Saturday, December 12, 2015

Foreword to 'OXI: Greece at the Crossroads'

Permanent Revolution Press is proud to announce the publication of a collection of some our best essays on Greece, OXI: Greece at the Crossroads. What follows is the foreword to this new volume. The book can be pre-ordered now and will ship in January. We are offering a special package for the holiday season. Any order for OXI:Greece at the Crossroads that comes in before January 1, 2016 will also receive a complimentary copy of Crackpot Philosophy and Double-Speak: A Reply to David North


The present volume brings together a number of essays that appeared on the Permanent Revolution web site [ ]  in 2015 when the class struggle in Greece reached the boiling point.  The year began with the victory of Syriza in the elections of Jan 25, installing a self-described radical leftist government in office in Europe for the first time in several generations.  The year is now ending with general strikes and a mass mobilizations of the working class against the Syriza led coalition government that returned to power in the second election of September 2015. The events between these two bookends are the subject of the essays in this volume.  

There are few precedents in history for the dramatic turns of the class struggle that were witnessed in Greece in those few months.  The Russian Revolution of 1917 is one that comes to mind. But the outcome in Greece was very different. The country went from euphoria over the defeat of the right wing parties of austerity in January, to frustration with the compromising posture of the Syriza government in their negotiations with the EU from February to June.  Tsipras’s sudden departure from the negotiations in Brussels at the end of June and his announcement of a referendum galvanized all the political forces in the country, both right and left, to a degree that has not been witnessed since the fall of the dictatorship in 1974. 

The week of the campaign for the referendum was memorable in opening a door, however brief, for the masses to have a say in determining their future.  It was a taste, however brief and however ameliorated through the obscure language of the referendum itself, of what democracy looks like.  For this very reason, it infuriated the elite of the European bourgeoisie and demonstrated very clearly the profoundly anti-democratic nature of the EU. It also unhinged much of the left.  The sectarian groups did not know what to do about the referendum and denounced it as a “reactionary fraud”.  This episode, which challenged the sectarians with a real problem of the class struggle in which their theory would be tested, saw the role of sectarianism passing definitively from being more or less irrelevant to being an accomplice to reaction.  This was the role of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) which told its supporters to abstain in the referendum. But a similar reactionary posture was embraced by a number of other sectarian outfits, some of which claimed adherence to Trotskyism.  Two of the essays in this volume, Experience in Scare Quotes and The Working Class in Fantasy and Reality, analyze the twists and turns of one of these sectarian groups, the Socialist Equality Party of the U.S.  The SEP began the year by denying the historic significance of the election of the Syriza government, then proceeded to label the referendum a “reactionary fraud” while – inconsistently - calling for a “NO” vote.  They have ended the year trumpeting the big lie that they were the only political movement on the planet who foresaw the capitulation of Syriza before the EU. Although their political impact is negligible, the analysis of the SEP’s positions on Greece provides a good object lesson in the dangers of substituting sectarian formulas for revolutionary politics and therefore justifies its inclusion in this volume.

Supplementing the disarray of the sectarians, the opportunists of the left were also caught up short and exposed during the week of the referendum.   Chief among the opportunists were the spokespersons for the Syriza party itself who left no stone unturned in their attempts to portray the cynical maneuvers of Tsipras in a favorable light.  Early on during that tumultuous week, a number of people associated with the right wing of Syriza came out openly for a “YES” vote in the referendum.  And within the central halls of the government and among Syriza’s leadership the idea was being floated that the referendum should be cancelled.  When this suggestion failed to gather any sails, the Syriza leadership reconciled themselves to the referendum but without any enthusiasm.  They made no effort to mobilize the masses and were clearly hoping for an indecisive outcome, one that would give them some room to maneuver by claiming that whether the YES of the NO vote won, neither represented a real mandate of the electorate.  But what actually happened was the worst possible nightmare for the opportunists in and out of the government.  The landslide victory for the NO vote by a margin of 61.3%, with a much higher percentage in the working class districts, brought the Syriza government face to face with a working class that was loudly instructing it to defy the EU and the austerity regime.  What happened next – Tsipras’s abject capitulation to the EU and his defiance of the mandate of the referendum – was entirely predictable.  It was already inscribed in the contradiction contained within Syriza’s Thessaloniki program of 2014 that catapulted it to the dominant position of Greek politics.  That contradiction – between the rejection of austerity and its insistence on remaining imprisoned within the iron cage of the EU, is the real topic of a number of the essays in this volume.   It is first addressed in the two essays by Savas Michael-Matsas, Secretary of the Workers Revolutionary Party (EEK) of Greece, Letter from Greece and The Greek People Have Shaken the World.  Savas’s articles are a masterful analysis of the historic importance of the election of Jan 25 and explain in depth why that election marked a turning point not only in Greece but in European politics as a whole.  At the same time Savas examines the gulf between the aspiration of the masses who supported Syriza and the reformist illusions that marked all factions of Syriza.   But Savas analysis does not stop at exposing the contradictions within Syriza but attempts to formulate a strategy for a revolutionary alternative without falling into empty sectarian gestures.

