It was 11pm of 25th January 2015. By chance I was watching The Wire’s most amazing TV election for the first time After it finished I was back to the real world for an even more crucial election result. In Greece, we had won! Later I turned to facebook and left websites where my fellow British Leftists had lots of advice for the Greek Left. “They should have declared a Grexit strategy”, “revolutionaries should never take part in a capitalist government”, “Greek revolutionaries shouldn`t isolate themselves from the mass party”, or “revolutionaries must retain organisational independence” .
“Watch and Learn”
I don`t feel qualified to tell the Greek comrades what they should be doing. (Though any Greek Maoists welcoming the selling off of Greece`s docks to China as a higher form of workers state are definitely wrong!). I thought the best comment by a British socialist after Syriza won the election was simply “watch and learn!”, a social skill central to both human survival and building resistance, but also a skill that far too many on the British Left seem incapable of.
I have no interest in declaring which Marxist Greek Party was correct as Facing Reality has no Greek section to defend. I can completely understand why one group of my former comrades joined Syriza and are now leading the criticism of Tsipras`s apparent acceptance of “I Can’t Beleive It’s Not Troika” from inside Syriza. I can also completely understand why another group of my former comrades have felt that they would be forced to compromise their basic principles if they were to join a party in government, and remain in the ant-capitalist coalition Antarsya.
What I completely fail to understand is the obsession of so much of the Greek left with standing in elections whatever the circumstances and however demeaning the result. I don`t really understand the Greek Left. It’s history is very different, and it seems to make the British Left`s array of vanguards look straightforward. Neither do I understand the Greek electoral system.. But surely anyone can see that parties that struggle to achieve 1% of the vote in every election consign themselves to the comedy wing of national politics. Perhaps that shouldn’t matter, tiocfaidh ar la and all that. But I feel that such poor results can actually damage our movement.
I find it hard to believe that only 0.64% of voters in Greece wanted to nationalise the banks, leave the Eurozone and default on the debt. This increases to 6% if we count the Communist KKE vote too. But only 0.64% voted for Antarsya, the coalition of anti-capitalists. I find it even harder to believe that less than 5% of people in Britain oppose all austerity and privatisation. Or less than 1% if we discount the Green vote and count the votes of only the most hardline socialist groups. Ed Miliband must be overjoyed with these kind of results as they seem to vindicate his election strategy of promising more cuts to win votes. But worse than that – it makes the huge number of people who do oppose some or all cuts feel far more isolated than they actually are. It can demoralise those few revolutionary activists who can get a good reception on the doorstep, believe their leaders’ hyped-up expectations, and then when facing the reality of the result, be told that 25 votes is some kind of “victory”. Furthermore, bigging up every election failure as a success, and parroting “well of course, if it wasn’t for the media blackout…..” makes the left parties appear to be no different from other Politicians.
Why Can’t Revolutionaries Campaign For Reformists?
As I said earlier, I don’t feel I know enough about the Greek situation to pass judgement on whether revolutionaries should organise inside or outside of Syriza. (In fact some of the left there can’t make their minds up either). However, when it come to who to campaign and vote for in a pivotal election, it should be fairly simple.
Yet on the same day June 2012, while explaining why Egyptian revolutionary socialists were right to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood, the SWP’s other serious international group in Greece said that Syriza wasn’t left enough to vote for! They had to support their own revolutionary candidates, part of the Antarsya. The logic of the position in Egypt was this : revolutionaries have a duty to relate to the masses fighting reaction and cannot claim neutrality at a pivotal moment in history. On balance,this was, I think, correct in that situation. That those masses were, as always seems to be the case from the perspective of our fully class conscious revolutionaries, full of illusions in the reformist opponents of reaction, was irrelevant. The key was to relate to the mass resistance, to engage in discussion and debate with people who disagree with you, and to secure a victory against reaction, however limited.
In Greece, perhaps it was impossible to be a member of Syriza and campaign for them to win elections while at the same time raising arguments with potential Syriza voters about the dead-end strategy of staying within the Eurozone at all costs. I doubt it but I don’t really know. But even if Syriza’s left couldn’t argue openly with voters on the doorstep or at work, surely there were big discussions within Syriza at every level about “what next” after the election. Tsipras’s inability to convince his own party that he’d secured a victory in his negotiations with EU ministers demonstrates to me that debate has been constant within the party.The left, including much of Greece’s revolutionary left, were part of those debates within Syriza during the election campaign and I think that makes them well placed to be part of the debate now that more radical stance is clearly needed from the Syriza leadership.
What I would like to know, both of Antarsya and British revolutionaries is this. For the purposes of this discussion, I remain neutral on the question of organising separately or within mass organisations like Syriza. But I don’t believe there is anything to stop one party campaigning for another. It wouldn’t compromise that Leninist shibboleth, “independent revolutionary organisation”. But it would force revolutionaries out of the isolated debates of the far left and confront the real debates (and “illusions”) among all those seeking change. It would show that revolutionaries were unequivocally on the side of change. And it would bring the “fully conscious” into contact with the thousands of “less conscious” activists. The only question then is who is “pulled” by who. Given the total impass of reformism, or even mild-Keynsianism, surely those who want to end capitalism entirely should have a little more confidence in their arguments.
