Monday, January 26, 2015

SYRIZA, KKE and the "Workers' Government" Slogan

Credit: Great Moments in Leftism. Reproduced with permission.

The challenge in writing about Greek politics for an Anglophone audience is explaining all the parties, groupings, maneuverings, cliques, vendettas, and outsized personalities in understandable terms, sacrificing just enough nuance for someone who can't read all the original speeches and policy statements in the original language, let alone discern the cultural signaling taking place underneath the surface meaning of the words spoken, to be able to discern the broad outlines of who is who and who stands for what. Under ordinary circumstances no one who is neither Greek nor resident in Greece has any particular reason for knowing Greek, so on the rare occasion that something happens there of global import, it's on those of us who know the language and culture to explain the significance. As a U.S.-born Greek-American, I can just barely drag my way through written language and my grasp of the cultural nuances is unreliable, so I am glad that Theodora Oikonomides has already done the basics for me. There are some aspects of her presentation that I might quibble with, but I have no disagreement with her conclusion, and so will begin there.

I am incensed – INCENSED – that SYRIZA chose to go for a coalition with Independent Greeks instead of repeat elections. I believe that people like Panos Kammenos – the raving, racist lunatic who said last week that that “Buddhists, Jews and Muslims don’t pay taxes” – should never, ever be given positions of power. Furthermore, accepting people such as Kammenos in a left-led government is playing with fire because it gives public and political legitimacy to his xenophobic, racist, antisemitic, homophobic views and Greece doesn’t need more of that when it already has a neo-Nazi party as its third largest political force.

So everything I wrote above is not arguments I agree with. I can see the reasons why SYRIZA chose this alliance, and I can see why it was the only possible alliance, but I think that, in the long term, it will prove to be the wrong choice.

With Theodora having drawn such a comprehensive picture of the political scene, I want to focus on the aspect that is proving most perplexing to leftists abroad, the unbridgeable chasm between SYRIZA and the KKE, the Greek communist party. As it happens, this is the area where I have the most disagreements with Theodora's summary. She writes, "To KKE, SYRIZA is public enemy number one, because they are a left-wing party that supports parliamentary democracy and participation in the European Union and the Eurozone." There is an apparent omission here of SYRIZA's reversal of their past opposition to Greek membership in NATO. This has been the aspect of their disagreements with SYRIZA that KKE has, wisely, emphasized in their English-language communications drawn up with an eye to the international far left. It is possible for sincere leftists to have differences of opinion on the tactical or strategic role of parliamentarism in the struggle against capitalism. It is possible, rightly or wrongly, for leftists to believe that the EU and the Euro are faits accomplis, given structures of the capitalist order within which we can struggle for the interests of the working class. It is impossible to believe that a reversal of position on NATO, from opposition to support, is anything other than a capitulation to imperialism.

So if, in the argument between SYRIZA and KKE, one wishes to judge things on the basis of judgement usually employed in schoolyard spats, of "who started it," then in the court of international left opinion KKE would appear to have the upper hand over SYRIZA, who have plainly betrayed fundamental principles for the short-term advantages of not alienating pro-NATO Greeks, and not immediately picking a fight with the U.S. and allied imperialist powers. (In reality, there are not many pro-NATO Greeks. To the extent that anyone outside the former governing elite favors NATO membership, it is out of a paranoiac fear of the Turks.) If one's knowledge of Greek political history extends no further back than the day before yesterday, one could erroneously draw the conclusion that KKE is a paragon of revolutionary intransigence, holding true to internationalist principles. This is not the place to recite the litany of historic betrayals that would disprove that view.

Suffice to say that, for Greek activists who have been protesting austerity, the KKE is largely seen as an enemy. They use their extensive trade union organization to keep the section of the organized working-class that is under their influence separate from any mobilization that is not under exclusive party control. On the rare occasion that their contingents do intersect with others, it is to crack the heads of so-called "provocateurs" in de facto alliance with the riot police. But let's be fair: The only reason no one lobs similar accusations against SYRIZA is because its activists do not make as credible goons as the KKE's. Consider what Paul Mason, a British journalist who is broadly sympathetic to the party, wrote on the eve of the election:

Syriza is not a mass activist party. In 2011 I saw some of its people – some of whom are now senior politicians – station themselves, arms linked, in the middle of a vicious fight between the riot police and anarchists.

