On Friday the SNP make a historic switch to supporting NATO – the pro-nuclear, US dominated military alliance. On Saturday, the Labour leader Ed Miliband is booed at a TUC demonstration in London for saying ‘we need to make hard choices’ and ‘some cuts are necessary’.
At the same time, Europe is going through its greatest crisis for at least 80 years. The break up of the Eurozone – the neoliberal architecture of modern Europe – is considered a serious possibility by all. The traditional parties of labour across Europe have abandoned the people, siding with a morally and economically bankrupt policy of austerity. ‘Class’ and ‘Capitalism’ are once again popular terms to use to analyse society. Indeed, even the old white beard is taking seriously again.
So the contradiction between capitalist crisis and mainstream political parties is obvious, but why then has new left-wing parties not emerged to demand society follows them away from disaster capitalism with its corrupt financial elites and obedient politicians?
Well, in many European countries they have. Greece is the epicentre of capitalist meltdown, it’s where the working class is strongest and austerity has hit hardest. Naturally, in such circumstances people look towards radical alternatives – the dominance of New Democracy and Pasok over the Greek political system since the fall of the military Junta in 1974 has been absolute until now: their share of the vote has fallen from 80+% to under 40%. Why? Because Greek society has reached such a state of crisis that politics is no longer a ritual for the majority of people, it has become a life or death issue. In such circumstances consciousness can shift quickly – if there’s a party willing to take advantage.
Syriza – the radical left coalition – is that party. They were willing to take responsibility over the crisis and called for all left parties to unite in an anti-austerity government that would restore wages, jobs, nationalise the banks and tax the rich. Simple, clear, credible and radical – Syriza overnight became the main opposition to New Democracy, the centre-right party, narrowly missing out on winning the election in June.
In many European countries a similar process is going on just not at as advanced a stage as Greece yet. In Scotland and Britain we are nowhere near replicating such success. What lessons can we take from Syriza?
1. It is possible to build a party that represents the movement on the streets in a more organised, coherent form and, crucially, at the ballot box.
2011 was characterised by mass revolt from the ‘real democracy movement’ in Spain to ‘Occupy’ in America to the Arab revolutions. All of them drew new, young people into the vanguard of the struggle and inspired a generation to join in. They developed new, innovative ways of organising that provide innumerable lessons. Where the movement let itself down was in tactical and strategic awareness. After the initial euphoria, difficult questions are faced by the movement about how to go forward: how do we respond to government concessions? Should we make demands on the government? How do we broaden the movement out and co-ordinate across different sections of society? Should we stand in elections? To answer these questions of political power requires the conscious organisation of people into a political party that can be a sizeable, organic part of the movement and be willing to unite over an agreed political strategy to argue within the movement. Most left groups are too small and too inorganic to influence the direction of the movement.
Syriza was able to overcome this by being a broad based coalition of diverse views whilst still maintaining the need for political representation and a political strategy. Syriza’s call for a left government against austerity chimed with a movement that had matured from years of struggle to understand that rioting and striking is not enough, a challenge for political power is necessary. One sign of this is the fact that even many former members of the black bloc have joined Syriza as their experience of resisting austerity has taught them the need for politics if we’re to win.
2. The left must understand what constitutes a radical political program in the neoliberal age.
Working class people aren’t full of confidence in their own power. Why would they be? They’ve suffered years of defeat from the opposing class on a global scale. Because of this they aren’t looking towards a socialist vision of ownership over their workplace and communities. We should still believe in that and argue for it, but on its own its just propaganda that won’t convince many at this stage of the struggle. In other words it doesn’t amount to an effective political strategy. We have to understand where working class consciousness is at right now. What working class people want from politics – and many opinion polls show this – is a defence of the fundamentals of a welfare state, decent housing, decent pay, proper jobs with full-time contracts, opposition to wars abroad. The basic parts of any civilised society. This is a very radical notion in the context of neoliberalism, as it’s not possible for capitalism today to defend the gains made in the post-war era. Because of this the Labour party and their European equivalents have vacated this space, which is where the radical left must now occupy – not by reflecting social-democracy in the 1980’s, but by understanding that political positions similar to social democracy in the 1980’s have to be fought for through a mass rupture with the economic and political life of the system.
Syriza have done this – their program is quite simple, not massively ambitious, but addresses the needs of the working class in the crisis and therefore they are brought into direct confrontation with capitalism. Some anti-capitalists have attempted to ridicule Syriza’s program by arguing it is less radical than Pasok’s in 1981. Maybe so, but we don’t live in 1981 – what was mainstream then is extreme today.
3. Finally, we need to start talking about coalitions of the left based on the above political necessities.
No small group from a particular tradition which emerged out of particular conditions is going to be able to transform themselves into a vehicle to challenge for political power. In particular here I’m referring to the Trotskyist groups and their respective internationals which emerged out of 68’ and the industrial upheaval of the 1970’s. Why? Because it’s not in their DNA – they weren’t built to achieve that sort of objective, they were built to huddle radicals together in the squeeze between social democracy and Stalinism in the post-war era. This era is over, and the space is far greater than previously to influence society, and therefore we need to start talking with fellow left-wing travellers much more about what we agree on than our differences and work out ways to combine organisationally.
That’s what Syriza was able to do by bringing together Eurocommunists with Maoists, Trotskyists and assorted others including environmentalists into a united coalition. The unity provides the space for new political alignments to emerge from the new context, something that wouldn’t be possible or at least more unlikely if they were competing with each other in separate groups. In Scotland we don’t have the same alignment of forces and the political context has different dynamics, but we need to approach building a new party of the working class in the spirit of Syriza.