SYRIZA’s New Style Greek Popular Front – a commentary

The new phenonemon represented by the SYRIZA/ANEL (Independent Greeks) coalition has not been theorised by the left as yet.  The question of the coalition with the Independent Greeks is something of crucial importance, which has to be addressed theoretically and programatically.

My strong suspicion is that even those who are most enthusiastic about the politics of SYRIZA are uneasy about it. Various people have expressed real reservations about it, saying it is a bad sign, that it will not last long, etc, and they may well prove to be right about that. But no one has offered a theorisation of what is going on here.

Popular front

Lets be very clear. This is a popular front government, and the situation is very dangerous. It could be just as dangerous as the Chilean Popular Unity experience for the working class. Though that is not certain; there are some complexities and differences also.

One important difference is that Popular Fronts in the past have tended to be with liberal bourgeois parties. Not always, of course – you can think of the WWII UK Labour-Tory coalition led by Churchill as something of an exception.

But generally, when a bourgeois workers party enters a popular front, and particularly when it is the main component, then the coalition has generally been with smaller liberal bourgeois parties.  I think that SYRIZA can be considered to be a new bourgeois workers party in the Greek context (it is doubtful if PASOK actually was a creation of the working class as such, but SYRIZA certainly is)

This is a slightly different thing: a popular front of a new bourgeois workers party with a right-wing nationalist party. This may be only feasible because Greece is not an imperialist country and therefore the right-wing nationalist party has only migrants that it can possibly oppress. Obviously it that is a real danger and must be combated. Whether such a thing could be stomached by equivalent sections of the left in an imperialist country, which oppresses other countries around the globe, is more doubtful.

The other point is that because of the national antagonisms created by the economically irrational operation of the Euro, it may be that this class-collaborationist government may have some staying power. From the point of view of part of Greek capital, it may be that exit from the Euro could be seen as the only short term solution to being crucified by unpayable debts and an overvalued currency within the Euro. Therefore it is feasible that such a nationalist wing of the bourgeoisie will, for a significant period, see SYRIZA as useful bloc partners to achieve that objective, and not just shills to head off a revolution (which is not on the immediate agenda since the growth of SYRIZA has meant precisely a renaissance of reformist illusions).


This whole idea, of a bloc with nationalist bourgeois parties to reassert ‘soveriegnty’ in a country that feels itself oppressed by the internationalisation of capitalism, is not new in theory, but it is new as a practical reality.

No doubt this will cause a degree of pain to many, particularly on the more socially liberal wing of the West European far left who are particularly inspired by SYRIZA, but it does have some commonality with things that have happened in Russia, with the coalition between various Stalinists and right-wing Russian nationalists, more recently with the support of people who are opponents of Stalinism such as Boris Kagarlitsky.

It also has something in common with the perspective put forward by the eccentric Russian-Israeli ex-Jewish Christian-Stalinist, Israel Shamir, advising the left to try to counter the influence of Zionist reactionaries in particularly American politics, by making a bloc with old-fashioned anti-Jewish reactionaries, in the hope that the two antagonistic reactionary trends will cancel each other out.

It is no accident that Shamir is connected with the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. This novel form of popular frontism is of course an extreme form of degeneration, a wiping away of the internationalism that is supposed to characterise the communist movement. It is however, still recognisably a form of popular frontism, in extremis.

In my view, the class nature of this new kind of popular front, which I could call a ‘red-brown’ popular front, is still in basic class terms the same thing as the old fashioned type of popular front with the liberal bourgeoisie. It might appear different in ‘moral’ terms, but in terms of sober Marxist class analysis, it is still of the popular front ‘species’.

Political support, no! Defence, maybe…

Socialists cannot politically support such a coalition government. As with the classic popular front, we must demand that the working class parties concerned break with their non-working-class coalition partners and act independently of the enemy class. We seek to replace such reformist strategies with a new, politically strengthened, 21st century internationalist communism, and create the basis for a genuine workers revolution.

But we must still defend these governments against extra-constitutional attempts to overthrow them from more powerful bourgeois/neo-liberal forces, particularly when they, even on a nationalist basis, take actions that in some way defend or ameliorate attacks on social gains of the working class, which is entirely feasible.

And given the semi-colonial or near semi-colonial nature of some of the poorer countries in Europe that are worst hit by austerity and economic decline, imposed by the main imperialist states of Europe, there may be measures taken by such governments that impinge on such things that it will be our duty to defend. Just as it was our duty to defend, for instance, Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez canal. This is not an exact analogy, and I am not suggesting that Greece is the same as Nasser’s Egypt, but nevertheless there may be parallels, and parallel duties also.



  1. Jacob Richter

    January 25 marked the ushering in of what is hoped to be the world’s first genuine, but non-dictatorship of the proletariat, ‘workers’ government’ since the Popular Front in Spain. However, January 25 also marked the ushering in of what the inter-war social democracy hoped to be the ‘labour revolution’.

    Indeed, ever since discussions on ‘workers’ governments’ resurfaced, I can’t help but think why criticisms of this Comintern framework, such as those found in the Weekly Worker, did not compare it to what the renegade Kautsky wrote about coalition governments comprised predominantly of parliamentary ‘democratic socialist’ forces. This is something which not even Chile’s Salvador Allende had, but now which Greece’s Alexis Tsipras has, not least because of the efforts invested in service-oriented solidarity networks.

    As a comrade told me, there is not just public support, but public pressure on the party to take responsibility. However, the political and economic conditions aren’t there for the push towards scrapping private property relations.

    Coincidentally, this week also marks the ushering in of the world’s first Communitarian Populist Front since the Chartist movement and Paris Commune of the ‘working classes’ in Britain and France, respectively, with Syriza working with the anti-fascist, stridently anti-austerity, but right-populist Independent Greeks to break away from the class-collaborationism of popular fronts and sheer hypocrisy of united fronts.


  2. Jacob Richter

    I think you’ve got things really wrong with the new Communitarian Populist Front, ‘workers’ government’, ‘majority socialist coalition’, etc, in charge of Greece.

