Syriza and Socialist Strategy- Debate video and transcript

Issue: 146

Alex Callinicos and Stathis Kouvelakis

The following is a video and transcript of a debate between Stathis Kouvelakis, Syriza central committee member, and Alex Callinicos, editor of International Socialism, Central London, 25 February 2015

Alex Callinicos opens

I want to start off by thanking Stathis for agreeing to have this debate. When we were discussing it he said this would be a good date to have that discussion because by then we’d have some idea of how the government was evolving and I think that’s even truer than the two of us thought at the time. And it’s reflected in the number of people who are here at this meeting.

And what this reflects is that the victory of Syriza in the Greek elections at the end of January was of course a historic victory for the left in Greece—to have a party that essentially comes out of the Communist movement, in a society where the Communist movement has been the lightning conductor for immense and violent struggles from the Second World War through to the civil war that followed the Second World War, the great struggles against the monarchy in the early 1960s, the military dictatorship that was imposed in the late 1960s, and the struggles that developed since then and of course coming right up to date, to have a movement like that come into government, in a west European bourgeois democracy is an immensely significant development in itself given the particular history of Greece.

But it’s a very significant event because throughout Europe we’re under the hammer of austerity. Whether or not we’re in the eurozone we know we’re suffering from austerity. In Britain we’re going into a general election where the difference between the main parties is over how much austerity there’s going to be. And therefore if Syriza were successful in breaking austerity in Greece—which was the basis on which it campaigned in the election—that could have enormous implications elsewhere in Europe, it could be a turning point in the class struggle not just in Greece and in Europe.

But it’s also an event—the victory of Syriza, because of its Marxist background, because of the involvement of Marxist theorists like Stathis in the leading body of Syriza—it’s an event of strategic significance as well, of theoretical significance. Daniel Bensaïd who was the leading French revolutionary Marxist, who was a friend of Stathis’s and indeed of mine, talked a few years ago about the “return of strategy”.1

In other words, we were beginning to face a situation in which the great strategic debates that Marxists had crucially in the 1910s and 1920s, but which revived after 1968 particularly in Europe, those kind of strategic debates, not just about reform and revolution but how you combine different forms of struggles, the different kinds of parties you build and so on, all those debates were returning. And we see that very sharply in the case of Greece.

And Stathis has played an important role in setting the development of Syriza in this broader context. That’s why it’s so good to debate with him. He’s written particularly a series of articles in Jacobin which have received very wide attention, and in particular there was a very important interview that he gave before the election, where he said that in what is happening in Greece “we see a confirmation of the attitude of Gramscian-Poulantzian option, of seizing power by elections, but combining that with social mobilisations, and breaking with the notion of a dual power as an insurrectionary attack on the state from the outside—the state has to seized from the inside and from the outside, from above and from below”.2

Now, personally I think in this context we should forget about Gramsci, the crucial reference point is Nicos Poulantzas. I mean, not forget about Gramsci in general, but in terms of this particular argument about strategy, because I think the key reference point is Nicos Poulantzas and particularly his writings of the late 1970s shortly before his death. 3

Now I want to come back to that strategy a bit later on, but the critical point is, what Poulantzas was articulating was a left wing version of the kind of Eurocommunism that was then very influential on the European left.

And in particular Poulantzas wanted to combine the struggle in parliament—winning elections—with the struggle outside parliament, the struggle in particular of workers, and the development of direct forms of democracy outside parliament. He wanted to combine those different methods of struggle in order to achieve democratic socialism—in order to achieve, in other words, a rupture with capitalism.

Now in approaching what’s happening in Greece now it’s very important to be clear, this may be the aim of people like Stathis on the left of Syriza, this is not the objective of the Syriza leadership.

There’s a now celebrated [speech] from a couple of years ago by Yanis Varoufakis, the current Greek finance minister, in which he sets forward very clearly the following aim: “it is we, the suitably erratic Marxists, who must try to save European capitalism from itself”. 4

That’s the objective that I think Varoufakis didn’t simply articulate in that blog, but which really reflects the strategy the Syriza government has been pursuing since the election.

It’s a perfectly coherent idea. It really goes back, as Varoufakis makes clear, to Keynes in the 1930s. Capitalism is facing a deep structural crisis whose source is an insufficiency of effective demand, in these circumstances austerity is precisely the wrong kind of policy to pursue from a capitalism point of view. Therefore the austerity policy being pursued by the leading forces in European capitalism is irrational. And it’s not surprising that leading self-proclaimed Keynesians like Paul Krugman have been very strongly supporting the kind of policy being pursued by the Syriza government.

So it makes sense, the strategy. There’s one slight problem with it. Which is that European capitalism shows absolutely no sign of wanting to be saved from itself. On the contrary, if we look at the policy of the eurogroup, what we have seen in the last week or so is the brutal reimposition of austerity using all the power at their command, in particular the vice hold that the European Central Bank has over the Greek banks—the Greek banks will collapse if the eurozone withdraws its support—to force the Syriza government essentially to return to the policies that had been imposed on the preceeding Greek governments.

Now the interesting thing here isn’t just to say these people are bastards and so on and so forth—of course they are—but to try and understand what they are doing, what are their motives.

I don’t think the key question is the debt. Any numerate economist will say that Greece will never repay the debt that it has accumulated. I think it’s rather what the maintenance of debt as a central issue allows the leading forces in the eurozone—and I want to particularly focus of course on the German government and the German ruling class—want to use the debt for.

The crucial issue—and this has become very clear in the last week or so—are the reforms that are a condition of the continuing bailout of Greece. Now let’s be clear, what we mean in this context by reforms aren’t real reforms that make people’s lives better and improve society. They’re the usual neoliberal package: flexible labour markets, privatisation, etc etc.

