Sunday, June 28, 2015

The working class in fantasy and reality

The working class in fantasy and reality

by Frank Brenner

Greek PM Alexis Tsipras addresses Parliament during stormy debate on the referendum
Two recurrent threats to a revolutionary policy are opportunism and sectarianism. And both entail distorted – read non-dialectical – conceptions of the revolutionary potential of the working class. For the opportunist the working class has a past but no future. For the sectarian the working class has a future but no past.

If you want a textbook example of sectarianism, read the World Socialist Web Site on the crisis in Greece. We already did a breakdown of this political disorder (as Lenin would have called it) back in January, when the latest phase of the Greek crisis began with the election of SYRIZA. (See “Experience in scare quotes”). Back then, the WSWS was categorical in insisting that nothing had changed with that 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.”

If this were true, then the crisis now gripping Europe makes absolutely no sense. If Syriza were no different than the previous regimes of Pasok or New Democracy, they would have agreed months ago to the latest austerity blackmail measures demanded by the European financial elites.

Of course Syriza is not a revolutionary party, as anyone with even the barest understanding of Marxism could have figured out. But neither is it just more of the same, one more bourgeois regime among others. The difference lies precisely in the role of the masses.

Syriza was elected on an anti-austerity program by the votes of millions of working class and middle class people. For the past six months it has tried desperately to find some middle ground between the financial vampires in Frankfurt and the aspirations of its electoral base. But unlike its predecessors, Syriza cannot totally ignore those aspirations. Which is why, in the end, it had to say no to a deal and call a referendum.

To a revolutionary, this matters enormously because it opens up possibilities for the growth of revolutionary consciousness. Workers are learning THROUGH THEIR OWN EXPERIENCES that capitalism and democracy are mutually exclusive, and that only an end to the system will bring an end to austerity. For the first time in generations, socialism can come to be seen as a PRACTICAL PROJECT by the masses. The road to revolution in Greece lies through the electoral base of Syriza. A revolutionary party that can exploit the fissures between that base and the Syriza leadership can win mass support for socialism.

But none of this matters to sectarians. The WSWS reaction to the referendum was that it was “a reactionary fraud, designed to lend a veneer of democratic legitimacy to the looting of Greek workers and middle-class people by the banks.” (See the WSWS article "Greek prime minister calls for referendum on EU austerity demands".)

This makes no sense. Having failed to get even the most meager concessions from Eurozone officials, the government has turned to the Greek people and asked them to decide: yes or no to more austerity. There is no indication the referendum has been fixed in any way; if anything, the government is the underdog in this campaign and it may well lose, which would immediately bring about its collapse. In what sense is this a fraud? On the contrary, this is a very rare occasion when bourgeois democracy actually lives up to its hype. Which explains why the European elites are furious at the Greek government: how dare the people be allowed to have a say when it comes to something as important as cold hard cash! The opportunities for revolutionaries to intervene in such a campaign and raise revolutionary consciousness would be evident to anyone not blinded by the sickness of sectarianism.

The WSWS contends that not only is the referendum a fraud but the government is maneuvering to get a yes vote: “Broad sections of the Syriza-led government and of the Greek ruling class as a whole are pushing for capitulation to what Tsipras acknowledged were humiliating demands. After Greece’s central bank came out with a call to remain in the euro, Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis stressed yesterday that Greece was doing everything it could to satisfy the 'strange demands' of its creditors and was determined to remain inside the euro zone.”

This too is nonsense. It would be impossible for Syriza to continue to govern if the referendum vote is to accept ongoing austerity. If this really was the secret agenda of Tsipras and company, they could have just made a deal and tried to ignore the outrage on the streets. In fact, reports from Athens say that the cabinet was unanimous in backing a No campaign.

Sectarians live in a fantasy world. Bereft of any dialectical understanding of how political consciousness develops, they change facts to fit their 'perspective'. Here is one such example:"The Financial Times recently reported on a pool party held in the 'leafy, affluent northern suburbs' of Athens and attended by a pro-EU crowd of 'well-heeled businessmen, politicians, academics, and socialites.' For these layers, the FT noted, 'life without the euro is almost unimaginable. The single currency made it easier for them to send children to study abroad and purchase property and luxury goods elsewhere in Europe.' Given that Syriza largely consists of similar affluent middle-class academics, politicians, and socialites, divorced from and hostile to the working class, similar moods are well represented inside Syriza itself.”

