Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 14, 2014

Left Forum 2014 — Syriza panel

Filed under: Greece,Left Forum — louisproyect @ 4:15 pm

This is the sixth and final in a series of videos I made at the recently concluded Left Forum.

The question of Syriza is very fresh in my mind after seeing Alex Callinicos attack it in his prolix article “Thunder on the Left”.

More generally, evidence of a new form of left politics emerging has proved more apparent than real. The profound economic and social crisis in Greece and intense working class resistance to the austerity policies imposed by the troika of the European Commission, ECB, and International Monetary Fund allowed Syriza to skyrocket into the dominant position to the left of centre in Greek politics. After Syriza’s spectacular advances in the parliamentary elections of May and June 2012, there was much tut-tutting about my description of its politics as left reformist which, or so it was claimed, failed to acknowledge the extent to which Syriza represented a break with the old polarities of reform and revolution. In the subsequent two years, under Alexis Tsipras, Syriza has marched firmly onto the centre ground in order to project itself as a responsible party of government, in the process marginalising its left opposition. This shift is epitomised by Tsipras’s coming out after the European elections in favour of the shopworn centre-right architect of austerity Jean-Claude Juncker for president of the European commission: left reformism would look good by comparison.

Callinicos’s distinction between reform and revolution is based on an idealist conception of politics. By idealist, I don’t mean like the Boy Scout pledge of honor but in Plato’s Republic where people living in a cave only have an impression of reality rather than reality itself. As Socrates puts it:

And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: –Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.

The role of a philosopher-king in Plato’s Republic is to educate the unenlightened cave dweller about the realities beyond the cave. Thus, the role of Marxists is to educate the mass movement about the need for revolution. Callinicos (and his fellow Leninists) are a kind of priesthood that has achieved enlightenment. They go out among the cave dwellers to explain why a revolution is necessary. This involves pointing out the “historical lessons” of the 20th century in such a manner that the recitation on the Russian Revolution will cause the scales to fall from the listener’s eyes. In some ways, this is the same approach as the Jehovah’s Witnesses who have literature tables at major subway stations throughout New York.

I have an entirely different take on Syriza, similar to that of Peter Bratsis—the panelist who begins just after 33 minutes into the video. Like Bratsis, I view Syriza as a reformist party that will never be able to lead a revolution but there is no use in lecturing the masses about that. They don’t see the problem in terms of capitalism but in terms of austerity. They vote for Syriza because the party is opposed to austerity. If Syriza is elected and continues to support austerity, that will raise the question of the need to transform the economic system that imposes austerity no matter the party that is in power.

In “Left-Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder”, Lenin proposed that the Communists form an electoral bloc with the Labour Party led by Philip Snowden and Arthur Henderson. After WWI broke out, Ramsey MacDonald resigned in protest for its support for the war. Arthur Henderson, who joined Lloyd George’s War Cabinet, was his replacement. Has Alexis Tsipras been guilty of any crime more serious than this? People like Callinicos make a big deal out of Syriza sticking with the Euro as if the currency a nation is based on makes a real difference when it is dominated by imperialism. Greece’s problems do not revolve around the currency it uses but rather in its relationship to the rest of the world capitalist system.

Finally, the real issue facing the Greek left is how to unite people on a class basis against a ruling class that is tightly coupled to the German bourgeoisie. Syriza offers a framework for revolutionaries that will enable them to connect with millions of Greeks who have not yet achieved a revolutionary consciousness. Unlike the Greek Communist Party, Syriza is relatively open and transparent—a function of the “reformism” that Callinicos disdains. The alternative to the CP and Syriza is the tiny and inconsequential Antarsya that is united around the need for revolution but a “reformist” party that can begin to serve as a pole of attraction for revolutionaries. In the event that Syriza is elected and fails to carry out its mandate, it will be up to its left wing to push the agenda for overcoming austerity in the only way possible: overthrowing Greek capitalism.



  1. while it is true that the masses in Greece “don’t see the problem in terms of capitalism but in terms of austerity” it is also true that they do not see SYRIZA as a reformist (right reformist from my stand point, from which i have witnessed PASOK using a much more leftist rhetoric back in 1981) but rather as THE LEFT party in Greece.
    It is more than certain that “If Syriza is elected and continues to support austerity”,(and there is no doubt that it will do so) the masses will not raise any question “of the need to transform the economic system” but they will just equate the “left” as a whole, including all its wings, to SYRIZA’s double-cross. Then, any left alternative being banned by them, there will be nothing in the political spectrum for the masses to look forward but golden down…
    Whatever one may call it, the working class -and its vanguard as well- have not all the time long to eternity if they are supposed to advance their cause.

    Comment by John Aposperites — July 14, 2014 @ 9:03 pm

  2. Yeah. John is right. It’s like Stalinism all over again. If masses of people see the left as “new boss, same as the old boss” they’re more likely to get burnt out to politics altogether or turn right than to look for something even further left. The exception could be the people who prove their principles by calling Syriza (or Obama) out for what it is and what it will do in power in advance. Dispelling illusions, even (or especially) when they are popular. People who lose their illusions later on down the road might be more likely to remember those who were honest and correct and then come back to see what else they have to say.

    Comment by Steve D — July 15, 2014 @ 6:36 am

  3. […] Left Forum 2014 – Syriza panel […]

    Pingback by European elections update | Dear Kitty. Some blog — July 15, 2014 @ 9:29 am

  4. Unfortunately there’s no sound. (Same with the Lenin vid from the same event.)

    Louis, any chance of getting the content back?

    Comment by Jara Handala — August 6, 2014 @ 3:33 pm

  5. I just checked. There definitely is sound. You need to turn *up* your volume.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 6, 2014 @ 3:44 pm

  6. (not for public’n)

    Thanks for checking, Louis. My volume is up (& I have sound for other sites), so I presume it must be a quirk my end. (There’s no sound for me for any vid at vimeo.com as well.)

    Comment by Jara Handala — August 7, 2014 @ 2:47 pm

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