And there’s a very interesting quotation in the Financial Times last week from a senior German finance ministry official who said, “If we go deeper into the debt default debate, there will be no more reforms in Europe”. 5

In other words, if they concede to Greece then they won’t be able to hold the line generally—on the question of the debt, but behind the question of the debt on the question of forcing through more neoliberal reforms.

This is a coherent ruling class project which combines two things: what we’ve seen here, which is using the crisis which was precipitated by neoliberalism further to radicalise and entrench neoliberalism, but I think it’s also true that the German ruling class are very worried that their high export model, which increasingly is based on squeezing workers and squeezing wages, would be threatened if there were any relaxation of austerity.

And that’s why Schäuble the German finance minister didn’t set out simply to defeat Syriza but to make sure that Syriza were seen to be defeated. So while Varoufakis on Friday after the deal was made was saying oh well there’s “constructive ambiguity” and so on and so forth, Schäuble cut through the ambiguity. He said: “the Greeks will certainly have a difficult time to explain this to their voters”. 6

And what this reflects is something that Stathis and I agree on, which is what has happened in this week exposes the bankruptcy of the strategy of trying to end austerity by negotiating with the European institutions. That strategy isn’t going to work. That strategy has suffered a very severe defeat. And I want to come back to some of the practical implications of that when I finish.

But given that Stathis has a very powerful critique of what the Syriza government has done, I wanted to look a bit at his alternative strategy.

The Poulantzas strategy is a question of combining the struggle inside and outside the state. And what that presupposes is that the state itself is a relatively incoherent set of institutions that reflects in how it works the pressure of class struggle. And therefore if you develop a strong enough series of struggles both outside and inside the state, you can increase the incoherence of the state institutions and bring sections of the state onto the side of the workers’ movement, onto the side of the left that are fighting for transformation.

Now at the time Poulantzas was challenged about this strategy by a guy called Henri Weber who was a comrade of Bensaïd’s and one of the leading figures on the far left in 1968. He then turned into an awful reformist bastard, but what he said at the time was right. He said of course it’s true there are contradictions in the state, we need to organise workers employed by the state—as of course was happening on a massive scale at the time, with unionism spreading among teachers and civil servants and so on and so forth.

But, he said, “the core of the state apparatus will polarise to the right” in any great moment of crisis, and therefore there will have to be what he calls a “test of strength” with this core. 7

And that’s the basis of the revolutionary option, the option of dual power, in other words developing powerful mass struggles and organisations that can become the basis for an alternative form of state to the existing capitalist state.

And Weber also said something that I think has contemporary resonances. He says if we don’t understand this, “we risk finding ourselves in the classical situation of being defeated without a fight”. 8

And that’s what it feels like at the minute a bit. A serious defeat has taken place with the Brussels agreement last week, but without a real fight.

Now, what do we mean by the core of the state? Most obviously the good old repressive state apparatuses, the army, the police, the intelligence services, etc etc. In Greece, as in Turkey and Latin America, they call this the deep state. And the deep state is a very very ugly entity indeed. It’s an entity whose history goes back to those who collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War, those who were the monarchy’s royalist hit troops during the Civil War, those who did the dirty work for the monarchy and then the dictatorship in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and then who continued to have a hold in the state for today.

Part of the significance of Golden Dawn—and let’s remember Golden Dawn held up its vote in the election, Golden Dawn unfortunately wasn’t smashed electorally—part of the significance of Golden Dawn is its links with the deep state.

Now this is a crucial reason why I think it was a mistake for Syriza to form a coalition with Anel, with the Independent Greeks. Various people—including contributors to International Socialism—have made frankly embarrassing attempts to justify the coalition. At the time it was being discussed, Stathis was much clearer.
He said:

Their participation in the government, even with just one minister, would symbolise the end of the idea of an “anti-austerity government of the Left”.

Moreover, this is a party of the Right, one that is particularly concerned to protect the “hard core” of the state apparatus (it will be important to keep a watchful eye over whatever cabinet portfolio it might get). It will be no surprise if its first demands are for the ministry of defence or public order, though it seems that it will not get them. 9

Alas, Kammenos, the leader of the Independent Greeks, was appointed minister of defence. And the first thing he did was to fly a helicopter over an island that was disputed between Turkey and Greece, giving an indication of the kind of spirit in which he was going to play this role.

So I think this indicates the dangers—let’s not underestimate the scale and hostility of the forces that are deployed against Syriza. We’ve just had an intimation of this last week with what happened leading to the Brussels agreement. So I don’t want to dismiss the strength and ruthlessness of those forces, and the different kind of resources they can deploy.

But there’s a temptation in this situation, which I think Varoufakis very much embodies, that you think you can kind of “box clever”. In other words you can perform cunning manoeuvres that will put the enemy on the defensive and allow you to move towards success. I’m in favour of manoeuvres and trying to split the other side and that sort of thing, but I don’t think the coalition with Anel is a good example of that kind of cunning manoeuvre, to bring a kind of fifth column into the government, a fifth column linked to the historic Greek right and the deep state into the government itself.

Against all the forces that are deployed against Syriza, the only force it can really count on is the mobilisation and self organisation of the Greek masses.

And one of the reasons why Syriza’s election was so important was that the growth in its electoral support represents a political process in which very large sections of the working class and other oppressed sections of society in Greece have become much more articulately politically self-conscious. That’s what’s brought Syriza to the point at which it is, and it’s only through developing the strength, the self-organisation, the self-confidence of the masses that austerity can be defeated

But if we look at the history of governments of the left, there’s very often a tendency of that government to discourage independent mass mobilisation because it can limit its room for manoeuvre. The Syriza government now finds itself stuck in the same room as the bastards who imposed austerity in Greece. They’re not called the Troika any more, they’re called “the Institutions”, but it’s the same bastards and the same forces of capital behind them. The temptation to box clever can lead to manoeuvres to appease those institutions that involve holding back independent mass activity.

