by Frank Brenner
On the premise that sometimes knowing the wrong
way to do something helps in figuring out the right way, here is a quote from
the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS)
about the victory of Syriza in last week's national election in Greece.
|First cabinet meeting of new government of Greece, presided over by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras|
The International Committee of the Fourth International rejects with contempt the political excuse offered by the petty-bourgeois pseudo-left to justify support for Syriza and its pro-capitalist agenda—that a Tsipras government is a necessary “experience” for the working class, from which it will somehow come to understand the necessity for genuinely socialist policies.
Such sophistries are advanced only to oppose the emergence of a revolutionary movement of the working class, a development possible only through a relentless political exposure of Syriza. This task is undertaken by the World Socialist Web Site in order to prepare workers and young people for the decisive struggles they face in Greece and internationally.
This is from an article on Jan. 27. And here's another one posted the next day, making the same point. (In both cases, the underlining is by me).
Another of their arguments is that one must support Syriza, so that the working class can go through these experiences and learn from them. This is pure cynicism. Given the enormous dangers posed by a Syriza government, the task of a Marxist party is to expose the class interests represented by Syriza, to warn the working class against its consequences and provide it with a clear socialist orientation.
This is how the World Socialist Web Site and the International Committee of the Fourth International participate in the “experiences” in Greece. The numerous pseudo-left groups cling to Syriza because they represent the same class interests as this party. They speak for better-off layers of the middle class, who fear an independent movement of the working class, and who are concerned to ensure their own social elevation within the bourgeois order.
These quotes are both examples of what Marxists call sectarianism. You can read Trotsky's classic diagnosis of this degenerative political disease here.
What I find striking is how in both these quotes the word experience (or experiences) is in scare quotes. The ostensible target of this criticism is other “pseudo-left” groups, but the real target is the masses: it is their experience that is being denigrated (“rejects with contempt”) with these scare quotes. They voted in their millions for a party whose Greek acronym stands for Coalition of the Radical Left. Nothing like this has happened in Europe in more than half a century. The election has also aroused the hopes of millions of other victims of savage austerity in Spain, Portugal and Italy. It marks the upsurge of a mass movement seeking radical social change. If you don't find this important, then you aren't a revolutionary.
Sectarians see things differently. What they see is – to use a prefix much favored by WSWS writers – a 'pseudo' experience. Nothing significant happened in the Greek election. “Syriza’s election victory does not express a political development, a step forward, progress or anything of the kind by or for the working class.” For them political analysis is quite simple: what happened is not a revolution, hence it is reactionary. One bourgeois party replaced another bourgeois party in power: that is their reading of the election.
To be sure, Greece is still a long way from a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, but you hardly need the accumulated wisdom of Marxism to see that. What you do need that wisdom for is to properly assess whether or not this experience is a step towards that ultimate goal, and use that assessment as the basis for intervening in the political life of the masses.
Sectarians aren't interested in steps, or should I say “steps”. For them the Syriza victory doesn't count as a step forward. But what would count? Apart from more people reading the WSWS or joining the SEP, these sectarians have no answer for that, and see no pressing need to come up with one.
Marxists use a category like “bourgeois party” to understand political reality more deeply, but in the hands of a sectarian such a category becomes devoid of content, and little more than a form of name-calling. Thus we are told by the WSWS that in “its origin, social composition and politics, Syriza is a bourgeois party” comparable to Barack Obama and the Democrats. In fact, the core of Syriza comes from the Eurocommunists who split from the pro-Soviet wing of the Communist Party in the late 1980s. Stalinist parties are not revolutionary parties, but Trotskyists have never simply labeled them bourgeois because this distorts their origin and the specific nature of their relationship to the working class.
Syriza eventually evolved into an umbrella organization for 13 groups, including social democrats, Maoists, Trotskyists, left ecologists and liberals. Again this is not a revolutionary party but neither is it a conventional bourgeois party: to that extent at least, the featuring of Radical Left in its name is not false advertising. And that matters because millions of voters came to identify their aspirations with Syriza precisely because they saw it as a radical departure from the mainstream. Nor are those aspirations just for vague promises of hope and change a la Obama: they are very clearly for an end to austerity.
Such distinctions are important for revolutionary Marxists but not for sectarians. “Sectarians are capable of differentiating between but two colors: red and black. So as not to tempt themselves, they simplify reality. They refuse to draw a distinction between the fighting camps in Spain for the reason that both camps have a bourgeois character” (Trotsky).
