The international economic crisis continues to boil over in Europe. The current outbreak is the latest stage in the ongoing crisis that broke out in 2008 when the near-collapse of the world’s financial system brought much of the global economy to its knees. Banks and finance houses in the U.S. and Europe were massively bailed out by their national treasuries. Since then governments on both continents have faced escalating debt payment obligations, at the same time that their ability to raise funds through taxation has been restricted by the contraction of their economies in the “Great Recession.” To force the working class to pay for their crisis, the capitalists and their politicians have been advancing dramatic attacks on the working classes and poor people – eliminating jobs, driving wages down and slashing spending on public services.
In Europe, the debt problem is exacerbated by the fact that economic and political power is divided among rival national capitalist classes. Countries range from near-top rank imperialist powers second only to the U.S., to the far poorer countries of the former Soviet bloc, subject to exploitation and domination by the imperialists. In between, countries like Greece are teetering on the edge of financial collapse and facing demands from German and other leading imperialists to impose draconian budget cuts or else be denied further credit.
The push for austerity is being led by the so-called “Troika” – the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Union (EU) – institutions controlled by the U.S., Germany and France. They fear that a debt default could trigger a new wave of financial crisis throughout the continent. As well, they worry that if even one country drops out of the eurozone (the seventeen that use the common euro currency) because it cannot meet its financial obligations, the entire union could fall apart, leading to even greater economic and political clashes. For two years Greece has been facing the brunt of the attack, with Ireland, Portugal and Italy also under the gun. Now Spain is at the forefront: the fourth-largest economy in the eurozone was bailed out of an impending financial collapse at the cost of a new round of steep cutbacks and tax hikes on the working class.
However, the European imperialists’ demands for austerity have not gone unchallenged. Especially in the hardest hit countries, workers have responded with mass protests and strikes, general strikes and occupations. This spring, popular opposition to the cutbacks took electoral form: in four countries voters sharply rejected the austerity policies of their governing parties. In British local elections, the Conservatives were badly beaten. In two German states, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s right-wing party was defeated. In France’s presidential vote, President Nicolas Sarkozy, a widely hated champion of the ultra-rich, was ousted by the Socialist Party’s François Hollande, and a Socialist-led legislature was also elected.
Most significant were the elections in Greece. Dramatic budget cutbacks there had sparked the biggest working-class struggles, but the workers’ energy was expended in numerous short general strikes that reformist trade union bureaucracies purposely limited rather than mobilize for all-out struggles to stop the attacks. In the parliamentary election on May 6, the ruling class suffered an electoral shock: millions abandoned the bourgeois parties that they had traditionally supported and pushed the reformist anti-austerity party Syriza into second place. But the new parliament was deadlocked, and an election re-run was set for June 17. It looked for a while like Syriza could actually win, but the conservatives squeezed out a victory and are back in office. As a result, the widespread hopes among militant workers that the austerity attacks could be defeated at the ballot box were dashed, but the Greek bourgeoisie has been slapped with a sharp vote of no confidence by the working class. (We will discuss these elections in detail below.)
According to the bourgeois German journal Der Spiegel,
Economists with the Dutch bank ING have calculated that in the first two years following a collapse [of the euro], the countries in the eurozone would lose 12 percent of their economic output. This corresponds to the loss of more than €1 trillion. It would make the recession that followed the bankruptcy of investment bank Lehmann Brothers seem like a minor industrial accident by comparison.
The Lehman collapse in 2008, of course, marked the beginning of the financial crisis and the consequent “Great Recession.” We pointed out at the time that the roots of the crisis lay far deeper than Wall Street greed and governments’ failures to regulate. Nor could it be considered just another cyclical downturn that capitalism encounters periodically. Rather, it is a systemic crisis that expresses the decaying character of the capitalist system overall. The long-term tendency of the rate of profit to fall meant that skyrocketing debts and the inflation of “bubbles” of over-valued property and financial markets would eventually bring the world’s financial centers crashing down.
To raise the rate of profit means squeezing the working class through lower wages, longer hours, higher unemployment and public service cutbacks. But it also means that the system needs to level the mountains of what Marxists call “fictitious capital,” the bubbles and debts – paper claims to a share of profits that have no basis in the real value created by human productive labor. History has shown that under the capitalist system, such a massive wipeout can only be accomplished through depression and war.
We also pointed out in the first of the cited articles how the economic crisis would aggravate the national rivalries that now dominate the European scene:
The pressure of repaying bailout debts will be a major factor driving the struggle between rival capitalist states in the coming period. ... But for the moment, the imperialist powers are mainly looking to deepen their exploitation of the neo-colonial countries. Already tensions are rising between the imperialist powers of Western Europe and the poor nations of the East. Thus when Germany announced that it would not help bail out increasingly bankrupt East European states, Hungary’s prime minister bemoaned the threat of a “new Iron Curtain” dividing rich and poor in Europe. Twenty years ago, Western capitalists had hoped that a peaceful united Europe under their domination would emerge in the wake of the collapse of the Stalinist-ruled systems. The current crisis is widening the divide between imperialist exploiters and their victims. It will also spur escalating competition between Europe’s rival imperialist powers that will inevitably split their superficial union.
Mass resistance in Europe will grow further as capitalist misery and instability worsen. The intensity of the austerity attack in Greece is a warning to workers even in the better-off countries of what they will soon face.
When the financial crisis broke out, ruling-class leaders debated between policies of stimulus or austerity. Stimulus policies – government investments designed to spur productive economic activity – are advocated most prominently in the U.S. by liberal bourgeois economists, notably Paul Krugman and Joseph Stieglitz, along with former Clinton cabinet member Robert Reich. They and their allies follow the economic doctrines of John Maynard Keynes, who argued during the Great Depression that the only way out of the slump was to use major government spending to replace the sharp fall-off in private spending and kick-start economic growth.