What we saw before the election in 2015 was a significant falling off in mass struggles, from I would say roughly early 2012 onwards, which I think reflected primarily people saying well, we need a political solution, just going on strike on its own won’t deliver that solution, so we should get Syriza into office and let’s see what happens. So there was an element of waiting for Tsipras.

I think now the responsibility of the radical left—whether they’re in Syriza or whether they’re independently organised, for example in Antarsya, the front of the anti-capitalist left—to promote the ability of workers and other oppressed and exploited groups in society to organise and act for themselves. And it’s also very important for the left to retain its own organised capacity for independent criticism and initiative.

So, it’s great that there’s all these people from the left of Syriza who are now ministers—like [Panagiotis] Lafazanis, the leader of the left in Syriza, who’s now got a very senior government job—but we’ve seen this here. Look at the experience of Tony Benn, when he had senior ministerial posts in the Labour government of 1974-79. He became a prisoner of that government, rather than what he had been when the government was elected, the political representative of the most militant sections of the working class.

Therefore it’s great to hear the left speaking out, for example when Manolis Glezos, the hero of the resistance, denounced the deal at the weekend. That’s really good. But there are all sorts of concrete questions that are now going to come up.

The Financial Times yesterday said “Syriza’s opposition to privatisation seems to have evaporated”. 10

Now is that true? Does that mean, for example, that the privatisation in Piraeus, which the government on its formation announced would be cancelled, will in fact go ahead? The FAZ [Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung], the German right wing newspaper, is gloating no more talk about raising the minimum wage and so on.

Are the reforms that Syriza promised in the election campaign and on becoming government going to be blocked or rolled back? And if there’s an attempt to do this, it’s critical what people like Lafazanis are going to do.

There’s been for the last few years an argument over whether it was better for the anti-capitalist left to be inside Syriza or organised independently through Antarsya (the Front of the Anti-capitalist Left), and Antarsya got a lot of flak for organising independently. Now is going to be the test, really, of those inside Syriza who stand for anti-capitalist politics—are they going to resist effectively the kind of retreat that has taken place?

Just one last point. Of course you can look at what’s happened and despair, and say this proves that Thatcher was right and that there is no alternative. But actually there is an alternative. It was spelt out very clearly by Antarsya, by the left of Syriza, by people like Stathis and our old friend Costas Lapavitsas who’s now an MP: break with the euro, nationalise the banks, capital controls—a whole series of measures backed up, I would say, by very strong appeals to the anti-austerity movement and the working class movement throughout Europe for solidarity.

Not simply was there an alternative, there still is an alternative. The important question is how to fight for that. And it requires an open and clear political fight for the alternative and against any retreat from the initial programme of the government, which falls well short of this more radical programme.

One of Stathis’s articles in Jacobin had the headline “Syriza’s magical equation”. Now probably it was someone in Jacobin who gave the article that title, because the reality is there are no magical equations. There’s just the logic of capital and the logic of the class struggle. And part of the duty of the left at a very important moment like this is to state that clearly, to point to the realities, and not simply to point to the realities but then to concentrate all its efforts, all its organisation—whatever party you may be in or even if you’re not in any party—to concentrate all its efforts on changing those realities.

Stathis Kouvelakis opens

Dear friends and comrades, many thanks. Many thanks to Alex for proposing this debate. Many thanks to the comrades of International Socialism journal for hosting it. I remember I think it was three years ago, Alex, we had a debate on the strategy of the left in the crisis, and we are continuing in the debate.

A lot has happened in those three years. These have been three extraordinary years. Usually we talk about the acceleration of time, we should talk about a kind of new temporality which has emerged as a consequence of this intensification of conflicts, of struggle, of political processes.

Let me make one preliminary statement. I am deeply worried about what’s going on in Greece. I think the whole project of Syriza and the perspective is in danger, and there are very serious risks of failure. And as you have probably understood, I share quite a lot of Alex’s concerns and criticisms.

However, what I want to emphasise is that any political project of that scale is a bet. There is no guarantee of success. We know there are very important risks. However it’s not a kind of zero sum game, as if the possibility of failure cancels that of success. I think that we have to think a bit more deeply about what success and failure mean in class struggle and in history.

And it seems to me that the trajectory of Syriza over these years changed in a way the criteria of success and failure in the current period. Of course Syriza might fail now. Of course this might all end badly and reproduce, to some extent at least, the negative experiences we have seen, even in the recent past, of leftwing forces in other European countries. However this possibility of failure has to be measured to the success it has already achieved.

The victory of 25 January is a historical victory and Alex gave a lot of elements about its historical importance. It is the first time in European history that a party of the radical left, coming from the Communist tradition wins elections in a country with a very rich history of popular struggles. And the shockwave sent in Europe, both in terms of hope but of fear of course for the dominant classes, can only be compared with what was felt in the 1970s, when big countries such as France and Italy seemed on the brink of deep social change.

This is why I think that the possibility of Syriza’s failure does not cancel its victory. And the proof is the debate we have today. Look at this room. We have been gathered here—and there have been comparable debates in other countries across Europe—and we are here to talk about Syriza. And I am sorry to say we are not here to talk about Antarsya.

So of course there is not only one, there are many tests ahead for Syriza, for the comrades of Antarsya and generally for the radical and anti-capitalist left in Greece. But there has already been a test that stands behind us and this is what I want to explore a bit more deeply. How did we get here at the stage where we are now? What type of initiatives brought Syriza to the position it is now? For which it allows us actually to judge what it is doing now in the most demanding and in the most severe way.