Another way of saying this is that sectarians have a kitchen-sink approach to politics. A good example is the constantly used epithet “pseudo-left” on the WSWS. If you unpack this phrase, what it means is that everyone else on the left isn't left at all, they're all just “pseudo-left”. This includes any and all parties calling themselves Marxist or Trotskyist or revolutionary socialist. The only truly left party on the planet is the SEP. Everyone else belongs in the sink of “pseudo-leftism”. Here the rhetoric gets so far removed from reality as to become delusional.
Sectarians have only contempt for “experience” but they have enormous faith in propaganda. In their view, it is “sophistries” to say that the Greek working class needs to go through the experience of a Syriza government “from which it will somehow come to understand the necessity for genuinely socialist policies.” What the workers really need is “a relentless political exposure of Syriza”, which is to say, propaganda by the WSWS. The second quote hammers home the same point: it is “pure cynicism” to imagine that “the working class can go through these experiences and learn from them”. Instead, “the task of a Marxist party is to expose the class interests represented by Syriza, to warn the working class against its consequences and provide it with a clear socialist orientation” ... in other words, propaganda.
Which raises an important question – how does the working class learn? Does it learn primarily from propaganda, no matter how “relentless”, or does it learn primarily from its own experiences, with or without scare quotes? The SEP, which is vehemently materialist in its stated philosophical views, is actually idealist when it comes to its politics: propaganda matters, experience not at all.
But this isn't how the real world works. Nor is it how Marxists have traditionally understood their task as revolutionaries. Marxists aren't contemptuous of the experience of the masses; on the contrary, they do everything possible to engage with that experience. What does engage mean in this context? Trotsky addressed this in The Transitional Program: it means finding a bridge between the present situation – in Greece, the fight against austerity – and the fight for socialism.
Of course this involves propaganda for socialism, to the widest extent possible. And it means not pulling any punches in criticisms of the new government, particularly any concessions it makes to the domestic bourgeoisie or the European financial elites. A major political upsurge of the masses creates great dangers as well as great opportunities. We already have an example of this in Greece, with Syriza forming a government with a right-wing populist party. But sectarians see only the dangers and “reject with contempt” the opportunities. They do “not understand the dialectical action and reaction between a finished program and a living – that is to say, imperfect and unfinished – mass struggle.”
In the case of Greece, engaging with the masses means putting demands on Syriza which can mobilize broad support. Employment in particular seems to be what in American political parlance is called a “wedge issue” – an excellent phrase that revolutionaries should adopt. In Greece we need a program of demands addressed to “wedge issues” – demands designed to drive a wedge between the deep desire of the masses to end austerity and the obscene wealth of the elites who cannot accommodate that desire. Such a program would work to activate mass struggles and create the conditions for workers and young people to learn from their own experiences that only socialism will bring an end to austerity. This really would be a revolutionary policy, in stark contrast to the pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric of sectarianism.
Engaging with the masses also means listening to them, not just hectoring at them. Take for example Syriza's alliance with the right-wing populist Independent Greeks. For a sectarian this is just an 'I told you so' moment. But this isn't how revolutionaries operate. Here is a Syriza supporter, in fact writing a comment reacting to one of the WSWS sectarian diatribes:
“The cooperation between SYRIZA and the 'Independent Greeks' was a necessary evil in order to make an anti austerity coalition in order to form a government. The Communist Party of Greece will not even speak to SYRIZA and the 'River' party, although claiming to be what you would call 'pseudo left' is more for maintaining the economic status-quo than the other parties and the PASOK is completely sold out so not much room for choice. The expressed line of the IGs are anti-austerity and their actions have shown this to be so.”
Marxists would disagree that the alliance with the Independent Greeks was a “necessary evil', but it's not enough just to dismiss such an argument or denounce it. The points about the other parties are entirely true, and the voters who backed Syriza wanted them to form a government. Under these circumstances, it would seem that a minority government would have been possible, and that the Syriza leadership opted for a formal alliance, including handing the crucial Defense Ministry to the Independent Greeks, to give themselves some political 'wiggle room'. This raises a crucial question: can you fight austerity and yet be pro-capitalist, as the Independent Greeks are? This person still seems to think that's possible, and no doubt he is far from being alone in this regard. If Greek revolutionaries are ever to get a hearing from such people, they will have to inoculate themselves against sectarianism.
|The Transitional Program is still offered for sale at the online bookstore affiliated with the WSWS|