Austerity is a loaded word, since it can connote virtuous-sounding things like self-discipline, thrift, responsibility and renunciation of luxury. But in fact it means severe cutbacks in public spending for social programs that aid working-class and poor people, along with slashing wages, benefits and trade-union rights for public- and private-sector workers. It does not mean cutbacks for capitalists. The justification for it is that it boosts profits and therefore encourages private investment and economic recovery.
In the U.S., after supporting the Bush administration’s bailout of Wall Street, Barack Obama introduced a limited stimulus program but then accommodated and competed with the Republicans in pushing austerity policies. In Europe, the central imperialist banks also rescued their financial institutions from bankruptcy with massive bailouts, but they rejected stimulus measures and demanded that unmitigated austerity policies be implemented immediately, especially from the weaker national economies.
Each policy presents a major problem for capitalism. Stimulus at a time of low revenue requires heavy government borrowing. And at a time when governments are already massively in debt, the potential lenders – other governments, financial institutions – are obviously worried that their debts won’t be repaid. For most countries, that means that conditions for any further loans are onerous. As for austerity, as is becoming clear in Europe and the United States, cutting back the public sector and reducing government spending generally stifles the potential for revival of economic growth, so the existing debts do not get any easier to repay. And bailing out financial institutions increases the public debt enormously.
In sum, while stimulus generally worsens the debt problem directly because it is funded by further borrowing, austerity reduces economic activity and thereby worsens the debt problem indirectly – by reducing the income that governments can tax to pay down its debts. Only in limited circumstances and with more than a bit of luck can these policies achieve specific short-term aims. The European imperialists chose austerity as their best longer-term option. If they could sharply downgrade workers’ benefits and expectations, they could hope to squeeze out higher profits down the road, including by strengthening their hand against international competitors – the U.S., Japan and China especially. And by pressuring the lesser European powers to make their populations sacrifice, they could also hope to tighten their economic control over the loosely united EU.
The viciousness of the austerity attacks is starkly visible in Greece. In the name of paying off the public debt, successive “bailout” deals have been arranged by the “Troika” to ensure that the international bankers get their pounds, dollars and euros of flesh. Social services and jobs have been massively destroyed. More than a third of Greeks are now living under the poverty line; half the youth are unemployed, and the jobless rate is at 22% overall; wages are down by 30%, some say over 50%. These are fully depression conditions.
Greece is among the latest victims of the stagnation of capitalist profit-making that has, through ups and downs, taken an increasing hold on the world economy since the post-World War II boom ended in the 1970’s. In the 1980’s the burden fell most strongly on the semi-colonial countries of Africa and Latin America, whose massive debts to banks in the West’s financial centers were used as leverage by the imperialists to force them to accept IMF “structural adjustment” policies; these opened up their economies to privatization and greater imperialist exploitation. In the 1990’s came the turn of the former Soviet bloc countries, which were subjected to similar measures in the form of “free market” shock “therapy.” All the while, the welfare-state provisions in the Western countries themselves were also being eroded, and waves of privatization introduced ever greater market competition to drive down wages and working conditions. Now the rampant economic crisis is bringing shock-austerity attacks to the eurozone.
When debt-ridden governments receive hundreds of billions of dollars or euros in new loans, the money is not used to expand their economy’s productive capacity but is simply transferred to the vaults of the private financiers and banks as payments on past loans. One Argentine bank official commented in the Financial Times that the process “resembles a pyramid or Ponzi scheme,” through which earlier lenders are paid back with later loans. But now the new loans are coming from public funds, so just as in the bailouts of 2008 and 2009, banks keep their profits private but their losses are paid for by the taxpaying public.
Greek voters had put Prime Minister George Papandreou and his pseudo-socialist party Pasok in power in 2009, when he campaigned as an alternative to his pro-austerity conservative predecessor. But he then proceeded to follow the dictates of the financiers, driving the living conditions of Greek workers drastically downward and unemployment rates up; he became a hated figure among the masses. Last winter, however, he wavered in response to the big protests against austerity and proposed a referendum to give a democratic veneer to the acceptance of more cuts. But since he didn’t even consult the Troika, their response was to openly pressure for his ouster. In this they had the cooperation of the spectrum of Greek parliamentary parties, including Pasok. He was forced to resign, and with the EU pulling visible strings behind the parliamentary circus, a new “government of unity” was put in place as a precondition for a further bailout deal. It was led by technocrat Luca Papademos, a former leader of the ECB, and was backed by both Pasok and the conservative New Democracy. The Troika also insisted on constitutional changes to guarantee that Greece’s public revenues be dedicated to debt repayment ahead of all other needs. Future governments are legally obliged to enforce the loan agreements, which demand slashing $15.5 billion from the budget over the next two years.
With regard to the imperialist financiers and states usurping the rights of nations to govern themselves, Wolfgang Münchau, a columnist for the Financial Times, boldly concluded that economic success in capitalist terms “is no longer compatible with democracy.” He added that “The eurozone wants to impose its choice of government on Greece – the eurozone’s first colony.” After the initial election results in Greece and France, a further proposal along these lines came from Jean-Claude Trichet, the former head of the European Central Bank: give European politicians the power to declare a sovereign state bankrupt and take over its budgetary policy.