I will focus on four strategic initiatives carried out by Syriza which are a mixture of deliberate strategies and elaborations but also conclusions that can be drawn from the concrete experience, the kind of concepts or notions “in a practical state” as Althusser used to say. The common point of those four strategic initiatives is that they allowed the radical left to break with the subaltern position it found itself in after the historical defeat of the short 20th century with the collapse of the post-Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe and what seemed like a historical defeat for the very idea of revolutionary transformation of society and of overthrowing capitalism.

The first of these initiatives is about the party form itself, Syriza as a specific form of party. Syriza I think should be seen as the project of a process of recomposition of the radical Left.

It is, as you know, a pluralist organisation, bringing together most of the historical traditions of the 20th century radical left, but also movements and currents that appeared more recently from the 1990s onwards. It brings together Communists of various sorts and from various layers of the Communist movement, Trotskyists, movementists, Maoists and, to a limited extent, left wing social democrats. This means that Syriza is a heterogeneous party, which however succeeded gradually in finding a certain level of coherence.

And at this point I want to make a remark: If we are to judge about Syriza’s project—or indeed the project of any other serious party of the radical left—we cannot use instrumentally for example statements made by certain ministers in a certain situation, ministers who are not even members of Syriza. Up to two years ago, Varoufakis had no political relationship with Syriza whatsoever and therefore I do not consider that the kind of leap Alex suggested by linking in a single sentence Poulantzas and Varoufakis makes much sense. I think it’s a kind of extrapolation here; I think that Syriza has to be judged by its own standards, as it were, and to a very large extent this is what Alex himself did when, towards the end of his talk, he referred to Syriza’s own programmatic and strategic objectives.

Now, to come back to my point, this recomposition of the radical Left, has two versions. There is a defensive version, and an offensive one.

The defensive one is that to overcome a situation of defeat for what used to be a mass movement—and a relatively coherent and unified one actually despite its internal differentiations—you bring together all these pieces, from that unity comes the somehow strength. By overcoming this fragmentation, you have gained something, you get a kind of aggregate which is superior to what you had before.

But there is a deeper, more offensive and more profound version of the recomposition, which means working towards overcoming the very principal of that fragmentation, working towards a new unification, and the formation of a new type of anti-capitalist political culture, what Gramsci would say a new type of “common sense” for anti-capitalist movements in our century.

This means that all these various currents, all these various bits and pieces to which I refer to previously, should not be seen just as a patchwork, as a juxtaposition of different fragments of a culture. They have to communicate with each other, they have actually to enter into a mutually critical relationship. They have to understand that there is no single culture or no single reference among all these traditions that is self-sufficient and that can provide in itself—even if we think of it in an improved or “purer” version—the solution for the problem of social transformation of our time. These currents have to criticise each other and, of course, to explore new paths and new practices.

The cultures coming from the workers’ movement, the cultures coming from the so-called “new social movements”, that are not that “new” any more, and the various ideological and historical cultures coming from especially the heterodox, the creative and critical currents of the radical Left have to come into that kind of mutual discussion and explore the way to overcome differences that are inherited from the past and open up a new perspective.

Of course this is a project—I don’t mean that Syriza has achieved this unification. This has been so far an ongoing process. But I think that this process is the only way to overcome the trauma of defeat inherited to the Left by the 20th century. It is to understand that breaking with subalternity means to break with the partial and limited character of each one of its cultures and entering into a new trajectory.

And of course as I said I’m not suggesting that Syriza has completed this project. But this process has been sufficiently elaborated to allow Syriza to appear as a contender for governmental power as the bearer of a proper alternative—not as a complementary or a subaltern force, not as a component of a supposedly broader “centre-left” alliance of the type we have seen for instance in France and in Italy in the 1980s and 90s with the Communist Parties or communist forces of those countries becoming satellites and subaltern forces of coalitions dominated by a social democracy which itself has been converted to neoliberalism.

The second strategic initiative of Syriza has to do with the relation of the party to the movements. It refers to the capacity of an organised force to translate the dynamic of social mobilisations into a proper political project, into a political condensation of these movements that can challenge efficiently, effectively, the power of the dominant classes.

As you know, the rise of Syriza, the spectacular electoral success of a party which had 5 percent of the vote just a few years ago and now rules the country, cannot be understood without that whole cycle of powerful social mobilisations Greece experienced these last years.

This makes, I think, a qualitative difference between not just Syriza as a party but between the Greek situation as a whole, and a typical social-democratic sequence. This whole atmosphere of mobilisation, of tension, of polarisation, of violence even, has absolutely nothing to do with what we have seen when Pasok for instance came to power, nothing to do with what we have seen in France when Mitterrand, in 1981, or Jospin, in 1997, came to power to refer to some comparable examples.

There has been this accumulation of experiences and of struggles but this should not be understood as a linear process.

Yes, it’s fine comrades to talk about the thirty-two days of general strike. It’s indispensable to talk about the importance of the experience of the occupation of the squares, but we also have to think about the limitations and even the failures of these movements. Thirty-two days of general strikes, hundreds of thousands of people taking to streets, haven’t succeeded in withdrawing or defeating a single measure of those memoranda.

A political perspective was absolutely necessary, and it is the awareness of that necessity that prepared the ground for what is specifically political, for the moment of the political initiative, when Syriza seized the momentum of the situation, captured even the imagination of the people by providing a political translation that so far had been missing from the pre-existing situation.

This political translation was Syriza’s proposal of forming a unity government, a unitary government of the entire anti-austerity Left. This proposal was itself, as I said before, rooted in the dynamics of the social movements in which Syriza itself was immersed as a party, not only by participating in those movements but in a deeper way by understanding their novelty, their innovation.

And the reason it did so I think ultimately refers to the form of party, to the new party form I described before. There is something isomorphic between the capacity of translating politically the dynamics of social struggle and the possibility of translating the various cultures of political components into a single unitary project.