We further explored the contradiction at the heart of Syriza’s program in the essay Plan C: The Socialist Alternative for Greece.  In this essay we engaged with the ideas of one of the leaders of the left opposition within Syriza, Costas Lapavitsas.  We tried in this essay to formulate a series of concrete proposals for what is the only viable alternative to austerity, a break from capitalism itself and a turn to socialism.  We noted that while Lapavitsas as well as a number of other dissident members of Syriza recognized the hopelessness of the official government position – that they could remain in the EU and somehow end austerity, his alternative,  a return to the drachma and reliance on native Greek capitalism – was just as much a pipedream as the official government position.  

The essays, Greece atthe Crossroads Part I and Part II, are a political memoir written by me as I participated in some of the key events in Greece in July when the struggle over the referendum reached its high point.  Here I tried to relate from my own experience what was happening on the ground with an analysis of the forces at work beneath the surface.  Time will tell how well I succeeded. I ended Part I with a snapshot of the then Chair of the Hellenic Parliament, Zoe Konstantopoulou,  who joined revelers in the celebration of the landslide victory of the NO vote and who was positively beaming with delight. While Konstantopoulou is not a revolutionary socialist, she was probably the most principled member of the Syriza deputies in Parliament and refused to be silenced when she saw that the Tsipras government had betrayed its mandate.

Part II of Greece at the Crossroads explores the immediate aftermath of the referendum. Here I attempted to explain why Tsipras betrayed.  This is not such a simple question to answer as it seems. Unless one believes in conspiracy theories or simply ascribes to Tsipras and others the simple minded thesis that they are just “bad men” and corrupt, a serious Marxist analysis must grapple with how it is that a political leader who has spent two decades defining himself as a fighter against austerity could capitulate overnight.  I also tried to examine the psychology that was behind the reaction of ordinary people to Tsipras’s betrayal.   This kind of in depth examination of betrayal and mass psychology is of course anathema to the opportunist apologists for Tsipras, some of whom to this day refuse to call his actions a “betrayal”.  It is also anathema to the sectarians for whom a betrayal of this magnitude is just another “I told you so” moment.

The essay The Dialectics of Revolutionary Strategy and Tactics is the transcript of a talk I gave at the Locomotiva Café hosted by comrade Savas and the EEK.  It was delivered in the immediate aftermath of the betrayal of the referendum.  I tried in this talk to relate revolutionary strategy and tactics in a concrete way to some of the fundamental principles of dialectical philosophy.  The events of that very day provided me with an incredible example of the dialectic of opportunism in practice.

The essays in this volume are capstoned by Savas Michael-Matsas analysis of the second election of Sept 20, A Pyrrhic victory for Syriza.   Summing up the results of the second instauration of a Syriza-ANEL government, Savas makes the following cogent observation,

 Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose,  a cynical but superficial commentator could say. But nothing is the same: the government of the same partners Syriza/ANEL  is not the same as the government that was elected on January 25, 2015, empowered then with the enthusiasm and hopes of the majority of the Greek people for an end  to the  nightmare of permanent  austerity imposed by the troika of the EU/ECB/IMF.

For the sectarians in our midst this observation makes no sense.  Syriza was a party setting out to betray in January, and they are the same party of betrayal in September.  For those looking to formulate a revolutionary strategy, the difference between the January election and the September election is decisive.   Between these two events lies the high point of the class struggle in Greece and throughout Europe.  While the heroic struggles of the Greek working class in the summer of 2015 failed to break Greece from the grip of EU-imposed austerity the Greek working class capacity for struggle has not been broken. This is clearly shown by the General Strike that shut down much of Greece in November of 2015. This general strike, coming two months after the second election of Syriza, was in protest against the austerity measures being instituted by the Syriza government.  It is sign that Syriza has become the new PASOK.

There are rich lessons to be learned from the events in Greece in 2015. We hope that this volume of essays makes a modest contribution toward that.

I want to thank Savas Michael-Matsas and the comrades of the EEK for their contributions to this struggle and to our ability to learn from it.

I also want to acknowledge the tireless work of Mitchel Cohen who shepherded this print version of our essays through to publication.

To order OXI: Greece at the Crossroads click on the link below:

Alex Steiner, Nov 2015

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