Of course, the relentless squeezing by the imperialist financiers has not resolved the crisis. After several bailouts, in 2010 the Greek debt stood at 120% of GDP, but by 2011 it increased to 169%. And the goal of the latest bailout earlier this year is to shrink the debt to 120.5% by 2020 – only back to the crisis level where it started. Moreover, a confidential IMF document revealed that Greece’s debt might still total 160 per cent of output in 2020, far above the target in the bailout. Along with Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain have also been compelled to slash their budgets to tempt capitalist investors, but the financiers have remained unwilling to buy their bonds except at exorbitant interest rates.
The financiers themselves admit that the policies they have imposed are only pushing the most vulnerable countries deeper into depression, which means that they will not have the funds to pay their debt. Indeed, Greece has already effectively defaulted; private financiers have already had more than 50 percent cut by the Troika from what they are nominally owed. (In fact, the financial markets had already discounted these obligations even more deeply, so the cut was less than what free-market principles supposedly require.)
If the austerity attack succeeds in Greece, workers’ standard of living will be driven down from the middle of the European spectrum (where workers on average receive in return for their labor approximately 60 percent of the wages and benefits that workers get in the U.S.) to a level comparable to the poorest European countries (maximum 35 percent of U.S. labor compensation). Moreover, Greece will serve as a test case for the other weaker economies in the European Union, and ultimately for workers in the imperialist powers themselves, the U.S. included. To make this aim clear, the latest weapon the financiers have devised is a new “Fiscal Compact,” a treaty finalized in March 2012 by all the EU countries except Britain and the Czech Republic. Formally entitled the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union, it is meant to guarantee that governments pay their debts to the financial institutions while keeping taxes on capitalists low. It does this by enforcing reduced national budgets and requiring that debt obligations must take priority over other state funding.
The struggle at the heart of capitalism is between the capitalists and the working class, but market competition ensures that the system is divided by rivalries on every level, from individual businesses to nation states. The system’s unfolding crisis cannot be understood without an appreciation of how the class struggle is affected by those rivalries.
The European Union is the largest economic region in the world, accounting for the single largest share of the world’s gross domestic production. But unlike the U.S. with its federal structure and strong central government, Europe is not one but a multiplicity of countries ruled by competing capitalist classes. This hampers the desire of the continent’s dominant imperialist ruling classes to play a bigger world role versus the U.S. It even makes it hard to set economic policy within the EU or just the smaller eurozone.
The Fiscal Compact and the previous impositions on Greece and other countries of Europe’s southern tier have been mainly promoted by Germany, whose capitalists seek to play a larger world role commensurate with its economic strength. Germany rose from its devastation and defeat in World War II to resume its role as the continent’s economic juggernaut. German nationalist propaganda denounces the “lazy” Greeks, but because of lower capital investment Greek workers, in fact, work far longer hours on average than the northern Europeans and get fewer public services.
German imperialism in particular profited greatly from the fall of the Soviet Union, which led to the takeover by the German Federal Republic (West Germany) of the former Stalinist German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and the opening up of the former Soviet satellites in Eastern and Central Europe. Countries like the Czech Republic (which borders Germany) have highly educated work forces who are paid far less than skilled workers in Western Europe; poorer countries like Romania and Bulgaria are useful for cheap labor. German capital leads in the superexploitation of both sectors.
France has played the role of Germany’s partner in leading the European Union. Though its economic power does not match Germany’s, France’s military, nuclear and other high-tech industries, combined with its diplomatic weight in the U.N. and domination over former colonies, make it a major imperialist power. Both France and Germany benefit from their link to Greece through lucrative arms contracts in particular. Greece spends 4 percent of its Gross Domestic Product on “defense,” the highest such proportion in Europe. In 2010, in the heart of the debt crisis, Greece bought six German submarines for 5 billion euros, and six French warships plus combat helicopters for 3 billion euros. In the several rounds of imperialist-imposed austerity, these huge arms purchases were never questioned. (The Greek bourgeoisie also plays a significant role for imperialism regionally: it has a military force in Afghanistan, it aided the war against Libya last year, and its navy is deployed in both Somalia and Lebanon. It also maintains its rivalry with Turkey over Cyprus and other issues; it is also the leading foreign investor in Serbia, Albania, Macedonia and Bulgaria.)
The creation of the euro had added to German imperialism’s economic domination of the continent. The euro’s wider use, as compared to the former German mark, has given German and other European imperialist capitals a stronger international financial role. Within Europe itself, it denied weaker nations the option of realigning their position relative to Germany by devaluing their national currency. It also gave Germany open access to their national markets. And the current crisis has widened the economic gap between Europe’s imperialist center and the dominated and exploited periphery.
Throughout the Spring, there was talk of Greece leaving the eurozone – either on its own initiative or by being expelled if it defaulted further on its debts. But the inevitable spread of the same crisis conditions to other countries, plus its unpredictable effects on international financial relations, means that the ruling classes are reluctant to force such a drastic move. The imperialist powers were pleased that the pro-austerity Greek parties stayed in power. They recognized that the electoral victory of an anti-austerity party would have inspired working-class resistance everywhere. Now the governments of France and Greece remain in “responsible” hands – and depression conditions are spreading. Europe is on the edge of an economic precipice.
Popular opposition to austerity measures is forcing the ruling classes of a number of countries in Europe to rethink the pace of their assault. For example, on May 6 French voters ousted President Nikolas Sarkozy, the shamelessly wealth-loving conservative who had held office for the previous five years. But the candidate who beat him, François Hollande belongs to the Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste or PS), which has a long record of supporting and carrying out France’s imperialist wars abroad and austerity and anti-immigrant policies at home.