This political proposal of the unitary government of the Left changed dramatically the political agenda in the crucial electoral sequence of May and June 2012. And this explains the dynamic we could feel—physically, for those of us who were in Greece—of opening up something that has been—particularly in Greece where the word “Left” for historical reasons doesn’t refer to social democracy. As there was no Socialist Party in Greece in 1974, the sheer word “Left” by definition—in ordinary language, not in a polemical way—refers to something to the left of social-democracy, something related to the Communist tradition.

This proposal of a unitary government of the Left opened up the possibility of a discussion on the issue of political power. It allowed to overcome the “social illusion”, as our friend and comrade Daniel Bensaïd called it, that is the illusion of self-sufficiency of social movements. And indeed, as Alex already emphasised, it opened up the debate on strategy—once again for the first time in Europe since many decades.

The third strategic initiative of Syriza has to do with the programme.

As I said before, this proposal of a unitary government of the anti-austerity left was not simply about a Syriza government, or at least not initially. It was addressed to the other forces of the anti-capitalist left, more particularly to the KKE (Communist Party) and to Antarsya. It was turned down by both—not in the same way and not for the same reasons—but both paid a very high price for turning it down. The Communist Party lost between May and June 2012 nearly half of its electoral force and Antarsya lost three quarters of its electoral force in a single month.

This division of the radical Left—but particularly the extremely sectarian attitude of the KKE, which until the start of this period was the major, dominant, and still is perhaps the better organised force in the social movement and in the trade union movement in Greece—had devastating consequences in the balance of forces, but also in the type of political project and perspective Syriza tried to build.

I don’t think I’m the type of person who tries to shift the responsibility onto others. But I think that what is happening in Greece with Syriza is something that is the collective responsibility of the entire forces of the radical Left, not just of Syriza—without at any rate diminishing the responsibilities of Syriza, of its leadership and of its members and so on.

The programme on which this proposal was built was a version of what in our tradition is called “the programme of transition”, that is a set of transitional demands. Apparently it seems a “moderate” programme. But this supposedly moderate programme is actually, in the specific conjuncture, a programme which draws the relevant line of demarcation with the strategy of the ruling classes, around the main ideas of breaking with the memoranda, kicking out the Troika, breaking with austerity politics and liberating the country from the burden of the debt by re-establishing democratic and popular sovereignty.

I believe that big changes in history, big ruptures, don’t happen in the name of the long term goal, of the big ideas. They happen when seemingly modest demands, but corresponding to absolutely vital needs of society at that particular moment, cannot be satisfied without changing the whole social structure.

The Russian Revolution was not made for socialism. It was made for immediate peace, and for land. And Lenin was absolutely clear that when he was talking about workers’ control in 1917 he was not talking about the socialisation of the means of production. He was actually talking about more rights for workers inside the workplace. The Russian Revolution was not made in the name of socialism, however, it triggered the most important experiment of socialist revolution in human history.

Having the right “mass line”, to use a somewhat antiquated jargon, allowed Syriza to build the type of broad alliance that was absolutely necessary in order to capture somehow the liberation of social forces due to the political crisis in Greece and to build a new power alternative.

And now I come to the fourth initiative, to the question of power, the focus of every strategic thinking. Alex has summed up some aspects of that strategy. We may call it Gramscian or Poulantzian, whatever, we will have time I think during the discussion to come back to this set of problems. What I want to emphasise, however, is that the starting point of this strategy, is Gramsci, but also the late Lenin. It corresponds to the moment when the Communist movement starts on a revolutionary strategy that is specific to the “West”, where in the aftermath of the period of the First World War the revolution, or the revolution following the Russian model, didn’t happen. And this is the starting point of the whole strategy of Gramsci of the “war of position”: Why didn’t we have this Russian path available in the West?

At the centre of this strategy is, as you know, the relation between what Gramsci calls “civil society”—by which he means the broad network of organisations structuring collective life in advanced societies in his time. This is what it means by the “West”, and of course this notion has completely changed now. Latin America today is completely “in the West” in the Gramscian sense of the term, so it’s not a geographical denomination, neither a Eurocentric denomination, it has a social and political meaning.

So it is about rethinking the relation between “civil society”, understood in this way, and the “political” society which is the state in the strict sense of the term, the “superstructure”, and seeing that the masses are present in both terms, although unevenly. Their entire collective life is structured by the institutions and organisations of civil society, and their forms of political representation and action are structured by the state institutions.

At the heart of the state of course we have the “deep state” and the issue of the repressive state apparatus. However, the strategy of the war of position—reformulated by Poulantzas and by the Eurocommunist tradition as the “democratic road to socialism”—places at its centre the notion that in order to break their subalternity the working class and the popular classes have to appear as a leading force in society. And this means that they have to appear as a leading force in “civil society” and that they have to challenge “political society”. Because they are present in both in the various and multi-form networks of organisations and institutions that somehow materialise their autonomy, their political capacity, their capacity to lead society and to seize power.

It is a strategy of democratisation, not in the instrumental sense of considering bourgeois democracy as the most favourable terrain for socialism, but in a much deeper way, by understanding that what is democratic within bourgeois democracy has been the outcome of popular struggles. By understanding that the deeper sense of democracy means stimulating and enlarging the participation of the working class and of the popular classes in the collective life, in building a new historical bloc able to conquer and exercise political power.

The question of “dual power” therefore is transformed. It’s not an insurrectionary strategy, because elections do play a crucial role in the process leading to the conquest of power. They are a necessary step, but not by any means sufficient. The democratic road is not an electoral road, it is a road—and this is of course a big difference with say Kautsky and the gradualist character of this strategy—it doesn’t stick to this sort of division between the “economical” and the “political”, reducing the latter to parliamentary practices and electoral struggles. It is a combination of social mobilisations and struggles with the battle for winning electoral majorities, and the Greek experience actually provided the proper terrain for that kind of strategic hypothesis to be tested, and I think to that extent to be tested in a successful way.