This is a rather crude example of guilt by association: the quote from the Financial Times says nothing about this pool party being a gathering of Syriza supporters, but somehow in the WSWS article they become exemplars of that party's political base. In any case, this is an article of faith in all WSWS coverage of Syriza: that the party's base is bourgeois and upper middle class.
A pool party in the affluent Athens suburb of Kifisia
But what then becomes of the Greek working class? Who exactly did they vote for in January? If not Syriza, who then? The mainstream bourgeois parties? The fascists? Did the workers not vote at all – were there mass abstentions? To ask such questions is to answer them. But sectarians never ask them.

For sectarians, the only working class that matters is the working class of their fantasies. All this fantasy working class needs to be woken into revolutionary consciousness is the 'magic touch' of the sectarian's propaganda. You might call this a 'Sleeping Beauty' approach to revolutionary politics.

And so, in the end of the article, you get what is a ritual incantation in all WSWS propaganda: “The only way forward for the working class is to set its policy independently of all the factions of the capitalist class, whose social order has utterly failed. The critical task is to prepare to mobilize the working class in Greece and across Europe in revolutionary struggle against the reactionary intrigues of Syriza and the EU.”

How any of this is to happen is a total mystery because this isn't about real Greek workers who really voted for a party called Syriza. Rather it is about a fantasy working class that only exists in the heads of sectarians – a Sleeping Beauty with a glorious future and no past.

Workers who were not invited to pool party in Kifisia reading about referendum at kiosk


Arthur said...

Excellent analysis! I Enquired on the wsws website: Please share and explain for us international and especially European readers how "to prepare to mobilize the working class in Greece and across Europe in revolutionary struggle against the reactionary intrigues of Syriza and the EU". The discussions in Sweden are vicious regarding Syriza and the referendum call.

Mark said...

Thanks for this piece, of course the ICFI hasn't changed significantly since you began your polemic, but I find pieces like this very instructive to see what sectarianism means in practice, especially in the case of the Syriza victory in Greece, an avowedly left wing party running on an anti-austerity platform. While posturing in support of the Greek masses sectarianism in practice wishes for their failure, thus a another "perspective" is confirmed, the betrayal of Syriza was predicted, and so forth... This is perspective of failure and defeat, only when the masses come to the doorstep of the ICFI will they be successful according to their theory, suffice to say this "perspective" has nothing in common with Marxism and Trotskyism.

Alex Steiner said...

While the disease of sectarianism has infected the ICFI for a long time, that doesn't mean it has not changed. The ICFI, like any other social phenomenon is not exempt from from the dialectics of the class struggle. And I think it is clear that the period since 9/11 has not been kind to the WSWS. Their sectarianism has become increasingly entrenched and dogmatic. And the change in the social composition of the layers that are attracted to the WSWS is reflected in an increasingly hostile attitude toward any movement of the working class. We identified this tendency years ago when we wrote about the abstentionism of the WSWS toward the stolen election in Mexico as well as their hostility to the movement against the theocratic dictatorship in Iran. Today we see its manifestation in the overt hostility displayed by WSWS columnists toward the historic movement against austerity by the Greek working class. They have nothing but contempt (one of their favorite invectives) toward the millions of workers who supported Syriza and look upon the referendum as a dirty trick rather than an opening rarely seen in a bourgeois state for a democratic process that could decide the future of the nation. If ever there was an opportunity to both learn from the experience of the masses in struggle and fight for the program of revolutionary socialism, what we have called "Plan C" , this is it. (See Plan C: The Socialist Alternative for Greece.) But sectarians don't want to have anything to do with such practices. They would rather nurture their fantasies and are convinced that they have done their duty by denouncing everyone who disagrees with them with the fatuous epithet of being "fake-lefts". And judging from the comments sections on the WSWS it seems that a layer of their readers think that they are fulfilling their revolutionary duty by endlessly quoting documents from the WSWS against the occasional dissenter. It's all rather bizarre but historically speaking not without precedent. For what characterized many sectarian groups in the 1930's was their conviction that their propaganda is equivalent to and a substitute for a genuine intervention in the life of the masses. In the age of the Internet and the Matrix this takes the form of sectarianism as a form of virtual reality.

Anonymous said...

In defense of the ICFI, to be labeled a sectarian by an opportunist is the highest compliment.

For all your invocations of the ICFI's allegedly ignorance of dialectic, your analysis of the greek working class' relationship to SYRIZA betrays a complete non-understanding of the materialist dialectic and of Marxism generally.