Hollande did not campaign on the basis of opposing Sarkozy’s policy of making working-class people sacrifice to bail out the capitalists. Rather, he promised only a more moderate program of cutbacks, coupled with some Keynesian policies. For example, when Sarkozy promised to balance the national budget by 2016, with all the cuts in public services that implies, Hollande said he would do it only by 2017. His idea is to pacify the anti-austerity protests with promises of minimal concessions while maintaining the payoffs to the banks.
To be sure, during his campaign Hollande had appealed to workers and the left with occasional radical rhetoric. Most publicized was his claim that “My true enemy has no name, no face, no party. ... My enemy is the world of finance.” That is, like many a liberal bourgeois, he pretended to stand against bad financial capitalism in favor of good productive capitalism. He has loudly but vaguely called for economic growth along with budgetary constraints; as one report put it, “Hollande is campaigning for a greater focus on growth alongside austerity.” By “growth” he means not a major program of public job creation but rather aiding private industry– which typically means handouts to capitalists and cuts to workers’ wages and benefits to make bosses more willing to hire.
The truth is that not only is Hollande not an enemy of finance capital, but he knows many of its leading figures well, because they are fellow leaders of the PS and members of his cabinet and staff. He only became the PS’s candidate after Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the early front-runner, was discredited in the wake of a rape charge in New York and a prostitution scandal in France last year. Strauss-Kahn’s position as head of the International Monetary Fund at the time would have made plain the PS’s link to international finance. As it is, Hollande’s inner circle includes a variety of financiers and top capitalists; his campaign manager and then finance minister, Pierre Moscovici, was the former right-hand man of Strauss-Kahn. According to a survey in the French business journal Capital, a third of bosses in the top 40 companies favored Hollande.
After Hollande’s victory the Wall Street Journal reassured its readers: “Mr. Hollande is resolute to make good on his pledge to adhere to strict fiscal discipline.” It pointed out that his selection of mainly conservative Socialists was “an attempt to further reassure financial investors.”
Most Western European countries have long-standing major political parties, often called Socialist or Communist, that originated out of working-class struggles and nominally still claim to defend workers’ interests. However, these parties abandoned all revolutionary pretensions long ago. In recent decades, they gave up even any serious program of reform. The formerly Moscow-linked Communist Parties have dwindled, and the Socialist Parties have become equal perpetrators of the current wave of austerity policies along with the openly capitalist parties. In response, new reformist parties have arisen to the left of the Socialists.
In the first round of the French presidential vote in April, the far left largely lined up behind Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of a “Left Front” coalition organizationally dominated by the Communist Party. Mélenchon, a one-time Trotskyist and later a Socialist Party cabinet member, is a powerful orator who denounced capitalists with a level of rhetoric that would stun U.S. voters and was even unusual for Europe. He was able to hold several rallies of 100,000 supporters, and aptly baptized Hollande as “Hollandreou.” Here is a sample of his style, appealing emotionally to working-class hopes with calls for a reformed capitalism while echoing the themes of the 18th-century French revolution:
Mark my words, people ... are ... angry! Angry! They finally, finally, understand that they have been hoodwinked, lied to, conned by the rich. Well I say, if you earn more than 300,000 [euros, about $400,000] a year, then I will take it all. Do you hear? I will take it all. 100% taxation. Nobody in this country should earn more than 20 times (and that is far too much) the minimum wage which I propose to raise to 1,700 [euros per month, about $2300]. And if you don’t like it, if you refuse to see your perks taken away, then I say leave! Yes! Leave! The workers in this great nation can manage things without you! By capping the amount of wealth that capitalists steal, we will transfer billions back to the working class. We will create millions of jobs. Our country will be based on solidarity, not money! And we will see how much better things can be run by workers! I will tax all – all – finance-derived income, to the tune of 99%, and that will leave us with hundreds of billions with which to make our lives, the lives of the toiling masses, infinitely better. Education, healthcare, solidarity, fewer working hours, and we, as a nation, will at last be able to truly claim as ours those beautiful words: liberty, equality, fraternity!
Mélenchon drew 11 percent of the first-round vote (even though he had polled higher a week or so beforehand), while two self-styled revolutionary candidates, those of the Lutte Ouvrière group (LO: Workers’ Struggle) group and the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), languished with about 2 percent between them. The total vote for working-class parties to the left of the PS came to 12.9 percent, an improvement over the 7.6 percent in the previous election in 2007, but behind the combined 13.8 percent they got in 2002.
One likely reason for Mélenchon’s lower-than-expected result is that many decided to cast a “vote utile” (a useful or practical vote) for Hollande, a candidate who could actually win. This year, the total vote for candidates to the left of the PS fell well below the 18 percent won by far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, who is seeking to make the Front appear as a mainstream right-wing party despite its quasi-fascistic origins. The NF’s populist anti-austerity posturing and rabid immigrant-baiting won it a measure of support among the more politically backward ranks of France’s white working class, along with its petty-bourgeois base. Another factor was that Le Pen, in contrast to Mélenchon, had indicated that in round two she would not vote for either candidate of austerity.
In the second round, many on the far left called for a vote for Hollande. This decision was based either on accommodation to the widespread hatred of Sarkozy, or on adherence to a formula of always voting for any candidate of a traditionally working-class-based party like the PS. Either way, it is wrong. From what we have read and heard, workers voted for Hollande not out of any enthusiasm for the PS as somehow representing the working class and its struggles. Rather they hoped he would be a lesser evil in imposing a bit less of the capitalists’ austerity drive. Mélenchon turned from mocking “Hollandreou” to promising to support Hollande’s government, making it clear that a chief effect of his campaign all along had been to sweep into Hollande’s camp millions of voters who were justifiably unenthusiastic about supporting the PS.
