Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 18, 2015

Socialist revolution in Greece–easier said than done

Filed under: Greece — louisproyect @ 8:20 pm

As bad as Alex Callinicos’s analysis of Greece has been, at least you can give him credit for not issuing the kind of calls for socialist revolution that landed in my inbox last Wednesday, courtesy of Alan Woods’s “In Defense of Marxism” (IDOM) website. Woods and company are “old school” Trotskyists who have perfected the art of outflanking “fakers” like Syriza from the left even though—to their credit—they have had remarkable patience with the Chavistas in Venezuela. In an article titled “Greece: Neither ‘honourable compromise’ nor ‘accidental rupture’ – the only way forward is a Socialist policy – part one”, Stamatis Karagiannopoulos, a member of the “Communist Tendency” in Syriza, makes the case for socialist revolution:

Comrades of the SYRIZA leadership are accustomed to deriding the Communist Tendency’s patient defence of an anticapitalist-socialist programme with their metaphysical aphorism that: “this isn’t the time for socialism”. We – the communists – respond in this way: “life itself indicates exactly the opposite to what you claim! Never has capitalism been so incapable of satisfying even the most basic of human needs, and never has socialism been so necessary to satisfy those needs”! The fact that the voice of SYRIZA’s communists is incomparably weaker than those of the leadership’s ‘celebrity’ ministers does not mean that our positions, perspectives, and warnings are incorrect. On the contrary, these are the only positions that are based on a realistic evaluation of reality and of the prospects of a system doomed to go from crisis to crisis.

Well, who can argue against positions that are based on a “realistic evaluation of reality”?

At the risk of defying reality, I think it would be worthwhile to think about what it would mean to “build socialism” in Greece. In fact, there’s very little engagement with that question in the IDOM website. Mostly there are calls for radical action such as the following: “Rather than requesting a European debt conference with bourgeois governments we should hold directly in Greece an international conference of the mass organisations of the working class and of the youth against capitalism!” (The comrades are fond of the exclamation point.)

There’s a bit of a disconnect here. If you wash your hands of the “bourgeois governments”, how exactly are “the mass organisations of the working class and of the youth against capitalism” supposed to come up with the dough to keep Greece functioning? In 1960 it was one thing for Cuba to kick out the Western corporations when the USSR existed. It is another thing, however, when the USSR no longer exists and Putin—despite his anti-imperialist bluster—is in no position to support Greece.

Maybe I am a bit more hesitant to take calls for socialist revolution in Greece seriously since I saw what happened in Nicaragua in the late 80s when the USSR still existed but was getting ready to close shop. Forced to rely on its own devices, the FSLN could not survive. Years later, there would be a new upswing of radicalism in Latin America but the left would be careful not to break with capitalism after the fashion of the Cuban model. Leaving aside Venezuela’s future prospects, I have never heard it described as socialist.

It would be useful to review what classical Marxism had to say about socialist revolution especially in light of the problems encountered in peripheral societies like Vietnam, Cuba, and China et al.

Karl Marx’s emphasis was on advanced capitalist countries like Britain, Germany and France. So was Engels. In an 1847 article, he answered the rhetorical question “Will it be possible for this revolution to take place in one country alone?” His answer:

No. By creating the world market, big industry has already brought all the peoples of the Earth, and especially the civilized peoples, into such close relation with one another that none is independent of what happens to the others.

Further, it has co-ordinated the social development of the civilized countries to such an extent that, in all of them, bourgeoisie and proletariat have become the decisive classes, and the struggle between them the great struggle of the day. It follows that the communist revolution will not merely be a national phenomenon but must take place simultaneously in all civilized countries – that is to say, at least in England, America, France, and Germany.

But towards the end of his life Karl Marx seemed to reverse himself when he began looking closely at Russia since it was home to rural communes that could have served as the foundations for a communist society—at least based on the letters to Zasulich. However, it should never be forgotten that he saw Russia in terms of a peasant revolution that could only succeed in partnership with the West as this preface to the Second Russian Edition of the Communist Manifesto should make clear: “If the Russian revolution becomes the signal for proletarian revolution in the West, then Russia’s peasant communal land-ownership may serve as the point of departure for a communist development.”