    First, the new coalition has been described as “popular frontism in extremis.” Was the historically notorious Third-Period collaboration between the German Communist Party and the Nazis, traditionally seen as the polar opposite of the later popular front turn, also “popular frontism in extremis”? No, I am not comparing the Syriza-ANEL cooperation to that, but some ultra-lefts have.

    Second, ANEL has been characterised as a “bourgeois party”. This is highly inaccurate: Richard Seymour has suggested that its electoral support is demographically more similar to a leftist party than to typical centre-right parties. It would be more accurate to describe them as a thoroughly petty bourgeois party.

    Third, ANEL has been characterised as being reactionary on all constitutional issues. Every single issue? According to Eleni Xiarchogiannopoulou, Anel also supports constitutional overhaul of the political system. It may be possible to win them over to average skilled workers’ compensation and living standards, as well as recallability, for all politicians and civil servants, and also to implement a ‘party tax’, not unlike Sinn Féin’s.

    All these counterpoints suggest that the new Communitarian Populist Front implies a dual insistence on radical, participatory-democratic overhaul and on predistributionist economic policy (how ‘socialist’ depends on the mass consciousness of class-based public policy-making), and concession on identity and related ‘social’ issues to a ‘radical center’ standstill – but not pushing through bans on games of chance (Paris Commune) or violent video games (Hugo Chávez), or other socially conservative policy.


  3. Ian

    It is totally wrong to call the SYRIZA/Anel coalition a ‘workers government’ of any type. Richard Seymour is engaging in wishful thinking when he posits that ANEL has some similarities of social base with a working class party, and that ameliorates its bourgeois character. Even he admits that ANEL fits into the following paradigm:

    “Syriza distinguishes between different fractions of the bourgoisie – the oligarchs tied to what Pablo Iglesias called the ‘Finance International’, and the ‘national’ or ‘subaltern’ bourgeoisie who want capitalism to be made to work again, but for whom the memorandum doesn’t work.”

    The idea that a following among workers dilutes the bourgeois character of a party and makes it in some way a principled partner for the left, is opportunist wishful thinking. Right populism can and does sometime get a following among less class -conscious sections of the working class. At the extreme end, this can also be true of fascism. Though ANEL is obviously not fascist, it does appeal to some of the sentiments, particularly around migration, that the fascists also try to appeal to.

    The comparison with the third period is fatuous, since that involved an alliance of the Stalinists with outright enemies of the working class movement against social democracy. This is a bloc of left social democracy with part of the populist right in an underdeveloped, non-imperialist country, against the main imperialist forces in Europe. Both are major strategic betrayals, but of different types.

    Richard Seymour, to his credit, is critical of SYRIZA’s current ‘compromise’ with the Eurocrats. But such things were always likely, because of the bourgeois nature of the popular front coalition they signed up for. Even the nationalist bourgeoisie cannot countenance the means that are necessary to defeat the main European bourgeoisie’s on this. This requires a revolutionary strategy that is able to overflow the borders of states that make up the EU, and thereby force the core powers of the Eurozone to initiate a fiscal union to complement the Eurozone monetary union, and thereby replace the Greek bailout with a regional aid programme within a common state power.

    The problem with this is that it is virtually impossible under capitalism. Yanis Varoufakis has actually posed some correct points about this as a solution to the currency and debt disparities that are crippling Greece, but that misses the imperialist nature of the EU. It would take socialist planning and a socialist United States of Europe to sort out this economic problem. Since the stronger European imperialisms are the ones that materially benefit from the Euro -mainly Germany, this monetary union without fiscal union has become an imperialist mechanism for those powers to exploit the less developed countries in Europe, ironically the Euro has become a weapon making a real economic unification of Europe under capitalism even less feasible than previously. It actually is the best concrete economic argument for overcoming the nation-state in Europe,and planning the economy across national lines according to the socialist model.

    In this sense, the calls for ‘solidarity’ with Greece coming from much of the left are meaningless, as what is needed is criticism of cross class politics both in Greece and more broadly, and the practical ability to deliver joint struggles with the Greeks.

    “All these counterpoints suggest that the new Communitarian Populist Front implies a dual insistence on radical, participatory-democratic overhaul and on predistributionist economic policy”

    This just seems like utopian reformist fantasy to me. European revolution is much more realistic that some kind of utopian new democracy in a bloc with part of the ruling class. It has some precedents, one that springs to mind is Mao’s demand for ‘New Democracy’ in China. Its content was and is thoroughly bourgeois.

    For a realistic treatment of the question of the workers government question, see this article by the US League for the Revolutionary Party.


  4. Jacob Richter

    Again, I disagree with your characterization of ANEL as a bourgeois party. The Communitarian Populist Front framework which I’ve suggested makes no room whatsoever for any fraction of the bourgeoisie. It does, however, stress similar differences within the petit-bourgeoisie – the comprador types that trigger brain drains, and the “patriotic” types. Think of Lou Dobbs and the “war on the middle class,” and merely adapt that to get rid of any illusions in a “national” bourgeoisie.

    These comprador/”patriotic” differences were evident in the Chartist movement within the petit-bourgeois segments of the “working classes,” and these were also evident in the Paris Commune within the petit-bourgeois segments of the “working classes” (i.e., both the Blanquists and Jacobins vs. the workers in the National Guard).


  5. Ian

    Well, again, I think this is a utopian reformist perspective. Communitarianism, though it obviously overlaps with some aspects of socialist politics, overlaps with other strands of politics as well, politics that belongs to different classes. There can be no mechanical ruling out of alliances with other classes, that are not of the bourgeoisie, provided it is clear that it is the proletariat that is the leading force and that the programme of the alliance represents a real negation of capitalism. But that is not what this Jacob Richter idea of a ‘Communitarian Populist Front’ – which is in theory even worse than a traditional popular front, actually means.