The defeat of Sarkozy on May 6 was less of a surprise than the electoral blow Greek voters dealt on the same day to the two dominant pro-austerity parties, New Democracy and Pasok. The big gainer was Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, a left social-democratic-led bloc whose components range from splits from the Stalinist Communist Party (the KKE) and defectors from Pasok to self-described revolutionaries. Syriza called for an end to austerity measures, a moratorium on debt repayments to the international financiers and for Greece to stay in the eurozone. These seemingly contradictory demands were nevertheless popular; both middle-class and working-class people rejected the idea that they should have to bail out the banks, and they also feared the economic consequences of leaving the eurozone.
Syriza shocked the bourgeoisie by winning 17 percent of the vote and finishing ahead of Pasok. The Greek left political spectrum also includes the social-democratic Democratic Left (Dimar) and the Anti-capitalist Left Front (Antarsya), a bloc of far-left groupings. In the May 6 vote, the KKE got 8.5 percent, Dimar 6 percent, and Antarsya just over 1 percent. But big electoral gains were made by the genuinely fascist Golden Dawn (7 percent), which plays the parliamentary game at the same time that its thugs attack immigrants and leftists in the streets. If the working class does not mobilize to crush their provocations and find its solution to the economic and political crisis, the fascist movement will grow further.
Under Greece’s electoral rules, the party that comes in first gets an automatic extra 50 seats out of the 300 total, and parties that get less than 3 percent get no seats. With the 50-seat bonus going to New Democracy, the two main austerity parties came close to getting a parliamentary majority, but they still could not gather the necessary votes to form government. Syriza resisted heavy pressure from the bourgeoisie and its press across Europe to join a government with the pro-austerity bourgeois parties. Given the deadlock, a new election was called for June 17, and Syriza stood a good chance to come in first and be in position to lead a governmental coalition.
Because of the electoral law, if Syriza had won in June and a combination of left parties had totaled over 40 percent of the votes of the parliamentary parties (those that reached the 3 percent cutoff level), it would have collected 101 seats directly. Then the extra 50 seats for the winner would have provided a parliamentary majority. That possibility led to widespread sentiment for backing Syriza in the June re-run. As we will see, this issue led to much tactical controversy on the left both inside Greece and beyond.
One problem was that the other main working-class party, the KKE, has refused to collaborate with reformist parties, both in street protests and in parliament. This is not for any reason of principle; as recently as 1989, the KKE joined a coalition government – with the conservatives! But when it comes to working-class parties and unions it does not control, the KKE typically organizes separate marches. And it has gone so far as to deploy its cadres to act as marshals defending government buildings against militant protesters.
As it happened, in the June re-run Syriza and New Democracy each gained an additional 10 percent, as voters flocked to the two front-runners – so ND again came in first. And this time it was able to form a government with Pasok. Nevertheless, Syriza’s unexpected successes brought forward the need to intervene in the growing movement of support for Syriza in the working class.
Revolutionary socialists believe that through their class struggle, workers can put their leaders to the test, learn the limitations of reformism and come to recognize the need to overthrow capitalism. That is why we propose tactics to advance the struggle wherever possible, including when it is channeled through parliamentary elections. The dramatic rise in support for Syriza expressed the fact that many Greek workers hoped that by voting for Syriza, their passionate fight against austerity could continue through the defeat of the pro-austerity parties. Revolutionaries were therefore obliged to propose tactics that could best help workers learn from the experience of the elections.
Before discussing electoral tactics, we first consider what Syriza stood for. Syriza is a coalition of parties and groupings from the workers’ movement, gathered around a reformist program. Although it has activist components, Syriza has followed the miserable example of traditional social democracy in shunning involvement in mass struggles for workers’ demands, preferring to focus on parliamentary politics. Its electoral program evolved during the campaign, becoming less and less threatening to capitalism the closer it seemed to be getting to winning governmental office. To illustrate this, we will look at a couple of versions of its program.
Before the May election, Syriza issued an extensive program calling for “socialism with democracy.” But this program in reality went no further than radical-Keynesianism. Entitled “The Exit from the Crisis is on the Left,” its highlights included:
This array of demands, while by no means revolutionary, was obviously hostile to the agenda of the Greek capitalists and the European imperialists. Thus it is impossible to believe that all Syriza’s components would have actually upheld it. Moreover (not surprisingly given Syriza’s parliamentary leanings), the program did not speak of the kind of massive struggle that would be necessary to win even these demands. And since Syriza obviously intended to leave state power in the hands of the capitalists and their military and police, it was utopian – or worse. Greece, after all, was ruled for years by military dictatorships. In any capitalist state, the military and police (and fascist thugs, if necessary) are there to “restore order” if capitalist rule is threatened. If the working class is led to believe it can win demands like Syriza’s radical program peacefully, it is being set up for a bloody defeat.
Moreover, in today’s global capitalism all national economies are interconnected. International workers’ struggles are already necessary to build a common defense against attacks, as is especially obvious in Europe, where the dominant imperialists are attacking workers across national borders. Further, once workers understand the need to overthrow capitalism and reject Syriza-type programs of working within the system, they will also see that the revolution cannot reach its goal within one nation alone. International revolution will be necessary to defeat imperialism and clear the way for the construction of a world of freedom and abundance.
After May 6, when Alexis Tsipras, Syriza’s parliamentary leader and main spokesman, was trying to win support for a potential “left government,” Syriza issued a more moderate program of five points:
Thus most of Syriza’s earlier demands that challenged private capitalists’ control of the economy – from increased taxes to nationalization and workers’ control of major industries – were dumped, as were specific policies in defense of immigrants and against NATO and Israel. Even Syriza’s demands around Greece’s debt were moderated; its calls for a negotiated cancellation of the debt downgraded to a moratorium on debt payments until an audit was performed, implying that a Syriza-led Greece might make payments on the nation’s debts after all.