You’ll notice the if-then formulation. This was pretty much the outlook of Russian Marxists as well, including Lenin. Many people on the left believe that Lenin was for a socialist revolution from the get-go and not just a bourgeois revolution that aimed for radical land reform and democratic rights—the sort of thing we associate with France in 1789. I was never convinced of this. There were just too many formulations such as this that was contained in the March-April 1905 article “A Revolution of the 1789 or the 1848 Type?” (emphases in the original):

Only history, of course, can weigh these pros and cons in the balances. Our task as Social-Democrats is to drive the bourgeois revolution onward as far as it will go, without ever losing sight of our main task—the independent organisation of the proletariat.

Or “Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution“:

Marxists are absolutely convinced of the bourgeois character of the Russian revolution. What does this mean? It means that the democratic reforms in the political system and the social and economic reforms, which have become a necessity for Russia, do not in themselves imply the undermining of capitalism, the undermining of bourgeois rule; on the contrary, they will, for the first time, really clear the ground for a wide and rapid, European, and not Asiatic, development of capitalism; they will, for the first time, make it possible for the bourgeoisie to rule as a class.

Leaving aside the question of whether Lenin abandoned this outlook in 1917, there is little doubt that following Marx’s if-then, Lenin saw the USSR’s survival as utterly dependent on the success of Communist Parties in Western Europe.  In a “Speech on the International Situation” delivered to the 1918 Congress of Soviets, Lenin said, “The complete victory of the socialist revolution in one country alone is inconceivable and demands the most active cooperation of at least several advanced countries, which do not include Russia.”

Despite the differences he had with Lenin on the character of the approaching revolution in Russia, Trotsky was in accord with the reliance on more developed nations. In “Results and Prospects”, written in 1906, he stated: “But how far can the socialist policy of the working class be applied in the economic conditions of Russia? We can say one thing with certainty–that it will come up against obstacles much sooner than it will stumble over the technical backwardness of the country. Without the direct State support of the European proletariat the working class of Russia cannot remain in power and convert its temporary domination into a lasting socialistic dictatorship.”

Keeping in mind that Russia was richly endowed with oil, timber, coal, iron ore, fertile soil, and a powerful army that had defeated the imperialist invaders, Lenin continued to worry about the USSR’s future without that help. In “Better Fewer, But Better”, written in 1923 a year before his death, he wrote that “It is not easy for us, however, to keep going until the socialist revolution is victorious in more developed countries…”

Stalin of course decided that it was possible to build socialism in the USSR even if it took subordinating the CP’s to the foreign policy exigencies of the Kremlin. History teaches us that the results were inimical to socialism in the long run. Despite the lessons of failure in the USSR and repeated retreats in the Third World, the comrades in Alan Woods’s Fourth International invite the Greeks to go full steam ahead.

Before Alexis Tsipras took office, I wrote the following:

Of course the real question is whether Syriza can deliver such reforms given the relationship of forces that exist. Germany, its main adversary, has a population of 80 million and a GDP of nearly 4 trillion dollars. Greece, by comparison, has a population of 11 million and a GDP of 242 billion dollars, just a bit more than Volkswagen’s revenues. Given this relationship of forces, it will be a struggle to achieve the aforementioned reforms. To make them possible, it will be necessary for the workers and poor of Greece to demonstrate to Europe that they will go all the way to win them. It will also be necessary for people across Europe to demonstrate their solidarity with Greece so as to put maximum pressure on Germany and its shitty confederates like François Hollande to back off. But if your main goal in politics is to lecture the Greeks about the need for workers councils, armed struggle and all the rest, you obviously have no need to waste your time on such measly reforms.