    It may be true that such a new party as ANEL does not yet have a solid base in the bourgeoisie as yet, though objectively it politics correspond with a bourgeois programme that does have some coherence – defiance of the Troika etc in the name of a bourgeois Greek nationalism,not working class politics. It is principled for the left to make specific, short-term alliances with such forces, e.g. against specific austerity measures, but not to form a coalition government with them, where their right populist anti-migrant views will inevitably gain traction, apart from the issues of fundamental class interests. The reference to Lou Dobbs is ominous, given his anti-migrant views. ANEL is indeed coming from a similar angle.

    Interesting that Jacob Richter cites Eleni Xiarchogiannopoulou earlier. She seems to have a clear idea of what is potentially involved here, when she writes:

    “With these moves Tsipras is building alliances with the centre-right and left. Effectively he sidelines the Left Platform, just like Tony Blair did with the left branches of the Labour party in the 1990’s. Tsipras is indeed in a position to do so. Similarly to Blair his popularity is high reaching 74% in just three weeks after the elections. Admittedly, the Greek economy is in a much worse shape than British in late 1990’s, but the fact that Tsipras won the elections increases his leverage into the party.”

    This is not class politics, and it is dangerous. We have to warn against it, even though we may defend this government against attacks from mainly German imperialism.


  6. Jacob Richter

    Worse? The Communitarian Populist Front is thoroughly democratic in its acknowledgement of demographics: the proletariat should be the leading force within the front only if it has the demographic majority. If it doesn’t, then the “patriotic” elements of the urban and rural petit-bourgeoisie should take the lead, like in Third World countries.

    Historically, neither the program of the Chartist movement nor that of the Paris Commune represented “real negations of capitalism.” They did, however, represent the best political means to achieve such economic negation.

    On the Greece situation, I have suggested in other debates recently that, in fact, closer cooperation between SYRIZA and the Independent Greeks (ANEL) should be in order. Think of the massive pro-government demonstrations in recent days, and just simply add to them the flying together of SYRIZA and ANEL flags side by side (though such a mix would really be way more SYRIZA flags than ANEL ones).

    One secondary question to ask you, though: You referenced the “red-brown” dalliances going on in Russia, yet you stated that the comparison with the Third Period is fatuous. Why? The “brown” elements there are not just run-of-the-mill right-wing Russian nationalists and anti-Jewish reactionaries, but also include nasty fascist elements.

    Note: I termed this front both Communitarian and Populist for different technical reasons than what you’ve suggested, though. Communitarianism as a set of collective values isn’t by itself anti-bourgeois enough (like the Green movement or the supposedly more “collectivist” culture in Asian countries), while Populism has its own can of worms. Combining both acknowledges that no fraction of the bourgeoisie has ever been both communitarian and populist, even in the midst of a mass humanitarian crisis.


  7. Stephen Diamond

    Am I correct in surmising that you reject the theory of permanent revolution in favor of something more like the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry?


  8. Ian

    The reason I say that the ‘Communitarian Populist’ front Jacob is talking about appears worse than a normal popular front, is that the justification for the latter tends to be pragmatic. Simply that those in the working class movement who justify popular fronts say that they have to make an governmental agreement with a bourgeois party, otherwise they would not be able to form an effective government. But a ‘Communitarian Populist’ front declares in its very name a non-working class ideological trend: Communitarianism/Populism, up front. It makes a virtue of it, instead of the usual excuse which is that it is a lesser evil.

    The leading role of the proletariat is not a matter of numbers. It is rather a function of its greater social power and cohesion, and that it is capable of creating a new mode of production to replace capitalism, whereas the petty bourgeoisie is not so capable. It is because of that difference that when the petty bourgeoisie, in many third world countries as Jacob points out, plays the leading role, it inevitably decays and then cedes power to the bourgeoisie. That’s fundamentally because the bourgeoisie also is a class associated with a coherent mode of production: capitalism.

    The Paris Commune certainly did reflect a specifically proletarian upheaval. It was a repetition on a larger scale of what was probably the first independent working class uprising in history, the uprising in Paris in June 1848. The specifically proletarian nature of that uprising, and the manner in which it ‘drove’ the bourgeoisie into the camp of counterrevolution, was actually the basis for Marx’s own specific formulation of the idea of permanent revolution, which Trotsky’s later, more developed version was based on. The leadership of the 1871 Commune had all kinds of flawed politics, from Blanquist puschism to Proudhon’s anarchism, these were immature forms of radicalism, to be sure. But its social base was solidly in the working class.

    Regarding Jacob’s question about the red-brown coalitions in Russia, I would argue that it is not the same thing as the third period Stalinist crime of the ‘red referendum’ in Prussia. Any bloc is not just defined by the forces involved in it taken in isolation, but also who it is directed against. In the case of the ‘red referendum’, the bloc was directed against the social democratic leadership of the German workers movement, including SPD-led trade unions. The ‘red-referendum’ was therefore a grotesque, frontal attack on the working class itself, and not merely a class collaborationist alliance.

    Whereas the red-brown blocs that exist today, mainly in Russia, are directed against neo-liberal reactionary forces, not the organised working class. This is therefore a bloc with part of the class enemy putatively against another, supposedly more dangerous part of the class enemy. Which is characteristic of a popular front in class terms. It should not be necessary to add that I do not advocate support for any form of popular frontism.

    But the common thread of all these differences is over the crucial and leading role of the working class, which must not play a passive role as part of an coalition on a numeric basis, but must fight to politically lead oppressed layers of the petty bourgeoisie etc. against capitalism itself. That is indeed permanent revolution, as Stephen rightly says.


  9. Stephen Diamond

    The classic popular front was a Stalinist tactic opposed to working-class independence. The Stalinists desperately sought to avoid being tested in a workers government. But it is hardly clear that Syriza wanted to avoid governing independently. It lacked the votes.

    The anomalous character of a red-brown popular front should give you pause—especially when it also fails to behave like a pop front in other ways, such as the supposedly working-class component wanting to avoid governing.