The remaining demands were ambiguous enough to be open to different interpretations. On the one hand, they could be seen as merely a call for some basic reforms that could be easily watered down to be non-threatening to the bourgeoisie. On the other hand, workers who had illusions in Syriza could still interpret the verbiage as reflecting a strong anti-capitalist stance. The European rulers, of course, were more afraid of the rise in working class confidence that an electoral victory by Syriza could have inspired than what was written in any particular paper program. The Financial Times quoted one conservative Greek politician, who fearfully noted that the deteriorating economy was benefiting Syriza by swelling the ranks of the unemployed: “This is a pool of desperate people. They have lost everything – or think they have lost everything. We wanted elections soon because after June there would be a Bolshevik government.”
Capitalism’s systemic crisis is driving Europe’s ruling classes to attack the masses’ living standards. It is also strengthening the imperialist powers’ domination and exploitation of the continents’ weaker countries. Under these conditions, it is the duty of revolutionary socialists to openly and consistently explain to the working class that the social crisis it faces cannot be solved by reforms. Rather, to arrest the masses’ falling living standards, the capitalists’ grip on the economy must be broken and production re-directed toward the masses’ needs. Because the capitalists defend their profit interests with the repressive forces of courts, cops, prisons and armies, workers’ revolutions that spread around the world will be necessary to destroy the capitalists’ states and replace them with workers’ states through which the masses can direct the reconstruction of the economy in the masses’ interests.
Abstract propaganda alone, however, will convince only relatively small numbers of workers that socialist revolution is the only solution to the crisis; millions will only to come to understand the necessity of workers’ revolution on the basis of their own experience of mass struggles that test reform strategies and the leaders who promote them.
Whenever there are opportunities for common class struggle for common goals with our fellow workers, revolutionaries have to fight for the best possible exercise of working-class power in action. One key issue in Greece has been to point out that the record of multiple short-lived general strikes had already demonstrated the need for the working class to break free of the reformist union and party bureaucracies and their strategy. The one- and two-day general strikes amounted to blowing off steam; what was needed was a serious unlimited political strike that could unite the working class and begin to build a real defense against all the austerity attacks.
Another key issue has been rising hopes among workers that they could use elections to defeat the capitalists’ austerity attacks. Especially after the May 6 elections presented the real possibility of a Syriza-led government, revolutionaries had to use the experience of the next election to help the working class advance its struggles and test its reformist leaders’ ability to address society’s economic and political crisis.
Revolutionaries aim to aid our class in achieving real victories that demonstrate the power it actually has; an important aspect is that reliance on bourgeois elections is never the answer. As Lenin is supposed to have said, one good strike is worth a thousand elections. That holds true even in the situation where workers had high hopes in the elections and Syriza; it had to be proved in practice.
As a step toward that end, we believe that the tactic of “critical support” should have been used. Workers have learned that Pasok’s reform claims were lies, but they have not yet put Syriza to the test of office. Critical support means that revolutionaries join in a common struggle to put Syriza into office at the head of a government of working-class parties. Revolutionaries would have continued to promote the demands of the masses during and after the election period, calling on Syriza and the unions to support an unlimited general strike – but would also have warned that Syriza’s leadership could be expected to try to avoid a mass mobilization strategy, since they are committed to reforming capitalism through the parliamentary road. The Greek working class largely does not yet see the need for socialist revolution. But it did see the prospect of a government led by Syriza as a dramatic step forward that would have advanced its struggle against austerity. Fighting to put Syriza in office would have been a clear way to show workers whether their expectations of Syriza were justified or not.
Critical support is a tactic, not a permanent policy. It is a sometimes useful way of reaching workers who have illusions in reformist leaders of their class at particular junctures in the class struggle. Critical support is therefore a way for revolutionaries to solidarize with our class’s goals, while exposing through accumulated common experience the inability of not just one reformist party but of reformism in general to achieve those goals.
How could critical support for Syriza have applied to workers who favor the other working-class parties? Going into this election, many workers still saw the KKE as their party, and others followed the nominally revolutionary organizations on the far left, such as those in the Antarsya coalition. If our understanding of the Greek electoral process is correct, we believe that before the June election, all the working-class parties should have called on workers to vote for Syriza; it looked like the vote totals for Syriza and the conservatives would be close, so it was necessary to maximize the chance for Syriza to take first place and thus get the extra 50 seats. Smaller workers’ parties running against it would have likely undermined Syriza’s chances and thus threatened to hand victory to the open capitalist parties of austerity. Indeed, since parties getting under 3 percent of the votes in Greek elections do not get any representation in parliament, votes for them would have been wasted for the purpose of forming a government. That’s why we think that revolutionaries should have challenged these parties to join in a campaign to get Syriza into office, while urging each party to make its political differences with Syriza absolutely clear as part of the campaign.
We caution that if a genuine revolutionary party sacrifices the opportunity to run against a reformist party like Syriza, that can make it more difficult for the revolutionary program to be heard. So we only make this proposal under exceptional circumstances, like those that prevailed in Greece this year. In other situations where revolutionaries have used critical support, they have been able to also run their own candidates, for example in constituencies where they have a base, while calling for voting for the reformist party elsewhere.
In fact, a desire for class unity in the June election proved to be a prominent sentiment within the working class after Syriza’s initial success in the May vote. Polls in late May showed the KKE losing votes, undoubtedly because of its refusal to consider support for a Syriza-led government. And in the June vote the KKE’s support in fact fell from 8.5 to 4.5 percent, its lowest total since World War II. Likewise, Antarsya lost three-quarters of its support between May and June, collecting only one-third of one percent.