In my view, the best thing the left can do is to organize demonstrations of solidarity with Syriza—not write the sort of junk that appears in the British SWP and IDOM press. Yes, we know that they are weak-tea social democrats and that the Greeks deserve fearless leaders like Alex Callinicos and Alan Woods who will never retreat an inch. But for those on the left still moored to the “realistic evaluation of reality” alluded to above, my strongest recommendation is to hound the filthy bankers who are trying to make the Greeks cry uncle just as Reagan did to the Nicaraguans. There were those on the left who were all to anxious to point out the FSLN’s shortcomings in 1989 but I was content to do what I had been doing for three years—raising money and volunteers to keep a revolutionary experiment alive. With all proportions guarded, this is the way we should look at Greece in 2015.


  1. Unfortunately many of these revolutionaries have no plan other than vague criticism from the left. Many are idealists unprepared for power and systemic organizing – and this is especially true in these times were most of the left is composed of journalists, economists, and other fields in the humanities and social sciences. They could tell you what happened to a small town in Romania in 1919, but wouldn’t know how to organize a simple protest. At the very least the union movement had the threat of workers already responsible for running the factories being able to run them. The current parties of today, with no union movement, would have no plan to run large enterprises. So they argue for revolution, but don’t care for the details of structure after the revolution. They leave success up to pure chance that they will be able to sustain and make progress in economic production, which can fail and foment a strong counterrevolution and destroy the left. You show the precedent for a lonely revolution Louis, and there is also historical precedent for not being able to organize production after social upheavals. Here is Lenin at the 11th Congress of the RCP in 1922, discussing the need for the NEP:

    The capitalist was able to supply things. He did it inefficiently, charged exorbitant prices, insulted and robbed us. The ordinary workers and peasants, who do not argue about communism because they do not know what it is, are well aware of this.

    “But the capitalists were, after all, able to supply things—are you? You are not able to do it.” … “As people you are splendid, but you cannot cope with the economic task you have undertaken.” This is the simple and withering criticism which the peasantry—and through the peasantry, some sections of workers—leveled at the Communist Party last year. That is why in the NEP question, this old point acquires such significance.

    We need a real test. The capitalists are operating along side us. They are operating like robbers; they make profit; but they know how to do things. But you—you are trying to do it in a new way: you make no profit, your principles are communist, your ideals are splendid; … But can you get things done?…

    We Communists have received numerous deferments, and more credit has been allowed us than any other government has ever been given. Of course, we Communists helped to get rid of the capitalists and landowners. The peasants appreciate this and have given us an extension of time, longer credit, but only for a certain period. After that comes the test: can you run the economy as well as the others? The old capitalist can; you cannot.

    That is the first lesson, the first main part of the political report of the Central Committee. We cannot run the economy. This has been proved in the past year.

    Will these revolutionaries be able to sustain production? If there is capital flight, what will they do to create or maintain jobs? As you say Louis, if there is no large line of credit, what will they do to fund their initiatives? If in the midst of the hard times Greece will inevitably face, what will they do in the face of protests? These are hard questions to answer, and I have a feeling they will be confronted by SYRIZA. These are questions the folks at IDOM certainly won’t be able to answer with anything concrete. For example, given the chance of capital flight? Build worker councils and cooperatives they may say. Then you ask them how. That’s where the easy responses end.

    Comment by Romeo — May 18, 2015 @ 10:52 pm

  2. Seems not just the British SWP and the Woods group: http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/2de54280-fd78-11e4-9e96-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3aXLWT3OX

    Comment by David Walters — May 18, 2015 @ 11:45 pm

  3. Grexit = socialist revolution? Gosh, you learn something new every day.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 19, 2015 @ 1:13 am

  4. A great post, particularly in regard to how you have excavated the Leninist, pre-Stalinist history of the Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin’s belief that the success of the revolution would be dependent upon subsequent success in the more developed countries, especially Germany. Sadly, the German revolution failed, with serious consequences for the world.

    Syriza is struggling under difficult circumstances, and, as you suggest, eventual success will require a movement to the left elsewhere in the EU. That might take awhile.

    Comment by Richard Estes — May 19, 2015 @ 2:49 am

  5. No, Lenin didn’t “abandon this outlook” in 1917 – because it wasn’t his.
    Had you quoted the passage accurately, it would be clear that Lenin was paraphrasing the position of the leading Menshevik Martynov, a well-known supporter of “economism” and “New” Iskra.

