Apparently, it is easy to forget the euphoria of the great majority of the reformist and anti-capitalist international left accompanying SYRIZA’s success in the Greek elections, promising to overturn the regimen of austerity that brought Greece to its knees. It must be easy to forget the ascent of the youthful, charismatic, and photogenic SYRIZA leader, Alexis Tsipras, who charmed everyone from The New York Times liberal Paul Krugman to even some in the Communist movement.
I remember well the disdain cast on those who defended the decision by the Greek Communists (KKE) to refuse partnership in the SYRIZA government. Left pundits pointed to KKE rejection of collaboration as another example of Communist “sectarianism.” The KKE was vilified for refusing to legitimize a social democratic electoral victory that would both fail to rescue Greek workers and betray the cause of socialism.
In the words of Motta in his In Defense of Communism article:
From the very beginning of SYRIZA's electoral rise, the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) was the only political power which, actually and honestly, exposed the real nature of Alexis Tsipras' party. Back in 2012, various leftist and reformist forces in Greece, including SYRIZA, exercised immense pressure to the KKE, in an effort to extort its collaboration with a future “left government.” Both bourgeois and opportunist media attacked the KKE for its refusal to join a “left” political alliance under SYRIZA.
Looking back, the four years of SYRIZA were a disaster for the Greek people. As the Mottas quote below reminds us, SYRIZA and its right-wing populist allies brought:
- Full implementation of all the anti-people, anti-worker measures of the previous austerity memorandums (2010-2014) signed by the governments of PASOK [social democrats] and ND [conservatives], which include immense cuts in salaries and destruction of labour rights.
- Unprecedented tax enforcement against the working class and popular strata, including increase in VAT [value-added tax] and dozens of increases in “special” taxes. At the same time, numerous tax evasion laws in favor of the big capital remained intact.
- Cuts in pensions and retirement age limits, decrease of lump-sum allowances, while through the so-called “Katrougalos law” a whole category of insurance contributions was imposed.
- The tax enforcement on one hand and the continuous reductions in pensions and social benefits on the other, led to monstrous primary surpluses. These surpluses in state budget have been a result of extreme austerity imposed on the working people. From the budget's 55 billion euros, only 800 million euros are being used by the government as part of a supposed “social policy.”
- Implementation of every project that benefits the big capital, from the destructive gold mining in Chalkidiki and the conversion of Attica into a field of profit-making large businesses (casinos, Elliniko redevelopment, etc) to the privatization of the country's airports, major ports (e.g. Piraeus, Thessaloniki), of the Public Power Corporation (DEI), etc.
In addition, the SYRIZA-ANEL coalition collaborated closely with US-NATO imperialist ventures, including in Syria. Instead of offering an escape from the austere, repressive, capital-friendly policies of PASOK and New Democracy, SYRIZA-ANEL entrenched, even expanded those policies. In short, SYRIZA betrayed the Greek people who supported politicians proving to be sell-outs rather than liberators. For those in the international center-left and left who invested heavily in what they believed to be a rebirth of progressive militancy, SYRIZA proved to be an embarrassment.
For Mottos, the lesson of SYRIZA is transparent:
The four years of SYRIZA governance has destroyed any illusions. The perception that a bourgeois government can exercise a pro-people, pro-workers policy within the limits of the capitalist system has been totally bankrupted. A major lesson that comes out of the SYRIZA experience is that the rotten exploitative system cannot be managed or reformed in favor of the workers' interests.
And yet much of the left-- both the “respectable” and the radical left-- continues to cling to the hope that a reformist political formation can steer the capitalist ship in a more humane, more just direction. Many still believe that the institutions so thoroughly and solidly constructed by capital to promote its interests can be used to serve working people.
Certainly some worthy, but contingent concessions have been won against capital in moments of severe stress on the system-- wars, economic crisis, mass upheaval-- but they were made only to shield the capitalist system from even more drastic outcomes: revolution or breakdown. It is precisely in those moments that the Leninist left sees the opportunity to advance beyond capitalist reforms and overthrow capitalism.
And that underscores the difference between Communists and revolutionary socialists and their social democratic rivals: Communists never surrender their maximum program of overturning capitalism while consistently supporting any and all reforms that challenge capital’s authority or erode its economic dominance. The most radical Social Democrats, on the other hand, see reforms and the fight for reforms as intrinsic, incremental steps on the road to socialism. Consequently, they are prepared to compromise with, to accommodate capital in order to secure even minimal steps toward reforms-- collecting the crumbs does not make a cake!
For example, despite popular disgust with the profit-anchored US healthcare system, Democratic leaders, time after time, dilute healthcare legislation to appease capital and avoid political struggle. It is painful to watch them retreat before the battle is joined. They refuse to fight for what is necessary, instead settling for what they believe is possible.
In countries like the UK or the US, where social democracy is experiencing a rebirth in parties that have for decades mutated into capitalist instruments, into corporate clients, Communists can be the most principled fighters against the predictable ruling class assault mounted against these leftward trends. At the same time, they cannot get caught in the trap of legitimizing social democratic ideology, of endorsing the social democratic ‘road’ to socialism.
The rise of so-called ‘Democratic Socialism’ in the US-- personified by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-- signals the profound political crisis of the US two-party system. And the success of Trump was as much a failure of the corporate-dominated, market fundamentalist Democratic Party to address that crisis.
But the renegade social democratic trend emerging in the Democratic Party is likely more a face lift than a new soul. There is little reason to believe that the Democratic Party leadership will allow real change beyond rousing its liberal-minded base. Pelosi, Schumer, and the rest are charged with and determined to arrest or compromise that trend as illustrated by their dismissal of the “Green New Deal.”
Nonetheless, the popular rise of soft-left alternatives marks a welcome trend, possibly foretelling opportunity for even more leftward options. Ocasio-Cortez frequently punctures the smug facade of the corporate-dominated political establishment; Ilhan Omar has challenged the unrestrained political bullying of AIPAC; and Tulsi Gabbard has boldly critiqued the imperial foreign policy consensus. But all three have been hammered swiftly by the media and their party’s mainstream. What conclusion can be drawn about the prospects for reforming the Democratic Party? For pursuing these goals within the Democratic Party?
The history of the post-World War II era demonstrates the bankruptcy of the social democracy that Motta references. Social democracy has taken the working class no closer to socialism. The reforms won have as quickly been eroded. Since 1980, North Atlantic social democracy has shamefully devolved into conservative-lite, embracing an emaciated state, the rule of the market, a minimal safety net, and ruthless competition. In Europe, social democracy has collapsed-- rejected by the people or betrayed by its leadership-- with the last ruling Party (Spain’s socialists) hanging onto power by a slender thread.
As Motto does, we should draw lessons from this collapse and not pray for the social democratic resurrection as do influential thinkers like Thomas Piketty, Yanis Varoufakis, and their ilk.
With the collapse of social democracy and the ugly rise of bogus populist nationalism, the only credible road of promise for the working class is revolutionary socialism.