It was a visible symbol of what the party is good at: passive resistance and the moral high-ground (and messaging). (Five last-minute thoughts about the Greek election)

This is a political approach familiar the world over, that of the "peace police". There is a difference in style: SYRIZA links arms, while KKE cracks heads. But in substance both strive to serve as the last line of defense between the militants and the cops.

So it is safe to say that, having entrenched themselves into a parodically pugnacious sectarianism, KKE would have rejected any coalition offers from SYRIZA. It's just that the about-face on NATO gave them an excuse that would sound plausible to non-Greeks. When the KKE claims to stand for a "workers' government," it needs to be taken not just with a grain of salt, but a squeeze of lemon and plenty of olive oil and garlic. As with the most bitter of horta, that's the only way they're palatable. When they say "workers' government," they mean "government of us, and only us."

One possible way around this for SYRIZA could have been to act as though they took the KKE at their word, and issue a public statement address not just to their leaders, but to the party as a whole:

"OK, you guys, you say you're for a workers' government. Look now: We can have one, just you and us together. We don't trust any of these capitalist parties. They're all crooks and half of them are fascists. You and we have had our differences, but the workers want unity. Let's find a way to work together."

Of course the KKE would reject. Probably. Personally, I think if the Tsipras leadership of SYRIZA had the combination of socialist principle and tactical nous to pull off an approach like this, they'd be a very different sort of political leadership, e.g., the kind who wouldn't have sold out to NATO in advance. Perhaps in that case the KKE leadership might not feel so secure in their splendid isolation, and there might have been a greater chance of success. But suppose they did reject, the next step would be to tell KKE:

"OK, you guys, then I guess we'll just have to call a new election. And you've just shown who the obstacle to unity is. And we're going to campaign hard in every neighborhood or village where you got even a single vote, and that's what we're going to tell them, that the KKE was fine with handing the power back to the crooks and the fascists."

I suspect that, just as this first election spelled the near demise of PASOK as a parliamentary party, a second round under those circumstances would have spelled the end of KKE, and SYRIZA could very well have won an outright majority. Is there a chance that it would not have worked? Yes: Theodora's post lays out some very plausible reasons why. Politics is risk. But I agree with her that even defeat under those circumstances would have been better, less dangerous in the long run (and perhaps the not-so-long run) than handing a portfolio to a hard-right pigfucker like Kammenos.

There have been many variations on the "workers' government" slogan in the last hundred years, but "workers' and pigfuckers' government" is an innovation that deserves to die rapidly in practice, before anyone dares inscribe it into theory.


  1. so the right way for you would be :
    tacticals moves of SYRIZA that would demolish KKE, in the name of avoiding co-goverment with the pigfuckers. OK. But you are misssing one cruicial point.
    In the same time that, opposing NATO and EU is what seperates KKE and SYRIZA, it is what brings SYRIZA and pigfuckers together. Whos the pigfucker now?

    Even if in the past this position (against imperialist organizations) have been under consideration , things now are quite clear. either with them, or against them.
    Finally let me clarify something that would clear your thoughts...
    There cannot be a workers goverment within capitalism. if you accept capitalism and its turn out to become a pigfucker yes.syiza had no problem with independent greeks. They have some common strategic goals to achieve.

    1. Not quite, though I understand how you could have formed that impression. The post was addressed primarily to an international far left audience in which many people had the (false) impression that SYRIZA was somehow to the left of KKE. Before the election, this may have been due partly to KKE's sectarianism, and partly to the fact that some of the groups who had joined Synaspimos in forming SYRIZA came from a Trotskyist background. The coalition with ANEL should have killed that false impression, but already there are people insisting that SYRIZA is playing some kind of "long game" aiming at the destruction of capitalism. Opportunists always like to appeal to "tactics" to justify their worst crimes. The purpose of my post was to point out that, if one believed that SYRIZA were secret revolutionaries, there were tactical courses that they could have followed that would have been far more advantageous to them than the course they actually followed. I could have been more clear in my original post about this.