    Arising during a period of demoralization–the Greek unions haven’t won a strike in years–Syriza now looks to me to be a demagogic bourgeois-populist formation, which didn’t merit even the most critical support.


  10. Ian

    But they could have governed alone, and challenged the KKE to support measures that genuinely were acts of defiance of the EU bureaucrats. The KKE has 15 seats in the parliament, and could be thus said to hold the balance of power. If they chose to use it to bring down a government that was seriously trying to defy the austerity regime, that would damage them and bring much of their base over to SYRIZA. Such tactics would not be beyond a serious working class trend that was intent of governing independently of all ruling class parties – they are very familiar with the KKE, what drives it and who supports it. They avoided these necessary actions by a coalition with ANEL. So I think this is very similar to a classic popular front in that regard.

    I think it is very clear that SYRIZA was raised to power by working class discontent against austerity, and together with its roots in the left and the CP this means it cannot be dismissed as simply a petit-bourgeois party. Ideologically, the party’s core is left-Eurocommunist, which obviously includes popular-frontism as part of its political tradition.

    Surely it is often in the situation when the working class is frustrated economically, e.g. by economic depression and extreme difficulty in winning gains (or even defending them) by economic struggle alone, that they are likely to seek political channels to express their interests? It seems to me that this is what has happened in Greece, and why SYRIZA was elected. At one level the populist-style politics represented the illusions of the masses in this period where political consciousness is far from radical, but it is perfectly possible for more rightist labour-fakers than SYRIZA to given some expression to working class discontent and aspirations, if circumstances are right.


  11. Jacob Richter

    Stephen Diamond, I favour something beyond the limits of the RDDOTPP, but it’s leaps and bounds a more progressive start than PR. Historian Lars T Lih referenced Trotsky’s stubbornness on *his* take on permanent revolution, even if it meant “civil war with the peasantry.” This stubbornness was so serious in revolutionary Social-Democratic movements of that time that, really, it’s very surprising why Stalin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev weren’t more aggressive against Trotsky’s PR in drumming up their “Old Bolshevism” credentials and NEP reality after Lenin’s death, only settling upon the notion that Trotsky underestimated the politically revolutionary, if not socioeconomically revolutionary, potential of the peasantry.

    In the Third World, the “patriotic” elements of the urban and rural petit-bourgeoisie, including the mass of sharecroppers and small tenant farmers (who are not farm workers proper) that have evolved from most of yesterday’s peasantry, should be the leading class as the states under their rule should be the sole “big capitalists.” To correct Lincoln, though “labour is the superior of capital and deserves much the higher consideration,” it is Third World petty capital that “has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights.”


  12. Jacob Richter

    Ian, I have already stated one pragmatic reason underlying the Communitarian Populist Front: it should most certainly apply when the working class does not have the numbers to claim a “democratic” mandate over a larger, non-bourgeois population. Another pragmatic reason is that, historically, the working class as a whole, in itself, tends to be politicized *after* an initial wave of political activity from elements of the petit-bourgeoisie. There is a reason behind urban “petit-bourgeois democratism,” after all. Just consider the time “from Occupy” “to SYRIZA.”

    The Paris Commune could actually be considered the pinnacle of urban petit-bourgeois democratism, as well. The Blanquists, Jacobins, and others were all a mix of doctors, lawyers, and artisans, in distinct contrast to the National Guard. Those occupations are hardly working-class backgrounds.

    Thanks for clearing up things on who the “red referendum” vs. the Russian “red-brown” people fought against.


  13. Ian

    The problem with the theses that Trotsky favoured a ‘civil war’ with the peasantry is that it is not only untrue, but was proven untrue in 1929 when Stalin actually did begin a civil war with the peasantry and Trotsky opposed it outright. Trotsky was in favour of collectivisation of agriculture, but one that involved moral and material incentives, not force and expropriation of the peasantry, and would depend on help from more advanced workers states to provide the material resources that would really make it work. Stalin and his faction, having given up on the world revolution, had actually been ‘captured’ by another, emerging class that aspired to act as a regent for a future bourgeoisie, and waged a war against the petty-bourgeois peasantry for interests other than those of the working class. Trotsky, whose programme aspired to express the interests of the proletariat, was opposed to a destructive and coercive war against the peasantry because that is not in working class interests. If Trotsky has indeed been in favour of ‘civil war’ with the peasantry, then not just Kamenev and Zinoviev would have taken him up on this, but also Lenin also (when he was alive). But the fact is that Zinoviev and Kamenev blocked with Trotsky against Stalin and Bukharin on the basis of a policy whose logic was Bukharin’s call on the peasantry to ‘enrich yourselves’, and only capitulated to Stalin when Stalin himself declared war on the ‘enriching’ kulaks.

    This is pretty devastating evidence that this thesis is flatly wrong.

    We have to distinguish between defending the rights of the petty-bourgeoisie, in whatever concrete form it takes in underdeveloped countries, against imperialism, which we must do unconditionally, and supporting the programme of the petty bourgeoisie on the other hand. You can concede the leading role to tenant farmers, sharecroppers and the like if you like, but in reality you will be ceding the leading role to the bourgeoisie, either existent or incipient, because these classes will inevitably themselves cede power to a bourgeoisie in some form, or through accumulation part of them become a bourgeoisie themselves.

    The leading role of the proletariat is not something imposed by force or bureaucratism; if that begins to happen it is a sign that the proletariat is beginning to lose its grip. It is rather because only the proletariat has the class outlook and interest necessary to go beyond capital.

    It may be true that individuals in the leadership of the Paris Commune were renegades from the bourgeoisie in sociological terms. That is often true historically: you may be aware that Lenin’s family were actually lesser Russian nobility and he was in fact a hereditary nobleman. This phenomenon is accounted for in advance in Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto, when they point out that a small part of the possessing classes will reject capitalism itself:

    “Further, as we have already seen, entire sections of the ruling class are, by the advance of industry, precipitated into the proletariat, or are at least threatened in their conditions of existence. These also supply the proletariat with fresh elements of enlightenment and progress.

