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David Renton: Learning to think like a revolutionary

Syriza election reaction Italy

By David Renton

February 23, 2015 -- Lives; running, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission -- When I was young, I used to believe that I knew what a revolution would look like.

It would begin with a bitterly unpopular government and a political system which allowed no space for dissent to be expressed. Anger with the government would rise and, with it, popular organisation, until the will of the people would be like a great wave of water overwhelming every wall put up by the enemy. An alternative revolutionary government would be formed; it would derive its support from the workers, winning other classes to their side because of the wholly principled way in which it would deal with every social question.

It would be opposed by the wealthiest people in society and everyone willing to ally with them. Some kind of civil war would follow between these two powers. And then, when the triumph of the revolutionaries was complete within that first, fortunate nation, next they would face, and hopefully, but without any guarantee of success, defeat the hostility of the most powerful states of the rest of the world.

The coalition between SYRIZA and ANEL is not a revolutionary government; and yet the mere fact that its representatives are prepared to state clearly that austerity is not in the interests of the Greek people has brought about already a greater challenge for orthodox politics than anything Europe has seen for years. In the shadow of SYRIZA it is possible to think as to what a revolutionary crisis would be like here – if we had a force with equal support and as eager to see the end of capitalism as SYRIZA is to halt our present epoch of austerity.

Much of what I used to imagine about a socialist revolution, I find myself questioning. I no longer think that it would begin within a political system which had succeeded in closing down any possibilities for tolerated dissent. The point about neoliberal capitalism is rather that it allows a certain, limited space to every possible idea, every desire, even the phantasm of its own destruction.

Therefore, especially in those countries that have seen a permanent shift towards a form of (albeit limited, capitalist) political democracy, I find it increasingly difficult to conclude that popular resistance will be expressed solely in society and not to some extent also in the state, that is, in part through the emergence of anti-system parties which stand for office and are part of a revolutionary alliance.

I do still believe that in a revolutionary crisis people’s anger against the system can be renewed, and grow, overcoming every obstacle in its path. Indeed just four years ago, the world saw something like that with a revolution in Egypt whose supporters stormed police stations, defeated a president, conquered everything, until eventually after many months they reached barriers they could not overpass.

The idea that two governmental forms can exist simultaneously for a time without either triumphing – and that this stasis can be reached in a single society, cut off from the rest of the world – seems to me to be an assumption specific to past decades when politics was limited to the nation state, where it was possible for revolutionaries in America (to whom the name of Trotsky was unfamiliar) to believe the local fable that he was a poor tailor of New York origins who had found himself by sheer fluke at the head of the Red Army. Such is the speed of communication these days that I no longer believe it is possible for a revolutionary force to emerge in one society without it already facing antagonists of international as well as domestic origin.

Indeed the ascendancy of SYRIZA forces those of us who wish the Greek left well to think through unfamiliar questions about what the traditional goal of a revolution (i.e. the smashing of a state) means, in circumstances where a serious left-wing party finds itself temporarily, seemingly, without domestic opponents and faced with an enemy that appears to exist only several hundred miles away.

It is a part of the answer to respond that SYRIZA’s enemies are not solely overseas. As I write, SYRIZA’s economists are drawing up – with many refinements, and under the shadow a troika veto – proposals to increase the income of the Greek state and reduce its expenditure. To do this, while at the same time raising pensions and the minimum wage and halting the previous government’s privatisation program, they inevitably will have to promise that SYRIZA will suddenly clamp down of tax avoidance to an extent previously unthinkable in Greece.

SYRIZA’s new idea, that if it cannot be a government that gives to the poor it may at least be one that takes from the rich, might fit entirely within the formal limits of the politics of austerity (although I have my doubts that the Eurozone will tolerate even this negative process of redistribution), but if SYRIZA was to do this seriously, and properly tax Greece’s shipping magnates – they of course will respond by funding, to an even greater extent than they do already, any party at all that promises to bring about SYRIZA’s immediate defeat.

At this point, SYRIZA’s present ascendancy, its “Greek spring” where the leadership can claim the support of 80% of their population in opinion polls and can promise to govern in everyone’s interests without offending anybody, will inevitably begin to face much more sustained domestic opposition. The innocence of SYRIZA – in which it attempts to rule at first without domestic and then without international opposition – is therefore ultimately unsustainable. As is any theory which says that SYRIZA enemies can be reduced to the phantom, distant, figure of “Germany”. The longer it lasts, the more conscious the SYRIZA government will be of its enemies at home.

The repressive power of the state has, under conditions of neoliberalism, been dispersed a little across different kinds of institutions and relocated to some extent from the national to the international and from the political to the economic sphere. It follows that what is needed is a successful struggle against all the institutions of the rich, Canary Wharf as well as New Scotland Yard, the European Central Bank in Frankfurt as much as the parliament in Athens.

So what should we do, those of us for whom Syriza’s success seems to offer the chance of a defeat to our own local rulers?

I do not accept that our function is to formulate better negotiating feints and bluffs than the present SYRIZA leadership. One of the rules of this new, interconnected left in which we all live is that our successes and failures are widely shared, they are no longer the property of any one group but are visited on everyone else.

It follows that you should always start if you can by assuming good faith in your fellow socialists. They are linked to you and you are linked to them, and they are entitled to a sympathetic hearing. The mistake of Yanis Varoufakis is not that he has spent too little time studying game theory. The problem with Alexis Tsipras is not that power has been thrust on him unexpectedly; rather he and his allies have spent three years preparing in their minds of this moment, and they have thought already as best they could the problems of every eventuality. If, for example, they do not believe that voluntary policies of Eurozone exit are a panacea, then we do not need to invoke bad faith or the simple label of “reformism” to explain their failure (especially not those of us who have long been sceptical of the politics of capitalism within one country which underpin the Grexit plans).

We do have a duty to supporting them – if your union or party is not already an affiliate of a Greek Solidarity Campaign, it should be. SYRIZA cannot be made responsible for organising giant protests against austerity in Berlin or London. That is the task for all the rest of us.

Learning to think like a revolutionary is not about creating a monument of political purity capable of dismissing every new force according to its failure to get beyond political categories written down on paper before our grandparents were born.

There are new ideas, new people; not without grievous setbacks, the international left is at long last renewing itself.

[David Renton blogs at Lives; running and is a member of the RS21 group in Britain.]

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