  2. Saying SYRIZA was an anti NATO and anti EU party, but changed views in the last 2 years is incorrect, thought to be fair they have a steady course towards the right wing. SYRIZA was the main Greek eurocommunist party for years and is produced by the 1991 split in KKE. Many high profile members of SYRIZA are former KKE leaders that changed views and supported eurocommunist positions in the wake of the collapse of USSR instead of the Comintern oriented Marxist Leninist that KKE has. That disagreement was the reason of the split back then. That being said they had supported a number of EU and NATO votings that KKE didn't since 1991 and never advocated about outright exiting them, rather than transforming them from the inside. Some left wingers (Left Platform) in SYRIZA made some eurospectic statements (if the EU didn't support SYRIZA then we must leave etc.) some time ago but respect the pro EU majority as of now. KKE in the other side has a steady change in its positions in the last 20 years since the 90s. They have abandoned the positions about making a government in capitalist territory and turned to preparing the factors about a socialist revolution. They have adopted an ever increasing militant style (having seperate demonstrations, closing ports, raising their banners in Acropolis in the well known photos etc.), that many people are sceptic to the chance of having massive support. So SYRIZA supporters accuse KKE as sectarists, not having a realistic alternative and helping the right wing with their actions and KKE supporters are accusing SYRIZA of becoming a social democratic party, selling themselves out for a chance in power, severing their remaining ties with the working class.
    In 2012, I was neutral in this left wing civil war and now I voted and support KKE without 2nd doubt seeing that SYRIZA is all they care about is tacticism in the political spectrum, while KKE is working in the unions everyday, but still tried to be as objective as possible. It is not easy nowadays since the 2 parties are in an all out war between each other and conversations between the supporters are quite... heated.
    Greetings from Greece, Dimitris.

    1. Greetings, Dimitri, and thank you for your perspective.

      Just to be clear, I never said that SYRIZA had ever been anti-EU. The pro-EU orientation of the majority and the current leadership have been clear from the start. My point is that, in the international far left, there are organizations, currents, and tendencies who believe that the EU is something that, if the working class just fights hard enough, can be made to work in the workers' interests, but who are nevertheless stoutly opposed to imperialism. I think they're wrong, but the argument is one that can be addressed with analysis. If there's anyone in the world who thinks that NATO is anything other than an imperialist instrument, they must be insane. So it's the adoption of pro-NATO planks at SYRIZA's July 2014 conference that should have made obvious to the international far left that we were dealing with some guys who, given the chance, would sell their mothers.

      Part of the problem, though, with KKE are some of the things that you praise them for, like separate demonstrations. As long as revolutionaries are the minority within the working class, their job is to win the allegiance of the majority away from pro-capitalist forces. Joint actions provide opportunities for that. Not just in demonstrations, but even in governing. There's another post that could be written about how KKE, by refusing from the start to even consider joining in a coalition with SYRIZA, let the Tsipras leadership off the hook and missed an opportunity to put them to the test and expose them. When a leadership that claims to be revolutionary tries so hard to seal their supporters off from the rest of the class, I tend to suspect that their primary aim is not revolution, but the preservation of their own bureaucratic apparatus.

  3. Well, it's not a fair political analysis, even though it does right in underlining the NATO factor. BTW it should be known to all radicals - and "radicals" - that the annual expenses of the Greek state budget on NATO obligations amounts to hundreds of millions of Euros - close to billion I think: even by bourgeois standards this is lots of money that could be saved, and after all back in the 70s the right wing government had left the military pillar of NATO.

    KKE has paved its way through blood and tears during those decades it exists in Greece. And it is the only party to boast for a massive popular armed insurrection after the WW2 and none other. Quite a few of those veterans are still around us. One should be twice careful when presenting this party's theses.

    Now it should be also known that SYRIZA power in trade unions is marginal (5-6%) in the public sector me thinks, while the commmunists are around 30%. Not one occasion of a sack of a syriza tradeunionist has been heard while it's dozens of communist ones.

    1. The importance of the KKE's bloc of support within the unions is indisputable. But unions are not the same as the working class, in any country. At a time when union representation is declining in Greece, I have to suspect that the sections of the class that are represented by unions tend to be in relatively "labor aristocratic" positions. (Emphasis on *relative*, of course.) Strength within the unions is an important indicator of the strategic importance of any left party, but so are support among the unemployed, among the youth who have never been employed, etc.