But of course, there are also risks in this strategy. And those risks are quite well known.

The problems with which Gramsci dealt are a reformulation of problems that have been discussed by Marx and Engels themselves in the aftermath of the Paris Commune and, eventually, in the light of the experience of the Second International. Both Marx and Engels defended the possibility of winning elections as a way of accessing power, and they immediately added “we should have no illusions, the dominant classes will of course react to the advances of the socialist parties, they can even use counter-revolutionary violence, but we should in a way leave them with that initiative of breaking with legality and constitutional order”.

Marx used the metaphor of the “new slave-owners war”, with reference to the secession of the Confederate States of the American South, to characterise this counter-revolutionary violence aiming at overthrowing an elected socialist government and this is what we have seen for instance in Chile in 1973. 11

And this is of course the first risk. And this is the lesson of course of Chile which we can remember. And you know Greeks don’t need Chile to remember and to draw these lessons—they have their own experiences and Alex talked about that experience in a very vocal way.

Any revolution—and even any serious process of social change—that doesn’t defend itself consequently, and by any means necessary, should not be taken seriously. But it’s one thing to use violent means, including, if need be, armed popular militias, to defend an elected leftwing government against attempts of counter-revolutionary overthrow and quite another to think that you will seize power following the 1917 model. That’s the first point.

The second point has to do with the party itself. Let’s not tell ourselves stories. Syriza, and the whole Greek experience, have moved so far in the framework of representative institutions and of parliamentary democracy. The risk in these conditions for the party is that if it doesn’t transform the state it will be transformed by the state. And the state is not something neutral—it is a bourgeois state that reproduces very specific relations of domination and a very specific type of separations within social life.

We know by experience that this process of transformation by “statisation” of the political parties of the dominated classes can begin even before the conquest of power. And I do not pretend that Syriza has remained untouched by this. But I do think that Syriza as a party, as an organised force within Greek society, still includes in itself many valuable activists, members and cadres that can play a very crucial role in the popular struggles.

As a conclusion I now have to say something about the big “but”. These four strategic initiatives have been, I think, absolutely essential in order for the left to break with its position of subalternity inherited by the historical defeat of the 20th century and to appear as a serious candidate for reorganising the life of a society thus opening up a perspective of international importance.

But there is one strategic domain in which Syriza itself was, and remains subaltern, and this is of question the question of the strategy vis-à-vis the European Union and the European institutions. The starting point here is that the narrative of European integration has been the pillar of the ideological hegemony of the ruling classes in Europe these last decades.

And I think that Syriza’s belief—as with the rest of the parties of the radical left in Europe—in some kind of good version of the European Union, in the possibility of transforming those institutions from within is an illusion. And it is a way of actually reproducing that subalternity within the discourse of the radical left.

Syriza and more generally the radical left in order to counter this need to elaborate more than what is usually called a “Plan B”. The Plan B is of course is a very ambitious objective in itself because it involves a technical preparation but also, and most importantly perhaps, a political preparation. It involves a wide discussion in society, and this needs to be done immediately because if it is not done now it is certain that in four months, when these four months supposedly of “buying time” thanks to the 20 February agreement will be over, a new defeat and I think this time a final defeat somehow will come. But to provide an alternative needs more broadly to prepare a counter-narrative to the currently dominant one.

And this needs to carry symbolic power. We need to have in Europe a type of counter-narrative that the progressive and revolutionary forces in Latin America do have for their own continent, a project which is both national and valorises popular democratic sovereignty within the nations but also goes beyond that in order to build forms of regional integration and genuine forms of internationalism. Because needless to say that without internationalism there can be no viable perspective for any project of social transformation.

What is the condition to do this? I think that the condition to do this is first of all to be sincere, and not to be afraid of telling the truth.

What worries me even more than the retreat that has happened in the Eurogroup, is the fact that the Greek government and the leadership of Syriza or its majority at least presented it as almost a success. This is very serious. This in a way is more serious than the retreat itself because it prepares the ground for another and further defeat. Think about what could have happened to the Russian Revolution if Brest-Litovsk was presented as a victory. So we have to be honest about the fact that it has been a retreat.

We also have to be honest about the fact that this retreat is not a “betrayal”. It’s not about the well-known scenario “they have sold out”. We have seen that there was real confrontation. We have seen the amount of pressure, the blackmailing by the European Central Bank. We have seen that they want to bring the Syriza government to its knees. And they need to do that because it represents a real threat, not some kind of illusion of a reformist type. So the reality is that the representatives of the Greek government did the best they could. But they did it within the wrong framework and with the wrong strategy and, in this sense, the outcome couldn’t have been different.

In order to overcome that we need to be sincere, we need to tell the truth. And this is true not just for Syriza, this stands for the entire radical left. The truth is not some kind of authority. The truth is not something transcendent. The truth is a struggle. The truth is a fight. The truth is partisan. And in this struggle I think all of us we are together.

Stathis Kouvelakis responds to the debate

Many thanks to all those who contributed to this debate. I can’t probably answer everything but I’ll try to cover most points at least.

Let me start with Varoufakis. I know that there has been an enormous media attention for Varoufakis. He has really this flamboyant style and his dress code is remarkable and so on, all this fits a lot this kind of spectacle in the media. However what I want to emphasise is that you shouldn’t somehow extrapolate the strategy of Syriza from this or that statement by Varoufakis . Let me be a bit more concrete. What is at stake now is not what Varoufakis said in this text published in the Guardian which is the text of a conference he gave at the Festival for Subversive Ideas in Zagreb in 2013.

What is at stake now is the implantation of the so-called Thessaloniki programme of Syriza, that is of a set of very concrete measures which are perhaps modest in a certain way, because it’s not about socialism or socialisation of the means of production, but it is however a break with austerity in a radical way. This is precisely why the European Union has unleashed all that pressure, all that blackmailing, all that economic violence actually, to prevent those very measures from being implemented.