    Lenin didn’t propose that the working class should take a back-seat while the Russian bourgeoisie led a revolution – it was far too weak. He argued that the working class should ally with the radical peasantry to push the revolution to its limit.

    Not that the 1905 debate on tactics in Russia is directly relevant to the situation in Greece today.
    However, solidarity with Greece against the Troika can’t be based on papering over the political differences within Syriza (of which the IMT are members, unlike the supporters of Callinicos)

    Comment by prianikoff — May 19, 2015 @ 7:38 am

  6. Thanks for the correction but my overall point remains correct, namely that Lenin viewed the coming revolution as bourgeois-democratic in character. He thought that the by pushing it to the limits, it would allow the workers to organize their movement for the next stage–the conquest of power. If people want to check this for themselves, all they need to do is go to MIA and find a reference to “socialist revolution” in the 1905 period. There are none except to scoff at the idea that he regarded as Narodnik folly.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 19, 2015 @ 12:33 pm

  7. […] – Louis Proyect: “Socialist revolution in Greece–easier said than done” […]

    Pingback by The Roundup for May 19th, 2015 | AnnaMarieValentine — May 19, 2015 @ 11:46 pm

  8. Unlike the Mensheviks, Lenin believed that the Social Democratic party could and should win power in Russia. In support of this position, he invoked the authority of Karl Kautsky:-

    “Kautsky shows that in the course of the revolution it is quite possible that victory will fall to the lot of the Social-Democratic Party, and that that Party must inspire its adherents with confidence in victory. Kautsky’s conclusions completely confound the Menshevik fear of a Social-Democratic victory in the present revolution.”

    (VI Lenin – Preface to the Russian Translation of K. Kautsky’s Pamphlet: The Driving Forces and Prospects of the Russian Revolution 1906)

    Whether it immediately moved to socialist measures was a question of tactics (this was the point on which Lenin disagreed with Trotsky before 1917)

    However, Lenin was clear that :-
    “The task confronting the proletariat of Russia is the consummation of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia in order to kindle the socialist revolution in Europe.”

    (VI Lenin Sotsial-Demokrat No. 47, October 13, 1915)

    Furthermore, he warned:-

    “To attempt to raise an artificial Chinese Wall between the first and second [the ‘democratic’ and the ‘socialist’] , to separate them by anything else than the degree of preparedness of the proletariat and the degree of its unity with the poor peasants, means monstrously to distort Marxism, to vulgarize it, to substitute liberalism in its place. It means smuggling in a reactionary defence of the bourgeoisie against the socialist proletariat by means of quasi-scientific references to the progressive character of the bourgeoisie as compared with medievalism.”

    VI Lenin
    “The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, 1918, 4th edition, XXVIII, 276. Selected Works, English edition, VII, pp.190 and 191.”

    Note that there is no mention of “stages”.
    The same government (a Social Democratic government, or coalition between Social Democrats and the radical petit bourgeoisie ) would implement two *tactics* to arrive at Socialism.

    (The full articles referenced above flesh out these positions in more detail)

    Comment by prianikoff — May 21, 2015 @ 8:19 am

  9. However, Lenin was clear that :-
    “The task confronting the proletariat of Russia is the consummation of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia in order to kindle the socialist revolution in Europe.”

    Don’t you realize that this citation bolsters my analysis rather than yours?

    Comment by louisproyect — May 21, 2015 @ 12:33 pm

  10. Lenin’s views at this time are often contradictory and contain a number of “algebraic” elements – for example, how long would be the interval between a successful democratic revolution and a subsequent socialist one? What exactly would be the nature of the proletarian-peasant bloc that would lead it? (Trotsky’s views are far more consistent.) Sometimes he can be read as leaning in one direction sometimes in another. But in his most developed discussion of the issues he is absolutely clear about the social character of the revolution, and leans very heavily towards a “stagist” conception:
    “Marxists are absolutely convinced of the bourgeois character of the Russian revolution. What does this mean? It means that the democratic reforms in the political system and the social and economic reforms, which have become a necessity for Russia, do not in themselves imply the undermining of capitalism, the undermining of bourgeois rule; on the contrary, they will, for the first time, really clear the ground for a wide and rapid, European, and not Asiatic, development of capitalism; they will, for the first time, make it possible for the bourgeoisie to rule as a class” (my emphasis): Two tactics, s.6. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1905/tactics/ch06.htm
    This debate may have a rather tenuous relationship to the current Greek situation, but I think it does contain the kernel of one important point – that social and political transformations carried out within one type of social formation can be the foundation for the transition to another.