    Finally, in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour, the progress of dissolution going on within the ruling class, in fact within the whole range of old society, assumes such a violent, glaring character, that a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands.”

    That does not mean that the social base of the Commune was not mainly working class, even if the working class itself in Paris was somewhat underdeveloped and to a large extent an artisan proletariat. In that sense it was an anticipation of later upheavals based on a fully developed industrial proletariat, but it was still recognisably proletarian.

    It may be true that proletarian revolutionary movements are often preceded by upheavals of the petty bourgeoisie. That has been true in many situations, from Russia (the Decembrists, Narodniks) etc, to the petit-bourgeois student radicals in May 1968, who triggered off a massive general strike. The petty-bourgeoisie often acts as a weathervane that warns of the approach of a major social struggle. But that does not mean that the petit bourgeoisie has the cohesion or class programme to offer a solution to such crises. Again, this is because this class cannot offer the prospect of replacing capitalism with a higher mode of production.


  14. Jacob Richter

    Ian, the Russian Marxist dissident Boris Kagarlitsky would disagree with your characterization of kolkhozization and sovkhozization. They were not “civil war” with the peasantry, but rather part of an eclectic “socialist primitive accumulation.” Whereas Preobrazhensky advocated “socialist primitive accumulation” and envisioned it affecting agriculture, as well, Boris Kagarlitsky became a dissident to official policy both in the Soviet Union and in the Russian Federation. Given the easy politics of “quantitative easing,” the rug should have been pulled from beneath the attracted-to-rubles Soviet agriculture at the time in a full-blown sovkhozization effort, rather than waiting for fruitless moral incentives or confronting resistance in the countryside, but such confrontation was not civil war.

    As for leading roles, I’ll just say that Mike Macnair once declared the following:

    “It’s true that the peasantry is forced to decide between the fundamental classes. But it’s not true that, because the peasantry is forced to decide between the fundamental classes, it cannot find political representation or act in support of autonomous peasant goals, that is to say, patriarchalism, the setting up of an absolute ruler, a cult of personality whether it’s of Lenin or Saddam Hussein or Robert Mugabe.” (

    If the leading role for the working class is not imposed by force in developing countries, then why the Bolsheviks violate equal suffrage by making peasant votes worth less than worker votes? Oh, I forgot to mention that this criticism was never made by either Luxemburg or the renegade Kautsky.


  15. Ian

    The stuff about Kagarlitsky is interesting, but I don’t take him seriously as a Marxist these days. He seems to have abandoned the aspirations he initially developed in the Gorbachev period, towards developing an independent revolutionary position, and become a satellite of Stalinist leftovers. Preobrazhenky’s theory of ‘primitive socialist accumulation’ was wrong, though thankfully it was not adopted by the Left Opposition itself. A good explanation as to why is to be found in Chapter 3 of Walter Daum’s classic Marxist work The Life and Death of Stalinism. It is no accident that with this errant theoretical understanding, Preobrazhenky capitulated to Stalin when Stalin made his so called ‘left turn’ to expropriate the kulaks and forcibly collectivise the bulk of peasants..

    The confrontation in the countryside triggered by forcible collectivisation led to the most monstrous famine in Ukraine, which was (or rather, should have been) the breadbasket of the USSR, to the extent that millions died in the famine that was known as the Holodomor, and a nationalist reaction ensued that has poisoned relations between Russian and Ukrainians to this day. The roots of what happened in WWII are in this period, and also what is happening now.

    I don’t have much regard for Mike McNair’s politics either. His purpose is to exaggerate the coherence and autonomy of peasant movements in order to justify (1. hostility to the legacy of the Russian Revolution itself, hence the weird reference to Lenin as the embodiment of a ‘peasant cult(!)’, and (2) to try to argue that third world bourgeois regimes under the gun of the imperialists are as reactionary as the imperialists themselves, and should not be defended therefore. On both counts, he is wrong, and hostile to the best traditions of Bolshevism.

    As to equal suffrage, it is not entirely clear that the intention was unequal suffrage. Regarding the Congresses of Soviets, the proportions were 5:1 in favour of the city workers (1 per 5000, vs 1 per 25,000 for the countryside). But for local soviet bodies, the opposite was true: in cities, 1 deputy per 1000, in smaller towns, villages, 1 per 100. I suspect the purpose of this was not to discriminate against rural areas per se, but a matter of practicality, i.e. for authoritative congresses to meet regularly and work properly, they would have to meet in an urban context, and gathering of delegates from and between cities was considerably easier than for far flung rural districts in such a vast country.

    On the other hand, in local soviets, the lesser concentration of the population, the greater the need for a more significant fraction of them to meet regularly and run things locally, since with a more scattered base, accountability to that base would be less difficult the more deputies there were. This distinction between deputies (in a local sense), and delegates (nationally) seems to me important. In many sense, this was a pioneering experiment, not a finished product or something that should be treated as a perfected blueprint for the future.

    Unfortunately this was all swept away rather quickly by the civil war etc. It may have been too prescriptive and utopian in any case. But I think it is wrong to say it was intended to crudely disenfranchise the rural population.



  16. Stephen Diamond

    Surely it is often in the situation when the working class is frustrated economically, e.g. by economic depression and extreme difficulty in winning gains (or even defending them) by economic struggle alone, that they are likely to seek political channels to express their interests?

    In a period of proletarian demoralization, populist movements would come to the fore. For example, the rise of the peasant movement that Mao channeled in China arose after the defeat of Chinese workers in Shanghai. I don’t see why Greece would be qualitatively different from other countries these days, when you see populist movements, both left and right. A rise in workers combativeness would probably express its self in the KKE.

    The main proof does have to concern Syrzia’s program and composition. In that regard, resembles a popular front from within: a coalition of socialists and Greens, but the latter setting the lowest common denominator as in any actual pop front.