And what is also at stake now in Greece is the fact that these objectives of the Thessaloniki programme must become the objectives of social movements, of debates, of political processes within Syriza and outside Syriza to break the iron cage which has been imposed on the Greek government by the Troika.

Don’t misrepresent reality. The level of popular support now—of course this might change very quickly—in Greek society for the Syriza government is very high. It hasn’t diminished actually compared to what it was before the conclusion of the agreement. But why? This has to be interpreted in a very precise way.

People support the government because the perception they have is that they couldn’t act otherwise in that very specific situation. They don’t see that at all as an act of betrayal, or the fact that they actually wanted this and now reveal their true face of dirty reformists who have sold out everything have broken the deals. No. They really see that the balance of forces was extremely uneven.

And what we have to work on is the fact that what happened is very bad and it happened that way because the strategic approach itself is wrong, and that a strategic alternative is possible.

And this entails of course the possibility of breaking with the eurozone, of using that at the very least as a threat. Because you don’t have another weapon, even within the framework of the negotiation. As the weak part you don’t have another weapon than this. This is the only one, and a lot of people who are not from the ranks of the radical left have emphasised that very concretely.

But this will be a very hard and very tough battle. And this battle has to be considered as a battle as I said of the entire radical left.

Comrades, the type of ultra-leftist propagandist discourse treating Syriza as the kind of enemy is completely irrelevant, I am very sorry to say. This kind of propagandist verbalism, of rhetorically radical discourse has been tested in practice. The result is the balance of forces you see now in the radical Left.

And I am not using the electoral argument in itself. I have myself spent most of my life in relatively small parties and organisations of the radical Left. It doesn’t mean that because they were small they were wrong. But in this situation—when an entire society is turning upside down, where enormous masses somehow break their former political ties and explore new paths, when you have all these waves of mobilisations—not being able in that situation to play a role, to create an energy and a dynamic around you this is a very crucial test.

I am very sorry to say about the comrades in Antarsya but if after four years of that practice they still are at 0.66 percent this means something. This doesn’t mean that everything they say is wrong. This doesn’t mean that a large part of their criticism of Syriza, its leadership, their position on the euro, is wrong. But there is certainly, for that important political space, with thousands of combative and valuable activists, this means that probably they have done something wrong.

The last thing I want to say is about the importance of social movements. Kevin Ovenden argued that the strikes and the mobilisations may not have defeated the Memoranda but that they did build up working class consciousness and organisation. There is indeed a network of organisations, of popular organisations let’s say, but they are of a new type. Their basis is not at the level of the workplace—the trade union movement in Greece is in tatters, it has to be rebuilt, except in a certain number of healthy sectors, it has to be rebuilt from scratch actually. The networks we have are actually what we can call a type of “community organisations” and I think that Syriza and certain sections of Antarsya have been particularly effective in seeing somehow that possibility.

The crucial thing is that the political success, the electoral victory of Syriza, was absolutely necessary for the restart of mobilisations. We have seen that in February, from 5 February onwards, the day after the blackmail of the European Central Bank, with the big, spontaneous gathering, in the streets of Athens, with the squares being filled by people again—this time both to support the government and to put pressure on the government. And this is the type of line we should put forward actually for the perspective to come.

I don’t have time to answer all the questions. Democratising the economy, I think for the moment means actually breaking with the memorandum, breaking the iron cage, this is the start. The sheer fact of making the issue of the debt a major political issue, of waging a battle round this, is the first step towards regaining a political control from those processes that are the sheer violence of the financial capitalism we live in. So this is our first priority now, and this is the decisive frontline actually of the battle.

To conclude, yes, there is the danger of demoralisation. If we are not able to manage these very complex and very contradictory situations in which we are now, there is the very serious risk that indeed these months the right and the far right will reorganise and appear as forces contesting somehow this new attenuated version of austerity politics that Syriza will impose nolens volens because its hands are tied by the current agreement. It can be used, indeed it will provoke the demoralisation actually of the broader masses.

This is why we need to be inventive. The people who think that “the reformists will fail” and that somehow in the wings stands the revolutionary vanguard who is waiting to take over somehow and lead the masses to a victory are I think completely outside of reality. It is a completely irresponsible line. It is a line which has been strategically defeated. What we need actually is to build new ways for working together at all levels—in the workplaces, in the neighbourhoods, in movements, in debates of a strategic and political character—in order to win this absolutely decisive battle for the future of anticapitalist forces in Greece and in Europe.

Alex Callinicos responds

First of all I want to thank Stathis because this has been a debate, particularly thanks to him, that has been conducted at a very high theoretical level, and with the kind of seriousness that we need to approach these questions.

This isn’t a situation where point-scoring is useful, and when I quoted Varoufakis I wasn’t trying to assimilate him to Poulantzas. That wouldn’t be very kind to Poulantzas, let’s put it like that. But I was using him as an example, one articulation, of what it does seem to me is the Syriza leadership’s strategy, that we can end austerity by negotiating with the masters—and of course the mistress—of the eurozone. And it’s that illusion that has been exposed in recent days. That’s one point.

Second point. There’s a lot I agree with Stathis about. Syriza as it exists now, both in terms of its internal composition and of its mass support, is the product of a process of profound political radicalisation that has its roots well before the present crisis. We don’t have time to discuss it but I think it’s very important to understand that

I think it’s also true that Syriza has been partially successful in overcoming some of the fragmentation of the radical left in Greece, not totally—I mean the sectarianism of the Communist Party, which is a very serious mass working class party with a significant electoral base that actually grew and to some extent revived in the most recent elections, is a huge problem for anyone on the left in Greece—but we’re not in a position to criticise. I don’t think anyone on the British radical or Marxist left could say that we’d been terribly successful in recent years in achieving a high level of unity, rather the contrary, so we’re not in a position to throw stones at what Syriza has been able to achieve.