Any use of critical support assumes that the working-class party given support maintains its independence from the parties representing the capitalist class. To our knowledge, during the campaign Syriza rejected any bloc with the openly pro-austerity parties. If Syriza had indicated its intent to form a bloc with bourgeois parties – a class-collaborationist “popular front” – that would have been reason to withdraw critical support.
Although the French Left Front and Syriza occupy more or less the same left-reformist position on the political spectrum and have similar rhetoric – in fact, Mélenchon’s campaign tone was more radical than Tsipras’s after it became clear that Syriza looked like it might win – we do not believe that critical support for Mélenchon in the first presidential round was called for. One key difference is that the Greek election was the culmination of two years of bitter class struggle, which decisive layers of the working class believed would be aided by a Syriza victory. In France, on the other hand, most workers did not look to the elections as an opportunity to advance their struggles, especially since the level of struggle has been declining. Another important difference is that the Left Front, despite Mélenchon’s rhetoric, essentially supported the prospect of a government of the pro-austerity Socialist Party; while Syriza has (so far) remained firmly opposed to any similar government in Greece. The critical support tactic does not depend primarily on the rhetoric or even the program of the party in question. It is a matter of the political context, whether workers believe that the reformists’ electoral victory would be a boost to their class struggle.
The critical support tactic has been part of the revolutionary arsenal for almost a century. It was introduced by the Russian Bolshevik Party during the 1917 revolution, at a juncture when reformist parties of the working masses were in the provisional government along with bourgeois parties. The Bolsheviks called on the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries to oust the capitalist ministers and form a government themselves, thereby aiming to prove that these reformist worker- and peasant-based parties were as much an obstacle to carrying out the workers’ demands as the openly pro-capitalist parties. The tactic challenged the Mensheviks and SRs to prove the Bolsheviks wrong.
In Lenin’s words a few years later, communists would offer critical support “as a rope supports a hanged man.” Regarding elections in Britain, Lenin argued that helping put the Labour Party into power would expose the reformists’ devotion to capitalism, help convince the masses through their own experience that the communists’ assessment of their leaders was correct, and thereby “hasten [their] political death.” In other words, a kind of public hanging would occur. Workers who believed at first that reformist gains (changing the government) would answer their demands could then be won to the revolutionary program of overthrowing the bourgeois state (and all of its governments).
In the 1930’s, Trotsky noted that “Revolutionists never give critical support to reformism on the assumption that reformism, in power, could satisfy the fundamental needs of the workers.” Rather, he advised revolutionaries to engage in an open and honest dialogue with their fellow workers: “The Labour Party will deceive you and betray you, but you do not believe us. Very well, we will go through the experience with you but in no case do we identify ourselves with the Labour Party program.” He added that revolutionaries
... should above all, show in practice what true critical support means. By accompanying support with the sharpest and widest criticism, by patiently explaining that such support is only for the purpose of exposing the treachery of the Labour party leadership.
We will see how far the approach of Lenin and Trotsky differs from leading organizations on the far left that supported Syriza.
Despite its history, the Leninist understanding of the critical support tactic is generally ignored by the far left, who merely wish to use it as an excuse to support various treacherous leaders of the working class rather than struggle against them. We can cite only a handful of examples here, but we believe that those we take up are representative of the most common mistaken approaches. We concentrate on those that link themselves with Trotskyism and have international affiliations.
Those affiliated with groupings in Antarsya had to explain why a vote that ends up not counting was the correct tactic, especially since it could have meant costing Syriza a victory. For example, Alex Callinicos of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, which is allied with the Greek party of the same name, the SEK, argued that Antarsya should stay independent and run its own candidates because Syriza is reformist:
Antarsya has a distinctive programme which calls for Greece to default on its debt, nationalise the banks, cut the working day, and leave the euro. Syriza, in sharp contrast, is dominated by Synaspismos, representing the pro-EU wing of the Greek Communist movement.
Antarsya’s supporters cannot argue, however, that their grouping has a revolutionary program, since it does not openly stand for socialist revolution and a workers’ state even as an ultimate goal. In fact, the planks Callinicos cited are also in Syriza’s program, except for leaving the Eurozone. But even there Syriza claimed that it preferred to stay with the euro but not at the cost of accepting austerity. From our point of view, the real differences were slight – but in any case, the critical support tactic requires not suppressing differences with reformists but rather raising them clearly. Callinicos added about Antarsya that “the stronger its voice is, the greater the pressure will be on Syriza to stand firm in the face of the forces trying to impose austerity as Greece’s permanent condition.” But Antarsya’s voice would have been stronger and gotten a better hearing, had it participated in a common working-class movement to elect Syriza rather than stand outside it.
On the eve of the June vote, Panos Garganis, editor of SEK’s newspaper, wrote in the paper of his British allies that Antarsya supporters might understandably vote for Syriza:
The Greek Socialist Workers Party and the Antarsya anti-capitalist coalition to which it belongs have been central to the struggles feeding this left turn. A strong result for Antarsya in the election will enhance this role. But we understand that many militants who respect Antarsya’s role as organisers in the movement will nevertheless vote for Syriza to stop New Democracy. (Socialist Worker/U.K., 16 June.)
This, it would seem, is a belated recognition that Antarsya’s strategy was backfiring, for even workers and youth who had supported it in the past were preparing to abandon it in favor of voting for Syriza.