Lessons for the British Left
While I don’t think the current British Left has much to teach the Greek Left (!), we do have a wealth of experience of revolutionaries campaigning for a reformist party, albeit in a completely different context.
In the 1970s and 1980s, friends and family members(even myself, once) knocked on doors for Labour Party candidates,and helped get Labour MPs elected. They worked hard alongside all sorts of people who had all sorts of illusions in Labour and parliament. At the same time, they talked to both voters and other Labour Party campaigners about Marxism and the need to end capitalism. By doing this, they won many people over to their “party within a party”, the “Militant Tendency”, and the idea that you needed to confront capitalism, not get it working properly and then reform it. While some critics would say the lessons of Militant are more negative than positive – to me they appeared to be more pulled by reformism than pulling people away from it – I still think we can learn from this period. In particular, we can learn how to campaign with and even for people people not necessarily part of the socialist tradition and how to work with their supporters. We can build up networks of activists in local areas who want to do more than wait for the next election. We can be part of a mass campaign that can actually make a difference – at worst getting a radical voice into parliament, and more importantly, the media. At best, it can lead to helping elect a genuinely radical MP or even a government that at least tries to stand up to the neo-liberal institutions and spread the hope that another world is possible.
Of course Britain today is not the Britain of the 1970s or Greece. Militant were booted out of the Labour Party. We’ve yet to have one general strike against austerity, never mind Greece’s dozens. And the left challenges to Labour have not quite reached the scale of Syriza’s destruction of PASOK! However, in many parliamentary constituencies across the UK right now, candidates are standing who are genuinely anti-austerity and to some extent anti-capitalist, and who have a good chance of winning. Of course, even if they all won and held the balance of power, it would be naive to think they’d be able to pull a Labour Government to the left. But they would give all of us resisting austerity and trying to create a vision of a better world a huge boost just by giving a voice to our anger and hope . Public debate would shift to the left – not just in Parliament, but in the media, at protests and picket lines, in community campaigns, and in every workplace, pub, playground and family meal.
Any activist in Scotland can tell you what that’s like. We need that south of the border too.
Doing Politics Differently?
Yet here in Britain, as prospective MPs from Plaid Cymru, the Green Party, Sinn Fein, SNP and even a few from Labour step up their election campaigns, far too many revolutionaries are huddled round tables or tablets working out which council ward they can get some poor bugger to stand in as a “paper candidate” to raise the profile of organisations that no-one’s heard of and that “could” even vanish on May 8th. As they struggle to get a leaflet through each letter box, and pray that none of their candidates will get less votes than the ten nominees required,or pray that they’ll at least get more votes than Class War, or SLP , on the other side of town hundreds of radical campaigners are discussing politics with electors and then debating ideas with each other. Debates that raise questions like “what can one MP achieve?”, “how long will it take to win a parliamentary majority?”, “should radical parties take up office when the system’s stacked against us?”. Surely this is where we need to be, just like Antarzya needed to be with all those campaigning to get Syriza elected on January 25th.
If I thought that my comrades who are putting so much effort into local council elections would be able to turn round to me in a year or two’s time and show me the ongoing campaign’s in these local communities that have been built as a result of that election campaign, if new networks of activists have been built up in these local areas able to respond to every austerity cut or strike, if even just one active member is recruited in each revolutionary council candidates’ patch, I’ll eat my words. I’ll eat The Weakly Worker. And I’ll publish a full apology for my sneering and sarcasm.
Furthermore, a few of these local council candidates do have the potential to lead to a real growth of local radical networks. Sadly, that candidate is likely to be one of a dozen other socialists scattered across the town. Much of the left will only be supporting those candidates in the same group as themselves, even when they’re supposedly part of a broader alliance and everybody proclaims “Unity!” Amazingly. in some places, some socialist candidates are even standing against each other, or against decent ant-austerity candidates who could actually win! I really wish I was making that up.
In most areas in Britain, there won’t be a decent anti-austerity candidate with a good chance of winning. Sadly, in these places I have little to offer beyond this : realistically, most of the people here who want to at least temper austerity are going to vote Labour. They might well be as bad as the Tories. But everybody knows that if you live in a town or constituency where there’s a straight Labour-Tory fight we need to be able to say more to all the Tory haters who we’ve stood alongside for the last 5 years than “it doesn’t matter who you vote for” or “ just come to BigTown and leaflet East Ward with us“.
Well, I’d love to be wrong. And perhaps after the election Left Unity and TUSC will work together to build our very own Syriza, winning backing from not just the RMT but the PCS and other unions. People on estates across Britain will be drawn into community and trade union activity after meeting inspiring campaigners from town. People will remember the TUSC election broadcast with pride and will be drawn to such groups as they see them week in week out campaigning in their area. And those members or supporters of the Greens and Plaid Cymru etc will look at the numbers of votes cast for the Fighting Socialist Alternative/The Only Anti-Austerity Party and realise that we are the way forward.