    Comment by magpie68 — May 21, 2015 @ 2:23 pm

  11. I think the problem with Louis’ argument here is that he is confusing political realism with political incompetence. Clearly a “socialist revolution” (however you might define that term) is not on the agenda in Greece. But that does not alter the fact that Syriza has botched this whole process. They seem to have come in to office with the assumption that they could just wave their mandate in the face of the Troika and it would roll over. To have any chance of successful bargaining they needed both a coherent Plan A and a credible Plan B – which in this case meant serious preparations for an exit of the Euro (even if that was not their preferred outcome). In fact they had neither. It was obvious that Greece would face capital flight as soon as Syriza took office, but there was no plan to implement exchange controls. They also needed to not just celebrate their mandate but mobilise it. Instead all they can come up with is the weak reed of a referendum. Romeo asks how do you organise workers councils – surely to do it by inviting workers to elect councils. Of course you have to give them something to do – but is that really so difficult to do in the current context? For the clearest thinking on these questions you need to turn to Costas Lapavistas, the left economist and MP who, interestingly, has not come through the Syriza system.

    Comment by magpie68 — May 21, 2015 @ 2:59 pm

  12. But that does not alter the fact that Syriza has botched this whole process.

    Has there been a radical government that has not “botched” things since the Paris Commune, especially those in peripheral or semi-peripheral nations? Even if Syriza had a fully developed Grexit plan kept in reserve, the results would have been a disaster. With the existing relationship of forces, “success” was an almost Quixotic prospect and it will always be as long as the imperialist powers have the advantage.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 21, 2015 @ 3:10 pm

  13. Sure Louis, but we had greater hope for Syriza. It had a mandate that was not only numerically large but was based on genuine popular enthusiasm which could have been turned into popular mobilisation. And it had very little credible internal opposition. It was also fairly clear that a Greek exit from the euro, given the other problems in the EU, was as much a liability for the other members as it was for Greece. But Syriza threw away its bargaining hand almost at the very start. Its clear it had no thought out strategy and was not ideologically prepared to even threaten radical solutions. Nothing is certain in this world, but something like the Lapavitsas approach could have turned out very different. You are never going to win anything if you don’t really try.

    Comment by magpie68 — May 21, 2015 @ 11:08 pm

  14. “To have any chance of successful bargaining they needed both a coherent Plan A and a credible Plan B – which in this case meant serious preparations for an exit of the Euro (even if that was not their preferred outcome).”

    It is not possible for Syriza to do this because the Greek populace does not support exiting the EU. Hence, the need to play through this convoluted process in the hope that the troika will provide concessions, or, if not, that the failure to do so will generate popular support for challenging the troika by threatening an exit, with support for an actual exit if necessary.

    Comment by Richard Estes — May 22, 2015 @ 4:08 am

  15. Richard – Greek public opinion on the EU seems to be contradictory. On the one hand most Greeks have a negative view of it, but still want to remain a member. Opinion on leaving the Eurozone (which is what is on the agenda in this discussion) is similar: there is massive opposition to the Troika and the bailout package (80-90%) but also a large majority who favour sticking with the Euro.

    This is clearly a situation which calls for political leadership and clear strategic thinking – which is precidely what Syriza has failed to provide.

    You say that Syriza has to go through the negotiations to “generate public support” – but they started the negotiations with a massive level of support. And the time to be “challenging the Troika by threatening an exit” was in the early stage of the negotiations when they still had the flexibility to mount a credible threat. Trying to do so now they are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy would be hopeless. The game is over in Greece, I fear, but it could have been otherwise.

    Comment by magpie68 — May 22, 2015 @ 12:02 pm

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