Syriza’s far-left backers, on the other hand, essentially engaged in uncritical support. Among those was the International Socialist Organization in the U.S., which is allied with the Greek DEA (Internationalist Workers Left), part of the Syriza coalition. Antonis Davanellos of the DEA, interviewed in the ISO’s paper, said:
Syriza was the only part of the left that was saying that we can win – that we can overthrow the current government and propose a new government of the left. We said that we must take this possibility to put an end to the Memorandum and all of the austerity measures, and permit the people to turn around the cuts in salaries, in pensions, in public schools, in the public hospitals, and in measures of support for the unemployed people.
Neither the ISO nor Davanellos point out that Syriza’s program (even the more radical version) could not meet the needs of either the Greek or the international working class – or even that the program is reformist. Davanellos said that “There is no unified political line within Syriza, but we have a strong agreement on the main points of the current period.” Since Syriza includes politicians who defected from Pasok after being part of pro-austerity governments, what does such agreement mean?
The ISO will admit occasionally that Syriza is not a revolutionary party. But more often it praises Syriza and its leadership for their intransigence against austerity, For example, Socialist Worker (June 11) told us that “Working people who vote for Syriza today know from the attitude it took back in 2008 in support of a youth demonstration that Syriza won’t back down under pressure.” On the contrary, we know from its campaign for the second election this year that it has retreated – and any genuine revolutionary knows that such behavior by a reformist party is normal. Supporting Syriza electorally without fighting against its leadership by using the critical support tactic leaves this reformist leadership, and the influential forces pulling it rightward, unchallenged. It also leaves our fellow workers in the dark as to what to expect from them.
The “United Secretariat of the Fourth International” (USFI), which claims the title of the organization inspired by Leon Trotsky, was internally divided over the issue. Its Greek affiliate, the OKDE (Organization of Communist Internationalists of Greece) belongs to Antarsya and defended Antarsya’s rejection of electoral support for Syriza. The USFI Executive Bureau, on the other hand, issued a statement on May 24 calling on “the whole of the international workers’ movement, on all the indignant, on all those who defend the ideals of the Left” to support Syriza’s electoral program, and in particular on “all the forces which are fighting against austerity in Greece – Syriza, Antarsya, the KKE, the trade unions and the other social movements” to unite to form a left government “which refuses austerity, a government capable of imposing the cancellation of the debt.”
Like the ISO, the USFI does not warn that even Syriza’s most radical program would not solve the crisis facing the Greek and European working classes. Illusions in reformist organizations like Syriza are understandably an experience that many workers must pass through. However, the point of critical support is to assist workers in shedding these illusions – in particular, by warning in advance of the limitations and betrayals inherent in any view that is unwilling to break with capitalism and imperialism.
The economic crisis will not go away, and neither will the capitalist offensive. Through twists and turns, the working class will continue to search for a way forward. Rebellions will grow and spread internationally. In many cases, our class is likely at first to be under the leadership of left reformist forces like Syriza, who will try to bring protests back to the narrow, stifling halls of parliament. Little if anything can be won there.
The narrow defeat of Syriza at the polls was undoubtedly seen as a setback by Greek workers. It is up to revolutionaries to encourage fellow workers to move back to the arena of mass action, the only way that the balance for forces can begin to be changed. The elections have solved nothing. The polarization in Greek society and elsewhere is an unstoppable phenomenon. Revolutionary workers must be encouraged at every possible step to turn up the heat on Syriza and all working-class institutions, above all the trade unions. A fight for a real, unlimited, political general strike – not the parody that the union bureaucrats have allowed – is way overdue.
Our class has suffered for a very long time from a crisis of leadership. In these circumstances, a general strike can be a magnificent demonstration of working-class unity and power. It would help our class overcome the sense of weakness and sectoralism that is all-too pervasive today. It is a crucial weapon in the fight for the working class to develop higher class consciousness and advance the fight to construct its own revolutionary party.
The direction of the working class movement must remain political, but not electoralist. Resistance can be advanced only in the workplaces and in the street. The major task facing our class is a huge one: to defeat austerity attacks while the global economy is on the edge of a further meltdown. This in turn requires the building of revolutionary parties comprised of politically conscious workers who understand the lessons of class battles past, and are prepared to lead new ones. The re-creation of the Fourth International, with national sections in every country, is the only way to provide our class with the leadership it needs. The deepening conflict will in the end only be resolved through an internationalist, revolutionary socialist, conclusion.
2. See our Marxist Analysis of the Capitalist Crisis: Bankrupt System Drives Toward Depression in Proletarian Revolution No. 82; and World Economic Crisis Resurges in PR 83.
4. Feb. 19; www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/16f04ffa-5963-11e1-9153-00144feabdc0.html#axzz20 dYS3MHA
6. Financial Times, February 21
7. For details see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fiscal_compact.
8. GDP (Official Exchange Rate), CIA World Fact Book, 2012.
9. BBC, May 17; www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-18101338
10. French President Gives Nod to Austerity, Wall Street Journal, May 16
11. See our No to New Reformist Parties! in PR 63
12. Quoted and translated by Dan Koechlin on Louis Proyect’s “Marxism” email list, March 30, 2012.
13. It can be found in full at www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/5772/the-exit-from-the-crisis-is-left_main-points-of-gr.
14. A Wall Street investment management firm; see dealbook.nytimes.com/2012/03/19/in-greek-crisis-a-little-known-adviser-with-outsize-influence.
16. Greek right a hostage to its own failures, June 4
17. Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder
18. The history of the workers’ government slogan is extensively analyzed in our article Myth and Reality of the Transitional Program, Socialist Voice No. 8
19. Writings 1935-36, New York, 1977, pp. 199, 201
20. Socialist Worker, June 2.
21. Socialist Worker/U.S., May 23.