For you, the fact that workers voted for Syriza indicates that they are in complete political agreement with Syriza. The fact of the matter is that the Greek working class voted against austerity. In that sense, they did not vote "for" Syriza.

Furthermore, you don't at all believe that the working class is capable of mobilizing independently to end austerity and create socialism. Instead, you denounce those who credit workers who "believe that the working class has a bright future and forgets their past."

Also, don't flatter yourself by thinking that your policy vis-a-vis Syriza is a modern implementation of the transitional program. The transitional program represents policies brought forward by the working class to express its own interests, not series of wheelings and dealing among bourgeois governments.

But I shouldn't try to stop you. The more pettit-bourgeois riff-raff drown themselves with the sinking ship of Syriza the better.

Mark said...

I was careful to say, that it has not changed significantly, not that it hasn't changed, of course your history goes back much farther, when you began your polemic you knew a different SEP/ICFI than I did, perhaps a healthier movement, what I see in the WSWS is mostly the same stagnant approach to politics, perhaps the influence of the middle class had already taken hold of the party at that point. When there is a significant movement of the working class as in the case with Greece, we see the outcome of that, of which amounts to a condemnation of the Greek working class, I agree.

Anonymous thinks being called a sectarian is a compliment, but unlike the ICFI which often retaliates by name calling, I don't its usage here as an invective, just read one of the many articles that Trotsky wrote about sectarianism, attempting to combat it's influence, and you can find a fairly accurate portrait of the ICFI/SEP.

Alex Steiner said...

Anonymous alleges that our analysis "betrays a complete non-understanding of the materialist dialectic and of Marxism generally." He provides two arguments to try to justify that statement. First argument:"For you, the fact that workers voted for Syriza indicates that they are in complete political agreement with Syriza." Of course we never said anything of the sort. Workers by and large are not in COMPLETE agreement with Syriza. Anonymous goes on to write,"The fact of the matter is that the Greek working class voted against austerity."
Yes I think we can agree on that. But then anonymous concludes,"In that sense, they did not vote "for" Syriza." Now here we get into some slippery logic. I suppose if we got a definition of what sense the author means we might be able to evaluate that statement. But I don't think it follows that workers "Did not vote "for" Syriza" because they were not in COMPLETE political agreement Syriza.
After all some workers really did vote for Syriza, and they voted in large enough numbers to give them the election.
On to Anonymous' second argument. “Furthermore, you don't at all believe that the working class is capable of mobilizing independently to end austerity and create socialism."
Aside from the author's speculation about what I may think, let us first note that the word "independently" in this statement is ambiguous."Independently" of what? They are certainly capable of mobilizing themselves independently of the sectarians of the WSWS. Perhaps the author meant to say something to the effect that the working class is capable of rejecting austerity and "creating socialism" all on their own, without the assistance of anyone. That would be more in line with the thinking of the WSWS that we have seen expressed on many occasions. They have a religious like belief that "History" will inevitably lead the working class to recognize the wisdom of the the WSWS and when that happens a new age will come about. The problems begin when the real working class fails to follow the prescriptions of the wise men of the WSWS.
Anonymous completes this thought with the following line,"Instead, you denounce those who credit workers who "believe that the working class has a bright future and forgets their past." It is hard to make sense of this statement. I thought Frank Brenner's article was clear that Marxists should try to avoid the trap of sectarians - of seeing the working class with a bright future while forgetting their past, as well as the trap of opportunism, of being embedded in the past of the working class and not seeing the possibilities for transcending that past in a future that will be fundamentally different.
Anonymous then falsely claims that we advocate " wheelings and dealing among bourgeois governments."
And as a parting shot, "The more pettit-bourgeois riff-raff drown themselves with the sinking ship of Syriza the better."
But I have one question to ask of anonymous:
Which position of the WSWS in regards to the Referendum in Greece are you defending?
Is it the one they published on June 27, where they denounced the referendum as “a reactionary fraud, designed to lend a veneer of democratic legitimacy to the looting of Greece by the banks.”?
Or is it the one they published two days later, where they called on workers to vote "no" in the "reactionary fraud" of a referendum? For the story behind this see the A postscript on sectarianism and the Greek referendum.

Anonymous said...