And it’s absolutely true that out of the struggles between 2010 and 2012 there was a need to shift from the social to the political. I don’t myself think that it’s just that 32 general strikes didn’t work. The problem is that when you have a crisis of that severity even 32 one-day general strikes aren’t enough. What was necessary was to move to a higher level of struggle in terms of open-ended general strikes which would have produced a significantly different dynamic.

Now, what happened was that the leadership of the Greek working class movement wasn’t willing to contemplate that, and the radical and revolutionary forces within the workers’ movement weren’t strong enough to impose that. I think it’s also true that—and we can discuss the reasons—a degree of lack of self-confidence among the rank and file workers to move to that higher level. But that was a possible alternative to what happened.

In any case the electoral road was followed. And there was a degree of inevitability about that. One of the significant things about electoral politics—and it counters all the nonsense about “anti-politics” and so on—is that particular elections can bring new layers of the masses into politics and into left politics in a new way. And I think that’s what we’re seeing, not just in Greece but in the Spanish state, we saw it in Scotland with the referendum and so on and so forth.

This is a lesson about not dismissing electoral politics. And at the general level that Stathis stated the Gramscian strategy, I agree with it. But—and there is a big “but”—you see, OK, if a revolutionary party in a broad and undefined sense can achieve legitimacy through election that’s fine, but where I absolutely disagree with Stathis is about leaving the initiative to the other side.

The other side will organise to destroy a real government of the left. We’re seeing that externally, but we’ll also see that develop—we’re seeing it with Schäuble and the Eurogroup—but we’ll see that dynamic developing internally if the forces of the right and the ruling class begin to smell a weakening and a retreat by Syriza. In those circumstances you don’t leave the initiative to the other side.

That’s the tragedy of Allende. You know, there’s a very interesting book about the international politics of the Chilean government. 12

The Cuban embassy actually kept on saying the right thing to Allende, which was: these bastards are coming to get you, you have to organise, you have to develop your side in the armed forces, you’ve got to arm the workers and so on and so forth. Allende refused to do it, because he wanted to preserve the constitutional illusion, and to try and divide the other side and win over the progressive elements of the army like Pinochet.

Now there’s no reason for history to repeat itself. But yes, Engels talked about the slave-owner rebellion—it wasn’t Abraham Lincoln’s most glorious moment that he let the slave-owners’ rebellion develop. They nearly captured Washington. And therefore a successful Gramscian strategy has to address the question of the state and its repressive core apparatuses.

In conclusion, I think it’s a mistake for people to talk as if Syriza has failed. This is just the opening phase of the struggle that’s taking place in Greece. Equally, I think it’s too early to say that the alternative project represented by Antarsya has been “strategically defeated”. Let’s give history a little more time to run.

I agree with Stathis that’s there’s lots of good activists in Syriza—there’s also lots of good activists in the Communist Party, and there are lots of good activists in Antarsya. All those different forces will have to get together in order effectively to move the situation forward in which the other side, let’s be honest, has won the first round.

To resume the offensive means breaking the illusion in Europe. That’s something we’re agreed on. But it also means beginning to absorb the crucial lessons of revolutionary struggles over the last 150 years, which is the necessity sooner or later for a test of strength with the repressive forces of the state, and pursuing a strategy which gives us the strength to take that on successfully.

A final point about solidarity. Two important dates for solidarity.

21 March, the anti-racist day of action, has already been mentioned. That started last year as a result of an initiative from the Greek anti-racist and anti-fascist movement who were looking for solidarity because of the threat of the Golden Dawn. The issue of racism is something that the ruling class, if they want to destroy Syriza, will use in Greece in an effort to destroy the government. And therefore in making that day of action as strong and big as possible, we’re not just fighting for ourselves against all the horrors we have here of UKIP, it’s a form of solidarity for the Greek comrades.

Then on 24 March Stathis and my union UCU’s London region is holding an event of solidarity with the struggle in Greece. That’s one example. But I think that there should be many other acts of organised solidarity for the struggle in Greece. Because what’s happening in Greece—let’s be clear, whatever position we take in these debates—the struggle in Greece is our struggle, our fate is caught up in that struggle very, very directly. 13


1: Bensaïd, 2007.

2: Budgen and Kouvelakis, 2015.

3: See especially Poulantzas, 1978.

5: Barker, Hope, and Wagstyl, 2015.

6: Spiegel, 2015.

7: Poulantzas and Weber, 2008, p342.

8: Poulantzas and Weber, 2008, p352.

9: Kouvelakis, 2015.

10: Hope, 2015.

11: See, for example, Engels, 1976, p113.

12: Harmer, 2011.

13: Both speakers would like to thank Dave Sewell for all his work transcribing our debate.


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Bensaïd, Daniel, 2007, “The Return of Strategy”, International Socialism 113 (winter),

Budgen, Sebastian, and Stathis Kouvelakis, 2015, “Greece: Phase One”, Jacobin (22 January),

Engels, Friedrich, 1976 [1886], “Preface to English Edition”, in Karl Marx, Capital, I (Penguin).

Harmer, Tanya, 2011, Allende’s Chile and the Inter-American Cold War (University of North Carolina Press).

Hope, Kerin, 2015, “A Closer Look at Greece’s Proposed Reforms”, Financial Times (24 February),

Kouvelakis, Stathis, 2015, “After Syriza’s Victory, Confrontation of Capitulation”, Jacobin (26 January),

Poulantzas, Nicos, 1978, State, Power, Socialism (NLB).

Poulantzas, Nicos, and Henri Weber, 2008 [1977], “The State and the Transition to Socialism”, in James Martin (ed), The Poulantzas Reader: Marxism, Law and the State (Verso).

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