  17. Ian

    The Maoist movement though, left the cities and abandoned the proletariat. The Chinese CP also started off aspiring to be a revolutionary Marxist party, and abandoned that. Whereas SYRIZA is at a lower level, mere left reformism. I also don’t think the election of SYRIZA was a sign of working class demoralisation, but rather of an aspiration to resist austerity by political means, purely ‘economic’ means (including many general strikes and protests) having failed. Frustration with the lack of results of economic struggle, and demoralisation, are not the same thing.

    The early British Labour Party also included liberals within it – and ultimately they called the shots. They broke organisationally with the Liberals, but not politically with liberalism. They were part of what made Labour into a bourgeois workers party, and not an outright working class party. But the creation of that party was still a step towards class politics. The bourgeois element, however, makes betrayal of the working class in some form inevitable.

    I doubt that the KKE is capable of acting the agent of a working class radicalisation. It has a long and treacherous history, and its current ‘left’ posturing does not atone for that. I suspect it is not trusted by the masses, which is why it did not benefit from the backlash against austerity.


  18. Stephen Diamond

    [Mike MacNair’s] purpose is … to justify (1) hostility to the legacy of the Russian Revolution itself, hence the weird reference to Lenin as the embodiment of a ‘peasant cult(!)’,

    My impression is that comrade MacNair is trying to reconcile esteem for Lenin with a belief that October was an utter mistake. Essentially, Mike deploys an ex ante/ex post distinction, allowing him to claim the benefit of hindsight.

    I think he’s strongly influenced by the re-evaluation of the Soviet era. There seems a consensus that the Soviet Union (including the period before the Moscow Trials) was a failure with respect to economic efficiency. I’m not sure whether this consensus is ideologically driven and impressionistic, but Mike seems to think the re-evalution is closer to the truth. Trotsky at the time certainly didn’t agree: he wrote of the immense economic progress wrought by the planned economy, even under bureaucratic mismanagement. If the Soviet experiment really were proven a complete economic failure, this would indeed have deep repercussions.


  19. Ian

    I agree with this analysis, but this is an odd position that implies a bloodless view of what would happen in a revolutionary situation. He thinks that in such a situation, if it is not clear that the revolution will not be isolated right from the start, Marxists should refuse to take power and wait for better times. Even if they have the support of the masses in a given country. Also, he says that If they find themselves isolated in power in one country, they should voluntarily relinquish power, and again, wait for better times.

    This really does involve the most amazing illusions that such things could happen without massacres and defeats of the proletariat. If in a revolutionary situation, the proletarian party refuses to take power or abdicates it, it hands over power to the counter-revolution, which will always use violence and mass murder to consolidate the defeat of the working class. That is the lesson of the Weimar Republic (born of an incomplete proletarian revolution), the Spanish Civil War, the Chinese Revolution of 1926-7, Chile 1970-73, Indonesia in the mid-1960s, and many more.

    Arthur Bough’s letter in this week’s WW makes a number of valid points about this also, their systematic confusion between a reformist party taking office in a parliamentary sense, and a revolutionary party leading a working class taking power in a class sense. I previously addressed similar issues in my earlier article on SYRIZA, before the recent election. This confusion between reformism and revolution, and capitulationist position on the key question of how and when the working class should take power, is characteristic of their form of centrist politics.


  20. Jacob Richter

    There are now two brain-stressing points here to address! Argh!

    First, on peasant cults: I do feel uncomfortable with Mike Macnair lumping in the posthumous Lenin cult with the living cults of others. He should have mentioned Stalin’s cult instead. From a worker-class perspective, worker-class movements have at least some history with posthumous cults. The oldest one that comes to mind is Lassalle’s (Italian workers naming their sons Lassalo and only their daughters Marxina).

    Contemporarily speaking, much of the workers movement in Russia has its own posthumous cult, that of none other than Stalin himself. Regardless of actual agreement or sharp disagreement with “achieving socialism in one country,” socialist primitive accumulation, etc. even to the disagreeing elements “Stalin is Soviet power.” To them, the Stalin who wrote of “the fundamental Marxist thesis that a Marxist party is a union of the working-class movement with Socialism” (Short Course, as quoted by Lars Lih) is also quite relevant. The Chinese New Left has its own posthumous cult around Mao, even as their class politics is now based on workers and not on the urban or rural petit-bourgeoisie.

    Second, on office in a parliamentary sense vs. power in a class sense: comrades should argue against the economistic limitations of this distinction, including “in government but without economic power.” How does one describe the situation of having sufficient “office” to change the constitutional framework in favour of “power”? For example, how does one describe the situation of having two-thirds majorities in enough “offices” to effect constitutional amendments or to change constitutions outright, or what could have transpired in Venezuela during the 2007 referendum?


  21. Stephen Diamond

    He thinks that in such a situation, if it is not clear that the revolution will not be isolated right from the start, Marxists should refuse to take power and wait for better times.

    I think your account exaggerates his position. He opposes taking power in Greece not because it isn’t clear that the revolution will not be isolated from the start but because it is clear that any revolution will be isolated. Thus (ex ante, as it were) he thinks Lenin was justified (despite being mistaken) in taking power because Lenin wasn’t unreasonable to think revolution in Russia would spark world revolution. (Surely, it was not clear that “the revolution would not be isolated”–at least if “isolated” means its being the sole success.) [I’m not so impressed by Bough’s distinction. While it is, of course, true that in most contexts distinguishing forming a government from taking control of the state is crucial, Mike’s point would seem to be that some issues transcend the distinction: there are problems common to taking state power and forming a government in the absence of the appropriate international conditions.]

    One point I agree with Mike that it is an immense evil—a matter of dishonesty with the masses—to come to power (governmental or state) on a program you have every reason to believe you will be unable to achieve. [But comrade MacNair’s preconditions for revolution become so stringent that their realizability is thrown into question.]


  22. Ian

    Regarding Jacob’s points, I would dispute that the working class movement when it is self-active, is characterised by cults. Though in times of passivity such things can happen. I’m not sure that there is anything specifically working class about the cult of Stalin today in the USSR, however. It seems to me to be an all-class nationalist thing, a nostalgia for the days when Russia was strong and capable of dictating to others.

