help future generations confront the transformation of the successful 1917 revolution into opposite, he did fight to make his Bolshevik Party promote loudly to all the workers and peasants not just “bread and peace” but “All power to the soviets!”

What unites all these current tendencies is not the question of whether Syriza’s program is radical enough but rather that their program, the program of the Left Platform, the program of Podemos and those of prominent Left critics of these parties, all are programs for taking power and using the state either to save capitalism from itself or to move toward socialism—but are not based on releasing the self-activity of masses in motion as the prime mover of social transformation.

To use Lenin’s phrase, they are not based on the masses, “to a man, woman, and child,” controlling production and the state. Revolution is virtually absent from their concepts. And nowhere in sight is the question of what happens after revolution, when it can be transformed into its opposite or move forward toward freedom. Nowhere is there recognition of the fact that counter-revolution comes not only from the economic and military power of today’s ruling classes and their states but from their ideology, and that the philosophy of revolution in permanence is therefore needed to resist counter-revolution coming from within—before, during, and after the revolution.

When Karl Marx faced this kind of unprincipled unity, his answer began with making the distinction between joining together for actions and bargaining over principles. He did not stop there but went on to sketch a general view of the direction society needed to go after the revolution, “when a new generation can finally see all its potentiality put an end once and for all to the division between mental and manual labor,” as Dunayevskaya put it.[3] Marx opposed a Lassallean concept of organization that accepted the division between mental and manual labor, viewed the masses as backward, and therefore sought a shortcut to socialism through the state.

Much of the Left is intoxicated by the apparent path to power through broad, somewhat indiscriminate unity—never distinguishing between power to the Left and power to the masses in motion. Many would like to emulate that path by silencing theoretical differences in order to forge unity, perhaps electing one or two socialist city council members. The smell of even potential power fogs the historical memory. It is not so pleasant to recall where this disastrous path led in the 1930s. The spontaneous actions of the masses, including occupations of workplaces, defeated fascism in France and dealt it a severe blow in Spain’s revolution; however, Popular Front governments stifled those spontaneous actions and ended in the Right’s victory. When the Left takes over administering the crises of capitalism today, where will the vision of an alternative—a society on totally new, human foundations—be?

There is a crying need to recognize, as negative and positive, the character of the age we live in. It is the age of state-capitalism—inherent in which is the administrative mentality that is manifested in the kind of program and approach we are critiquing, the search for a path to power for the Left rather than for the masses. That approach is at the same time an abandonment of revolution, of thorough anti-capitalism, and of philosophy. At the same time this is the age of the movement from practice that is itself a form of theory, and of the new stage of cognition that is what the 60 years of Marxist-Humanist organization are all about.

Continued in Part IV

[1] Michael Roberts ably criticizes Lapavitsas’s dismissal of Marxian economic theory, and his illusions about Greece’s ability to limit devaluation to 20% and negotiate a 50% debt write-off, yet Roberts stays confined within the vantage point of a Left government aiming to introduce “socialist measures” from above.

[2]The hope of the democratic monster, between Syriza and Podemos.”

[3]See “On THE Philosophic Point and Dialectics of Organization and Philosophy,” March-April 2014 N&L; also The Philosophic Moment of Marxist-Humanism, p. 7.

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