This remind me of the "politics" we, the Révolutionary Comunist Party (PCR) practised in Chile between 1970-73.
We also "denounce" the Unidad Popular" ans suppose that the masses will turn to us when they could see clear on the "revisionist" course of the adventurous reformists in charge.
And when the coup d'état came, some of our dirigents said that now was our moment.
The problem is that the masses don't hear it the same way. They ignore us.
They only march with the ones who are always with them (wrong or right).
Then,from 1968 to 1973, we pass all our time just giving lessons (which were not heard) and staying on the verge of the road quite satisfied with our "political knowledge" and totally useless in the real class fight.
Of course in Greece it should be called for a "No" vote and at the same moment mainly explaining the threats, manouvers and attacks of the Troika (openly and very clearly) but also the very probably treason of Syriza and Tsipras (in a way understandable for the masses and not collaborating in any way with the imperialists)
The WSWS people make a big mistake. Your position is correct as also the Socialist Fight one which I prefer.
Sorry for the english.

Alex Steiner said...

Thank you for this comment. I think you should be writing and lecturing about your experiences with the sectarian group in Chile. The fascist counter revolution of 1973 had a huge impact on political developments throughout the world and there are some very important lessons to be learned from it. There will always be people with a closed mind who are incapable of learning those lessons but there is also a new generation of workers and youth coming into struggle who could greatly benefit. Please write to us again. For private communication you may use the Contact form on our web site.

Alex Steiner

Anonymous said...

This question of "a fantasy working class", a sort of incantation, or magic word that comes as a justification for dogmatic and sectarian positions is quite frequent here in France, which is currently used by the most important and serious political "extreme left" "Trotskyist" party, Lutte Ouvrière.

WSWS is quite critical of them but again in a very absurd and sectarian way. After all there is nothing else in this country and the critics should not kill the patient but assist it. They are very militant and spend a lot of time addressing the working class which IMHO is what must be done.

But from the Lybian crisis and on, Syria, Ukraine and everything in fact, Greece included (even if there they are a little bit better) they just made the same consideration: there is not in those countries a fully revolutionary worker's party and they place themselves "in the middle" denouncing both...and by doing this, objectively supporting the imperialist aggression.

"Gaddafi? A bastard! The imperialists? Worse. The working class and the Trotskyist party? Non-existent." Then, they turn their backs to all that mess and wait for a pure, clean, working class independent movement , even better if led by a Trotskyist party.
Frequently the facts seems to give them "reason", because the oppressed country is smashed by the imperialists and there is no intervention, in any way of the working class, but politically that is only the old anarcho-syndicalist "policy" with some generalities that count for nothing.

It’s a real pity that so many people are so wrong on this very important methodological question. But I think that most of them are just wrong, not bad people, who only need to be clarified. In that sense your work is important as also the remarkable Blog of Socialist Fight, always clear and with the correct position.

I am no Trotskyist precisely because of those a-historical, sectarian dogmatists that are the Latin American Trotskyists (perhaps the worst of the whole lot) but know that the more I understand Trotskyism more I am inclined to hear from them.

I read the WSWS blog almost daily (I am a retired worker) and most of their articles are good (on the imperialist’s plans for Russia and China for example or in their cultural articles) but they have a bias to the ultra-left that must be corrected. In Greece they are absolutely wrong even if the rapid events would seem to give them some reason. Their position is similar to the KKE in that they take an objectively pro-imperialist position that now appears as a correct one because of the rapid changes and more rapid capitulation of Tsipras.

But the masses have a very good memory they won't forget the KKE position.

That is the question today, in my opinion: the old tendencies (Trotskyists, Maoists, revisionists, etc) are split on international questions and, more or less, you have the old three positions of the Social Democracy in 1914. A right one which is objectively supports imperialist aggression (NPA in France and worldwide) a centrist one that place themselves 'in the middle' and objectively support the imperialist aggression against oppressed countries in abject opposition to the Communist International's Congresses and Lenin politics (LO "Trotskyist" and VP "Maoist" in France, etc.) and a Leninist one which are in favor of a Anti Imperialist United Front against imperialist aggression, supporting the oppressed country but not giving political support to the reactionaries that are theirs leaders (as some revisionist parties or groups do, but also the Socialist Fight blog which is remarkable for its clarity and political long view). That means that those tendencies are divided in "new" (old in fact) lines which in some way are the same as those in 1914.

In Greece the best I know on that subject are the EEK people.
The problem today is that the ones who are correct are so few...

Alex Steiner said...

Thanks again for your contribution. You can communicate with us directly by email by clicking on the link below