    Regarding constitutional change, two thirds majorities in parliament, etc, the left (including SYRIZA) are far from that. If in a proportional representation situation a working class party could achieve that, it could also achieve other things: the abolition of the army and police and their replacement by armed working class forces under democratic control from below. The question is whether even then such change would take place peacefully. I suspect not; there would be some attempt to counterattack by the bourgeoisie using the state forces, and it would take considerable political skill to defeat that even with such a measure of support. The economy would be the weapon of choice to lay the basis for such a counterattack.

    I don’t think Venezuela has much to do with this. Chavez/Maduro’s governments have not broken with capitalism; though they have introduced social democratic type welfare modifications that used to be commonplace in the early post-WWII decades. They have done it in semi-colonial countries, which is pretty radical in its own way, but not the same as a break with capitalism itself. It remains to be seen if SYRIZA is able to do something similar in Greece.

    Chavez, along with Morales, Correa, Ortega, the Kirchners represent a popular backlash against neo-liberalism in Latin America which Communists have to relate to carefully and without sectarian braggadocio, but nevertheless they are still promoting an alternative capitalist model. That does not mean they cannot be targeted by coups – in fact they already have! But the question of them abolishing capitalism does not arise, since that is not really their aim. This line must not be blurred, though obviously the genuine left must also mobilise in solidarity with these movements against imperialist destabilisation.


  23. Ian

    The problem is that Mike McNair’s reasoning is circular. Revolutions will be isolated, in part because there is no revolutionary example that has (in his view) not led to disaster. 1917 is not in any sense a model, because in his formulation, it failed. This is different from acknowledging that it was defeated. Defeat and failure are different concepts, the latter implies something fundamentally wrong with the original event, the former implies that it could have succeeded and in better circumstances will do so.

    And to complete the circle, we should therefore not try to take power initially in a single country until there is a credible vision or model that could give rise to a broader revolutionary movement. Not exactly the chicken and the egg, which comes first, but rather how could the chicken even come to be, since the hen may be barren? Thus the oddity of MacNair opposing including a positive reference to the October Revolution and Paris Commune in the programme of their own Communist Platform (see this report, which notes that Jack Conrad spoke against this proposal, though MacNair did so too).

    I do think the concrete result of MacNair’s perspective in Greece is one of passivity; it does not even make sense to denounce particularly the ANEL coalition as a betrayal of the aspirations of SYRIZA’s base with that line, if you have the view that they should not take office in any case in current conditions because the situation is hopeless for the forseeable future. If anything, in the consciousness of SYRIZA supporters, such a bloc will understandably be seen as preferable to such fatalism and passivity.

    Bough’s letter has the weakness of being too charitable about pre-neoliberal social democratic parties. But it at least does make a clear distinction between reformism and a revolutionary party coming to power. Which the CPGB’s recent propaganda about Greece mixes up completely.

    Regarding the latter: there can never be a guarantee that a revolutionary party will be able to implement its programme if it takes power. But it may be that the only way that a party in a ‘ripe’ country can lay the basis for others to manage the same elsewhere is by providing a concrete example, something to rally round and fight to emulate. An international revolution has to start somewhere. MacNair’s linear conception of the growth of the revolutionary movement is in my view an academic utopia. Lenin said that “He who expects a pure revolution will never live to see it” and in my view that fits MacNair’s perspective very closely.


  24. Stephen Diamond

    This is different from acknowledging that it was defeated. Defeat and failure are different concepts, the latter implies something fundamentally wrong with the original event, the former implies that it could have succeeded and in better circumstances will do so.

    It failed, according to MacNair, ultimately because it was isolated. “In better circumstances”–the success of revolution in several advanced countries–it would have succeeded. That’s pretty much everyone’s line in the Trotskyoid left.

    But why were they optimistic about success? You seem to be saying that such optimism is mandatory, on pain of political passivity. But what if there are good objective reasons to think the international prospects are poor, despite the force of example? (Consider the question hypothetically, if you think it doesn’t apply to Greece.) Doesn’t it seem that perhaps Bolshevik thinking overestimated the force of example? Where comes this heroic belief in the brute force of successful example?

    If international revolution is the likely corollary of successful revolution within the boundaries of a state, it doesn’t appear to be adequately theorized by those who assume it. For the Bolsheviks, it was partly on the basis of an understanding of the geopolitical role of Tsarism that international revolution was expected after its overthrow.

    But a more important factor may be ignored. It appears that the entire Second International (e.g., both Kautskyites and Luxembourgian) as well as the Bolsheviks believed (at least according to a recent piece in WW, but it fits) in a collapse theory of the end of capitalism. [This doesn’t mean that capitalism has one final depression but it means that capitalism reaches–and had reached–such a point that it could no longer systematically develop the forces of production internationally. Trotsky is clear in the 30s: the busts will outweigh the booms, becoming progressively worse.] I find this piece of information tremendously clarifying. Of course, the Bolsheviks should have expected that October would set the example for the world: capitalism had moved into its death agony, a period of wars and revolutions, because the rate of profit had declined to the point where production (taken in the big picture) was no longer profitable. (Rosa Luxembourg had a different version of collapse theory, as she rejected the declining rate of profit.)

    This has been papered over, so the rethinking needed after the collapse theory was falsified hasn’t been done (both about strategy and theoretical fundamentals). I reluctantly suspect that the absence of a universalized capitalist collapse poses a tremendous obstacle for revolution, since the masses recognize the difficulties facing isolated revolutions and fear (as do I) that revolutions are doomed to be isolated.


  25. Jacob Richter

    Ian, by worker-class movement and organization, there are three distinct forms: workers education, workers agitation and public relations, and workers institutions. I’m just clarifying.

    Workers agitation and public relations tend to be most effective, in fact, when political cults are utilized. This was the argument that, before unfortunately turning to revisionism, Bernstein himself made (Ferdinand Lassalle). As for today’s Stalin cult in Russia, I wasn’t referring at all to the strawman nationalist sentiments. Amongst much if not most of the Russian left *outside* the official KPRF, have a Stalin cult for reasons other than nationalism. Worker-class movements in each country tend to have “national heroes” of their own, whether it is the anti-war Jean Jaures in France, August Bebel in Germany, or Eugene Debs in the US.

    I don’t disagree with you at all about bourgeois reaction to the constitutional situations I presented earlier, but you didn’t address my charge of economism at those who scream “parliamentary power vs. class power” or “in government but without economic power.”


  26. Ian

    MacNair is not simply saying that the October revolution ‘failed’ because it was defeated by an adverse relation of forces. It is more than that.He disagrees with the whole notion of Soviets being the expression of working class power, and considers them to be ephemeral institutions that cannot be the basis of a government. He counterposes a parliamentary-type government to that of workers councils as the only coherent way that the working class can rule. He also uses the Paris Commune in that sense, arguing that this body was in effect the traditional government of Paris – a town council. There is some truth in this, though at the same time it became in effect a proto-Soviet, and the Soviets of 1905 copied many of its features, spontaneously. Yet he strongly opposed including a positive reference to the Russian Revolution and the Paris Commune in the platform of the CPGB’s bloc to intervene in Left Unity.

    But MacNair is not the main point. That is about the likelihood of a revolution spreading beyond one country. There can be no objective guarantees of this, ever. It takes consciousness and organisation at a very high level to overthrow capital in any country. To spread it obviously means spreading that out, and quite rapidly. But just as it is impossible to pose as a precondition of revolution in any country, that such a leadership and consciousness will emerge concurrently with the ripening of the conditions for revolution in several countries at once, so it is equally wrong to imagine that a revolutionary overturn can occur in one country when the countries around it are s utterly distant from revolution as to make its spread impossible. Both scenarios are unrealistic.

    Actually. I think Trotsky made some errors in his understanding of the economic conjuncture during the 1930s, mainly because he underestimated the ability of US capitalism, when it subsequently came to world dominance after WWII, to pull the capitalist world out of depression and set up a prolonged boom that was actually bigger than that that preceded 1914. He also misunderstood the nature of Stalinism, which contributed to the misunderstanding of the likely outcome of the period.

    The points you make in that respect, about the tempo of capitalist decline and the productive forces, are important worthy of consideration. My view is that it is in the nature of capital to expand the productive forces, and that does not cease with its decline. What it does it deploy new forces in ways that destroy the stability and sustainability of the system. The law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is one expression of that. Environmental destruction is another. Ultimately, capital cannot rationally control its own expansion of productive forces, and digs its own grave, along with that of humanity itself. How that works out in practice is not easy to elaborate, and that is why we need a communist movement that encourages the most comprehensive analysis of all these issues, and full and free debate, as a guide to action.

    Bough’s letter in WW is important because it exposes the fact that the CPGB is so timid that it is even advising a social democratic party not to take power in Greece even though it has popular support because it will likely become isolated and fail to implement its own programme, which is some kind of resistance to austerity. But how else is the struggle to progress, if things are not to be pushed forward even on that level?


  27. Ian

    It seems to me that most of the ‘cults’ Jacob is talking about are not really cults. There are figures in the working class movements in various countries who are highly regarded for good reasons: Jaures, Bebel and Debs seem like good examples. Trotsky himself is highly regarded in the left for similar reasons. Though some degenerate groups have tried to cultify his memory, his authority does not generally flow from cult worship, but from his very powerful writings and his principled activities in exile.

    Such people are not lauded in the manner of the Stalinist cult of Lenin. Without that cult, Lenin should have been regarded in a similar manner. Insofar as there are cults of Stalin and Mao in the workers movements in Russia and China, I think that is a sign that those movements have not separated themselves as yet ideologically from the ruling classes/oligarchies in those countries. For despite Stalin and Mao’s origins in the working class movement, in their periods in power they were representatives of other classes. Jaures, Bebel, Debs, Trotsky and Lenin, on the other hand, were clearly leaders of the proletariat.

    I’m not entirely sure what Jacob means about my failure to address economism and power as he says. Perhaps I am missing something – I thought I had replied to his point. If he could elaborate on what he means, maybe I could say more about it?


  28. Jacob Richter

    Ian, I might have to disagree with you.

    August Bebel is not as highly regarded in today’s German workers movement, even within Die Linke, as he was in his later years or just after his death.

    Jean Jaures, though of the same reform *coalitionist* tendency as Bernstein (to cite from Macnair’s Revolutionary Strategy), took a persistently anti-war stance that cost him his life, which is why Die Linke’s Oskar Lafontaine mentioned him positively in the founding congress of the Parti de gauche.

    Ferdinand Lassalle had quite a “fanclub” outside Germany even after his death. As I mentioned earlier, Lars Lih’s account of Italian workers naming their sons Lassalo (and only their daughters Marxina) was more than just “high regard.”

    A more vibrant Russian left, I suspect, would probably see workers name their sons Stalino (like Donetsk was renamed for a time, or like Stalin as a first name in Latin American countries) and their daughters Ninel (Lenin spelled backwards), but you get my point. Such “national hero” regard should be respected by workers elsewhere, for ill and for good, whether they had origins in the workers movement (Stalin) or not (Mao – here I’ll disagree with you on his origins).

    As for the other point, my point about potential for constitutional change was that it isn’t mentioned enough, that it is casually dismissed in “can form a government but have no power” arguments. There’s the inherent economism.


  29. Ian

    Most of these points are nuances and arguable, but I still don’t see how the concept that a working class party in government can simply be a prisoner of the state, and therefore have little real power in real terms, is economistic. Surely that is the consequence of the Marxist understanding of the state, that it is an instrument for the ruling class against the working class. Only if the working class party in office is prepared to mobilise its base to defeat and dissolve the state repressive forces, can it exercise real power. A party that confined itself to pure constitutional reform would face overthrow from the core of the state.

    That was one of the key lessons Marx drew from the experience of the Commune.


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